A new view on public space

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When most people think about the subject of “public space” they will often immediately think of leafy parks and large city squares. But what about the streets and sidewalks? The streetscape that lies between private parcels of land probably represents more than 95% of all the publicly-owned space in a typical town or city, far overshadowing the parks and squares which often dominate the public imagination. These streets are not just the routes by which vehicles make their way around the city. They are the connective tissue that holds the city together visually. Similarly, sidewalks are not just the space between the road and the building lots, they are the frame which sets up the beauty and historic character of the structures that they border, like picture frames around a painting. This realization that the majority of public space has been treated in a purely pragmatic way means that there is a wonderful opportunity to enhance the beauty of our city and accentuate its historic character in ways that have barely been considered. Just by caring and thinking more about these realms will help city planners to do a better job managing these forgotten resources.

By creating streets and sidewalks that are more conducive to bicycling and walking, town planners have an opportunity to counteract two of the greatest health scourges we are facing today: the tremendous increase in childhood obesity and early onset of Type II diabetes. Mark Fenton, host of the show “America’s Walking,” has recently documented how designing better streets and sidewalks can help raise “free range children”—kids who are healthy, independent and more self-sufficient. This also helps free parents from the burden of being glorified chauffeurs, shuttling children from one programmed activity to another endlessly until the children become part of the traffic problem themselves upon gaining their driver’s licenses.

Bristol’s Fourth of July parade, first begun in 1785 and famous for being the oldest celebration of its type in the country is an example of how important the realm of the streetscape can become over time. The parade route winds through the center of town on Hope and High streets, and takes advantage of the traditional scale of these thoroughfares which are geared much more to pedestrian safety than vehicular velocity or volume. With sidewalks and retail stores ideally sized and located to service the tourists and locals alike, it is no surprise that this Independence Day tradition has thrived and grown in Bristol over the years.

Now that Bristol has been greatly restored to its historic character, it's become a gathering place for shared events, not just on special holidays but year round. The character of the streetscape helps determine the character of the activities and businesses that choose to operate there. July fourth is a date when all eyes are on Bristol and thousands come to celebrate its long traditions and beautiful character. By continuing to build upon and enhance this great streetscape as a resource, the community is making this area work to its benefit every day of the year. On July Fourth, Bristol celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence, where the signers boldly and bravely swore to “pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” to achieve liberty and seek freedom from an unjust subjugation by the English throne. Think of the parade as not only the celebration of the patriotic traditions of the town, state and country but also the historic traditions of city design where sidewalks, streets and public roadways were not just the means to get somewhere else but actually places to walk, shop, gather as a community and to help citizens live richer, fuller and healthier lives. Now that is something worth celebrating for many more years to come.

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historian, urban planner, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.