In her book Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, former NYC transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan turns her experiences into actionable ideas for urban planners and city change-makers.
What Sadik-Khan offers in this timely book is not just an overview of contemporary urban discourse, but also a guide to what it takes to change the status quo within our cities – a process Sadik-Khan and co-author Seth Solomonow refer to as a “blood sport at all levels.” Their book maps out the difficult political and regulatory obstacles, and even personal biases, that constrain positive change.
There are some surprising twists. One is how simple many of these changes can be. Another, more sinister twist is how often our streets are simply misappropriated. Take the standard three-and-a-half-metre width of car lanes on city streets; an excessively wide carryover from federal highway guidelines, this wasted space obscures “millions of miles of sidewalks, bus and bike lanes, and public spaces – entire cities – trapped within our streets.” Simple observations like these can give advocates the ammunition they need for battle.
Streetfight also sheds light on the counterintuitive ways traffic and mobility work. When New York closed Broadway in Times Square to vehicles, cabbies and the media decried a war on the car. But GPS data from over a million taxi trips has clearly demonstrated that overall traffic through Times Square moved seven per cent faster after pedestrianization; by the same token, “injuries for everyone, including people in cars, plummeted by 63 per cent.”
The urban revolution, then, is not necessarily driven by megaprojects. It can be about incremental gestures involving nothing more than paint, street furniture and a fresh perspective. The resources are there, the authors show us, if we can put aside our assumptions – though, even a bit of paint can be met with resistance. Urban development will always remain a battleground. Streetfight’s insights are valuable not just for planners and city builders, but for anyone hoping to better understand the unending push-and-pull that shapes our built landscape.
Brandon Donnelly is a Toronto real estate developer who writes a daily blog covering architecture, technology and urban issues.