Review: Sadik-Khan’s Streetfight

51szRwU7suL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Cities are complex, so they can be easily seen in different ways. The same urban block can be viewed as blighted, sustainable, congested, or a historic asset—all depending on who you ask. The fundamental importance seeing means that at the heart of graduate programs in urban planning are courses in observation—sometimes called “research methods”—the survey, the interview, the use of what others have seen such as GIS data. The purpose of much of the rest of the curriculum—stuffed full of best practices, case studies, and dusty utopias of yesteryear—is to allow planners to see not only what is, but what could be. The importance of forms of seeing lie at the very origin of the field, perhaps best illustrated by Patrick Geddes, who believed so strongly in the importance of primary observation he constructed an observation tower in Edinburgh from which he surveyed the city, and is known for his aphorism “survey before plan!” How cities are seen is not merely an idle phenomenological question, but carries a tremendous influence over how cities are designed and inhabited. This is because the act of seeing is intimately linked with the perception of problems. The perception of cities not only drives urban politics, but also lies at heart of professional fields which contain deep-seated prejudices of what problem is to be solved and the best means to solve it.

As a consequence, books which successfully propose new ways of seeing cities play an important role in urbanism. The most famous such book was Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and the novelty and impact of her unique perspective is the subject of the recent edited volume What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs. In essence, looking around her Greenwich Village neighborhood, instead of seeing an obsolete, blighted neighborhood not adapted to the modern age, Jacobs saw a lively complexity, and a uniquely urban way of life. Together with other groundbreaking studies like Herbert Gans’ Urban Villagers, her work inspired a broad re-assessment of the fundamental goals of American city planning. Since then, other works like Suburban Nation and The Geography of Nowhere have fostered a re-assessment of suburban landscapes.

Another such revision in the way cities are viewed is now underway in cities around the world. Going by the name “complete streets,” this quixotic movement has realized that a huge percentage of space in cities–easily 30+% in dense areas–are public streets. And while Jacobs stopped a freeway, the narrow logic of traffic engineering has continued to advance in this realm, facilitating faster and faster traffic with design choices which rarely seem to make accommodations for pedestrians and buses except in a few exceptional places.

As urban neighborhoods have seen new life, residents and professionals alike are beginning to re-appraise the design of long-neglected urban streets. Now streets are not merely viewed as conduits for suburban commuters, but instead a source of negative effects on current residents, an impediment to revitalization, and a major obstacle for achieving policy goals to cut obesity and pursue sustainability through the promotion of walking, biking, and transit. The complete streets movement has sprung up with the aim to re-design streets to accommodate these users and perhaps even accommodate street trees and other green infrastructure. You’d be forgiven for missing these developments, since despite significant successes, the movement has thus far lacked a popular book which could explain to a broad audience this profound shift in how cities are viewed. Baraba McCann’s 2013 book Completing Our Streets comes close, but will probably appeal more to activists and professionals seeking a more detailed treatment of the subject.

Streetfight, on the other hand, is a book you could hand to the uninitiated. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s also book about how to practice progressive planning in contemporary cities. It’s a lot of other things as well. Is it a slick promotional literature for Bloomberg Associates and Bloomberg-ism? Yes. It is a self-serving story written from the perspective of city hall top brass? Yes. Does it have a myopic NYC-centric perspective which–like Jacobs before her–largely ignores the density, vast subway, unseen infrastructure, racial politics, affluence, and dozens of other characteristics which make NYC planning unique? Yes. Will your New York friend have an intricate critique of the projects it describes that is probably omitted? Yes.

It’s also the most important book in American urbanism this year, and will likely change forever how you see your city, or how you think it can be changed.

Streetfight is first and foremost a book about the reforms led by Sadik-Kahn during her term as commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation from 2007–2013. These included initiatives to add new plazas in underutilized public right-of-ways (including the best-known at the heart of Times Square), add hundreds of miles of bike lanes, launch a huge bike-sharing system, re-design intersections to improve traffic flow and pedestrian safety, improve bus services, and briefer mentions to upgrades to bridges and ferries. It’s a New York story, aside from a chapter titled “Stealing Good Ideas” which briefly touches on well-known examples from other cities including Mexico City and Medellin, Columbia. The book is crisply written, illustrated with dozens of photographs, and the copious references are cited discretely by page and passage in a notes section.

What sets Streetfight apart is that it does not simply present complete streets ideas, but delves into the world of action and implementation through vivid descriptions of the rough-and-tumble world of New York City streets politics. In particular, a 30-page chapter on “Bike Lanes and Their Discontents” discusses the well-known controversy over the Prospect Park bike lane.  Sadik-Khan is known as—and often presents herself in the book—as a uniquely action-oriented leader who gets things done through an interventionist approach of tactical urbanism, typified by creating plazas and bike lanes in the middle of the night despite community opposition. However, the careful reader will notice there actually seems to be quite a bit of participation and outreach involved in the projects. She describes herself as a synthesis of “Moses-like vision” and the “robust process” and fine-scale view of Jacobs. There’s quite a bit of planning activity here in the background too, from PlaNYC which set the high-level priorities, to the DOT’s own Sustainable Streets Strategic Plan, to lots of detailed analysis of specific proposals. In the best tradition of pragmatic professionals, a brief chapter on “Measuring the Street” describes how concerns that lane closures would lead to gridlock and bike lanes to declining retail sales are debunked through savvy data analysis.

Although the book is mostly a string of successes, the crucial role of local stakeholders to the success of many of the initiatives is made clear. The book contains frank discussions of the rocky roll-out of Citi Bike (the vendor is blamed), and a failed proposal to construct a care-free transit street on 34th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues where even the mighty Bloomberg Administration had to compromise.

Sadik-Khan describes often encountering the critique by New Yorkers that “we’re not Amsterdam,” and the readers of the book will likely encounter the argument “we’re not New York” if they attempt to implement some of these ideas in their city. Many American cities are struggling to assemble the basic Jacobsian urban building-blocks New York City takes for granted: density, a street grid, mixed uses, public transit, even the presence of sidewalks. For many years, battles have been waged over these issues on largely idealistic grounds over grand plans with big price tags. Sometimes these single-issue campaigns have won. In other cities, big shifts have come after scenario planning projects illustrated the downsides of the typically sprawling status quo. The new school of thought reflected in Streetfight suggests yet another strategy: start with relatively small-scale interventions to improve urban life and inspire a hunger for broader reforms. Of course, the annals of American planning are full one-off pedestrianized streets and placemaking projects which failed to spark the desired transformation. Streetfight provides needed food for thought for those considering how these strategies can best come together in their city.

Issues of strategy aside, the surprisingly rapid spread of complete streets policies (and related innovations like bike sharing) around the world mean a good many cities are primed for such reforms. As a field, urban planning urgently needs to see how our cities can be better–more equitable, more sustainable, more prosperous–in ways which incorporate resident insight and the need to adopt standard solutions to local needs and conditions—but never allow a good idea to be killed by a noisy minority or by an unfounded fear. History will tell whether Sadik-Kahn truly found such a balance in every project, but her book provides an accessible, lively, and refreshing take on how inspiring changes were made in a city with intense competition over street space. In the words of the book’s final sentence, “If you can remake it here, you can remake it anywhere.” The needs are too urgent, and the potential too great not to try.

Author: Rob Goodspeed