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How to Make Streets Work for All of Us

Retrofitting ordinary curb space from free parking into “complete streets” will be a good move financially and aesthetically for all sorts of stakeholders. Incremental, bottoms-up approaches work the best.

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Park benches in Calle Ocho, Little Havana, Miami Fla., where the private sector has helped complete street projects. (Shutterstock)
In a previous article for Governing, I listed 10 ways that common curb space could be used if it were subject either to market pricing or a shift in government priorities. Here’s some detail about one of those uses: street beautification.

If urban road space that extends along curbsides were not used for free parking, it could be enhanced with wider sidewalks, trees, flower beds and public seating; medians with tasteful shrubbery and walking trails; or art displays such as tiny parks and pavement murals. 

Some U.S. cities have made this curb space conversion, and organizations like the Congress for the New Urbanism and Street Plans are trying to grow the model yet more, pushing for the larger concept of “complete streets” that prioritize walking, biking and transit. Along with the aesthetic enhancement, better street design improves public safety by making cars drive slower; and improves neighborhood economies through increased property values.

So how can more of these conversions happen? It can be done through a combination of public-sector decisions, and perhaps more crucially, private-sector actions. 

Cities should theoretically be able to change streets through their own internal political processes. But that’s hard in practice because they don’t control every street. Some of the major thoroughfares running through cities — often the ones most ripe to become complete streets — are federal or state roads, and have specific rules on width, setbacks, etc. Codes that were written for fire trucks and other service vehicles often mandate excessive street widths that make more aesthetic and pedestrian-friendly uses difficult. There have been efforts to reverse this — such as a failed California state bill that would have mandated complete streets in some areas — but that’s proven to be a difficult fight. 

A better strategy is for cities to fund conversions on the streets that aren’t subject to these regulations. Improvements can be bottom-up and incremental — as when a few concerned residents beautify one road — or can be a larger government effort to improve whole neighborhoods. Tax increment financing (TIF) is one path to this. TIF lets cities use debt spending to fund street improvements, and when those improvements generate higher property values and tax receipts, the new money is used to pay the debt. Burlington, Vt., is using TIF to fund major enhancements of several key downtown streets. 

An even more compelling idea is better street design through the private sector. This generally involves a privately financed Business Improvement District (BID) or some other type of business alliance funding street improvements across a whole commercial district. In Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, a BID was formed several years ago to, among other things, improve streetscapes. In Brooklyn, an alliance that combines three BIDs has funded a “Public Realm Action Plan” that calls for sidewalk extensions, shared road spaces (known as woonerfs), more tree canopy and nicer crossings around the downtown transit-heavy Fulton Mall. And the Downtown Denver Partnership funds street beautification in that business district, including on the car-free 16th Street Mall.

In each case, participating businesses are touting a principle that may seem counterintuitive. They’re funding street designs that will reduce on-street curb parking and slow car movement, technically reducing ease of access to their shopping districts. But by making the area more attractive, they’re improving their bottom lines. That is, even if their patrons can’t park directly in front of their destinations, they’ll still shop in the area for its pleasant, tree-lined, art-enhanced streets. Both the businesses and patrons are, in other words, recognizing this access vs. aesthetics tradeoff — and siding with the aesthetic argument. 

Cities can join them by funding their own street design conversions, or at the very least, lifting regulations on how urban rights-of-way can be used. Reimagining curb use is an important part, but really just the beginning, of that conversation. 

A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at scott@marketurbanismreport.com or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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