Public space is hugely important to the look and feel of a city. What fills the public space and how it is maintained lets the citizens of a city know at a glance exactly what their neighbors and their leaders feel is important. The public spaces in a city—the streets, the parks, even just the outsides of buildings—say a lot about the people who live in that city. Public spaces are particularly telling because they require a lot of time and money to maintain. Our public spaces inform citizens and visitors to our city what we care about, a classic “put your money where your mouth is” situation.
So if we look around what do we see? A city designed for people? I see streets designed to move cars at high speeds instead of offering a platform to build real neighborhood wealth. Broadway, for example, is five lanes of loud, speeding traffic designed to get people *out* of the city. It’s a shame because Broadway could be a spectacular place for safe, multi-modal neighborhood commerce and living. Many of the buildings built along Broadway a century ago were designed to have small neighborhood-serving shops in them with people living in apartments above. The mayor himself has stated a preference for safe streets, and activists all over the city call for more focus on their neighborhood needs and wants, but our money seems to get spent moving cars quickly through neighborhoods instead of moving people safely within them. Broadway isn’t the only example, I’m sure you have such a street in your own neighborhood.
What else? Well, many sidewalks are missing. Now, the city has never been in charge of installing or repairing sidewalks—it’s always been the responsibility of developers and homeowners. What does this say about our priorities? Certainly not that we care about people who walk to the store, or walk with their kids to the park, or walk to the bus stop for work. It says a lot that we care more to make the streets wide and fast than the sidewalks safe and inviting. People notice this and plan accordingly. Who would try to walk somewhere when the city provides fast streets but no sidewalks? Of course they would make the rational decision to drive instead. Why do we act surprised when people make choices based upon where and how the city spends its money?
Transit, the great equalizer where a businessman might share a ride with a bum, is also public space. But our transit system is anemic, and an astonishingly small amount of our public street space is dedicated to making sure that it’s frequent, timely, and not caught in the same congestion as the automobiles. But this is a choice. We choose to prioritize street space for car drivers instead of transit riders and our populace knows it, and they avoid transit and drive instead because there is little advantage to riding the bus when you’re caught in the same traffic.
It’s time to choose differently Denver. It’s time to choose to make our public spaces safe, efficient, and worthy of investment. It’s time to be proud when we step out of our homes and into our neighborhoods because we want to be proud of our city, and the choices we make about how to allocate public space inform what kind of city we are.