The other day, Park Avenue in New York was eerily quiet without a car in sight. It was however full of vibrant community life with cyclists and pedestrians enjoying a rare freedom of a whole street to themselves. Summer Streets, is an annual event (in its 2nd year) that closes more than 10km from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park. It takes place for three Saturdays in August (August 8, 15, & 22). More than just a road closure, it has great free programming including free bike repairs, bike share rentals, digital camera share, music performances and even fitness classes on the street. The atmosphere was positive and fun and I couldn’t help but think all cities should have this.
It was a kind of surreal but amazing sense of freedom to walk down the middle of the street, for no other reason but just because you could! As I joined and watched the parade of strollers, joggers and bikes of all shapes and sizes, I was most inspired by the snippets of overheard conversations. I liked how people were surprised and enjoyed experiencing urban spaces in ways they never had before. There was one part in particular where I stood looking at Grand Central Station and it occurred to me this stunning view was never normally ‘open’ to the public unless you were in a car.
I continue to admire the work of the New York Department of Transport. In May, they closed parts of Time Square for pedestrians and while it’s still a crazy maddening crowd to walk through, there is extra breathing room now with reduced lanes of traffic. What I most like and respect is their simple strategy and quick street treatments. In Brisbane, most street works involve complicated construction (like moving services and building new footpaths and kerbs), but in New York some of the recent treatments are as simple as re-painting the road. The style they have implemented is basically through simple ground treatments (that is coloured paint or a gravel texture on existing asphalt), big potted plants and some movable chairs and tables. It is really simple, but it works. As people being to occupy these spaces, it automatically changes the experience and culture of the street. For the City, it means they can test and implement policy change quickly and cheaply before putting in more permanent works.
Near a new seating area in Times Square, I overheard a tourist ask the security guard suspiciously “what’s going on here?” He replied, “It’s just people chilling out, sitting around, enjoying the space”. It seemed so obvious to me. All this has got me thinking and inspired for Brisbane Park(ing) Day.