Social Justice in the Street

At CultureHouse, we believe that urban design can be used for the common good, and that good design should be an essential part of the toolkit for social justice. Social justice issues, be they heterosexism or racism or environmental injustice, are influenced by the built environment of our cities. We think that fact should be at the forefront of the minds of designers, planners, and community organizers.

This year, we’re highlighting key academics, activists, books, issues, and theories in the area of justice-focused urban design. We hope that by the end of the year, we’ll all (you included) be a little more knowledgeable on how our work can create the conditions for a just city.

The study of streets exemplifies how urban design is a life or death issue. Design can sometimes be seen as superfluous — concerned only with aesthetic or bells & whistles. But good design can be a force for justice and, in the case of our urban fabric, design can drastically transform our quality of life (and even save our lives).

This is especially true in the case of our streets, where designing around cars as opposed to people has led to loss of life on a massive scale. Many of the routes through which we perform one of our most basic tasks — moving through space — are incredibly dangerous. In addition to the death and injury that comes from dangerously designed streets, the lack of safety makes people more anxious and less likely to engage in public life. Dangerous design especially deters walking and biking, which are the most sustainable and healthy modes of transportation. Our cities have built up a transportation infrastructure that is not just and does not permit a sustainable future.

Our attempt to create a separated bike lane on in front of our 2018 Cambridge PARK(ing) Day pop-up.

For an academic perspective on streets and mobility, we can turn to “” by Sophie L. Van Neste and Gilles Sénécal. Despite the long-winded title, this paper lays out clearly how issues of mobility are important to social justice. Neste and Sénécal bring us back to our earlier discussions of spatial justice, as they aim to answer the question,

“How do claims for rights to mobility intersect with grievances pertaining to spatial justice in the city?”

They define mobility as “socially produced motion”, immediately connecting movement to justice and illuminating how social structures and design produce different patterns of movement. For example, residents of a neighborhood served only by a bus line that runs infrequently are less able to move freely, especially if they are low income. In this way, social policies change the ways people can and do move. When looking at the politics of mobility, Neste and Sénécal urge us to look at four elements of everyday movement:

How fast does a person or thing move?

What route does it take?

How does it feel?

When and how does it stop?

All of these elements are essential to address in creating a just transportation system. Slow speed is an important issue in public bus systems that has seen renewed focus in recent years. Dedicated bus lanes attempt to address the fact that multi-occupant vehicles are often forced into traffic with single-occupant vehicles, despite the fact that they carry an exponentially greater amount of people. In regards to biking, lack of safe routes has been a major issue. Many people are calling for point-to-point, continuous bike lanes to create sensible and safe routes for active transportation. However, you can expand this thinking beyond bikes and buses. All forms of transportation can be interrogated using all four of the questions.

Janette Sadik-Khan offers a planner’s perspective on transportation.

For an urban planning perspective, we can look at the work of Janette Sadik-Khan, former commissioner of the New York Department of Transportation. Her 2016 book Streetfight: A Handbook for the Urban Revolution, written with Seth Solomonow, lays out a new street code for American cities. As they write,

“City dwellers around the world are beginning to see the potential of their city streets and want to reclaim them. They are recognizing an unmet hunger for livable, inviting public space. Many cities have embarked on significant, headline-grabbing efforts to reclaim roads, bridges, tunnels, and rail rights-of-way and turn legacy hardware into the stuff of urban dreams — parks and greenways, city idylls that provide room to walk, bike, and play in the middle of a city where a highway once stood.”

Sadik-Khan and Solomonow show that transportation infrastructure is not a settled fact, but an area of struggle for activists, planners, and residents.

To bring these ideas about socially just design to bear on current projects, check out Streetfilms. They produce “short films showing how smart transportation design and policy can result in better places to live, work and play”. They have created — — videos since 2006, but the ones I watched (and you should watch too!) this week are the following:

Streetfilms’ videos are available on YouTube and Vimeo.

Each video provides a different perspective through which to reflect on ideas about mobility, public space, and socially just urban design. The video about Barcelona’s Superblocks pushes you to think of the impact of streets on community and their role as public space. The Barcelona video, as well as the one about Nijmegen, both explore the sensory experiences of streetscapes, how it feels to inhabit them, and how those experiences can change. The pieces on London’s Bicycle Superhighways and Boston’s Newest Bus Lane allow you to think about the four elements of everyday mobility, while the video “The Right to Walk” harkens back to the idea of the right to the city.

These different perspectives allow us to see the complicated nature of mobility and transportation more clearly and, subsequently, the transformative potential of making our transportation systems more just.

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CultureHouse improves livability in local communities by transforming unused spaces into vibrant social infrastructure.