One of Jane Jacobs’ most valuable contributions to the understanding of cities was her faith in the wisdom of the urban dweller. She argued that the physical city—and any approach to city planning—could not be separated from the wisdom of each individual inhabitant, “People who know well such animated city streets will know how it is. I am afraid people who do not will always have it a little wrong in their heads, like the old prints of rhinoceroses made from travelers’ descriptions of rhinoceroses.” The complication arising from Jacobs’ argument is simple though difficult to solve; how can we plan a city when planning is one part abstraction and abstraction removes us from Jacobs’ precious “real life” mentality?
A step towards solving this contradiction is sfbetterstreets.org, a website launched last week by the City of San Francisco. Developed by the San Francisco Planning Department in conjunction with other city agencies, the website is part of the city’s larger, “Better Streets” initiative. The legislative concept, described in San Francisco’s Better Streets Plan, is to create streets “designed and built to strike a balance between all users regardless of physical abilities or mode of travel… maximizing features for the comfort, usability, and aesthetics of people walking.”
Many cities have made strides to improve the everyday experience of urban dwellers; PlaNYC in New York is an excellent example. Unique to San Francisco’s approach though—encapsulated in the “Better Streets” website—is an emphasis on direct citizen engagement through the provision of necessary tools for engaging city government and the community. The website empowers individual citizens and associations to change their streets by including ideas for street improvements, accessible descriptions of necessary permit processes, and suggestions for building community support. On the page for each specific street improvement, a small box entitled “Agency who can help” provides access to further information on how to request a specific street improvement. Sfbetterstreets.org is best understood as city-supported citizen engagement.
When the New York City Department of Transportation created a website to solicit crowd-sourced suggestions for locating stations of the upcoming Bike Share program, it received over 70,000 votes from interested members of the public. San Francisco’s “Better Streets” outreach is an important example of how to harness the public’s interest in shaping city planning. Although a city-led initiative, “Better Streets” taps into the city itself, acknowledging what Jane Jacobs believes to be the most knowledgeable voice in the city: the people themselves.