I’ll meet you at the corner
Is it the planner who defines perceptions of public space or is it the individual user? This chicken and egg conundrum has no definitive answer. Each individual moving through the city from destination to destination has a unique trajectory that ultimately helps define the ever-changing shape of the city. The planner, always on top of the game, recognizes the patterns and trends of the collection of individuals. Working together, the planner and the individual should create meaningful civic spaces. Consider examples of planners taking the tabula rasa approach (think Brasilia) and consider examples of bricolage-style community building (think illegal settlements) and you see can see how one does not work well without the other.
Lets go back to the individual, who is each one of us, as we move through the streets between various destinations. As we walk, negotiating the sidewalk becomes a sort of dance, a unique improvisation of asserting, ceding, drifting and stopping. The route is not without form, as the street grid gives us a structural framework for finding and remembering our way. As we walk, we drift in and out of different states of awareness. Walking down the length of the block we may be lost in our own thoughts, but once we reach an intersection our focus is usually called to some thing or some body that requires our attention. As a nexus of streets and sidewalks, intersections are the most dynamic points in the grid, and the corners are places where we are more likely to have chance encounters, meet friends and greet strangers. They are natural places for pause and conversation, for seeing and being seen. We are more likely to make eye contact with passersby at intersections. Any business located on a corner will double its visibility and often be considered a landmark when giving directions, as in turn right at the cafe.
Viewing intersections in this light, the design possibilities are limitless. Street corners are more than just the intersection of streets and sidewalks, they are points of opportunity, and they could be designed to engage communal fraternization. If it is mandatory that pedestrians stop at crosswalks for traffic signals, we have a captive audience!
Community connections are a hot topic in Aspen these days. We are all excited about pedestrian friendly linkages between the mountain, downtown and river, and hopefully the city will consider the intersections as key points for design opportunity to enhance our vibrant civic environment.