City residents and business owners are taking the provision of public space into their own hands — with the requisite blessing of the local transportation and planning departments, of course.

In major cities across the country, underused corners of the public realm are being reclaimed as urban amenities.

For example, San Franciscans can propose to turn a curbside parking space into a miniature streetside “parklet.” The local government has streamlined the permitting process for the “temporary sidewalk extensions.” Parking spots are transformed into tiny urban oases. Los Angeles launched a similar program last year.

Related articles:
San Francisco Planning Department: Pavement to Parks Program
Los Angeles Times: L.A. Council OKs pilot program to turn parking spots into ‘parklets’

Last year, Los Angeles also hired its first-ever pedestrian coordinator. The coordinator advises the city’s Department of Transportation on how to improve LA’s oft-treacherous streets for pedestrians. A coordinated pilot project transformed an underused side street in Silver Lake into a bright plaza with open-air seating, a model for future low-tech, low-cost streetscape improvements.

Related article:
LA Weekly: Margaret Ocanas: Voice for Pedestrians

These plucky mini-projects prove that public space improvements aren’t always top-down planning directives involving massive investment and years of study. Local governments can act as facilitators for residents and business owners to improve their neighborhoods at the streetcorner scale.

The effect: reduced crime, increased patronage at nearby businesses, a more active street life, and a low-cost respite from the concrete jungle.

Related article:
Mixed-use zoning – fights crime, poverty

first tuesday insight

The informed agent knows white picket fences aren’t the primary moneymakers these days. With Generation Y leading the way, populations are moving from the suburban fringe to the urban centers. In just the last 15 years, Downtown Los Angeles alone has sprouted almost 20,000 new multi-family units, according to the local Business Improvement District.

The advantages of urban life are already causing buyers to reevaluate cul-de-sac living. Cities offer:

  • better employment opportunities;
  • more transportation options;
  • exciting street life, cultural venues, shopping and entertainment; and
  • a human-scale environment, to name just a few.

Related article:
Urban amenities draw renters

The employment opportunities of the information economy continue to cluster in metropolitan centers. Commutes and unnecessarily high energy costs make the periphery a less attractive alternative. Meanwhile, suburban poverty rates are rapidly surpassing urban poverty rates, according to the Brookings Institution.

Related articles:
Suburban poverty: the new normal?
Rising gas prices encourage city living

This is largely due to a lack of economic opportunity found in the outlying bedroom communities and the growing desirability of the city center. Add to that simple, elegant solutions to the urban open space crunch like ad-hoc public plazas and you have a recipe for urban renaissance.

The bottom line: big cities are responding to an influx of new high-skilled residents.  In an era of improved municipal priorities and progress on public improvements, creative and cost-effective solutions make the urban core more attractive to new residents. Can the suburbs compete?

Re: “A Streetcorner Serenade for the Public Plaza,” from the New York Times

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What amenities draw your buyers to consider city living? Tell us in the comments section below.