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In a different context, we see examples of ordinary residential streets with no shops or commerce that are very lively. This fact in turn contributes to the safety of the place : children play in the street, the fences are not defensive. We can also see that people contribute to the upkeep and production of their street.
Here is an evocation of such a street:
On this new block, where just after the construction there was nothing, we find new elements. A tree has grown and transforms the street, a wisteria vine envelopes a trellis. This entrance is now welcoming: a shed with open wood siding for bicycles and mailboxes, a tablet to put one's bags in order to open the door, a hedge to protect from prying eyes and to hide the garbage cans; a trellised vine protects this facade, where one finds a balcony, awning, blinds ... The frontages look a bit like gardens. You can leave toys, bicycles, things. Cats, dogs, birds like it there. There are places for do-it-yourselfers, where one can produce, repair or store things, or just to tinker. Benches from where one can watch the children play, or read the newspaper.
Because of these plants, these additions, these activities, it is no longer the same home, it is no longer the same street. A real production took place after the buildings were built. Each resident continued to add bits and pieces. The accumulation of these small changes have had great effects. And as the seasons change so does the scene.
Initially, everything was not in place, but everything was done to allow these changes. We could say that this habitat is fertile.
I propose the notion of "second site" ( deuxième chantier) to describe these productive processes that graft onto and metamorphose the habitat over time. When nothing happens, and nothing grows, the second sites are impossible. Years pass, nothing moves. The habitat is frozen, it is sterilized.
When second sites can occur, our habitat evolves and continues to grow. Second sites can be very productive. Plants, if they have some space, are great allies, not because they are green, but because they produce a part of our habitat, almost on their own, spontaneously and free. If we can be active at the edges, build and change our frontage spaces, take care of our plants and familiar animals, even minimally, then a decisive part of the architecture of our habitat is produced.
Second sites are therefore doubly spontaneous. Plants and other natural contributions are spontaneous in the sense that it happens all by itself, growth occurs naturally, like a tree. As for ourselves, the habitants, we are also spontaneous - according to our inspirations and our desires we can accompany these processes. Taking care of the flora and fauna, hobbies and crafts, the use of water and air, all play a part in transforming our habitat. And we do so on our own initiative, according to our own will, creatively and naturally, as long as we are not hindered or prevented. The word spontaneous also evokes " improvised, wild, escaping the rules, and that which is outside of calculated expectations." Spontaneity corresponds to the chance dimensions of these processes over time. Chance does not mean danger.
Room to move
To release these spontaneous processes on the edges of the street, there must be room to move. It's not just the facades, it is the land that is in front of the facade, the sidewalk in front of the home, and the things that happen here. These spaces are the interface between two distinct systems that characterize a street: the traffic on the one hand, and the adjacent habitants on the other. Within a few feet, sometimes within a few inches we pass from the very public to the very intimate. This interface forms a vital part of our environment but strangely no one knows in French what to call this space between our front doors and the street. No adequate term exists. To increase awareness and as a tool for debate, I propose to use the term “frontage”.
Frontage is a French word which fell into disuse but is still used in Quebec and which Americans use in urban planning. Much of this book is devoted to “frontages” as a key element of street life. To understand the importance of frontages, I gathered diverse examples from Germany, Holland, London, Montreal, USA, Japan …
These frontages as we will see, can sometimes be abused and sterilized - nothing happens there: they are used as parking lots, as areas for trash, as green buffers (lawns, flower beds, etc), or they are veiled by screens ( green curtains, cedar hedges, opaque fences...). The entrances can even be condemned, suppressing a key element of frontages.
Contrarily, when the frontages are carefully tended to by the residents and second sites are deployed, frontages become active and adjacent private life is manifested in the street.
There are many factors involved and to learn more about them I suggest to review some actions by local residents and public authorities, which accordingly either sterilize, protect or reactivate the frontages.
The most carefully designed habitat is unsuitable to everyday scenarios and unforeseen situations, unless it leaves sufficient freedom to the habitants, and leaves open the possibility for second sites. Our habitat is then a work in progress, continually evolving and living. It is not a fixed, finished product that only requires maintaining, neither something to be demolished when it is used up or no longer suitable.
Transform, repair, improve: the process of reinvention specific to life is a key to building a more livable habitat and to appropriate it. For these reasons I think the architecture of a habitation and its frontages in order to offer spaces for action must in some respects remain un-finished, such as shelves ready and waiting to be filled,
Modal sharing of the roadway and active modes of transport
The atmosphere of the streets depends on mastering the ways we use and park cars - road design and traffic rules. I devote a chapter summarizing many such experiences in European cities. They show us that we must prioritize walking and cycling, so-called active modes, and confirm that this is not only possible but necessary, being in fact the only lasting solution. Modal sharing of the street, more precisely the sharing between different modes of transport, needs to be rebalanced in favor of active commuting. Streets should be walkable and cyclable. Changing our ways of movement does not involve major modifications, but a coherent organization (parking and traffic, public transport, networks) that free up local regulations, and individual choice.
Frontal sharing of the street and active frontages
To reconquer the streets, rebalancing modal sharing is not enough. Another sharing of the street is involved, between those who live along the street - residents of the block, and those that pass through, the passers-by.
We can call it frontal sharing, as it involves the street frontages. Reactivating and reclaiming our streets, and making them an integral part of our habitat, does not, from a spatial point of view, necessarily require grand means nor spectacular actions. Giving space in our streets for habitants and providing frontages, changes our way of living on the street. It takes only a narrow strip of land on the banks of the street.
Accompanying the self-production of streets
"Accompany self-production" is an expression of social workers; it means to help people to produce for themselves a part of what they use or consume. A street which is well designed for balanced modal and frontal sharing is only half of the job. Self-production must be accompanied and chaperoned by the community. preparing the minds, providing know-how, and helping to solve social problems, conflicts between neighbors. Accompany does not mean doing in the place of, but helping to do.
Accompanying is especially important if we start from a sterilized habitat. Refertilizing is a difficult process, it takes time because we must modify collective and individual priorities, but it is necessary. Once the informal social life of the street has taken roots, self-productions and second sites can work more or less by themselves. Mediations and arbiters in one form or another will always be necessary.
Self-productions prove necessary in many cases in order to collectively build a friendly and lively habitat. They can be a substantial element of everyone's life, and represent an important resource in times of economic crisis. And plants are great allies.
The part of plants - gardening in public
To mitigate conflicts and allow sharing in the streets, plants are incomparable allies. They intertwine our daily lives with their rhythm, their fertility, their calm and living presence. They help us by introducing an element of another order into the streets: the order of spontaneous natural processes. Our habitat is also their habitat.
There is a strong association between garden and frontage. In Germany and England there are no other words for frontage than front garden and Vorgarten. Why interpose a garden between the facade and the sidewalk? It is so hard sometimes to do without the power of plants, that in one way or another language imagines frontages as gardens.
Many streets do not need plants, street trees, or adjacent gardens. Spontaneous informal social life can still thrive in their absence. But when the situation is difficult, when the street life is sterilized, gardening the frontages can become a strategic issue.
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PATHS FOR ACTION - OVERVIEW