Editor's note 1/31/2022: This is a revised and updated edition of our article outlining our thinking on intersections. As with many of our posts, we aim to update its content and keep it current because it represents a fundamental rethinking of the most common shared public space in every community: our streets.
Buenos Aires' Palermo Neighborhood

How to transform your city one corner at a time

Neighborhoods and city centers are often defined by their street corners, especially when these corners are social hubs. The corners of intersections are places where people gather, sit, socialize, sip coffee, eat, drink, and are merry. They are among the most basic forms of public space, linking not only neighborhoods but also marking where people's paths naturally cross. When these spaces are built to accommodate people instead of vehicles, you have the makings of a strong, interconnected community.

You can tell a great city by its corners. If the intersection is owned by vehicles, it is a city for cars and traffic. If the community controls the intersections and corners, it is a city of neighborhoods and of people.

But it is the buildings and how they add to the activities...In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that the buildings facing these corners make happy cities, as these photos from Buenos Aires, Paris, New Haven, Brisbane, Barcelona, and Istanbul prove.

Why Social Life?

What we all seem to forget is that, as humans, we need to connect with people; especially our neighbors, family, and friends. That means that our best streets must also be social places where these connections happen, transcending their role as corridors of traffic.

We believe that it is the social life on our streets and sidewalks that matters most – much more than how many vehicles can move through our communities. In other words, it is more important that our streets make us feel welcome and safe — much more important than it is for them to provide space to vehicles.

Social Life, How Can it Help Shape the Future of our Communities?
With people today longing to bond again with friends and family, it is becoming clearer that the foundation of our happiness and fulfillment is a rich social life. Reflections of Jay Walljasper.

Six Cities that Lead the Way

Buenos Aires

Intersections that are intentionally designed to be "public squares"

In Buenos Aires' Palermo neighborhood, raising the entire intersection to sidewalk level creates a more seamless transition between street corners and stimulates more social activity. This approach encourages impromptu socializing and helps sidewalk cafés to flourish. Entrances to corner buildings are also canted, which adds to the town square feel. This design causes drivers to slow down, even come to a stop, as they take in all the activity on the corner.

As a result of these choices, street corners in in the neighborhood foster a lively social scene. This corner, in particular, is one of the best.

Other neighborhoods in Buenos Aires have utilized their corners as well.

This one in San Telmo is a favorite for men hanging out. The stone slab and bollard create a focal point where people sit and conversations start.

Paris

A city defined by corner cafés

Restaurants occupy most of the choice corners in Paris neighborhoods, meaning that some of the best intersections have three and sometimes four active corners. As you look at these images, note the activities taking place on the sidewalk, and the fact that the things happening inside of many restaurants are also integrated into the social life outside, lighting up the sidewalk and street with activity.

Perhaps more than anywhere else we've been, the importance of the café and café life in Paris means that streets need to balance vehicle traffic with social life. In fact, if anything, Paris is re-thinking that balance — and lending more weight to social life. The result is that sidewalks, especially on corners, lend ample space to gathering.

The Little Bollard That Could... Do a Lot
A simple tool that can make any city more walkable and pleasurable

New Haven

A transformation unfolding for 40+ years

We have not been able to find a similar effort in North America, with one exception: New Haven. In 1980, we implemented a plan to extend the corner of College and Chapel streets; the key intersection where town and gown comes together.

Starting at the Corner: A New Haven Success Story
Areas around Yale exploded with social life this past summer and fall — coming alive in spite of COVID-19 — we couldn’t help but notice and be reminded of our work there, years ago.
This intersection in New Haven was improved in 1980. It was one of our first success stories.

The original plan was to keep and preserve local stores like Claire's Corner Copia—a strategy that would prove to be evidence of the power of "place-keeping." We eliminated parking spots and expanded the sidewalk in front of Claire's.

We also worked on keeping many of the other buildings surrounding College and Chapel Streets, and led interventions that would improve the streets' connections to Yale University. As a result, Claire's Corner Copia (and the area around it) grew to be a much-loved local landmark.

More recently (September 2020), Yale worked with the City to make a "Restaurant Row" on College Street, in efforts of mitigating the local economic effects of COVID-19. The City of New Haven shifted street space into sidewalks, putting down colorful stripes and replacing a lane of traffic.  This move, which instantly calmed traffic, demonstrated that New Haven was making progress on being a place where pedestrians and social life are the priority.

This triumphant turnaround for the corner of Chapel and College Street began in 1980 but has continued and adapted to even our most current context. The change has rippled outwards, reaching down the surrounding blocks and making a huge difference for a neighborhood once full of empty storefronts. Now the corner is a well-loved spot where folks can run into people they know, have a conversation, and meet for lunch or a coffee.

Brisbane

Open corners on high-rise towers

In places with lots of high-rise buildings, the outlet for the natural activities that need to occur on the streets has to go indoor or underneath those buildings. In some cases, like in Brisbane, it works quite well. Covered areas house seating for restaurants — which serves as a reminder that weather plays a significant factor in how well-used corners are. Providing for shelter from the rain, or shade from the sun, can be a practical strategy.

Barcelona

Zoning can set the stage for great intersections

Historically, developers in Barcelona were required to "cut corners" on their buildings — but in a good way! The resulting canted corners in places like the L'Example section of the city, have proven to be an effective economic development strategy because they've meant increased exposure for retail and restaurants. They carry the additional (and perhaps most important) benefit of added gathering space, and room for pedestrians to queue while waiting to cross the street.

Istanbul

Life in the historic core happens at street-corner bazaars

In Istanbul's bazaars, it's all about "product," and the buzz around it. In these busy corner places, there are few vehicles to interrupt the excitement of city life. Vendors are able to fill outdoor displays with food, creating a sensory experience that invites people to get a taste of the city. In the historic district, every corner is defined by a product and the customers who come to have a look.

The Biggest Obstacle

Brisbane has a policy of restricting any non-motorized forms of transportation on the downtown streets. That means bicycles, scooters and other ways of moving are forced to use the sidewalks. This means for a more dangerous sidewalk system, where pedestrians must negotiate with faster-moving cyclists. Ideally, dedicated and buffered bike lanes would replace some of the space now devoted to cars. Then, cyclists would feel protected in a space designed for them, and sidewalks would be more open for all.

In Brisbane, Australia all non-motorized forms of travel, including scooters and bikes, are forced onto the sidewalks, making Brisbane one of the most dangerous cities to walk anywhere in the world.

Takeaways:

A central challenge of making street intersections and sidewalk corners lively lies in the fact that all modes of transportation want their piece of the street — from cars to trucks, bikes and buses to scooters. That often means that to prioritize social life goes against the norm: But by starting with people, everything gets turned upside-down for the better.

Some of the most vital parts of our social lives play out on the streets of our communities. But this is only possible if we have safe and comfortable spaces there, in which to gather. A fundamental shift is imperative to make this possible, and for communities everywhere to thrive. Shifting the focus from vehicle movement to people and social life is a paradigm that we all need. And one thing we can say for certain is that there is a bright future ahead for communities that make that shift.


Corners - Social Life Project
The corners of intersections are places where people gather; they are gateways; and, they can give identity to the history and people that made that community special. They are the most basic form of public space, linking not only neighborhoods but also marking where people’s paths naturally cross.…
Sidewalks - Social Life Project
Rich street life is no frill. It is an expression of the most ancient function of a city—a place for people to come together, all kinds of people, face-to-face. — William “Holly” Whyte

Next Steps for the Global Placemaking Movement
Imagine if the places where we live were shaped for, and from, our social lives, re-imagined to make it easy for us to gather, shop, have fun, eat together, and be around people different from us. we would collectively have an impact on the health of our planet.
The mission of the Social Life Project is to incite a renaissance of community connection in public spaces around the globe. Through our online publication, presentations, campaigns, and catalytic projects, we can create transformative impact on communities everywhere. Our work grows out of more than 50 years devoted to building the global placemaking movement. It is an initiative of the Placemaking Fund, along with PlacemakingX — a global network of leaders who together accelerate placemaking as a way to create healthy, inclusive, and beloved communities. We gladly accept donations to advance our work.

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