The Case for Sticky Streets
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The Case for Sticky Streets

City planning expert Brent Toderian wants streets to make passersby stick around.

Brent Toderian, urban design consultant, ex-chief of Vancouver city planning, and founding president of the Council for Canadian Urbanism, wants to talk about getting sticky. Or, rather, designing “sticky streets”—avenues that make people want to stop and enjoy their surroundings.

City planners have traditionally thought of street design in terms of maximizing transportation efficiency: “How can we make it easier, faster to move through this space?” Toderian calls the product of this thinking Teflon streets—spaces that make it impossible to stick around. But sticky streets are different, he says—they “prioritize, or at least balance, the role of streets as people-places rather than just places to move through”. After all, it’s often the things that slow pedestrians down that make a street great. Prime examples are the sidewalk cafe or bar patio—both of which are a pain for planners hoping to maximize a street’s transportation efficiency, but a major asset to place-makers looking to create attractive public space.

To stickify a street, all that’s really required is an attraction that makes people want to stop and spend time there. It can be a public art installation (or, better yet, an interactive public art installation), a busker’s performance, a food truck, or a pretty store window display.

It’s no mean task to change the focus of city planning. “There is still a great tension regarding the role of streets, especially given the perceived ‘ownership’ engineers have claimed over streets in many cities,” Toderian says. “No street can be sticky that prioritizes car movement over everything else, and most streets and cities still do.” But sticky-street design around the world, including in Paris and Barcelona, is encouraging—although Toderian notes “there are just too many street-life cities to name, especially in Europe.” Copenhagen, for example, has created a year-round patio culture, making blankets a must-have accessory for street-side seating. Closer to home, New York has undergone what Toderian calls “a remarkable transformation of mindset and design” over the past 10 years.

And Toronto’s not doing so badly either. Toderian lists our St. Lawrence neighbourhood (home to the market, its Saturday produce vendors, Sunday streetside antiques sellers, ample outdoor patios, and many street performers) as a great example of street stickiness, placing it alongside the likes of Old Montreal and Vancouver’s Gastown and Yaletown.

“Cities across Canada are doing great things or, in some cases, important first steps, to embrace streets for people,” he says. “It’s fuelled by movements like the ‘Park(let)’ movement where parking spaces are transformed into small patios or public places—particularly effective when the sidewalk isn’t wide enough for generous patio life.”

As Toderian says, streets represent the most common type of public space in cities. So why shouldn’t they have the same appeal as a town square?

“Good cities know that streets move people, not just cars,” he said. “Great cities know that streets are also places to linger and enjoy.”