What came first, the paint or the “place”?

Reading “Painting Inside the Lanes” got me thinking about what it really means for an intersection (or anywhere) to really be a “place”. I’m a big fan of the painted intersections presented in the article, for aesthetic and traffic calming reasons, but I would not go so far as to say that the paint in itself gives the intersections a sense of place. In these examples, I think the neighborhood paint effort acted as a catalyst to bring neighbors together – an effective catalyst, to be sure, but painting the intersections would not have the same result had it come from above rather than from within. I don’t mean this to be negative, but to stress the idea that the “essence” of any different neighborhood is unique, and the things that will best bring out everything that is good and wonderful there will naturally vary – in Southeast Portland it was a painted intersection, but maybe somewhere else it’s a speakers corner or a coffee stand.

For me, this is related to the importance of remembering delight and serendipity when thinking about street life. Cities are exciting because unexpected things happen there – as planners, I think we should not only be managing the unpleasant unexpected things, but facilitating the happy accidents as well. This is the sort of chaos that provides inspiration and drives innovation in all kinds of spheres. I loved “Ten Creative Ideas for Energizing Our Streets” for this exact reason. By the time we’ve reached adulthood, we’ve been put through a nonstop ringer of systems – being told how to think and what to do. Hang out with a five year old for any amount of time, and you’ll be amazed by the kind of creativity we’re born with, and how it gets drained over time. To foster communities where people can be open with each other and work together to find new ways to do things (whether it’s painting an intersection or negotiating a trade deal), we need to strike a better balance between order and chaos – unexpected delights on the street are a good place to start.

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