[Metropol contributor Steven Young received his Masters Degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, where his studies included urban social spaces. He has recently earned his LEED GA certification, and works extensively in the San Francisco Bay Area. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]
Great streets of the world have a few things in common: space, people to watch, and places to stop and rest. The resting is usually the best part since it almost always involves eating and drinking. Pedestrian streets in particular have a vibrancy that emanates from the interactions taking place between the occupants. Streets are connectors, not only between places but between people. It is where we meet and it is where we act out our lives as social beings and communities.
The Esplanade de Espana in Alicante, Spain is akin to Black Rock City’s Esplanade. Alicante’s esplanade is an expansive street that goes on for miles, where strolling masses emerge from the city’s interior to take in the wonders of their community. It is the face of the city at the edge of the sea, with dense development on one side and the Mediterranean on the other; and it is where the occupants of the city find their connectivity. The Bund in Shanghai is also exemplary of the cultural vibrancy of esplanade walkways.
To gather in the streets is to know how you relate to your surroundings, to your community and to the greater universe. This grounding allows us to understand ourselves better as participants in a story greater than our own, and it allows us to relate and to gain relationships with those around us. Author Alan B. Jacobs writes “First and foremost, a great street should help make community: should facilitate people acting and interacting to achieve in concert what they might not achieve alone.”
Throughout history, the street has been the lifeline (as well as the sewer line) in the urban world. Streets are where we get our food, how we access our property and the means by which we understand and map our world. The Agora of Ancient Athens was the place where the real work was done to create an emerging equitable world view. The lawmakers, the scholars and everyone else gathered there to gain a sense of the social climate, to debate the meaning of the stars, and to decide upon the shape of society.
Wikipedia states: “The Agora (Greek: Ἀγορά, Agor‡) was an open “place of assembly” in ancient Greek city-states. … the Agora also served as a marketplace where merchants kept stalls or shops to sell their goods amid colonnades. From this twin function of the Agora as a political and commercial space came the two Greek verbs αγοράζω, agor‡zō, “I shop”, and αγορεύω, agoreýō, “I speak in public”. The word agoraphobia, the fear of critical public situations, derives from Agora in its meaning as a gathering place.”
The streets of Black Rock City – particularly inasmuch as they are primarily pedestrian- and bicycle-centric – run very much in accord with this conception of great streets. They connect us to the communal focal point of the Man, to Center Camp and to our community. The streets of Black Rock City organize our chaos, keep us from being lost in the night and ultimately lead to vital services (such as ice). But what they really do is give us a stage on which to live out our dreams, to test out our ideas and to come together in a way that achieves something greater than what we might achieve alone.