Change the Street. Change the Future.

The world is in transition. Global financial forces, advancing technology, and climate changes are shaping our future at a rapid pace.

City leaders must plan for the challenges of urbanization, overcrowding, and aging infrastructure–often times with stagnant or dwindling budgets. As populations grow in urban areas, working to create an enjoyable life experience and improve mobility should be a high priority for city development.

The stakes are high. So is the difficulty.


How can cities embrace the challenges to enact positive policies that increase the standard of living?

According to Janette Sadik-Kahn, former Transportation Commissioner of New York City, it begins with a vision. More specifically, it begins in the street.

Sadik-Kahn had a simple idea. Create more open space, more freedom to move, and more safety for citizens. Simple, except she wanted to do it in New York. In Times Square. In literally one of the most crowded, sea of yellow and black, touristy places in the world.

“Reimagining our cities comes from those who care, from those who dare,” said Sadik-Kahn. “Most of the growth is happening in cities, so how we think about them, how we design them matters.”


As Transportation Commissioner, she embarked on a grandiose journey to reshape how New Yorkers interact with the streets. How they travel. How they connect. Hired in 2007 by former Mayor Bloomberg, she launched one of the most successful transformation efforts in the world right in New York–one that is now being copied and adopted in other cities around the world.  The formative solution to the challenges New York–and cities around the world–deal with was PlaNYC.

PlaNYC was created to address concerns about the future of New York City, including an estimated population of 9 million people by 2030. That is more people than the next top 3 U.S. cities combined. It also has a small land area in square mileage compared to other large metro cities around the world. Thus, creating and affecting change in a densely populated city is a tall order and not the kind you make on any street corner Starbucks. Any project of this magnitude requires lots of communication from many parties. PlaNYC was a culmination of thought leadership and design from academics, economists, and civic leaders to achieve sustainable goals, such as lowering carbon emissions.

As part of PlaNYC, Janette Sadik-Kahn planned to create pedestrian plazas throughout New York–including right in the middle of Times Square. She pushed for more bike lanes, more pedestrian crossings, more open spaces, and more livability. The pavement was also transformed. Asphalt and brick were converted to art and sculptures. Once crumbling blocks became the canvas for creative output. Old surfaces received a new lease on life.

There was also function in the form. New York introduced 7 new rapid bus transit lines. It launched the largest bike share in the world through the Citi Bike program. It also improved wayfinding and signage throughout the city helping native New Yorkers and tourists, alike.  

The results are promising:

  • Reduced pedestrian injuries. PlaNYC resulted in a 58% reduction.
  • Curbed people walking off the curb and in the streets. NYC saw 80% less pedestrians walking among traffic.
  • Stirred commerce. Retail sales increased almost 50% in or near the open and public spaces created by Sadik-Kahn and her team. The increase in retail also led to 6 new store openings in the heart of NYC’s retail district.



The last point might pique the most interest. Not that safety and livability aren’t important, but to see that businesses, often the biggest opponents to things like parking and open space, actually saw an uptick as a result is promising. When you can facilitate environmental change along with financial gain, it brings communities togethers and helps them flourish.

How can other cities adopt similar programs with similar results? Many cities are already following New York’s lead, adding bike lanes and plazas–from the west coast of the United States to the far reaches of Australia.

In order to get started, cities need to simply pay attention. Citizens, by habit, will tell you how to develop infrastructure they desire. From worn-out grass paths signaling a need for a sidewalk to risky darts across oncoming traffic screaming for a pedestrian walk, the design lays in waiting to be discovered.

For cities with robust parking locations and transit stops, sifting through data to see where people are parking and riding can lead to change. In lesser used areas, parking lots can give way to public plazas. Bus stops can be moved around the corner. Benches can be installed. Coffee shops can open. City blocks can begin to flourish with nature, color, and energy.

Cities can also create outdoor office parks and even more environmentally friendly dog parks. For more inspiration, check out the Top 10 Urban Innovations Report.

For more on the transformation in New York, pick up a copy of Sadik-Kahn’s new book, Streetfight.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes hard work, key stakeholders, and incredible resolve.

Every city is unique and some experimentation will be needed. If it has potential, try it. If it could save a life of a biker, try it. If it could increase conversations among people on the way to work, try it. If it could help people get around the city faster, by all means–give it a whirl.

“Paint the city you want to see,” urges Sadik-Kahn.

It’s time to grab a brush and head to the streets.

Editor’s note: Janette Sadik-Kahn presented “Cities in Transition” at the Percolate Conference in New York City. Passport was in attendance and has sourced information in this article from her presentation.