from ancient Rome to “sidewalk Saturdays” in America?

Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem, in modern commercial context

The contextual evolution of Roman military crossroads often shows commercial street life as the latest overlay on the ancient castrum, its roads (decumanus and cardo) and intersections. Over time, a place of armies becomes a sociocultural place anew.

For instance, in Jerusalem, the legendary path to the cross coincides with the Roman decumanus. In Split, Croatia, the crossing of the decumanus and cardo in the old urban center shows remnants of the temples of the Dalmatian summer palace of the Emperor Diocletian.

In several entries, myurbanist has challenged American placemaking advocates to consider pragmatic approaches when borrowing from qualities of foreign urban spaces, recalling their evolution over thousands of years under different sociocultural circumstances. Likewise, the blog Emergent Urbanism recently cautioned to be mindful of the “patterns of place”.

In American efforts to move from the food court back to the street, we should consider first our own cultural context, and without political will, the tendency of traditional street use permitting and related, safety-based regulatory regimes to discourage more expansive public use of rights-of-way for nontraditional street and sidewalk use.

Certainly, policymakers, the development community and community leaders are gaining momentum through focus upon sidewalk dining ordinances, complete streets programming, and compact and walkable transit oriented developments. But in a time of recession and financial constraint, reinvention will not appear overnight, and allegiance to traditional regulatory schemes dies hard at the interface of public and private property lines.

Outdoor cafe reuse of Diocletian's Palace, Split, Croatia
American food court
American sidewalk expansion

In the short term, in the spirit of the “quick win” discussed before in the context of achievable placemaking in urban alleys, why not innovate even more?

Here’s another “quick win” idea, convertible to existing neighborhoods, large and small. Every Saturday morning, suspend the rules:

Create Sidewalk Saturdays.

How about a municipal ordinance offering temporary, no-fee public sidewalk use every Saturday morning for two hours, with removable tables, for small restaurants and coffee houses that can do so while allowing a walkable passage between storefront and street? How about such businesses offering noticeably reduced coffee, espresso drink and chocolate drink prices during these two hours for those who bring their own cups?

Would such an experiment work universally? Could it be done while meeting the needs of fire codes and related public safety and often complex insurance requirements? Would businesses uniformly reduce prices to further the American return to the livable street? Would we walk, bike, or take transit to sit streetside?

Can we achieve the evolution of the castrum in America? Whether we could implement a “quick win” like Sidewalk Saturdays would forecast success in implementing the “look and feel” from afar.

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