The Street as Ecology

Editor’s Note:

The following is a synopsis of Vikas Mehta’s conceptualization of streets as ecologies from Chapter 6 of Incomplete Streets. The chapter suggests that the Complete Streets approach fails to see streets in a holistic way, instead flattening the rich ecology of streets by focusing on mobility and a particular quality of urban life that Complete Streets promise to provide.

By Vikas Mehta

Streets reflect the identity and image of a city: by closely examining its streets, we can decipher the social, cultural and political life of a city. Streets are arenas for individual and group expression, sites for exchange of information and ideas, forums for dialogue, debate and contestation, spaces for conviviality, leisure, performance and display, places for economic survival and refuge, a system of access and connectivity, and settings for nature in the city.

Complete Streets: Not So Complete

With the renewed interest in city living, streets are at the center of urban revitalization and new initiatives are emerging constantly. Complete Streets is the latest rage in transportation policy: as of 2014, more than 650 local-, regional- and state-level agencies have adopted Complete Streets policies that “direct decision-makers to consistently fund, plan, design and construct community streets to accommodate all anticipated users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, public transit users, motorists and freight vehicles” (see “The Best Complete Street Policies of 2012,” National Complete Streets Coalition). Per this policy a more equal distribution of street space to provide “safe, comfortable, and convenient” travel is the main task of the complete streets planner.

As a Complete Street, regulated for movement, albeit more equitable across various modes, the street continues to be read and understood only as a path. The Complete Streets approach continues to reinforce a myopic reading and understanding of the street as a conduit for movement where mobility is still the sacred objective making travelers the main beneficiaries. Predominantly addressing mobility conflicts is insufficient as it disregards other social, political and economic territorial patterns and negotiations possible on the street. The narrow-minded mobility-related focus of the Complete Streets approach ignores much of this and reduces a complex system to a single premise: it does not fully appropriate the street as a public space.

An Alternative: The Street as Ecology

A holistic way to fathom the street is to understand and appreciate it as an ecology. This follows the fundamental tenet in ecological thinking that the health of systems is derived not from competition and survival of the fittest but from coexistence. Here survival of metapopulations and metacommunities, through coexistence, works by the processes of distribution and diffusion. This coexistence in complex systems does not exist in a single state of stable equilibrium. Rather, there are multiple interconnected systems, both stable as well as unstable, that coexist. Appreciating the street as ecology means understanding it as a space of dynamic relationships that result from complex webs of interconnected activities and phenomena.

This translates into accepting the street as a place that thrives on the coexistence of diverse people, activities, forms and objects, and modes of control and negotiation, as it operates as a social, cultural, economic and political space. As a corollary, this also means not to think of the street as complete and in a stable state of equilibrium, but to recognize the street as a place in flux with some level of conflict. Such a view of the street is expansive and it opens up possibilities for streets as places that thrive on diversity and difference.

Characterized by a multiplicity of use and meaning, the street in India operates with a localized and negotiated order and control (Source: Photograph by Shilpa Mehta)

Characterized by a multiplicity of use and meaning, the street in India operates with a localized and negotiated order and control (Source: Photograph by Shilpa Mehta)


Conclusions: Let Us NOT Complete Streets

J.B. Jackson, the eminent cultural geographer and landscape theorist, predicted that we will return to the concept of the medieval street and it will be the “true public space of the future” and “they will be playing a social role we have long associated with the traditional public square: The place where we exhibit our permanent identity as members of the community.” Many groups, looking for a lifestyle that offers amenities within easy reach, are opting for neighborhoods with mixed-use streets that accommodate shopping, entertainment, some workspace, and other community-oriented uses. The revitalization of the main street across North America is testimony to this.

This is an opportunity that policy makers, planners and designers cannot miss. The attention toward the street must not be limited: if we settle for the street as a place of mobility, even equitable mobility for all modes, we are settling for too little. Streets can serve many more functions and we should expect no less. We must aim for streets to perform as a rich and sustainable ecology where the social, economic, environmental and political dimensions must all be considered. These forces that structure society must be able to communicate, interact and be legible on the street. But this does not translate to completeness. Public space is a contested territory and space is made public through negotiations. As a contested space, the street presents a transient and conflictual ecology. And the presence of conflicts shows the need for and the ability of the street to serve multiple publics. The street ecology is multidimensional: the quality or success of the street must be examined in ways that address issues of politics and democracy, sociability, leisure and recreation, economic exchange, and symbolic value.

Figure 4.5

The street in India is occupied, articulated and used in ways that defy its linearity (Source: Photograph by Shilpa Mehta)

Hence, instead of measuring the quality or success of the street in terms of completeness, I suggest evaluating the street in terms of looseness and tightness (Franck & Stevens 2007), or on a continuum of open to closed (Sibley 1995), or gauging the street in terms of its ability to accept diversity and difference (Malone 2002). In this metric, space that is loose or open is diverse, easily adaptable, and often spontaneous whereas tight or closed space is characterized by control, restrictions, and limiting design and is overly prescriptive.

The “street as ecology” approach expands on the possibilities and meanings of the street. In doing so, it opens up possibilities for streets as places to serve many of society’s processes and as spaces that thrive on diversity and difference. An increasingly urbanizing world translates into a large number of people who encounter streets. As a vital public and neighborhood space, the street can serve many roles: a pedestrian sanctuary, a place of social capital, support and community, a neighborly territory, a place for play and learning, a place for survival, and a place of rich and diverse experiences, cultural memory and history. The streets that support these roles will become more important in creating sustainable, just and equitable neighborhoods and cities.


Franck, K. and Stevens, Q. (2007), “Tying Down Loose Space”, in K. Franck and Q. Stevens (eds.), Loose Space: possibility and diversity in urban life. London: Routledge, pp. 1-33.

Malone, K. (2002), “Street Life: youth, culture and competing uses of public space”, Environment and Urbanization, 14 (2), 157-168.

Sibley, D. (1995), Geographies of Exclusion. London: Routledge.


Vikas Mehta, PhD, is  an Associate Professor in the School of Planning, College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, at the University of Cincinnati. In addition to his contribution to Incomplete Streets, he is the author of The Street: A Quintessential Social Public Space (Routledge, 2014).

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