Review: Incomplete Streets

Editor(s) Stephen Zavestoski and Julian Agyeman
Publisher Routledge
Year 2015

Incomplete Streets, edited by Stephen Zavestoski and Julian Agyeman, is part of the Routledge, Equity, Justice, and Sustainable City series, and focuses on problematizing the Complete Streets concept that argues that streets are currently not geared towards serving the purpose of all users. Although the editors agree with the impulse to critique car-centric spatial planning, they argue that ‘much of the current physically-focused Complete Streets rhetoric disconnects streets from their significant social, structural, symbolic, discursive, and historical realities [where] economically, ethnically, and racially diverse members of communities are referred to monolithically as “users”’ (Zevstoski and Agyeman, 2015: 4-5).

This volume is made up of a collection of chapters exploring the contested claims on streets in order to unpack the possibilities for fostering more equal public spaces through thinking of streets ‘not as fixed, but as constantly adapting and evolving physical, social, and symbolic spaces of creativity and contestation’ (Zevstoski and Agyeman, 2015: 12).

Part I entitled ‘Processes’ looks at a how cities have been developed as car-centric constructions. Norton unpacks the PR driven love affair with cars and its impact on city planning. Golub explores the segregating effects of transport planning of highways and public transport. Chronopoulos connects the exclusionary practices of congestion pricing, neoliberalism and Complete Streets. Lee writes about the possibilities for rupturing automobility. Mehta argues not to complete streets and rather think of think them of as diverse ecologies.

Part II entitled ‘Practices’ explores both the formal and informal practices of addressing urban challenges. Langegger offers lowriding and cruising as a ‘mobile barrio’ challenge to gentrification underpinned by Complete Streets rhetoric. Hoffman critiques the push for bicycle-friendly cities as a marker for gentrification that favours a creative elite. Cadji and Hope explore the unintentional gentrifying consequences of neighbourhood markets in Oakland. Goodling and Herrington foreground the importance of integrating equity into planning processes in order to ensure social justice.

Part III entitled ‘Possibilities’ explores the potential for Complete Streets in undoing spatial injustice – or at the least, not perpetuating existing inequalities. Vallianatos explores the relationship between Latino street food vending and legislation in Los Angeles arguing for a policy that supports all vendors equitably. Morhayim explores the tensions between the activist intentions of urban DIY initiatives such as Park Day, and the institutionalisation of such events through municipal permitting processes. Brand explores the co-option of participatory Complete Streets planning processes in New Orleans in the context of racial discrimination and segregation. In contrast, Miller and Lubitow explore an example where Complete Streets planning opened up dialogue around socio-historical inequality in Portland. Finally, Chapple extends the discussion beyond neighbourhoods to encounter regional transportation patterns in the context of diverse and unequal cities. Ultimately, drawing on the previous chapters, Zavestoski and Agyeman (eds) conclude by arguing that streets are in constant negotiation and therefore can never be complete.

Despite the best intentions of the Complete Streets movement in challenging car-centric cities, approaches such as these tend to still frame themselves on taming, domesticating or ordering unruly spaces. This volume offers an important critique of how potentially progressive ideas such as Complete Streets can be misunderstood or co-opted to maintain and exacerbate an unequal urban status quo. There are four contributions that this publication makes that are relevant to African cities.

Firstly, there has been a tendency to uncritically adopt global initiatives without thinking about the complex power relations at play in public spaces in vastly unequal cities. For example there are South African examples where it may be illegal for street traders to peddle their trade in the same place where food trucks proliferate. This reveals a contradiction where livelihoods of middle class vendors supersede those of poor street traders. Vallianatos’ challenge offers an important reminder of how inequality can be unintentionally reproduced. There are also numerous examples that echo Morhayim’s concern about the commercialisation and institutionalisation of DIY initiatives, such as parklets, and initiatives such as Open Streets. The cases caution that many of these initiatives are used as paths to gentrification, which results in displacement and the further marginalisation of poor people.

Secondly, implicit in these cases is an exploration of complex local and global power relations that play out in public space. Much of the framing of public space romanticises its democratic potential without addressing the sometimes-irreconcilable claims. Completing streets assumes that these tensions are resolvable, and this volume offers a useful lens to explore how race, class and (to a lesser extent) gender intersect in cities. Although not explicitly stated, and not entirely resolved within this book, this challenge to the notion of the demos is an important contribution to discussions about the somewhat irreconcilable logics of property markets and socio-spatial justice.

Thirdly, whereas many of these kinds of publications focus on critiques, this volume includes a series of suggestions on how reframing (in)complete streets may offer useful possibilities. From a theoretical level, Mehta’s ecology of the streets summarises the impulses of many of the other chapters. It allows for a more relational and flexible approach to understanding streets as constantly in the making. This suggests that any urban intervention needs to be adaptable to a variety of contested needs and uses, where ‘negotiation is paramount’ (p104)

Finally, cases from the global South are often glaringly missing from these collections, and this volume provides an important starting point for further enquiry into Southern urban development stories.


Rike Sitas is a researcher at the African Centre for Cities, and is the co-founder of public arts organisation, dala. Straddling urban studies and creative practice, Rike is fascinated by the intersection of culture and cities, and more specifically on the role of art in urban life.

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