What Can Snow Tell Us About Unused Public Spaces?

A writer chronicles possibilities on East Passyunk for curb extensions and pedestrian plazas.


Snow is pretty when it falls, then it just lays there. The pristine white is blackened by muddy boots, urinating dogs and car debris as the days pass on. It gets ugly. But it might also be useful.

Jon Geeting, a liberal Philadelphia political journalist with Keystone Politics, posted a photo essay on his site This Old City about East Passyunk Avenue after Monday’s snow. In it, he chronicled “sneckdowns”: the space where snow collects in the street, revealing the parts of paved roads cars don’t use. (It’s a portmanteau of snow and neckdown, an obnoxious name for a curb extension.)

Streets Blog tells us the idea of using snow to reveal where curbs could be extended is a hot one among city planning dorks — though the idea goes back as far as 2001. Geeting brought the idea to Philadelphia on a street that cuts diagonally across the grid in South Philly. “I figured when you have a street like East Passyunk where it bisects the grid you get all kinds of weird triangles,” he said.

And you do! Look at the photo I took yesterday that’s at the top of this post. There’s a clear area in front of El Zarape where a small triangle of pavement could go. What’s the advantage? It makes pedestrians safer when crossing the street — and makes them feel safer, which encourages more foot traffic — and the extra curb space slows down cars. (Sorry, drivers, this is a good thing.)

And the intersection I flagged above — Passyunk, 12th and Morris — isn’t even the best example. Geeting notes the intersection near the Acme, at Reed, 10th and East Passyunk, has a lot of space for more pedestrian access. “Some of those streets you could just tell are over-wide,” he said. “That one — 10th and Reed — you can easily tell. It’s like you’re momentarily in the suburbs there for a second.”

The beauty of looking at snow accumulation this way is it shows spaces that are reserved for traffic but aren’t being used at all. Why not try something else with them? Some of the sneckdowns could become pedestrian plazas with no disruption to traffic or parking. Others would take some finesse: As anyone who’s been to South Philadelphia knows, parking is taken very seriously. The loss of one spot could become contentious.

Maybe nothing can come of the scores of examples on Geeting’s This Old City Site. But as East Passyunk becomes a more desirable area to live in, people ought to be concerned with keeping the eponymous street a vibrant place to walk down. If there’s a way to easily expand pedestrian plazas, we should do it.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.