Reopening the streets, for all: Why Ford is backing the National Street Service


At first, it may seem surprising to learn that the National Street Service was born from Greenfield Labs, a team within Ford Motor Company. After all, Ford owes much of its success to America’s highways, not its streets. But as new technologies — from autonomous vehicles to smartphones — are disrupting transportation, and as awareness grows of the costly impacts of neglecting our streets and street life, Ford is transforming too. Greenfield Labs is a human-centered design group, created to place human needs back at the center of everything we do. One of our major new initiatives is the National Street Service, inspired by the custodial mission of the National Park Service.

Over the past year, Greenfield Labs has been dedicated to humanizing our relationship with streets. America’s streets are where life happens. They are our economic engines and destinations for social activity, while still channels for everything that moves. As we have shared, at Greenfield Labs we have a passion for preserving and enhancing the life, economy, and mobility of the American street.

We are looking at how streets could be designed so that they serve a variety of functions and needs for all: people walking, people biking, people who own and use businesses, private and public vehicle usage, relaxation, exercise, connecting with others, and of course, the commerce and services that underpin their economies.
— Erica Klampfl and Ruth McLachlin, Greenfield Labs

In search of a meaningful way to foster conversations about the potential of America’s streets, Greenfield Labs, in collaboration with globally renowned urban design firm Gehl, created the National Street Service. It is a participatory social movement with a simple message — that the street is yours; yours to use in ways that are meaningful to you, and yours to change to better reflect the values of your community. We want streets that provide places of personal fulfillment and give access to opportunity for all people in cities.

Streets can have a much deeper value to everyone who shares them. Done well, streets can express the culture and history of their communities, and be places which afford protection and comfort — which invite people to stay, play and enjoy. Despite the fact that streets are public spaces, few people think of this space as ‘theirs’… Elevating a simple thoroughfare to space we all treasure is the opportunity before us.
— Liz Broekhuyse, Greenfield Labs

The National Street Service was born not just from our own recognition of the needs in our streets, but on top of the long history of a company inextricably linked to these streets. Here we want to share this history in greater depth and how it has brought us to this place.

Looking back

To understand the full story of the National Street Service, it helps to go back to beginnings: to the beginning of Ford Motor Company, and the beginning of its relationship with the cities of America.

Detroit, 1917; 100 years before the National Street Service (Detroit News)

Detroit, 1917; 100 years before the National Street Service (Detroit News)

At the dawn of the 20th century, streets were for people. They were multimodal and teeming with activity, which catered to a variety of human needs — including, but not limited to, mobility. In that era, the Ford Model T was ramping up production, paving the way for a revolution that democratized access to transportation by creating a personal vehicle affordable to the everyday American. The promise of this new technology was reflected on Ford’s now iconic advertisement in 1925, announcing to all that they intended on opening the highways to all mankind via their growing stable of automobiles. The advertisement maintains the human experience as the focus in the foreground, but hints at the shifting landscape to come as highways blanket the landscape in the distance.


By the time of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, Ford’s vision had grown more machine-oriented. And the streets of our country reflected this. The nation’s focus became highway building, as opposed to street development. Streets that had been multimodal places centered on the needs of people, became dominated by cars. Old rules and norms that allowed children to play in the streets or people to cross the street anywhere fell to new restrictions and cultures that kept children on the sidewalk and punished people for not using crosswalks. The city street as our great-grandparents knew it was gone.

1939 New York World’s Fair Ford Brochure cover image

1939 New York World’s Fair Ford Brochure cover image

By the end of World War II, with massive growth nationwide, Ford’s transition to a company reliant on massive highway building was nearly complete. The nation invested heavily in the Interstate Highway System, and these highways generated huge economic growth for the country and high demand for Ford products, pushing Ford to become one of the titans of American industry in the mid-20th Century. However, these same highways also cut paths through cities, dividing communities and replacing street life with traffic. As Ford CEO Jim Hackett put it, “The early automobile turned out to be the ultimate disrupter to human’s lives. The price for freedom to move was the creation of a world where roads were built for cars, replacing streets intended for living.

Ford tagline: Modern Cars for Modern Highways

Ford tagline: Modern Cars for Modern Highways

Looking forward

Now, new technology has entered into the realm of transportation and our streets, disrupting them on a scale not seen since the advent of the car in Henry Ford’s day. The arrival of smartphones, and the coming tide of autonomous vehicles proposes a radically different future; in which car companies seek to offer mobility — the ability to move through cities to conduct the business of life — as a product; rather than the vehicle itself.

While technology moves forward, burgeoning issues demonstrate an urgent basis for rethinking the shape of our streets and transportation systems. More than 35,000 people are killed on American roadways each year, illustrating the dire need for change. Yet death and injury aren’t the only costs: our transportation system pollutes the air, and we’re all spending increasing portions of our days stuck in traffic, or on crowded trains or buses, commuting to and from work. Streets are becoming more and more crowded, and less and less welcoming to a high quality of human experience and public life. As demand increases, cities and states are unable to maintain, let alone renew, their transportation networks. Bill Ford has said, “…We’re in danger of losing our freedom of mobility due to gridlock.

It should be clear from history that much of today’s street system was rebuilt not for the people who need to have mobility, but for one of the tools intended to provide it, their cars. We need to think differently about streets. We must put people, and their needs, first — when we consider the rules and norms for behavior on streets; when we are designing streets; and, yes, when we think about vehicles that necessarily travel on those streets. Historian Peter Norton observes, “We have seen the future GM and Ford fed us in the 1950s. To change the future, we have to recover versions of the past we have forgotten.

Greenfield Labs exists to help people rethink and rediscover their streets.

But how can we recover this vision for streets? It was this notion of returning to solutions with people at the center that led Jim Hackett to create Ford’s Greenfield Labs in 2016. Our lab is responsible for using human-centered design thinking to inform Ford’s future growth. Jim describes the lab as “a place where we can learn and innovate by putting the human first — and it represents the opportunity for Ford to continue its place at the center for another century of mobility leadership.” Recognizing the societal and industrial shift underway, Ford’s aim is to grow from being just a car company to a broad-ranging transportation company; one that provides access — for all — to mobility. And not just any mobility, but mobility that is also exceedingly safe, meets people’s needs in affordable and equitable ways, and ensures we all benefit from livable streets.


Written by Ryan Westrom. This essay originally appeared on Medium, July 5 2018