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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Staring at the Pole

I was recently at Frederick Douglass Circle at the northwest corner of Central Park. Every time I go, I am bothered by a detail that detracts from the relationship between the plaza and its surroundings. I am not sure if the detail was on the drawings I first say many years ago, but if it was I certainly missed it.

Back in 2003, I attended a public meeting for neighbors skeptical about the transformation of Frederick Douglass Circle into a public space. At the conclusion of years of participatory planning and a design competition, residents of Towers on the Park emerged with last-minute objections to various aspects of the reconfiguration of the previously dysfunctional intersection (the circle was previously cut through by traffic, creating far too many movements as well as lane drops in the middle of the intersection...). I spoke in favor of the project, convinced it would create a great new public space.

Then construction stretched on for many years. It was disruptive for everybody in the area and continued long beyond what any resident would consider reasonable. I second guessed myself for speaking up after seeing the ordeal I had helped to put these people through. I hoped the quality of the built space would eventually make up for the disruptions in so many lives.

Since the first time I was finally able to visit the plaza some time around 2011, I have been bothered and deeply disappointed. For me, the execution of the concept was seriously compromised by one poorly placed traffic signal pole.

The overall concept for the plaza was strong, and much of it has in fact turned out very well. It would be unfair to call this urban space a failure. Yet while the statue of Douglass was symbolically positioned to face Harlem, the gesture is undermined by that traffic signal. Instead of looking up the avenue that carries his name, Douglass just stands there staring at a steel pole a few feet in front of him.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Planning in Your Frontyard

Yards (like this one in Yonkers), as well as stoops and
parks, are places where neighbors come together
Last week, The New York Times ran an engaging article by Emily Badger about community opposition to new projects titled, "How 'Not in My Backyard' Became 'Not in My Neighborhood." It is subtitled, "The expectation that homeowners should be able to reach beyond their property lines has become deeply embedded."

It is a timely article and a discussion that planners need to continue. As many dense urban areas continue to see sustained growth, community resistance to development has become a significant problem. I am not sure Badger's explanation of the problem is entirely correct, though, and it may lead to the wrong conclusions. Wrapping up the article, she says:
We want people to be invested in their neighborhoods, but not to the exclusion of anyone else who might live there, too. We want to empower neighbors to fight a trash dump, but not to halt every housing project the region needs.
Ultimately, we need to find a home for trash dumps, too. I would argue what we need is to empower people to work together to develop plans that are fair and provide improvements for everyone. We want to channel their loud voices into a chorus of optimism rather than shouts of fear.

Badger clearly makes an appeal to balance, but I think the fixation on homeownership may carry her off course. Homeowners have become too focused on their own interests, she seems to argue, to the detriment of others who have not yet found a home. The natural conclusion seems to be reducing the power of self-interested homeowners to better provide for the common good. While I do not doubt there are plenty of examples of selfish constituencies, I am inclined to think what we really have is a process problem.

The article itself shows a touch of ambiguity about the role of homeownership. While most of the text ascribes motives to the financial interests in homes, there is some contradiction:
...as residential mobility rates have declined, [Vicki Been] suggests, Americans are staking even stronger claims to their neighborhoods, with renters now behaving in ways we once associated more with homeowners.
It may seem I am being picky with the difference, since it was the financial investment in a home that kept homeowners rooted to a community while renters could simply move away from problems. Nonetheless, there is a more significant underlying point: what drives opposition is a concern about neighborhood quality of life. Homeowners may in fact feel sensitive to the worsened conditions as a financial impact, but I expect they are generally more upset about how it will affect their daily lives while they are still in their homes. At any rate, any effect on the value of their home is a function of quality of life in the neighborhood as seen by the next set of homeowners, which brings us back around to the same place.

So if the question is really neighborhood quality of life, why are we having problems with such a backlash? Do all these proposed projects really deteriorate neighborhoods so much? There is clearly a sense that projects that serve a public good are being fought bitterly - is urban growth really just a zero sum game? Can we not accommodate new residents without making current residents worse off?

I think the problem is a lack of real planning.

We have a lot of process. There is a lot of public participation, but it repeats over and over without actually forming plans. While indispensable for planning, extensive public participation is disruptive for projects, and unfortunately that is often precisely what we do.

While developing a plan, it is important to engage the community. This exposes differences in what people want in their communities and informs prioritization. In the best cases, a consensus vision can coalesce; otherwise, the deliberations that set strategic direction are at least transparent and lay out shared expectations, even when disagreement remains.

Adopting a plan insulates the individual projects from prolonged process during implementation. With the decisions settled about the key features, developers and other project sponsors can move forward with greater certainty. This reduces a range of costs including design revisions and financial expenses incurred from delays. Given the overarching concern about housing affordability, reducing these costs is important.

A plan can also improve balance and equity in ways that fighting over projects cannot. By subjecting an area to an overarching framework, there is less room for power and influence to manipulate decisions for specific projects. It can also better address negative features (a waste transfer station, for example) better by demonstrating how social burdens are shared and mitigating impacts with other positive features more comprehensively than project-level "mitigation" measures.

Finally, progress can be tracked with a plan. People can see if things are improving, and they know what benefits to expect as work continues. In the absence of a plan, each project can seem like a new fight to make small gains or hold onto whatever you have. It can seem never-ending with no sense of collective achievement.

Very often, what we practice as "city planning" is not really planning. Many jurisdictions have instead adopted public process without drafting plans. This is an approach that fosters NIMBYism. Without the overarching framework to ensure fair treatment in spreading impacts and benefits, residents are compelled to face off on every project to fight for their interests. Even those who embrace social equity and are prepared to accept a fair share of impacts must eventually take a stand too, if they are to avoid being exploited by other less progressive (and often more powerful) communities.

In my view, it is not really a matter of reigning in homeowners who are not willing to share with the next generation of neighbors who isn't there yet. We have communities full of people who have friendly discussions in their front yards, on their stoops, and in neighborhood parks. It is an issue of engaging them in developing an actual plan that provides them confidence about how their neighborhood will grow and thrive in a changing city. Perhaps it is because I am a planner, but I see better planning as the solution to our NIMBY backlash.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Under the Roadway - Inspiration from Bethesda Terrace

It seems to be an article of faith among many contemporary planners that grade separation is an
ti-pedestrian and inherently anti-urban. In practice, this has been the case all too often; pedestrians have been forced to use uncomfortable overpasses and underpasses, diverted from a direct route to a grossly inferior detour. It is indeed a miserable experience when you're forced to climb steep stairs to walk across a narrow concrete pad over noisy traffic with a sharp wind cutting through the chain link fence, or to pass through a claustrophobic, musty, tunnel adorned solely by the exposed electrical conduit for the dim lights. Yet when we accept these bad places as our model for grade separation, we forget the concept's original vision and early success. This troubles me again each time I visit Central Park.

The ideas and work of Frederick Law Olmsted set much of the foundation for urban planning. His transverse roads in Central Park continue to successfully overlay a rustic park environment on a busy street grid. They make it possible for an expansive urban park to coexist with the city's street system. This is the baby we should not throw out with the bathwater.

And then there's Bethesda Terrace, the architectural showpiece of the park. It is an amazing progression of space, a place that is experienced by movement through a sequence of spaces. Grade separation here is not some mere functional layout. It is not just a safety feature. The experience of descending, the transition through a dark, constrained space that frames the view of the Angel of the Waters, and the reemergence into the open, sunny space is the design.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Road to a Park System for the Future

I drove with my family to Wisconsin and back for Christmas, with a minor detour through Chicago each way. Four days on the road gives you plenty of time to mull things over, and as I passed through the transitions between urban areas and open countryside, kicked in and out of cruise control interacting with the mixture of cars and trucks on the highway, and detoured through Chicago, I found myself thinking a lot about how park systems may look in the future. This may take some explanation, but please come along with me for this ride.

Driving in and out of urban areas is generally just drab. More often than not, buildings become more mundane and spread out, commercial signage grows larger and taller, and then eventually just seems to give up. Most people usually just call it "urban sprawl," even if it's a term without a real definition. But there are a few cities that have great gateways. New York did, once upon a time. Passengers arrived in the harbor by ship, passing alongside the welcoming Statue of Liberty as the skyline took shape as individual skyscrapers continuing to push impossibly higher as you drew nearer. Dramatic as it is to pass through the cut in the Palisades and emerge onto the George Washington Bridge, the city is a mere glimmer in the distance before disappearing into a bewildering tangle of ramps. Likewise, the helix of the Lincoln Tunnel provides impressive glances at the Midtown skyline, but then grinds through a toll plaza and squeezes through the tube before emptying onto congested, nondescript Manhattan intersections.

But Chicago has its moments. We drove along Garfield Boulevard on a side trip going both ways on this trip. Among my strongest memories in life is peering out the window as my cab drove from Midway Airport along the tree lined boulevard on my first trip to Chicago, when I moved to Hyde Park sight unseen to begin college. Exiting the Mad Max world of the Dan Ryan onto Garfield Boulevard invokes a somewhat similar sense of calm and wonder, a definite moment of arrival. Yet while the broad green space and regular spacing of mature trees is still great drama, each time I visit the boulevards on the South Side, the more acutely I feel they have been stripped down to mere scenery. In practice, the boulevards seem to do little to connect any activities between the parks. There is no flowing use of a system of parks, and the roadway design seems to cut off much opportunity. Yet even without the reality of real connective use, the mere vision is compelling and the spacing of greenery contributes to a more legible and enjoyable neighborhood structure. There is much still to be learned and built on from this old Olmsted pattern as our streets continue to evolve.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Chewing Gum on a Sign 15 Feet Over the Street

Stuck on a sign hanging over Broadway, out of sight of the throngs of workers and visitors crowding the sidewalks and unnoticed by the drivers passing below, are a lot of pieces of chewing gum. There's a few stickers stuck on there too. While generally invisible to ordinary New Yorkers, it is a shared experience of the thousands of tourists who pass mere feet below the sign while seated on the top of a double-decker bus. Some of these tourists are the people sticking the gum on there.

There are a handful of places where people have collectively created a kind of grotesque landmark by sticking their chewing gum onto something. The old gum tree in South Philadelphia and more extravagently, the gum wall in Seattle, come to mind. Compared to those, this sign is thoroughly unremarkable. Yet it shares the same fledgling crowd dynamic. All these locations emerge because something prompts others to follow the example of that first person who deposited their gum in an inappropriate place. At first, others just take enough notice to take advantage of the opportunity to discard their stale gum, until it reaches a critical mass and presents itself as an invitation to join the fun. In this case, it's possible to identify how this sign developed into the early convenience phase.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Vinyl on the Crash Blocks

When I was out the other night, I enjoyed the simple design intervention on the security barriers made from concrete blocks and jersey barriers around the Empire State Building. This was a welcome addition and customization of the NYPD Urban Design.

With some nylon covers and a handful of zip ties, they have created more a sense of place than the bland, white chunks of concrete. These are low-cost materials that are easy to install. Hiring a designer may have cost nearly as much as the fabrication and installation.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

My Secret Rose Garden

Between the lanes of traffic, a quiet path through a rose garden hides in plain sight. I have gone for a stroll there on several lunch breaks, and yesterday was the first time I have had any interaction with anyone at all. In essence, I have had a rose garden all to myself in the midst of America's busiest city.

The garden runs the length of several blocks of medians on New York City's West Street, otherwise known as the West Side Highway. Broken by intersecting streets, it is more accurately a series of gardens, although their character is mostly consistent from block to block.

There are no real entrances to the paths, making it ambiguous if they are actually open for public use. The purpose of the path is unclear, but it is likely there to provide access for the landscaping workers to maintain the sprinkler system and tend to the roses. To gain entry, you must step up a couple feet over a low stone wall. The path is plainly visible and there are no signs prohibiting entry into this publicly-owned space, but the lack of steps communicates that it was not intended as an entrance. It certainly does not meet the ADA requirements for a place designed for use by the public.

Over the course of the summer, some of the rose bushes began to overgrow the path. The ambiance of a lost place grew stronger as the plants seemingly took over the space.