Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Accidental Playspace between the Benches

When kids run and play, they like to experience different types of spaces. One particular place where I see kids playing year after year forms a type of space I rarely see in playground design. There is a gap between the backs of the benches facing in different direction, which looks at first like wasted, dead space. The kids really enjoy running through the series of long, narrow channels formed by these benches.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

When the Wealthy Steal Public Space

When the City allows a developer to construct a larger building in exchange for public space, you expect there to be a real benefit to the public. At the very least, you would expect the space to be minimally usable by the public. Nevertheless, at the Millenium Hilton Hotel, a "privately owned public space" is nothing more than a parking lot outside the hotel's garage, and it uses the public sidewalk as its driveway. As we will see, this is just a small part of a larger pattern of wealthy business owners padding their profits by stealing from the masses in New York City.

Of course, the privately owned public space at the Millenium Hilton is nothing short of a swindle. No space has been provided to ease pedestrian circulation. Instead, pedestrians remain confined to the original sidewalk, where they now have to contend with cars driving back and forth. Meanwhile, the private interests are able to eek out even more profit through the illicit revenue-generating use of this space.

There are unintended consequences, and there is negligence. It is not clear if this case quite crosses the line, but the City could clearly do much more to protect the public's interest in this property.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Under the Bridge: Skate Park

Over the weekend, I passed by the skate park under the Alexander Hamilton Bridge again. It is a great space in an otherwise derelict part of Highbridge Park.

There is nothing novel, of course, about using residual space below a bridge as a skate park. I have memories from my youth decades ago of the skate park under the Burnside Bridge. Nearer by, the Brooklyn Banks famously occupied an area below the Brooklyn Bridge before New York City closed it for a bridge rehabilitation project.

A solution doesn't have to be original to be effective. Areas below bridges generally remain difficult spaces: generally unattractive for most uses by accessible enough to draw undesirable activities. Meanwhile, cities typically lack enough places for their youths to skate. This area in Highbridge Park had been somewhat desolate and trash-filled before the New York State Department of Transportation disrupted it to rebuild ramps for the Alexander Hamilton Bridge. In the process, they created New York City's largest skate park. It has been refreshing to see the improvement to this part of the park and the opportunities it provides to the skaters who drop in here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Is There a "One-Way Epidemic"?

Recently, City Limits ran an op-ed by architect John Massengale about the need for safer street design. Under the photo at the top, the caption read: "First Avenue in Manhattan. Avenues used to run two-way, which is safer for pedestrians, but were mostly made one-way, to make life easier for drivers." This argument was elaborated in detail in the text. This week, Cap'n Transit followed up on his blog, extending the campaign against one-way streets.

These are familiar arguments. After beginning a discussion a while ago about one-way streets, it was suggested that I refer to "The One-Way Epidemic" section in Walkable City, which makes these same claims. These pieces all serve as good examples for discussion purposes. I wholeheartedly agree with the need to redesign New York City's streets to be safer for pedestrians, and I share the majority of the views of these safe-street advocates. I find some areas of common ground regarding one-way streets, as well, but it is useful to draw out the key differences as well as the overlap to illustrate why the rhetoric against one-way streets is overblown and counterproductive.

Let's start with the term "epidemic" used in Walkable City. This is rhetoric that invokes fear. The book explicitly compares the creation of one-way streets with an outbreak of influenza that killed 20 million people in 1918-1919. The not-so-subtle claim is that one-way streets are an imminent threat to your life. Avoid them like the plague!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Invasion of the Christmas Trees

Soon after Christmas every year, New York City is invaded by trees. It's no killer Christmas tree attack, but the discarded trees start to take over the city's public spaces.
Observing the places where trees end up can be instructive. It can expose differences in community attitudes toward public space, demonstrate which places and activities are sacrificed first, and expose other interesting relationships.

Discarded trees often fill in spaces along the curb between street furniture, maintaining an effective sidewalk width for pedestrians
Sometimes trees pile up in the curb lane, reducing some of the available on-street parking

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Lunchtime Around a Construction Site

Construction in an area often illustrates opportunities and shortcomings of a place. Just keep an eye on how the workers use the area during their breaks.

Since they're less worried about getting their work clothes dirty, they're not bashful about finding comfortable places to sit when there aren't proper benches around. Their seating choices largely illustrate locations where there could be a general interest in sitting, since the desire to watch the crowds during lunch is such a broadly shared human interest. The street furniture they use can also suggest ways these features might be designed differently to deliberately incorporate seating in ways that could be both comfortable and appropriate for long-term maintenance.

The activity these workers bring can also start to activate a street in the interim before new buildings open. Class tensions surface at times between the working-class laborers and affluent residents and workers who usually populate areas with new construction. It is probably too optimistic to hope, but there may be potential for change by exposing these tensions. If nothing else, I find it positive to see the working class claiming some public ownership, if only temporarily, in parts of the city they increasingly can't afford.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

NYPD Urban Design

Over the past couple decades, the NYPD has come to play a major role in urban design, although it generally passes without much notice. The police are responsible for securing dense urban areas against the threat of terrorism, as well as controlling crowds and traffic during special events. As part of these efforts, they routinely install physical barriers designed to stop vehicles. In many instances, the NYPD directly installs barriers. In other cases, they provide the requirements for designers to develop permanent installations more integrated into the streetscape.

The NYPD literally has tons of concrete blocks, which can be moved around the city to create temporary barriers wherever necessary. They tweeted about their concrete barriers during the Pope's visit:
As a temporary measure used by the police, these blocks have a surprisingly high design quality. Cast with basic, inexpensive material, the white paint and simple "NYPD" letters stenciled in police blue provide a crisp, attractive look. These "temporary" installations sometimes remain for many years, as they have around the World Trade Center while construction continues. There are some benefits from the temporary precursors to permanent installations. It provides time to observe how the public interacts with these features. Hopefully observant designers take note of ways to use the barriers as multifunctional features that contribute to the enjoyable use of public space.