Thursday, September 18, 2014

Public Space through Practice

Space becomes public, and can really only remain public, through the practice of collective power. The government can exercise its power on behalf of the people to acquire property, forcing unwilling private owners to surrender their land if necessary. Private property can also become public through adverse possession as a result of continual use. To avoid becoming dedicated to public use, some properties like Rockefeller Center that welcome the public famously close periodically to assert their private rights.

Yet the process can work in reverse as well. In the absence of collective power, property can stop being public, even if it is still ostensibly publicly owned. This happens frequently enough in cases of abandonment, when fences or signage prohibit the public from using a space the government no longer wants to pay to maintain. Uglier cases entail the appropriation of public space by private interests without resistance from the appropriate authorities.

That is precisely what happened at 3059 Bainbridge for far too many years. The adjacent homeowners blatantly enclosed a section of the public sidewalk to create more private parking for themselves. This was reported to the City at least as early as 2008, but it was not removed until a couple weeks ago. For more than six years, parents with strollers and others were inconvenienced as they squeezed through an ugly and uncomfortably narrow space between a utility box and a cyclone fence.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Gardening Over the Driveway

Some urban residents just aren't ready or able to give up their cars yet. On small lots, the driveways can eliminate any front yard. No matter, you can still fit in a vegetable garden.

Just do like this homeowner; and make use of the space normally left over above the driveway. With a simple frame, the vegetables can climb and hang over the space needed for the car to pass.




Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Real Poor Doors

There has been a lot of discussion about the "poor door" scandal in New York City. The New York Times covered it in depth yesterday. Some developers taking advantage of affordable housing incentives have been segregating their below-market units from the more affluent residents with separate entrances.

As insulting and socially destructive as that is, this whole discussion does not do justice to the housing challenges of New York City's poor. The "affordable" units in the new buildings are still positioned at incomes around the city's median household income. This is not housing that is within reach of the poor.  This fact provides some support to the push back against the critics of this practice; many people just aren't that sympathetic to the insult to residents who could afford a typical apartment but have won the opportunity to move into a much nicer unit because they happened to win a lottery.

This situation is typical of the public discourse around affordable housing in New York City. There is attention and programs for the middle-class, with public debates back and forth about how much support professional workers really need and deserve. Meanwhile, the units that are inhabited by the working poor, who spend so much of their earnings to inhabit apartments with much worse conditions than new construction with a side entrance, are places that remain invisible to public discourse.


The poor have always inhabited the residual spaces of the middle class. Sometimes these were neighborhoods of speculative middle-class housing that were left over from a glut of  housing bubble,  ultimately becoming crowded ghettos as the houses were chopped up into apartments. Other times, and increasingly in New York City today, it is extra space in one- and two-family houses in neighborhoods where the working class moved in after the original middle-class owners moved on. These less affluent owners often can no longer afford the entire space for themselves as they struggle to pay the mortgage and maintenance on the structure. Many turn to renting out rooms for supplemental income. These are the illegal apartments that fill basements and cellars, and dangerously partition floors in houses throughout the city's sprawling residential districts.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Old Town in Salinas

A few months ago, I passed through Salinas, California for a funeral. I wish the circumstances had been better, and that I could have spent a little more time and had an opportunity to speak with some of the local planners. The relationships between the spaces along the Main Street corridor in Old Town seemed quite interesting.

The Main Street commercial core in Old Town is a compact area. This is due in part to its conversion into a sort of enclave. It encompasses a relatively short distance of Main Street that is effectively demarcated from the rest of its length. The busier arterial streets that flank the Main Street core also create some separation from the surrounding area. It is interesting to note that this length of Main Street is generally consistent with the "400 meter rule." The section from San Luis Street to its termination at the Steinbeck Center is a little under 500 meters. It is also significant that the Steinbeck Center terminates the vista and encloses this section of street more like an outdoor room.

While many planners who talk about walkable downtowns are quick to promote two-way streets as a sort of pedestrian panacea, it is interesting to note that the pedestrian-friendly area of Old Town is along a one-way section of Main Street. The use of angled parking effectively calms the traffic, as do the mid-block sidewalk extensions with pedestrian crossings. The traffic calming treatments could be applied to either one-way or two-way streets, although it may be possible to introduce angled parking on a second side of the street on some one-way streets that would not have sufficient width under a two-way configuration. A one-way configuration also has the inherent advantage of limiting the demands on pedestrians to try simultaneously gauging traffic coming at them from two different directions at uncontrolled mid-block crossings.


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The angled parking and the mid-block sidewalk extensions calm traffic

The mid-block crossings form a pedestrian axis that is more than just an extra place to cross the street between intersections. They align with pedestrian passageways through the block to parking areas on the other streets. In some cases, these passages provide additional store frontage or space for outdoor restaurant seating. It was not clear on my quick visit if the outdoor restaurant seating had failed, or if it was a seasonal use that hadn't started yet for the warmer months when I was there.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Creating Social Space at Summer Streets

Last weekend, my neighbor won a hotdog eating contest on 204th Street. It was a great use of residual space.

News 12 Bronx
http://bronx.news12.com/news/summer-streets-2014-celebration-held-on-east-204th-street-1.8902864


Especially in cities, space is a four dimensional problem. Any space is comprised not only by the physical attributes of its length, width, and height, but also its location in time. Spaces can expand or contract; sometimes they can be set up and be taken down entirely. In the case of transportation spaces, they have periods of peak demand, which require more space that what is necessary during off-peak times. Normally, the full right-of-way remains in use for transportation at a low level of utilization. However, with active management and creative programming, it is possible to capture leftover space and put it to use for social activities. Enter Summer Streets.

The center of the Grand Concourse was closed to traffic for Boogie on the Boulevard

On Summer weekends, the New York City Department of Transportation, with considerable assistance from the New York Police Department, closes sections of streets throughout the city. Otherwise, these streets have sleepy volumes of traffic. Sometimes, they can become more prone to dangerous speeding with the light traffic volumes that present drivers with wide-open pavement to race across. Constraining the capacity of the street network has no negative effects on traffic, and may improve safety. It certainly creates the space for great activities that help bring communities together.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Where Is the Plaza at Bay Plaza?

My family ends up out at the Bay Plaza shopping center in Co-Op City on a somewhat regular basis. Cinemas are becoming few and far between in The Bronx, and the AMC at Bay Plaza is one of our best options for a date at the movies. Despite all the drawbacks of the sprawling strip mall environment, it also remains one of our more convenient shopping alternatives for some needs. Like many others who frequent Bay Plaza, we get there by bus.


Unfortunately, the good money spent on bad design in Bay Plaza does not create a positive sense of place. It just makes transit passengers and the pedestrians from Co-op City feel second class. It makes the place less attractive and functionally inferior for shoppers who arrive by car as well.

There is no coherent network for internal pedestrian circulation.  Everything has been designed to move cars in and out of the parking lots, resulting in sidewalks that are narrow and often disconnected, as well as poorly designed crosswalks.  The transit stops have been dropped in as an afterthought, and are further challenged by their location on private property. Even for those who drive, getting between stores, restaurants, and entertainment is not particularly pleasant. Bay Plaza has put some attention into its landscape architecture in recent years (although there is room for great improvement for stormwater management with the endless acres of pavement!), but what it actually needs is an urban designer.

Nice landscaping.
Where's the sidewalk?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Simple Dirt Path

This is a well-worn path on Needham Avenue where the sidewalk is missing. 

Needham Avenue is an underdeveloped street; it hasn't been built to its full mapped width, and the sidewalks have not been built. The rocks and trees offer a more scenic quality where there would normally be paved spaces. The narrower street offers shorter crossing distances, and those same rocks and trees act to calm traffic. 

Of course, this path subjects people to an uneven surface. This is of little consequence for most pedestrians on a typical day, and the mud when it rains isn't even that large an issue. Snow is substantially worse. For people with disabilities, it poses a larger problem still, which could significantly limit their mobility.


This street functions well with its narrow width. It would be amazing to see it simply improved with adequate sidewalks while preserving the trees and rocks. To really make the most, just add a couple of nice little rain gardens or bioswales.


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