Sunday, October 26, 2014

Whalen Park - Activating the Subway's Leftovers

Hard-working neighborhood volunteers hosted the 2nd Annual Halloween Festival in Whalen Park in The Bronx on Saturday. Again this year, a small park that often seems to be little more than a lonely paved area with benches and some under-appreciated landscaped edges was transformed into a vibrant center of community life.







Seeing the park living up to its potential (see more photos at bottom), if only briefly, brought to mind how the quiet neighborhood corner at Perry Avenue and East 205th Street became a public park in the first place. Leftover property from the construction of the Concourse IND subway line sat vacant for many years. Ultimately, Robert Moses put it into use as a park, as he did with numerous similar locations throughout New York City.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Spiky Spaces

Uses considered undesirable often take hold in residual spaces. Eschewed from places with stronger controlling uses, marginal activities settle into residual spaces. Where older buildings have deep window ledges, for example, the space left over on the ledge becomes a residual space. The space may lend itself to seating, yet the owners, managers, or tenants of these buildings often do not want people sitting in front of their windows (for various reasons). To address the situation, they attempt to make such residual spaces inhospitable. In the case of window ledges, this typically takes the form of spiky strips that make it too uncomfortable to sit (without creating the liabilities of actual physical injury).



It is always worthwhile to look at these reactions to reexamine the nature and potential uses of the residual space. Are the concerns justified? Can the attributes be reframed as an asset, or if they cannot, can the defensible posture become more embracing of the public?

In the case of the windows:

  • What are the specific concerns about seating (potential to break the window, obscuring displays, people sitting there who may bother potential customers)?
  • Is there a way the business could use the seating to become an actual amenity to customers and a way to help attract more people inside?
  • If seating cannot be used as an asset, and it becomes necessary to assume a defensive approach, are there less hostile ways to occupy the space? Could sculptural forms be used to add some public art? Perhaps an art installation could even be tied into the marketing brand of the establishment.

The marginal activities attracted to residual spaces may often fall into hostile forms of mitigation, but taking the time to understand them can often lead to rewarding new ways to engage the public and improve the quality of the overall place.


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10/17/14
Observation of the day - a planter can be a productive way to occupy recessed window spaces:


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Looking at Landscapes of Work

Twenty years ago, A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time by J. B. Jackson was published. I didn't read the book for the first time until a few years later, but it has become a text that I always enjoy returning to reread. It still feels relevant in a way few books do after a couple decades have passed.

The year Jackson's book came out, I was living in France. I was raised as the son of a Steelworker in a small, industrial city in Oregon; spending a year of high school as a foreign exchange student was a rare opportunity for exposure to European culture and urban life. Like so many other Americans who have stayed in Europe, I felt the allure of dense urban neighborhoods. Like many others, most of my experience was also focused on historic city cores, middle-class neighborhoods, and scenic countrysides. I had such down-to-earth experiences as shopping at Carrefour, and I had some working-class friends at the school I attended. But I was not living in an HLM and I saw relatively little of the cit├ęs industrielles. Certainly what impressed itself most heavily on me was the contrast between the walkable, transit-rich, middle-class places I encountered and the sprawling, largely industrial, working-class landscape where I had grown up.


The idea of emulating European urban neighborhoods certainly merged with the American ideal of social mobility. My parents worked hard to provide me with opportunities; I was supposed to work hard to achieve a higher standard of living than they had. So as a planner, that naturally seemed to translate into improving neighborhoods along the lines of the desirable European middle-class models I had seen. Of course, aspiring to remake American cities more like European precedents has been a prevalent trend in urban planning since long before I was inspired to become a planner. It remains a strong strain to this day, particularly when it comes to the growing push for better streets, with Copenhagen serving as such a strong model for bicycle infrastructure that "Copenhagenize" has become a term. 


Jackson provides a different perspective. Rather than looking to Europe for a model of what American cities could become, he looks at our domestic landscape to understand how it actually works. He concerns himself with the places where workers earn their livings. It is a poignant reminder of the diverse needs of complex economies and the inherent dignity of work.

For most planners, myself included, Jackson can be a challenging read when he begins an essay by saying:
I am very pro-automobile, pro-car and pro-truck, and I can't imagine what existence would be without them. But I have learned to be discreet in my enthusiasm: disapproval from environmentalists and other right-thinking elements in the population is something I could not possibly survive. (p. 167, "Looking into Automobiles") 

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.


View Larger Map
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.