Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Journey Should End in Poetry

Are iconic places at passenger terminals obsolete as an organizing element? I was surprised that seemed to be the consensus of leading architects on a panel recently. With smart devices, it is increasingly difficult to ever become lost. The scale of modern life has grown beyond the perception of a singular focal point.

I don't buy it.

People still want to feel like they've arrived, and a specific image best captures that moment. The term "selfie" may be new, but the compulsion to take a photo in front of the Flatiron Building, the Eiffel Tower, and every other salient landmark is as old as the point-and-shoot camera.

Great passenger terminals are among the most compelling forms of art that civilization has ever produced. These massive structures transcend their primary utilitarian purpose of moving masses of people to become some of our most memorable civic spaces. It is the iconic point of arrival that makes them memorable.

Of course, many terminals do not rise above their mundane functions. Some become inhumane from a meanness of design or subsequent neglect. When terminals do achieve greatness, they create an intersection of architecture and poetry. They embody the place where memorable journeys begin and end, where people depart and are reunited.



No place epitomizes this more than Grand Central Terminal, where the clock is the heart of New York City. As Billy Collins expressed it in his poem "Grand Central," the city "turns around the golden clock." The poem has been featured by the MTA's Poetry in Motion program:


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Filling the Void, Maintaining Sight Lines

When cars park too close to the corner, drivers and pedestrians often cannot see each other well enough to make safe decisions. To correct the problem, parking is frequently prohibited near intersections to improve sight lines, a practice sometimes referred to as "daylighting." Nevertheless, regulations cannot actually prevent the hazardous conditions from continuing. The public and even some enforcement agencies seem to have a low level of awareness or appreciation for the need to keep these locations clear, and the residual nature of these spaces continues to be problematic.


In an effort to improve the situation, enhanced markings are often used to reinforce the regulatory signage. Even with this effort to emphasize the regulations and create some illusion of occupancy, the space continues to feel unused. In an active urban environment, a space marked off for the sole purpose of a sight line really is, in practice, underutilized. The demand to make more intense use of it is probably inevitable.

The solution to these residual spaces is to provide them with uses that do not compromise the sight lines. To be effective and persuasive enough to continue installing them elsewhere, treatments must embrace uses that are appealing to the community.

The classic response is to install a curb extension, sometimes called a "neckdown." These rely on the curb as a physical barrier that effectively discourages parking. They also provide benefits for traffic calming and shortening crossing distances for pedestrians. A curb extension is an expansion of the sidewalk, creating more usable space for pedestrians, although they may recognize relatively little value in the extra panels of concrete. This solution is often complicated, though, by mundane engineering details like drainage or even traffic signal location. Capital costs can discourage or delay construction.

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.