- See more at: http://www.bloggerhow.com/2012/07/implement-twitter-cards-blogger-blogspot.html/#sthash.DO2JBejM.dpuf

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Paint the Town

Transportation engineers have long been painters, although the markings they have applied in white and yellow are not something anyone has ever recognized as artwork. Of course, they never intended for their functional markings to be a visual art (although their engineering work can be as much art as science at times). I find it interesting to note the pallet they use has been expanding in recent years, and our cities are gaining a little more colorful accent as a result. In some cases, transportation agencies are even using paint to create public art in places that have traditionally been mundane or outright unsightly.

Here's a quick rundown of the color pallet used for functional markings, a note about incorporating art to mitigate the unattractive spaces sometimes created by transportation, and some discussion of the limitations of paint.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Why One-Way Streets Work

The one-way operation on East 17th Street on the northern edge of Union Square allowed
NYC DOT planners to recapture space for a bike lane and new public space (photo NYC DOT)

One-way streets can provide many benefits for safety, sustainable transportation, and public space, when used properly under the right circumstances. Nevertheless, there are progressive advocates who believe that two-way streets are intrinsically superior. Their heart is in the right place in their effort to makes cities more livable, but I fear they are reaching the wrong conclusions because of an incorrect assumption and perhaps a bit too much nostalgia. This is an important issue for transportation and quality of life, so we should have some real discussion and communication.

This issue has been on my mind for some time, and a recent tweet by Brent Todarian brought it to the forefront:
One of the biggest city-making mistakes that continues to haunt & weaken downtowns is the abundance of one-way streets. .
From what I have seen, Todarian is a thoughtful planner with experience making substantive improvements in Vancouver. There are real limits to the complexity of an issue that can be conveyed in a tweet, so in all likelihood Toderian's thoughts have much more nuance. There are, however, vocal advocates who dogmatically take the position that one-way streets are fundamentally an anti-urban and illegitimate configuration.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Speeding Past Schools During Alternate Side Parking

On a day off from work this week, I noticed something troubling about the New York Police Department's approach to enforcing Alternate Side Parking. Drivers were speeding past the local grade school, and it looked like the NYPD's methods were inadvertently contributing to the problem.

The New York Police Department generally allows double parking on the opposite side of the street during Alternate Side Parking for street cleaning. Nobody seems to really know or understand how this rule is supported in law, but it is generally observed and respected. There is a situation, however, where the NYPD does not allow this practice. You cannot double park on a block that has a school.

Supposedly there is some safety concern that motivates the NYPD to reign in the permissiveness around schools. If there is any effect, however, it quite likely makes the situation more dangerous. What I saw this week was cars absolutely flying down the block past the local grade school.

A typical NYC block, where double parking
is allowed during Alternate Side Parking
The next block over with a school, where double
parking isn't allowed. It encourages speeding

After a look around, the reason seemed obvious. Consider the blocks that allow double parking. The parking maintains a narrower effective width on the street, which helps discourage speeding. The blocks with schools, however, create wide open roads where drivers feel comfortable stepping on the gas.

Since the NYPD is clearly comfortable allowing the widespread practice of double parking during Alternate Side Parking, they should reevaluate their strict enforcement on blocks with schools. These may be the locations where double parking may actually be most appropriate.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Don't Stoop to That Level: Better Contextual Design

Intact, well-maintained stoops in historic neighborhoods certainly
create an appealing rhythm to the streetscape
Planners often promote and sometimes even require stoops for new urban neighborhoods or infill development in existing neighborhoods. This is supposed to be contextual. It is supposed to provide a varied streetscape. In practice, it often looks contrived and generally creates unnecessary problems for the people who will live in or visit the homes.

To be sure, stoops are often well-loved features in many historic neighborhoods. Residents may sit on their stoops watching pedestrian traffic and talking with their neighbors (although this generally seems to happen somewhat less in real daily life than romantically imagined). They create a rich layering of space and provide a rhythm for pedestrian progress down a block. The appeal is obvious, and preserving the character of such historic neighborhoods is an important task.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Active Use for a Sealed Door

Bruckner Bar and Grill in the South Bronx

Creative use of a sealed door or window.  Usually these types of modifications in the use of old buildings look cheap and thoughtless. This fully uses the otherwise dead space and looks dignified (yet was still clearly not expensive).

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Developing Communities (Not Just Corporate Profits)

Programs that subsidize businesses that locate in neighborhoods in need of economic development are fundamentally flawed. They fail to understand how neighborhood economies work on the most fundamental level, and rely on an inherently patronizing view of the people who live there. Sometimes I wonder if they are really only meant as a justification for corporate welfare.

We provide incentives at taxpayer expense for corporations to locate their businesses in targeted neighborhoods. Supposedly this will improve access to jobs for the residents in these areas... as if they are incapable of driving or taking a bus or subway to a job in another neighborhood. Nobody has any illusion that affluent suburbs are populated by residents who are well off because they all got jobs in their neighborhood. While affluent professionals are generally understood as mobile workers, the implicit view of low-income workers treats them as place-bound. Conceptually, there is probably some trace of serfdom, where poor workers were attached to the land. There is certainly a heavy legacy of American segregation in this assumption that jobs for residents in disadvantaged communities will be located in those neighborhoods.

What are the jobs we are actually subsidizing in the disadvantaged neighborhoods we are supposed to be helping? They inevitably seem to be primarily low-wage, low-skill retail jobs. While there may be something to be said for "gaining work experience," these positions are certainly not ideal for developing more marketable skills, and the concentration of low-wage jobs is problematic. The economic polarization that comes with such concentration deprives communities of the social networks necessary to help talented individuals find the opportunities to realize their potential.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Nobody to Play With

Parks in suburbs and small towns, particularly the playgrounds, have often been among the most disappointing places I have visited.  On several occasions, I have had the unsatisfactory experience of taking my nephew or my son to a desolate set of play equipment.  More often than not, these playgrounds have been wonderfully designed and well funded, perfectly graced with attractive, colorful structures that would challenge the skills of any playful child.  The problem is the lack of children at play.  Not even the most amazing play equipment is the match for other running children.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Stupidity of Sidewalks

Sidewalks are vital public spaces, but we hardly treat them that way. Instead, we rely on private investment in an absurdly inefficient waste of resources. It is unsurprising that the result is an ineffective, fragmented network. One way or another, homeowners are going to end up paying for sidewalks. The question should be how we can get better sidewalks without wasting money.

What we currently have are marginally lower taxes, a deficient pedestrian network, and higher out-of-pocket expenses for homeowners.  What we need is a system of public investment in public infrastructure.

The largest problems I see with the current system are the strain on the personal finances for some property owners when sidewalk work becomes necessary, the lack of provisions to address gaps in the pedestrian network, and the inequitable outcomes of the investment pattern. It can be painful for the expenses to hit all at once. After paying so much money, there often isn't much to show for it. And the people who need sidewalks the most are the least likely to get them.

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Should urban planners care about dogs?

Fundamental to urban life is the ability for many people to live together in close proximity. Minimizing the nuisances that residents cause their neighbors is one of the most constant sources of friction and frustration. How dogs fit into this delicate balance is an interesting question. My contention is that despite a few challenges, dogs help draw together communities. We need to start considering the living conditions and infrastructure for dogs more fully and deliberately in urban planning.

First, we might consider how dogs could be nuisances to neighbors. After all, this has largely been the primary focus of governmental actions regarding pets for decades. So, how can the presence of dogs cause problems?
  • Biting
  • Spreading disease
  • Barking or whining
  • Pooping on the sidewalk
  • Killing plants with excessive amounts of urine

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Losing Control in the Suburbs

We seek to make the world around us an interactive place that anticipates our needs and responds to our desires.  For millennia, we have domesticated animals, transforming the wild beasts of our collective nightmares into loving pets that follow our commands.  For more than a century, we have illuminated our streets to alleviate our fears of what lurks in the darkness.  We have created doors that open before us, and we continue to refine computers to ask us what we want.

The terrifying wolf that ate Grandma
(engraving by Gustave Doré)
Dogs domesticated from wolves have become
part of our home
Until we consider this innate drive to create a dynamic environment that responds to our needs and desires, we cannot understand the rise of the suburbs and their current crisis. The suburbs offered this promise, and their failing ability to deliver now dulls their luster.

Consider what the suburban dream offered: a yard, modern appliances, accommodations for cars, and more convenient shopping. For decades, these worked together to provide suburban residents a comfortable control over the environments where they lived.  Yet over the past several decades, transformations in the social and economic landscape, together with new technologies, have made the suburban model too rigid and unresponsive to our desires.

The yard is an extension of the home.  It was envisioned as a small parkland or garden that could be configured based on personal preferences.  It served as a playground where children were more closely supervised and protected from strangers.  The family dog became ubiquitous with the backyard.  Today, the relationships are changing.  Longer commutes and the increase in work hours have made yard work more difficult to fit into the schedule; what was once an enjoyable leisure activity has often become an obligation that interferes with other preferences for limited free time. It has become less of a weekend retreat and more a weekly chore.  In some cases, it becomes an additional expense, as busy families contract out their yard work.  An increase in organized activities seems to have reduced the yard's role as a playground for the family children and their friends.  And while the family dog still enjoys free reign of the backyard, as what continues to provide one of the most compelling reasons for families to move to the suburbs, urban areas have become somewhat more supportive with improved dog parks, reducing somewhat this relative advantage of the suburbs.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Civic Life for a Wino Park

There was a Halloween party for children at Whalen Park in the Norwood neighborhood in The Bronx on Saturday.  More than a hundred kids attended with their parents.  They played games.  They made crafts. They danced to music played by a DJ. They sat and listened when the children's librarian from the Mosholu Branch Library next door came outside to read stories. Dozens of older adults gathered along the sidewalk right outside the park, leaning on the low fence to watch the spectacle inside and generally socializing with one another.

Whalen Park has suffered from a reputation as a place where the homeless and drunks congregate.  Its image was perhaps worse than the actual conditions ever were, and it has improved considerably over the years. Nevertheless, use of the park often remains low, and, occasionally, somebody sleeping on one of the benches will still make neighborhood residents feel uncomfortable being there.

There has been an ongoing debate within the local neighborhoods about the future of Whalen Park. There are a few local individuals who share the view of senior officials at the Department of Parks and Recreation that the park should be converted to a playground and surrounded with a taller fence. The idea of converting the park is intended to force out the "undesirables."  In New York City, adults are legally prohibited from entering a playground unless they are accompanying a child. This perspective seems to belong primarily to people who have only fleeting glimpses of the park, many of them local library patrons from an adjacent neighborhood.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Uses for Unbuilt Streets

I am very excited to follow a program that will create community uses within the right of way of unimproved streets.  The program was recently announced by the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT): http://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/63612.

According to PBOT:
The concept came from Mayor Hales, who thought the City should try to empower communities to help determine what their neighborhoods look like by creating something useful and attractive. Many homeowners on unimproved streets have said that expensive paving projects are not what they prefer, but lower cost alternatives such as placing benches or gardens in the public right of way would still require a City permit. 
These sorts of uses raise some challenging issues, and yet they may also provide very fertile ground for experimentation that could ultimately shape the long-term treatment of other streets that have already been "fully improved."

While the clear premise is that any street selected currently carries traffic well enough in its existing condition, and there are no short-term plans to pave and widen the street, the first question that arises is whether the full right-of-way may become necessary for street purposes in the future.  Creating community uses there now could compromise the ability to reclaim the property for transportation uses later.