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

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.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Desire Carts

This is not what "walkability" looks like when you watch flashy presentations by planning consultants:

Nevertheless, this is more representative of the lived experience of many communities that actually rely on walking than all those photos of people strolling with their overpriced coffee along cute downtown streets, before getting back in their cars to drive home. These are places where people practice walking for their routine needs. For many people, walking is not a neighborhood amenity, effort to save the environment, or personal fitness choice. It's simply the most practical way to get things done.

That doesn't mean it is easy and convenient, or even always safe. Often enough, people are walking in places that were not planned or designed with pedestrians in mind. Problems notwithstanding, the "walkability" of these places is a fact defined by their very usage.

It is precisely by identifying places where people walk, despite seemingly undesirable conditions, and then observing how they do it, that we can better understand how to make places where people will walk. By focusing on these locations, we also have an opportunity to improve conditions for the people who already depend on walking there while making it more attractive for even more people to join them.

One fascinating indicator of pedestrian activity in suburban-style development is what I refer to as "desire carts." They're odd clusters of shopping carts on the far edges of parking lots. These shopping carts accumulate where people leave them when continuing on foot.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Barricading Sidewalks

This week, the Pope came to New York City, and the NYPD worked hard to keep him safe, along with all those who came to see him. They planned ahead for the challenging logistics of moving perhaps the most high-profile person in the world through one of the world's densest cities, along with all the UN dignitaries who gathered to hear him, together with thousands of visitors hoping to catch a glimpse.

When the NYPD puts effort into something, it gets the job done. There is no question of hard work or commitment to results. The question is the priorities that get the NYPD's attention. While Christian love and police dedication were both on prominent display, the Pope's visit also demonstrated some of the important things the NYPD does not focus on enough. In the face of recurring traffic congestion in New York City, the NYPD is surprisingly nimble at closing entire roadways to keep motorcades secure while avoiding extensive delays for other motorists. As they describe it, they have it "down to a science." What they don't do well, despite decades of increasing attention by the engineering profession, is planning for pedestrians. In fact, most of the people who are affected in every corner of the city are really treated as an afterthought by the NYPD.

For the NYPD, when it comes to major events, pedestrians often seem like little more than obstacles to the motorcades. When the NYPD does turn its attention to the people trying to walk around, they seem to be taken into consideration only as crowds to be "controlled," or as "security threats" to be surveilled or excluded. If only a fraction of the attention paid to moving concrete blocks for cars and placing snipers on roofs was applied to maintaining appropriate sidewalk widths, the city would probably be safer. It would certainly be more orderly and comfortable.

Let's consider how NYPD leadership discussed its preparations. Posing for photos in front of a vast lot filled with parked police cars, the Police Commissioner bragged about "1,173 police cars, 818 tons of concrete barriers and 39 miles of metal and wood barricades" that were prepared for the Pope's visit to New York City. The department's twitter account followed up, highlighting the massive amounts of material they stockpiled around town. This neatly summarizes the NYPD's priorities: setting up barriers and moving motor vehicles.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Below the Roadway

In recent months, I have frequented very different places tucked underneath some of New York City's elevated roadways. It is a startling juxtaposition between the invisibly marginalized and the thoroughly gentrified.

Sometimes it amazes me that in one of the world's largest cities and the densest in North America, there are still places so isolated and hidden they seem like private places for the most dispossessed in society. Recently, I returned to one of these places for the first time in nearly a decade. It remained virtually unchanged.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Imaginary Cities

I have seen many imaginary cities.
I live with a three-year-old.

Between bursts of "Daddy! DADDY! Look at my wall!" and "Daddy, I have surprise for you," I found time to read Darran Anderson's fascinating book Imaginary Cities.

Don't let the voluminous endnotes fool you; Imaginary Cities is not an academic book. It's more like the delirium of an academic. Just as imaginations are limitless, so is the potential material for this ambitious project. Anderson jumps from reference to reference, none ever fully described or explained. Rather than imposing a linear narrative, instead of situating works and expounding on their significance, Anderson drifts from one vision to the next. It is surprising, and somewhat daring on the part of both the author and the publisher Influx Press to print a book dedicated to material of such visual nature without a single image. The images are supplied by the reader's imagination. Reading this book can feel in turn dizzying, frustrating, exhilarating, incomplete, and ultimately inspiring.

Gotham City
The discussion of Batman's Gotham City is Imaginary Cities at its height. Consider the way Anderson introduces the story and locale that have been retold many times in the making of a modern mythology:
In a dank alleyway, far beneath the metropolitan skyscrapers, there exists a temporal loop. A rich couple, having taken an ill-advised shortcut from the theatre to reality, are shot dead over and over, each time in slightly different variations but always with the same outcome.
p. 374
Rendering by Ferris
source: http://architecturemuseum.blogspot.com

"Gotham is Ferris gone wrong,
or perhaps Ferris gone according to plan."
This is an excellent writing style. It is both clever and appealing to frame the constant retelling and adaptation of the story as a temporal loop. Yet this is a point where I wish Anderson had delved a little deeper. The variations differ because our cities have changed over time. The unchanging outcome becomes a fixed point for navigating a shifting world.

There is meaning in the dark spaces of Gotham City. Anderson recognizes they are more than mere backdrop, they are a fundamental part of the story:
"Batman is a critique of failed urban planning and empathy. Alleyways have dead-ends as traps for the unwary. Abandoned buildings are warrens for criminals. A dark sanctimonious fear of rookeries and today's housing estates, projects and slums as inhuman breeding grounds, prevails." (p. 377)
Again, following the variations through versions over time would show differences in what lurks in the dark as some of our boogiemen have come and gone.

Referring to architectural illustrator Hugh Ferris, Anderson suggests, "Gotham is Ferris gone wrong, or perhaps Ferris gone according to plan." (p. 379) Batman has traditionally been grounded in a dark Victorian esthetic overlaid precisely with a Ferris image of the metropolis. Personally, I find this darkness fascinating and appealing; that is the Gotham City I prefer. I am more drawn to scenes filmed on Lower Wacker in Chicago in "Batman Begins" (2005) than to the increasingly glass-clad Manhattan of "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012). Neither have the palpable anxiety of getting mugged on an urban street that "Batman" (1989) held in common with its audiences' own experiences during the 1980s. As street crime still continues to drop, cities increasingly gentrify with glossy new buildings, and the police militarize, Ferris may continue to fade in the image of Gotham City. This leaves the question of what fixed points remain from the Batman saga as landmarks for our collective consciousness.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Tear Down This Fence

40th Street at Bryant Park

A couple weeks ago, I noticed something while walking by Bryant Park. There were people hanging out on 40th Street. That was different. It took a moment to realize what had changed. The fence was gone.

Initially, I thought it was a deliberate decision to activate the edge of the park. The Parks Commissioner had spoken about integrating parks better with their surrounding streets:

It turns out the fence was only temporarily removed while it is being restored:

This seems unfortunate. Each time I walk by the park, I see people using the walls as an enjoyable space that improves the sociability of the streets. On 40th Street, which has typically looked more like a service alley than an enjoyable place, the open park makes the sidewalk a much more enjoyable place. Meanwhile, on busy 42nd Street, the walls are providing a more comfortable place for people to stop for a moment or wait while meeting their friends.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Only Place Where New York Is Still New York

There is a quiet, residual space tucked under some of the city's infrastructure that I visit from time to time. It is a forgotten place, sometimes inhabited by a few of the city's dispossessed and occasionally transited by a curiosity seeker. The gradually deteriorating infrastructure above forms an interesting architectural space. Social commentary has been tagged onto the base of its structures.

Social commentary was written on this space over a decade ago:

The same graffiti is still there today, with little change in the space over the years

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

"The Great Garage Rescue"

The other morning, I was watching an episode of Handy Manny with my favorite three-year-old. It occurred to me that maybe planners should watch more kids' cartoons.

Handy Manny is a Disney Junior show about a handyman and his talking tools, who always help the residents in their diverse urban neighborhood. The episode that caught my attention was a special titled "The Great Garage Rescue." In it, Manny's older brother has an auto repair garage, which is being threatened with an urban renewal scheme. The City is going to build a "mini-mall" in the name of progress, destroying a family business that is part of the local community in the process. Community members rally around the garage and save it in the end.

The storyline about local businesses standing in the way of urban renewal bulldozers has been well worn for decades. It is easy to use the notion of a modern "mini-mall" as a convenient foil, too. What is interesting, though, is the idea that an auto repair garage would be a valued part of a community worth saving. It's an idea that does not occur to urban planners often enough.

Far too often, these types of businesses are labeled as "nuisances," and targeted in rezoning efforts. Affordable housing or mixed-use development is a more likely candidate to displace the repair shop in current schemes by planners and public officials, but the lack of understanding and sensitivity to the needs of the workers and patrons of these businesses is the same. It takes a change in perspective; instead of seeing places with auto repair shops as leftover areas passed over by development, planners need to learn to recognize the valuable community assets that are there and create solutions that embrace them.

Shows like Handy Manny that recognize and celebrate the value of these places of work can help. And hopefully more planners will catch the message when they're home watching cartoons with the family on their day off.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Where Do Nuisances Go?

This weekend, I walked by a home in a residential district that has been illegally converted into a security system business. The side yard is now a poorly designed parking lot for commercial vehicles. As far as non-conforming uses go, it is relatively benign. It's visually obtrusive, and contributes a little extra noise, but otherwise has little tangible impact. Its illegal status contributes to a sense of disorder, though, and this would never be allowed in "better" neighborhoods.

Although this particular business has relatively little impact, many other uses encroaching on residential neighborhoods are greater nuisances. A couple weeks ago, I passed a vacant lot that has been used as a junk yard for an auto shop for decades.

When repair businesses are forced out of manufacturing areas that are rezoned to open them up for residential development, the activity often finds new illicit locations in disadvantaged communities. There is a certain irony in efforts to provide more affordable housing as part of a progressive agenda focused on social equity resulting in environmental impacts in disadvantaged communities.

With the longtime trend of declining urban manufacturing, areas zoned for industrial uses have been coming under pressure for conversion for residential development as city populations have started increasing again. As light-industrial businesses are cleared out, there are ever fewer places for them to relocate. Pressure mounts for the support services that underpin the city's economy to crowd into working-class and low-income neighborhoods. Illegal commercial uses gain a foothold for two reasons: they have less influence and they're somewhat sympathetic toward the workers. These are communities that do not have the influence and power to ensure a Department of Buildings that is not fully competent (and questionably honest) actually address problems in their neighborhoods. And the residents aren't always so sure they want the codes enforced. Their friends or neighbors may depend on the jobs, or they may simply feel that the interest of the workers to earn a living is more important than the problems the businesses bring with them.

These outcomes are not inevitable. Increasing the supply of housing is critical, but it is also important to accommodate the support functions that keep the city running in a manner that is efficient, sustainable, and equitable. As we continue to ignore these marginalized jobs and fail to provide for them intelligently and with dignity, they are forced into marginalized communities, along with their impacts.

What we have now is the gentrification of blue collar job sites and passive environmental injustice by turning a blind eye toward the displacement of nuisances into less affluent neighborhoods. What we need is progressive, comprehensive planning that looks at more than numerical housing targets.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Emerging from Residual Space - Bikes in Battery Park City

A couple recent lunchtime walks through the older corner of Battery Park City illustrated the rich interactions between residual space and emerging uses. Where bicycles were once tucked away into back corners, they are now poised to redefine the cityscape.

Battery Park City is an interesting neighborhood enclave for myriad reasons. Its character as an enclave results in part from its origins as a recent, master-planned community controlled by a State authority. Yet this character is due even more to its separation from the rest of Lower Manhattan and access to the subway system by the West Side Highway (aka West Street and Route 9A). Yet while this highway isolates or insulates (depending on perspective), it also adds another layer of transportation that helps to shape the character of Battery Park City. The Hudson River Greenway runs along the West Side Highway and connects directly into Battery Park City, providing residents and workers quick and easy bicycle access to much of Manhattan.

Gateway Plaza is the oldest apartment complex in Battery Park City. The brutalist architecture and organization around a parking garage and interior access street predate the reorientation toward more traditional urban form under the Cooper Eckstut design guidelines. A central space encircled by the access street provides a landscaped pedestrian area. As demand for bicycle parking has grown, this central feature has been preserved by maintaining it off-limits for bicycle parking, while the less significant scraps of space have overgrown.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Tremont Crash Zone

A passenger waits for the bus at a stop where the sign has
been wiped out by an out-of-control vehicle. Apparently
crashes are so common here, extra protection has been
added around the posts for the traffic signals
When New York City reduced the citywide speed limit from 30 to 25 mph, some arterial streets kept the higher speed limits. Among those was a portion of East Tremont Avenue. On recent visits, it looks like an outright crash zone. An entire stretch of the street east of Morris Park Avenue has been rendered a sprawling residual space by the combined impacts of out-of-control cars, shallow properties bordering the railroad, and the proliferation of auto-related land uses. Given the conditions confronting pedestrians, the speed limit warrants a revisit.
This sign encourages higher speeds 
when driving past the bus stop

Monday, March 2, 2015

Oliver Place - From Neglected Lot to Playground?

Piles of trash, and various other forms of refuse are routinely dumped into the abandoned space that is Oliver Place. By appearance a vacant lot, it is space acquired by the City of New York for a street that was never fully built. The community has repeatedly tried for decades to integrate this residual space into the fabric of the neighborhood, yet marginal activities and the City's bureaucracy have both proven resistant to the efforts. Fortunately, there are people who still have not given up.

This is a relatively dense residential area that is underserved by playgrounds. While much of the northern Bronx is well covered with parkland, this pocket of Bedford Park has long walks to take children to a play where they can play.

Underserved areas were identified in PlaNYC 2011 report

Title to Oliver Place was vested on September 6, 1897, yet after all this time, a large portion between Decatur and Marion Avenues has never been put to any positive use. The vacant lot is just one portion of the short two block length of Oliver Place, but it bisects it and sets the tone of neglect for the whole area.

Oliver Place is an "extra" street in the grid, filling in between East 198th and East 199th Streets. This unique position makes it more prominent, with a tendency to characterize the surrounding portion of the neighborhood.

In the midst of its neglect, Oliver Place is a fascinating place. It varies considerably within this short area: historic, relatively ornate paving; the vacant space; a sidewalk/alleyway; and a sort of dead end lined with garden beds.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Stolen Space and Leftover Space

The 52nd Precinct steals space from the community every single day. The inconvenience and the perception that the police lack respect for the law create an ongoing source of tension with the community the NYPD is supposed to serve. A review of the conditions surrounding the precinct demonstrates that parking could, in fact, be managed satisfactorily with a little professional attention and a basic level of discipline. The parking is, in fact, illegal, and the NYPD has an obligation to restore order both to maintain its own integrity and to relieve the burden on the community that hosts the station house.

Unlike many station houses in New York City, the 52nd Precinct has its own off-street parking lot. This is not a cheap piece of infrastructure, either, since it is largely on a deck over the MetroNorth Railroad. Additional exclusive parking has been created with parking regulations that dedicate the curb lane on the east side of Webster Avenue to the precinct. Yet this is not enough to keep the East Coast Greenway clear of parked cars.

These cars are parked on a shared-use path
that is part of the East Coast Greenway
Over the years, every commanding officer and the Community Relations officers have consistently said they plan to repave and stripe the parking lot to increase the amount of parking by reducing the space generally lost to an inefficient ad hoc layout, as well as drivers supposedly trying to avoid mud puddles. Yet after years, there has been no change. The only maintenance ever performed on the lot is to periodically fix the fence posts when drivers have damaged it again (a sign that is not particularly encouraging about the driving abilities of the officers who cruise the neighborhood all day long).

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Poor Scoping Leaves Residual Space

It is encouraging to see New York City developing more sustainable stormwater management. Unfortunately, the recent bioswale constructed on Bronx Park East at Pelham Parkway earns a grade of "D" as an urban infrastructure project. Poorly scoping the project left residual spaces and diminished functionality, which will ultimately be more expensive and disruptive to address later.

The bioswale detains storm water that would otherwise increase combined sewer overflows
The hatched area to the right probably could have been unpaved as well

The hatched area at this end is also useless, leftover space
It should be an active space as a refuge island as part of the greenway connection

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dirty Heat and Ugly Streetscapes

In a city with transportation as efficient as New York City, much of the energy use and air pollution comes from building systems. The old, decrepit heating systems in many of the city's aging apartment buildings is a particular problem.

Many community activists focus their energy on trucks. The impacts of heavy vehicles traveling on streets with children is undeniable, and smart campaigns to improve the routing and safety of large vehicles need all the support they can get. The fixation on trucks to address asthma problems, on the other hand, seems largely misplaced. Refocusing some of that energy and attention on heating systems would do more to combat asthma, improve quality of life for lower-income residents, and reduce energy consumption.

Combating truck use is largely a futile effort, since many of these trips are necessary and relatively efficient. Companies have already done a great deal to optimize routing in the interest of cutting costs to improve their own profits. Federal regulations have already vastly improved emissions in recent years. There are certain investments that could make rail alternatives more competitive, and I do not mean to discount them. Yet these are mostly changes on the margin and require major investment. The benefits that would ultimately reach disadvantaged communities would be small and diffuse.

Rather than pouring all the energy into the invisible remaining emissions from the tailpipes of trucks supporting working-class jobs, it's time to focus on the buildings belching big black clouds of smoke over low-income and working-class neighborhoods. Targeted support to improve heating systems in old apartment buildings could be implemented more quickly and continued on an ongoing basis, with much better results. Every time one of these buildings is improved, the quality of life would directly benefit the residents, mostly lower-income, who have had to suffer from poor heating for countless winters.

As it stands now, many heating units actually fail in these buildings. Then an emergency mobile boiler is brought in, parked on the street, and connected into the building. The residents who suffer from the lack of heat are far more impacted than anybody else, not only by suffering through the cold by also by the way they are marked with a sign of poverty. You truly have a "poor door" when there's an emergency boiler sitting outside the entrance to your apartment building.

The emergency boilers have negative effects for others in the neighborhood, too. When an emergency boiler gets plopped down, the deterioration of the building starts to erode the public space in the neighborhood. These boilers contribute to poor air quality, remove parking spaces from use, disrupt street cleaning during alternate side parking, and create an unattractive space that may even feel unsafe for pedestrians walking down the sidewalk between the building and the boiler.

Addressing these building systems really should be priority repairs. Although far too slowly, there has been some progress, primarily by converting the buildings to natural gas. Not only are the new systems cleaner and more efficient, supplying them with fuel is less disruptive.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Gas Stations as Corner Stores

Planners talk about the mythical corner store. It is generally accepted wisdom that residents should all have a place within walking distance where they can buy that virtuous "quart of milk." Yet, ironically, it is often the very same planners who are hostile toward the businesses that actually serve this role in many communities throughout the country: gas stations.

Sit and watch for a while, and you will see some interesting things at many neighborhood gas stations. Interestingly, at such quintessentially auto-oriented businesses, there is often a surprising amount of pedestrian activity.

In many existing communities throughout America, I have seen more walking trips to gas station convenience marts than anywhere else in town. Even in some dense city neighborhoods, I have observed gas stations filling a role where urban poverty has left residents with few retail options. This is much more an indictment of poor overall development patterns than a recommendation for gas stations, yet improving existing places requires dealing with them on the terms of their actual assets. Bemoaning deficiencies does not build up a place.