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

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Walking into the Future

It has long been popular to appeal to the pre-automotive past as a pedestrian golden age. Narratives are compelling because people can be motivated to action when they can play a role they understand. Nevertheless, when we make decisions about the form of our cities, we should avoid telling tall tales.

So let's be clear. Life in cities before the car was no pedestrian paradise.

Consider the historical photo below of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The flow of traffic was very heavy with horse-drawn vehicles, making it difficult for pedestrians to cross. Note the accumulation of pedestrians on the corners, waiting for an opportunity to push their way through:

[Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, New York, N.Y.]

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Daylighting Mill Brook on Mosholu Parkway

On Mosholu Parkway, we have spent decades fighting the natural topography. It is time for us to surrender and create a new alliance with the storm water.

There was once a stream on Mosholu Parkway. It was the headwater of a waterway called Mill Brook, which ran down its own little vale parallel to the Bronx River in the vicinity of Webster Avenue until it emptied near the confluence of the Harlem and East Rivers.

Double Page Plate No. 35, Part of Ward 24, Section 12.
[Bounded by Jerome Avenue, Mosholu Parkway North, Briggs Avenue a... (1901)
From NYPL:

Mill Brook is long gone. At a point lost to historical memory, its full length was diverted into underground sewers. The motivation for this radical reengineering of the landscape is unclear; perhaps washing horse manure into an open stream created foul odors better diverted to the sewers. Whatever improvement was intended and perhaps achieved has now outlived its usefulness.

The stream feeds a combined sewer overflow, which results in raw sewage pouring into the waterways during heavy rains. Meanwhile, the topography on the parkway still drains toward the center. The water wants to carve out a stream bed. The result is muddy erosion in the lawns that dries into dustbowls.

Rain water drains to the center of the parkway, where it erodes the lawn
in its attempt to restore its stream bed
Instead of letting the rain wash out the landscape while we pollute the waterfront, we should redesign the parkway as a thriving ecosystem, a piece of vital green infrastructure. In addition to reducing the overflow of sewage, daylighting Mill Brook can create a more enjoyable landscape with better amenities. It would, in fact, restore the original vision for Mosholu Parkway:
"At comparatively small expense, the natural brook which Mosholu Parkway already possesses can be enlarged, increased in volume by the aid of an artesian well, carried quite through the centre of the tract, and there is a sufficient descent to the grade to allow of the construction of dams enlosing lakelets, the overflow of which might be made to form miniature cascades, spanned by rustic bridges. Such ornamental attractions are possible in the plan of this broad parkway, which possesses natural conditions that permit of a wide scope for the invention and fancy of the landscape architect." 
The New Parks Beyond the Harlem, 1887

As an example of the potential of daylighting Mill Brook on Mosholu Parkway,
the gully could include a waterfall similar to this one in Prospect Park 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Those Old-School Traffic Engineers

It has become popular to indict traffic engineers of yesteryear as men so determined to move cars more quickly they disregarded the safety of pedestrians just trying to get across the street alive. This criticism that they were anti-pedestrian is an uncharitable view. It ignores the historical record, unfairly excluding their deliberate attempts to improve pedestrian safety. So in the words of Al Smith: Let's look at the record.

To illustrate this, we don't have to look any further than the language commonly used to criticize the engineers who designed one-way streets decades ago. Consider this example, which is typical of comments made by many observers of streets (who are well intentioned and otherwise often well-informed):
The city's avenues were converted to one-way for one reason only: to give the city's driving elite priority over its walking majority.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Building Ruins

It is our job as city builders to secure the funding necessary to build.  We cannot be frivolous, of course, but we must make the case for investment in infrastructure and architecture that lifts the soul.  Spending just enough to get by will be money wasted.  We will ultimately spend more as we return over and over again for repairs and minor functional improvements, and perhaps even an occasional beautification effort to address the worst of the ugliness, but we will never be satisfied.  There is no substitute for investing in quality.

We must be bold.  If we begin with the pessimism of limited funds, we will fail to produce the plans we need to carry us into the future.  Great plans will find investors, while weak incrementalism will only perpetuate stagnation.

If we are headed for ruin, let us at least leave ruins worth visiting.  Consider the great landmarks of civilization; some may be criticized for contributing to the financial collapse of those who built them, although I think that dubious.  There were invariably other, more critical structural problems that brought each institution to its demise.  The savings from forgoing their landmarks may have extended their life a little, but probably never could have saved them.  More significantly, the durability of landmarks has been a source of cultural and economic richness that accrues for generations beyond the measure of any discounted financial analysis.

As city builders, we owe a responsibility to the present and the future to produce quality landmarks. If we end in failure, let's make it the failure of ruins.

 Herman van Swanevelt (1603/1604–1655), via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, January 5, 2014


@StreetsblogNYC pic.twitter.com/tpVZjqTk28
The #sneckdown tag has been trending on Twitter. The term is a clever combination of the words "snow" and "neckdown." The tag is used with photos of snow at intersections where it has not been cleared by vehicles, leaving areas that closely resemble neckdowns (see p. 74 of NYC DOT's Street Design Manual). As it is currently trending, these generally have an implicit or explicit claim of demonstrating that space is wasted by vehicles and could be used instead for traffic calming and pedestrian space.

I initially saw some discussions about "sneckdowns" last winter, with useful observations about how the snow piles were acting as temporary traffic calming. This winter, I noticed #sneckdown making the rounds at the first snowfall here in New York. Rather than discussing the temporary effects or snow plowing practices, the focus seemed to have shifted to claims that the areas that had not been cleared by vehicles should be converted into permanent neckdowns.

I found the original observations and discussions about snow plowing very useful. The observations about roadway space that wasn't actively used after the snowfall also initially struck me as something that might inspire a closer look at specific intersections. However, as the popularity of the #sneckdown tag grows and more people jump on the bandwagon with their own photos, I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Department of Buildings as Obstacle to Livable Streets

The New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) has been negligent in its responses to complaints for a long time. This can be critical when they continue to ignore complaints about illegal conversions that become fire traps for residents and firefighters.* DOB's failures to respond to complaints also causes problems for public streets and sidewalks that seriously erode quality of life in some neighborhoods, and can even become safety hazards in some instances.

Hopefully the new mayoral administration will address this problem. It is a clear example of the "Tale of Two Cities" narrative that de Blasio pressed while campaigning; nobody would believe that the City would ever tolerate somebody fencing off part of a public sidewalk to create a parking space on the Upper East Side, yet far too often the City has done nothing about it in places like The Bronx. Below are a few clear examples that illustrate the types of problems DOB has been ignoring that are destroying the livability of streets in some neighborhoods.

Public Sidewalks Appropriated for Private Parking

Despite repeat complaints about outrageous takings of public sidewalks to create illegal parking spaces, DOB has done nothing to correct the problems. Instead, the records show that inspectors dismissed the complaints with bogus reports.