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Walking: Is it Just for Charity?

20 Apr

This made me laugh…uncontrollably.

There was an absolutely wonderful series written by Tom Vanderbilt in Slate last week titled, American’s Pedestrian Problem. In it he lamented that whenever he went on a walk for utilitarian purposes, people responded with “Are you doing it for charity?” How hilarious, and how sad. But it’s the truth. Today when people go on long walks it’s usually for breast cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, aids, or most ironically, diabetes. We act like going for a walk, the most instinctual human behavior, is something so unique and special that people give money for it.

America’s Pedestrian Problem by Tom Vanderbilt

While I found the data and science of pedestrian behavior and determining the walk score of my new neighborhood (82 out of 100 baby!) extremely interesting, valuable, and entertaining, the last series, “Learning to Walk” struck me the most. What first caught my attention was the title. How ironic that as a 28-year-old car owner, I am not dissimilar from my 8 month old nephew preparing to take his first steps. But what really struck a chord was that this article stressed what urban designers have been taught at the center of their practice, and what very few planners, especially transportation planners, don’t understand: people are inherently lazy (or perhaps call it evolutionary smart), ie: we make the easiest choice.

Perfect example? The little worn paths across the quads on your college campus. Mr. Vanderbilt makes a great point: college students carry the stereotype of having the most leisurely travel times and distances compared to your typical Manhattaner for instance. And boy are there pathways galore across a college campus (perhaps the most pedestrian oriented places on earth), and yet you will still find those little worn paths. Diagonally across the quad, at the corner where two paths meet, and directly up to the “do not walk on grass” sign. If my memory serves me correctly I think I was subject to work-study if I walked on the grass at my boarding school leading up to the prestigious graduation ceremonies. This is the perfect evidence that people choose the easiest path, even if it’s making one of their own.

So why do some planners think shepherding pedestrians a quarter of a mile down a busy arterial to cross at an intersection instead of allowing them the shortest distance between their location and their destination reasonable? And why do they always blame a person for doing any differently? Because at the end of the day, if those planners had to walk in the same conditions (which they most likely don’t…at all), they would probably make the same choice. We must step away from “if we build it, they will come” and move towards designing the built environment to reflect human behavior…as it naturally exists.

A common occurrence: pedestrian barriers. I have actually walked in the street to avoid these to take the shortest route. (twango.com)

Mr. Vanderbilt tells an absolutely heart-braking and infuriating story as an illustration that no doubt will haunt me as the reality of how this country, especially the part I live in, is moving so painstakingly slowly in its progress. Along Austell Road in Marietta, Georgia, a woman who was crossing the street with her four children was charged for manslaughter for the death of her own son…wait for it, instead of the car driver, in possession of a hit and run record, who hit him. You got it, she wasn’t behind the wheel. But because she jaywalked instead of walking her whole family, with 8 short little legs, an additional 2/3 of a mile out of the way of their home, she was first sentenced to more time in jail then the driver.

Holy cow. Any one else furious?

Mr. Vanderbilt’s other interesting tidbits include explanations of why we see narrow sidewalks up against roads with 6 lanes of traffic…transportation engineers wanted to protect drivers from hitting the trees that often lined them to protect pedestrians. So now? Pedestrians are up for a good mow down. I guess the plus side for drivers is that unlike trees, pedestrians have a slight chance of jumping out of the way. This mindset turned into a nasty cycle: because people no longer felt comfortable walking along roads, they stopped, and the lack of pedestrians encouraged some planners to eradicate sidewalks all together. Even today with such a large culture shift in the profession, when shown how concepts of shared space and other pedestrian-oriented street designs significantly improve safety for all users versus bollards and flashing lights that try to corral humans like cattle, some planners still focus on the liability of drivers.The culture of having to make room for people, instead of having to make room for cars, is alive and well… Unfortunately.

Culture shifts take ages, absolute lifetimes. It’s my belief that we will make more of an impact if we stop telling people what not to do, and start encouraging them to make the right decisions. As I have said before, urban design and the built environment is about providing people with choice. When people have a choice, it empowers them, and the result is that they will often chose the right one just by being given it. Telling people what to do and threatening them with big flashing lights and big signs on the side of the road can encourage them to do the opposite. Barbara McCann, a pioneer of the Complete Streets concept, states in this article, “The road itself should send signals. If you have a road with 12-foot lanes and clear zones, it’s safe for you to open up the throttle and you see the pedestrian scuttling across the road and think ‘they’re in my way.’ ” But add a raised crosswalk, trees, and narrow the road, says McCann, and “this is signaling to you, without a stop sign, that there are going to be all these other users, that you need to pay attention.”

Mr. Vanberbilt’s series is full of many great observations, but I will end with this one. There is a difference between providing facilities and providing facilities that will actually be used. As part of a public consultation exercise in a very auto-centric part of Florida recently, a planner for the Department of Transportation was complaining that when people beg for sidewalks in places, DOT builds them, and then they don’t get used. Other planners think that just by providing a bike lane that it will get used. Peter Lagerway, formerly a transportation engineer with the city of Seattle, explains there is a “three-legged stool” required to make walking desirable: safety, accessibility, and aesthetics. If the public realm doesn’t achieve these three things, people will not want to walk there. Just because there is a sidewalk, doesn’t mean that it is pleasing or safe for a pedestrian. The same is true for bicycle lanes. It is a mistake to assume that a cyclist is as hardened as a driver. I would be happy to ride a bike on my short 1.5 mile commute to work if my own lane was shielded from drivers by a physical and aesthetic barrier, but there is no way I’m tangoing with the some of the worst drivers in America.

As a novice cyclist what I want my cycle lanes to look like vs. what they actually look like. Shout out to Denver and Boulder for getting this right.

(Source)(Source)(Source)(Source)

I think after reading Tom Vanderbilt’s enlightened series, you might feel a little downtrodden. There is no doubt that the final installment shows how far we must go as a country to provide our citizens with the basic human right of using their own two feet, but there should be encouragement found in the second and third articles. There has been a huge increase in the knowledge of human science and behavior, as well as an increase in walkability in some of the most auto-dependent cities. The awareness is here, mostly, and admitting that we have a problem is the first step to recovery.
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Guest Post: Meditations on Mobility in England

11 Feb

I am happy to introduce a new guest post series on this blog. It’s my goal to create a place where lovers of the built environment can share their thoughts, observations, and passions. Please let me know if you’re interested in writing!

My choice of first guest blogger was an easy one. I first met Franny when I was 16: we lived across the hall from each other at boarding school. We didn’t know it at the time, but we would both become urban designers and planners. After losing touch for over a decade, we recently reconnected through social media and a mutual friend. She moved to England at the same time I left England. It’s been a joy to share thoughts, build my blog, and enter a design competition with someone who shares a trans-Atlantic knowledge of planning. Enjoy the post and please check out her blog, Ink and Compass, here.

I spent the last two years of my life in Cambridge, MA, which is notorious in the US for being one of the least car-friendly cities in North America. There are one-way streets, roads that double back on themselves, lots of no-left-turn signs, and lots of pedestrians, buses, cyclists, and other cars. Even though I had a car while I lived there, I loathed to drive it anywhere but the grocery store.

When I moved to Cambridge, UK, I left my car behind. The city is small and compact. The terrace house architecture means that few houses come with dedicated parking spots, and on-street parking is hard to come by. Although most streets are two-way, they are so narrow that they can accommodate a car and a cyclist, if both slow down and pass carefully. When two cars meet going opposite directions, an elaborate dance happens.

A friend tried to drop me off at my house last night, but even after four months here, I was foiled by the labyrinth of dead-end streets in my neighborhood, which I have only navigated on foot. We finally gave up when she got me within a few minutes’ walk of my house.

In short: you have to be nuts to want a car in my neighborhood. Of course, people still have them, and car ownership is still an aspirational thing in England, as it is elsewhere. People feel strongly here, as they do in the US, that policies that discourage car ownership are an infringement on their freedom.

And yet: in 2008, the UK had only 525 cars per 1000 people, while the US had 828. What are the fundamental differences in our cultures that the US has 60% higher car-to-resident ratio?

The most obvious thing is the built environment. Below is a map of my neighborhood. I’ve included the most efficient route between my house (point A) and the nearby commercial strip, Mill Road, in a car. Some of the streets are one-way, but most are bisected by cute little cut-throughs. Most allow for emergency access. The streets are also so narrow that driving and parking can be extremely unpleasant; see below for a typical street.  And there are all sorts of very small ways in which the design of streets is more accommodating to cycles (without making things worse for automobiles). My favorite is that many of the old homes have hitching rings that have been re-purposed or replaces as cycle lock-up site.

Cambridge has also invested heavily in keeping cars out of the city center. While this is partly to do with pollution, congestion, quality of life, etc, I think it mostly has to with the fact that there is simply not space for all the cars. The city has five park-and-ride locations outside the city. There is a centrally-located bus depot and a brand-new bus rapid transit line with accompanying cycle path.

Courtesy railforthevalley.com

Which brings me to my next point: the UK also has an extensive off-road bike network. Although in many places it is not well-lit, which makes year-round use a problem, it does provide a sheltered and safe means of transport for people who are not confident sharing the street with cars. I did my friend Lauren’s 10 mile commute in December, just for an adventure, and I was amazed by how much of the route was on dedicated paths.

Because of the urban design considerations, and the difficulty driving, many people elect to cycle where Americans would throw in the towel. In my neighbourhood, it is common to see two or three children strapped to their parents’ cycles, or riding in a cargo trailer.  I personally like the ones that have a front cabin for children; I’ve written about ways to encourage riding with childrenat Ink & Compass.

Of course, urban design is not destiny. There is also the fact that the UK has no domestic source of oil and no major car manufacturers to howl about petrol prices, so the cost of car ownership is higher here. The bus system is privatized and covers more territory because of the need to serve small villages, reducing the isolation of people who live in rural or quasi-rural areas. And while I am new to the country, it seems to me that buses have less stigma – less association with poverty – than in the US.

There are many occasions, both here and in the US, where car ownership is necessary or practical, but in England, people do not suffer from dramatically decreased mobility despite having far fewer cars per capita. There are all sorts of lessons that the US could take from the UK to begin to move toward less dependence on personal cars.

Franny Ritchie, of the planning & geography blog Ink and Compass and is a recent graduate of MIT’s urban planning program.  She moved from Cambridge, MA to Cambridge, UK this past October, and she’s thrilled to be the first guest blogger at At Helm of the Public Realm.

How to Series: Residential Parking.

7 Feb

I’ve written posts on how to make room for the car in the urban environment without letting it take over the city. This is definitely harder said than done, and one of the most important factors in making sure this happens, is the design of parking. Cars have very negative effects aside from the pollution and destruction of the natural environment; its important that they do not disrupt the pedestrian and community culture of a place.

Currently, parking policy differs across the country, depending on its context, consumer expectations, and beliefs. A reasonable assumption for a typical residence, in my opinion, is to provide a parking space per bedroom, up to 2 cars. Below are some good steps into making room for the car, without letting it take over the neighborhood:

1. Parking on the Street

No matter the type of residence, parking is best on the street. Parallel parking slows down drivers (it takes some time and skill to park) and forces them to be aware of people around them. This allows playing children, joggers, and dog-walkers to access their built environment comfortably. Street parallel parking also provides a barrier between the sidewalk and street, which also improves pedestrian safety. But arguably the most important benefit of street parallel parking is that it activates the public realm. Where people park in relationship to their home has become increasingly important as car usage has increased. If people park on the street in front of their homes, the activity of them walking from their car to their front door adds to the liveliness of the public realm. To the neigh-sayers who say that home-buyers won’t buy residences without private parking, I beg to differ. There are historic neighborhoods developed before the car a dime a dozen that don’t have designated parking. People pay good money to live there. Granted, they have other attractive factors that are hard to recreate in a neighborhood from scratch, but parallel parking can still be assigned to residents in areas where parking is limited.

In the residential context, an active public realm is crucial to social inclusion and community building. The best way in achieving this is by not separating users (pedestrians, drivers, cyclists, public transportation.) If room is made for everyone in the same public realm, people will see and meet each other more. In short, active public realm = social sustainability.

This Washington, DC street makes room for parallel parking, cyclists, and pedestrians. (http://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2011-dec-guest-series-carmen-godwin)

2. Driveways

In cases where driveways are necessary, its important that they are on the side of the residence so that people will exit their car and still walk to the front of their house. This once again increases surveillance and community interaction with their neighbors. However, it is important that parking is not located in front of the residence because cars will dominate the streetscape instead of buildings. This will minimize ground floor activity, which can lead to a dormant and less safe public realm.

3. Garage Doors

Garage doors, especially as part of a townhouse or rowhome, are detrimental for the public realm. The townhouse typology that has a garage and main entrance at the front with the living area at the back creates zero activity on the street. If the living area is at the front of the property instead, more passive overlooking opportunities will be created. This can create a more social and safer environment. Before the car and air conditioning were invented, a classic housing type was the townhome with a living room and porch at the front. Neighbors sat outside to cool off and actually spoke to each other. Borrowing and egg? A common occurrence. The common occurrence now? Driving into your garage, walking straight into the house, and sitting in the lazyboy.

Townhouse types: devoted to the car vs. devoted to the person. Townhouses in Charles Village, Baltimore allow for community interaction and an active public realm (http://idx.theearlofrealestate.com/i/7178/Springfield_VA_Townhouses)(http://www.planning.org/greatplaces/neighborhoods/2008/charlesvillage.htm)

4. No Alleys!

Putting garages and driveways behind residences along an alleyway can create quite dangerous urban environments. With absolutely zero surveillance of personal property and walking to and from the car, it can be a breading area for crime. Even if these areas are secure, the same issue is created as stated above: streets become dormant.

 5. Parking Decks

In the case of multi-family housing, street parking is not sufficient in meeting required parking counts. In this case parking decks should be wrapped with townhomes to hide blank walls and create as many doors to the street as possible. Obviously, while people who live in apartments or condos on upper floors won’t enliven the public realm, residents at street level can access their homes straight from the street. Wrapping parking decks with units is also a great opportunity for the live/work typology. Often at high densities with nearby commercial uses and a built-in customer base, live/work units can thrive. In any event, whether it is residences, commercial uses, or community centers, there are plenty of opportunities to bury parking garages so the streetscape can reach its full active potential.

row home v townhome

Townhouses at ground level with individual entrances; apartments above. (http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_HC0tnd5ZsdY/S04FKxVfBTI/AAAAAAAABAY/wBKbtjzontM/s400/Loree+Grand+Rendering.jpg)

6. Parking Lots

Parking lots are typically never good for the neighborhood or community in their traditional form; however, sometimes they are unavoidable. In this case, parking lots should be designed in landscaped detail so they can be transformed to community gathering spaces when not being used for cars. Take a look at this older post that looks at this issue more carefully. At the very least, parking lots should be designed with permeable and sustainable materials to reduce runoff, the heat index, and other negative environmental effects.

The car is here and realistically, until public transportation is developed a faster and more extensive rate, some argue that we’re kind of stuck with it. But that doesn’t mean that we can create some great urban design around it. As a built environment professional, I refuse to let cars continue to tear communities apart the way they have in recent planning history. Hopefully the above how-to design tips will make room for the car in our neighborhoods, while creating the community cohesion that we so desperately miss.

How to Series: Street vs. Road

17 Jan

It was recently brought to my attention that there is quite a big difference between a road and a street in their function and design. Usually these terms are inter-exchanged freely and while I am fluent in the design of streetscapes and networks, I never sought out the difference between the terms. While both are elements in the public realm, a road is primarily for transportation or circulation. A street has a more active role as a facilitator for activity and community.

A classic examples of a road is below. It is used to get to point A to point B and while there might be development on either side, people do not spend time there. While urban designers might decide where roads are located, their specific design is more the work of highway engineers and transportation planners.

But streets are where the magic happens. Street festivals, parades, bicycling to brunch on a spring day, finishing up books during lunch breaks, or strolling leisurely at dusk all can happen in a street. Foremost, well-designed streets put all users on the same playing field: drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists can all use this space comfortably. This is a task that engineers are usually not capable of.

road vs street

The image on the left shows a pedestrian, probably uncomfortably, walking along a road. http://www.futurecommunities.net/files/images/Dings1.jpg The image on the right shows a “homezone” where people can spend time in the street. http://www.walksydneystreets.net/photos/varroville-country-road-w.jpg

How do streets achieve this?

  • Grade Changes: Grade changes, or lack there of, are used to communicate to users how to use a street. The less there are, the more judgement drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists will have to depend on in navigating a space. This can slow down traffic and place more priority on other users. A homezone, seen above, is a type of street designed on one grade often used in residential areas, to promote community interaction and social inclusion.
  • Paving Materials: When fewer grades are used in street design, different paving materials can be used to designate certain uses. Parking spaces can be designated by brick, cycle lanes in yellow stone, and the rest of the street in gray pavement to clearly communicate their uses. But because the street is on one grade, these spaces can be “borrowed” by other uses when not being used. This allows the street to be more flexible to the needs of users.
  • Active Pavement: People spend time where they feel safe and have a reason to be there. In commercial areas, storefronts, cafes, and restaurants should have many windows and doors that allow the maximum amount of activity to spill out onto sidewalks. Outdoor seating and window shopping are classic examples of this. In residential areas, the rooms where the most time is spent (usually the living or family room) should over look the street. As many doors as possible should lead to the street, even in an apartment building setting, to encourage the safety of spending time there. In the above picture, these two boys can be easily monitored by their parents and neighbors as they play soccer.
  • Street Furniture: To really allow a space to be active and well-used street furniture most be provided. And not your typical park bench that restricts how it is used (sitting side by side isn’t a natural position to talk to one another), but creative pieces, walls, and steps that allow for groups of people and different sitting positions. Without a place to sit, reading, eating and people watching (some of the most common street activities) aren’t possible.
  • Pockets of Open Space and Other Elements: Allowing space within the street network for larger events than every day activity will help boost community activities and interaction. Pocket parks are perfect for picnicking and frisbee throwing, while fountains are perfect for cooling off your feet on a hot summers day.
Flexible Street Furniture

Flexible street furniture that welcomes sitting in different ways with groups of people. http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_x4FADDdzHdM/SjFk_PBa_0I/AAAAAAAAAV0/6CrsaVN2YK4/s400/IMG_0541.jpg

Of course in many situations the above elements are not appropriate. Often streets within the city are desperately needed as transportation routes for cars and public transportation. But that doesn’t mean that these streets only have to be used to get from point A to point B. They can still provide lots of social interaction. The perfect example? A boulevard.

A quick look at how to design a boulevard…

  • Lanes of traffic are left open and are clearly marked.
  • Sidewalks are on either side of the street, and often down a median in them middle. They are wide, well-planted, and with street furniture. They can accommodate high levels of activity from bordering buildings.
  • Crossings are often provided and can sometimes (depending on traffic volumes), be at the same grade as the sidewalk.
  • Parallel parking protects the pedestrian and makes them feel more comfortable around traffic at higher speeds and volumes.
  • Lighting and landscaping are used as elements that soften the pedestrian space and allow it to be used more times during the day and year.

There are many ways to design a street. Every urban designer has building blocks of urban elements that they can put together in different ways to create a streetscape. Knowing when to use which elements and how to create a street hierarchy to create a legible and clear identity for an area, is when urban design is crucial. Even when what a place needs most is a way to get from point A to point B, there are always ways to bring activity to a street, and therefore a neighborhood.

The Car: Taking Back Our Public Space.

11 Jan

Aah the car. The constant topic of conversation, debate, and controversy in urban design, urban planning, and essentially every other aspect of the built environment. We have certainly talked the subject to death, but unfortunately it has become such a dominant force in our society that we have no choice but to keep talking about it.

The car really came on my radar during my first semester of my MA Urban Design program in England. As one of the token Americans in the program I felt like I was often having to speak on this topic on behalf of my country and fellow citizens. Truthfully I was happy to, because the general view by some professors and many students were ones of mostly misinformed but sometimes judgmental. The American stereotypes were out in full force. I spent the two years of my graduate education constantly trying to explain that America was an enormous country and the majority of people have absolutely no choice. For most there is no subway, tram system, and the bus system is inadequate…the car is the only choice.

But what was even more striking was the car being persecuted as the nemesis of urban design. I am by no means a “car lover,” but I do consider myself a realist. People will almost always choose the most convenient and easiest option – its human nature, call it animal instinct. If public transportation becomes the easiest option in navigating people’s lives and their environment, people will abandon their car. I would too. Unfortunately most of America doesn’t operate like Manhattan. Much of the country has been developed at low densities, no mixed-uses, with a hard to navigate layout. Unfortunately we cannot change this on a large-scale and realistically can’t fund the public transportation to efficiently access all these areas, making it more desirable than driving a car. This of course doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Every little bit helps and change is always gradual.

I was taught, and I certainly believe, that the biggest responsibility of urban designers is to empower people in the way they live their lives and access their built environment. Building cities that provide the infrastructure for efficient public transportation, allow for local stores selling healthy food within walking distance of every dwelling, and create a connected city accessible by all will give people the most choice in living their lives, and therefore the most power. I wholeheartedly agree. From here on out, we must do this.

Houston Walkable Street Design

A walkable street offering sustainable and healthy living. http://www.houstontomorrow.org/images/uploads/cache/promenade-charlier-web-325×294.jpg

But by the same argument there is nothing that gives more choice or is more empowering than the car. You can go where you want, when you want, listening to the music you want, most of the time park where you want (there are 8 spaces for every car in the country!!!), listening to the music you love, with the temperature set just right. Sometimes the most empowered I have felt is driving down the road in the summer’s evening, singing to my favorite song, with the wind blowing in my hair. Let’s just say, public transportation has a lot to compete with before it becomes the more empowering option. It’s greatest help? Traffic jams and rising gas prices.

We have certainly put all our eggs in one basket in the hope that the development of green technology will save our natural environment. Because of the reasons stated above, in my opinion this is the only realistic option in saving it from the polluting effects of the car. In the meantime we have to focus on mitigating measures that will save us our communities, our health, and our businesses from the negative effects of the car that are often overlooked in favor of its environmental effects. The car is the #1 killer of community, but that doesn’t mean it must be eradicated. But the emphasis in the built environment must be taken away from the car and returned to the people.

The recent New York Times article by Michael Kimmelman, who is quickly becoming my favorite journalist, made a point today I’m not sure I had 100% realized on my own: parking lots are public spaces. Check out the article at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/arts/design/taking-parking-lots-seriously-as-public-spaces.html?pagewanted=all. For the majority of my career in architecture we tried to hide parking. This is often the case in new developments where the public realm is given to only the pedestrian and cars are hidden in parking decks surrounded by ground level retail. I quickly learned as an urban designer that the best method was parallel parking which calmed the street, protected the pedestrian, and concentrated activity in the public realm. The problem in America, however, is that often more parking is needed.

While well-designed parking decks are still good, dense options for excess parking, they are sometimes cost prohibitive. Ground parking lots are so negatively viewed because of their past influence on the built environment (when a flock of geese mistakes the Wal-mart parking lot for a body of water from the air, it’s too big!), but as Kimmelman explains, urban designers must start looking at them as an opportunity.

Designing parking lots with green methods to mitigate the poor natural environment effects, significant pedestrian movement channels, and the flexibility to welcome other uses, they can start to acquire a new reputation and identity. As Tobias Armborst of New York planning firm, Interboro, states, parking lots should be “responsive to the ways people already use spaces,” and “enhance their urbanity.” Instead of using paving lines, perhaps curbs and green areas can define a group of spaces. This would allow a natural organization for market stalls or clustered social areas in residential neighborhoods. Or perhaps no lines or designations at all will cause people to be more careful when they park and acknowledge other users more. Perhaps in city centers parking lots can transform to public squares or street sport facilities. This requires attention to detail, stellar landscape design, and of course money.

We see examples of this as people are already taking over their built environment. My favorite example: tailgating. Nothing makes me happier than seeing otherwise dead parking lots turn into huge Carolina Panthers parties every Sunday morning. There is no doubt that if we build our environment in a flexible and responsive way, people will do with as they need and see fit. And that…can be a beautiful thing. Also, we must not scold people for using their car. Instead of making city centre parking prohibitively expensive we must find a creative solution to accommodate them until better public transportation is feasible. Otherwise, we will just be encouraging people to shop in suburban shopping malls, killing the life of Main Streets across America.

Carolina Panthers Tailgating Public Space

Panthers fans taking back their public space. http://www.sportsshade.com/tailgating/nfl/carolina.jpg

This is how we rebuild our communities: make room for the car, but make clear that they belong to the people. If we can start accepting the car’s presence as designers, we can start to address its real negative effects that we can control: social exclusion, poor health, and loss of local business. It is our generation that must reinvent what was America’s promise: the car.

The Grid…200 Years On.

4 Jan

The Greatest Grid: the Masterplan of Manhattan, 1811-2011 is an exhibit now showing at the Museum of the City of New York that details what the New York Times calls “a landmark in urban history and a defining feature of the city:” the grid. Starting north of the oldest part of the city all the way past Harlem, the strict grid of avenues crossing with streets defines how New Yorkers live their every day life. I wanted to write about the Manhattan grid following the post on connectivity yesterday because New York City is perhaps one of the most connected and permeably designed cities in the world.

Original Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/03/arts/design/manhattan-street-grid-at-museum-of-city-of-new-york.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1 Also check out this awesome interactive map that shows the growth of New York City over time http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/03/21/nyregion/map-of-how-manhattan-grid-grew.html?ref=design

Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times columnist, mentions some classic urban design elements defined by the strict grid:

  • Legibility: It’s simplicity and orientation allows the city to easily be grasped by users, even tourists who have been there for a few hours.
  • Flexibility: The planners originally thought that the population of New York City would be moving east and west to waterside parks. When the city’s orientation changed to north and south, the grid was able to handle the shift in movement. The grid also was able to adapt to the inclusion of a Central Park, which was introduced to the masterplan later in its development.
  • Economic Vitality: Because there was ease in navigating the grid and made the growing city so accessible to users, property values soared and began what some consider the beginning of the property market in America.
  • Sociability: The permeability of the grid’s design makes the entire city feel like it belongs to everyone. Equality and social inclusion are a result. It is easy to run into your neighbor or become a regular at your corner diner. Kimmelman gives the examples that consistency of its design allows the public realm to become a “public theater.”

What Mr. Kimmelman hasn’t realized in this article is that the above positive characteristics are not because of the grid, but because of the connectivity that the grid offers. Connectivity can be achieved with many different designs, which can be seen from the street layouts of cities above. The organic nature of London, or the intricate network of Paris, are both very connected in a different way and both provide the same benefits of the New York grid. These three cities all feel completely different. One might say the way the way a person feels in a city is down to a matter of opinion. Let me offer mine…

There is no doubt there is a culture associated with being a New Yorker. I know many New Yorkers and they have more pride in the place they come from than almost any other person I have met. I have always admired this about them. An emotional connection to place is growing more rare as technology and poor planning has begun to define our sense of community. Having said this…I just don’t get New York, which I 100% believe is because of its grid. I understand that “the city that never sleeps” has the most amazing cultural and artistic offerings of any other city in the world. You can’t get any better in that respect. But while it has tugged on my heart-strings it has never done so in a positive way.

I have never immediately felt like a New Yorker like Mr. Kimmelman claims. Unlike him, born and raised in Greenwich Village, I’ve always felt the opposite: an outsider. I think it’s a mistake to think the strict design of the grid allows everyone to personalize the urban environment or feel at home in New York. I agree with Frederick Law Olmstead, one of the greatest American landscape architects, that the New York grid is monotonous, and I would further say…heartless. We are lucky that the culture of New York that has developed has given it its huge heart. Mr. Kimmelman is correct in saying that its the New Yorkers’ constant attempt to break the grid that actually gives it its character.

My experience in a city like London is a breath of fresh air. While it might take a little longer to get your bearings it is still very legible. It’s organic layout is even more flexible than the strict grid and can constantly shift. It’s so connected any development can easily tie back into the contextual urban fabric. It has gorgeous public spaces where “street theater” can be witnessed by hundreds. But the real difference for me as I walk the streets of London is that every turn of a corner is a surprise! Whether its a landmark, a pocket park, or a beautiful streetscape, I am always left pleasantly surprised by every step I take. The diversity in street design easily lets the city dissect itself into neighborhoods, each with their own very distinctive character.

Don’t get me wrong, there is no doubt that Manhattan’s grid was a tremendous act of urban planning that must be congratulated. The gung-ho attitude required by city planners to survey an enormous space and reorganize privately owned land for the betterment of society and the city is a huge task. As Kimmelman states, and I agree, this is an attitude our urban planners could use a little more of in the face of issues such as global warming and sprawl.

In the New York Times article John Reps, an urban historian at Cornell, is quoted saying that the city commissioners “were motivated mainly by narrow considerations of economic gain.” Even if money was the motivation behind the grid and not creating a beautiful place with “squares and boulevards,” the grid’s connectivity allows enormous benefits over the design of the majority of America’s development. It allows for a density that makes New York City one of the greenest places on earth and the most active public realm that I have ever witnessed. With little public space, aside from Central Park that is centralized, the excitement and surprise of human nature is in front of you wherever you go…there is no space for it anywhere else.

But here’s the food for thought. The grid works because the street network is very permeable and connected, not because of the design itself. Connectivity, while it is the first step in creating a development, doesn’t take away the ability for urban planners to design it well.

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