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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Commuter Bike Culture: A Modernized 1960's Commuter Culture Shift

Living in NYC throughout the past years has given me a new appreciation for walking and biking, as well as a new perspective on defining the quality of our daily mental health.

About 40-50 years ago, new policies were introduced and implemented to accommodate the new automobile culture-shift and emerging driving habits in the early 60s and 70s. 

Fast forwarding from the 1960's quiet interstate highways hosting only a handful of cars at a time and relaxed daily schedules of the MadMen suburbanites, to our multi-layered dense urban spaces and over-stimulant high-pace lifestyles today: 
A new commuter movement is emerging from this "high-tech modern era" introducing a new set of fundamental factors for us to focus on, that can be utilized to our advantage and help better inform our design approaches and public policies for enhancing the quality of today's smart city life, and as a result our daily mental health. 

Almost all street collision complaints involving pedestrians, bikes, and cars, are safety related; many of which are a result of the city's circulation-network design (i.e. if/how it successfully integrates with the existing built environment). However, the majority of these collisions, one way or another, are a result of the actual users: us, people!, and our individual behavior, etiquette, and expectations in a public setting. Too often speed is determined to be the immediate and biggest fault-factor, however, in reality, collisions happen mainly due to inattention of all users groups: drivers, cyclists, AND definitely pedestrians. People!

A couple individuals, as new city bike riders, responded with the comments below when asked how they feel about the new bike lanes and public bike share program in their city: 

“I feel safer in the street with the cars than with pedestrians."
"Trying to avoid pedestrians becomes more dangerous." 

I personally love walking and as a first preference always try to explore a city on foot rather than biking or driving. Until a few years ago, my attraction to city biking quickly increased after experiencing the Scandinavian's [amazingly structured] commuter bike culture, specifically Copenhagen, as it really struck my interest and inspired me. Their pedestrians'/cyclists'/drivers' social etiquette, as well as the functionality of the city's bike culture and commuter policies relative to other cities like NYC, Denver, San Francisco, DC, Hamburg, Barcelona, Paris, Tehran, etc. turned out to be quite an interesting comparison. 

Each city uses a different language to describe its assets: planning principals, transportation networks, demographic statistics etc. and more importantly, its social culture. Every culture (whether local or international) has its own distinctive social etiquette and expectations. The more culturally diverse a city is, the more languages that city has for communicating its assets, challenges, and opportunities.

Successful public spaces are usually measured by many physical elements (such as accessibility), however, the success and favorability of a public space, or failure and unpopularity, is directly correlated to user social and psychological factors. Public spaces, sidewalks, and bike lanes are utilized by the most culturally diverse groups of users that each introduce a particular set of behaviors and expectations to the city's built environment. Consequently, the distinct social etiquette and cultural traits of each of these user groups effect the functionality of the city's sidewalk and bike networks, and therefore influencing the design of our city spaces and circulation networks. 

Today, as we slowly (and in many American cities, silently) go through a modern commuter culture shift, we must push for a shift in transportation politics and policies that focus on the emerging walkability and cycling lifestyle, to stimulate a new, and safer, commuter culture-shift. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What is your sidewalk etiquette?

Sidewalks are one the most fascinating components of NYC for me. When I think about NYC, the over-crowded original sidewalks characterized by decades of foot-traffic, or, thanks to Mayor Bloomberg, the newly-born functional pedestrian spaces marked by the innovative transformation of some automobile streets, come to mind.

Then, when I think about sidewalks, I think about how each individual's instantaneous behavior in a "New York Minute", personal manners, and on a broader scale, social etiquette and cultural background, affect the usage of this particular type of our city's built and physical environment. Which ultimately, directly impacts the overall sociology/psychology of public venues, and the daily citizenry interaction with the built environment. 


Now let's be honest: 
What is your personal and social etiquette, in public settings, when you are walking (or most likely rushing) through the streets? Early morning, rush hours, lunch time, after work, weekends, etc. 
Are you the type that is overly considerate and passes through people while carrying a calm pace? Or are you the power-walker thinking that every second counts while creatively fitting yourself through the smallest possible openings you detect between pedestrians? 

In either scenario, there is a polite way and an impolite way of getting from destination A to B while passing through the busy sidewalks crowded with local residents, "New Yorkers", and visitors, "non-New Yorkers". 

Quite often, we hear the term "New Yorker", which I believe is partially defined by: understanding the particular sidewalk system and respecting its much-required social etiquette. How? 

Walking is much like driving and biking. There are certain unspoken rules to be taken into consideration. For a start, lets not walk so slowly in the middle of major sidewalks and nodes (i.e. Flatiron District, Soho, etc.) during rush hours while others are trying to get to work or grab a quick lunch. Or, perhaps taking a quick look to our left when we decide to make an immediate left-turn, rather than running into a person in our blind spot. Or, avoid suddenly stopping in the middle of our fast-paced power-walk because we must read an email on our phone or to take a closer look at our friends Facebook photo. 
Thanks to our 21st century technological advancements with phones and tablets, the list of "not-to-dos" goes on. 

Nevertheless, you get point. 

A while back, during a conversation with a manager at NYC-DOT, I was asked: "what would you do to improve NYC's sidewalks?" 

Until that moment, I have always noted the advantages and challenges of the city's sidewalks, and most importantly the functionality vs. failure of the existing pedestrian pathways for accommodating different user groups and their customized way of using the space. However, I rarely ever thought about what "I" would do as an improvement? 

Its easy to come up with 101 solutions to improve the public spaces in our underground subway stations, but NYC's sidewalk improvement seems to be more challenging, requiring in-depth creative thinking, just like a Titres game. Especially since public spaces (sidewalks in this case) are measured more through physical and psychological accessibility, spacial availability, and user-group/cultural diversity, rather than simply quantifying solutions with additional funding.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Bikes, Bikes, and CitiBikes. From NYC to København: a city's unique cultural element that affects our social, physical, and mental health

Almost everyone is talking about CitiBikeNYC’s Bike Share program these days. There is probably no point in even writing about it since all sorts of debates and discussions are floating around town.

However, I would like to just point out:For the longest time, many of us dear New Yorkers have been complaining for not having a bike-share program in  NYC, a city with the country’s most robust (and at times, disappointing) public transportation system. Now, after a few years of research, discussions, and approvals, DOT has finally launched the program, implementing an effective public biking system to its best expertise, only for the public criticism to continue. To the extent that it’s been referred to as “NYC’s bike invasion”. Seems like the talk of town is pivoting more around the fact that Citi Bank as the primary sponsor of the city’s bike share program, has “splashed” their name/logo across the entire city giving NYC the utmost "corporate image", "more than it already had".

At this point, corporate or not, it doesn't matter. After all the efforts and time and funds that were spent for the bike program, what actually has an effective impact is the actual bikes. Does it contribute to Mayor Bloomberg and the city’s efforts for further encouraging physical activity, targeting obesity and asthma rates? I would say, in conjunction with all other current and upcoming initiatives, yes. Initiatives such as the Active Design Guidelines, etc.

But lets keep the focus on a city's health and culture.

What is our city’s most unique cultural element that directly contributes to our social, physical, and mental health?

I recently visited København (Copenhagen), Denmark for the first time. Just like almost every major city in the world, København consists of a core center within the metropolitan area with some surrounding suburbs in the outer circles (within very close proximity relative to American cities and suburbs). Aside of its beauty and warmth, immediately upon arrival my attention was drawn to two main elements: the city fabric, and public-life culture. It was very fascinating to see how the city fabric from a design perspective and the public-life culture from a social perspective have so strongly and organically absorbed one another throughout its history. 

As the Scandinavians have mastered the art of creativity, the Danes ambitiously managed to incorporate "bike streets" (the public-life culture) into the century-old interweaving streets (the city fabric). Among the cities I have visited so far in the past years, this was the second time that experiencing a very unique and dominating element of a city’s culture pleasantly surprised me. The first was Istanbul, Turkey: how their culture and religion are so perfectly entwined (which I’ll elaborate later). And second, København:  the relationship between the bike culture and use of city spaces among both riders and pedestrians.

København does not have bike lanes. Instead, they have bike streets! Naturally before crossing a street as a pedestrian, as we were taught by our parents and teachers in our childhood years, we look to the right and left ensuring no automobiles are passing at the same time. Well, this is probably not true for those of you that don’t live in NYC or a very large city, since non-New Yorkers actually wait for their green light to cross. First day in København, while the city’s foot/wheel traffic started to pick up by mid-morning  I found myself considerably more alert than normal only to be more cautious of bikes passing by, instead of automobiles. The city streets are designed quite interestingly with a very particular system in place for its three main elements of sidewalk, bike lanes, and automobile lanes to perfectly integrate with each other. Fascinating.

The bike lanes, which qualify more as a street, typically have two lanes with a well thought through system passing through [almost] every intersection, bridge, secondary and tertiary streets, as well as the waterfront. And the most interesting part is the “bike traffic”! They actually get traffic jam from the bikes.  There were moments that, while standing off the edge of a sidewalk at an intersection (as I usually do), a massive group of bikes would race through the intersection after approaching a street that was otherwise empty just seconds before the traffic light turned green.

While observing this bike traffic passing through, one would instantly notice the user-diversity of the riders: students, parents, hipsters, business women and men, elderly, etc. I was quite intrigued by the suit and tie businessman riding his bike under the noon-time sun, or the lady (perhaps in her 70’s) carrying her large bags of groceries and goods while biking to her destination.Now, that’s an ambitious city culture.

Notably, just by personal observance, obesity rates also seem to be significantly lower in København. In fact, according to Bikes Belong, based on a regular survey of Copenhagen residents done by Copenhagen Traffic Department:

  • 84% have access to a bicycle and 68% cycle at least once a week
  • 96% of school children have a bicycle, and 55% cycle to school on a regular basis
  • More than 1 in 6 families with children own a cargo bike or trailer
  • 55% cycle because it's faster than other modes; only 9% ride due to environmental/climate concerns
  • Just 5% of city cyclists say they feel very unsafe
So the question is, considering our recently launched CitiBikes in NYC, what are our chances of reaching such statistics that could be comparable to København? 

Monday, July 15, 2013


Have you ever thought what is Home? Where is it for you? How does it make you feel? 

Every city has a special element that plays a significant role for each resident or visitor to comfortably develop a connection with that city. That one special element is always directly or indirectly connected to the city's quality of public life. 

The standards and expectations of public life vary for every one of us dwellers -from the amount of green/open space, to having many cultural and entertainment choices, high quality restaurants and dining options, etc. And if a city can manage to hold as many of those options to satisfy as many residents and visitors (lest not forget about the tourists) as possible, then it becomes an ideal place to live for numerous people. 

Which is one of New York City's best attributes: always aiming to please.There is always something interesting and enticing for any type of resident or visitor around any corner of the city. But it’s never enough. 

We can never limit the quality of a city's public life to a particular capacity, as every person, every user group, every ethnic group, is constantly evolving as time goes by. Consequently the public needs and expectations are changing, and therefore the quality of public life, which is significantly defined by the city's public spaces, must also evolve at that pace. Clearly innovative design strategies and implementation methods are the core steps of for accomplishing such success, but the key factor is to take an inclusive and well-informed approach. Which for designers means: do your homework, not only study the space but also study the potential user-groups' needs, the community's culture, the social standards, and of course opportunities and limitations of the city's rules and policies. 

In light of the upcoming major developments in NYC, such as Hudson Yards, Midtown-East Rezoning, West Chelsea, Downtown Brooklyn, and (sadly, as rumor has it) Chinatown, a new city culture and placemaking shift could be upon us quite quickly. As each of the neighborhoods go through new changes, due to the new developments imbedded in them, the sense of place goes through an alteration. This could potentially change (enhance or diminish), the naturally developed sense of attachment for existing residents and frequent visitors. And at the same time, a new sense of place is created for those to come. All these changes are mainly directed by not only the design of the (to-be) built environment, but most importantly, its integration with the existing city fabric and culture that surrounds the neighborhoods undergoing such change.

Consequently, it could also be a perfect opportunity to evolve our city’s culture by injecting innovative design strategies and programmatic policies that not only could introduce new features to our daily public culture, encourage productive social interactions, increase physical activities, but overall, contribute to increasing the quality of our social and public health. Especially, considering the cultural shift that we are going through nowadays, caused by our vast technological advancement. The rapid development of digital dependency, from social media to online shopping that we are all guilty of these days, has normalized a peculiar type of social isolation that is ultimately increasing every year. 

So, back to: Home.
How do you describe and measure your sense of home, your emotional and mental attachment to a place, and your expectations of any new changes to that sense of attachment? 

One of the most fascinating reasons why NYC holds such a special place in my heart is because of its great resemblance to Tehran, while being significantly different at the same time.  NYC holds many of the desirable features that Denver and Tehran commonly have (the two cities that I grew up in), while excluding some unpleasant factors that I always had a hard time with while living in those two cities. However, ultimately, NYC has become what I wanted it to become for me, while perhaps my personal expectations and requirements for developing a deeper sense of attachment exceeded the capacity which Denver and Tehran could hold. 

Photo by: آرش آشوری نیا

The point is, we have an active role in the process of developing a mental/emotional connection to the space and built environment that we live in. Whether a community, neighborhood, or city, becomes desirable for us to live in, or even visit, the image is what we make of it ourselves. 

What do you want from a city to feel like home, or for many of us, for it to become your “home away from home”? 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sandy and Our Building Structures

An interesting conversation came up during the Q&A session of a panel discussion that I presented at last week: Sustainable Building & Energy Infrastructure Forum 2013

In regards to natural disasters and #SuperStormSandy, a gentleman in the audience was stating that if we build our buildings with more substantial structural materials (concrete, brick, steel, etc.) like European countries, our cities and buildings could potentially be more resilient to hurricanes and storms such as #Sandy. The counter-argument from my dear colleague Steven Winter, president of Steven Winter Associates Inc., was that structures with lighter materials (wood, foam, drywall, etc.) are more manageable during disasters like earthquakes and fires i.e. the big earthquake in Los Angeles, CA. Indeed, both are quite valid arguments. 

As super storm #Sandy has definitely become a wake-up call for our local/national governments, as well as the sustainability/architecture/engineering industries, should we start rethinking not only the way we 'design' our cities and buildings, but also, the materials we 'build' them with?
My [partial] response to the gentleman in the audience was that: Its tricky. I come from Iran, and 10 years ago we had a devastating earthquake in the southeast region originating from a small suburban city, Bam, leading to a death toll of 26,000+ and some 30,000+ injured. Had it not been for the heavy and "substantial" building structures of brick and concrete, perhaps numerous civilians and children could have survived under the ruins. On the other hand, if the houses in Far Rockaway, Queens, NY, or Staten Island, NY, most of which were located along the waterfront, had a stronger and more resilient structure, perhaps the aftermath of #Sandy wouldn't have been so destructive and devastating. 

Granted, we wont know what to expect and be prepared for unless we experiences it once, unfortunately. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Computer vs Pencil

The days of hand-drafting/drawing/writing seem to be coming to an end soon. What could be the negative impacts of a (possible)100% digital and computerized era on the future generation's understanding of space and human scale? Interesting.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Controversy of Paul Rudolph and the "Ugly Building"

It's one thing to critic a piece of architecture or art based on personal opinions/feelings but it's another to simply call it "ugly" and stop caring for it.

Paul Rudolph's Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York has become an "ugly" controversy these days. To an extend that next month -May 2012, might just be the most important month in the building's 45 year long lifetime, as it's fate might sadly (and in my opinion, unreasonably) come to an end. Even though it was approved for demolition about 6years ago, the recession bought the building more time. Today, Orange County executive, Edward Diana, is highly in favor in demolishing it, which may please many residents of the area. But, to what cost?

Photo © Chris Mottalini

A collective group of architectural structures create the city's built environment, which as a result, contribute to building the city's history. Is it truly fair to criticize the work of artists (Architects in my perspective are also artists) so harshly that it ultimately supports the decision of demolishing their work and pretending that it never existed? Architects and artists that have contributed their skills and resources to the development of our living environment, with an intention of making a lasting positive impact. 

Brutalist concrete structures was Paul Rudolph's style, just as Deconstructivism (or post-structuralist) is the nature of Frank Gehry's style. New Yorkers often have mixed feelings about the recently built Beekman Tower (aka the New York by Gehry) in lower Manhattan, as it could perhaps be considered as a misfit to the skyline, or probably a step towards a fresh facade for NYC. Regardless of our judgement of the tower's height, complex curves vs. contrasting simple west side, etc., it's there and it will become an iconic element of NYC's skyline in the near future; Just as the Twin Towers and the Empire State when they were born (though, not as high-profile as the latter two). 

Shreve and Lamb's distinctive Art Deco style for the Empire State quickly became one the most famous symbols of NYC. Is it a success? Yes. Does everyone like it? Probably not 'everyone'. But, after 81 years it still stands as an icon in NYC's history. On the contrary, even though Vanity Fair refers to Gehry's IAC building in Chelsea as one of the most attractive office buildings in world, after 5 years, it still has failed to find a place in many New Yorkers heart. But, has it impacted the built environment in Chelsea? Yes. Is is a success? Maybe. Does everyone like it? Not 'everyone'. 

What is the socioeconomic cost of preserving our city's history vs. losing it? What can we consider as a strong/reasonable rationale in order to justify turning a city's history in to a constantly changing target? Leigh Benton, a resident of Goshen, NY in regards to Rudolph's Government building says: "I just don’t think it fits with the character of the county seat and the village of Goshen... I just thought it was a big ugly building." 

"Ugly". What is an "ugly building"? Is it truly an architecture/art failure, or more of personal analysis of the facade and exterior? 
Merely because the Empire State became such a successful tourist [and local] attraction and the IAC building hasn't, is it fair enough to label the IAC as an "ugly" building? Or is it rather sad and disrespectful to (hypothetically) support the demolition of it (IAC) because it somehow does not meet the "beautiful building" criteria? Should we just simply disregard all the time and skills that an architect put into her/his creation, with the intention of making it a noble addition to the city's history? 

“Preservation is not simply about saving the most beautiful things... It’s about saving those objects that are an important part of our history and whose value is always going to be a subject of debate.” -Mark Wigley, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

Think about it.