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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Transportation & Walkability -Part One

“The goal is no longer to reduce the traffic, but to reduce the need to sit in traffic”; Susan Handy mentions in her Twelve Ideas for Improving Mobility as a reminder to us while debating and designing for public transportation. However, this could be interpreted in different ways even though it sounds about right. For instance, “to reduce the need to sit in traffic” could actually create residential segregation and isolate a community from the others if we are not careful.
Walkability is one of the twelve ideas that she talks about which is very practical with many positive outcomes. I believe that walkability is a very vital aspect of our designs and implementations for the city, but using this principle excessively could also isolate a community from utilizing other parts of the city. If they have everything they need right around the corner conveniently, there is no need for them to mix with other communities and go to the city center and other areas unless for work or family visits. The Transit Oriented Development (TOD) that Robert Cervero talks about is also a very good idea to reduce the city traffic congestion and pollution while providing convenient access to services and needs of the community. But again, we are facing other issues like immediate congestion in the neighborhood, isolation and segregation. The fight over Kingsbridge Armory Mall proposal in Bronx could be a good example for this. With the development of this mall, residents of that neighborhood (and maybe even district) would probably make fewer trips to the city center (Manhattan), and also the property values of that neighborhood will increase. But if we take a closer look, this development will also increase the traffic in the area (mostly automobile but as well as pedestrian traffic) which could cause many other issues for the James J Peters Va Medical Center just a few blocks away especially that there are also two universities in the area. Well, we can probably call it a bitter-sweet situation and see who wins.

Kirk Johnson in his article in the New York Times on November 6th 2009, Grand Plans for Rail in Denver Hit a Wall of Fiscal Realities, writes about the transportation system in Denver and their plans but also talks about the higher demand of energy efficient cars in Denver compared to other cities. I remember when the Toyota Prius was released to the market many people in Colorado showed an immediate interest to the new energy efficient car and exchanged their old cars with a Prius. They loved it and still do, as it became very popular. But the ‘problem’ is as the demand for these energy efficient cars increases, tax support for public transportation decreases since they get tax incentives –a smart idea to promote energy efficiency awareness and encouragement but with other negative outcomes. Because as Kirk Johnson says, these drivers are still using the roads and parking spaces, causing traffic congestion.

Biking is another great idea that “works well for distances that are too far for walking and it can fill gaps where transit service is lacking” as Susan Handy says. But is it convenient enough to stop driving or using the public transportation and bike, without having enough bike racks and parking spaces? I think the city really needs to encourage college students to design-build public bicycle garages in the city. For example, there was a bicycle station proposal last year for Red Hook, Brooklyn providing various amenities and services to promote biking in the community. Why not do that for the whole city, like Copenhagen or Amsterdam?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

How 'smart' is your city?

I was talking to a friend last night about this report that Heidi Collins (with the CNN newsroom) had a few weeks ago on a list published online by thedailybeast.com, titled The Smartest Cities in America.
First I thought by “smart cities” they mean technologically advanced and environmentally friendly and sustainable, but they were actually referring to the citizens and their intellectual stimulation and scholarly achievement. A portion of the criteria was based on the number/percentage of people with a bachelor degree or higher, nonfiction book sales, higher education institutions, and participation in elections; which was quite interesting (even though the accuracy could be questionable). But I think the intellectual stimulation and scholarly achievements of a society has a very important impact on the community and economic development of a city.

Sherry Arnstein in her book A Ladder of Citizen Participation talks about citizen participation and citizen power, and says that it is the redistribution of power that enables the “have-not citizens” (excluded from the political and economic processes) to be involved and included in decision making of the authorities and “people in power”. But how did the “people in power” get to that point of being able to make such critical decisions and excluding others? With their intellectual stimulation and scholarly achievements. I think the more highly educated and knowledgeable people we have in a community, more citizens of that community would be part of the group of legislators, authorities, and overall “people in power”. Also, a higher percentage of the citizens can get involved and have their voice heard rather than being excluded in the “have-not” group. If people are knowledgeable and well-informed they cannot be taken advantage of as much, by the intellectuals in power. In the book Community Planning for the Few, Tom Angotti also talks about citizen power and how the “have-nots” are taken advantage of because they are not as educated and informed as the people in power: “But powerful New Yorkers, including the leading real estate and financial institutions, continue to rely on civic engagement when it supports their interests and are particularly skilled at engaging neighborhoods and the resources of the local state to legitimize their efforts”.

Did I mention that Denver was number 5 on the list?!

Here's the link to the report:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Successful Transformations?

William Whyte known as a ‘people-watcher’ is my most favorite person in our profession and the master of public spaces, in my opinion. I am fascinated by his approach to public places and design perspectives because it is all about different layers of the society and people, and encourages interaction and diversity. In his film The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces he analyzes different plazas, playgrounds, neighborhoods, and public spaces from different perspectives which I definitely encourage you to watch.

After watching that film, I realized that water and light features as well as green spaces are main elements that attract people to a specific space –programmed or not. For example, I think the design of the Apple Store Plaza on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, NY turned out to be a very successful and functional public space (to my friends who know me well: it’s not about Apple and I still don’t like their products). This space attracts countless groups of people during the day which is mostly because of the water features, nice green spaces and trees, but also because of the ‘freedom of choice’. The fact that people have different choices for using a space makes it a desirable and attractive environment for them. For example: they can sit on the edge of the sidewalk, along the water fountain, under a tree and the shade, move the chairs around and use a table, or just even walk around. I spent about 2 hours in that plaza sitting around, walking, people watching, etc. and noticed that many other people have been doing the same. The most interesting part is that it is very diverse by attracting tourists, residents, college students, professionals, and elderly. (pictures to come soon)

One of my favorite public spaces in NYC is the Father Duffy Plaza in Times Square (or better known as the “red stairs”) designed by William Fellows.
This plaza is unfortunately surrounded by many irritating factors such as: the very loud traffic congestion, crowded sidewalks and spaces, and on top of all, the infinite waste of energy by the illuminating beautiful lights amplifying the severe Light Pollution conditions above NYC. However, considering all the negatives, I still see it as a successful public gathering space mostly because of its ‘light features’ and ‘freedom of choice’. Unlike the Apple Plaza there is no water feature and green space, but there are many attractive lighting features and people have a choice of sitting at the tables in the middle of Times Square for coffee or standing above the red stairs to take pictures and observe the fast paced movement of the surrounding; while another group of people is in line waiting to buy show tickets at the discount ticket booths under the red staircase. It definitely is a successful multi-functioning programmed space for multiple user groups with lots of pedestrian space.

I think we need more spatial designs like this that transform a traditional place to a modern and novel space without changing the familiar environment and sense of place. It is possible to design work that follows traditions but interprets them in a contemporary way, creating new traditions.