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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.