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Posts from the "Urban Design" Category

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Shared Space: The Case for a Little Healthy Chaos on City Streets

Market Square in Pittsburgh, PA: an American model for shared street space. Photo: M.Andersen.

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Dick van Veen is a Dutch architect and engineer at consultancy company Mobycon. This post originally appeared on the blog of The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Imagine yourself in a small town enjoying a coffee next to what looks like a public square. Except there are no curbs, no sidewalks, no traffic lights, no striping, not even a stop sign.

All the same, cyclists, parents with baby carriages, buses and cars — yes, cars — are going about their business guided by the same human courtesy that allows us to form lines and wait our turn at the grocery store checkout.

In the Netherlands, we call this approach to low-stress public space “shared space.”

Before you dismiss the concept as a utopian ideal, take a look at the video below from Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. It shows what can happen when the usual traffic devices are removed, as I described above. Dutch examples abound but this approach is also working in places with emerging cycling cultures like Exhibition Road in London, UK, or Opernplatz in Duisburg, Germany.

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Sign of the Times: Protected Bike Lanes Pop Up in Lego Book

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

“Let me publish the textbooks of a nation and I care not who writes its songs or makes its laws,” the 19th century entrepreneur D.C. Heath supposedly said.

The movement to spread protected bike lanes in the United States has done Heath one better.

Reader Amber Dallman alerted us to this book, Cool City, by independent Lego artist Sean Kenney:

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Lousy Neighborhoods, Not Lax Zoning, Make Sunbelt Houses Cheaper

The middle class is getting priced out of liberal cities, while red-state urban areas remain affordable. Does that mean our cities should be less like tightly regulated San Francisco and more like permissive Houston? It’s a common argument – but it doesn’t fit the facts.

Modesto: It’s not quite San Francisco. (And it’s a whole lot cheaper.) Photo: Carl Skaggs/Wikipedia

To start with, Houston is hardly a paradise of deregulation. In practice, local experts explain, the city limits new building with a heavy hand. Zoning (thinly disguised as a special form of deed covenant) is in some ways even tighter than elsewhere — a subdivision can downzone itself by vote of its homeowners, even when a minority objects, and the elected city government has no power to override neighborhood decisions.

If the Houston housing market is no freer than San Francisco’s, what explains the lower prices in Texas? Supply and demand set house prices, and demand (the lack of which makes housing so affordable in Detroit) is strong in Houston.

These price comparisons have a buried conceptual flaw. They look at the average of all houses in the region, new and old. But the added supply that demand calls forth (what economists refer to as “at the margin”) consists of new houses alone. A shortage of supply should show up, most directly, in the price of new houses.

In American urban areas, most land is reserved for single-family houses. Close-in locations fill up first, so the marginal unit of supply is a newly built detached house on the exurban fringe.

How much does that new house cost? The table below shows the asking price (from Zillow) for a minimally featured new 3-bedroom, 1750-square-foot house on the outskirts of some major cities, along with the median sale price of single-family houses throughout the area. Affordability is measured by the ratio of house price to the metropolitan area’s median household income. The areas were selected to have around the same population, so that the commute (a painful one in all cases) would be a comparable deterrent to living at the fringe.

Metro area Median house price (000) Ratio to median income Fringe location New 1700 sq ft house price (000) Ratio to median income
Boston 398 7.5 Manchester NH 280 5.3
Houston 204 4.6 Cypress 185 4.1
Phoenix 199 4.4 Goodyear 169 3.8
San Francisco 770 12.2 Modesto 260 4.1
Washington 403 7.0 Charles Town WV 210 3.7

These figures will surprise many. The choice of fringe locations is certainly open to discussion, but there’s no question that the affordability of new single-family houses varies among cities far less than the average house price. If you insist on a brand-new house and don’t mind a long commute, San Francisco is as affordable as Houston.

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Talking Headways Podcast: That Indie Flick You Were Looking For

podcast icon logoIf you’re a Netflix member, you’re part of the downfall of the brick-and-mortar video store. There are all kinds of reasons to be sad about that, but we look at its implications for urbanism and transportation. Besides, now where will you find esoteric foreign films to impress your friends? There are reasons to believe a few hardy indie-shop survivors could keep hanging on for a while (and we encourage you to bike to them).

Next, we shift gears to talk about how Vision Zero is unfolding in New York City. Streetsblog has called attention to the need to go beyond grand policy pronouncements and do the dirty work of changing the very culture that surrounds mobility. Specifically, the police need to stop forgiving deadly “errors” by drivers and start taking death by auto as seriously as other preventable deaths.

And then we called it a day because really, that was a lot.

Tell us about your favorite video store, or your least bike-friendly cop, or whatever you feel like telling us, in the comments.

And find us on iTunesStitcher, and the RSS feed.

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Will Montgomery County Botch the Streets in a Model Suburban Retrofit?

Old Georgetown Road in White Flint today. Photo: Dan Reed/flickr via ##http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/24343/how-a-road-in-white-flint-is-like-a-ski-area/##GGW##

Old Georgetown Road in White Flint today. Montgomery County doesn’t want to add safety improvements for biking and walking until people change their travel habits. Photo: Dan Reed/Flickr via GGW

Four years ago, White Flint, a neighborhood of North Bethesda, Maryland, most known for its shopping mall, caught the attention of urbanists around the nation with a proposal to reimagine car-oriented suburban streets as a walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhood. Montgomery County adopted a plan for the town that would narrow its wide arterial roadways and make them safe and accommodating for transit riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians. It was hailed as a model for other suburbs around the nation looking to become less sprawling and more walkable.

But now, the county is quietly trying to undo much of the good work in the 2010 plan — namely, the street designs. The most recent design shared by the Montgomery County DOT showed a reversal of previous promises. Rather than bring Old Georgetown Road down from six car lanes to four, adding curbside bike lanes on each side as well as a bike/pedestrian path that fits into a larger trail loop, the new plan would actually make the road wider by adding turn lanes for motor vehicles. The bike lanes or shared-use path are scuttled as well.

Ramona Bell-Pearson, assistant chief administrative officer with the Montgomery County Executive, assured Streetsblog, “Everything that’s required in the master plan for Old Georgetown Road is what’s being designed.” But the plan specifies that that segment of the street will be four lanes wide and have bike lanes and a shared-use path. Bell-Pearson wouldn’t confirm that those elements will be in the final plan.

The county insists that the master plan is still under development and that the street design recently shared with stakeholders is far from final. Meanwhile, county and state officials say that the land use changes have to precede any overhaul of the streets. State Highway Administration studies say the wider configuration is still needed to avoid “Christmas-time traffic backup.”

Andy Scott, director of the Maryland DOT’s Office of Real Estate, grew up in nearby Rockville. He says a lot of White Flint still looks like it did in the eighties, when he was in high school, working at an Erol’s video store in a strip mall on Old Georgetown Road. To grab a bite across the street, he had to traverse “acres of asphalt parking lot and cross a busy highway.” He tried it on foot one time, and it was so unnatural he never did it again. The redevelopment will change all that.

Scott says the concern about Old Georgetown Road is just a “hiccup,” a miscommunication in what’s otherwise a visionary project. The streets will change, he says, but in a certain sequence. ”There’s a balance in building out the transportation infrastructure and the development that’s going to shift people to walking, biking, transit ridership — but it doesn’t happen overnight,” Scott said. “It was carefully phased both on the development side and the transportation infrastructure side.”

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Fixing a Blank Wall Streetscape With Storefront Retrofits

Every city has places where the buildings present a blank face to the sidewalk. A dark, recessed arcade deadening the pedestrian environment or a soulless concrete wall fronting a windswept plaza.

Consultant Brent Toderian, formerly the planning director for the city of Vancouver, pointed out a cheap and easy solution to this problem. He calls them “blank wall retrofits,” storefronts that can be inserted over blank walls to add sidewalk-facing retail. He tweeted this great example in Calgary, Alberta: 

This retrofit fits between the lobby and plaza of the brutalist Westin Calgary and the sidewalk.

“It’s a great technique for dealing with fundamentally flawed architecture that presents blank walls to streets and public places,” Toderian says. ”Unlike ‘make-up on a pig’ — e.g. murals — this fundamentally changes the street edge condition. The pig is no longer a pig. It potentially changes un-urban to urban.”

We reached out to our readers to find more success stories. Here’s what they sent us.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Poor Door Von Spreckelsen

podcast icon logoIn this week’s podcast, Jeff and I take on the infamous New York City “poor door,” designed to keep tenants of affordable units segregated from the wealthy residents that occupy the rest of the high-rise at 40 Riverside. In the process, we take on the assumptions and methods that cities use to provide housing, and by the time we’re done, we’ve blown a hole in the whole capitalist system.

Then we investigate the reasons behind the assertion that “restaurants really can determine the fate of cities and neighborhoods.” We determine that food is mostly a proxy for other needs people have related to where they live, but we do love a good pupusa.

And finally, we wrestle with the paradox that if we love nature, we should live in cities.

Argue with our take on urbanism, economic justice, and burrito justice in the comments. Subscribe on iTunesStitcher, or our RSS feed.

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How One-Day Plazas and Bike Lanes Can Change a City Forever

The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition installed this pop-up lane and intersection treatment at an Open Streets event to show neighbors what a protected bike lane could look like.

The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition installed this pop-up design at an Open Streets event to show neighbors what a protected bike lane could look like. All photos courtesy of Sam Rockwell.

This post is part of a series featuring stories and research that will be presented at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference September 8-11 in Pittsburgh.

Sam Rockwell rides his bike every day from his home in Minneapolis to his office at BlueCross BlueShield of Minnesota in Eagan, 12 miles away, where he spends his days plotting ways to get other people riding their bikes too.

By all accounts, Minnesota is doing a pretty good job on that front. One way Rockwell — and his co-conspirator at BlueCross, Eric Weiss — are looking to make healthy, active transportation even better is by installing temporary “pop-up” infrastructure around the state so people can take new street designs for a test ride.

Despite relatively high levels of biking, Minnesota has somehow neglected to install even a single on-street protected bike lane — though Minneapolis has approved a plan to build 30 miles of them by 2020. Weiss, Rockwell, and the advocates they work with use pop-up installations to help local leaders and residents see how the infrastructure will look.

“We get that, ‘We don’t support it because we don’t know what it is; we’re never going to know what it is because we don’t have any,’” Rockwell said. “There needs to be some way of breaking out of that cycle.”

The pop-up strategy, he argues, is the way. “These are low-cost, quick and easy initiatives,” he said. “And also low-risk, because in the case of the pop-up cycle track, they put it up for one day on a number of different days throughout the summer, and then they just lift it out. It’s non-threatening.”

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William H. Whyte in His Own Words: “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”

When I first got started making NYC bike advocacy and car-free streets videos back in the late-1990s on cable TV, I didn’t know who William “Holly” Whyte was or just how much influence his work and research had on New York City. A few years later I met Fred and Ethan Kent at Project for Public Spaces. I got a copy of Whyte’s 1980 classic, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, which in its marvelously-written, straightforward style is the one book all burgeoning urbanists should start with.

Recently, I read it again. With all the developments in video technology since his day, I wondered: How might Whyte capture information and present his research in a world which is now more attuned to the importance of public space? What would he appreciate? Are his words still valid?

So I excerpted some of my favorite passages from the book and tried to match it up with modern footage I’ve shot from all over the world while making Streetfilms. I hope he would feel honored and that it helps his research find a new audience.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Helmet Hair

Did you wear your helmet when you biked to work this morning? Whether you did or you didn’t, it’s up to you. So why are there so many people shrieking about it? On one side, the 85-percenters, overstating the protection helmets offer against head injuries. On the other side, the 3-footers, claiming that it’s actually safer to go helmetless because drivers give you more space and a host of other reasons. Some recent hysteria around bike-share and head injuries fueled this fire. I’m not sure Jeff and I put that fire out with our discussion, but we at least tried to make some sense of it.

Speaking of fiery discussions, did you see the back-and-forth between Colin Dabkowski, a Buffalo News journalist, and walkability guru Jeff Speck after the most recent Congress for the New Urbanism? We clear up once and for all some misconceptions about how New Urbanism’s winners-and-losers strategy does and doesn’t address social equity.

And in between, we take a moment to celebrate a small victory in San Francisco, where a community pushed back against the fire department’s push to widen streets.

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