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Posts from the "Urban Design" Category

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New Software Lets You Virtually Stroll Down Streets That You Design

Folks across the blogosphere are geeking out over this new software created by Spencer Boomhower at the Portland firm Cupola Media. “Unity3D Visualization” lets users manipulate the features of a street and then evaluate the changes in an immersive animated display.

The software uses video game technology to help people understand how different designs will “feel.” Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns and Michael Andersen at People for Bikes think it has the potential to revolutionize the public planning process.

In the past, Boomhower combined his background in video game design and interest in transportation issues to create this amazing video explaining the folly of Portland’s CRC highway boondoggle. Boomhower told Streetsblog that the video game model can let people visualize transportation decisions in meaningful new ways:

Before this I had done a number of animated videos explaining issues relating to transportation and how it impacts places, but what I always wanted to do was make it interactive. When I build a virtual place in a 3D application I want to explore it, not look at it in a pre-rendered video. And I want to see it come to life with people and vehicles in motion. These are things you can do with video game tools.

Boomhower said he hopes the technology will enable people to become more engaged and empowered in the public planning process:

Game engines are designed to make dynamic places that can be explored from any point of view. Apply that to a street redesign: Want to see how a new curb extension will feel from the perspective of a slower-moving person on foot making that crossing? It’s just as easy as showing the perspective from the person approaching that intersection in the driver’s seat of his or her city bus.

You can try it out for yourself here. Right now the program is still in beta, Boomhower says, so you might encounter some glitches.

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Flint’s Ingenious Plan to “Right-Size” Its Streets With Road Diets

Flint, Michigan, is probably best known as the poster child for population loss and de-industrialization, as captured in the Michael Moore movie, “Roger and Me.”

The Saginaw Street road diet and walkability improvements have made downtown Flint increasingly attractive to business. Image: Detroit Free Press

Though this town of about 100,000 has never fully recovered from the loss of 30,000 General Motors jobs that was the subject of that film, Flint is becoming known for its innovative strategies dealing with population loss. Flint’s Genesee County Land Bank is a model for other post-industrial cities throughout the country.

Here’s one innovative new idea out of Flint that was a long-time coming and should be emulated in cities across the Rust Belt. Flint is planning to reduce excess vehicle capacity on its streets by implementing road diets that make room for walking and biking. Road diets “are central” to the city’s in-progress regional plan, known as Imagine Flint, according to a recent report by the Detroit Free Press. Imagine Flint is funded through a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Sustainable Communities Program (a grant program which Congress has since de-funded).

Other “shrinking cities,” like Youngstown, Ohio, have tinkered with ideas for reducing the size of their built transportation infrastructure. Youngstown’s talked-about proposal was to actually tear out underused streets, a plan that has proved more viable on paper than in practice.

Flint Chief Planner Megan Hunter told Streetsblog that because the city has lost so much of its population, its overly wide streets are often empty. Some streets in Flint were designed just to speed workers from auto plants out to the suburbs.

“When you have kind of a free-of-traffic, very wide roadway, the tendency is to treat it like a dragway,” Hunter said. “Road diets tend to increase pedestrian safety and vehicular safety as well.”

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Meet Streetmix, the Website Where You Can Design Your Own Street

Streetmix lets users mix and match design elements to create the street of their dreams. Image: Streetmix

Last fall, Lou Huang was at a community meeting for the initiative to redesign Second Street in San Francisco. Planners handed out paper cutouts, allowing participants to mix and match to create their ideal street. Huang, an urban designer himself, thought the exercise would make for a great website. Now, after months of work beginning at a January hackathon with colleagues at Code for America, it is a great website.

The principle behind Streetmix is simple: it brings drag-and-drop functionality to a basic street design template. Users select a road width and add or remove everything from light rail to wayfinding signs, adjusting the size of each feature meet their specifications.

“It’s a little bit like a video game,” collaborator Marcin Wichary said. ”We were very inspired by SimCity.”

But Streetmix is more than just a fun way for amateur street designers to spend an afternoon. “What we want to focus on is, how can this enable meaningful conversations around streets?” Wichary said. “For many people it’s a kind of entry point.”

The first version of Streetmix went online in January, but the latest version, which has new features and a slicker design, launched less than two weeks ago. In that short time, advocates have used the website to illustrate possibilities for Dexter Avenue in Seattle and Route 35 on the Jersey Shore. Streetmix has profiled how people from Vancouver to Cleveland use the website. Residents of Sioux Center, Iowa, even used Streetmix illustrations in their campaign to stop the state DOT’s road widening plan in their town.

“It’s giving power back to the people, allowing them to vocalize what their streetscape priorities are,” Huang said.

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Rewriting the Manual: How Safe Streets Will Be the Rule, Not the Exception

From left, NYC DOT Policy Director Jon Orcutt, University of Connecticut civil engineering professor Norman Garrick, David Vega-Barachowitz of NACTO, and Laura MacNeil of Sam Schwartz Engineering talk street design last night at the Center for Architecture. Photo: Stephen Miller

Cities and towns have been leading the charge for safer streets, incorporating design elements like protected bike lanes and sidewalk extensions. But design guidance from state highway officials often gets in the way when agencies don’t have the technical or political heft to deviate from “the rules” that have long held sway in the field of street engineering. Last night, a panel of experts discussed how progressive best practices can be codified and included in the guidelines that shape decisions about street design across the nation.

The panel at the AIA-NY Center for Architecture, sponsored by the Congress for the New Urbanism’s New York chapter and moderated by NYC DOT Policy Director Jon Orcutt, featured David Vega-Barachowitz of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, Laura MacNeil of Sam Schwartz Engineering, and Norman Garrick, a University of Connecticut civil engineering professor.

“You can’t ignore the triumvirate of the Green Book, the Highway Manual, and the MUTCD,” Vega-Barachowitz said, listing the dominant street design guidelines produced by the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials and the Federal Highway Administration. These documents, which many transportation engineers rely upon when making decisions, are often faulted for emphasizing motor traffic throughput instead of creating safe, pleasant places that serve everyone who uses the street.

In recent years, forward-thinking planners and engineers have started to produce a new generation of design guidance. In 2006, Garrick worked with CNU and the Institute of Transportation Engineers to produce a set of standards that would be compatible with the existing highway-focused guidance while still meeting the needs of town centers and urban areas.

The engineers and planners who worked on the project first met in 2005. ”I’ll never forget that meeting. There was a lot of shouting,” Garrick said. “We didn’t even have the same language to discuss what we needed to discuss.” Despite the initial divisions, the end product has been used by many engineers who trust ITE’s imprimatur.

But this “context-sensitive” approach has its limitations. “A lot of times that just means slap down trees in the median, as opposed to reallocate space,” Vega-Barachowitz said.

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Positively 3rd Street

Did 9th Street in Park Slope formerly have sidewalks as generous as 3rd Street?

Strolling up 3rd Street in Park Slope from 7th Avenue toward Prospect Park, it’s easy to see this is one of the most magnificent streets in what is, let’s face it, one of the prettiest neighborhoods in the city. The homes, built in the late 19th century and often clad in white stone, are set back further. The double flanking of trees lend a calming tone. A bike lane is set along one side of the one-way street.

But what’s most luxurious about this street, if not consciously noticed by its users, are the expansive sidewalks, about 8 paces, which is roughly twice as wide as the sidewalks on surrounding streets. The wide sidewalks on 3rd Street provide room for several people to walk side by side in one direction, without playing the game of dodge a person so common in New York. It’s a strolling street.

If you walk south from 3th Street for just six blocks, you come to a very different sort of street, 9th Street. It’s probably one of the least pleasant streets in the Slope. The sidewalks are narrow. The car portion of the street is wide. A torrent of cars and trucks pour up and down it, making their way to and from the Gowanus Canal, Court Street, and Red Hook. The street has bike lanes on each side, but this is still a chaotic and risky place to cycle, given the trucks and double-parking.

But here’s the thing. Did 9th Street used to be like 3rd Street? My eye, somewhat attuned to urban geography, sees evidence that the answer is yes. Both of the streets, measured by the distance from the homes on each side to each other, are wider than surrounding streets. Both are flanked by particularly elegant townhouses.  I wonder if 9th Street, now so chaotic and workhorse like, used to be a grand strolling street leading up to the prominent entrance to Prospect Park where the statue of General Lafayette awaits you.

What I bet happened is that at some point in the last century the city grabbed some of the width from the sidewalks and setbacks of 9th Street, and gave it over to cars, converting 9th street into a car artery, decidedly unpleasant. I bet the political power of the residents of these beautiful townhouses had reached a nadir, allowing the city to decrease the charm of their street and thus their property values.

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Eyes on the Street: New Places to Sit on Myrtle Avenue

A new tree guard bench on Myrtle Avenue near Carlton Avenue. Photo: Stephen Miller

Combining public seating and tree protection, the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership has begun a second round of street furniture installations. The project is bringing 28 tree guards and 22 benches to Myrtle Avenue between Flatbush and Classon Avenues by the end of the year, joining 40 tree guards and benches that were installed in 2011.

At one of the tree pits on Myrtle Avenue this summer, local residents set up folding chairs and hung out on the street, making it an obvious candidate for a tree guard bench, said the Partnership’s Daniel Scorse.

Students in art classes at neighborhood schools created the designs for ten of the new guards, which were then prepped for fabrication by the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation.

The Partnership is seeking sponsors to help defray the cost of maintaining the benches and tree guards. The latest installations were funded by the Partnership’s BID, ConEd and New York State urban forestry and Main Street programs.

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Raleigh’s Smart Plan to Grow Inward

Growing Sun Belt cities aren’t generally known for their sustainable urban form. But Raleigh, North Carolina is putting the finishing touches on a plan that could break the mold.

Architects at the Raleigh-based firm In Situ designed this small, modular house to fit in local alleyways. The city's new zoning code would allow the development of structures like this one along alleyways in existing single-family neighborhoods. Photo: Fast Co. Design

Raleigh has been working to overhaul its zoning codes with a plan that hits all the right notes: prioritizing transit-oriented, infill, and mixed-use development. But one particular feature of the plan has really captured the imagination of some local architects.

Raleigh’s “Unified Development Ordinance” would allow the development of small residences along alleyways in neighborhoods currently dominated by single-family housing. This proposal would not only make taking up residence in this fast-growing city more affordable, it would dial up Raleigh’s sustainability and walkability surely and swiftly.

Inspired by this provision of the plan, local architects David Hill, Erin Lewis and Matthew Griffith of the firm In Situ have developed a sleek modular dwelling design especially for the alleyways of Raleigh. The homes could be had fully equipped for $30,000, or about $200 a month in mortgage costs.

This could be a boon for existing homeowners and all Raleigh residents, the architects told Fast Company Design.

“These new parcels would yield a multiple bottom line. Current landowners could generate income off their excess land by either selling an RA-50 parcel or building a dwelling on one leasing it,” say the architects. “The city would benefit from new utility service units evenly dispersed within an existing downtown infrastructure, generating new income with minimal investment in new infrastructure. Finally, the environmental benefits of a more generous pedestrian environment.”

Raleigh Deputy Planning Director Ken Bowers told Streetsblog that the section of the proposed code that allows for alleyway homes is controversial, and there’s no guarantee it will make into the final document and through adoption. But even without this one provision, he said, Raleigh’s ordinance will help produce a denser, more walkable, more urban city. Planners hope the new zoning will be adopted by City Council before the end of the year.

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DIY Urbanism: No Permits, No Red Tape, No Going Back

You have dreamed about striping your own bike lane on your most-traveled routes. You got your street closed off for a block party. Maybe you even spent the afternoon feeding the meter on Park(ing) Day.

Go ahead. Do It Yourself. Photo: Building Green

You just may be the next tactical urbanist to join the ranks of those who make it their business to make their cities better. These aren’t necessarily the ones who sit in community meetings and focus groups, hashing out city-drawn plans that will sit on the shelves a few years (or decades) longer. Tactical urbanists are the doers. Some transportation chiefs like Janette Sadik-Khan and Gabe Klein are doers, but you don’t need to have a top job in a major metropolitan transportation department to transform your street. You just need to be a bit of a badass.

Mike Lydon of the Street Plans Collaborative is sort of the godfather of the tactical urbanism movement. Some people can’t visualize change until they see it themselves, he told a packed forum yesterday at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. But once they see it, they don’t want to go back.

Well, you may be thinking, it’s all fine and good to get your ya-yas out for a day by doing some guerrilla gardening or what have you. People who are serious about improving their cities are just going to have to suffer through those community meetings and go through the proper channels. But Lydon says DIY urban improvement isn’t just immediate – it can be lasting, too.

In fact, most of the time, these overnight streetscape changes are made to get the attention of officials with the power to make them permanent. Even Portland’s Depave group, which literally takes a jackhammer to asphalt they don’t like, now gets funding from the city. Is there a danger of cooptation when the government starts funding and partnering with these guerrilla movements? No, Lydon says: Most of the time, getting the attention and support of people in power is the whole idea.

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USA Today: Homebuilders Pass On Garages, Build Front Porches

USA Today reported today that more and more homes are being built without garages or carports. That stands to reason, as developers are (belatedly) building what the market wants: denser housing in walkable urban centers near transit. Copious parking and driveway curb cuts simply don’t mesh with that model.

My front porch. Photo: Tanya Snyder

At the peak of the housing boom in 2004 — when the exurbs were still thriving — 92 percent of new homes had a car shelter. By 2010 it was down to 87 percent, and held steady in 2011. National Association of Home Builders’ Stephen Melman told USA Today it was a positive sign “about public transportation if new construction is starting to be built closer to employment centers or transit.”

Almost as exciting: Front porches are making a comeback. “Two-thirds of new homes built in 2011 had a porch,” write USA Today’s Haya El Nasser and Paul Overberg, “a trend that has been on a steady rise for almost 10 years, according to a Census survey of construction.”

Impressively, they don’t take this trend at face value, assuming it’s nothing more than a housing fad. They dig deeper into emerging consumer preferences for how we want to live and what kind of society we want — one with “smaller houses and dense neighborhoods that promote walking and social interaction.”

Bingo! Using real estate prices as a guide, developer and walkability guru Chris Leinberger shows that walkable urban places, which he calls WalkUPs, have tremendous and growing appeal. Dr. Green admitted he was surprised by how high the premiums are for walkable neighborhoods. Office space in WalkUPs can (and does) command a 75 percent premium over the drivable suburbs. And residential rents are 71 percent higher in walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods.

The increased sociability of those sought-after neighborhoods may have something to do with the fact that porches are displacing back decks as the outdoor hangout of choice. Despite overwhelming evidence that what Americans want most is privacy, more and more people are opting to face the street and see their neighbors, rather than hide behind hedgerows.

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This Valentine’s Day, Declare Your Love For the Most Beautiful Street

Vote for which street is the most beautiful.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, here is a new and interesting way to compare streets. At www.beautiful.st, you can compare 200 randomly selected streets in Philadelphia, plucked from Google Street View, two at a time. Vote for the most beautiful and two more images pop up for you to compare.

The site was designed by OpenPlans (disclosure: OpenPlans is Streetsblog’s parent organization), which hopes to use variations on this tool as a dynamic way to get community input about street designs. Planners and community organizations could ask not only which street is more beautiful, but which one looks safer or more appropriate for a particular neighborhood.

In the meantime, it’s a semi-addictive way of thinking about urban design. How will you compare, say, a lushly wooded parkside avenue with the dense and bustling commercial area?