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Posts from the Urban Design Category

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Simple, Creative Ideas to Build a Better Bus Stop

Waiting for the bus can be a pain. To make transit more appealing, nothing beats frequent service, but studies have shown that if you’re going to wait, small improvements like shelters and information about when the next bus is coming can make the wait feel shorter.

A community group in Denver, Colorado raised money to post walking directions signs advising riders of nearby destinations that are a sort distance by foot. Photo: ioby

WalkDenver raised money to post wayfinding signs pointing the way to destinations within walking distance. Photo: ioby

That was a big impetus behind “Trick Out My Trip,” an initiative that helped transit riders in cities across America implement creative ideas to make the rider experience better. The project was sponsored by TransitCenter and ioby (in our backyards), a crowdsourcing platform for community improvements.

Ten grassroots teams raised a combined $54,000 for their projects, matched by $26,000 from the sponsoring organizations. Among the ideas that got funding: play equipment at transit stops for waiting children in Denver and bike repair stations at rail stops in Atlanta.

Here are a few cool examples.

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This Map Shows Where de Blasio Wants to Reduce Parking Mandates

Parking requirements for affordable and senior housing have already been eliminated in the dark grey areas. Under the mayor's plan, they would also be eliminated in a new "transit zone," shown in purple. Map: DCP [PDF]

Under the mayor’s plan, parking requirements would be eliminated for subsidized housing in a new “transit zone,” shown in purple. Map: DCP [PDF]

In February, the Department of City Planning outlined the broad strokes of how the de Blasio administration will seek to change the rules that shape new development in New York. After eight months of public meetings and behind-the-scenes work, City Hall’s proposals were released this week. The documents reveal details of how the city wants to handle parking minimums in new residential buildings, and it looks like incremental progress, not a major breakthrough, for parking reform.

Mandatory parking minimums, which require the construction of a certain amount of car storage in new buildings, have been in the zoning code since 1961. Multiple studies have shown that they drive up the cost of housing and increase traffic. The de Blasio administration is proposing to reduce parking requirements near transit, but primarily for subsidized housing, not the market-rate construction the city expects to account for most new development.

Perhaps the biggest change in the plan, called Zoning for Quality and Affordability, is the creation of a “transit zone” covering most land that allows new multi-family housing within a half-mile of a subway line.

Within the transit zone, off-street parking would not be required for new public housing, senior housing, or apartments reserved for people earning below a certain income. Buildings that include a mix of market-rate and subsidized housing could apply for a special permit to reduce or eliminate parking requirements on a case-by-case basis [PDF].

Existing parking could also be removed: Senior housing will be allowed to take out parking without needing any approvals, but other types of affordable housing would require a special permit to get rid of existing parking.

There are plenty of holes in the transit zone. Most of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights has long been excluded from the map, despite access to the N and R trains. An earlier map included much of the Rockaways, which was later dropped, and sections of Eastchester in the Bronx were also dropped. In Queens, large sections of Woodhaven and Ozone Park are excluded from the transit zone, despite being adjacent to the A and J trains, because zoning in that area is slightly less dense than nearby sections of Brooklyn.

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Eyes on the Street: Williamsburg’s “Lively,” “Beautiful” New Garage Wall

Photo: Stephen Miller

Such a lively streetscape on Hewes Street. Photo: Stephen Miller

An apartment building in Williamsburg perfectly illustrates how parking minimums in New York’s zoning code make the city’s streets and sidewalks worse.

Last year, a joint venture of Alex. Brown Realty and Largo Investments finished construction on a 33-unit rental project at 281 Union Avenue in Williamsburg. The seven-story building, roughly the same size as its neighbors, has something those older buildings don’t: 17 parking spaces. While we don’t know for certain whether parking minimums were the deciding factor behind that number, the amount of parking is just enough to meet the zoning code’s requirements.

From an urban design perspective, city buildings don’t get much worse. The lot, shaped like a triangle with one corner lopped off, is bounded on all sides by public streets. In other words, there’s nowhere to hide the parking.

So the developers turned the entire first floor into a caged-in parking garage, with the curb cut on Union Avenue instead of either of the side streets. While there are some plantings along Union Avenue to try and spruce things up, the result is a bleak streetscape. Instead of walking by an apartment building, people walk past grating that masks a parking garage.

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Hunter Students Offer a Multi-Modal Vision for Queens Boulevard

The students propose bus lanes, curbside protected bike lanes, and a large median park for Queens Boulevard. Image: Hunter College

The students propose bus lanes, protected bike lanes, and a linear park in the median of Queens Boulevard. Image: Hunter College

About a year ago, the Transportation Alternatives Queens activist committee approached the Hunter College urban planning program about Queens Boulevard. The advocates wanted help jumpstarting real-world changes on the street known as the Boulevard of Death.

It was just a few months after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his Vision Zero initiative to eliminate traffic deaths. If there was ever going to be an ambitious redesign of Queens Boulevard, this was the time to make it happen. The TA activists wanted to show people how Queens Boulevard could be transformed.

“One of the obstacles we always faced was, ‘Okay, how would you do that?'” said TA Queens committee co-chair Peter Beadle. “There was a real inertia to overcome.”

So the advocates got to work with a small team of Hunter graduate students under the leadership of professor Ralph Blessing. Over the course of two semesters, they surveyed people on the street, hosted workshops, reviewed crash and traffic data, and crunched Census numbers.

Then something interesting happened. In January, DOT announced that it would make Queens Boulevard a Vision Zero priority and hosted a workshop to gather ideas for how to redesign the street.

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Envisioning a New Purpose for the Space Beneath NYC’s Elevated Structures


Space beneath the elevated train along Rockaway Freeway reimagined as a safe place for walking and bicycling. Image: Rockaway Waterfront Alliance

There are nearly 700 miles of elevated highways, rail lines, and bridges crisscrossing New York City. They tend to be dreary places, but they don’t have to be. A report released today by the Design Trust for Public Space and DOT, Under the Elevated, envisions new uses for the spaces beneath these elevated structures.

Already, land beneath elevated structures in HarlemDumboLong Island CitySunnysideNew Lots, and the Rockaways is being repurposed. To keep a good thing going, the report provides a toolkit the city can use to reinvigorate more of these spaces.

Map: Design Trust for Public Space

There are nearly 700 miles of elevated structures in New York. Rail lines are in red, and highways are in blue. Map: Design Trust for Public Space

There are approximately 7,000 miles of elevated structures in cities across the nation, mostly highways, according to dlandstudio principal Susannah C. Drake, who served as a fellow with the Design Trust. DOT and Design Trust staff said they aren’t aware of another city that had taken such a comprehensive look at the spaces beneath elevated structures.

“You can reclaim that space. You can do some beautiful things with it,” DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said at an event this afternoon announcing the report. “We’re really going to put some resources into improving these spaces.”

The possibilities include building greenways, adding retail, livening up spaces with events, and implementing permeable surfaces to absorb stormwater.

One of the report’s major recommendations is the “El-Space Program,” a DOT initiative that will focus specifically on under-the-elevated projects. DOT’s four-person urban design staff, led by Neil Gagliardi, will take the lead. “This is really a comprehensive approach, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time,” Gagliardi said.

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What Can an Algorithm Tell Us About How People Perceive Streets?

This map of perceived safety of New York City streets capes was developed using an algorithm by researchers at MIT. Click to use the interactive map.

This map of perceived safety of New York City streetscapes was created using an algorithm developed by researchers at MIT. Click to use the interactive map.

What makes people feel that a street is safe, and what do those perceptions tell us about different streets? A group of researchers at MIT have developed a formula designed to approximate people’s subjective reactions to the way streets look. They hope it will help chart shifts in the quality of city environments over time and prove useful to urban planners and architects seeking to better understand what makes streets appealing.

Based on survey responses from almost 8,000 people, the research team developed an algorithm they are using to rank the perceived safety of every streetscape image provided by Google Maps in New YorkBostonChicago and Detroit. Using the algorithm enables the MIT researchers to rate many more streets than if they had relied on human surveys. They hope to eventually make maps like the one above available in every city in the Northeast and Midwest. They call the tool Streetscore.

The MIT team says their algorithm is a reliable mimic of how humans perceive visual cues in urban environments. Using a 1 to 10 scale, 84 percent of the time it can successfully predict whether real people will rate a street on the low end (less than 4.5) or the high end (more than 5.5). The factors that the algorithm incorporates are not public at this time.

The perception of “safety” that Streetscore approximates is defined vaguely, since the survey doesn’t explicitly distinguish between traffic violence and violent crime. But the researchers say they have found a correlation between homicide rates and Streetscore ratings in New York. Meanwhile, a look at the New York City map reveals that some streets with high rates of traffic injuries and fatalities, like Queens Boulevard, rate poorly, while others, like the leafier Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, rate well. Industrial zones and streets under elevated highways stand out as some of the lowest-scoring streets in New York.

The researchers note in their report [PDF] that “suburban houses with manicured lawns and streets lined with trees” tend to score highly. However, the New York City map shows that several extremely dense urban streets, such as Manhattan avenues, also get very high scores.

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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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How Do Streets Affect Your City’s Happiness?

In this Streetfilm, Streetsblog publisher Mark Gorton interviews award-winning journalist Charles Montgomery about his fantastic new book, “Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design,” which delves into the hard-to-measure question of how the built environment affects our mental wellbeing.

Mark and Charles discuss how research from the fields of neuroscience, behavioral economics, and psychology is helping us understand the relationship between happiness and our surroundings. The film also ends up touching on quite a few New York City places like Times Square, the Lower East Side, and Jackson Heights, Queens.

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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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