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Posts from the Urban Design Category

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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?

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New Urbanists Release Principles for Sustainable Street Networks

At the Transportation Research Board’s 91st annual meeting here in DC, it’s hard to miss the booth handing out copies of a bright blue pamphlet filled with illustrations of busy tree-lined streets, where bicyclists and buses work their way through a bustling urban bazaar. The booth is the Congress for New Urbanism’s “occupation” of TRB, and the pamphlet is their new illustrated Sustainable Street Network Principles, a document aimed at explaining in very basic terms what’s wrong with America’s streets — and how to fix them.

The new illustrated edition of CNU's Sustainable Street Network Principles debuted this week. Image: CNU

The goal of the Principles is to promote development patterns that add value to communities. The way to do that, said CNU President John Norquist, is to design streets to play three simultaneous roles: that of a transportation thoroughfare, a commercial marketplace, and a public space. “Typically, U.S. DOT and State DOTs tend to look at roads only in the dimension of movement, and even in that one dimension, their rural-style forms fail in the city,” Norquist says.

The principles are a plain-language counterpart to the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ “Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares,” a collaborative effort with CNU which came out in March 2010 and is written in “engineerese” according to Norquist. By contrast, “the Principles are very readable,” he said, “and can be used to encourage local public works authorities or departments of transportation to do something in cities that adds value to neighborhoods.”

Those authorities don’t always have a very good record in that department. For decades now, government transportation policy has been geared toward speeding up long trips, while ignoring issues of walkability and the corresponding value added to neighborhoods. “If one person has to cross the street to get to work, and another drives 25 miles to work in the same building, the government is obsessed with helping the guy who drives, even though the guy who walks contributes more net value [by using fewer resources, spending less time in traffic, etc.]” Norquist told Streetsblog. “If you look at the little blue book, it’s designed to challenge that idea.”

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The Upside of Cuomo’s Convention Center Plan: Urbanism on the West Side

Most of the Javits Center site is devoted to a single superblock that divides Hell's Kitchen from the waterfront. Image: Hell's Kitchen Neighborhood Association

After Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address last week, Streetsblog looked a little closer at the governor’s plan to build the nation’s largest convention center at the Aqueduct racino in Ozone Park, Queens. Counting on a huge convention center near JFK airport to deliver economic development seemed like a dubious proposition, but the other side of the plan — converting the Javits Center site on the West Side of Manhattan into a mixed-use neighborhood — has a lot to recommend it.

The Javits Center, built in the 1980s, controls 18 acres on the far West Side, from 33rd Street to 40th Street. Most of the site is an enormous superblock occupied by the main convention center building. The only cross street that provides access to the waterfront and Hudson River Park is 34th Street. (39th Street, while not part of the main building, is barricaded off to serve the facility’s needs.)

The Hell's Kitchen Neighborhood Association proposes an integrated street grid with housing, parks, and a mix of other uses at the Javits Center site.

“You look down the street and all you see is a black wall,” said Meta Brunzema, an architect and professor at the Pratt Institute who chairs the planning committee of the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association. “It’s very difficult for the community to have waterfront access.” Meanwhile, the area around Javits never caught on as a retail environment, said Brunzema, because the convention center is empty 100 days out of the year.

Cuomo’s plan to redevelop the Javits site using “the Battery Park City model” — presumably by offering long-term leases piece-by-piece to different developers, working from a set of planning guidelines — could create a cohesive district on the western edge of the neighborhood and finally reconnect city streets to the waterfront. “It’s really important that the Javits site be an extension of urban fabric, with a critical mass of residences, commercial uses, cultural facilities, and parks,” said Brunzema, noting that Hell’s Kitchen is also divided by bulky, traffic-choked approaches to the Lincoln Tunnel. “The neighborhood is completely fragmented.”

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Rail~volution: Will New Americans Fuel Smart Growth or Suburbanism?

This year’s Rail~volution conference — the annual gathering of livability advocates, urban sustainability coordinators, and transit agency officials – kicked off today with remarks by Chris Leinberger of the Brookings Institution and Manuel Pastor, who teaches demographics and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

Is this the new image of walkable urbanism? Photo: WekeRoad

Leinberger noted that Hollywood does more consumer research than anyone else, and it portrays what audiences aspire to. So, we can see in the difference between TV shows of past decades and current shows the evolution of tastes in the U.S. Where we had I Love Lucy, Dick Van Dyke, and The Brady Bunch, all set in the suburbs, we now have Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex in the City – all set in cities.

Indeed, Leinberger often talks about the increased demand for urbanism, especially among young people, but he also noted the downsizing trend as baby boomers move out of big houses to smaller spaces in more walkable, urban neighborhoods. And he credited the trend of people having fewer children with the expansion of the demand for walkable urbanism: Only 25 percent of households have children now, as opposed to 50 percent in the 1950s. Singles and couples without children are the “target market” for walkable urbanism, he said, and that constituency is only growing.

At the same time, Manuel Pastor argued that the main catalysts of walkable urbanism in the future are going to be the people with the highest fertility rate in the nation, having the most children: Latinos. (Latina women have an average of three children each, while each white woman has an average of 2.1.)

Pastor said the age gap between whites and “non-white Hispanics” (Latinos) – the median age among whites is 41; among Latinos it’s 27 – is causing significant tension. The state with the largest age gap between whites and Latinos is Arizona, which notoriously passed (what was then) the country’s most repressive anti-immigrant law last year. The gap is also responsible for low levels of per capita spending on education, since older whites “don’t see themselves” in the younger generation using the schools. And good urban schools are key to keeping families in cities as their children grow up.

Even with their big families and many children, Latinos prefer to live in cities, Pastor said. New arrivals, especially, disproportionately use transit. The walkable urbanism in immigrant neighborhoods is characterized by “taquerías, not cappuccino bars,” Pastor said. Latinos simply don’t follow the same trends as white Americans when it comes to suburban flight when kids come into the picture.

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Eyes on the Street: Brand New Pop-Up Café on Sullivan Street

Photos: Ian Dutton

Reader Ian Dutton sends these shots of the pop-up café that just went up at “local” — a coffee shop on Sullivan Street in SoHo. Ian says owners Craig and Liz Walker worked hard to make this public space enhancement happen. Among other things, they had to bring a crew of supporters with them to Community Board 2 when their application to DOT’s pop-up café program came up for a vote. Their bid was the only one of six applications to withstand the onslaught from local reactionary Sean Sweeney.

Ian reports that the seats filled up just about instantaneously after the installation was finished this afternoon:

In related news, a new pop-up café also went up at Ecopolis in Cobble Hill today.

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Rezoning to Encourage Street Life on Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue

With a curb cut, surface parking along the street frontage, and no retail use on the ground floor, the pedestrian-hostile design for the "Le Bleu" hotel wouldn't cut it under newly proposed zoning rules for Brooklyn's Fourth Avenue. Photo: Ben Fried.

When the Department of City Planning put forward its rezoning of Park Slope in 2003, one of the earliest of the now 111 rezonings under Mayor Bloomberg and City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, it was intended to help turn Fourth Avenue into “a grand boulevard of the 21st Century.”

The sought-after residential development has started to take place, but at street level, there’s been widespread disappointment with the results. Instead of providing a healthy pedestrian realm, the ground floor of many new developments has been taken up by ventilation equipment and even a surface parking lot.

In response, the Department of City Planning has put forward a new set of rules intended to ensure that as Fourth Avenue develops further, it does so in a way that invites people to walk along the street.

At least half of the ground floor frontage of each new building along Fourth would be required to be retail, and parking wouldn’t be allowed anywhere along the ground floor street frontage. Requirements for a certain amount of glass storefronts would provide opportunities for window-shopping, while strict restrictions on curb cuts across Fourth Avenue sidewalks will give pedestrians more space and comfort.

With the endorsements of local Council Members Brad Lander, Stephen Levin and Sara González, the plan is likely to move relatively smoothly through the land use review process over the next few months.

The underlying zoning, including bulk, use, and parking requirements, will remain the same along Fourth. However, many of the worst offenders of the last development cycle would not be up to code under the new regulations.

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