Hidden Assets: Creating public spaces in unlikely places
If there is any one lesson that I have learned in my life as a city planner, it is that public spaces have power. It's not just the number of people using them, it's the even greater number of people who feel better about their city just knowing that they are there. — Amanda Burden, former New York City Planning Commissioner
In the late 1990s, the raised railway track that ran through the heart of New York City’s Chelsea district was the bane of many residents’ existence. The monolithic iron structure hadn’t carried rail traffic since 1980, when the last train delivered three carloads of frozen Thanksgiving turkeys to the meatpacking district. Since then it had sat unused by anyone but unruly trespassers and was falling deeper into disrepair each year. Mayor Rudy Guliani vowed to demolish it.
He didn’t succeed, of course. Instead, after years of advocacy by a dedicated community group (along with hundreds of millions of dollars committed by Guliani’s successor Michael Bloomberg, the federal and state governments, private donors and other sources) the structure was converted into a 2.3 kilometre-long promenade and is known today as one of the world’s greatest public space success stories: the Highline Park.
Even for New York City the Highline Park was a large and complex undertaking in both cost and scale. But its fame has made it the poster child of a notion that is, at long last, gaining traction around the world in cities of all sizes: our cities are full of underutilized spaces that, if put to better use, could make the public realm greater for everyone. This is especially critical in a time when there is a greater need for more and better public spaces in our cities than ever, and budgets are ever tighter. We have assets everywhere — we just need to look at our cities a little differently to see them.
A ‘barometer’ of quality of life
Parks and public spaces are the verandas of city life. They are where we live amongst each other. They are where we experience our cities. It is our public spaces that make our cities more than just a collection of buildings and spaces in between them — they make them places. Even if one lives in the tiniest apartment or the most dilapidated house, everyone’s quality of life is impacted when a city has great parks to serve as front yards and public spaces as living rooms.
As Chief of Staff of the Chicago parks district Gia Biagi put it at the Doable City Forum, “Parks are the barometer for public life in a city. When you look at a city, go look at its parks — as many as you can of different varieties — and you’ll get a sense of where that city is at in terms of development and quality of life.”
And they are levers in nearly every aspect of the well-being of city dwellers. Physically speaking, improving access to quality parks and public spaces drastically increases people’s likelihood of physical activity and reduces air pollution. But many studies have also shown that parks and public space access have a drastic effect on mental health and community cohesion. Exposure to nature immediately reduces our stress, gives us energy and enhances our mental alertness, attention, and cognitive performance. Other studies have shown that views of nature make us more generous. In a Chicago public housing complex, residents with direct access to green community spaces were more likely to report feeling a sense of belonging, know their neighbours and consider those neighbours supportive and friendly. Those without green space access were more likely to be rude, lose their tempers and commit crimes. As Charles Montgomery summarizes in Happy City, “Nature is not merely good for us. It brings out the good in us.”
Public space hidden in plain sight
The idea of creating more public spaces and parks can sometimes seem daunting with high land costs and low city budgets. But cities don’t always need to buy land to start creating new parks, or tear down buildings to create more public spaces. Our cities have far more public space than we often think. By looking at what we already have and imagining it differently, every city can afford to start right away.
Consider that 25 to 30 per cent of the total area of our cities is taken up by publicly-owned roads alone. Many parking spaces and lots are public too, as well as our sidewalks, school grounds, public buildings and swaths of land below raised rail lines, overpasses or other pieces of infrastructure. They may all be managed by different departments, but at the end of the day they all belong to and are paid for by taxpayers. And together they make up an enormous percentage of the city’s area.
But much of this space is inaccessible to much of the population. Schools and school grounds are only open to students during the day and are often locked once school closes. The road network that makes up 80 per cent of public land in most cities is only accessible to citizens that are operating cars or sitting on buses. Entire strips of roadway that hug our sidewalks exist for the sole purpose of temporarily storing vehicles. Public buildings close at 5 pm and vacant lots — whether publicly or privately owned — sit empty for years before they are developed.
Seizing the opportunities
It doesn’t need to be like that. Many cities of all sizes are beginning to transform these assets into opportunities, using them to carve out room for great public space in the heart of even the densest neighbourhoods.
Take, for example, Melbourne, Australia. A unique planning history left the city’s downtown with two distinct grids: one of major streets and one of narrow laneways that run between the buildings. While other cities with similar laneway systems use the laneways mostly for garbage disposal, Melbourne has allowed the back-end rooms of the buildings facing the main street to be converted into tiny bars, restaurants and shops that front onto the laneways, transforming the tiny thoroughfares into a richly woven network of pedestrian-only spaces.
Similarly, the leisurely and enjoyable experience of walking through central Copenhagen comes in large part from the number of streets the city has slowly, decade by decade, converted from auto-centric thoroughfares to dedicated pedestrian spaces starting in the early 1960s. By the end of the decade, the city had already begun to change as a result, with outdoor cafes arriving in the chilly Scandinavian city for the first time, and a culture of liveliness and public gathering in the newly opened spaces.
“Streets are the most underutilized assets in cities,” says Jeff Risom of Gehl Architects, the firm responsible for much of Copenhagen’s radical transformation. He also points to New York as an example of a city that has recently begun changing this dramatically in its own way by finding unused bits of roadway — unnecessary slip lanes, intersections, too-wide turning lanes, etc. — closing them off to cars and extending the adjacent sidewalks to create a network of miniature public spaces sprinkled all throughout the city. If you ever doubt your city has room to do the same, take a look at your street when it snows and the patterns will likely reveal that your street space is considerably less utilized than you think.
Sometimes all it takes to unlock these resources is simple communication. McAllen, a city of about 130,000 in southern Texas instantly increased its public park space by hundreds of acres by working more closely with the school board to upgrade school playgrounds and develop protocol to leave the fields and facilities unlocked after school hours. New York City later did the same as part of PlaNYC to help reach its goal of having every New Yorker live within a five to ten minute walk of a park by 2030. They added a whopping 290 new parks to the city through the Schoolyards to Playgrounds program.
Many cities in North America have done the same and continue to do so, showing over and over again that the space for place is always there – it just takes a little imagination to find it.
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Lede image credit: NYC DOT
Jon Geeting from This Old City created the term “Sneckdown” – a combination of “snow” and “neckdown” (another name for a curb expansion) – to describe the underutilized spaces that appear in cities when it snows.
Clarence Eckerson Jr. from Streetfilms makes the point that not only do they reveal underutilized space, but also show the effectiveness of the traffic calming devices that could be modeled from their patterns.
As a result, downtown Melbourne is home to a particularly efficient and complex waste collection system.
Melbourne’s scheme of alternating wide roads and narrow laneways was originally conceived by Robert Hoddle, a British Surveyor who migrated to Australia in the 1820s, where he plotted out many of the emerging colony’s first towns.
The grid plan that he drew up for Melbourne, with main streets one and a half chains wide (30 m — wide enough for a bullock cart to turn right without blocking traffic) and laneways a half chain wide (10 m — just wide enough to be used to service the back of the shops), creating 10 chain square (1 acre) blocks, was created for the sole purpose of easily and efficiently selling off narrow rectangular pieces of land. It is known today as Hoddle’s Grid.
There are well over 100 million passenger cars in the United States of America (136,000,000 in 2007). UCLA Urban Planning Professor Dr. Donald Shoup notes in his book The High Cost of Free Parking (which garnered such a cult following it was printed in second edition and bore a robust Facebook following of groupies that call themselves the Shoupistas) that these cars are parked 96 percent of the time. He says that free parking does all of us a disservice, including the people driving. Pricing parking correctly, he says, at “the right price is the lowest price you can charge and still have one or two spaces available on each block” can make cities better for everyone.
Project for Public Spaces is a New York-based nonprofit organization that has worked in cities around the world helping people create and sustain great public spaces since 1975. Of public streets, they write:
“While streets were once a place where we stopped for conversation and children played, they are now the exclusive domain of cars. Even where sidewalks are present along highways and high-speed streets, they feel inhospitable and out of place. Traffic and road capacity are not the inevitable result of growth. They are the product of very deliberate choices that have been made to shape our communities around the private automobile. We have the ability to make different choices–starting with the decision to design our streets as comfortable places for people…
Not so long ago, this idea was considered preposterous in many communities. ‘Public space’ meant parks and little else. Transit stops were simply places to wait. Streets had been surrendered to traffic for so long that we hardly considered them to be public spaces at all. But now we are slowly getting away from this narrow perception of ‘streets as conduits for cars’ and beginning to think of ‘streets as places.’
The road, the parking lot, the transit terminal—these places can serve more than one mode (cars) and more than one purpose (movement). Sidewalks are the urban arterials of cities—make them wide, well lit, stylish and accommodating with benches, outdoor cafes and public art. Roads can be shared spaces with pedestrian refuges, bike lanes, and on-street parking. Parking lots can become public markets on weekends. Even major urban arterials can be designed to provide for dedicated bus lanes, well-designed bus stops that serve as gathering places, and multi-modal facilities for bus rapid transit or other forms of travel. Roads are places too!
Transportation—the process of going to a place—can be wonderful if we rethink the idea of transportation itself. If we remember that transportation is the journey, but enhancing the community is always our goal.
10 Qualities of a Great Street
PPS has identified ten qualities that, in conjunction with the principles described above, contribute to the success of great streets.
• Attractions & Destinations. Having something to do gives people a reason to come to a place—and to return again and again. When there is nothing to do, a space will remain empty, which can lead to other problems. In planning attractions and destinations, it is important to consider a wide range of activities for: men and women, people of different ages, different times of day, week and year, and for people alone and in groups. Create an enticing path by linking together this variety of experiences.
• Identity & Image. Whether a space has a good image and identity is key to its success. Creating a positive image requires keeping a place clean and well-maintained, as well as fostering a sense of identity. This identity can originate in showcasing local assets. Businesses, pedestrians, and drivers will then elevate their behavior to this vision and sense of place.
• Active Edge Uses. Buildings’ bases should be human-scaled and allow for interaction between indoors and out. Preferably, there are active ground floor uses that create valuable experiences along a street for both pedestrians and motorists. For instance, a row of shops along a street is more interesting and generally safer to walk by than a blank wall or empty lot. Sidewalk activity also serves to slow vehicular traffic. At the very minimum, the edge connection should be visual, allowing passers-by to enjoy the activity and aesthetics of the indoor space. These edge uses should be active year-round and unite both sides of the street.
• Amenities. Successful streets provide amenities to support a variety of activities. These include attractive waste receptacles to maintain cleanliness, street lighting to enhance safety, bicycle racks, and both private and public seating options—the importance of giving people the choice to sit where they want is generally underestimated. Cluster street amenities to support their use.
• Management. An active entity that manages the space is central to a street’s success. This requires not only keeping the space clean and safe, but also managing tenants and programming the space to generate daily activity. Events can run the gamut from small street performances to sidewalk sales to cultural, civic or seasonal celebrations.
• Seasonal Strategies. In places without a strong management presence or variety of activities, it is often difficult to attract people year-round. Utilize seasonal strategies, like holiday markets, parades and recreational activities to activate the street during all times of the year. If a street offers a unique and attractive experience, weather is often less of a factor than people initially assume.
• Diverse User Groups. As mentioned previously, it is essential to provide activities for different groups. Mixing people of different race, gender, age, and income level ensures that no one group dominates the space and makes others feel unwelcome and out of place.
• Traffic, Transit & the Pedestrian. A successful street is easy to get to and get through; it is visible both from a distance and up close. Accessible spaces have high parking turnover and, ideally, are convenient to public transit and support walking and biking. Access and linkages to surrounding destinations must be a part of the planning process. Automobile traffic cannot dominate the space and preclude the comfort of other modes. This is generally accomplished by slowing speeds and sharing street space with a range of transportation options.
• Blending of Uses and Modes. Ground floor uses and retail activities should spill out into the sidewalks and streets to blur the distinction between public and private space. Shared street space also communicates that no one mode of transportation dominates.
• Neighborhood Preservation. Great streets support the context around them. There should be clear transitions from commercial streets to nearby residential neighborhoods, communicating a change in surroundings with a concomitant change in street character.”
To read more about PPS’s work around the world and evolving ideas about public space, follow their Placemaking blog.