Category Archives: Public Space

Special Screening of Jan Gehl’s “The Human Scale”


Over the years I’ve been influenced greatly by the work of Jan Gehl’s office. I’ve been helping CNUNE and the City of Somerville setup a special screening of the Jan Gehl documentary “The Human Scale” and am excited to announce that registration for the FREE showing went up today. Here is a link to all the details and to register for the January 30th showing at 6:30 at the Somerville Theater.

I’d like to give a big thanks to Ian Judge at the Somerville Theater for providing the theater for the show and for recognizing how important the subject of this film is to local efforts. I’d also like to thank Ian Stimler from KimStim for making this whole thing happen.

 

Turning a Highway into a Public Plaza is Possible


Streets are for people. People on foot, on bike and in motor vehicles. But, at the end of the day they are all just people regardless of what mode they are using. We have forgotten this fact in the planning of our streets. It is so refreshing to see that communities such as Poynton are using the design of their streets and major intersections as the foundational elements for the renewal of their economy.

Now, many of you might be thinking that the above video is about the UK and that shared space is not in the character of our towns and cities here in the States. Plus we love our cars so why would we not put them as top priority. However, in a number of projects over the past five years I’ve advocated for the use of shared space and included shared space in the urban design plans. Alas, only one of them has been built… and its an alley so that doesn’t really count. However, the story in Poynton has convinced me even more that shared space is a key solution for not only traffic safety and efficiency, but economic development.

However, there are several hurtles that these projects will need to jump when being implemented in the States:

  1. Finding an engineer that will put their professional stamp on the project drawings.
  2. Negotiating with the “science” of modern day traffic models to convince the powers that be that shared space can increase traffic efficiency.
  3. Ensuring everyone that these spaces can be designed to accommodate the impaired and as the above video conveys even improve mobility for the disabled.
  4. Figure out how to work around the “if it is not in the guidelines it cannot be built” mentality that so many DOTs are limit by in regards to shaping our built environment.

There are several projects in the States in addition to the one in Providence that I know about that have been able to pull of the impossible (Montgomery, Cambridge, etc.). However, what we all have forgotten is that shared space was the only way streets were built in the U.S. less than 75 years ago. Jason King from Dover Kohl reminded me of this fact when he sent me the image below of Madison Square.

I applaud Ben Hamilton-Bailie and all those involved with implementing Poynton on what was surely a giant hill to climb in order to get this project built. If you know of any shared space project on the drawing boards in your area please do leave a comment with the details. Thanks to Chuck at Strongtowns for sharing this video with me.

Madison SquareShared space in Madison Square, New York

Poynton Shared SpacePoynton Share Space. Image: Hamilton-Bailie Associates

 

Jan Gehl’s Incremental Approach to Urbanism

My ongoing study of how best to design the human habitat has been consumed by the research of Jan Gehl. I am pleased that the CNU will be hosting him for a keynote lecture at CNU20. If you have not picked up a copy of his latest book, Cities for People, I highly recommend you give it a read.

In the film above, Mr. Gehl mentions the importance of Copenhagen incremental approach to the city’s public space improvements. Planners should find it particularly important to note that a master plan would have never been able to get the city to where it is today, and that it was the slow build up of small projects that allowed a greater vision to be created. Perhaps this is the best approach to 21st century city building? Lighter, quicker, cheaper, and, overtime, better.

The emerging Tactical Urbanism discussion can certainly learn from Copenhagen’s story.

Greater Kennedy Plaza Receives $200,000 for Placemaking

The National Endowment for the Arts has award $200,000 to the Greater Kennedy Plaza effort. This is incrediable exciting. I have worked on this placemaking project for close to four years now. The Our Town grant funds will be used for a variety of arts and placemaking related activities:

Providence’s Our Town grant will support the Creative Capital Hub project. The project will use arts programming and new urban design plans to transform Greater Kennedy Plaza from a bus terminal with disconnected parks to a grand plaza and central gathering place for the city’s residents, tourists, and workers. Project activities include developing a master urban design plan to guide capital improvements and programming of artistic performances and festivals at the plaza. The project activities will offer an improved public transit experience for the 71,000 individuals that utilize the Greater Kennedy Plaza daily.

Not too long ago I wrote about the long term vision plan that I helped develop for Kennedy Plaza, and thanks to the support of the NEA planning and urban design for phase one work will be able to move forward. A big thanks needs to go out to Buff Chace, Lynn McCormick, Cliff Wood and the entire grant writing team. I also need to thank Fred and Ethan Kent for encouraging us to be zealous nuts when it comes to transforming a public square.

I am glad to see that a division of our federal government is seeing how investing in the creation of a high quality public realm can effect economic development and livability.

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Life & Urbanism has been neglected the last few months due to a host of new projects. News on those efforts will be posted soon. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy your weekend by visiting one of your city’s great public squares.

Paris Inspires Rebuilding of Bridge in Providence

Cities are for people. How often do you think of a city as the human habitat? Do you ever look at your daily routine and how it could be improved if the environment you lived in were different. Lions live in the Serengeti because the habitat provides them with what they need for life. Does your habitat provide you with what you need for life?

There is a project just taking off in Providence that has the potential to improve the habitat and in turn the daily lives of many citizens. On Wednesday the City and RIDOT will be unveiling the final design proposals for the pedestrian bridge that will be replacing the original 195 highway. My hope is that at least one of the design proposals will provide Providence with a bridge for people. My gut seems to be telling me that we will mostly be getting proposals for a semi-functional “icon” that will look “sexy” or “modern” on a postcard, but once constructed will provide a dismal environment for humans. I’ve spent a little time thinking about what this new bridge should do with the hopes that those in the position to select the winning design give more thought to what the bridge needs to do for the humans who will be using it.

A quick aside, I placed my order today for Jan Gehl’s new book Cities for People because of his firm’s great commitment to building comfortable cities. I am noticing more and more good work happening in places like Copenhagen, New York and San Francisco and hope that places like Providence will get it soon as well.

Now on to the criteria for a great bridge:

It is All About the Water

If a pedestrian bridge is going to be vibrant it must be about experiencing the water. Being on the water. Looking across the water. Watching the objects upon the water. This natural connection can be accomplished in various forms. The Passerelle des Arts is perhaps the best example of a successful pedestrian bridge that I have experienced recently. As you can see from the photo above, the bridge connects directly to the quay below allowing for folks to stroll right on down to the water. Another important detail connecting the bridge strongly to the water is the use of wood planks as the surface material. The cracks between the boards allow you to feel the water passing below you. I also enjoy how the structure of this bridge seems to disappear giving way to the river beyond.

Simple & Durable Details for Comfort

A pedestrian bridge is everyone’s and no ones’. People will take photos on it. People will sit on it. People will have a picnic on it. People will even get engaged on it. Yet, none of this will happen unless they feel comfortable on it. The bridge needs to feel like you are the first person to sit in that spot, ever. This is how a bridge becomes everyone’s living room. So how does a bridge do that? The design cannot be too complex. The materials need to be durable, and simple so that if they do need to be replaced they can be quickly and easily. The bridge needs to be clean, and have the receptacles to encourage cleanliness. The bridge needs to be warm. People will sit on anything, but they will enjoy sitting on certain materials more then others. Pick those. The structure needs to be firm and realistic. People understand their living rooms. To be comfortable, they need to understand their bridge as well.

Not Too Much Room

If a pedestrian bridge is going to evolve into more then just a way over the river then careful attention needs to be given to width. Too wide and people will lose their connection to the water. Too narrow and there is no room for leisure. The best pedestrian bridges have three zones. The center is for clustering. This is the area for bigger picnics, benches, ping-pong, and all sorts of small group activities. Moving outward, the main travel ways need to be wide enough for two people to pass each other comfortable or for a strolling couple and a stranger to pass without discomfort. If the proportions properly sized, then this area should also handle nicely the frequent bicycle. At the railings of the bridge is the most important zone. The railing needs to not only protect you from a fall, but also be a coffee table, a leaning post and a writing desk. All manner of activity will take place in this zone, and the rail is the key to making it prime real estate. Think of the bridge’s cross section like a great boulevard where activities mix well with the passing people. Particular attention needs to be given to each of these zones. A foot here and six inches there can put this dance way off balance.

Something is On the Other Side

You would think that all bridges have something on the other side. However, they don’t. Humans love to know that something, anything, is worth crossing over to the other side. A visual indication that there is life across the water is good. In Providence, there will be two new parks on both sides of the new bridge. What will people find in these new parks on each side of the bridge? Will you be able to see it form the other side? Principally, a bridge is a transit connection. It provides access for travelers to get to and from their destinations. Will these new parks be great destination in their own right? If not, what are the other destinations that this bridge will serve and how can its design help make it fun to go over the bridge to get there?

Leave Room for Traditions

Flexibility is a key ingredient to all successful public spaces. A framework needs to be created that not only provides a comfortable environment for the citizens of a place, but also supports its evolving culture. A design needs to leave room for these living traditions. The Love Padlocks of Paris have a place. These tokens give life to this bridge. They are a powerful ornament, but a simple little detail that would not have been possible unless the design of the railing was flexible. When two people come out onto a bridge, kiss and leave feeling more alive their city is providing for them in more ways then modern planners can count. This is the art of city building. This is the alchemy of creating authentic place for people.

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The Public will have an opportunity to view the proposed bridge designs of 11 finalists competing in the Providence Pedestrian River Bridge Design Competition at a special reception on Wednesday, November 3rd from 5pm until 7pm at Providence City Hall. (via Greater City Providence)

A New Vision for a Public Square

Cities often overlook their forgotten public squares and parks as key economic development tools. Providence is slowly rediscovering this fact. I have had the pleasure of illustrating the redevelopment vision for Kennedy Plaza. Currently, the square is mostly know as a bus transfer center. However, it is the planning groups aim that one day this space will house New England’s largest, outdoor public market. I am particularly excited about this goal considering my bike ride to and from the office passes right through the square.

It has been a pleasure working with all the partners on the creation of this vision. It represents the best ideas the Friends of Kennedy Plaza have today, and they are looking for ways to improve upon it. Visit www.kennedyplaza.org to submit your comments.

The film would not have happened without the skills of Ben Chace. Check out his award winning film Wah Do Dem on Hulu. If you would like to know even more about what is in store for the future of Kennedy Plaza click here.

Skateboarding in Kennedy Plaza


While researching for a lecture I’m giving at Miami’s School of Architecture on Monday, I came across this nice little video of how Providence is supporting skateboarding in Downtown. The Greater Kennedy Plaza placemaking effort has been working on improvements to the square for two years now, and it has been super cool to watch the PVD skating scene descend on the rink every Thursday night. I’ve asked the questions before, but how is your city supporting alternative sports?

Can Providence Create Complete Streets?

Providence_bike_weybosset

Frequently riding my bike around Providence I have determined that yes the city can create complete streets. I see all of the “systems” and “facilities” being installed in bigger cities. like New York and Amsterdam, and wonder if there isn’t a simpler way.  Can the streets of a city be designed in a form that gives equal footing to all modes of transportation?

How we go about making this transition in Providence is an entirely different conversation that I hope to start this weekend. Friend, colleague and fellow editor of Living Urbanism, Mike Lydon will be stopping in Providence over the next two days.  I am hoping to learn a few things from him about bicycle planning and complete street development while showing him around our, more or less, bikeable city.

Mike was also nice enough to agree to pull together a presentation on the best practices of bicycle planning and livable streets development being given on Monday, 10/28, at 11 AM.  Check out the facebook event for more info.

For more information on Mike Lydon click here and reserve a copy of his upcoming book, Smart Growth Manual, written with Andrés Duany and Jeff Speck.

(photo by Providence Public Library)