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Anti-Fragile Public Spaces

Some things get stronger the more they’re challenged.

What do Times Square and, say, State Highway 36 in Illinois have in common? If you said absolutely nothing, you’re almost correct. It’s true you can see wobbling people in Muppet costumes, scantly clad cowgirls and 200ft. tall car ads on Broadway.  On the other hand, you can see lots of speeding traffic and strip malls on Highway 36. The only thing these places have in common is that they’re both in the public right of way, however one is fragile and the other is anti-fragile.

In Nassim Taleb’s book, “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder” he makes a case for disorder, stress, fragmentation, and variation in our personal lives and in larger economic and political systems. Try to make things too safe, too predictable, and the probability of larger catastrophes increases in the future. Some individuals and systems get stronger the more they’re challenged (bones, entrepreneurs, ancient philosophy), while others break completely (Lehman Brothers, debt financing, bureaucrats). Taleb’s idea isn’t new; the Five Slogans of Machig Labdron in Buddhist teachings advocates getting out of one’s comfort zone and experiencing uncomfortable-ness. Perhaps to both Taleb and Labdron, this may mean teaching yourself snake handling skills if you fear snakes, or even standing in the middle of Times Square and being confronted with the unpredictable theater of street life; a dude in an Elmo costume trying to give you a hug.

On State Highway 36, there’s little unpredictability. Little variation from the constant hum of speeding traffic, big box shops, parking lots, and strip malls. It’s a system engineered from the top down for a single purpose; to move automobiles efficiently. It’s an enormously predictable system, but one built on a house of cards and predicated on cheap gas, cheap suburban mortgages, and massive transportation subsidies from the federal government. Take just one of these things away, and the system collapses. If we look at system performance and design, one wreck and the system also collapses due to a lack of alternate routes and modes.  Fragile.

Places which are designed for multiple purposes thrive on disorder. Not only do they have redundancy, but they have anti-fragility. If a massive foreign war should break out and disrupt global oil supplies, $9 per gallon gas would render State Highway 36 useless. Places like New York City would still host cyclists, pedestrians, shops, and excellent transit access though. In fact, all of these systems would see a boost with less automobile traffic clogging the streets and a flock of new residents and commuters who can no longer afford car ownership.  Anti-Fragile.

The same concept can be applied on a smaller scale. Project for Public Spaces advocates for multi-purposed public spaces, no matter what their size. This creates complimentary and diverse uses throughout the day. In the morning, yoga. In the afternoon, a food truck outdoor cafe. In the evening, an up and coming singer songwriter trying to be the next Jackson Browne.  And should another economic collapse happen, the space will host an Occupy Wall Street camp.  The cacophony of uses and modes of a quality public space or complete street brings a qualitative value which can’t be measured in travel time or LOS. A space designed to only be used by corporate employees during their 1/2 hour lunch break would make even Highway 36 seem like an exciting place.

Taleb says artificially imposed peace and order will eventually bite you in the end. I happen to agree. In designing our cities, streets and public spaces, a bit of disorder and redundancy pays dividends. A space like Times Square may not be for everyone, but it has lasting value and adaptability. It also has economic self sufficiency.  The cost of maintaining the public infrastructure around Times Square pales in comparison to the amount of revenue the place brings in for the city.  On the other hand, top down efficiency is costly. Highway 36 is a financial albatross for nearby municipalities. Perhaps federal funds were used to construct the highway, but road maintenance costs, declining property tax revenue of auto-oriented development, and high transportation costs for residents (car ownership is a prerequisite to participate in these places) negates any financial benefit the road may have in attracting development. If we extrapolate this idea further, almost all auto capacity expansion projects, interstate interchange “upgrades”, and new highways have reached a point of negative return.  These projects are extremely fragile and enable a series of negative externalities state DOTs often don’t calculate. Fortunately, the public is catching on. The defeat of Portland’s CRC highway is a sign that the tide is turning against fragile, big budget highway projects.

So next time you’re showing out of town visitors a quality public space or complete street in your city, mention how “anti-fragile” it is and watch their reaction. You’ll be glad you did.

 

*Shoutout to Parksify, a new collaborate planning and public space blog I’ll be contributing to.

New Queens Public Plaza Full of People and Life

The area previously had no public seating whatsoever, which is astonishing considering the dozens of restaurants nearby. Now it is a magnet for people, especially kids, who give the place a vibe that feels different than most other pedestrian plazas. To watch parents sit calmly while their kids play would have been unheard of before the street was reclaimed from traffic and parking.

Also, Human Transit on Portland’s 1982 bus system reforms, which created an intuitive, efficient grid routing system out of a radial mess.

Small Streets Make A Big Difference

Two plazas, but a world apart. Hanover Street is in red.

Could you find Hanover Street on a map of downtown Baltimore? I didn’t think so. This small street is just as obscure on the ground as it is on maps, but it has a secret importance. Hanover Street is a direct link between two downtown public spaces; Hopkins Plaza and Center Plaza. With renovations completed on Center Plaza, and the pedestrian bridge about to come down on the north side of Hopkins Plaza, Hanover Street is an opportunity to finally link these places, encourage a critical mass of visitors and support new downtown retail and residential projects.

I often use Pittsburgh as a case study for good planning and urban design projects, and I’m about to do it again. It’s a smaller city than Baltimore, but it gets urbanism and seems to be open to new design ideas. It’s also cool as hell and I suggest you visit at least once in your life.  Market Square, which PPS recently redesigned, is a national model for urban plazas and would make Jan Gehl and William Whyte proud. A block away there’s another public space which doubles as an ice skating rink in the winter, with Market Street serving as the direct connection between the two. The synergistic effect of these two public spaces, and the intuitive connection between them has helped revitalize the retail and restaurant market in this section of downtown Pittsburgh and added a lot of foot traffic in an area which used to be dead after 5pm.

Pittsburgh's Market Square. Yes, it really is that cool.

While Market Street is a pedestrian-only corridor, Hanover Street is open to traffic and a drop off area for the Radisson hotel. This makes the connection between our parks a bit more complicated, but not impossible. A few things need to be addressed:

 

  • The Sharaton Hotel’s blank wall on the west side of the street is the 800 lbs gorilla in the room. This thing looks like it was built to withstand nuclear war (designed in the 60s, it probably was).  Because it’s actually part of an underground garage, it’s not likely to be rebuilt anytime soon. Luckily, there’s potential patio space on top of the structure. If the concrete parapet wall were to be replaced with something more transparent, and if a few cafe tables were added, this could at least give the sense of more activity on the street, even if it’s not ground-level. With the pedestrian bridge gone, there would also be a direct visual connection between the patio and Hopkins Plaza.  The blank wall at ground level could also be refinished and host a mural, fun house mirrors, or a sarcastic comment in large print about the O’s actually winning a few games this year.
  • Traffic. Unsignaled mid-block crosswalks on Fayette and Baltimore Street should be the first thing addressed. If pedestrians have to run between cars to get between the two plazas, all the programming in the world won’t create a critical mass of visitors. Signals are needed at both intersections.
  • The underground parking egress ramp on Fayette Street. Ok, there are actually two 800lbs gorillas in the room. It obstructs the line of sight to Center Plaza from Hanover Street, and creates another conflict point for pedestrians walking between the two plazas. Either close the ramp, or deck it over at the intersection and relocate it. Whose idea was it to put this thing here?
  • Center Plaza was redesigned a few years ago, but it still gives off a “hurry up and move along” vibe when there are no events going on. The problem is the seating; it’s around the perimeter, with a vacuum in the center of the space. The grass is green I guess, but with a few cafe tables, chairs, and some trees in the center, it would be a much more active place. Think of a miniature version of Farragut Square in DC.

What’s amazing is how these two plazas can exist so close together, yet seem so far apart. It’s not enough to just build open spaces and hope people show up. Attention to details like sight lines, pedestrian comfort, traffic issues, and seating arrangements are what differentiate deserted spaces from active ones.  The two major hotels on Hanover Street and the Metro station are also huge opportunities to get more use out of both plazas.

Baltimore could learn from the master plans of L’Enfant, Oglethorpe, and Haussmann. Well thought out paths, links, nodes, and corridors were the foundations that built unique and beautiful cities around the world. Making Hanover Street a better link would be a small step in this direction.

The Difference Between Roads and Streets

A street in Hong Kong. Probably not wide enough for rush hour traffic, but that’s OK.

Listen to any Bruce Springsteen song and you’ll probably hear a reference to “the street”. This is often accompanied by stanzas about how he spent a summer building a ’72 Challenger from scratch, stole a girl from a dude in L.A., or found spiritual salvation in the hum of an inline V6. While Springsteen often uses “streets” and “roads” interchangeably, the terms are often confused by planners and engineers. Let me break it down.

Roads

  • Exist in an netherworld separate from neighborhoods, civic engagement, and anything else that doesn’t fit into a traffic model.
  • Efficient, but fragile. Primary purpose is to move traffic. Like a pipe moves water.
  • Very serious business.  Measured by delay, congestion, level of service.
  • Very “Platonic” as defined in Taleb’s critique of predictability in ”Black Swan“  (top-down, formulaic, closed-minded, skeptical). Yes, I know I reference this book a lot.

Streets

  • A civic stage.  A platform for creative, social, and economic life.
  • Robust and complimentary.  Multiple activities ensures a vibrant, healthy public space.
  • Democratic and “bottom up”. While infrastructure is built by the city, adaptable and community driven uses gives a neighborhood ownership of the street.
  • Playful, intuitive, exists with neighborhoods, not despite them.

Charles Marohn at Strong Towns explains the concepts of roads and streets using 45mph design speeds as an example. Disregarding surrounding land uses, economic value and social health of neighborhoods, roads designed to be “safe to a fault” have been the status quo for a long time:

The value of a street comes from its ability to support land use patterns that create capturable value. The street with the highest value is the one that creates the greatest amount of tax revenue with the least amount of public expense over multiple life cycles. If we want to maximize the value of a street, we design it in such a way that it supports an adjacent development pattern that is financially resilient, architecturally timeless and socially enduring.

These simple concepts are totally lost on us.  If you want to start to see the world with [accurate] eyes and truly understand why our development approach is bankrupting us, just watch your speedometer. Anytime you are traveling between 30 and 50 miles per hour, you are basically in an area that is too slow to be efficient yet too fast to provide a framework for capturing a productive rate of return. (Strong Towns)

Well said.  Pick the average state highway, urban arterial, neighborhood street with average speeds of 35+ mph, or run of the mill downtown arterial which prioritizes auto traffic, and you’ll see an example of a road. Often, these roads try to be both a street and road, but fail at both. For instance, a state highway designed to funnel traffic as quickly as possible with numerous curb cuts serving auto-centric big box stores is neither an efficient road nor a neighborhood enhancing and economically vibrant street. By trying to serve both through and local trips in such a mono-modal fashion, and by encouraging inefficient and economically draining development patterns, these types of roads erode both a sense of place and revenue generating opportunities for communities.

Finding examples of streets is less clear cut, but far more interesting. Luckily, Daniel Toole has done a great job of documenting the best examples of streets – alleys.  His blog (and his new book, “Tight Urbanism“), is a photographic journey into alleys all over the world. When streets are tightly framed by buildings and surrounded by a mix of uses, something magical happens. It’s the sense of serendipity- turn a corner and you may find an exotic fruit vendor, a busker playing your new favorite song, or a Thai restaurant tucked into a small corner.

Alleys work great as streets because they create an intimate streetscape which serves as a “stage” for outdoor cafes, performers, and other activities.  Based on Donald Appleyard’s research showing that residents of streets with light traffic had three times more friends and twice as many acquaintances as the people who lived on streets with high volumes of traffic, it stands to reason that alleys take this concept to the next level, with the social capital of alleys surpassing even low volume streets and providing more opportunities for social interaction and street life. It can also be argued that alleys are streets in their purest form – primarily a civic stage, robust, “bottom up”, and contributing to civic life.

Jackson Heights Plaza in NYC is a great example of a road turned into a street.  Continuing the precedent of  public plaza installations throughout the city, travel lanes converted into new outdoor cafes and other people-oriented uses have energized neighborhoods, increased foot traffic and given a boost to local businesses.

Streets converted into pedestrian plazas were a city planning fad in the 1970s and 1980s and were expected to revitalize downtowns, but instead, the conversions often created dead zones due to poor management and lack of foot traffic. NYC’s program strategically locates plazas by selecting sites with active retail, tourism magnets, and abundant foot traffic.  The plazas have also been a boon to nearby businesses. Would you rather do businesses next to 45 mph traffic, or on a street where people are encouraged to stroll into your shop without fear of being hit by a bus?

The Tactical Urbanism Guide from The Street Plans Collaborative  is a excellent guide to creative, community focused public space projects (full document below). A lot of examples focus on low cost, short turn-around projects non profits and community groups could initiate.  Small things like adding chairs to a street corner, creating a garden out of a vacant lot, or building a mini-park out of sod, benches and portable planters in a parking space can change how neighborhoods think about streets and public spaces. The very process of planning and building these projects can also strengthen communities.

Small, grass roots projects highlighted in the Tactical Urbanism Guide also challenge what could be considered the dictatorship of auto-focused public spaces. With streets often making up more than 15% of cities total land area, leaving these spaces dedicated solely to automobiles is an environmental, social, and economic waste. While cities are spending enormous amounts of money to maintain their streets and related utilities, there should be a better return on investment than simply supplying drivers a marginally smoother ride or shaving 2 minutes off of an auto trip.  The Tactical Urbanism Guide encourages readers to think creatively about what a street could mean for a neighborhood.

Finally, I can’t mention livable streets without mentioning the Open Streets Initiative, an effort to bring Bogata style Cyclovias to cities across the U.S. Open Streets events close off a series of streets to traffic (usually on Sunday) to encourage physical activity, socializing, community events, and local business patronage. These events also bring people from diverse walks of life together. People who may have never run into each other during the course of their daily routines.

The true potential of a street isn’t the efficient movement of vehicles, but the social and design qualities that make people want to stay around awhile.

 

Baltimore needs a Bryant Park. Or at least a Union Square.

Union Square in NYC. I saw a man walking an eagle here.

It’s been awhile since my last post. I haven’t died. I just returned from visiting friends and family in NYC and Boston. I’ll spare you the comparisons of their transit systems to Baltimore’s, or other gushing remarks, like, “Oh the architecture bla bla bla”. Baltimore will never be NYC or Boston, but we can have one thing that makes walking around these cities interesting; great public spaces.

Both cities have active public spaces where people can relax, get creative, get weird, or just watch other people. I saw a man try to walk what looked like a bald eagle on a leash in Union Square.  There are formal and informal spaces within the park for almost every conceivable type of activity. In Boston, there were these really bad break dancers in a plaza near the Irish Potato Famine monument.  But they drew a huge crowd and it became sort of an event.  The famine monument itself is an outdoor living room where people were mingling and having lunch.

Even the smallest parks in NYC and Boston have a sense of playfulness and spontaneity. This encourages people to explore another block, turn a corner, or stop into a local coffee shop on their walk around town. There is a little bit of this at the Inner Harbor, but its mostly people walking from one tourist spot to the other.  The Katyn Memorial in Harbor East seems to exist solely as a solemn reminder of a tragedy and nothing more. Preston Gardens, in its current form, acts as more of a highway divider than an urban park, though if the number of traffic lanes on St. Paul Street were reduced, widening the park could improve its visibility and function.

Boston Common

Central Plaza on Fayette Street has potential if it just loosened up. It’s a really serious place with signs saying “Keep off the lawn!” and people in business suits eating their serious lunches very seriously.  If more benches were added and trees planted near the internal walkways – and not just around the perimeter (sort of like Farragut Square in DC but on a smaller scale), it would encourage more use and make the park seem more active. Like William Whyte said, people attract people. Central Plaza is a bit handicapped since it exists mid-block and not at an intersection, but this could also work to its advantage. There was an outdoor performance by a folk singer at Central Plaza a few weeks ago and the acoustics were great – filling the small space which is surrounded by buildings on 3 sides.

Project for Public Spaces and Downtown Partnership held several design charettes for the Downtown Open Space Plan last month. While the economy sputters along and big ticket projects get cut back, improving the design and programming of our public spaces could be a low-cost way of making Baltimore a more vibrant, fun city.  Places like Boston Common or Union Square were carved out hundreds of years ago, so we’ll have to make do with the parks we have, though we might be able to expand a few of them.

William Whyte, the famed park designer and people watcher, said in the book “City: Rediscovering the Center“:

Cities should take a closer look at what they already have. Most of them are sitting on a huge reservoir of space yet untapped by imagination. They do not need to spend millions creating space. In their inefficiently used rights-of-way, and their vast acreage of parking lots, there is more than enough space for broad walkways, small parks and pedestrian places.

Update: The Infrastructurist has a piece on Dallas’s new Main Street Garden. I was in Dallas this past May visiting a friend and was pretty impressed by their public spaces. Even some of their corporate plazas are unique and really active. Also check out Urbanite’s Baltimore Parks Lag Behind” piece.