Sunday, February 21, 2010

Great Streets

Last summer's seminar in Copenhagen and Malmo was the first half of a studio course which is currently wrapping up. As part of this course, we visited with Gehl Architects of Copenhagen to learn their techniques for public space design. Gehl Architects is currently involved in the development of Seattle's Pedestrian Master Plan as well as an area plan for a light-rail station in a southern portion of the city. Our studio is currently using the Gehl methodologies to develop and evaluate site designs for that station plan. Their methods for public space has had significant influence on the revitalization and pedestrian improvements in cities such as Melbourne, New York, San Francisco, and Copenhagen.

Two significant concepts have struck me as simple yet vital to urban space. One is the idea that right-of-way space is typically given over to the automobile in overly generous proportions. Our roadways are often designed to handle traffic capacities which only exist for a total of two hours a day - rush hour. Taking this into consideration, this concept has led to the redevelopment of places like Time's Square which has reallocated space according to use.

The other concept is consideration for human scale development that is attractive to people while walking. This includes many similar ideas as those presented in many design guidelines which neighborhoods use to shape new development. However, those guidelines often fall short when considering the five sense employed by a human when evaluating a place.

This, naturally, led me to evaluate the street design approach in my beloved Albuquerque. I can think of only one area in the entire metro area where street design appears to be well thought out by someone other than a traffic engineer and that is in Nob Hill. From the new lamp posts to the well-manicured medians, there is attention to detail that provides a sense of place which enhances the urban experience.

Taking this a step further, imagine the effects this type of approach to street design would have on activity centers throughout the city if carried over to places such as the University area, Lomas through downtown, north 4th, etc. Perhaps a reallocation of space is in order along Central which might enlarge sidewalks and squeeze down traffic lanes to 10-feet. Imagine what it would be like to walk along Central on a comfortably wide sidewalk with traffic moving a little slower on the other side of parked vehicles. Now imagine this same sense of place in other areas of the city.

The Great Streets plan that is working its way through the red tape attempts to bring some of these changes to designated activity centers. However, the current council's attitude toward such development is lukewarm at best. Some of the wording in the new documentation waters it down to be largely ineffective. Furthermore, the plan doesn't even designate locations for implementation. With this ommitance, coupled with the Centers and Corridors lack of defining said centers, it is highly likely that these plans will collect dust on a shelf. Locating a pilot project will be vital to the plans livelihood as it would provide the city a palpable example from which to learn whether or not it is right for the community. Nob Hills existence as an anomaly gives such concepts little legitimacy in a city run by conservative leaders. It is time that people begin to understand how their quality of life is affected by the continued allowance of urban street design to be left to traffic engineers whom design straight out of a handbook written at time when the car was the panacea to an urban utopia never realized.

The future is urban and we have the tools to create improved conditions for our cities. But this means we also need to be more proactive when it comes to informing our representatives whom have the ability to turn this ship.

Albuquerque's geography and weather lend to the city's ability to become a truly comfortable place for citizens utilizing all forms of mobility. But we need to taylor our built environment to allow for such diversified uses rather than our singular, current approach.

In the meantime, I'll imagine an Albuquerque with urban villages similar to Nob Hill but with wider sidewalks, more rain gardens, bikes lanes and slower traffic, throughout the city.


Dan said...

Hey Tim,

Really enjoy your commentary on this issue. It is so right on. As you point out much of ABQ is car-centric lowest common denominator development. It does seem difficult to get a critical mass of elected officials to advocate for these forward-looking policies. In the mean time I encourage all those interested in such development to also vote with their money. Spend your money in the neighborhoods that reflect your beliefs and sensibilities.

Tim said...

Thanks Dan,
Upon further investigation I came across some new plans making their way through council (such as the North Fourth Street plan) that will help this process. Hopefully they get adopted before construction gets going again.