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Posts Tagged ‘placemaking’

I recently had the great opportunity to blog for one of my favorite organizations: Project for Public Spaces.  If you’re not familiar, you should be.  Project for Public Spaces is a non-profit dedicated to create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities.  There are some cities doing wonderful projects that are putting life back into under-utilized streets.  While I love reading blog postings on this site, I was always frustrated because we’ve been doing some pretty cool things here and more people should about them.  So, here it is.

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I am one of the “zealous nuts.” I live in Columbus, Ohio and I think about Placemaking and Streets as Places all the time. You can easily catch me out in the neighborhood observing street-life behavior, or taking photos of things like benches (without backs) placed randomly on isolated and ridiculously over-sized slabs of concrete void of life and asking the question, “…Why?”

I don’t remember exactly when this passion (mixed with mild-obsession) began with wanting to re-create a city prioritizing people instead of autos. I’m sure the birth of it began while living in San Francisco in the late 90s/early 2000s. I had no need to own a car; I biked, bused, walked everywhere, and everywhere you went, people were around. Life was constantly happening in the streets. I remember I experienced my first diagonal crosswalk on New Montgomery Street and I thought it was the coolest concept, but also such an “A-HA!” moment: Convenience.

I moved back to Columbus in 2002 and quickly realized I wasn’t in “convenience, multi-modal-land” anymore. I bought a used car. My car did its job for a good six years. During that time, I would attempt to bike to certain destinations, but quickly learned first-hand how unfriendly our streets were. I also realized that when I was living in San Francisco, I used my bike as a mode of transportation – not merely as a recreational item when I merely felt like it. I didn’t fully grasp this until I moved back to Columbus and experienced how much harder it was. You see, in a city as dense as San Francisco, with its various integrated modes and speeds, drivers always have to be aware and drive more cautiously. In Columbus during that time, you rarely saw a person walking or biking; cars were the dominant mode and like the majority of cities and towns across the U.S., streets were designed to seduce you to speed. I’m all for being seduced but not while biking on an arterial road that I have to “share” with cars going 40 mph.

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As it turns out, history ALWAYS finds a way to repeat itself. Adult onesies are hotter than before, video arcades are the “in” place to hang out, and also revitalization – yes, revitalization – to resuscitate a space that’s lost its vigor, is having a comeback in a major way. In the past ten years, we’ve seen a boom in Downtown Revitalization Projects that are attracting people to once again move in instead of out. Columbus is one of those cities and we’ve made incredible strides in the past ten years. We have an amazing urban park in the center of our downtown that fills with life and concerts and various organized sports during the spring, summer, and fall months. We have a riverfront that has been transformed into a destination (and is currently being expanded) for residents and tourists with a cityscape view that’ll take your breath away. And in 2014 our downtown living soared from 4,000 residents to 7,000. People are coming back and I’ve loved watching our downtown find its heartbeat again.

So, where do I come in? Well, I love Columbus but one thing has constantly nagged me about this city:  One of the most repetitive adjectives I hear when people describe Columbus is, “potential” – including myself. “Columbus has such potential if only…” I want to stop being an awesome city IF and start being an awesome city that IS, and that means DOING. So, with a little talent, hustle, and guts, I’ve been DOING.

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The concept of Placemaking here in Columbus is only about four years new. One of the “primer” projects that opened up people’s eyes and minds to the possibilities of what could be was a 2013 project called CBUS FOTO. This collective engagement project organized through Columbus’ Center for Architecture and Design, and led by the vision of Michael and Sarah Bongiorno with a group of talented young designers, asked citizens of Columbus to photograph empty, overlooked spaces and buildings in the city and come up with creative ways on how to fill them. The hope was to inspire citizens to understand that we are surrounded by under-utilized public spaces. These “overlooked” public spaces that we walk through every day and bike past everyday are blank canvasses awaiting rejuvenation. The value of this ephemeral project activated people’s imagination to see public spaces differently, as more than meets the eye.

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2014 was a very fulfilling year for me as two of my passion projects were launched to the people of Columbus:  The Columbus Parklet Project and Open Streets Columbus. Our team piloted Columbus’ first parklet for one month in September, 2014 with the help of nine business supporters. The public and nearby businesses embraced the 4th St Parklet and in 2015, we plan on implementing two more. Fred Kent said it best, “when you give people an interesting place to gather, they’ll gather.”

I fell in love with parklets years ago. I remember when I was flying to San Francisco, one of my “to-do’s” was to “hangout” in a parklet. Let that marinate in your brains for a minute.I’m headed to another city and one of my destinations is a parking space. But, I was drawn to them and I knew people in Columbus would be drawn to them too. They were unique and exciting and I loved that people filled up the space in front of a business instead of one car.Life was added.  The Columbus Parklet Project creates small yet powerful actions that will continue to show people that streets have a “double-duty” responsibility – that they are necessary for getting us from point A to point B, AND they can be places.

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Another team I led was Open Streets Columbus. After three years of work and meetings and a lot of “no’s,” Columbus finally launched its first Open Streets event in September of 2014. We closed 0.8 miles of downtown streets and it became an urban playground for people of all ages (and wages). We’ve become submissive to the ‘Arrogance of Space.’ The Danish-coined term simply implies that there’s just too much space allocated to cars and drivers, and not enough for anything or anybody else. We’ve been told for so long that roads are made only to be driven on and outdated, myopic street design proves this. Open Streets initiatives turn the outdated thinking upside-down and gives the space back, allowing people to explore, connect, and realize on their own that equitable street design can happen.

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We had roughly 600 people come out and explore their city streets, free of all obstructions. It doesn’t sound like much but it was a great success, especially for a city that has a long way to go when it comes to bike/ped friendliness. The people who came out absolutely fell in love with Open Streets Columbus and in 2015, we’re planning to grow from one to two events. We are confident that with repetition and time, Open Streets Columbus will grow into a sustaining, thriving initiative every neighborhood embraces.

Years in the making and worth every moment.

I guess I wanted to write this blog for a couple reasons. I wanted to share some of our small successes here in Columbus because I’m proud of them and we’ve only just begun. I was tired of reading article after article about cities that are thriving, partially in part due to the presence of creative Placemaking projects and Columbus not being listed. Well, we now stand out, too, and I hope that can be an inspiration for other cities like ours. Lastly, Columbus has given me the support to take these risks. I say it’s a risk because for many people, especially decision-makers, as this is still uncharted territory. But, I believe these risks (and others) must be taken by everyone in order to not be a city that’s “status-quo.” I refuse to live in a city that’s “status-quo,” and I’m ‘all in’ to stand up to make the changes I want to see. We still have quite a ways to go but I think Columbus, and smaller and larger cities, are embracing the efforts of humanizing our streets again.

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I recently went to Los Angeles to visit dear friends of mine and to get into warm weather.  I picked the perfect week.  89 degrees and cloudless skies.  It was exactly the medicine I needed.  I made no plans.  I told my people that I wanted as much ocean time as I could as well as some biking, reading, and hiking, and that’s what I got.  It was great.

While I loved visitng my friends and having the access of going to the ocean one day and then heading into the mountains the next, it was really eye-opening as a woman, hyper-sensitive to her built environment.

First and foremost, speed limits are a mere ‘suggestion’ there.  The design of city streets utterly contradict the intended speed.  Many streets are 8-9 lanes wide like my beloved Sepulveda Blvd.  Don’t ask me why I like that street, I just like the way it sounds.  Except for a couple streets downtown, I don’t think I saw any pedestrian refuges in the middle of these wide streets.  I was almost hit three times due to drivers wanting to get through that left turn as quickly as possible.

Some neighborhoods like Silver Lake, Santa Monica, and Los Feliz are better.  Culver City, you’re cute as hell but damn, even there, drivers park their Audi’s in the crosswalks!

If you’re a person NOT in a motor vehicle, you’re the foreigner.  I remember leaving Will Rogers beach and waiting to cross the PCH at the signal and waited for the ‘Walk’ to light for almost 6 mins!

One infrastructure piece I did love were all their ‘continental crosswalks’ at so many signalized intersections.  These crosswalks are bigger, wider, and provide more visibility to enhance pedestrian safety (photo will be below).  This is part of a larger effort of L.A. Walks and the work of LADOT’s Valerie Watson.  I met Val at the Open Streets National Summit last April and fell in love with this initiative as I feel in my city of Columbus, pedestrian safety is not being talked about enough.

The ‘level of stress’ I experienced as a passenger riding in Los Angeles remained at about a 7 out of 10.  I think however, that attributes to a few things:  1. I have very bad motion sickness; 2. You’re ALWAYS IN TRAFFIC; 3. Where ever you want to go, you need to hop on at least 3 different highways.

Going to L.A. always grounds me when I return here to Columbus and complain about heading up to Clintonville (6 miles). Community. I wondered when I was there, how one creates community.  I know you can create community anywhere but, it’s just so vast.  Also, with so many wide, fast streets, I noticed (and you’ll see below in pictures) that so many dwellings a multi-unit.  These dwellings are set up in such a way that it’s almost like ‘togetherness’ was the goal NOT to accomplish and ‘isolation’ was the beacon to strive for.  Gates and sound barriers; so many of these units have ‘balconies’ however, not one soul enjoyed their balcony when I would observe.  Who would?  Who would sit out and watch the 50mph traffic speed by?

I appreciate all the advocates out there trying to make L.A. a more liveable place.  I don’t think I could do it.  It’s just too big where I feel I wouldn’t be making a difference.

I’ll end on a few positives:  my wonderful, beautiful friends whom I love dearly.  Strolling through Venice and looking at all the beautiful homes and gardens (which I could do for hours).  The ocean that I absolutely adore.  Driving PCH as the sun is setting and being witness to that.  Finding the most awesome, random, off the path bar in Malibu that will now be mandatory any time I return to L.A. and, the mountains.  As an introvert, hiking in complete silence in such gorgeous topography is cathartic.

photo 1 (11) continental crosswalk.  loud and clear about pedestrian space.

photo 1 (10)Stepped into the middle of the street to show width.  9 lanes wide (including center turn lane)

photo 1 (12)Burbank Blvd.  The intersection where I was almost hit

photo 3 (11)I bet you that pedestrian doesn’t feel very comfortable

photo 4 (10)See that dude with the orange vest?  Well, he had to park his truck there to make adjustments and cars paid no mind.  Continued to pass him at 45+mph.

photo 4 (11)Many parts of the sidewalks looked like this.  This was 5 1/2 feet wide, not enough for two people to walk ‘comfortably’ or for a person in a wheelchair.  Also, notice the continued poles?

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Gates and fences and materials to isolate the high speeds.  Again, not a soul enjoying their ‘views.’

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So… aside from being ‘mildly’ obsessed with bicycles and placemaking, I, along with many others work hard every day trying to make our roads safe and use-able for ALL modes of transportation.  Roads aren’t owned by cars even though many drivers these days feel this sense of entitlement when it comes to OUR roads.

It’s really amazing that from riding my bike everyday, the more ‘in your face’ things become.  All the rules broken by drivers AND bicycle riders.  I was recently at my friends birthday party and another friend and I were talking and she said, ‘I was waiting a red light and I got really frustrated b/c I saw a couple bike riders just blow through the red light.’  Then she says, ‘but then on my way home, I saw a bike rider waiting at the red light and thought, now there’s a bike rider who knows how to follow the rules.’  She then says that she noticed it was my bike and it was me.  Hearing this made me so happy.  It made me realize that there ARE people out there watching and do respect when rules are followed especially when so many of us are demanding the same kind of respect.  I recently saw two police officers on their bikes actually riding in the road.  I caught up to them and said, ‘thank you for actually riding in the road instead of riding on the sidewalk.’  Most police officers on bikes I see, ride on the sidewalk.  How can we begin to educate drivers about what we as bike riders are legally allowed to do when most police officers don’t even know???

Anyways, this blog is about the’ forgotten pedestrian.’  Recently, I feel like I’m just so in tune when I see pedestrians space be over taken by oblivious, non-respectful drivers.  Many cities have formed ‘Pedestrian Advisory Committees’ which I feel this city desperately needs.  Drivers are in such hurries these days that when pedestrians have the right of way, they are still honked at b/c drivers actually need to come to a complete stop and wait for them to cross.  I see pedestrians speed walk through cross-walks which is upsetting b/c one shouldn’t feel the need to rush in order to NOT be hit by a car who can’t patiently wait 6-7 seconds.  Drivers pull up to red lights and completely over take the cross walk which you’ll see in some pictures below.  I captured a mail person who parked their mail truck in the bicycle lane that I use to get to two of my schools in the Hilltop.

I’ve been capturing these photos to display the lack of thought and the lack of respect that drivers have towards others on the roads.  Is there a ‘fix?’  Well, I’m not sure about that but a few things can help:

1.  More people being vocal about their RIGHT to have shared and safe space on the roads

2.  Re-designed roads.  So many of our roads need road dieted.  Streets like Broad St. and Nationwide St. are streets that needs to be slowed down.  There needs to be wide and well-designed pedestrian refuges in the middle of these streets in case pedestrians can’t make it across in time.  The current ‘pedestrian’ refuge on E. Nationwide Blvd….  IS A JOKE!

3.  Placemaking designs that create staying environments.  You can’t just place benches in some dead space and expect people to utilize it and think you’re doing something beneficial for the community.  It frustrates me – having engineers who know NOTHING about placemaking and smart ‘green’ design, design these spaces that you’ll see below.

This driver is well over half way INTO the pedestrians right of way.

Yes, this cross-walk is nice and wide but it doesn’t give this driver any right to wait inside it.

ALL of these cars have a red light and look where they are.  They are through the cross walk and in the middle of the street creating no through way for any cars with green lights to make turns.  All for what??  This chaos provides them NO BENEFIT.

These two drivers are in the middle of the street!  You can see the cross walk…BEHIND them!  A potential safety hazard but they obviously don’t seem concerned.

 

Good ol’ mail truck parked in the bicycle lane.  The person wasn’t in there or else when I rode passed, I would have said something.  I’m pretty vocal about  my rights 🙂

This is suppose to be a little ‘green pocket park.’  Its near the corner of Town and Parsons and its just a joke.  Do you see the trash can immediately next to one of the benches?  There’s nothing ‘welcoming’ about this ‘pocket park’ at all.  There’s no color, it looks like the benches were just placed there, and there’s actually MORE concrete than greenery.  And, do you see any kind of pedestrian lighting??

 

There’s just absolutely NOTHING enjoyable about this dead space.  Do you wanna hang out here?  This is a perfect example of a POORLY designed and implemented ‘pocket park.’  Our city planners, whomever designed this needs some serious continuing education on placemaking.

This blog post today isn’t meant to be a ‘bitch’ fest.  It’s meant to bring acknowledgment that we as pedestrians, bike riders, etc. need to be vocal and let drivers know there ARE more types of transport using our roads.  The next time you get in your car and drive, be MINDFUL of where you rest at reds.  Think about a time when you’ve been almost hit by a car turning right at a red light.  Think about when the light turns green and you have the right of way to cross and a car speeds up and turns so they don’t have to wait for you to finish crossing.  All of these things that we may not realize but when it happens, you should feel compelled to be vocal about it.  Take back your space as a pedestrian.  The drivers destination should NOT be more important than our safety.

 

 

 

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