Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Public Realm

In a talk about infrastructure I listened to New York City's Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver, in charge of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, speaking about "parks without borders", a multi department effort of making public spaces better in New York. Not only parks but whatever public space including roads and sidewalks. Hence the moniker and the involvement of other departments such as Planning and DOT. The program name also denotes the desire to open parks up, remove fences and barriers and include the adjacent sidewalks into the placemaking, an effort that makes even very small neighborhood parks look bigger.
Small parks, sidewalks and streets all belong to the public roam

Nearly 30% of any city's land is public space and Silver asked how well we utilize and leverage all that space to make a better city and a better quality of life.

Silver's approach is community based and relying on suggestions of what spaces should get an upgrade. The previous Mayor and the current one see the importance of green space and gave the commissioner the largest parks budget in New York City's history.

"Parks are the places where you let your brain breathe" says Silver and follows up with the value proposition for green. Well maintained green spaces enhance property values, poor upkeep can actually decrease it. This is important to keep in mind for Baltimore's green network plan. Not every open space immediately creates an added value. Poorly conceived leftover spaces invite undesirable activities or even crime. Good green spaces, however are good for mental and physical health.

It is an innovative idea to not just hand the public roam to the parks and rec people, the traffic engineers or the planners so each can carve out a piece following their own set of rules.  Instead, the entire public space is approached comprehensively by several departments together as an asset. This will take some re-thinking,  especially if one considers how much space is typically devoted to traffic and the car.
small parks are frequently fenced off and closed at certain hours. With
"parks without borders" those fences come down

This goes beyond the notion of complete streets, a much talked about concept that includes pedestrians, bicyclists and transit into the consideration but typically still leaves the design of the public space to traffic engineers and not urban designers. The result can be seen on Maryland Avenue on Baltimore's premier bike boulevard. A big improvement for bicyclists but quite incongruous from an urban design perspective with all those markings, sticks and cars parked in the middle of the street. New York did this as well, but under DOT Commissioner Sadik Khan New York famously also took  those extra pieces of asphalt and driving surface and turned them into people spaces, the most well known is on Times Square.
As laudable as the now realized protected bike-lane is, it is "messy"
from an urban design prespective
A really comprehensively designed public realm would apportion parks, mobility zones, street trees, planters, walkways, bicycle facilities and vehicles in a manner that follows a overarching urban design concept and would probably look much better than the designs that are each optimized for one purpose only and chop the space into specialized subareas.

For that approach the European model of shared surfaces with minimal separation, slow moving cars and as little as possible in terms of signs, bollards, sticks and lines is a good precedent, emulating the classic urban street. That model doesn't work for high volume arteries, but those are antithetical to urban streets anyway and must be minimized. Cities and "freeways" simply don't go well together.

With scare public funds the question of control over public spaces should be an item of concern, what Chris Leinberger calls "place management". Leinberger likes to point to New York's Bryant Park which was restored and programmed with private funds and has generated enormous added value to surrounding properties which in in turn can be used for upkeep. But to whom are these management entities accountable?  A local Baltimore example that raises this question is the Downtown Partnerships de facto management of much of the public space downtown. That this doesn't always stays withoiut controversy has become obvious in the case of the McKeldin Fountain and its current demolition through DPoB.

In an increasingly urbanized future with increased density in cities the question of access to open space and optimal use of the public realm will become increasingly important for the quality of life, the health, and the well being of the community.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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