Archive for the ‘Walkability’ Category

Shame on the American Planning Association – Call Bad Development, Bad

Monday, July 16th, 2012

The American Planning Association held its annual  conference in Los Angeles in April. As part if its conferences, there are a number of “mobile workshops” which take attendees out into the host city to provide educational and learning experiences.   One of these or shops was on the Bunker Hill area of downtown LA. In the words of the conference catalog:

“Explore this transit-oriented, pedestrian friendly remake of a 1950s and ’60s era downtown. ”

The reality of the area is that it is a tragic example if late 20 century redevelopment with fortress architecture, large building setbacks, big blocks, one way streets with fast traffic, mono-uses, and unwalkabke streets. Not to mention that the blurb (though I didn’t go on the tour – it may have discussed) doesn’t talk about the displaced who lived here before the development took place and nowhere appear to be invited back.

Check out the pictures!

Los Angeles - Bunker Hill Area

Los Angeles - Bunker Hill

















The APA should be ashamed of itself for allowing this kind of depictions in its official publications. If these are educational endeavors, they should communicate truths, not falsehoods. It the APA can’t criticize bad urban planning, who can?

Increase in scholarly articles on the built environment and health

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Here is a piece from my book, Building American Public Health.  It tracks the increase in the number of scholarly articles on the built environment and health.

One way to track the growth in research on a health topic is through charting the number of citations in Medline, the National Library of Medicine’s online database of peer-reviewed journal articles. The term “built environment” had nine citations older than 1991, 14 between 1991 and 1995, 21 between 1996 and 2000, and 161 in 2010 alone. The terms “walkability” and “street connectivity” first appear in Medline in 2003, “food desert” in 2005. These numbers should be interpreted with caution because many older journals may not have been added to the database and there has been an increase in the total number of articles published on all topics over the years, but the data still most likely reflect a large-scale increase in the amount of research on the built environment.


Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts: Three entrances, three stories

Monday, March 5th, 2012

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is one of the city’s greatest assets.  It is a world class museum that contains extensive collections of American, Impressionist, and Egyptian art, among other great holdings.  It opened a new wing last year that I have already commented on.  One of the more interesting things is that the museum has three entrances.  Each has a lesson for how to build cities to make them more amenable for pedestrians and urban living.

One entrance is through the West Wing, a 1980s addition designed by I.M. Pei and Associates.  Up until a few years ago, it was the only way to enter the museum, the complex’s front door as it were was on the side.  For those who have never been there, the MFA sits on an entire block between two major streets:  Huntington Avenue and the Fenway.  The West Wing entrance was to a parking lot on a minor street that connects the two major arterials.  There was a drive and a drop off to the entrance, but mostly, one entered by wandering through parking lots, some filled with delivery and service vehicles.  It was most inartistic and very unsatisfying and difficult for tourists to navigate.  The MFA, to its credit, has discontinued this entrance, using it only for tour groups.  They recognized the mistake of this most inartistic entrance to a building of high artistic merit.  But the design is important if only as a way to remember how people once thought of cities and cars.  The design reflected the idea that people only travel through cities in cars (despite the fact there is a trolley stop on Huntington Avenue – you exited the street car and had to figure out how to get through the service parking lot to the West Wing entrance).  The design turned its back on urban living and public transportation.  It denied the primacy of walking.  The MFA is to be commended for discontinuing this entrance.

The MFA re-opened its Fenway entrance a couple of years ago as part of its reconfiguring the museum when it began its expansion plans.  The Fenway entrance is grand:  it faces the beautiful parkway  (in the old fashioned sense – it is two lanes, moderate speed, meandering, not a fancy name for a freeway) designed by Frederick Law Olmsted as part of his famed emerald necklace.  The whole façade is a fancy Beaux Art masterpiece, a building that communicates the importance of the MFA to the city.  The entrance is up a broad set of stairs with multistory columns, creating a sense of theater.  A tiny driveway, chained off, fronts the building.

This grand building opens to the Back Bay Fens, but it’s an entrance to nowhere.  The Fenway entrance is not close to public transportation, and it’s a long block away from the nearest parking.  It’s a grand gesture for those who were traveling by in the carriages, or today for people passing in their cars, but it’s not much more than a billboard for the museum itself.  There is a related problem if you enter from the Fenway side, it doesn’t relate to the building’s interior circulation.  We went to the MFA for a concert this afternoon, entered through the Fenway entrance and even though we know the museum very well, it remains disorientating.  If only form followed function.

The MFA’s main entrance is back to where it was originally:  on Huntington Avenue.  The street is a major arterial, but strangely ungrand.  The trolley tracks are set off by so so plantings and there is nothing across the street worthy of the great building itself.  That said, the entrance is what an old great museum should be: reverential, inviting, well placed, monumental.  Given the history of the building, the placement on the Fenway which leads off to nowhere, the 1970s era monument to parking fetishism, and the general plainness of the Huntington Avenue side, the MFA has done the best possible job it could do.

Is walkability a civil right?

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

The blog is back!

Due to a recent eye problem (I’m getting better – thanks for your concern), I have gone six months without being able to drive or ride a bike.  Walking is the main way I get around these days and Boston, despite its reputation as a walking city, is not always that easy to navigate by foot and public transportation.  But my world is rich enough in destinations: work, shopping, etc., that not being able to drive is a disadvantage, but not life stopping.  I can take the MBTA, Boston’s public transportation system, to many places that are too far to walk.  For a person with limited vision, Boston is not a city of limits.

But what percentage of the United States is accessible to those who cannot drive?  A very tiny percentage.  Sure there are rural areas that it would be nearly impossible to make accessible, I don’t know how public policy beyond providing transportation services could be of assistance here. But how many urban areas, big cities, in this country are off limits to those of us who cannot drive?  What about those who can’t afford cars? This seems to me to be a civil rights issue.  Shouldn’t our dense cities be accessible to those with limited eyesight?

The radical part of me wants to sue someone to make the Unite States more accessible (actually, what is more mainstream American than taking someone to court).  I am not a lawyer, so I can’t speak to the specific legal and constitutional issues involved.  But shouldn’t there be something about the equal protection clause or the Americans With Disabilities Act to take care of this?  Should there be a constitutional right to access?  I’m not a dreamer, I realize there is not a great chance of anyone ever taking this on and winning a case before the Supreme Court.  But wouldn’t it be a better country if we made walkability a civil right issue?

Density is not the same as walkability

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

I was in Los Angeles recently and stayed in a hotel in what is known as et condo corridor, a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard east of Westwood that is lined with high rise housing.  The blocks behind the street feature single family homes on fairly small blocks,  about as dense as single family homes can be.  Wilshire is served by a major bus route, the street is the site of a proposed new subway linking downtown to the west side, and the busy, if unremarkable, Westwood business district and UCLA are about a ten to fifteen minute walk away.  Sounds walkable?

It’s not.  Wilshire is three lanes in each direction with traffic that races by well above the 35 mph speed limit. There are some trees and a planting strip between the sidewalk and the street, it doesn’t feel like a big enough buffer against the traffic.  The blocks on Wilshire itself are long and crossing the street, even at signals, seems unsafe.

This is evidence that walkablity is more than density, or even proximity to a commercial district.  It really reflects the totality of the pedestrian experience.   Perhaps it is not surprising that the street if pretty empty of pedestrians.

City Building Isn’t Easy

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

The American Public Health Association’s annual gathering was in Denver this week.  The weather started out quite warm, in the 70’s and I had some time to walk around the downtown portion of the city.  The urban core is prosperous and is an interesting mix of good and poor design.  Here is an assessment of some of its good, bad and debatable points.

16th Street mall. The city has successfully fostered the development of an outdoor pedestrian mall that stretches for a mile along the western side of downtown.  Lined with restaurants, a few chain stores and other stores aimed at tourists, the mall is full of pedestrians and has only a few vacancies.  A free shuttle with very frequent service attracts lots of people.  On a warm Saturday evening, there was good multiracial and mixed group of ages in the area.  Perhaps the only thing it might benefit from would be a few more trees.

One way streets.  It seems as if almost every one of Denver’s streets is one way.  Most of the city core (if not the entire city) is a grid.  That’s good.  But the one way streets, most of which are of generous width, invite speeding.  For such a laid back city, its motorists are in a great hurry.  The high speeds vastly reduced the quality of the pedestrian experience.

Vacant lots and parking lots.  Once one gets off the 16th Street mall and goes west towards the convention center, there are far too many parking lots and vacant lots.  These are dead zones.  While 16th Street may be among the best urban experiences in the United States, 15th Street, 14th Street, etc, are wastelands, deserted of pedestrians and street life.

The cultural district.  Just south of the Capital is the Denver Art Museum, Denver Public Library and other buildings.  The Public Library was designed by Michael Graves and the addition to the Art Museum is a spectacular building by Daniel Libeskind (more on the library in another post).  Many friends and colleagues expressed a great satisfaction with the area.  This might reflect the great way the buildings play off each other.  But a problem is that the complex of buildings is isolated, and seems to have little positive impact on the neighborhood around it. Broadway, which runs alongside the complex, is creepily devoid of people.

Public transportation to the airport.  The new Denver airport is miles from the city center.  A cab ride will set you back $50 or $60.  The public bus costs $10.  But the ride takes an hour and only leaves once an hour.  Denver should be ashamed of itself.

Built Environment Text Book

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

If all goes to plan, in the Summer of 2011, I will have a textbook published on the built environment and public health by Wiley/Jossey-Bass.  This book surveys the broad field of the built environment. It takes as its premise that there are profound health impacts on how buildings, neighborhoods, cities, and societies are built; and it uses historical analysis, epidemiology and public health research, and urban planning examples and public policy analysis, as well as case studies highlighting successful efforts to mitigate the health impacts of the built environment to analyze issues and develop provide the basis for programmatic responses. The goal is to empower students and readers to understand conditions around them and begin to address these health and environmental impacts. The book emphasizes science and solutions. The book was developed through my experience in teaching courses on the built environment and urban environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health. It is based on the model curriculum suggested by Botchway and colleagues (of which I was a contributor).

The chapters of the book are:

1.         Introduction

2.         History

3.         Planning and urban design

4.         Transportation

5.         Healthy housing and housing assistance programs

6.         Infrastructure and natural disasters

7.         Assessment tools and data sources

8.         Indoor and outdoor air quality

9.         Water

10.       Food, nutrition and food security

11.       Vulnerable populations

12.       Mental health, stressors, and health care environments

13.       Social capital

14.       Environmental justice

15.       Health policies

16.       Sustainability

Boston’s Seaport District: Is it a failure?

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

We know a lot about how  to build a good neighborhood.  If you want to know how to build a bad neighborhood, take a field trip to Boston’s Seaport District.  I go through there frequently on the way to and from the airport. Some of its problems:

Blocks are too large.  Small blocks encourage pedestrian use.  They slow down cars.  They breakup building mass, making the street scale more humane.  The Seaport District  is mostly large blocks.  Once the area is fully developed, pedestrians will  not be able to cross streets frequently enough.  Each block will be an island unto itself.

Streets are too wide.  Narrow streets encourage pedestrians and slow traffic. It seems like all the streets in the SD are at least two wide lanes in each direction. This neighborhood discourages walking. And the wide lanes encourage speeding.

Avoid blank walls.  Blank spaces are dead spaces.  Most of the buildings appear to offer only blank walls to the street. Some appear to have blank walls on three of their four sides (Is that true Seaport Hotel?). Obviously, the area has not entirely taken off yet, but what are they going to do, blow out the brick at a later date?

Don’t have highways.  Each time the approaches to the Ted Williams Tunnel is exposed, it kills the surrounding area.

Grids work.  They promote walking by creating multiple, easy to identify paths between activities. The street pattern in the SD is incomprehensible.

Public transportation is essential  The Silver Line bus circles and twists to get to the tunnel entrance.  Whatever happened to the promise that the buses would trip the traffic lights?  There is one particular light that makes the buses sit while no through cars pass by.

Piazza D’Italia – The Limits of Good Design

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

When I was in New Orleans for the American Planning Association conference in April, I stopped in to look at the Piazza D’Italia, the homage to the city’s Italian immigrants.  The Piazza opened in  1978 and was designed by Charles Moore and Perez and Associates.  It is of post-modern design,  it has certain similarities to Michael Grave’s Portland Public Service Building (1982) in its use of color and  neoclassicism.  The  piazza reminds me of the surrealist paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, who also used juxtapositions of columns and arches. The Piazza is famous for having been used as the opening scene in the movie, The Big Easy. It is one of the most interesting visits in a most interesting city.

And it is empty, devoid of people, abandoned.  Just off Canal,  a block or so from the French Quarter, between the Central Business District and the waterfront, it is surrounded by blank Modernist walls and parking lots. For me, it was nice that I could sit there for a couple of minutes alone, peacefully contemplating one of the best pieces of urban design on the 1970s.  But it is unnerving that it should be so utterly not seen.

The lesson is that no matter  how well designed a public space may be, context can trump it.  If no one is around to enjoy the space, if the surrounding urban fabric is not supportive of the space, it will not serve to increase walkability and social interaction.  The planners of the project had hoped for a revitalization of the area that would have provided supportive buildings around the Piazza, but this never happened.  So it is a unused jewel of a space.