Posts Tagged ‘Urban Design’

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.

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.