Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Loving the city and the playable city

Luke Jerram's crowdfunded Park and Slide project temporarily transformed Park Street in Bristol into a giant water slide
Luke Jerram’s crowdfunded Park and Slide project temporarily transformed Park Street in Bristol into a 95-metre water slide open to the public.  Guardian photo.

A few weeks back I was talking with a DC planning official, who was comparing NYC and DC, having just returned from a trip to Manhattan, and s/he commented on how "you don't feel love" within DC, like you feel like you belong in the same way that you do in New York City.

I think a goodly part of that comes from the necessity in NYC of living in part "outside" and having to deal with people on the streets, sidewalks, subways, buses, etc. every day.  Conneccting and community can't be avoided.

And also because of the interest in maintaining and expanding access to quality and interesting public spaces, such as the recapture of street space for public space use, not just on prominent streets like Broadway, but elsewhere in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx (I don't know about Staten Island), the expansion of bicycle infrastructure--often in the face of opposition, the various park enhancement programs, which include public sculpture programs, concerts, and food sales, although this is not without controversy because some areas are capable of raising a lot of private money for park improvement activities and others aren't ("De Blasio Parks Stance Unsettles Some," Wall Street Journal).

I think another element has to do with the various cmmunity-focused organizations, some run by business interests sure, like business improvement districts, but the various community, neighborhood, and citywide advocacy groups too, and in planning, like the Municipal Arts Society, Center for an Urban Future, Transportation Alternatives, the Regional Planning Association.

Along with the various universities and colleges and centers and museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions that bring academic and and other perspectives to community involvement, activity, and improvement.

In short so much of New York City is engaged, and engaged in city life, in a way that many other communities are not.

Making cities playable.  But I wonder if some of it is just promoting "play" enabling people to act on their own and together, and just being outside?

Yesterday and today, in Bristol, UK, there is the Making the City Playable conference ("Playable Cities: the city that plays together, stays together: Forget about smart cities, Playable City ideas – like Bristol’s water slide or its temporary play streets – are a human response to the coldness and anonymity of the urban environment," Guardian), focused on this broad topic, including the unveiling of the project chosen as the winner of the Playable City Award 2014.

Parts of the conference are being live-streamed, so you can catch some of it today.

-- Power of Cute program, Greenwich, which painted the metal gates of retail shops in positive images, which led to an 18% reduction in crime in the adjoining area

Re:Bar San Francisco and Parking Day as a precursor to the "Playable City" movement.  In 2006, Re:bar, a design collective in San Franciscco, created "Parking Day," where they made over street parking spaces as places usable by people ("Drop a coin in the meter and enjoy the park," San Francisco Chronicle).
Port-a-park: A temporary park was set up in a parking space on Mission Street by Rebar, an art collective.Image from the first Park(ing) Day.   The group Rebar declared Sept. 21 "Park(ing) Day" and installed this temporary park in a parking space on Mission St. in downtown San Francisco, CA.  The group moved the park to several different parking spaces throughout the day.   Port-a-park: A temporary park was set up in a parking space on Mission Street by Rebar, an art collective. The park was moved several times that day. San Francisco Chronicle photo by Laura Morton.

That outsider movement has since transmogrified into the "parklet" movement, which has been adopted as policy and practice by many cities, including San Francisco.

Park(ing) Day is still going on.  This year it is Friday, September 19th.

This piece from the SF Chronicle, "S.F.'s uncommon areas: Plazas created from scraps of urban land," is about the most current iteration of the creation of small, usable and/or remade park spaces, including Mechanics Plaza, which now has a large scale checkerboard.

Caption:  Visitors listen to music, eat lunch and pass through Mechanics Plaza on Market Street in the Financial District. The band Dos Gardenias played at noontime as part of the People in Plazas Summer Music Festival. Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle.

Interestingly, most of the comments on the article are about people opining about the likelihood of homeless people taking over such parks, and making it uncomfortable for other people to use.

This is an issue, and in my experience, SF does have a particularly aggressive group of "street people" who are quick to take offense, spit on people, challenge you, etc. making use of the public space somewhat problematic in some instances.

So it is a challenge to figure out how to have spaces being open to all, and comfortable for all, while respeccting freedom of expression and safety simultaneously.

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At 8:39 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

The "urban core" or L'Enfant area of the city is maybe 250K residents. Throw in parts of the streetcar city and you get 350?

That is the size of the Upper West side?

Striving for a NYC urban feel is pretty strained.

Concentrating density (as you saw in Europe) is not a bad thing. Too often all of us are too afraid of density in crowds. For example, the various proposals to expand sidewalks in Georgetown. Yes, it can be bad with Gallery Place and the various youth thugs hanging around but that is a function of their social class, not density.

At 9:13 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

where do you think the love is derived from? (Not a rejoinder, a question.)

I think it's reasonable to increase the sidewalks in Georgetown. In fact I thought that was a missed opportunity in the 1999?/2000? reconstruction. Even if it's only a couple feet.

But yes, I was amazed in Hamburg to see such big crowds emanating from the train station, of course, it has 450,000 passengers/day moving through the station, and in the adjacent ped-focused shopping area.

I didn't get to see Essen during the normal times. I was on the tours, and the first day, when I was able to walk around myself, it was nasty rainy and few people were out.

But that night of the music festival. Wow!

and yes, in DC, at CT and K Streets and around Verizon Center-Gallery Place, and Georgetown are where you see those crowds. I don't get to SE Waterfront that much.

That pop up "White Party" at yards park would have been another example of a playable city in action.

DC is not bereft of opportunity. And you see the neighborhood commercial districts, like 8th St. SE and Upshur St. in Petworth coming alive much more as new residents (population/density) are added to the mix.

At 9:27 AM, Anonymous Christopher said...

Part of it too is that DC neighborhoods seem to have such a similar schedule. We have so many people in NYC who don't work a 9-5. Whole industries are like that. Even the ones that do (like the Financial District) have so many tourists and such small offices that there's a lot of time spent on the streets. I'm always taken aback when I revisit DC on how QUIET it is during the middle of the week right in the core of the city. You could walk through Logan Circle at 11 am on a Wednesday and not see anyone. NYC neighborhoods are rarely like that. Even the tonier ones.

At 10:18 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well not one of my better comments.

Love in NYC? Or Manhatten? I don't know. The thing in Manhatten is mostly envy and enjoying something that nobody else has for the moment.

Christopher makes the good point that the real issue is 9 to 5 jobs and lack of any activiy in most "cool" areas of DC. Bizarrely the Wilson Corridor is more more dense during the day. I tried to allude to that with size but got distracted with being snarky on the Georgetown sidewalks.

The joy I get in Washington is secret joy; it is the understanding that the City here is far deeper and stranger than the seat of Goverment. I always appreciate the cathedral, overlooking the city - it is such a dominant power but you almost never see it on a postcard. And the intense granularity where a few blocks will take you a diferent world. It is why we need alley dwellings and courtyards and height limits.

In fact I've argued that we (and by we, I mean everyone down from Henry Adams) built this city as a onion, so you can peel it away but never find the heart.

Yes, I know an onion with mambo sauce sounds terrible.


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