Adding a “highway cap” to make highway expansion more palatable

Several recent urban highway expansion projects include a new twist: putting some green space around and over the new highway.

Wheeler didn’t hesitate to acknowledge that adding lanes never helps congestion, thanks to the principle of induced demand. Instead, what he emphasized about the project is its progressive window-dressing: its cap. A few blocks of the highway would be lowered below grade and planted with a bit of Chia fuzz, with a new bike-ped crossing on one of the sides. This is the grid “restoration” of which the mayor speaks—essentially, a minor diminishment of a roaring, stinking concrete channel that will roar and stink all the more with this added capacity.

Highway caps are an ever-more common feature of 21st century urban highway projects, and this project sounds a lot like some others we’ve heard of recently—namely, the Colorado DOT project that promises to triple I-70’s footprint through two of Denver’s last working-class neighborhoods and cover a small section with a park. The project has been mired in controversy for years, with lawsuits and pleas to the governor to halt it on environmental and social justice grounds.

Ironically, the 800 square-foot “cap park” proposed for the Denver boondoggle stemmed from early community advocates who pushed back against CDOT’s original plans to simply widen the existing elevated structure. The introduction of the cap a few years ago was heralded as a victory by some residents of the neighborhoods, which have been passed over for local investments for years. But the I-70 project, with its attractive grassy mask, has since been corralled into a suite of plans to redevelop huge swaths of the affected neighborhoods.

Now, the fear of displacement, underscored by the property-value increases that highway cap parks can bring, has driven many longtime Denverites to bitterly oppose the construction. “I just hope my kids will get to play there,” said one local mom who regretted ever advocating for the project, which a Denver public policy expert compared to “old-fashioned 1950s slum-clearance.”

Parks can only do so much to cover up that highways take up a lot of space, bring noise and traffic, and can either help contribute to disinvestment or gentrification.

This sounds like greenwashing. It can take many forms in trying to beautify or distract from uglier elements of the built environment. Does a few bushes in planters in the parking lot really transform the setting and allow a visitor to escape into nature? This is the subject of part of James Kunstler’s TED talk “The Tragedy of the Suburbs” – with roughly 8:00 minutes remaining – where he dissects such parking lot plantings. Even expanding the size of the nature area, such as park in these examples, may not be enough if the surrounding land use is even more sizable.

On the failure of the High Line

Even as cities around the world attempt to emulate New York City’s High Line (earlier posts here and here), the creator discusses why he thinks the original failed:

But by one critical metric, it is not. Locals aren’t the ones overloading the park, nor are locals all benefiting from its economic windfall. The High Line is bookended by two large public housing projects; nearly one third of residents in its neighborhood, Chelsea, are people of color. Yet anyone who’s ever strolled among the High Line’s native plants and cold-brew vendors knows its foot traffic is, as a recent City University of New York study found, “overwhelmingly white.” And most visitors are tourists, not locals.

“We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” says Hammond, who is now the executive director of Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit that funds, maintains, programs, and built the space (New York City owns it, and the parks department helps manage it). “Ultimately, we failed.”…

“Instead of asking what the design should look like, I wish we’d asked, ‘What can we do for you?’” says Hammond. “Because people have bigger problems than design.”

His organization finally did launch a series of “listening sessions” with public housing tenants in 2011. What people really needed were jobs, Hammond says, and a more affordable cost of living. Residents also said they staying away from the High Line for three main reasons: They didn’t feel it was built for them; they didn’t see people who looked like them using it; and they didn’t like the park’s mulch-heavy programming.

While it is easy to link such conversations to gentrification, I think this gets at a deeper issue regarding development in urban areas: who ultimately benefits? The short answer is that it is not typically the lower-income resident. Urban sociologists have made this point for decades; for example, the concept of growth machines suggests development decisions are typically made by political and business leaders who are looking to profit. In other words, developments are judged by how much money can be made (whether through the sale of property or buildings as well as through increased tax revenues) rather than by how many members of the local population experience a better quality of life. Or, see the the sociological study Crisis Cities that shows how money to redevelop lower Manhattan after 9/11 or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina generally went to wealthier actors and made life difficult for the average resident.

Proposal to bury some of Lake Shore Drive and create more parkland

Chicago’s lakefront parks are impressive and a new plan suggests they could be enhanced even further by putting some of Lake Shore Drive underground:

At its heart, the plan would straighten out and bury Lake Shore Drive’s tight and dangerous Oak Street S-bend and would provide unfettered pedestrian access to 70 acres of newly created lakefront parkland, beaches, trails, and a breakwater island. The improvements would buffer the roadway from the routine abuse dealt by crashing winter waves as well as fix the dysfunctional Chicago Avenue bottleneck by removing traffic signals and adding new interchange ramps.

With a price tag reaching as high as $500 million, the project would be hugely expensive and would require the cooperation of multiple local, state, and federal entities like the various Departments of Transportation and the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Provided the massive undertaking is approved and funding can be secured, construction wouldn’t begin until at least the year 2020 and will likely take many years to complete.

The pictures look great (though they also include extending the beach even further into Lake Michigan). This could be a mini version of Boston’s “Big Dig” and that project turned out great for the aboveground landscape (based on several enjoyable experiences there in recent years). Additionally, the efforts to change the path of Lake Shore Drive around the Field Museum and Soldier Field (traffic used to split around these landmarks and now follows a single path further away from the lake) worked out.

While it is often better to do such large projects sooner than later as they only get more expensive and extend current problems, one could reasonably ask why it takes so long to bring up such ideas. Is it simply that it is often cheaper to think primarily of the road? Is it that planners in the past didn’t have sufficient foresight or that our standards of what is acceptable in terms of highways within cities has changed?

Could you design a skatepark that the neighbors don’t mind?

Designing outdoor spaces for teenagers – such as basketball courts – is difficult as many residents don’t like the activity. One Finnish landscape architect thinks there is a way to cut down on complaints:

Though they’re a teen-friendly third space, many skateparks receive noise complaints, and as a result, may be  deemed too much of a nuisance to maintain. Some parks are removed after only a few years of use at the request of nearby residents, possibly resulting in thousands of dollars in city funds squandered. However, Saario doesn’t think this is inevitable. The parks that go astray, he believes, are a result of poor community planning, awareness, and design—and sometimes independent business contractors who don’t have the skaters’ or the community’s best interests at heart.

“If a landscape architect is designing a space like this, they need to take the time and map land that’s accessible, but far enough away from residential areas so as to not disturb local neighborhoods,” Saario says. Cities often have multiple locations where new recreational spaces can be installed, and some idea of the ground conditions they’re building on top of, but Saario says landscape architects are needed so that officials can understand what design options are available within each site, and whether multiple types of users are permissible.

Saario’s final requirement for designing a park is that it’s built around a unique element that encourages conversation between groups and imaginative ideas. “I grew up skating inside an asphalt pool named The Footprint of the Giant,” he says. “When I met other skaters in the city, they knew where we were from—we had an identity. Skateparks need to have a strong concept that creates a sense of place.”

For an example of integrating a local landmark within a new park, Saario points to Fiskars, a village about 100 kilometers from Helsinki. Fiskars city officials recognized the need for a recreational space for kids and teens, but weren’t sure where to place it so as to avoid any disturbances. The officials asked Saario to analyze a number of possible locations for the park and suggest the best placement. Saario’s solution was to tear down a concrete manure silo near an abandoned barn at the edge of the city. In its place, a number of concrete bumps, curbs, and ledges (pictured above) were added to create the park’s surface. The final design used the brick walls from the original silo structure to support the newly poured concrete. “We were able to cut down on the park’s expenses this way,” he says. “And architecturally, there was a nice contrast of new against old.”

The ideas seem sound: reuse old spaces and materials, create unique skateparks that give users a sense of place, listen to the input of the teenagers/users, and don’t locate right near residences. Yet, finding the “perfect site” is likely to be difficult in many communities.

These issues are not new. I recall Herbert Gans noting in The Levittowners that the new mass suburbs offered few opportunities for teenagers away from their homes. On one hand, American teenagers are encouraged to assert their independence but on the other hand, few suburbs like the idea of large groups of teenagers hanging around. Does this help explain the rise of organized and structured activities – the fear of parents and communities that just hanging around will lead to trouble? Additionally, the teenagers themselves often have little voice in the political process as they cannot yet vote and may not like the idea of working with the system.

Seoul going for its own High Line: the Skygarden to use an old elevated highway

The High Line concept is spreading around the world: Seoul is now making plans for the Skygarden.

Like the High Line, the Skygarden will make good use of unused infrastructure: the Seoul Station Overpass hasn’t seen traffic since 2009, when it failed a government safety inspection. Unlike the High Line, the Skygarden is part of a more expansive government-led initiative to make Seoul’s built landscape greener and more walkable. “The mayor of Seoul is quite active in establishing an improved architectural climate in the city,” says Winy Maas, MVRDV’s lead on the project. Last fall, Seoul’s mayor, Park Won-soon, hired architect Seung H-Sang to be lead the change as first “city architect,” a job that involves supervising a team of urban planners, researchers, and designers, as well as overseeing public projects like the competition for Skygarden. Construction should begin in October, and the park is expected to be completed in 2017.

MVRDV’s design scales over time, spilling over into other parts of the city. Skygarden will function as a nursery to a bevy of trees that will eventually be transplanted to several rooftop gardens town. The architects plan to build out satellite gardens within a radius of about 800 feet, and then expand another 800 feet about a year later. In total, the pedestrian park will be home to 254 species of flora, which Maas calls “a complete collection of Korean vegetation.” His project will continue the Korean tradition of clipping, cutting, and arranging lush landscapes in precise ways. “It’s a very specific culture that doesn’t exist in other places,” he says.

Reaching the same success of New York’s High Line may not be easy to do. Public spaces or parks don’t automatically become popular just because they have been constructed. The High Line helped revitalize an area but there was already a good amount of foot traffic nearby. As Jane Jacobs would suggest, successful parks require a steady flow of people in and out in order to provide an interesting scene as well as ensure safety. So, in this case in Seoul, the context of this new park matters as well as the fact that it will be an interesting nursery. Are there other nearby uses that help ensure a steady flow of people? Is there land nearby with a mix of uses and/or development potential? Does the fact that this used to be a highway help increase the cool factor (the High Line is fairly narrow but a highway would be wider and could provide for some other uses – plus, removing highways might actually help traffic flow)?

Boom in skyscraper construction may mean less light for city residents

New skyscrapers add to a city’s skyline and help boost its prestige. But, those same buildings can block light and this is an ongoing concern in New York City and several other major American cities.

For cities, shadows present both a technical challenge — one that can be modeled in 3-D and measured in “theoretical annual sunlight hours” lost — and an ethereal one. They change the feel of space and the value of property in ways that are hard to define. They’re a stark reminder that the new growth needed in healthy cities can come at the expense of people already living there. And in some ways, shadows even turn light into another medium of inequality — a resource that can be bought by the wealthy, eclipsed from the poor.

These tensions are rising with the scale of new development in many cities. As New York’s skyscrapers set height records, Mayor Bill de Blasio has also proposed building 80,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years, much of which the city would find room for by rezoning land to build higher. Boston wants to find space for an additional 53,000 units. Toronto in the last five years has built more than 67,000. All of which will inevitably mean more shadow — or even shadows cast upon shadow, creating places that are darker still…

In New York, legislation was introduced in the city council this spring that would create a task force scrutinizing shadows on public parks. Lawmakers in Boston in the last few years have repeatedly proposed to ban new shadows on parkland, though they haven’t succeeded. In San Francisco, the city has tightened guidance on a long-standing law regulating shadows in an era of increasingly contentious development fights. In Washington, where the conflict arises not from luxury skyscrapers but modest apartments and rowhouse pop-ups, the zoning commission voted in April on rules that would prohibit new shadows cast on neighboring solar panels…

As a result, multimillion-dollar apartments in the sky will darken parts of the park [Central Park] a mile away. Enjoyment of the park while actually in the park — a notably free activity in a high-cost city — will be dimmed a little to give millionaires and billionaires views of it from above.

This is an ongoing issue, one that helped prompt zoning laws in the first place and still gets at the basic question of whose city is it anyway? I’m reminded of the suggestion from New Urbanists that there is a proper ratio of building height to the street in order to limit this issue (and also boost street life rather than dwarf it – this is a whole other issue that parts of Manhattan could deal with) but in places where land is incredibly valuable – New York City, Hong Kong, Tokyo, etc. – these design guidelines don’t satisfy the interest in density and the money that can be made.

One drastic thought: shouldn’t all tall buildings in American cities be oriented to the north of major streets or parks or features so as to limit shadows? This is a problem with Central Park: if the tall development was mainly to the east or north, the shadows wouldn’t be as much of an issue (though they would fall elsewhere). Yet, settlement patterns didn’t originally occur with these guidelines in mind.

Using the Forest Preserve to protect thousands of acres

The Chicago Tribune highlights the proactive efforts of the Cook County Forest Preserve to protect land:

Why does Cook County have a bigger, better-distributed array of preserves than does any other U.S. metropolis?

In part because indefatigable visionaries (1) projected metro Chicago to someday grow to 10 million people, (2) figured that property development would devour unprotected plots of land, and (3) staged their own land grab so greenery forever would punctuate urban sprawl. As public health pioneer Dr. John Rauch said after the Civil War in his much-cited push for a Chicago parks district, “we want not alone a place for business, but also one in which we can live.”

But the key stroke of brilliance came in 1904 from architect Dwight H. Perkins and landscape architect Jens Jensen. They studied Cook County’s still open lands and concluded: “Instead of acquiring space only, the opportunity exists for preserving country naturally beautiful. … Another reason for acquiring these outer areas is the necessity of providing for future generations …” The upshot was a state law that created the district and its mission statement — overwhelmingly tipped toward preserving and protecting lands, plants and animals rather than toward ball fields, playgrounds and other park-like recreation…

In January a blue-ribbon panel of outsiders set that 25-year agenda, including: Acquire another 20,000 prime acres selected by naturalists, rehab 30,000 acres overrun by invasive plants, and build a huge network of volunteers and members of a new Civilian Conservation Corps. We’re counting on a new policy council of volunteers with excellent conservation cred to ride herd on the plan. Distinguished groups such as Openlands and Metropolis Strategies also are on the case.

For those concerned about sprawl, efforts like those of the Cook County Forest Preserve, the DuPage County Forest Preserve, and other bodies have helped retain some open land amidst 9+ million residents in the Chicago region. These spaces are often more “natural” than sculpted parks even if I’ve heard hundreds of jokes about the lack of nature in northeastern Illinois (nature seems to equal hills or mountains for many). Chicago may be a world leader in regards to its lakefront parks but the collection of Forest Preserves across the region is also pretty unique.

On the other hand, it would be interesting to note how many Chicago area residents utilize these Forest Preserves that are within an easy drive for many. I drive past several DuPage Forest Preserve properties each day and yet I don’t think I visited any during this calendar year. (In contrast, I’ve used the Prairie Path dozens of times. This trail was started by citizens and today is maintained by a number of groups.) The Forest Preservers are supported with tax dollars so if people want a return on that money, they should utilize these spaces. (However, if everyone did, I suspect these places wouldn’t seem very natural.)