Testing play streets in Los Angeles

The city of Los Angeles, known for its highways and roads, is trying to turn some of its streets into areas for fun and community activity:

There are roughly 7,500 miles of streets in Los Angeles, and Fickett Street is only one of them. But in this predominantly Latino neighborhood where parks are scarce, residents and activists have begun a design intervention to reclaim streets for civic life, kibitzing and play. From London to Los Angeles, the play street concept, known as “playing out” in England, has become an international movement of sorts, especially in low-income communities that lack green space and other amenities.

The efforts in Boyle Heights, a 6 ½-mile area bisected by six freeways, is a collaboration between Union de Vecinos, a group of neighborhood leaders, and the Kounkuey Design Initiative, or KDI, a nonprofit public interest design firm that helps underserved communities realize ideas for productive public spaces.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has invested $300,000 on 15 KDI-designed pilot play streets this year in Boyle Heights and Koreatown, another heavily trafficked neighborhood. Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of the LADOT, first became aware of the concept while visiting Copenhagen…

On a recent Sunday, Kounkuey unveiled its “playground in a box.” Shade structures stretched across Fickett Street, affixed to loquat trees and no-parking signs, and the plastic “wobbles” created by KDI doubled as Tilt-a-Whirls, BarcaLoungers, and formidable hurdles for teenage skateboarders. Nine-year-old Amanda Alvarado built a McMansion. “Ava, lookit!” she exclaimed to her 4-year-old sidekick in pink pom-pom slippers.

This is a clever idea for two reasons. First, it transforms what is typically a thoroughfare for cars into a space for community life. Many American neighborhoods and communities are full of roads and planning that emphasizes the efficiency of getting vehicles from Point A to Point B. Even if the effort is temporary, the transformation can be a powerful symbol. Second, it does not require long-term investments into new spaces or architecture. The road already exists. Bringing in the equipment takes some work but it is portable and can also be used elsewhere.

At the same time, this seems like an incomplete concept. It feels like a small band-aid for larger issues. As the article goes on to talk about, in a neighborhood bisected by highways, lacking green space, and pushing back against gentrification, couldn’t more be done? How about permanent parks?

How skate parks became normal in America

There are skate parks in many American neighborhoods and communities and this was not necessarily a sure thing decades ago:

The Tony Hawk Foundation, a leading partner in the construction of skate parks in the United States, estimates that there are roughly 3,500 skate parks in the country now — still about a third of what it says the country needs…

In a different time, hoping for city officials to get on board with building a skate park seemed like an impossible task. Mr. Whitley said a great deal of Nimby-ism once plagued developments.

But aging Gen X grew up alongside skateboarding’s ascent in popular culture, from Bart Simpson plonking down onto the roof of the family car in the opening sequence of “The Simpsons” to blockbuster video game franchises like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Skateboarding is no longer something people fear. The skate punk of the late 1980s is now a suburban dad. Across runways, and in music videos and film, subtle influences of skate culture are noticeable. Everyone wears Vans sneakers…

Iain Borden, a professor of architecture and urban culture at University College in London, wrote the book “Skateboarding, Space, and the City” in 2000. He also sees the growth of skate parks as a social phenomenon. “They’re places of social exchange,” he said. “You could argue that they’re not sports facilities, they’re social landscapes in which skateboarding and riding and scootering and blading are some of the activities that you might do.”

The recreational activities of one generation do not necessarily endure over decades so the spread of skateparks is an intriguing subject. I would be interested to see in what kinds of neighborhoods these parks exist: are they as prevalent in poorer neighborhoods or the wealthiest communities (who might opposed them on NIMBY grounds)?

I also wonder how much race plays a role in this in the United States. The examples of skateboarding cited above – Tony Hawk, Bart Simpson – are white and more middle-class. Come to think of it, many of the X Games competitors fall into this group. Since these are not exactly mainstream sports (compared to the big four of football, baseball, basketball, and hockey) plus they require a few resources (at least a skateboard while other X Games sports require more), these may not be available to all. While skateboarding might the punk music of the sports world, is it still more palatable to the white middle-class compared to having basketball courts nearby?

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)?