Looking at where snow is and isn’t plowed on Philly streets reveals where public spaces could be created

One astute observer looks at snow plow patterns on Philadelphia streets and shows how spaces where snow is not plowed could become more public space:

If you haven’t heard of a “sneckdown” yet, it’s a clever combination of “snow” and “neckdown”—another name for a curb expansion—that uses snow formations on the street to reveal the space cars don’t use. Advocates can then use these sneckdown photos to make the case to local transportation officials that traffic-calming interventions like curb bump-outs and traffic islands can be installed without any loss to car drivers.

One of the areas of Philadelphia with the best opportunities for pedestrian plazas is East Passyunk Avenue, which crosses the street grid at a diagonal, creating lots of triangular intersections. I thought the snow would provide some good examples to help you visualize what I’m talking about, so I headed over there to take some sneckdown photos. And to my delight, the snow revealed some awesome traffic calming ideas I hadn’t considered.

At the intersection of 6th and Passyunk and Christian, near the excellent Shot Tower Coffee, there is a triangular plot of land that I always thought would make a great public plaza, but there’s a “for sale” sign there now, indicating it will probably become housing.

The city’s choice to allocate the public right of way around this triangle to curb parking for cars means the parcel is smaller than it could be, but even so, the snow formation shows it could be larger even without taking away parking. Try to imagine how much more sidewalk there could be if not for the curb parking around the island though:

Very thorough. This is a clever use of observational data: snow plowing makes the point that not all space on streets and roads is regularly used by cars. How might this space be used differently if it is not required as part of the road?

I wonder how much of this has to do with standards for road construction, whether in the past or today. For example, in Suburban Nation several New Urbanists argue that most road standards today are way too wide which then encourages faster driving and limits sidewalks and public space. They also suggest that we make choices as a society about how we want roads to function: are they there to maximize vehicle efficiency and speed or are they streetscapes that can help cultivate social and civic life (which usually means toning down the emphasis on vehicles)?

Addressing the lack of big city toilets with an $8 a day NYC toilet membership

It is not easy to find a decent restroom in many big American cities and a new company in New York City wants to fill this hole in the market:

A New York company has started marketing what amounts to an upscale pay toilet service. Posh Stow and Go will offer visitors to the Big Apple “clean, safe and soundproof” bathrooms worthy of “the greatest city in the world,” in addition to such other amenities as “luxury showers” and private storage rooms.

Prices for the Midtown facility, which is set to open around June, start at $24 for a three-day pass (or $8 a day), plus a mandatory $15 annual membership fee. The company envisions opening other locations throughout the city—lower Manhattan is next on the list—but warns that “only a limited number of memberships will be sold so as to provide the best possible experience.”…

Parks may have a point: The lack of clean and comfortable public restrooms in major American metropolitan areas—especially New York—is an issue that’s been raised for years. The aptly named Phlush , a public restroom advocacy group based in Portland, Oregon, goes so far as to argue that “toilet availability is a human right” and “well-designed sanitation systems restore health to our cities.”

But the issue for cities remains twofold: Public restrooms are expensive to build and maintain and they are seen as a potential magnet for vagrants. For the latter reason alone, the city of Pensacola, Fla., recently approved an ordinance making it illegal for homeless individuals to wash or shave in public restrooms. (The ordinance was part of a larger push to address problems involving the homeless, though city leaders are now considering reversing the policies.).

I had never heard of Phlush but they make some good points: it is hard to be in a city if bathrooms are not available for all. Additionally, a city planning expert is cited later in the article suggesting that pay toilets go against the “democratic urban ideal.” This seems like one of the basic requirements of having a truly public space. Think of a space like Times Square that is consistently full of people: if most bathrooms are privatized, what is everyone supposed to do?

It would be really interesting to see the business plan of Posh Stow and Go. Just how many memberships can they sell before they reach a tipping point and the restrooms are not as luxurious and exclusive? Just how much money do they think is in private bathrooms? How much does it cost to retrofit existing retail space to fit this new use?

IKEA in China allowing all sorts of activities in addition to shopping

IKEA in China is allowing patrons to hang out:

Sociologist Sangyoub Park forwarded us a fascinating account of Ikea’s business model … for China. In the U.S., there are rather strict rules about what one can do in a retail store. Primarily, one is supposed to shop, shop the whole time, and leave once one’s done shopping. Special parts of the store might be designated for other activities, like eating or entertaining kids, but the main floors are activity-restricted.

Not in China. Ikea has become a popular place to hang out. People go there to read their morning newspaper, socialize with friends, snuggle with a loved one, or take a nap. Older adults have turned it into a haunt for singles looking for love. Some even see it as a great place for a wedding.

This stands in contrast to efforts in some McDonald’s in the United States to limit how long patrons can stay. But, this stance might be ingenious for more companies:

1. It may raise the image of the company. It is a cool place to be. Oh yeah, you can buy stuff there as well.

2. In areas that lack public spaces, these retail locations can serve an important function.

3. It may just lead to more sales. Unfortunately, stories like this often don’t include this information.

Panel: keep Washington D.C. building height restrictions, preserving height to street-width ratios

A panel recently suggested height restrictions for buildings should remain in the older areas of Washington D.C.:

Building heights in the 68-square-mile (176-square-km) area are determined by the width of the street on which a structure fronts. The maximum height is 130 feet (40 meters), with some exceptions.The result is a distinctive low-lying skyline that showcases historic monuments and distinctive landmarks such as the U.S. Capitol, National Cathedral and the Old Post Office. The tallest structure is the Washington Monument, which stands at the center of the Mall and is about 555 feet (169 meters) high.

The National Capital Planning Commission recommended leaving intact the federal height rules for the part laid out in the 18th century. The area of wide avenues and traffic circles is home to the White House, National Mall and museums.

The commission left open the possibility that buildings in the area developed beyond the city’s original layout can be higher – but only after additional study and as long as they did not interfere with federal interests.

Another article I saw about this suggested this would restrict growth in Washington, a city whose suburban counties are growing in both population and wealth. Without opportunities for taller buildings in the city, money that could go to the city through property and sales taxes will instead go elsewhere.

But, taller buildings in or near the National Mall would change it quite a bit. These height restrictions are reminiscent of a more traditional kind of architecture. For example, New Urbanists often suggest linking building heights to a particular ratio compared to the width of the streets to create a more comfortable feeling. Contrast the National Mall with the experience of midtown Manhattan, a place busy and interesting but also full of concrete canyons and structures that tower over anything going on in the streets. These two areas serve different purposes but the experiences are quite different.

Architecture to improve your health and increase your happiness

Check out this guide from the American Institute of Architects on how certain designs can improve your health. A few examples:

Serenity Now: The spaces architects create can have a soothing and calming effect that reduces stress through mitigation of excessive noise, allowing visual connections beyond the building or within it, and providing access to natural daylight. Research indicates that short-term exposure to noise may negatively affect mental  well-being; prolonged exposures may exacerbate other issues, including aggression…
Stairs Can Save Lives: Well-integrated and -designed staircases can increase physical activity and cardiovascular health. A Harvard study found that men who climbed at least 20 floors per week had a 20 percent lower risk of stroke or death from all causes. New York City’s Active Design Guidelines recommends stair-design strategies that may increase physical activity.
Toxic Gas: Off-gassing from high VOC (volatile organic compound) materials can trigger respiratory health problems such as asthma or allergies in both users of buildings and the people who build them. A child that sleeps in a bedroom with fumes from water-based paints and solvents is two to four times likely to develop allergies or asthma…
Eyes on the Street: Street-level doors and windows encourage walkability and foster a strong sense of community, which aids people’s sense of environmental safety and broader community health. In a Bronx, N.Y., neighborhood where crime is prevalent, the Betances Community Center, designed by Stephen Yablon, AIA, illuminates a central staircase and gymnasium in natural light, wrapping its ground-level façade in windows as well. These transparencies give the building a welcoming presence and offer views to a public park across the street.

A lot to have to consider when designing and constructing a building. It is interesting that a number of these suggestions cross multiple areas of need. For example, stairs are necessary for safety if elevators stop operating. Toxic gas from VOC materials is a green issue. Eyes on the street is a classic phrase from Jane Jacobs to describe the kind of vibrant street life that helps social control without the need for formal policing. But, to also pitch these as health issues is likely a nice marketing tool. Not only can architects design a well-functioning building, they can improve people’s health outcomes.

In pointing to this story, Curbed provides a quote that architects can even do more: they “are often the architects of our happiness and unhappiness as well.” What can’t architects do?

Honduras moving forward with the construction of three private cities

Honduras is moving forward in allowing three private cities to be built though some have voiced objections:

The “model cities” will have their own judiciary, laws, governments and police forces. They also will be empowered to sign international agreements on trade and investment and set their own immigration policy.

Congress president Juan Hernandez said the investment group MGK will invest $15 million to begin building basic infrastructure for the first model city near Puerto Castilla on the Caribbean coast. That first city would create 5,000 jobs over the next six months and up to 200,000 jobs in the future, Hernandez said. South Korea has given Honduras $4 million to conduct a feasibility study, he said…

The project is opposed by civic groups as well as the indigenous Garifuna people, who say they don’t want their land near Puerto Castilla on the Caribbean coast to be used for the project. Living along Central America’s Caribbean coast, the Garifuna are descendants of the Amazon’s Arawak Indians, the Caribbean’s Caribes and escaped West African slaves…

The president of Honduras will appoint “globally respected international figures” without financial interests in the projects to nine-member independent boards that will oversee the running of the cities, whose daily operations will be administered by a board-appointed governor. Future appointments to the board will be decided by votes by standing board members, Strong said.

I could understand how this would be alluring for governments that are struggling to attract foreign capital and create jobs. However, privatization on this scale sounds daunting and possible problematic. It is one thing to have developers own and run neighborhoods or particular projects; but a whole city? With separate international powers and not having to follow Honduran law? With a future promise of allowing citizens to vote? I could imagine some of the responses from urban sociologists who write about the privatization of public space. What happens when these developers run afoul of citizens or Honduran law and conventions? What kind of free speech rights will citizens have and will they have any say in what happens? It is one thing to have to follow the rules of corporations in private-public spaces in American cities (see these examples in San Francisco) but another when the whole city follows the guidelines of developers or “respected international figures.”

Assuming this moves forward and the cities are built, it will be fascinating to see what happens.

Shopping malls as glamorous places in India

After fifty plus years of living with the shopping mall, perhaps they have simply become second nature to Americans. But, when they are built in places like India, it is fascinating to see how the mall fits into a different context:

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Argument: Chomsky wrong to suggest Twitter is “superficial, shallow, evanescent”

Nathan Jurgenson argues that Noam Chomsky’s thoughts about Twitter are misguided:

Noam Chomsky has been one of the most important critics of the way big media crowd out “everyday” voices in order to control knowledge and “manufacture consent.” So it is surprising that the MIT linguist dismisses much of our new digital communications produced from the bottom-up as “superficial, shallow, evanescent.” We have heard this critique of texting and tweeting from many others, such as Andrew Keen and Nicholas Carr. And these claims are important because they put Twitter and texting in a hierarchy of thought. Among other things, Chomsky and Co. are making assertions that one way of communicating, thinking and knowing is better than another…

Claiming that certain styles of communicating and knowing are not serious and not worthy of extended attention is nothing new. It’s akin to those claims that graffiti isn’t art and rap isn’t music. The study of knowledge (aka epistemology) is filled with revealing works by people like Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard or Patricia Hill Collins who show how ways of knowing get disqualified or subjugated as less true, deep or important…

In fact, in the debate about whether rapid and social media really are inherently less deep than other media, there are compelling arguments for and against. Yes, any individual tweet might be superficial, but a stream of tweets from a political confrontation like Tahrir Square, a war zone like Gaza or a list of carefully-selected thinkers makes for a collection of expression that is anything but shallow. Social media is like radio: It all depends on how you tune it…

Chomsky, a politically progressive linguist, should know better than to dismiss new forms of language-production that he does not understand as “shallow.” This argument, whether voiced by him or others, risks reducing those who primarily communicate in this way as an “other,” one who is less fully human and capable. This was Foucault’s point: Any claim to knowledge is always a claim to power. We might ask Chomsky today, when digital communications are disqualified as less deep, who benefits?

Back to a classic question: is it the medium or the message? Is there something inherent about 140 character statements and how they must be put together that makes them different than other forms of human communication? I like that Jurgenson notes historical precedent: these arguments have also accompanied the introduction of radio, television, and the Internet.

But could we tweak Chomsky’s thoughts to make them more palatable? What if Chomsky had said that the average Twitter experience was superficial, would he be incorrect? Perhaps the right comparison is necessary – Twitter is more superficial compared to face-to-face contact? But is it more superficial than no contact since face-to-face time is limited? Jurgenson emphasizes the big picture of Twitter, its ability to bring people together and give people the opportunity to follow others and “tune in.” In particular, Twitter and other social media forms allow the average person in the world to potentially have a voice in a way that was never possible before. But for the average user, how much are they benefiting – are they tuned in to major social movements or celebrity feeds? What their friends are saying right now or progress updates from non-profit organizations? Is this a beneficial public space for the average user?

Additionally, does it matter here if Twitter had advertisements and made a big push to make money off of this versus providing a more democratic space? Is Twitter more democratic and deep than Facebook? How would one decide?

In the end, is this simply a generational split?

(See earlier posts on a similar topic: Malcolm Gladwell on the power of Twitter, how Twitter contributed (or didn’t) to movements in the Middle East, and whether using Twitter in the classroom improves student learning outcomes.)

Efforts to revive local shopping malls; how about an ice skating rink?

The recent economic downturn has severely affected many retailers, especially shopping malls. One local mall, Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles, has been hit particularly hard and is looking for ways to bring in more shoppers. One idea: build an ice skating rink.

Barring an eleventh-hour change of heart, 94 employees at the Sears store at Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles will lose their jobs in two months. But the mall management and city officials hope to coax the retail giant to stay.

And the city and mall owners see hope in new business coming to Charlestowne, including an ice arena…

There might be reasons to be optimistic about the mall. Anchor stores Kohl’s and Von Maur both own the property they operate, making them less likely to leave. Aiston said the mall also disclosed it’s in negotiations to bring two or three new businesses to the mall, including a restaurant.

In addition, the mall may soon have a new headline attraction. Aiston and Kekatos said the city is reviewing plans the mall owners submitted to build an 18,000-square-foot ice arena at the mall to revive foot traffic.

“What I really want the public to know is our new ownership is fabulous,” Kekatos said. “You have to remember it’s only been going on seven months since they’ve purchased the mall. We’re updating the interior and the exterior of the mall. The community, the people in it, they just don’t understand that it takes time to do all this.”

This seems to be a common strategy for shopping malls: attract new kinds of businesses that will bring in a steady flow of potential shoppers. The restaurant strategy has been a common one – it moves malls beyond the world of the shopping mall food court with its quick food and may bring in a crowd with more time and money. But bringing in a shopping rink hints at another area of potential uses: recreational uses. Could the shopping malls of the future include things like ice skating rinks, gyms, climbing walls, and more? If so, this could help further transform malls from shopping spaces to community centers.

It is also interesting that the quest for developers and mall owners to add uses to shopping malls mirrors the efforts of many downtowns who have also been interested in increasing foot traffic. Of course, the shopping mall is often blamed for helping to kill off many downtowns but perhaps they are both now in the same boat. Are there enough retail and recreational and restaurant businesses to fill all of the space in shopping malls and downtowns?

The CTA makes it official: will sell naming rights to almost anything

This has been in the works for a while (particularly with the revamped Apple stop at North and Clybourn on the Red Line) but the CTA officially announced today that it will solicit “bids soon to sell naming rights to just about anything it owns.”

The transit agency expects to award corporate sponsorships by next spring, officials said. Rodriguez said the CTA will go out for bids next week to hire a corporate adviser who will help package the sponsorship opportunities.

“We want to find new ways to generate revenue, and we want to do so in a way that will enhance the experience of our riders for improvements, services and amenities,” Rodriguez said.

But he and other CTA officials declined to offer any estimates on how much money the venture might generate.

“Providing 1.7 million rides every single day is a value to somebody someplace,” Rodriguez said. “The question is, What’s it worth?”

Savvy marketers will want some idea of how much bang they’re getting for their investment, experts say. Marketers also would have to look past the “what-ifs” of having their brand name associated with the unpleasant realities of public transportation, which include unkempt stations, rail line breakdowns and potential crashes.

A couple of things seem remarkable about this:

1. Sociologists are often concerned with the lack of true public spaces in cities (and suburbs). This is bound to have some effect on what were previously public spaces; now there were be even more reminders about corporations.

2. The CTA is going forward with this without being able to say publicly how much money they might be able to raise? This seems foolish. Will they still go forward if bids end up being lower than expected? Might it have been better to line up some more deals before going public with this?

3. How exactly will these new revenues be used within the CTA?

4. What are the next steps for expanding the CTA budget if these deals do not bring in as much money as expected or costs continue to rise and these new revenues are not enough?

5. The agency said it “will be sensitive to avoid naming rights that are in poor taste or at all questionable.” This could lead to some interesting battles over which companies can purchase naming rights and which cannot. What may be responsible to one neighborhood is not necessarily responsible to another.