Recalibrating Our Streets

What Types of Mobility Do We Want to Prioritize?

February 5, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in ArchitectureBoston.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to return from a trip to Europe with a fresh perspective on urban life. But having recently traversed Copenhagen, Denmark, I’ve begun rethinking the role of Boston’s streets. The city’s fabulous organic street grid is similar to those in Europe that were built around walking, horse carriages, and the proverbial conversion of “cow paths” into modern streets. Boston’s crooked streets, like those of many medieval town centers, have served to make it one of the nation’s most walkable cities, but compared to Copenhagen, it remains remarkably focused on automobile traffic.

Copenhagen was not always a mecca for cyclists. After a long history leading up to and including the Second World War, when cycling was the dominant form of transportation, cycling in Denmark declined after increased prosperity saw an uptick in automobile usage. Danish urban planners — like other planners around the world — built urban expressways through poor neighborhoods and expanded lanes for cars to improve traffic flow. The result was a precipitous decline in cycling to less than 20 percent of travel in the late 1950s and 1960s.

The energy crisis of the early 1970s saw a reversal of this decline, and the introduction of Car Free Sundays in Copenhagen — to save fuel — was so popular that it sparked a movement to restore cycling as a serious mode of travel. Since the 1960s, Copenhagen has constructed about 250 miles of cycle paths separated from car lanes and sidewalks. Bicycles outnumber cars 7-to-1; a 2016 survey counted 267,700 daily bike trips compared with 252,600 for cars.

Despite modest progress, Boston is still many years behind Copenhagen in adapting its streets to uses other than for private vehicles: Washington Street and Summer Street as pedestrian promenades that largely exclude traffic; bus-lane experiments to improve flow during rush hours; bike lanes and Commonwealth Avenue’s newly completed off-road bikeway.

One illustration of Boston’s evolutionary thinking in roadway design can be found on Causeway Street. In 2007, Boston was beginning its Crossroads program, intended to reknit the city across the newly built Rose F. Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway with pedestrian-friendly corridors. The staff at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (now called the Boston Planning & Development Agency) and a consultant team I was leading envisioned Causeway Street at North Station looking much like Dewey Square at South Station — where nearly 100,000 daily transit riders swarm the plaza every morning and evening.

Even though North Station has fewer riders than South Station, the station puts no less of a strain on Causeway Street during rush hours. We pictured Causeway Street as a gateway to welcome commuters entering and leaving the station, and improve the retail experience along the narrow sidewalks. But halfway through the design phase, the City received federal funding for the Connect Historic Boston Trail, which envisioned an off-street bike loop circling downtown and running the length of Causeway Street to connect the North End with Beacon Hill. The utilitarian result, built in 2014, is a two-way bike lane oddly running down the middle of the road without access to the stores or amenities along the street edges. Nor is there much in the way of aesthetic improvements or areas for landscape treatments.

At the time, the design community I spoke to was disappointed that the implementation of the Connect Historic Boston Trail had precluded the chance for Causeway Street to be a more beautiful gateway to the city. Today, The Hub on Causeway, a mixed-used development, is finally nearing completion, with the recent opening of a Star Market in September. Could the street yet again be up for rethinking as a gateway as well as a bike corridor? Ten years later, what would we build, and would it be different this time?

Causeway Street came to mind on my recent trip to Denmark. Much like Causeway, the generous bike lanes in Copenhagen, while providing some of the safest streets for cyclists, come at great cost to other amenities within the public realm. For example, few of the roads in this famously bike-friendly city have any street trees, and pedestrian sidewalk widths are narrow, some might say minimal, often forcing pedestrians to travel single-file past parked bicycles and outdoor seating. On-street parking is likewise absent on main thoroughfares. So, while Copenhagen is graced with fine and colorful architecture — which goes a long way to ameliorate the loss of trees — the dominant gray of asphalt, the relative space allocated to the various forms of mobility, and the lack of aesthetics speak to a rather single-minded optimization for ways to get around, with cyclists generally the largest users of street space.

Would Bostonians agree to such a bargain if it meant narrower sidewalks and the loss of landscaped areas throughout the city? Given the emerging green agenda — the desire to reduce heat islands and treat stormwater flows — a new range of priorities is emerging in Boston for the limited amounts of public rights of way. Another contender is the seemingly endless space needed for Uber and Lyft vehicles that perpetually clog travel lanes while they drop off or pick up passengers. Parcel deliveries from online shopping are also increasing: New York City, for example, recently reported that more than 1.5 million packages are delivered each day, clogging roadways with double-parked trucks.

Copenhagen has doubled down on the bike, and the results are spectacular in terms of reducing vehicle use within the city and therefore its carbon footprint — it is on target to be carbon neutral by 2025. Although Boston has made modest progress toward improving alternative forms of mobility, the facts are not encouraging: Between 2012 and 2017, the population in Boston grew by 7 percent, but household vehicle ownership in Boston rose by 15 percent. While some of this increase may be a result of off-street parking lots constructed as part of new housing developments, on-street parking remains a nearly sacred right in some of our most crowded and historic neighborhoods. In many of these neighborhoods without access to reliable transit — Dorchester, for example — it is painstakingly difficult to remove parking from streets in order to make room for bike lanes, bus lanes, or green spaces.

In Boston’s diverse neighborhoods, notions of a “complete street” may vary. Boston has complete-streets guidelines that attempt to balance the needs of drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. But our narrow streets often demand prioritizing between an even wider set of goals. Advocates have competing priorities not only for street space but also for public funds that are needed to rebuild streets. Right now Boston and the Commonwealth have a host of challenges to address; how important is carbon reduction relative to an affordable-housing crisis or a failing transit system or sea-level rise?

Ultimately, recalibrating our streets is dependent on discussions far beyond a complete-streets manual. For example, a functioning transit system is essential to provide an adequate alternative to the private car. Despite the claims made by transit-network companies — Lyft, Uber — car ownership and traffic volumes continue to rise, at least in Boston. In the absence of an efficient rapid-transit backbone, can we downsize vehicle lanes without a serious backlash? Adequate transit can bring down car ownership rates and free up street space for other uses (and also lower the cost of housing). Only once an efficient transit system is in place can our streets be reconsidered for these other priorities: bikeways, sidewalk cafés, rain gardens, shade trees, or curb drop-off spaces for ride-share and delivery vehicles.

Sharing the road means first understanding what types of mobility we want to prioritize. Then we need to fund our infrastructure in order to achieve a Boston street that may look different from one in Copenhagen, but one that will reflect our values as Bostonians.

Banner image courtesy Febiyan/Unsplash.

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To Get to Net Zero, Cities Need to Think Wider Than Buildings

Cities Have to Embrace District-Wide Net Zero Solutions to Create Change at a Scale That Will Make a Difference

January 15, 2020

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Smart Cities Dive.

The city of Boston has recently made headlines for an ambitious new plan that mandates all new city-owned buildings to be carbon neutral, part of a wider plan for the city to achieve net zero status by 2050. The attention on this announcement and the framing of net zero makes sense — finally, there is a sustainability goal for the city that people could fully grasp and get behind, a readily understandable and appealing arithmetic proposition that the city’s buildings will eventually produce as much energy as they use.

The challenge, of course, isn’t in getting people excited about the prospect of going net zero — fervor around the term has grown with the number of buildings that meet the standard. The challenge is preparing cities for what it’s going to take to actually make net zero a realistic possibility.

An ambitious goal like Boston’s requires a total overhaul in how we think about sustainability, at every level of impact. The changes must go beyond recycling, using LED light bulbs, and even constructing net zero buildings, since individual buildings or projects can only go so far. Cities will have to embrace bigger, district-wide or neighborhood-scaled solutions that create change at a scale that will make a difference.

The city already has a good model for district energy looks like in practice with the Kendall Station power plant in Cambridge [PDF]. For years waste heat was dumped from the cooling processes of the plant’s generating turbines into the Charles River basin. The resultant overheated river water produced large algae blooms, making the river waters toxic to not only wildlife but also humans who came in contact with the algae. By virtue of a mutual agreement, today waste steam heat from the power plant is piped across the Charles River to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where it is used for heating the campus in the winter and to sterilize equipment year-round. The proximity of a large hospital physical plant, which had the unusual need for steam 12 months of the year, to the power plant was a fortuitous urban condition and demonstrated the beauty of thinking about district-wide solutions for achieving net zero.

Examples like this demonstrate how we need to change the way we think and talk about sustainability. As an architect and city planner, I’ve seen time and time again how the way we communicate an idea is a powerful tool for helping people feel like they can tackle daunting problems. It’s also true that rhetoric can have the opposite effect. Solutions at the scale of the city tend to be complex. They don’t carry the catchy recognition of a well-marketed phrase like “net zero,” but they do make it possible for net zero to be a feasible goal.

I learned this firsthand during my time on the Getting to Net Zero Task Force in Cambridge. In 2015, the Cambridge City Council approved the Net Zero Action Plan, a 25-year proposal that will get Cambridge to net zero by 2040 — the result isn’t just talk but real policy, embodied in the city‘s net zero zoning. To make this work, we understood that the definition of net zero needed to be expanded. Solutions come in myriad form, including accessing green energy from out of state. After all, creating a market for non-CO2-producing energy sources outside the boundaries of one’s own city helps the planet at large. In Cambridge these offsets absolutely count towards netting out a building’s carbon footprint. So daisy-chaining energy production in neighborhoods, and yes, designing homes and buildings with an eye to energy savings so it is ultimately easier to net out the energy use with clean production need to be strategies too.

Approaching sustainability as a set of steps and achievable benchmarks can take away some of the daunting magnitude of the task at hand. In Cambridge, for instance, the city started by putting its money where its mouth was. The city is requiring all government buildings — firehouses, police stations and schools, for example — to be net zero by 2025. Next, we’ll tackle the biggest, most energy-sucking buildings — laboratories — with the goal of getting them to net zero by 2030.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. In Seattle, for example, Amazon’s new downtown headquarters captures waste heat from a non-Amazon-owned data center on an adjacent block to reduce their own energy consumption. It’s just one company, and an area of only a few blocks, but it’s an important proof-of-concept that points the way forward. On an even larger scale, the United States Department of Energy has launched a Zero Energy Districts Accelerator program that is currently piloting projects in Denver, St. Paul, Buffalo, Huntington Beach and Fresno.

Designers and architects are well positioned to push net zero forward. The job is to imagine futures that don’t exist today, to generate creative solutions that speak to all of the above-mentioned scales. District-wide solutions to energy prove that, if we work together, even more powerful and kaleidoscopic solutions are possible for our mind-boggling and seemingly impossible environmental challenges. The solutions to climate change can be remarkably beautiful and may even lie in some pretty old-fashioned values, like building strong communities, relying on our neighbors and believing that design matters.

Banner image courtesy Nelson48/Wikipedia.

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Formerly Hidden, Beautiful Infrastructure Is Now Back in the Limelight

We Have a Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity to Reimagine Infrastructure as a Community Asset

December 16, 2019

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in Next City.

America’s infrastructure is in dire need of significant investment — the American Society of Civil Engineers has infamously given the United States a cumulative D+ on its Infrastructure Report Card, with a D+ for energy infrastructure in particular. Our electrical grid alone is estimated to need $2 trillion in investments over the next 30 years.

However, as conversations continue about the need for a Green New Deal and overdue upgrades to the nation’s infrastructure, we also have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine the role that infrastructure can serve in cities. Infrastructure should be conceived as a community asset, both providing equitable new public space and contributing to the beauty of cities, at a time where pressure on urban land is at a premium and civic pride often waning.

This is not a novel concept. The Victorian Era transformed London — and all of Great Britain — with roads, railways, bridges, embankments, sanitation infrastructure and more, much of which remains among the city’s most beloved landmarks and public spaces. Similarly, Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand, a chief engineer and director of public works in Paris during the mid-19th century, brought beauty to the water and sewer systems of the city.

The United States saw a similar push in the 1930s and 40s with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which, in addition to Art Deco civic buildings across the country, built iconic infrastructural projects like the Hoover Dam, Blue Ridge Parkway, San Antonio River Walk and dozens of national parks and monuments, projects that were both functional and beautiful, that created new opportunities to make wonderful and unexpected public places. For the WPA, infrastructure encompassed much more than bridges and roads — it included theaters, stadiums, parks and other examples of civic architecture — and this broad definition inspired people to design infrastructure that is integral to its surroundings.

Today we have the opportunity to take these examples even further, by reimagining America’s tens of thousands of decaying urban infrastructure assets — our dams, reservoirs, water tanks, power stations, rail yards, sewage works, electricity pylons, pumping stations and more — to create infrastructure that is both functional and beautiful. Of course we must build sustainable infrastructure, powered by renewable sources, that will conserve energy and reduce carbon and, in so doing, create better places for people — and reduce lifecycle costs. But even beyond that, we can redesign these assets in such a way that more seamlessly integrates them into the urban fabric, supporting a more varied public realm and community development. Here’s how.

Celebrate the Utilitarian

There is often an attitude that if we make infrastructure a “dumb box” no one will notice it, but in cities in particular, infrastructure is often unavoidable and visible from many different viewpoints. The best infrastructure doesn’t pretend it’s invisible, but celebrates its contribution to the community, around-the-clock and around-the-seasons.

We’re already starting to see contemporary visions that embrace infrastructure as a civic and community asset. In Copenhagen, the whimsical power plant Amager Bakke is topped by an artificial ski slope, hiking trail and climbing wall. Medellín’s public space program known as Unidades de Vida Articulada (UVA), or Articulated Life Units, has created public parks and community centers around repurposed water tanks.

And in the United States, my firm NBBJ designed the recently opened Denny Substation — Seattle’s first new electrical substation in 30 years — as a piece of infrastructure that’s also an active public amenity. In addition to housing electrical equipment for Seattle’s grid, it has a public park, walking path, two community centers and a public art program delivered in partnership with the city’s Department for Arts and Culture through its 1% for Art Fund.

Balance Safety and Security with Public Access

The extent to which infrastructure can be celebrated depends on what it is, because some places — like electrical stations — can’t be open to the public for safety or security reasons. But there’s no reason why infrastructure can’t be architecturally interesting — or integrated into an earthen mound to become part of the landscape. Levees and floodwalls are the classic example — in Staten Island, a 5.3-mile sea wall in development will double as a barrier against storms and sea level rise and serve as a new public promenade and bike pathway . But an even more extreme example is furnished by Anaheim Public Utilities, which completely buried an electrical substation beneath a 2-acre community park.

Create Productive Tension

Architecture at its heart is a social experiment, and cities are our laboratories. If we’re creative and break boundaries in a thoughtful way, we can create unusual, interesting tensions to redefine the urban experience. When, for instance, a bridge or viaduct is seen only as part of a functional problem to be solved — indeed, a problem that can practically be solved by ordering from a catalogue — we are missing an incredible opportunity for civic expression. Happily it is increasingly recognized that a bridge is both a place in its own right, and infrastructure that connects places. In Dallas, a public-private partnership comprised of the Texas Department of Transportation, the City of Dallas, and The Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation led the development of Klyde Warren Park, a 5.2-acre parkspace hovering alongside a freeway overpass that includes multiple performance stages.

Why shouldn’t an infrastructure project also have community space, art projects, a dog park and be net zero? Until the Denny Substation was completed it hadn’t been done before, and now we can learn from that project and apply similar thinking elsewhere.

Getting Creative with Your Budget

The client for an infrastructure project is often a public utility, which has limited resources for capital projects, and for political reasons what they do spend can’t be viewed as frivolous. However, infrastructure can be beautiful without costing a lot of money, especially if it can incorporate things that are a part of daily life, like seating, murals, or interesting, solar-powered lighting.

This may require designers to be creative with project concepts and materials, the latter of which must be both durable and cost-effective. It may also require creative financing by accessing the budgets of multiple agencies — for instance, both the public utility and the parks department — or by forging innovative new public-private partnerships.

At London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, infrastructure across the over 500-acre site was transformed into public art by leveraging funding from a mix of government, arts sector, and private support sources including the Greater London Authority, Arts Council England, and the London Development Agency.

Small substations are encased by a wood slat structure that has poetry and simple drawings carved into it that reference the industrial heritage of the Olympic Park site. Artist Martin Richman used recycled materials to transform a pedestrian underpass and a bridge onsite into swirling artworks to activate what could have been unmemorable project elements. And a security fence atop an infrastructure building covered in grass converts the five Olympic rings into an image of a low-frequency oscillation sound wave. The wave, designed by Carsten Nicolai, was digitally printed onto the fence, with five cycles of intensity that seem to pulse across the artwork.

Engage the Community

Finally, because infrastructure serves the community — and because we want any additional benefits to be enthusiastically adopted by the public — the community needs to have a voice in challenging norms and defining new ways of designing infrastructure. Many urban designers and planners are already adept at public engagement, so the more these experts can be enlisted in creating boundary-pushing infrastructural projects and the more they can double down in their commitment to thoughtful and comprehensive community consultation, the better.

As architects and designers, we are trained in the Vitruvian elements of architecture: “commodity, firmness and delight.” That is, architecture should be useful, solidly constructed and beautiful. Infrastructure is no different. We all know that infrastructure should meet our basic needs and be robust and reliable, especially in a world where resiliency is becoming more and more important. As we develop infrastructure that addresses climate change — from coastal resilience to heat-island mitigation and diverse sources of energy — the opportunity is even more present to celebrate our infrastructure. Indeed, can it delight us as well? If delight is essential to infrastructure, not only will it create new urban experiences, but we will be more likely to sustain it, thus promoting cost-effectiveness.

The challenge ahead is a great one: Climate change will stress our communities like never before. If we can redefine infrastructure as the provision of both essential services and an expanded public realm, perhaps our descendants will look back to this time period as a new golden age for cities and the infrastructure that sustains them.

Banner image courtesy Benjamin Benschneider/NBBJ.

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