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The Times Square Transformation

We found a very nice video discussing New York’s goal of being the “greatest, greenest big city in the world,” according to NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.  While the video focuses more on transportation improvements in the city, specifically bicycle infrastructure and bus rapid transit, there is a brief discussion on the success of closing Broadway to vehicular traffic (about 3:20 into the video). 

According to Sadik-Khan, there are 356,000 pedestrians each and every day in Times Square, and although there is a 10:1 ratio of pedestrians to cars, 90% of the space was allocated to cars.  By removing Broadway from the road system, the city created 1.8 acres of new pedestrian space, which has led to a 63% reduction in injuries.  In addition to the decrease in accidents, there has also been a substantial reduction in noise levels.

We’ve written before about the effects of road closures in cities.  For a more in-dept discussion on this topic, please visit our earlier post.

Urban Parks and Accessibility

Community Green

Access to city parks has always been an important and ongoing topic for planners, landscape architects, and city officials. In the early days, urban parks were only found in upper-class neighborhoods, as those individuals realized the potential for city parks and had the means to create these spaces as well. Parks have since become a representation of equality, where everyone is allowed to share and enjoy the same space. Indeed that was the vision held by Frederick Law Olmsted when he was designing parks throughout the United States.

According to two new articles, however, access to city parks is greatly diminished when living in a less-affluent section of the city. London’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment recently released the report Community Green, which studied the relationship between “urban green space, inequality, ethnicity, health and well-being” in the inner-cities of the United Kingdom. A key finding of the report concluded that residents living in a deprived inner-city area have access to five times fewer public parks and good quality general green space than people in more affluent areas.

This is an important issue for cities to tackle, as research has shown that green space plays a role in easing racial tensions and promoting diversity, using activities such as sports and even casual walks in the park. The article continues to give other examples of the social benefits of clean, usable urban parks, and certain steps that should be taken in the future.

In Decent Homes Need Decent Spaces, written in conjunction with the National Housing Federation of the United Kingdom, the authors lay out an “action plan” to improve open spaces in social housing areas. The plan offers suggestions for ways landlords can provide more effective open space, which in turn gives people a safe and livable landscape near their homes. Examples include involving residents in decisions, recognizing the larger issues at stake while still maintaining a localized agenda, and making the best use of funding.

For more information about the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, visit their website.

Chicago’s Green Mayor: The Legacy of Richard Daley

An editorial discussing Daley’s tenure as Mayor of Chicago and the impact he will leave on city parks.

Mayor Daley (left) at the grand opening of Millennium Park. Credit: City of Chicago

As Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 21-year reign over the city of Chicago comes to a close, multiple publications are evaluating his impact and legacy – from a comprehensive assessment of a variety of issues in the New York Times to a laundry list of unfinished business in the Chicago Tribune. Many organizations have recognized Daley for his part in greening the city – the Urban Land Institute (ULI) recently awarded him the J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. Deeming the Mayor an “Urban Artist,” ULI asserts that Mayor Daley has “transformed this Rustbelt city into a revitalized international metropolis, bringing together the built and natural environments to make the city more sustainable, livable, and lively.” The U.S. Green Building Council recently created the Mayor Richard M. Daley Legacy Award for Global Leadership in Creating Sustainable Cities – and this year’s winner…Richard M. Daley.

On Citiwire.net, Neal Peirce notes the Mayor’s substantive green achievements:

  • 88 Chicago buildings claimed LEED certification (as of late 2009);
  • A 20,300-square-foot green roof was built atop City Hall;
  • More than 600 rooftop gardens and green roofs covering more than seven million square feet that have been constructed or underway on top of public or private buildings around Chicago;
  • 1,300 acres of new open space has been added to the City since 1998; and
  • Chicago has planted more than 600,000 trees and constructed more than 85 miles of landscaped medians.

It is an impressive list of accomplishments for a city that was once an emblem of the Rustbelt’s decay. While city coffers filled with the spoils of the late 90’s economic boom and concomitant real estate speculation, Daley guided Chicago’s green urban renewal. He had a vision for the city – his vision – and public greenspaces were an essential component.

Millennium Park is the crown jewel of Daley’s tenure in office. Opened in 2004, the 24.5-acre park ingeniously covers the old Illinois Central railroad tracks (now a parking garage) and has become the city’s top tourist destination. It is a stunning public space and now a centerpiece of the Chicago experience.

But as Lynn Becker of the Chicago Reader warned at the park’s opening, “Millennium Park needs to be remembered as an object lesson in how not to do such a project.” Millennium Park was 4 years late and $300 million over-budget due to building setbacks, contractor lawsuits, and budget shortfalls. $95 million of the total cost was diverted from a tax increment financing (TIF) district to which Millennium Park did not belong – money which could have been utilized to bolster schools, other parks, and a city budget in the red. (For more on TIFs, the Chicago Way, see Ben Joravsky’s Go On, Smash It). However, the project did succeed at harnessing the generosity of Chicago’s wealthy benefactors. Over $200 million of private contributions made Millennium Park – a public greenspace – a reality.

Other public space projects generated a more mixed public reaction and are representative of Daley’s unilateral style of leadership. Meigs Field, situated on Northerly Island, had served as a small-plane airport since the late 1940s. For years, the Mayor had sought to close the airport for park space – indeed, Northerly Island had been designated park land in the original Burnham Plan. Finally, in the middle of a March night back in 2003, Daley ordered bulldozers to dig up portions of runway, stranding planes on the airfield and preventing landings. Although there were no immediate threats to the city, Daley argued that Chicago was overlooked in national terrorism prevention efforts, and eliminating the airfield was a measure of protection. The City was sued and fined by the FAA, but Daley had his way. Northerly Island is currently home to a concert venue, but plans are in the works to fully develop the island as a nature park.

Daley made other big changes. Prior to his arrival on the scene, the Chicago Park District was heavy on patronage and bureaucracy and light on park maintenance and planning. Years of mismanagement left the district in an untenable financial state and subject to a court order to reduce race-based inequities. In 1993, Daley began the process of overhauling the district. Led by Forrest Claypool, the district hired a private firm to audit the parks and compile a master repairs list. With an objective assessment in hand, the district went to work: parks got a facelift, from newly planted trees to wrought-iron fences; staff was reduced by 33 percent; much-needed repairs were made; and district efforts were refocused on park and recreation activities.

On the other hand, for a mayor who worked to end park inequities, the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid threatened to place significant burdens on parks in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Though the mayor promised that no public funds would be used for the Olympic bid, public lands were offered for the cause. The mayor and the Olympic committee, with the unanimous support of the city council, targeted Washington, Jackson, and Douglas Parks as major stadium venues, which would have deprived residents of park use for two or more years. And while development plans were in the works for the lots surrounding the historic Olmstead-designed parks, there were concerns as to who would benefit the most from those plans. Chicago eventually lost the Olympic bid.

Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic, aptly describes the mayor as ruling with a “green thumb and an iron fist.” That description encapsulates the legacy of the mayor – he has been both a strong advocate for a green city with ample public space and a unilateralist who pushed through large-scale projects with strong-armed tactics. Daley will leave the city with world-class greenspaces. He will also leave it with a $655-million deficit. Only time will tell if the “Urban Artist’s” efforts to realize his green vision are sustainable.

When Parks, Transportation and Water Collide

Sometimes small towns are the communities pushing the envelope on innovation.

What happens when you take a regular traffic circle, cover it with a lawn, add some trees for shade and then a fountain for kicks?  Well, in Normal, Illinois they did just that as a means for reducing downtown congestion in this college town.

Credit: Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects

But the true innovation comes from the sustainable infrastructure used to create the traffic roundabout.  Apparently the water in the public fountain is actually cleansed and re-circulated stormwater from five main streets leading to the traffic circle.  Although not safe for drinking, it is perfectly fine for toe-dipping as these kids would gladly testify.  And as soon as those London plane trees grow a little more fuller, I imagine this will be a relaxing place for a good book or a picnic.

Credit: Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects

We’ve posted before about how parks can be great green places, regardless of size.  Washington D.C.’s Dupont Circle is a nice example of a vibrant urban park that is heavily used in the midst of a busy downtown.

The new Circle in Normal is only one component of the city’s plans for redevelopment of the downtown area.  As the residents of Normal find increasing popularity in their new park, perhaps now is a good reminder of the five characteristics of Great Green Places:

  • Landscape: a place that is successful uniting site planning and landscape design;
  • Mixed Use: a place that demonstrates a variety of retail, housing, and commercial uses;
  • Sense of Place: a place that physically embraces its history and culture;
  • Streetscape: a place that is pedestrian-friendly with activated public spaces; and
  • Transit Options: a place that encourages and supports multiple forms of transportation including subway, bus, and biking.

It’s only when looking at sustainability from a holistic view, can we truly see the transformation in a community.

For more pictures and technical details regarding the Circle in Uptown Normal, visit the Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects website.

Park(ing) Day 2010: Feed the Meter, Green the City

It’s never too late to post about the innovation that is Park(ing) Day.  The fifth annual event was held on Friday, September 17 in over 100 cities worldwide, including first-timers Tehran, Hangzhou, and Paris.

Some cities, like Washington, D.C., had issues acquiring permits and had to be a little creative with their parks.  Overall though, it looks like the day went well and parking meter parks provided a little respite as well as greenery to many urban communities.

Credit: UrbanCincy.com

Originally created by Rebar, San Francisco art and design collective, PARK(ing) Day, according to its official website, is an annual, worldwide event that inspires city dwellers everywhere to transform metered parking spots into temporary parks for the public good.

Open to any and everyone, PARK(ing) Day, is a non-commercial project intended to engage citizens, artists and activists in promoting creative, unscripted social interactions and playful fun.  View a slide show of parks from around the country here and here.

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