A road runs through it
Ten years ago, on a visit to Denver, Roberto Pirzio-Biroli, an Italian architect and city planner ob-served the city layout from the spacious windows of a skyscraper, offering his opinions to city planners and reporters gathered around.
After awhile, he asked, “Where is the city square? Where do the people go to be together? Where is the piazza?”
His companions explained that such a thing did not exist. They pointed out a few nice parks and a pedestrian mall (in which people had to exercise caution to avoid being struck by shuttle buses). And they noted that, occasionally, public streets could be shut down for celebrations.
“That is very sad,” Pirzio-Biroli noted. “Without a piazza, you cannot live!”
In cities and counties across the nation, Americans are beginning to realize what the Italians have known for centuries: People need public places to be together to maintain some sense of belonging to a community. But for most of the last century, public areas have suffered as high-traffic streets and highways have pushed into their spaces, dividing neighborhoods and changing living patterns.
Perhaps the most startling example of the pre-eminence of highway over community was the construction of Boston’s Central Artery, which split the city’s neighborhoods and created one of the nation’s most congested stretches of road. In the largest public works project ever undertaken, the highway is currently undergoing an extensive rehabilitation that will re-knit those neighborhoods and ease traffic in the city’s downtown.
Similarly, in a number of other cities, local governments are beginning to question old road construction methods. Now a movement is afoot to re-establish the community sense of place that was lost with the elevation of the automobile to the position of “single most important aspect of American life.”
Called “Context-Sensitive De-sign,” the movement is concerned with the way streets and highways are routed through living spaces. “Highway projects can be designed with imagination, creativity and collaboration to preserve and enhance the character and quality of a community without sacrificing mobility and safety,” says Thomas Warne, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). “This new approach is nothing less than visionary, and it is a transformation of the way state transportation agencies design their facilities and conduct their business.”
Earlier this year, high-level state transportation department officials from 29 states met with AASHTO and stakeholders from government, the private sector and citizens’ groups from 39 states to address the issue of context-sensitive design. Held at the University of Maryland, the meeting charted a course for the promotion and advancement of context-sensitive design as a means of addressing core environmental, historic, cultural, aesthetic and other key community values.
A simple approach
Around the same time as the Italian architect was offering opinions in Denver, the town of Lake Worth, Fla., was assessing the situation in its own downtown. Business was moribund. Pedestrians found the shopping zone there unappealing, and the two one-way through streets were three-lane highways with 55 mile-per-hour speed limits, a fact that made crossing them a real safety challenge for people on foot.
In 1992, a serious accident in that zone prompted local officials to sit down with the Florida Department of Transportation to rethink the way the highways and their surroundings worked together – or did not. Research determined that residents wanted more pedestrian space, reduced speeds and more parking on the two one-way core streets passing through downtown.
Initially, a low-cost experimental approach was undertaken: Using paint only, each of the streets was reduced from three lanes to two, with the third striped out for parking. Accident rates fell by more than 44 percent during the 1994-1995 trial year.
It was agreed the stripeouts should be converted to new public uses. Eventually, Lake Worth and the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council – working with FDOT – agreed to keep narrower traffic lanes on the two roads, using the freed space to offer parallel parking, decorative light fixtures, planters, paver-block sidewalks, crosswalks, benches, trash containers and other amenities. The city also added bike lanes and 65-foot corner “bump-outs” that shorten street crossings for pedestrians and serve as stops for public trolley minibuses.
The city and FDOT communicated with businesses in the area during construction, and, by the time the project was completed in 1998, new businesses had begun moving in, and regular events were scheduled to attract people downtown. (An annual street-painting festival has attracted as many as 100,000 people to the city of 30,000.) As a result, downtown property values rose significantly.
“Finally, there’s recognition that FDOT standards have a range that can be adapted to community needs,” says Rick Chessner, Secretary of FDOT’s District 4.
Boosting commercial development
Roads can be like rivers: They can be passageways that bring life to those on the shores, or they can cut a deep canyon between the people who live on either side. It is a matter of volume – of water, in one case, traffic in the other.
In Portland, Ore., Union Avenue was just a neighborhood street. But in the early ’70s, it was rebuilt with no parking, four traffic lanes and a new 10-foot-wide median. Although the median featured attractive landscaping, it created a physical barrier to pedestrians, acting as more of a blockade than an inviting feature.
By the late 1980s, Union Avenue was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Eventually, a perception grew in the racially mixed communities on either side of its 3.5-mile stretch that the street had been rebuilt in order to rush white commuters through the diverse neighborhoods. Additionally, lack of parking had contributed to a drop in business for companies located along the boulevard.
Community activists appealed to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who assigned leaders of several state agencies to look into the problem. In an effort to address the community complaints, the Oregon Department of Transportation removed the median from a five-block area and added on-street parking on both sides of the street. Traffic lanes also were narrowed to 10 feet.
Those changes served as a fulcrum for further work. The Portland Office of Transportation worked with ODOT, the Portland Development Commission and the Metro Regional Planning Agency to transform the street into a community-supporting place.
Commercial areas were strengthened by the installation of a four-foot “mini-median” that would allow some tree-planting and pedestrian refuge. In residential areas, the wider medians with their mature trees were preferred and were maintained. However, pedestrian cuts were made in the medians to allow for safer street-crossing.
“It was difficult to convince some Oregon DOT engineers about these changes,” notes Matt Brown of the Portland Office of Transportation. However, the community benefits are becoming obvious: Property values are up, community development is strong, and traffic moves at a “Main Street” speed on the newly narrowed pavements.
Listening to the people
A big highway is not, for most people, a “country road.” And in the Bluegrass horse country of Kentucky, denizens of a picturesque rural area sought an injunction when the state transportation department decided to widen scenic Paris Pike, even though it had become dangerous through heavy use of its two lanes.
There was no question the road needed widening. Traffic volumes had risen to about 12,000 cars per day, with consequent frequent accidents and fatalities.
Most local residents agreed that safety was a problem, but, initially, they were reluctant to accept the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s usage numbers. “They just didn’t want the traffic to be there,” says Henry Alexander, a resident of the area who played a key role in the injunction and later resolution of the matter.
Alexander’s idea was to have the Kentucky DOT let the opponents participate in a six-day, eight-hour-a-day count of traffic along the stretch. The counts affirmed the state’s numbers, convincing residents of the volume and helping build trust between them and the DOT. State officials and residents then worked up a Memorandum of Understanding that supported the decision to widen the road but called for design features with public involvement and guidance by a special task force.
Public involvement was taken seriously – the teams literally walked the entire road, comparing notes about the safety needs and proposed solutions with potential problems they might cause. Further, at public meetings attended by local landowners, each was supplied with a keypad allowing for a sort of “instant vote” by everyone at the meeting regarding one proposed change or another. That way, everyone in attendance could know what the majority wanted, and the discussion could stay focused on items in need of further work.
Paris Pike ultimately was rebuilt with four lanes, but the two new lanes were not merely pasted along its existing length. A variable-width median breaks up the expanse of asphalt, allowing for detours around significant trees and landscape features. Stone amasons from Scotland were brought in to teach local artisans how to build and replace dry-laid stone walls. Guard rails are made of wood; new bridges are made from stone; and median crossovers, wide enough to accommodate U-turns by horse vans, limit the need for intersections.
“The more time you spend in planning and people relationships, the less time it takes on the other end,” says Jean Scott, former director of the citizens’ group, Bluegrass Tomorrow, which worked with the DOT to solve the problem.
How to do it
Success stories abound in the field of context-sensitive design. In Springdale, Utah, the relationship between Zion National Park and the town nearest it was enhanced by a redesign of the traffic flow through the town and the park. In Somerville, Mass., redesign of the traffic and pedestrian flow in Davis Square has turned Cambridge’s ugly-duckling neighbor into a commercially viable swan. In Calabasas, Calif., design steps that slowed down the raceway through town have sped up the commercial and pedestrian appeal of the town.
America’s cities and counties are learning that roads do not have to be divisive aspects of the landscape. Creative planning and citizen involvement can make streets community assets that help create gathering places.