Malfunctioning products from manufacturers such as Toyota are not the only things being recalled these days. Many of our public places are defective, posing risks to individuals, local economies and community life in general.
Rising concern about these threats to public safety and health, ranging from dangerous streets to destructive zoning codes, has sparked new efforts to fix the problems. While planning mistakes cannot be recalled in the same way that a car with faulty brakes is sent back to the repair shop, these actions are every bit as dramatic.
Project for Public Spaces has been working closely with government, professional, business and citizens groups to find the right solutions to ensure that people are safe and sound in the future. Here is a summary of the most recent wave of recalls that touch nearly every city, town and suburb.
Dangerous Roads Recalled by Transportation Department Busy urban streets will be made safe and livable over next 10 years.
New York Targets Blank Walls An end to dull, windowless buildings that suck the life out of our cities.
Make Paradise, Tear Down a Parking Lot A massive recall on land illegally given to automobiles.
Landscape Architects Pull the Plug on Jargon All metaphors, juxtapositions and other incomprehensible language banned.
New Lease on Life for Suburbs and Cities Architects gather in Athens to bid farewell to single-use zoning.
…And the Walks Came Tumbling Down The last major “skyway” system, in Minneapolis, will be demolished.
“City Center” R.I.P. The faux phrase is now banned in 38 states.
A Victory for America’s Children New rules make it possible for millions of kids to walk to school again.
A Green Light for Safer Streets Stoplights to be phased out in many U.S. neighborhoods.
PPS President Issues a Recall on His Own Statements Fred Kent softens his criticism of traffic engineers.
Pointing to a “clear and present danger” to the American public, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced today the “recall” of all urban and suburban arterial roadways in America. These are the familiar roads built since the 1960s that function more as speedways than city streets.
Every four-lane road in a metropolitan area with a population of more 50,000 will be examined by Department of Transportation (DOT) engineers over the next 18 months to determine whether they pose “an undue threat” to motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists.
Wide, fast urban streets pose a major threat to safety, announces Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. The new plans, estimated to cost $180 billion annually over the next decade, are expected to pay for themselves in reduced Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security expenditures on people injured in car crashes.
LaHood made the announcement at an outdoor press conference on Detroit’s famed Woodward Avenue, which he vowed would be the first urban road reinvented to meet new standards for safety and livability. “It only makes sense that this street, which 101 years ago became the first in the world to be paved in concrete, a breakthrough that transformed transportation in the 20th Century, should be the street where we transform transportation safety in the 21st Century,” he said to a cheering crowd.
He cited a study conducted by the British government showing that a pedestrian struck by a vehicle traveling 20 mph has a five percent chance of being killed, but at 40 mph, pedestrians die 85 percent of the time. “That’s a sobering statistic,” LaHood said, “and we would show very little regard for the lives of Americans if we did not take bold steps to address this crisis.”
Streets receiving less than a “B” grade under new Safety and Urban Livability report card announced by LaHood will undergo extensive renovations. These will include rightsizing roadways, road diets, redesigns to ensure appropriate vehicle speeds, improved bike and transit facilities, better integration of transportation and land use planning, and greater attention to fostering good public spaces along these routes, he explained.
At issue is the “forgiving highway” philosophy that prevailed over the past 50 years. Traffic lanes were widened and trees and utility poles spaced farther apart along the roadside in a well-intended but ultimately misguided effort to make streets safer. That engineering philosophy has been increasingly challenged in recent years, and abandoned altogether in some countries such as the Netherlands, which has seen a marked decline in road fatalities as a result.
While wider and straighter roads eliminated some kinds of crashes, an unintended consequence was increased speeding on roads in populated urban areas, which resulted in higher crash rates and more severe crashes. This was documented in recent research from the Texas Transportation Institute and the University of Utah.
LaHood’s announcement seems to place Department of Transportation clearly in the camp of the “Livable Streets” philosophy, articulated by for many years by a wide coalition of community and environmental organizations.
Gary Toth, Senior Director of Transportation Initiatives at Project for Public Spaces, points to the Netherlands success in implementing new standards for road safety. “Based on the Dutch experience, we can safely say the new policy articulated by Secretary LaHood will save the lives of 20,000 Americans every year. This is great news, indeed.”
New York City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden issued a recall for all buildings in the city that offer only a blank, dull, windowless face to the street. She cited public safety concerns as well as the buildings’ detrimental impact on community life.
Many other cities are expected to follow New York’s lead as part of the growing realization that economic recovery and social stability depend upon providing lively, attractive urban environments.
Building owners have 12 months to file plans with the city about how they will restore or rebuild their properties. In an effort to stimulate the economy, the New York City Convention and Visitors Bureau and the New York State Economic Development Commission both have established multi-billion dollar loan funds to assist property owners in starting renovations as soon as possible.
Burden unveiled the plans in front of the blank wall of the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden, which neighbors have long complained is a blight that harms the vibrancy of their neighborhood. A remnant of the MOMA wall will be left standing as a reminder of a passing historical era when architectural statements were deemed more important than communities.
In making the announcement Burden quoted her mentor, the late journalist and urbanist William H. Whyte: “Blank walls proclaim the power of institutions and the inconsequence of the individual, whom they are clearly meant to intimidate.”
It was recently discovered that cars have been squatting on some of the most valuable land in America—sometimes for as long as seventy years. The land will now be returned to the American public.
Officials at the International Downtown Association discovered that landmark legislation from the 1930s has been misinterpreted since the day it was signed into law. Congress unanimously approved the 1937 Urban Improvement Act, which states that free parking in towns and cities must be taxed at an annual rate of 10 percent of estimated real estate value. But a General Motors lobbyist impersonating a Commerce Department official altered the document so that it appeared to offer tax breaks to businesses that provide free parking to their customers and employees.
Calculating that parking lot operators and shopping malls now owe the American people a staggering $986 billion in back taxes, the Treasury department decided it would be easier and more compassionate for parking lots to be turned over to local governments to create thousands of new parks, squares, public spaces and civic institutions.
In light of a new study showing that even landscape architects cannot understand what other landscape architects are saying, the profession is rethinking its attachment to abstruse lexicological phraseology.
At their annual convention held last month in Babel, New Jersey, The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) issued a strongly worded statement urging all members to “start using language that people can understand. Yes, that means you! The future of our profession depends upon working more closely with communities.”
The organization strongly discouraged the use of “elaborate metaphors that provide intellectual cover for projects that utterly fail at giving people the public spaces they want and need.”
PPS vice president Kathy Madden welcomed the announcement as a breath of fresh spring air. “No longer will we be forced to hear about ‘land forms’ and 'contrasting materials’ being ‘juxtaposed’. And design mistakes will no longer be passed off as ‘contemplative spaces.’”
To show their commitment to change, ASLA is sending all its members, along with every student enrolled in a landscape architecture program, a care package containing a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and directions to the nearest meeting of Toastmasters International.
A bold vision for the future of our communities was unveiled yesterday in Athens, Greece. Urban planners and architects from 172 nations gathered in the Agora (ruins of the marketplace at the heart of the ancient city) to formally rescind the Charter of Athens—a 1933 document that established the idea that homes, shops and workplaces should be physically separated.
“The charter of Athens has been nothing less than a catastrophe,” announced Steve Davies, PPS vice-president and leader of the American delegation. “It undermined the vitality of communities around the world by introducing the concept of single-use zoning. This has meant that many people have no choice but to live in residential pods, far away from stores, schools, workplaces, shops and entertainment. They can’t walk anywhere, and the kind of human interaction that characterizes healthy communities has significantly declined.”
A local crowd greeted the announcement with cheers of “opa!”, many of them noting that the original Charter of Athens was not even signed in their city. The charter, which has shaped urban planning since World War II, was written and signed by a small coterie of architects under the direction of Le Corbusier aboard a boat sailing in the Mediterranean.
Economic experts believe this action will boost the sluggish global economy. Scrapping outdated zoning codes will spark a construction boom of corner groceries, pubs, ice cream parlors, coffee shops, hardware stores and small-scale office buildings in neighborhoods around the world.
A misbegotten era in urban planning came to close last week, when the Minneapolis City Council unanimously voted to dismantle the town’s downtown skyway system. The action follows similar steps taken recently in Calgary, Des Moines, St. Paul, Atlanta, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Skyways, also known as skywalks, were hailed in the 1960s as a “design breakthrough” to help northern cities become more lively and welcoming in cold weather—and they were later embraced in hot climate places such as Atlanta, Houston and Mumbai, India. But in practice, skyways had just the opposite effect. They snuffed out streetlife wherever they were built, creating eerie, empty sidewalks that gave the impression the city had been abandoned.
Famous travel writer Jane Morris once described downtown Minneapolis as “a perfectly interesting stewpot populated by well-clad business types and charmingly scruffy bohemians in the warm months. But they are nowhere to be found once the mercury hits 0 [32 Fahrenheit]. The town, sadly, becomes deader than a doornail. The baneful overhead passageways are chiefly to blame.”
Minneapolis, the city most associated with skyways, resisted the trend to declare them a failure until early this week, when it was revealed that an unfortunate visitor from Toronto, Jane Q. Jacobs, was lost in the city’s 80-block system for more than three weeks. She had left her purse and cell phone back at her hotel and was unable to find her way back to the street level.
Jacobs survived by scrounging Starbucks coffee, Subway sandwiches and Cinnabons from trash cans until rescued by two college students, recently returned from relief work in Haiti.
“In the skyways, there was absolutely no interaction between people like you’d find on a city street. I never had the opportunity to ask anyone for help. They walked right past me without a glance,” she said from her hospital bed. Jacobs is well on her way to full recovery, doctors say, thanks to a rigorous regimen of walks in the fresh air.
As John Harold Kunstler, city manager of Normal, Illinois, was preparing to sign papers finalizing a deal to develop a new “City Center” shopping complex to revive the town's business district, he decided to google the name “City Center.” Much to his amazement, he discovered at least 1000 other downtown developments called “City Center”, many of them in the Midwest. A quick look at “Town Center” turned up another 800.
This gave Kunstler pause—first about the name of the project and then about the project itself. Did Normal need really need another shopping mall, especially one funded by taxpayers with 850 parking spaces, as part of downtown redevelopment plan? Wouldn’t it be better to revitalize the actual city center—those versatile storefronts that housed everything from a haberdashery in the 1920s to a head shop in the 1960s to an organic gastropub featuring local foods from the farmer’s market today?
He halted the project and, when the developer tried to go around his back to the city council (using the notorious Law Firm of Dewey, Cheatham & Howe), he convinced the council to pass a law banning use of the word “City Center” for any new development resembling a suburban shopping mall. The state of Illinois soon passed a similar law, as have 37 other states and the District of Columbia.
“These pathetic fake city centers are an example of the geography of nowhere, which my cousin Jim is always talking about,” Kunstler says. “Here in Normal, we invested instead in the authentic, historical downtown, and it has paid off handsomely. It’s now the place to see and be seen.”
Life for American school kids took a turn for the better last month when an influential professional organization endorsed the idea that schools in traditional neighborhood settings provide the best education. The Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) overturned its longstanding requirements that new schools must be constructed on vast tracts of empty land.
Under the organization’s old formula, a 2000-student high school must sit on a 50-acre site. In practice, this meant small communities were forced to build new schools in the middle of agricultural fields rather than right in town where kids could walk to school. It was the same story in urban areas, with new schools going into derelict industrial zones and other settings far from neighborhoods where kids lived.
“I’m elated,” declared Dr. Maxine Krakenbauer-Garcia, superintendent of the Fort Madison, Iowa, school district. “We’ve known for years that students do better in class when they have the chance to walk to school in the morning. All the data supports that. And they are happier all around when the school is their neighborhood. They can use the playground on weekends and in the summer.”
CEFPI changed the rules under pressure from educators and parents across America who argued that the requirements cost cash-strapped schools millions each year in school bus expenses and forced kids to endure long rides to school.
For years the stoplight has been seen as a symbol of modern progress, most notably in frequent journalistic references to a rural area being so remote or backward “there is only one stoplight in the whole county”. Yet that’s about to change.
The National League of Cities, representing mayors and other top leaders of 18,000 U.S. communities, issued a statement yesterday urging the recall of stoplights on all but the busiest intersections in towns and cities. Numerous studies show that four way stops have fewer accidents than stoplights. Philadelphia, for instance, found that pedestrian injuries decline 49 percent when it eliminated 800 stoplights on city streets.
“This is one simple but powerful step we can take to ensure public safety and improve the travel experience for motorists,” said Kathleen Ziegenfuss, newly elected mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts. “We all know the temptation to speed up in order to beat a yellow light. It makes the streets more dangerous and driving more stressful.”
Over the next few months, hundreds of thousand of U.S. stoplights will either be replaced by four-way stop signs or reprogrammed to flash red all day except for rush hour—the equivalent of a four-way stop.
“If you listen to a traffic engineer and do exactly the opposite, then you can be pretty sure you’re doing the right thing to strengthen your community.”
Fred Kent used that line literally hundreds of times in dozens of countries, and it almost always brought an eruption of laughter. But now, in a surprising turnabout, the Project for Public Spaces president sees growing signs that traffic engineers are beginning to realize that making great places for people is more important than building fast roads for cars.
“No one is more surprised than I am that this profession is beginning to understand the principles of Placemaking,” Kent admitted in a recent interview with the AASHTO Journal (published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials).
“For years, I would suggest at meetings around the country that local traffic engineers needed to have frontal lobotomies,” he added. “And oftentimes a surgeon would come up to me after the talk and volunteer to perform the operation for free.”
But Kent insists he is not taking back any of his sharp comments about certain architects and landscape architects.