People become urban planners because they want to make life in cities better.
But change comes slowly, and planners often find themselves pigeonholed into repetitive, specialized, and even isolated work. Though architects and artists commonly use their skills to intervene in troubled cityscapes, planners are rarely asked to exercise their creativity in the same way.
My colleague Frank Hebbert and I were mulling over this conundrum at the very same time that a group of concerned citizens in New York City were struggling to make changes in the deadly thoroughfare that dominated their commute: Queens Boulevard.
It was in this context that we asked ourselves: What might a planning intervention look like? Would it be possible to structure projects and planning work so that planners could offer their unique expertise directly to complex problems in cities?
Queens Boulevard is one of the most dangerous corridors for pedestrians and cyclists in New York. But it began in the tradition of the grand, promenade boulevards that marked great cities of its day. Its great width supported multiple modes: a Sunday stroll, a bicycle delivery and a carriage ride.
A streetcar line ran down its center and tree-lined sidewalks made its edges. It was designed to be the main east-west thoroughfare in the borough of Queens, connecting neighborhoods and communities that changed as quickly as the world did.
Over the years, growing dependence on automobiles forced walkers, bicyclists and carriages to share the space with cars. Soon enough, cars took up most of the space and traveled fast down the Boulevard. The living street became an expressway. Queens Boulevard now tops the list of most dangerous streets every year on crashstat.org.
The New York City Department of Transportation conducted a traffic safety study on the Boulevard in 2005 and, in typical engineering logic, concluded that traffic volumes were so high that little could be done to improve it. Signs cautioning pedestrians to be careful while crossing the street stayed up on their posts and became the butt of jokes for transportation advocates.
In 2009, James Langergaard, a committed cyclist, was struck and killed on Queens Boulevard on his way home late one summer night. James had been a part of the volunteer family at Transportation Alternatives, a transportation advocacy organization in New York City. He had been trying – with the T.A. Queens Volunteer Committee – to get the city to make pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements on the Boulevard.
The city’s lack of imagination in making improvements tested the patience of even the most dedicated advocates.
In a vacuum of viable ideas, T.A.’s Bicycle Advocacy Director Caroline Samponaro had a realization. By offering realistic alternative cross sections (a flat drawing that shows how a street space is or could be used), Samponaro believed that they could sway city agencies and galvanize public support. But T.A., over-committed and cash-strapped, did not have the capacity to execute this idea.
I was working at T.A. when the idea to produce alternative cross sections formed. At the same time, my colleague Frank and I were mulling over the role of urban planners in general. What were we really supposed to be doing to help “change things?”
Planning processes tend to be drawn out, but community needs tend to be immediate. Although we worked for different organizations, Frank and I had begun to imagine different ways for planning make use of their abilities.
With these questions in mind Frank and I launched Planning Corps, a network of volunteer planners whose skills we match with non-profit projects. In the case of Queens Boulevard, planners could, at minimum, help draw the cross sections.
Planning Corps started out with working sessions of an hour and a half. Within that time frame, the group experimented with format, structure and participation.
For example, initially we arranged separate tables, each dealing with a different planning topics, so that all who attended each Planning Corps meeting could participate in a couple of different projects. But it soon became clear that to arrive at a quality product, we needed to focus the entire group on Queens Boulevard.
We held numerous workshops with the Queens Committee members to discuss the problems with the Boulevard. We began calling on planners to do research in advance of workshops, and tried several times to connect the data to the problem identification.
In parallel, the dedicated volunteers on the Queens Committee ran a series of activities to support our research and development. On one of the hottest days in July, the group organized a community walk along the entire length of the Boulevard and documented the problems with the street design. These observations proved invaluable.
The committee’s observations showed Planning Corps that there are actually five basic street and neighborhood contexts for Queens Boulevard, and for each there could be a different solution. A long boulevard that seemed to present new problems on every block and at every intersection now required five tailored solutions. This was much easier to digest and conceptualize.
As we worked, however, we realized that limiting ourselves to cross sections was impeding our ability to tackle the full scope of the problem. We had settled on cross sections because local non-profit or community groups could express their unique knowledge through the drawn images. In addition, we thought that focusing on one specific product would ensure our ability to deliver good work, and we didn’t want the Queens Volunteer Committee to expect more than we could offer.
After five months of floundering in this cyclical workshop process, a planner, Eric Galipo of H3 Architects, came onboard. Eric reframed the issue. He asked: What would be the most persuasive way for the Queens Volunteer Committee to convince their elected officials that something had to be done to the street?
Cross sections would be useful, but perhaps more useful if they were presented in a collection of boulevard cross sections taken from around the world – boulevards that had demonstrably fewer crashes.
Planning Corps had to take on related challenges, too. We had to address potential changes in the number of parking spaces; the needs of local businesses; and our ability to show how the existing space could accommodate a new design. With these considerations, we developed the following products:
1. The Julia Child Street Design Kit
H3 Architects has a history of creating models that show clients the trade-offs between program and constraints. These models of different parts can be combined in multiple ways to make different plans and programs, just as the ingredients and tools in Julia Child’s kitchen can be combined to create different dishes.
For instance, a new theater building may require a certain number of parking spots. The cheapest way to provide parking is through a surface lot. But this is also the most expensive in terms of land acquisition. Underground parking is more expensive in labor and materials, but much cheaper in terms of land and opportunity cost for that land. The Julia Child Kit allowed the designer to trade surface parking for structured parking on a model.
Eric created a street model kit to show people how all the elements could fit on the street – bus lane, bike lane, parking, travel lanes, wider sidewalks, curb extensions, and street trees. He laid the pieces out in CAD (Computer-aided Design). Then we spent a few hours cutting them out of foam core.
Once you have your pieces ready, you can line up all the pieces to represent the existing street; move the pieces around and take out a travel lane; add a bike lane and sidewalk extension as you see fit. And voila! The cross sections came easily as slices from the model.
Recipe for Street Model Kit
• PDF of CAD file of street design elements
• Foam core boards
• Mount spray
• Box cutters
• Xacto blades
1. Plot the street design elements, then print.
2. Spray foam core boards.
3. Mount printout to boards.
4. Cut out the pieces.
Queens Boulevard was patterned on a street design legacy that supported many users at slower speeds. The city lost this legacy as the automobile emerged. We decided to show how other boulevards had transitioned from multi-purpose to auto-centric by researching similar street typographies and creating some infographics showing how they differed.
Mike Lydon of Street Plans Collaborative pulled together examples of better boulevards from around the world. He found data points that could improve the street design while remaining within the space constraints. Eric took those examples and started one version of infographics. Then Anthony Denaro, an architect and graphic designer, took all the research and infographics and turned them into a polished product.
This book is the most traditional urban planner product the group produced, but we created it in fits and starts because it wasn’t clear whether or not the Volunteer Committee could even use it. In the end, though, the book does clearly demonstrate how space on Queens Boulevard could accommodate more uses, and how boulevards in other parts of the world have done that. So why not in New York City?
3. Brochure on Parking and Economic Benefits
One worry is that businesses will complain about the loss of parking when new designs are proposed. Though research has shown that most shoppers arrive by foot, transit or bicycle in cities as dense as New York, no business wants to take that risk.
Instead of presenting a paper on the topic, we composed a quick talking points sheet for the Volunteer Committee to use when meeting with business owners. The Committee shared their concerns for the businesses with us multiple times. So what started out as a study requested from the Committee turned into a two-pager. The result is an easy tool that doesn’t require a huge commitment on the part of the user.
Implausibly, it was difficult to convince community members that decreasing the crossing distance at an intersection – either through giving the pedestrian more time to cross or physically shortening the distance – would improve their safety. To change pedestrian signal timing the City required a study and traffic modeling, which was beyond the time and data resources available to us.
A Planning Corps member took on this task and opened up the arithmetic around signal timing for us. He put together visuals in a PowerPoint that explained how signal timing can improve pedestrian safety. We distilled the information into a six-page visual that made the point clearly and quickly.
Queens Boulevard continues to receive press on its weakness in supporting pedestrian and bicycle users. Yet the Queens Volunteer Committee remains committed to the project. Changing a street, especially one that is as large and heavily used as Queens Boulevard, is a years-long process. The Boulevard’s potential to be a leader in innovative street design is as tremendous as it was during in its early 20th century debut.