Public space

How to build a neighborhood park

Saturday, Feb 23rd, 2013, 9:20 am Neighborhoods, Public space, Redevelopment Comments Off

Note: this was originally published by Plaza de Armas, where I wrote a column about city planning, place making, and community in San Antonio.

Beacon Hill’s recently christened neighborhood-scale linear park didn’t start as a dream so much as a constant complaint.

“For years we had a strip of dirt running through the heart of our neighborhood,” recalls Everett Ives, current president of the Beacon Hill Area Neighborhood Association (BHANA). And a strip of dirt is not just a strip of dirt. The association’s Linear Park Committee Chair, Jerry Locky, refers to the former string of undeveloped lots over a drainage culvert as a “dumping ground” for old mattresses and other bulky domestic waste. One proposal to the city, produced shortly before District 1 Councilwoman Mary Alice Cisneros took up the cause, consists mostly of photos of brownfield lots strewn with trash, alongside sidewalks overgrown and broken to the point of being unusable.

The desire to erase a scar across one of San Antonio’s older neighborhoods soon grew into a powerful vision of intimate public spaces meandering through Beacon Hill. Today those magnets for illegal dumping have become a community garden, an innovative playground, and a basketball court, along with plenty of walkways, benches, and native plants. The path from grievance to vision to reality was long and circuitous. › Continue reading

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Planning for public life

Sunday, Nov 18th, 2012, 9:51 am Neighborhoods, Public space, Theory Comments Off

Note: this was originally published by Plaza de Armas, where I wrote a column about city planning, place making, and community in San Antonio.

A Pattern Language, the 1977 community planning guide by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein, describes an important neighborhood design pattern called Activity Nodes. Their description begins with a complaint: “One of the greatest problems in existing communities is the fact that the available public life in them is spread so thin that it has no impact on the community. It is not in any real sense available to the community.” San Antonio overhauled its City Master Plan three years after the publication of those words, but most would agree that the problem articulated by Alexander and his colleagues holds true here today.

It’s not that public space doesn’t exist. We have public parks, plazas, and squares, playgrounds and hiking trails. But in too many cases, these public spaces are not well integrated with the streetscape or with commercial and residential development. The Pearl Brewery development should give San Antonio a taste of what is possible, even if that particular project isn’t perfect. An amphitheater connects to the Museum Reach of the Riverwalk, well designed to provide ample space for public events, but also to function as a small park. A theme of food and drink gives the Pearl a sense of identity, with its high-quality restaurants and farmers market. A mix of retail and office space with apartments and condos keeps the complex at least somewhat active throughout the day. › Continue reading

San Antonio builds a better block

Monday, Feb 20th, 2012, 9:15 am Public space, Redevelopment, Regulations Comments Off

Note: this was originally published by Plaza de Armas, where I write a column about city planning, place making, and community in San Antonio.

When Andrew Howard and Jason Roberts organized their first Better Block event in the Oak Cliff community of Dallas, it was largely an act of civil disobedience.

“We broke as many laws as we could with it,” says Howard. “We were ready to go to jail.”

Their cause wasn’t especially sexy. They weren’t targeting war crimes or racial oppression or animal cruelty. They were dissidents designing streets.

It worked. The Better Block Project has since applied its guerrilla street planning process to four blocks in Dallas, and been invited into at least 20 other cities.

Previously abandoned city blocks have been permanently transformed into vibrant activity centers. Following one event, they saw vacancy rates on the block go from 75 percent to 10 percent, and active strorefronts from 25 percent to 65 percent.

On March 4, San Antonio will host the first in a series of Better Block events, sponsored by the City’s Complete Streets program. › Continue reading

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Better Block comes to San Antonio

Saturday, Feb 11th, 2012, 5:45 pm Public space, Redevelopment Comments Off

Since the Better Block Project is coming to San Antonio on March 4, I thought I’d post a couple of videos about the project. My column in Plaza de Armas on Monday discusses the project in more detail.

This first video talks about the logic behind Complete Streets and what the Better Block Project is trying to accomplish:

This one shows what they actually did at the first Better Block in Oak Cliff, Dallas:

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Pocket neighborhoods in San Antonio

Monday, Dec 12th, 2011, 10:58 am Buildings, Public space, Redevelopment 2 Comments
Sala Diaz compound

The Compound behind Sala Diaz. Photo by Thomas Cummins.

This article was originally published in Plaza de Armas.

On a recent drive through the Government Hill neighborhood, along the edge of Ft Sam Houston, urban developer Peter French noticed something curious: a cluster of eight small homes with a private parking court. The cottages debuted in April 1929 on a lot that stretches one block, from Grayson to Quitman, with a typical width of about 65 feet. All the homes face inward, and are connected by a walkway that bisects the lot.

A small but growing group of urbanists, French among them, see this design as a key to building healthier communities.

These “pocket neighborhoods” simply turn houses away from the street, toward a semi-public space, which often takes the form of a landscaped courtyard. Residents give up their private yards in exchange for a larger communal area where children can play safely and adults can forge stronger relationships as they garden, barbecue, or have a drink with their neighbors after work. Proponents of this style of development claim that it has far-reaching implications for safety and social well-being. Ross Chapin, author of Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World, argues that this layer of small-scale shared space helps “mend [the] broken web of belonging, care and support” that is missing from many suburban communities.

I can’t speak for the relationships forged at the Whippoorwill Cottages (a name for this development that French’s research turned up; they were originally named Grayson Courts), but I do know quite a few people who have lived in a cluster of homes with a shared courtyard off St. Mary’s Street, just south-west of King William. Often referred to simply as “The Compound,” this group of homes was not originally designed as a courtyard neighborhood: all the houses face outward toward either St Mary’s or Stieren Street. Real-estate lawyer and art enthusiast Michael Casey was approached about buying a group of four adjacent duplexes on this corner around 1990. He decided to purchase a vacant house with a large, fenced-in back yard behind the duplexes at the same time.

› Continue reading

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Placemaking in Texas

Sunday, Aug 7th, 2011, 6:30 pm Public space, Redevelopment Comments Off
Discovery Green in Houston, TX

Discovery Green in Houston, TX

Project for Public Spaces has a new article up about the placemaking renaissance going on in Texas right now. Some may be surprised to learn that Houston (declared the “North America’s placemaking capital”) is the focus of the piece, and Austin isn’t mentioned once. Things are changing rapidly in Texas, and every city has plenty to learn from its neighbors.

Dallas is one of the few cities in the United States with a comprehensive light rail system, which runs all the way out to Fort Worth. It is also the home of a potentially game-changing DIY planning project called Build a Better Block. Houston opened Discovery Green a few years ago, which has already seen more than 2 million visitors. It has also seen unique projects like Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center, a public-private partnership that mixes park and community center with commercial spaces.

San Antonio also gets a mention, near the end of the article. Project for Public Spaces is leading a placemaking process here to expand on the successes we have seen at the Pearl Brewery and in Main Plaza. You can contribute ideas at this website, and join the discussion on August 18.

As San Antonio moves forward with major redevelopment projects like HemisFair Park and Midtown Brakenridge, we should not overlook the planning successes and failures of Houston, Austin, and Dallas, as well as those closer to home. As city-dwellers, we are also city-makers, whether or not we intend to be. We should look closely at the paths other cities have taken, so that we can better understand our own opportunities.

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Banks of the Ohio

Saturday, Jun 25th, 2011, 11:58 pm Public space 1 Comment

They say that the murder ballad Banks of the Ohio has been recorded by dozens of artists, but to my knowledge I’ve only heard two versions: one, recorded in the 1950s by a pair of Greenwich Village twins known as the Kossoy Sisters; another, recorded in 2003 by Scottish artist Susan Philipsz, and temporarily installed at Chrispark down the street from my house.

I just came from there.

I read that before there were public parks, people living in the cities used to go to graveyards do to all the things that parks came to be used for. In some places the graveyards would be overrun with people on the weekends. Chrispark is not a graveyard, but it is, in its way, a place of mourning.

Watching the light fade while listening to Philipsz’ “Sunset Song” feels like a distant echo of William Basinski’s “Disintegration Loops” video. The sense of loss begins to seep up from the grass. It makes me think, too, of Old Man Hill.

There’s a little creek that runs behind Chrispark, or rather it was a creek, now it is more of a drainage ditch. If you follow it down, under a highway, and past the old stock yards, and under another highway, you’ll end up on the San Antonio River. You start to wonder whether anyone ever drowned his girlfriend in this creek, or played a banjo on its banks.

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“Our private hall of flattering mirrors”

Sunday, May 29th, 2011, 12:46 pm Facebook, Public space 3 Comments

News Feed

This morning Facebook selected for my news feed a link from my girlfriend, who has been 12 times zones away for far too long, to a Jonathan Franzen piece making the argument that love and consumer culture are antithetical to one another. There’s a line in it that may be more true than Mr Franzen realizes. This line was referenced by my girlfriend in a bit of irony as she posted the link: “To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.”

Yesterday I wrote my column for Plaza de Armas on a topic closely related to this. Although I’ve realized for a while that Facebook and Google (and many other information portals) have been filtering search results and news feeds based on their algorithmic interpretation of personal preferences (search history, click history, etc), I’ve only in the last couple of weeks started to think about how truly radical this idea is.

The thing that got me thinking more critically about the implications of personalized information filtering was this TED talk by Eli Pariser on what he calls the “filter bubble.” The idea is simply that if Facebook chooses to show you only what it has calculated that you already like, you won’t be exposed to new ideas. This has been a problem that tech companies like Amazon and Netflix have wrestled with for a while: how do you make “suggestions” that actually expose people to something new?

So, this isn’t particularly revelatory, but important to think about as the problem extends from “you might also like…” to actually, in effect, hiding ideas and information from people. And it becomes particularly acute as we start to move real communities online. So, in the case of Facebook, the authority that deems a particular piece of news relevant is not a newspaper editor, or the collective opinion of my peers, but simply the links that I have clicked on, or liked, in the past.

The media echo chamber idea has been codified to create implicitly closed communities. But what exists on Facebook could hardly be called community, because it is based to a significant extent on what Franzen rightly refers to as a narcissistic hall of mirrors. And so many of the vital functions of natural, face-to-face social networking actually cease to function in this environment.

One example I bring up in the Plaza de Armas piece is related to Iran’s ‘Green Revolution,’ and the current wave of ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. Stratfor released an interested report on the role of social media in contemporary political uprisings. Contrary to some uncritical discussions, they found that social media presents a real liability for these protest groups. Part of the reason is that these information networks are relatively easy for authoritarian governments to monitor. But the report also notes that on networks like Facebook, the protestors have a hard time coming into contact with potential allies that may have different values, but shared strategic goals. The social network then fails to serve the needs of the oppressed, because of an over-reliance on a social media that actually separates people into small, homogeneous groups.

The “openness” that Mark Zuckerberg loves to tout comes with some significant caveats. And this is where I come back to Franzen. If this social media is built on likeability rather than love, superficial openness rather than real honesty, then it does not serve a social good, but is merely narcissism dressed up to look like community.

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The street paradigm & the resurrection of place

Sunday, May 8th, 2011, 2:39 pm Public space 1 Comment

I just stumbled on a fascinating post by Mathieu Helie over at Emergent Urbanism about the contemporary practice of street engineering. The whole thing is worth a read, but the basic idea is simple: before the proliferation of personal automobiles, streets weren’t engineered or thought of as infrastructure, they were just the spaces between buildings. And of course, pedestrians shared these spaces with people on horseback, in carriages, or riding bicycles.

Now, streets and parking lots are thought of in terms of infrastructure, so they are designed strictly to handle the amount of traffic that developers would like to have. As with water pipes or electrical grid, engineers figure it’s better to overbuild than to go back and have to rebuild, so the spaces between buildings are dominated by asphalt and concrete, with a few token trees.

But if instead developers and planners placed buildings with enough public space between them, and then built the streets and parking lots as needed to accommodate traffic, in effect subtracting from open space to add more streets or stores, we’d have places as opposed to developments. Mr Helie offers plenty of examples, from both Europe and America, to illustrate the difference.

The growth of a path network in a street grid

In most American cities today, we’d have to start by removing lanes from streets and spaces from parking lots. And there are plenty of spots where it would be completely appropriate to do that. We should certainly take it further and see which streets could be closed off entirely to create pedestrian areas. As Christopher Alexander discusses in A Pattern Language (see image above), a network of walking paths can be slowly built within a street grid, so that we’re not merely providing a ribbon of concrete on which to stroll next to traffic, but we’re creating places for walking.

San Antonio has places for walking, known as the Riverwalk and the various greenway trails. I’d like to see this expanded slowly into more of a network. The rivers and creeks offer an obvious place to do this: they create natural, meandering paths, and people like walking by water.

But there are possibilities other than using waterways and closing down streets. For instance, in my neighborhood there is a large, empty field that used to be a train yard. You’ll see it in the upper left hand corner of this map. If you look closely, there’s a line that runs from this unused field across Nogalitos and South Flores to the intersection of Lone Star and Probandt. That line is empty space that used to hold train tracks. The city could potentially turn that field into a park, with a promenade running almost all the way to the Lone Star Brewery. From there, a pedestrian can easily walk up Probandt to Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, or continue down Lone Star to the brewery, the Riverwalk, or Roosevelt Park.

This is just one idea. But when we start thinking of pathways that aren’t primarily for cars, lots of ideas like this start presenting themselves, and we can begin to see a city that operates on a different scale, and with a stronger sense of place.

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Taking back the streets

Thursday, May 5th, 2011, 9:48 am Public space, Redevelopment 2 Comments

Following up on my post about Brackenridge Park, I wrote my column for Plaza de Armas this week on the similarities — in terms of rethinking the street — between the HemisFair framework master plan, and the Midtown Brackenridge master plan. Here’s the core of the piece:

Another key recommendation of the framework plan is to make both South Alamo and Durango streets more pedestrian friendly, by narrowing them, expanding on-street parking, widening sidewalks, and bringing in landscaping. The team hopes that by making these thoroughfares less daunting to cross, and opening up more portals to the park along them, HemisFair will become a more cohesive part of the city.

The planners at Johnson Fain aren’t the only people hankering to reconfigure San Antonio’s streets. The Midtown Brackenridge Master Plan, released in February, also puts a strong focus on turning streets into usable public spaces. Although the Midtown Brackenridge plan looks only at the streets and neighborhoods around Brackenridge Park, while the HemisFair plan is mostly focused on the park site itself, the two projects have much in common. The former proposes to remake Broadway as “the ‘extended living room’ of the City,” using the same structural changes Johnson Fain recommends for Durango. It aims to make Avenue B (which runs parallel to Broadway) into a woonerf, a type of anarchic road found primarily in the Netherlands on which pedestrians, bikes, and cars all have an equal right to the street.

Underlying both these plans is the idea that streets are public spaces, not just big pipes for moving cars from one parking lot to another. Where streets have become barriers — as Broadway is between the Mahncke Park neighborhood and Brackenridge, or as Durango is between Lavaca and HemisFair — these proposals hope to heal the divisions the streets have created, and knit the city back together.

And more broadly, the Metropolitan Planning Organization has adopted a Complete Streets policy, which I hope to look into in more depth soon. As Mr Fain told me, San Antonio’s biggest asset from a planning perspective is its neighborhoods. But the roads, which should serve as a connective tissue, too often divide the neighborhoods from each other as well as from other cultural assets.

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Scattered Work is a blog about San Antonio, place, and planning by Ben Judson.

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