Walkable West Palm Beach


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Parklets don’t make a street unsafe; cars speeding make a street unsafe

Fort Lauderdale gets it. Edge friction causes drivers to slow down and creates a more satisfying place. A more quality public realm attracts people, diners, and business. Fort Lauderdale has rolled out a permanent parklet program. Here is an excerpt of a Sun Sentinel story:

 It’s worked well at Gran Forno Bakery, located at 1235 East Las Olas Boulevard, became a one-store pilot program about four months ago, said manager Alex Variu. The parklet is a curb-high wooden sidewalk extension fitted alongside the pavement in front of the bakery.

“No negative impacts have been identified to date,” said City Manager Lee Feldman.

But it was car traffic that most interested Variu.

“We’d been talking with the city for some time,” he said. “There have been a lot of problems with traffic here — a lot of accidents. The idea was this parklet was going to slow down the traffic. Drivers would ease up as they passed.”  [story from The Sun Sentinel]

Contrast these two photos. First is a parklet in San Francisco, home of the original parklet program. Second is a tweet we sent after observing the City putting ugly yellow pylons in front of our ‘street balcony’ on Clematis. It was working just fine for a few days without these ugly sticks blighting the streetscape. What changed?

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Parklet in San Francisco. Credit to the New York Times.

 

It’s result of what I like to call “The tyranny of the specialist”, in this case, likely the engineering department. In a complex urban environment with slow speeds, also known as a ‘street’, it is both useful and desirable for street design to send the message, “this is a place for people first. Cars will be allowed here, as long as they behave. To ensure they will behave, the environment will be designed to reflect these values.”   They get it in Fort Lauderdale. Parklets don’t make a street unsafe; cars speeding make a street unsafe! And parklets/narrower streets/raised intersections reduce speed and create an environment in which the driver needs to be cautious. If anything, the parklet in West Palm Beach should have been made even larger and wider, but engineering dictated that its dimensions be reduced. Tyranny of the engineer.

This isn’t a new experiment in West Palm Beach. In fact, Park(ing) Day projects date back to 2007 (!) in West Palm Beach, making us an early adopter in testing out this program. But since then, we’ve seemingly regressed. It’s taken us nearly two years of back and forth to even allow for a pilot project to be tested in downtown. 

Back in the day, our city transportation engineer (note the difference in language: transportation engineer, not traffic engineer) resided in the planning department of city hall, by choice. Ian Lockwood, Tim Stillings and some very innovative folks got things done by making our streets humane. The results speak for themselves.

A walkable city requires a holistic view to drive community design.


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Strong Towns in Stuart for a Curbside Chat

Chuck Marohn from Strong Towns came to Stuart Wednesday evening for his Curbside Chat presentation. Not only was I finally able to meet Chuck, but also Edward Erfurt, who is a planner & designer with the Martin County CRA and blogs at The Restless Urbanist.

It would be hard to overstate the influence Strong Towns has had on my thinking about neighborhoods, cities, and development. If the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is the academic research lab where theory is tested, Strong Towns is the neighborhood bar where everybody knows your name and all are welcome. Coming from outside the planning world, it’s very encouraging to have a place to connect with likeminded people who may or may not be formally educated in planning, but have that same desire to make our cities strong once again.

A Strong Town is a place with a sense of what it is and what it wishes to be in the future. It connects the present to the past – using the art of civic design as a tool to this end. Strong Towns are resilient, adaptable, and not dependent for their success on the good graces of a county or state government. They stand on their own two feet and provide a variety of housing types, varied age demographics, and a diversity of jobs for the community. They are beautiful places with their own unique character. In short, they are the types of places you would want to take your loved ones who are visiting from out of town.

One of the highlights of the Strong Towns Curbside Chat for me were these two pictures, showing the hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota where Chuck grew up in its glory days, and the very same street in present day, after decades of auto-oriented development subsidies and neglect had taken their toll. The street is now full of surface parking lots, too-wide streets, and blighted properties. If you want to know why our municipalities are broke and struggling, just look at these two pictures. Shameful.

Happily, Stuart provides a positive counterexample with its charming downtown, and can provide some examples for a better way. Here are some photos I collected on my trip as well as from the excellent Active Towns blog:

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Stuart has a fantastic, beautiful roundabout (may be called a shared space?) in its downtown similar to Pioneer Plaza in West Palm Beach. It functions extremely well and handles a lot of traffic with no problem. Which would you rather have for Olive Avenue adjacent to the Norton, picture 1 or picture 2? Unfortunately, our City Commission wants to replace the current shared space and make it more like picture 2 below. Here are some arguments  why we should not do that (in case the pictures don’t already convince you). And the blog piece I wrote about the situation in October.

1. A beautiful roundabout/shared space in Stuart designed for the people using the space, not just motorists getting from A to B as fast as possible.

1. A beautiful roundabout/shared space in Stuart designed for the people using the space, with a statue in the center. Not just motorists getting from A to B as fast as possible.

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2. So-called “modern” roundabouts aren’t as good in a space people occupy. These are designed primarily with motorists in mind, with oversized lanes, striping, and signage. They work okay on high speed roads, not so well in neighborhoods.

Stuart also has some amazing permanent parklets in former angled parking spaces that blew me away. I’d never seen this before, and we should absolutely try this in downtown West Palm Beach, for example on the 300 block of Datura (upcoming blog post on this).

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Incidentally, I heard through the grapevine that Ian Lockwood, former Liveable Streets Transportation Engineer for the City of West Palm Beach, may be on the market. Hear the remarkable transformation he was responsible for during his tenure in West Palm Beach:

If we are serious about creating a walkable, lovable city, a big part of that is street design. If we need help in that department, perhaps it’s time our elected officials call up Ian for a consultation on livable street design?

Visiting Stuart and meeting some of my Strong Towns buddies was a real treat. I’m looking forward to much more, including the upcoming Strong Towns national conference in September!


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Asheville, North Carolina: An urbanist’s pilgrimage

I just returned from a short vacation to Asheville. Asheville is a special place for many reasons, but of most interest to the reader of this blog is its incredibly vibrant downtown – a downtown that sustains independent bookstores, some 20 sushi restaurants, multiple live music venues, and possibly the highest amount of breweries per capita in the United States. It’s been awarded “Beer City USA” 2009-2012 and one of the happiest places to live in the United States, among its many accolades. It punches far above its weight considering it’s a small city of only about 83,000 people.

Asheville wasn’t always this way. In fact, a friend told me that she lived in Asheville for several years around 1999-2000, and the downtown was a fraction of what it is today. It’s hard to believe that in 13 years such a transformation could take place, but that’s the Asheville story. It’s a place that gets the small things right, such as the wayfinding and information signage throughout downtown’s primary streets – notice the details like leaves that spell out the name “Asheville”. Parklets downtown effectively extend the square footage of this cocktail lounge and enliven the street. The Asheville blend consists of music, arts, lots of good beer, and small businesses recirculating money in the local economy. This town takes pride in its unique geography and history, embracing it and creating a valuable place in the process.

Asheville’s success is absolutely astounding. Its downtown comprises a disproportionately high amount of retail sales and property taxes to the City and County government, on a relatively small amount of land in the central business district.  In other words, it’s a heavy hitter in terms of its financial productivity.

Asheville has more in common with West Palm Beach than you might think. Both are small cities with histories tied to Gilded Age railroad tycoons (the Vanderbilts in Asheville and Henry Flagler in West Palm Beach); both are the seat of county government; both were shaped in part by John Nolen, famed urban planner; and both cities have experienced a rebirth within the past twenty years and have embraced the principles of the New Urbanism. Both cities were also changed for the better through the work of the same individual, Joe Minicozzi, who served as principal urban planner in West Palm Beach from 1998-2003 and subsequently moved to Asheville, continuing to do good works. Joe and I had the opportunity to connect while I was in town, and we had a wide-ranging conversation about West Palm Beach, Asheville, and all things in between. Joe is one of my biggest influences in thinking about the built environment, and meeting him in person was incredibly satisfying.

There is much to learn from Asheville. What lessons can we apply in West Palm Beach? Strategically,  protecting and enhancing our downtown should be a top priority. As Asheville’s downtown redevelops, other neighborhoods thrive such as The River Arts District, West Asheville, and Biltmore Village. Tactically,  we should embrace our unique strengths and build on them. Parklets are a concept that have been kicked around at the DDA office and would work very well in West Palm Beach. Informational signage and wayfinding would be a low-cost solution to help with the perception of parking shortages downtown. Here’s a video with a cool idea for sidewalk retail incubator space, featuring Joe and Chuck Marohn from Strong Towns on the streets of Asheville.

I look forward to another visit to this amazing little city filled with music, arts, good beer, and good people. Make a point to see Asheville for yourself.

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In an attempt to give back a little bit, I’ll mention one small Asheville critique: Lighting downtown.  It didn’t feel unsafe, but it was surprising how dim the streets were in certain blocks. Maybe it’s just not what we’re used to here.  This stretch was particularly dim at night. No doubt the brutalist architecture doesn’t help the appeal on this block, but we noticed it in other parts of the city.

Asheville wayfinding signs and information

Asheville wayfinding signs and information

Parklet. The establishment is called "The Vault".

Parklet. The establishment is called “The Vault”.

If not for this parklet, the parking garage in background would have really hurt the appeal of this block

If not for this parklet, the parking garage in background would have really hurt the appeal of this block

Permeable parking lots and community gardens abound

Permeable parking lots and community gardens abound

The grounds at the Biltmore estate. Incredible.

The grounds at the Biltmore estate. Incredible.

Park(ing) Day is happening on the 200 block of Clematis Street today, til 5 pm!

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Park(ing) Day makes better use of our public space, transforming parking spaces into temporary “parklets” to be enjoyed by the community.  FAU’s school of Urban and Regional Planning and the DDA collaborate on this wonderful event, which is a worldwide phenomenon. Follow the action on Twitter with hashtag #parkingday.

Parklets would make a great addition on Clematis Street and Datura, where lots of foot traffic, outdoor cafe seating, and narrow sidewalks can add up to make the sidewalks impassable or just too constricted feeling in certain places (in front of Duffy’s and Rocco’s springs to mind). Having lots of activity on the street is a good problem to have, and parklets are a great way to extend the public space and build an even stronger sense of unique place in downtown WPB.

Read more about the project in the promotional flyers, below.

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Rocco’s Taco’s is looking good!

parklet parking day 9-20-13

The view from Design Within Reach

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Details on WPB Park(ing) Day