By Rebecca Leonard, AICP, and Sara Egan, AICP
As cities build out, street easements and rights-of-way tend to expand — and parkland per person tends to shrink. But what if streets were the new frontier for parks and recreation?
Urban areas are desperate for more parkland. Research conducted by the National Parks and Recreation Association suggests that the acreage per person is going down nationwide and has fallen to just 9.1 acres per 1,000 people. Many urban areas come nowhere near that level of parkland, or the parkland quality is so poor that it isn't a community asset.
Even once properly "park-ed" locations are looking for ways to inject more parkland into built-up areas. According to a report issued earlier this year by the Trust for Public Land, American cities have a median of 12.9 acres of parkland per 1,000 people, but the cities with the highest densities have a median of 7.1 acres of park per 1,000 residents.
The trend is global. According to the United Nations, the percentage of people living in urban areas will grow worldwide from 52.1 percent in 2011 to 67.2 percent in 2050. (In the U.S., the figure is projected to increase from 82.4 percent urban to 88.9 percent urban.) How much additional parkland will be created to match population increases?
Instead of buying expensive land for parkland, thereby removing it from the tax rolls, cities could plan for more uses in rights-of-way. In his 1995 book, Great Streets, Allan Jacobs says that in the mid-1990s, 25 to 35 percent of a city's developed land was likely to be in public rights-of-way. More recent analysis suggests that perhaps upward of 40 percent of a city's land may be dedicated to streets and rights-of-ways.
It doesn't have to be this way. European cities tend to have less land dedicated to streets, yet their densities are higher and their mobility demands may be greater. That means rights-of-way in American cities are underperforming.
Streets are typically defined as the areas within rights-of-way or easements used for the purpose of moving vehicles. Corridors are typically defined in a broader way: linear areas with common influences. However, planners generally use the terms street and corridor interchangeably. Regardless, the time is right to make better use of them.
For decades, the U.S. has relied on engineering standards as the basis for street design. Many states require thoroughfare plans and access control plans, typically written by engineers. While important for safety on high-speed and rural streets, "clear zones" or "recovery zones" are often inappropriately applied to urban settings. These plans have led to a system of functional classifications tied to a street's capacity for vehicles — too simplistic a structure for streets with a complex set of demands that include multimodal travel, multiple utilities, social gathering, and recreational uses.
Corridor plans, typically led by planners and urban designers, have been taking a holistic look at streets. Many of these plans are resulting in streets that function as recreational spaces. "Not only can streets connect to other natural open spaces of the city; streets can themselves be redesigned as green corridors that are conduits of nature," writes Vikas Mehta in his 2013 book, The Street: A Quintessential Social Public Space.
Throughout history, streets have been designed to serve many roles: connection, communication, entertainment, and commerce. Often one use takes precedence — transportation. But streets are also a setting for active and passive social behavior. "The street is the most ubiquitous form of open space across the urbanized world," writes Mehta.
Only after WWII did the automobile and its ease of movement become the priority for corridor planning on all scales in the U.S. The decade-old complete streets movement has widened the focus beyond cars, but as the movement progresses, complete streets shouldn't stop at planning for movement; corridor plans should also consider the street as a recreational space — i.e., "parkland." Many communities are seeing flattening or even reductions in traffic growth, which means it may not be necessary to plan for the theoretical future growth of vehicular traffic in those settings.
Municipalities are specifying new types of streets these days: green streets, complete streets, and so on. These streets accommodate multiple modes and multiple infrastructure demands. For example, New York City is setting public plaza standards and metrics for seating along streets. But streets could also be designed as greenways with eddies — spaces for pedestrians to congregate — to offer an alternative to the torrent of vehicles on collectors and arterials.
Bagby Street — Midtown Houston. The planning and design of Bagby Street in Midtown Houston was first conceived during a capital improvement planning effort — a project to place a 60-inch storm drain to handle off-site drainage issues — conducted by the Midtown Redevelopment Authority and Management District. The population of the district grew from less than 1,000 in 1995 to about 10,000 in 2013. Collective property values rose from $157 million to $1.4 billion in that time. In 2009, the district decided to overhaul the street — from storm drains to pedestrian improvements.
One of its first steps was to research a range of costs and improvement models. The district had to set priorities for expenditures because funds were lacking for uniformly high-level improvements along the entire 10-block length of the street. That was the impetus for a corridor plan.
Midtown is located between Houston's central business district and the Texas Medical Center, which together employ about 250,000 people. In connecting the CBD to Highway 59, Bagby Street is a key commuting route for many urban workers. Multifamily residential currently delivers the highest return on investment along the corridor. The only green space there is a small (20,000-square-foot) plaza called Midtown Park.
Midtown is one of few neighborhoods in the city that has no remaining natural features. Tributaries to the bayou system have long since been placed in underground pipes, and other landforms have been removed to make way for a consistent grid of streets. The corridor treats a portion of the area's stormwater in rain gardens — reconnecting people to the natural world and reintroducing urban wildlife, notably birds and butterflies. All significant trees were protected, reducing the heat island effect and providing comfort to pedestrians.
Now that street reconstruction has been completed, the street has become a recreational haven. Acreage devoted to pedestrian areas nearly tripled, and 88 percent of these areas were shaded, making them more appealing for outdoor leisure pursuits. Seating and gathering areas increased by 38 percent, and there has been a 16 percent decrease in noise levels in key pedestrian areas. Today, people can be seen strolling, dining outdoors, reading signage that interprets the green strategies applied to the street, and posing for wedding photos!
To acquire Greenroads certification, Bagby Street is also fitted out with directional signs for nearby parks and community gardens. The street can easily be expanded to connect with Buffalo Bayou and 300 miles of continuous all-weather hike and bike trails associated with that amenity. Public investment has climbed: There has been $30 million of private reinvestment and a 20 percent increase in rental rates in the corridor since the street improvements were finished in 2013.
P Street — Lincoln, Nebraska. P Street is a one-way, three-lane road that transitions from the Haymarket into the downtown retail core, past the civic heart of Lincoln and on to the growing residential neighborhood adjacent to Antelope Valley. Each district has different land uses, parking demands, peak usage times, architectural characteristics, and user patterns.
The importance of placemaking along the corridor was a driving factor of the corridor plan. The P Street corridor had a lot of unused space: large corner radii, wide lanes, and space allotted to vehicular functions (about 34 percent was for pedestrians and 66 percent for cars).The corridor plan proposes to reclaim 210,000 square feet (4.82 acres) of space within the 26-block stretch though downtown for social gathering and recreation.
The team focused on creating spaces and enhancing an identity for each district of the corridor. Improvements to the retail core district provide a lighting design to complement the new Civic Plaza, a former parking lot. The civic district and Antelope Valley are planned to become more of a parkway, catering to the corridor's growing and planned residential population by offering intimate outdoor gathering spaces to increase neighborhood interaction.
In the corridor plan, the median sidewalk width will increase from nine to 19 feet, crosswalk distances will drop by 23 percent, and seating opportunities will jump by 73 percent. Gathering space is slated to increase by 17 percent — in the form of new plazas, pocket parks, and alley retrofits — and the tree canopy will grow by 400 percent.
The team also proposed that the downtown circulator shuttle be rerouted to decrease wait time by 14 minutes and service a more equitable area. This would increase ridership and passenger efficiency, ultimately decreasing vehicular dependency. By decreasing the asphalt footprint while maintaining level of service, the street could better address the demand for parkland, especially pocket parks, seating areas, and planting. The plan also identifies key areas for adaptive reuse and new development. It is estimated that the changes will result in a $50,000 annual increase in taxable sales and an average increase of seven percent in building lease rates.
A seat at the table
If Allan Jacobs is correct, urban street networks generally account for about 30 percent of the total land area within an urban metropolitan area, and 60 million acres of land in the U.S. are urban. So the nation has about 18 million acres of street network. If planners could make incremental improvements in the amount of right-of-way dedicated to pedestrians — say, a 25 percent increase — the total could amount to a three-million-acre increase in public pedestrian space, an area almost the size of Hawaii.
Although performance measures are now part of corridor planning, few such systems address the recreational and parkland qualities of the street environment. Planners could be promoting multiple uses for streets to organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council, Sustainable Sites Initiative (known as SITES), the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, and WalkScore.
USGBC and SITES have led the way in making sustainability mainstream, but their efforts don't address the need for more recreation space. The ITDP promotes density as a way to encourage transit ridership; as its transit oriented development standards suggest, "The only limits to densification should result from requirements for access to daylight and circulation of fresh air, access to parkland, preservation of natural systems, and protection of historic and cultural resources." Using that logic, the standards could speak to methods of creating and accounting for more parkland in built-out urban environments.
WalkScore and San Francisco's Pedestrian Environmental Quality Index system both benchmark pedestrian accessibility in various locations. WalkScore measures walkability on a scale from zero to 100 based on walking routes to destinations such as grocery stores, schools, restaurants, and retail. Parks are one of the destinations WalkScore measures, implying that more and better distribution of parks would lead to a higher score. However, some streets can act as recreational space as well, and that factor is not being measured.
In contrast, San Francisco's PEQI system evaluates a series of quality indicators in these five categories: intersection safety, traffic volume, street design, land use, and perceived safety. Because the amount of pedestrian space, availability of seating, and linkages to public spaces are considered in this index, places that perform best in PEQI may also be situated near a street that serves basic recreational purposes.
Corridor plans are essential to good outcomes like more multimodal use of the rights-of-way, increased recreational opportunities and connections, healthier neighborhoods, less expensive parkland, and better placemaking, but they continue to be shortchanged. All too often, corridor plans focus solely on the right-of-way, making them essentially glorified access control plans that disconnect transportation and land uses. That is a missed opportunity because a well-funded corridor plan, with proper assessments of land use, demographics, return on investment, and environmental benefit, can save millions of dollars in wrong choices and expensive rework.
These streets are the lifeblood of our cities; the complexity of systems at play in our urban environments should be reflected in our street environments.
Rebecca Leonard is the president of Design Workshop. She works on public-private partnerships and projects that provide the greatest benefits to communities, both new and existing. Sara Egan, an associate in the Chicago office of Design Workshop, focuses on transportation corridors and parks and open space planning and design.
Images: Top — The 16th Street Mall is a tree-covered, mile-long pedestrian promenade lined with 42 outdoor cafes that runs through the center of downtown Denver. Designed by I.M. Pei, the pink, rose, and gray granite stones are in the pattern of a diamondback rattlesnake when seen from above. Free hybrid-electric shuttle buses leave either end of the mall as often as every 90 seconds, stopping on every corner. More than 40,000 people hop on and off the free shuttles every day. After six p.m., horse-drawn carriages and pedicabs cruise the mall, offering alternative transportation. Photo by Steve Crecelius for VISIT DENVER. Bottom — The reconstruction of Bagby Street in Houston, Texas, increased the amount of pedestrian space and installed new lighting at varying heights in an effort to create a safe and pleasant environment for people to walk and gather, day or night. Photo courtesy Design Workshop.
By Rebecca Leonard, AICP, and Sara Egan, AICP
There are great examples of ways to create and support lively shared corridors all over the world — including in the U.S.
Boulevards and avenues
Boulevards are largely associated with 19th century Paris, where large-scale city planning gestures took the form of radial tree-lined streets connecting civic uses such as the Champ-Elysees and opened up land for development. Today, Paris has the largest concentration of multiway boulevards in the world. Barcelona is also famous for its boulevards; the Passeig de Garcia and others are major structural elements connecting important places. While these historic corridors were structural design elements within these cities, they were intended to inject a recreational function, creating linear parks within newly developed areas of their cities.
"When bordering a park [a street] becomes part of the park," Allan Jacobs noted in his book Great Streets. Boulevards were imported to the U.S. in the 19th century during the parks and city beautiful movements, largely implemented by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn was designed as part of a larger system of linear parks to connect Prospect Park and Central Park. Between the center and side roadways are 30- to 35-foot-wide pedestrian medians. The Boulevard Book, also by Jacobs, calls Eastern Parkway a "lineal neighborhood meeting place" for everyday recreation as well as parades and events. The median spaces provide access to the subway, and the roadway serves as a major arterial carrying 60,000 to 75,000 cars daily.
Corridor planning standards have changed the makeup of the boulevard, but they deserve a fresh look. Gone are the public green spaces, as turn lanes have become standard and everything else has gotten bigger: lanes, distances between parallel roads, turning radii at intersections, and parking lanes.
Some streets were always designed for strolling. They may have shaded walkways, benches, places for festivals, and fruit and flower stalls. Promenades, with their wide swaths of public space and tree canopies, unquestionably function as parkland.
In their 2013 book, Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns, John Massengale and Victor Dover, FAICP, describe the promenade this way: "Like a square, the promenade street is a space where people are drawn to gather and socialize and eye one another — but unlike a square, which condenses this activity, the promenade street stretches it out and sets it in motion."
Boulevard de Rochechouart in Paris has a tree-shaded central promenade for sitting, walking, and cycling. Two of the four central lanes are dedicated to buses and taxis, while Metro entrances are accessed from the median. An intentional grade change shifts the psychology of the street to that of a pedestrian way.
Las Ramblas in Barcelona reverses the relationship of people and cars by placing pedestrians in a 40- to 60-foot promenade in the center of the street and automobiles to the outside. Some people call this promenade the "emotional hub of the city."
Market streets are places for the exchange of goods, but these streets do much more. Kurfurstendamm in Berlin, designed in the late 1800s and reconstructed after WWII, became home to the city's most prestigious addresses. Restaurants, cafes, and seating areas line the street's 33-foot-wide sidewalks, while a large median provides gathering space under a double row of trees.
Some market streets have evolved into niche areas. Broadway, Manhattan's oldest north-south corridor, is known worldwide as the heart of the theater industry. Gran Via in Madrid, built in the early 1900s, serves as an upscale shopping street and is known as the "Spanish Broadway."
Others have evolved into pedestrian walks — a strategy that has proven most successful where there is density to support it. There are many successful examples in Europe, but not in the U.S. Most pedestrian malls in the U.S. have returned to automobile thoroughfares. However, in Copenhagen's Stroget District, a narrow pedestrian walk with open squares allows strollers to stop, sit, and enjoy themselves. The street was designed with no curb and no separation of zones, and became a pedestrian walk in the 1960s.
Planning for streets as recreation space is not a new idea. As we retrofit our cities and adapt to a more urban world, let's reference these examples to make the case for measuring street recreation and park space within our street rights-of-way.