Making the Case for Sustainable Streets

Riding high on the announcement of New York City’s bike-share program just a day earlier, NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan gave the keynote lecture at the two-day conference A Roadmap to Sustainable Infrastructure & Green Cities at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Striding through her talk as briskly as New Yorkers like to move through their streets, Sadik-Khan reviewed the transportation initiatives that have had a substantial impact on New York’s streets and psyche in only a few short years. The visible pace of change in the city is all the more remarkable when we take into account, as Sadik-Khan pointed out, that the streets reflect a planning ethos that is more than fifty years old; the last significant alterations to New York City’s streets was the elimination of two-way avenues in the 1950s and 60s.

Instead of facilitating traffic flow, in New York the rules of the game now focus on “making more space for people” on streets, and making streets safer for everyone. The creation of pedestrian plazas where cars used to go has been the most visible intervention in what was until recently “a city without seats.” Before-and-after photographs of Times Square (see above), where with the help of some paint and tables and chairs, a busy stretch of Broadway has become a vibrant space for tourists and workers alike, elicited oohs and aahs from the audience. Sadik-Khan was quick to point out that such investments pay big economic dividends—in Times Square, “making more space for people has been great for business.” But new plazas and reclaimed parking spots across town are really about sociability; here design is “playing to New York City’s strengths” by facilitating impromptu meetings and social interaction. City streets, said Sadik-Kahn, “are the original social network.”

New York’s bus network has also been seeing changes, with two new bus rapid transit lines meant to expand service and capacity fast. But of late bicycles have been the visible, and sometimes controversial, face of New York City’s new transit strategies. Especially in Manhattan, where journeys are short and traffic is snarly, enhancing safety is the key to getting the city’s less intrepid commuters onto bikes. The protected bike lane, with a row of parked cars isolating cyclists from moving traffic, has been the fundamental design innovation in this regard. Next year a new 10,000 bike, 600 station bike-sharing program will launch, in the hopes of luring even more riders on two wheels.

The new bikeshare program is expected to run at no cost to the city, and with a wireless solar power system, it won’t require digging under city streets. The key to many of the changes Sadik-Kahn discussed is that they’re “inexpensive and fast to implement”—that is to say, fast and cheap. Bike lanes and plazas are “basically done just with paint.” It’s a brilliant strategy to get projects off the ground, but whether they can grow to a city-wide scale remains a question. Big plans for bus rapid transit in the boroughs look great, but what will it take to make them reality?

New York City loves to start (or embrace and blow up) a trend, and even in this economy, the city has significant resources at its disposal. Sadik-Khan concluded with a discussion of the major challenges to making changes in smaller cities, where local agencies with less professionals and resources at their disposal are hamstrung by outmoded guidelines. By providing clear new rules, new guidelines for street design and for the design of dedicated bikelanes, among others, have the ambition of changing policy and city streets nationwide.

The challenges of implementation at the local scale were the focus of a panel of public works officials earlier in the day. For the owners and operators of infrastructure, the fundamental challenge is “making smart investments when we’re investing in the environment,” as panel moderator George Crombie, President of the American Public Works Association, put it.  Joanne Massaro, Commissioner of Public Works in Boston, which is in the process of developing its own street design guidelines, spoke of the very real and never-ending need to justify every decision—replacing of old street lights with LEDs or introducing permeable paving—to the budget office. Making the case for green investments is fundamental, and to that end, Massaro argued, effective and practical ratings systems and technological advancement are key. Cities striving to be green can benefit from all sorts of great ideas and new technologies, but when it comes to the ultimate goal of moving “from pilot to norm,” all our utopianism must come to terms with the practical and challenging world of budget-cycle decisions.

Robert Moylan, Commissioner of Public Works for Worcester, Massachusetts, emphasized the “triple bottom line” and argued that economic viability is being overlooked in favor of environmental and social benefits. For public officials responsible for the allocation of the public’s money, “sustainability can’t be achieved if economics are ignored.” Moylan advocated incentives for good behavior, and questioned the validity of legislation that sets absolute demands for improvement at enormous expense, suggesting the public won’t always find this the best use of its money. This was the point made by Sue Hann, who tries to implement sustainable policies in the less receptive community of Palm Bay, FL, where she is City Manager. The local political climate, according to Hann, is the “elephant in the room.” Sustainable infrastructure starts with the “community culture,” and when the idea of sustainability—so exciting for professionals—doesn’t resonate with the community, professionals have to be strategic and communicate value to citizens in a language that resonates with them.

New Yorkers might learn something from Palm Bay. Introducing Commissioner Sadik-Kahn, Aaron Naparstek, the founder of, made light of her detractors, who are not insignificant and sometimes quite vehement. Rather than dismiss the naysayers as unenlightened, city officials and design and planning professionals would do better to more carefully listen to and respect their concerns. Finding ways to educate the public and increase dialogue around questions of sustainability, infrastructure, and public expenditures is critical. Increasing alternatives for sustainable streets are coming from inspired planners, designers, engineers, but at the end of the day, getting new practices off the ground is a political process.

This guest post is by Mariana Mogilevich, Ph.D. Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Design

Image credits: (1-2) Times Square Pedestrian Plaza / NYC Department of Transportation

One thought on “Making the Case for Sustainable Streets

  1. George R. Frantz, AICP 12/01/2011 / 2:05 pm

    New York City still has a long way to go before catching up to Shanghai and other Chinese cities where pedestrian, bicycle and public transit systems continue to have priority over the single-occupancy automobile. Of course the typical Chinese city is compactly built in a manner that permits walking and biking to many destinations, and a dense public transit network for wherever else one might wish to go.

    Yet while so many landscape architects and planners consistently bemoan the lack of public financial resources to re-make our urban infrastructure, they consistently ignore that the biggest obstacle to sustainability in American cities are antiquated zoning regulations based on Victorian fears and prejudices. In so many American cities, low density zoning and excessive yard setbacks preclude any sort of the population density necessary to place a critical mass of families within reasonable (10-15 minute) walking and biking distance of work, shopping or school, or to support the dense levels of public transit service that would enable people to leave the car in the driveway.

    Our suburbs are a sustainability nightmare of an even greater magnitude.

    When Americans accept the need for residential density and our cities evolve into more compact cities along the lines of easter seaboard colonial cities, then our streets will oncer again be pedestrian friendly, and indeed entire streets wrested for vehicular traffic and restored to the pedestrian.

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