Pandemic-era Street Spaces: Parklets, Patios, and the Future of the Public Realm

Rebar’s “walket” a prototype parklet system deployed in San Francisco’s Mission district in 2009. / Rebar

By John Bela, ASLA

On a clear fall day in 2005, a group of friends and collaborators from the art collective Rebar commandeered an 8-foot-wide by 20-foot-long metered parking space in downtown San Francisco. This two-hour guerilla art installation evolved into Park(ing) Day, a global public art and design activism event that has been celebrated every year since. In 2009, Rebar and other design studios were approached by the City of San Francisco to prototype a more permanent version of Park(ing) Day. In response, we created one of the world’s first parklets in San Francisco (we called our version walklet), and through the diligent efforts of Andres Power in the Mayor’s Office and City Planning, San Francisco’s pioneering parklet program was born.

By early 2020, San Francisco had created 70 parklets in every corner of the city, and the city’s parklet program, now part of Groundplay SF, had become a model for cities around the world.

And then came the pandemic.

After the initial period of lockdown restriction, data emerged that anything we could be doing outdoors, we should be doing outdoors. Communities around the country then began to look to outdoor spaces and the public right-of-way to accommodate outdoor dining, pick-up and drop-off, exercise, socialization, and play. Outdoor dining programs like the City of San Francisco’s Shared Spaces and the City of Oakland’s Slow Streets were launched across the country.

The proliferation of outdoor dining spaces was mind-boggling. In San Francisco alone, there are more than 2,000 outdoor dining platforms (don’t call them parklets — parklets are by definition public spaces). All over the country, almost overnight, parking spaces and streets have been transformed into places for people. While many of these spaces have succeeded in their original intended purpose of supporting local businesses and accommodating public health guidelines regarding social distancing, it may now be that they have outlived their useful lives. While many cities are making the move to make the outdoor dining spaces permanent, due the rapid nature of their creation, only a handful of these spaces live up to the original ideals of the parklet program to contribute something meaningful to the public realm.

A few of the over 2,000 shared spaces outdoor dining platforms (don’t call them parklets) on Valencia Street in San Francisco. / John Bela

Communities around the country are grappling with the future of these temporary outdoor spaces. To tackle this question, I have been in conversation with peers in Oakland, Seattle, Vancouver and other cities. My original thinking was that by default — because these spaces occupy precious curbside public right-of-way — the best outcome is that they all become parklets — that is public space, accessible during the city’s standard public space operating hours.

Parklets, by definition, are publicly accessible and open to all. They work best when their design cues create an invitation for many types of uses — from eating takeout from the adjacent restaurant or cafe, to bike parking, or simply taking a pause on a busy commercial street for a chat with friends. In fact, during the pandemic, when many of our more traditional venues of social infrastructure like schools and libraries have been closed, these smaller spaces have become that much more critical for supporting the everyday casual encounters that are the basis of social cohesion and community building.

But what I’ve learned in the course of my conversations with peers from across the country has resulted in an evolution of my previous thinking, and here’s why.

Lessons from the “Emerald City”

Inspired by San Francisco’s parklet program, businesses in Seattle became interested in building parklets and approached the city in 2011. Today, Seattle has both a parklet program and a streatery program. Seattle’s parklets are much like those in San Francisco where a local sponsor designs, builds, and maintains the space, and the city government issues the permit and ensures adherence to design standards. The streatery model is unique in that they provide commercial cafe seating during business hours as well as public access after business hours.

A Seattle Streatery, a hybrid public/private space. / SDOT

That’s right, it’s a hybrid public space. But how well does this work in practice? Do people use the streateries as public parklets after business hours? Has the city run into any issues regarding liability, or challenges with illicit behavior happening in the streateries when there is no one around to keep their “eyes on the street”?

According to my peers in Seattle, following an extensive community survey, they have concluded the following: Streateries perform well from an economic development perspective and have fulfilled a need in the city for outdoor dining, adding vibrancy to Seattle’s streets. They do provide a public benefit in terms of creating vibrant streets bustling with activity. (The city enforces strict design guidelines for streateries such as a 42-inch height maximum for surrounding enclosures that must be 50 percent transparent.) On the downside, streateries have not been perceived by the public as public space. The public amenities and invitation for use after business hours have been limited at best.

Seattle has some important lessons to share. First, private outdoor dining patios, like streateries, can contribute to economic development, social infrastructure, and create the public benefit of vibrant, safer streets when they adhere to basic good design principles. Second, the hybrid private / public space model sounds good in theory, but in practice it’s hard for an average member of the public to navigate unless there are strong design cues in either direction. In other words, don’t expect your thriving commercial district’s outdoor dining spaces to fulfill a public space need such as public gathering spaces or non-commercial community seating.

Van-city Speaks

But what can we learn from the Queen of the Northwest? As a social democracy, everything is better managed and more beautiful in Vancouver, Canada, so it’s no surprise that this city is leading the way for all of us regarding the future of outdoor public and private spaces. Vancouver’s parklets are very different from San Francisco’s or Seattle’s in that they are designed, funded and built by the city. This has been good for adherence to design standards and ensuring high quality and beautiful parklets. The downside is that due to limited city funding and staff capacity, there were only a handful of parklets created each year.

A Vancouver parklet, a dedicated community serving public space. / City of Vancouver

In response to a growing demand from restaurants and cafes, Vancouver also created a curbside patio program for commercial outdoor dining. Prior to the pandemic, six patios had been approved by the city. When the pandemic hit, the city created a temporary expedited patio permit process. Since June 1, 2020, the city has approved over 400 temporary patios on private and city property.

A typical Vancouver patio designed for commercial outdoor dining. / Google Streetview

Following the initial success of the parklet program, but acknowledging the inherent obstacles of city-led parklets, the city stopped accepting new conventional parklet applications and instead focused their energy on a pop-up plaza program in partnership with local business districts, which has resulted in the creation of 20 nicely-designed plazas with broad public support. Vancouver found that for about the same amount of time and money as a parklet, they could create much more generous and useful pop-up plaza spaces. The second initiative is a community focused parklet program, created in partnership with social service organizations in underserved neighborhoods like the Downtown Eastside. These parklets are designed and built by the city and programmed and managed with a dedicated community partner to offer such programs as health clinics and safe injection sites.

A well-designed and maintained social service parklet in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. / City of Vancouver, BC.

What this means is that as a citizen of Vancouver navigating the city’s streets you have lots of choices. You can choose to pay for seating and experience the buzz and vibrancy of the commercial outdoor dining happening in one of the city’s 400 patios, or you can walk a bit further down the street and hang out at the free public seating in a city-sponsored pop-up plaza or a parklet.

One of the 20 city-led pop-up plazas that provide public seating, shade, bike parking, and public programs. / City of Vancouver.

From my point of view, this is the right balance of public and private use of the curb lane in the public right-of-way. We all want thriving, economically-vibrant commercial districts AND we want meaningful investment in high-quality and well-maintained public spaces in our neighborhoods. The role of the Vancouver municipality has been to be the referee — to ensure that in any given neighborhood or commercial district there are both public and private seating options.

The Upshot

So while my original view was that outdoor dining should be redesigned and converted to public parklets, I now see the powerful and important role that well-designed patios can play in adding to the social and economic vibrancy of our streets. What I don’t support is trying to force these tiny curb lane spaces to be all things for all people. Attempting to saddle commercial patios with public seating or public-use requirements both dilutes their ability to serve their primary commercial purpose and sends confusing signals to the public.

Nor do I support continuing to allow the free-for-all use of the curb lane that has occurred during the pandemic and which has resulted in the proliferation of low-quality, poorly designed, and potentially dangerous commercial outdoor dining platforms. Many of these spaces feel opaque and claustrophobic, blocking visual access to ground floor retail and obstructing city sidewalks.

Businesses who want to use curb lane space for commercial outdoor dining must recognize the immediate benefit of the use of the public right-of-way for their businesses and compensate cities for the use of the space. By pricing the curb appropriately, cities can generate revenue to support and invest in public realm improvements and city staff time to manage their outdoor space programs. Also, patios must adhere to basic good design principles like 42-inch height maximum for surrounding enclosures; 50 percent transparent walls; and a direct, accessible connection to the adjacent sidewalk in order to generate the public benefit of vibrant, lively streets.

This outdoor dining platform is porous, accessible, light filled, and designed with simple and durable materials by designer Léa Saito for the Bon Nene Japanese restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission district / John Bela

With the revenue generated from commercial outdoor dining patio permit fees, cities can then invest in the parklets and pop-up plazas that can continue to fulfill a crucial role for everyday, informal social encounters that form the basis of social bonding and community cohesion. Parklets and pop-up plazas work well when there is a dedicated sponsor or steward — like a community organization, or an adjacent sponsor which has an established take-out business model like an ice cream shop or cafe — who is in charge of daily maintenance and programming of the space. Public space is a verb, not a static object. Public spaces must be cultivated and maintained to flourish and grow so that they are best able to contribute meaningfully to a city’s social infrastructure and a diverse, inclusive, resilient public realm.

Landscape architects and urban designers have a crucial role to play in shaping the future of the use of outdoor spaces. As upholders of design quality, we can ensure that the next generation of commercial outdoor dining patios are well-designed and contribute to a high-quality and vibrant public realm.

As stewards of public space and the public realm, we can ensure that in any given neighborhood or commercial district, there are beautifully-designed public spaces, with generous public seating and lively programming, to create invitations to all city residents to socialize and spend time together.

This beautiful outdoor dining platform was designed and created by Cotogna in San Francisco’s Jackson square. / John Bela
John Bela, ASLA, sitting in the outdoor dining platform designed and created by Cotogna in San Francisco’s Jackson square. / Superworks

John Bela, ASLA, is an urban strategist and designer based in San Francisco. Bela co-founded Rebar, the creators of Park(ing) Day. A founding partner and design director at Gehl San Francisco, he left Gehl in 2021 to form his own design advisory and consulting practice: Bela Urbanism + Design. He is a licensed landscape architect in California.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (August 16-31)

Reading Forest in South Lake Tahoe, California by Todd Gilen / Todd Gilen

A Landscape Architect’s Outdoor ArtworkHarvard Magazine
“Decades later, that synthesis was part of what propelled him toward a master’s degree in landscape architecture, after 20 years as a curator, graphic-design artist, set designer, and furniture designer. ‘I got to a point in my work as an artist where I felt like I needed some traction in a way that I wasn’t quite finding in the arts,’ [Todd Gilen] says. ‘Landscape architecture has a kind of scientific rigor about it. It’s a discipline that has a basis in both science and the arts.'”

So Long, Traditional Lawn. The New Turf Trends—From Wildflowers to Fescue — 08/27/21, The Wall Street Journal
“‘I have an enormous moss garden just naturally because I don’t do anything to it,’ said Sandra Youssef Clinton, a landscape architect in Hyattsville, Md. Sixteen large oak trees provide constant shade, she said. Though fans of classic turf tell her, ‘Oh, you should get rid of that, it looks so terrible,’ Ms. Clinton finds it quite beautiful. Said Mr. Moore, ‘Even the word ‘moss’ conjures elves and fairies and deep forest.'”

Good News: The Most Popular Material on Earth Is Great for Storing CO2 — 08/27/20, Fast Company
“Our Earth is heating up because of all the carbon dioxide in the air. But even if we can suck that much CO2 out of the atmosphere, there’s still a problem: What do we do with all of it once it’s recaptured? The short answer is, put it into products. The longer answer is, put it into the right products. Specifically, concrete.”

Study Suggests Bike Lanes Do Not Lead to Displacement, Gentrification — 08/27/21, Bike Portland
“The installation of new bike infrastructure in neighborhoods does not lead to displacement of people of color, and low-income areas received more “hard” facilities like buffered or protected bike lanes than high income areas, according to a new study published in July by Elsevier.”

After Years of Failure, California Lawmakers Pave the Way for More Housing — 08/26/21, The New York Times
“Suddenly zoning reform has been thrust to the top of the urban agenda. Cities including Charlotte, N.C.; Minneapolis; Portland, Ore.; and Sacramento have moved to allow multifamily buildings on lots previously limited to single-family houses. The issue is now starting to attract higher-level attention: In the past two years 10 states, including Connecticut, New Hampshire, Montana and North Carolina, have considered bills to reform local zoning rules.”

In Fire Scorched California, Town Aims to Buy the Highest At-Risk Properties — 08/23/21, NPR
“The idea is to connect the burnt out lots to the town’s existing park land. That’s good for adding more recreation but it could also work as a fuel break. Efseaff’s department could strictly manage forests like this with the hopes that the next wildfire might slow down here and give firefighters a chance.”

In a Warming World, Consider the Mist Garden — 08/19/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Designed by landscape architects Quennell Rothschild & Partners, the new mist garden features 504 evenly spaced fog nozzles atop a new plaza that fills in the 310-foot pool end to end, even keeping the original 1964 stone coping. The new plaza’s edges are paved in a pattern of overlapping triangles, a nod to the Art Deco architecture of the park’s first World’s Fair in 1939, as well as Manhattan landmarks like the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center. Concrete lounges make it possible to simulate a spa day in the middle of Queens’ largest park.”

How a Pioneering Garden Designer Inspired Vogue’s Fall Fashion Fantasy — 08/17/21, Vogue
“‘Should it not be remembered that in setting a garden we are painting a picture?’ So asked Beatrix Farrand in her 1907 Scribner’s essay ‘The Garden as Picture.’ A pioneering American landscape architect whose career spanned the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and two world wars, Farrand wrote, ‘The two arts of painting and garden design are closely related, except that the landscape gardener paints with actual color, line, and perspective…while the painter has but a flat surface on which to create his illusion.'”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (August 1-15)

ASLA Smart Policies for a Changing Climate. NatureScape, Orange County, California / Jodie Cook Design, Inc.

Is Artificial Turf Right for You? 3 Things to Consider Before Installing a Fake Lawn — 08/12/21, Architectural Digest
“According to San Clemente landscape designer Jodie Cook, although grass requires potable water and turf doesn’t, that’s too narrow a comparison. Other elements of the water cycle are a major issue. Plants, even grasses, create water themselves. ‘When you put turf down and replace a living plant, you’re removing moisture from the environment,’ she explains. ‘You’re removing atmospheric water.'”

Native Land Acknowledgments Are Not the Same as Land — 08/12/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“The growing practice of acknowledging Indigenous land ancestry is a positive change, but tribal stewardship must be the end goal.”

The Senate Infrastructure Bill Includes $1 Billion to Address Devastation Caused by Freeways. Experts Say It’s Not Enough — 08/11/21, Fast Company
“The latest edition of the Congress for New Urbanism’s Freeways Without Futures report highlights 15 projects that it says are primed for a transformation, including Interstate 244 in Tulsa, Interstate 5 in Seattle, and Interstate 980 in Oakland.”

Your Garden May Be Pretty, but Is It Ecologically Sound? — 08/11/21, The New York Times
“Some gardeners react to any mention of ecological landscaping — the merging of environmental science and art — as if it were a compromise or concession meant to limit their creativity. Darrel Morrison, a landscape architect who has been practicing and teaching this philosophy for some five decades, begs to differ.”

Study: Protected Bike Paths Saved Lives During COVID — 08/10/21, Streetsblog
“In a report released today, researchers from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety dug into the nuances of America’s (still-ongoing) pandemic-era bike boom by scrutinizing the spatial and temporal distribution of pre- and post-lockdown bicycle trip counts and crash counts in the city of Arlington, VA.”

Using Nature to Combat Climate Change — 08/09/21, CNN
“Landscape architect and founder of SCAPE Kate Orff describes how regenerative living infrastructure can help mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change.”

The Seas Are Rising. Could Oysters Help? — 08/02/21, The New Yorker
“A great deal of [Kate] Orff’s work addresses the inescapable fact that the Atlantic Ocean is rising, and coming for the land. She’s the founder of the design firm scape, the director of the Urban Design Program at Columbia University, and the first landscape architect to win a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant. She’s also at the forefront of an emerging approach to climate resilience that argues we should be building with nature, not just in nature.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (July 16-31)

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Deep Form of Designed Nature: Sanya Mangrove Park, Sanya City, Hainan Province, China. Turenscape

To Curb Urban Flooding, China Is Building ‘Sponge Cities.’ Do They Work? — 07/29/21, The Christian Science Monitor
“Yu Kongjian, a professor of landscape architecture at Peking University, is credited as the main architect of the sponge city concept. In a 2019 video for the World Economic Forum, he described the previous approach to flood prevention as ‘totally wrong.'”

National ‘Vision Zero’ Resolution Introduced — 07/28/21, Streetsblog
“After months of intense campaigning from advocates, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) introduced a bi-cameral resolution Tuesday expressing the desire of the legislature to ‘reduce traffic fatalities to zero by 2050.'”

As China Boomed, It Didn’t Take Climate Change Into Account. Now It Must. — 07/26/21, The New York Times
“Yu Kongjian, the dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at Peking University, is credited with popularizing the idea in China. He said in a telephone interview that in its rapid development since the 1980s, China had turned to designs from the West that were ill-suited for the extremes that the country’s climate was already experiencing. Cities were covered in cement, ‘colonized,’ as he put it, by ‘gray infrastructure.'”

The Architectural League Celebrates 2021 President’s Medal Recipient Walter Hood — 07/22/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“As noted by the League, Hood, as an artist and designer dedicated to ‘creating beauty in everyday environments, revealing hidden histories, renewing connections, guiding the way to co-existence in all our multiplicity and difference,’ was a ‘fitting person to honor at the moment of our re-engagement of public life.'”

How to Give a Modernist Icon a Makeover — 07/22/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Hiroshi Sugimoto’s renovation of the Hirshhorn Museum’s sculpture garden will bring the Japanese designer’s touch to a space long acclaimed as a modernist landmark.”

In Order to Achieve Tree Equity, the U.S. Must Plant 522 Million Trees in Urban Areas — 07/20/22, The Urbanist
“In order to make up for discrepancies between levels of tree coverage in neighborhoods lacking resources and more affluent, often White majority neighborhoods, the United States must commit to planting 522 million trees in urban areas.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (July 1-15)

Los Angeles River project design / MLA-Studio

Studio-MLA Will Lead a Major Riverfront Development in Riverside, California — 07/14/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“‘To maximize the benefits, we’re thinking holistically across disciplines, working in concert with the community and with the river’s ecology, and planning for real equity with a very long-term view,’ says Mia Lehrer, the president of the studio.”

Arboretum Showcasing Educational Games Designed by Grad Students — 07/14/21, The Auburn Villager
“Designed by landscape architecture graduate students, the games allow visitors to interact with the arboretum in new and innovative ways while also teaching them things about nature they might not have known.”

The Power of Getting Paid Not to Park at Work — 07/14/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Subsidizing employer-paid parking clogs streets boosts emissions and isn’t fair to commuters who can’t use this perk. But there’s an easy way to fix it.”

Covid Didn’t Kill Cities. Why Was That Prophecy So Alluring? — 07/12/21, The New York Times
“Inevitably, the city survives. And yet so does the belief it will fall next time. The Upshot asked more than a dozen people who think a lot about cities — historians, economists, sociologists and urban policy experts — about the strange staying power of this narrative.”

Who’s the Green City for, Really? — 07/12/21, Sierra Club Magazine
“This idea that all green spaces are an unmitigated social good is nothing new…It’s a concept that’s existed since the late 19th century. What is unique now, though, is public awareness of ecological concerns like climate change. Green cities are now the epitome of an ideal, modern urban life, and urban planners seek to integrate highly visible, nature-based projects into cities.”

While We’re Considering Removing Highways, Let’s Not Overlook Pavement — 07/07/21, Next City
“Removing urban pavement would reduce stormwater run-off and treatment, rebuild natural climate buffers in cities, release soil from confinement, make space to plant trees, sequester carbon, and allow people to breathe fresh air, not asphalt.”

OJB Landscape Architecture’s Downtown Cary Park in North Carolina Will Be the First of Its Kind in the Region — 07/02/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The promise of catalytic change is very much present in the design of the ambitious Downtown Cary Park, which is being positioned as a central element in the larger revitalization of the town’s downtown core.”

The History of the Rails-to-Trails Movement

From Rails to Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network / University of Nebraska Press

By Charles A. Flink

Peter Harnik’s From Rails-to-Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network explores the interwoven history of American railways and the rails-to-trails movement. As Harnik declares at the outset, “you can’t have a rail-trail if you don’t have an old railroad line.” An oversimplification? Yes. But as Harnik further outlines, rails-to-trail projects are far more complex than pulling up abandoned railroad tracks and converting the rail bed into a walking and bicycling corridor.

Why and how Americans decided to convert abandoned rails to active transportation trail corridors cannot be easily explained. Nearly half of From Rails-to-Trails is devoted to the fascinating history of America’s railroads — why and how they were established; why there were so many different rail corridors; and why thousands of miles of track were later abandoned. The gold rush nature of railroad development generated a glut of duplicative rail lines and associated train service, which after World War II was pared back to match changing needs, culture, and transportation preferences.

Harnik offers the backstory of why Americans demanded outdoor linear-oriented recreation and alternative transportation and then transformed seemingly worthless strips of land into a network of local, regional, and national hiking and biking corridors. He describes the politics behind the rails-to-trail movement, specifically the contributions of public servants, unsung heroes, and forgotten contributors who enabled the movement to succeed. According to Harnik, “the conversion of abandoned rail lines to trails wasn’t a Great Society–type program that came out of a mandate from Washington, D.C. It was an up-from-the-grassroots movement that bubbled out of modest places like Sparta, Wisconsin; Maywood, Illinois; and Rochester, Minnesota.”

From Rails-to-Trails is packed with an incredible array of charts and supporting data that explain all the twists and turns that led Americans to transform 18,000 miles of abandoned railroad into trails. His book is well researched and documented, and the writing style is clean and crisp, and appropriately punctuated with wit and humor.

Harnik, along with David Burwell co-founded the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an organization that was born out of necessity and came of age during increased railroad abandonment and renewed national interest in non-motorized transportation.

Peter Harnik (left) and David Burwell (right) / Robert Trippett

Harnik shares a personal story of bicycling in Manhattan in the 1960’s and longing for landscapes that would be car free and dedicated to non-motorized travel. He describes his early fascination with trains and admits that it took him fifty years to connect the dots and fully appreciate how much he loved both modes of transportation. Harnik’s passion for trains and bicycling is evident as one winds through his marvelous account of how railroads were transformed into trails.

From Rails-to-Trails then answers some of the most important questions about the conversion of abandoned railroad corridors:

Why were there so many railroad corridors in the first place? Harnik recounts that “an extended railroad fever took hold from 1830 to 1890 (nearly 60 years of railroad construction), interrupted only by periodic panics and depressions. And in this environment, companies with the best endpoints, the loudest promoters, and the best connected political lobbyists (and bribe distributors) fared best.” He states that a railroad corridor, unlike a highway corridor, is difficult to share and therefore each track represented a unique economic opportunity. Some popular markets, such as St. Louis and Chicago, were served by numerous independent operators, all of which laid their own railroad.

Pennsylvania Railroad Meyersdale train / courtesy of Bill Metzger collection

What caused Americans to abandon rails? Simply put, America’s romance and love of train travel changed dramatically after World War II. Formerly frequent users of rail service were “waylaid by shiny new government funded highways and airports. Shippers were increasingly choosing trucks, short distance passengers were using cars, and long-distance travelers were rapidly shifting to airplanes.” Railroads began failing at an alarming rate; an economic reckoning was at hand.

How did rail-banking come about and why has it been such an effective strategy for conserving abandoned rail corridors? Harnik profiles a group of young lawyers, lobbyists, and real estate specialists whose combined talents resulted in the creation of a special “bank” designed to receive unique “deposits” of abandoned railroads. “If they were in a bank, they wouldn’t be officially abandoned but could be saved for the future.”

How did the rails-to-trails movement get started and why was the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy a key leader in this movement? Converting rails-to-trails began slowly with a few signature projects developed in random locations across the nation, such as the Elroy-Sparta Trail in Wisconsin, the Burke-Gillman Trail in Seattle, and the Cedar Valley Nature Trail in Iowa.

The movement was born through the dogged determination of a few brave souls who used ingenuity, grit, and determination to rescue abandoned railroads before they were lost forever. The perfect storm of abandoned railroads occurred on November 30, 1981, creating the need for a national non-profit organization to emerge and begin to address the catastrophic collapse of the railroad industry.

Burwell and Harnik were in the right place at the right time, with aligned interests and a passion to challenge the status quo. Harnik reflects “when I first heard about rails-to-trails, I was electrified to discover a type of corridor that had never been sullied by the tread of a tire. Giving no thought to any legal niceties or pitfalls, I immediately set out to publicize that, yes, there was something new under the sun.”

Georgetown Branch B&O railroad track (overhead) became the Capital Crescent Trail / Peter Harnik

The final chapters of the book offer a glimpse into the long-term value of rails-to-trails as the framework for an interconnected, coast-to-coast, non-motorized transportation network capable of satisfying America’s insatiable desire for travel and recreation. Harnik describes how the rails-to-trails movement has matured and evolved to become one of the most important land conservation and real estate enterprises in American history.

With more than 18,000 miles of rail-trails in existence, rails-to-trails surpasses the combined mileage of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and all other national scenic trails. The rails-to-trails movement has forever changed the way in which Americans use trails. Many of the nation’s most popular and heavily used trails are rail-to-trail conversions.

Harnik doesn’t highlight the contributions of any one profession in From Rails-to-Trails. But it is worth noting the contributions landscape architects have made in furthering the movement. Landscape architects led efforts to formulate design guidelines and construction standards for converted rail-to-trails and have consistently led multi-disciplinary teams in the design and development of the most notable rail-to-trail projects in the nation.

Great American Rail Trail / courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Harnik rightfully deserves credit for being one of the pioneers who led a movement that positively affected the lives of millions of Americans. His book will be a reference for trail designers and builders for generations to come.

Chuck A. Flink, FASLA, is an award-winning author and landscape architect. He is the author of The Greenway Imperative: Connecting Communities and Landscapes for a Sustainable Future, University Press of Florida, 2020.

At the Congress for New Urbanism, A Critique of European Eco-Cities

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany / Freiburg Tourism Bureau. Copyright FWTM-Spiegelhalter

Are European eco-cities models for the future or do they reflect poor urban design practices? During the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering, a group of architects and urban designers debated the merits of a few well-known sustainable cities, including Vauban in Freiburg, Germany; Bo01 in Malmö, Sweden; Kronsberg in Germany; and Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm, Sweden. While there was agreement on the need to densify cities through new compact low-carbon development, there was a lack of consensus on the best way to make sustainable communities more walkable and aesthetically pleasing and how to best incorporate landscape and access to nature.

According to Dhiru Thadani, an architect and urbanist, the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.2 billion by 2050. “Where will all these people live?,” he wondered.

Land scarcity isn’t the issue. “We could fit 14 billion people into the state of Texas if it was as dense as Paris.” But creating enough dense low-carbon communities is.

Increased density of human settlements is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Walkable, bikeable communities, with access to low-carbon transit, have the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any development model. The key to encouraging denser development is making these communities as livable and beautiful as possible.

Architect and academic Michael Dennis, author of Architecture & The City: Selected Essays, argued that “dense urbanism is the most efficient” way to live. He also believes that ecology can be integrated into compact developments — “density doesn’t preclude ecological considerations; ecology and density are fraternal twins.”

But he believes density must be the priority with any new development. Two-thirds of Americans now live in suburban environments where they are dependent on cars that use fossil fuels. These sprawled-out, car-based communities continues our dependence on the “oil empire.”

Citing arguments made in the books Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change by urban planner Peter Calthorpe and Green Metropolis by The New Yorker writer David Owen, Dennis argued that dense urbanism “uses less land, carbon, and energy, and is the best climate solution.” To stave off the climate crisis, “we have 10-15 years left to make major changes,” which he argues involves transforming our communities into higher-density ones. He added that “stormwater and recycling issues didn’t create this crisis.”

While contemporary European eco-cities offer a model for how to maximize density and incorporate ecological landscape design, his issue is with their urban forms, “which aren’t good.” He believes that the issue is “confusion in terms of the role of landscape: the urbanism-to-building connection.”

Dennis believes ecological systems can be integrated into traditional dense and humane European community forms, but European eco-cities haven’t created the right connections between urban form, buildings, landscape, and people. These communities have an urban design problem.

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, which is one of the original European eco-cities built on the site of a former military base, “still looks like army barracks.” While Freiburg is a “beautiful traditional European city,” Vauban “looks like a trailer park on steroids, invaded by an untamed landscape that looks like a jungle.” Its environmental merits are solid — the development is powered by solar energy and includes all ultra-low energy passive house buildings — but “the landscape is confused and unclear.” It’s a “good environmental solution, but not necessarily good urbanism.” (Dennis didn’t mention the wealth of research on the health benefits of nearby nature).

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany / Taras Grescoe, Twitter
Vauban in Freiburg, Germany / Taras Grescoe, Twitter

As for Bo01, a development designed in the early 00s that is powered entirely by renewable energy, the community is too distinct from the beautiful streets and squares of Malmö. In Bo01, “there are no squares or real streets; it’s an architectural project, not an urbanism project. It’s formed of architectural lego blocks.”

Bo01, Malmo, Sweden / Wikipedia, Johan Jönsson, CC BY-SA 4.0

For Dennis, Kronsberg was “so awful I couldn’t spend time on it.” Hammarby in Stockholm is the best of the set, but “it’s still problematic — it has an architectural design, not an urban design.”

John Ellis, a consulting principal, architect, and urban designer at Mithun, disagreed. “Hammarby isn’t as bad as Michael says.” The project, which transformed a polluted brownfield site, was created as part of an Olympics bid the city didn’t win. The development, which now has 20,000 residents and 11,000 jobs, was designed to extend public transit in a ring loop and provide close proximity to a number of other jobs in Stockholm. Hammarby is powered by 50 percent renewable energy and 50 percent biogas from waste.

Hammarby, Stockholm, Sweden / Flickr, Design for Health, CC BY 2.0

There is a transit stop every 984 feet (300 meters), and the tram arrives every 12 minutes. Studies found that 80 percent of trips in Hammarby occur through walking, biking, or public transit.

Blocks were scaled at 200 feet by 360 feet, and buildings are all U-shaped in order to give everyone views of the surrounding lake. There are networks of landscaped pathways that criss-cross the development, adding green space and alternative ways to traverse the community. The development includes a high school and childcare facilities. “While there is a certain monotony, there are many ingredients that create a good urban pattern. And with buildings 5-8 stories tall, Hammarby is 2.5 times as dense as San Francisco,” Ellis said.

Hammarby, Stockholm, Sweden / Flickr, Design for Health, CC BY 2.0

Architect Doug Farr, who Planetizen called one of the top 100 most influential urbanists, said the world is now facing a climate emergency, so we need to move on from the traditional urbanism of the past. A leading sustainable architect, he has also found design inspiration in Freiburg and Vauban, which he has studied in depth in person.

“Traditional urbanism is part of the fabric of 19th century Europe. But we are facing 21st century questions. Traditional urbanism is good for creating walkability, but development models can’t be fixed in amber. They need to evolve to meet the challenges of today.”

After the Worst of the Pandemic, What Will Happen to Open Streets?

During the pandemic, many neighborhoods that were once bounded by streets designed primarily for cars became permeable and open. With the spread of open, slow, or shared streets, pedestrians and cyclists quickly took over traffic lanes, creating an expanded, often safer public realm. Vehicular traffic into downtowns and town centers also saw a dramatic decline, which made wider streets and boulevards and expansive parking lots ripe for transformation into safe spaces for exercise and socially-distanced community events.

Now that the coronavirus is ebbing, at least in many parts of the U.S., communities are wrestling with the legacy of their open streets initiatives. Should some streets remain pedestrian and bicyclist-first spaces? Should temporary changes to slow or ban cars be made permanent? How can landscape architects and planners sort through the options?

In a session at the American Planning Association’s virtual conference, Lian Farhi, senior transportation planner with Sam Schwartz in Brooklyn, New York, said when reevaluating new shared spaces and deciding whether to make them permanent, communities should first ask: “what is their added value?”

Communities need a “decision-making framework, with overall goals and objectives,” she said. Temporary street closures, pop-up parklets, painted sidewalks and bike lanes, and other new shared outdoor dining and recreational spaces should be evaluated in terms of “usage, safety, accessibility, equity, diversity, mobility, and maintenance requirements.”

The city government of New York City, which opened up 60 miles of streets in five boroughs to pedestrian and bicycle use during the height of the pandemic, is now looking again at some of their temporary open streets.

Irene Figueroa-Ortiz, senior project manager with NYC’s department of transportation, said of all their pilot open streets, 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, was the most successful. “26 continuous blocks were closed to cars and immediately taken over by people.” Parts of the avenue in front of schools became expanded playgrounds and used as educational spaces. Figueroa-Ortiz said “there’s now broad public support for this new public space. The community wants to make it permanent.”

To determine whether to keep 34th Avenue open, the city needs to measure impact. Her department has undertaken an extensive multi-cultural community engagement process in Jackson Heights, one of the most diverse communities in the country, with surveys, webinars, and design workshops, supported by real-time translation in numerous languages.

The department of transportation received more than 2,000 responses to their requests for input, whereas before they would expect around 100 responses. The feedback is helping to map out safety concerns, determine community members’ satisfaction, and re-imagine traffic lights and flow to enhance safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Figueroa-Ortiz said that survey results also show that open streets in New York City “weren’t successful in underserved communities, because of higher crime rates and the fact that essential workers were too busy to take advantage of the spaces. But overall, only a handful of shared streets in NYC were deemed unsuccessful.”

Steven Bossler, a landscape architect and planner who founded Shift Planning and Design in Denver, Colorado, said putting together packages of small federal, state, and local recovery grants has been critical to making temporary COVID-19 park and streetscape improvement projects come together — and more financing will be needed to make them permanent.

Olde Town Arvada, a community in Colorado, found the funds to reimagine their streets as public spaces free of cars. Restaurants and stores lining the street saw a 200 percent increase in foot traffic, which was matched by a 200 percent increase in sales tax receipts. Now coming out of the worst of the pandemic, “80 percent of residents say the open street should continue.”

Olde Town Arvada / Olde Town Arvada Business Improvement District

But in Paonia, Colorado, which used $46,000 in state grants matched with $8,000 in local funds to undertake temporary tactical urbanism projects, the results were less positive. Projects included vibrant painted crosswalks, bump-out parklets, and bike lanes. “Residents liked the greenery and colorful sidewalks, but didn’t like that parking was removed for the new bike lanes,” Bossler said. (The survey results are worth a read).

Jenny Baker, a land use consultant with Clarion Associates in Denver, Colorado, said communities can better leverage their zoning code to make long-term changes now that the coronoavirus is being contained by greater numbers of vaccinated people. “Codes can be used, for example, to enable outdoor seating. Parking requirements can also be revisited.”

Baker said much still needs to be figured out to make these new open streets permanent. “Where do the intersections begin and end? If there are now different visual cues at intersections, how do people navigate safely? Are shared streets legally the right-of-way or park space? Do the agencies managing these spaces need to change? Some of these things are a little difficult to answer.”

Just as temporary COVID-19 solutions were largely driven by local needs, long-term changes will be as well. But, hopefully, greater flexibility and experimentation are here to stay.

What Could Be Next for Biden’s Infrastructure Plan

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park Phase II: A New Urban Ecology. Long Island City, NY, USA. SWA/BALSLEY and WEISS/MANFREDI with ARUP

Congressional debate on the massive new infrastructure legislation President Joe Biden has proposed is a “big glorious mess,” said Jason Jordan, director of public affairs at the American Planning Association, during their virtual national conference.

President Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which is called the American Jobs Plan, calls for spending $2.2 trillion over the next 8 years. Some $620 billion would go to funding improvements to roads, bridges, public transit, rails, ports, waterways, and new electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure. $115 billion of that would go to modernizing 20,000 miles of highways, roads, and main streets, along with another $20 billion for road safety. $100 billion would be for improving water infrastructure.

The plan defines infrastructure much more broadly than just roads and bridges and includes social, technological, educational, and economic infrastructure. Biden asks for another $400 billion for home care services and workforce development, $300 billion for manufacturing, $213 billion for housing, $100 billion for broadband infrastructure, $100 billion for new schools, $180 billion for research and development, and $100 billion for workforce development. To pay for these priorities, Biden calls for increasing the corporate tax from 21 percent to 28 percent and setting minimum corporate taxes.

Jordan asked a panel he assembled tough questions like: “Will budget reconciliation be used to fund the infrastructure investments? Will Biden’s infrastructure proposals be bound up in transportation legislation re-authorization? Will the financing mechanisms for these infrastructure proposals be increased corporate taxes, user fees, or gas taxes?”

Sam Mintz, a transportation reporter with Politico, said “there’s a high level of uncertainty around infrastructure, because there are unprecedented and vast policy changes proposed.”

“Republicans have made a much smaller counter-proposal that would just focus on transportation, water, and broadband infrastructure. They would finance this investment with increased infrastructure user fees rather than corporate taxes,” he explained.

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which passed in 2015, and then was extended through this year, adds another element to Congressional deliberations on transportation. A number of bills are being developed in committees to replace the FAST Act. “Biden may bounce off the baseline re-authorization of transportation spending or spend more on top of this bill,” Mintz said.

He also believes that budget reconciliation, which is a way to get past the 60 votes required for legislation in the Senate, is likely to be used given the “progressive climate components” of Biden’s infrastructure plans.

For Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, director of federal government affairs at ASLA, the debate on transportation infrastructure is personal. “I grew up in West Baltimore, a once vibrant working-to-middle class community, which is now called an underserved community. Like many former industrial cities, Baltimore encountered some severe challenges — from the loss of factories and their blue collar jobs, to white flight, urban decay, and so called ‘urban renewal,’ and increased crime.” West Baltimore now has “rows of abandoned houses, vacant lots, food deserts, deserted and decrepit playgrounds and parks, ineffective public transit — and yes – a highway to nowhere – that replaced blocks and blocks of homes and Black families.”

Equity and climate change now guide ASLA’s advocacy efforts. Recently, the organization has sent its comprehensive set of policy recommendations to the Biden-Harris administration, relevant departments and agencies, and Congressional committees. ASLA then sent a second set of transportation recommendations to Capitol Hill on re-authorizing the FAST Act.

According to Blackwell, landscape architects are focused on increasing equitable access to safe pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, such as Complete Streets; transit-oriented development; and green infrastructure. “We also strongly believe that parks are infrastructure, and have not been elevated in the conversation as much as they should be. Parks are a critical part of the social fabric.”

She called for a broad-based collaboration between planning and design organizations and local community groups to transform inequitable elevated highways — which destroyed diverse urban communities as part of “urban renewal” — into green, surface-level boulevards. “This is a no brainer and something the nation needs to do. It can be the first step in atonement.”

And this is where Blackwell believes the resurgence of Congressional earmarks presents a real opportunity. Congressional committees are being more inclusive in their earmark review process and asking for proposals directly from community groups. “So this is not just about capital investment but also about community engagement. These community groups — and our grassroots network of landscape architects — can now advocate for specific projects in specific places. It’s a huge opportunity for our members to address environmental injustices.”

There may also be new opportunities on climate change-related measures in Biden’s proposals. “While the terminology may be different — the Democrats say climate change, and the Republicans talk about resilience — the message is the same and there is a new willingness to work on these issues. Climate change, and nature-based solutions, are now part of the conversation,” Blackwell said.

Mintz said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who was determined to make President Barack Obama a one-term president, can be expected to be recalcitrant towards any new major investments on mitigating or adapting to climate change. Biden’s infrastructure proposal is “probably the only climate bill we will get — it’s the chance for climate action before the mid-term elections next year.” He added that “climate change may be used as a cudgel” by Republicans in the mid-terms.

Blackwell argued that senators and representatives need to “listen to their constituents who have been flooded, seen their backyard on fire, or experienced drought. There will be a political price to pay for more theater.”

Democrats and Republicans are still far apart on EV infrastructure. “Republicans see this as giving a big gift to China, as EV batteries are produced there, and there isn’t a domestic U.S. battery industry,” Mintz said. But he noted that President Biden has been talking about 500,000 EV charging stations since the very early days of his campaign so is not expected to compromise on this policy area.

Blackwell said that ASLA is focused more on building out safe, accessible bike and pedestrian infrastructure so as to reduce the number of short trips taken in vehicles. “We need complete streets for everyone.”

Earth Day Interview: Jennifer Toole Makes the Case for Better Bike Networks

Jennifer Toole, ASLA / Toole Design

Jennifer Toole, ASLA, is the founder and President of Toole Design and has over 30 years of experience planning and designing multimodal transportation systems. A certified planner with a degree in landscape architecture, Toole has a strong background in urban design. She has been involved in numerous projects of national significance for the Federal Highway Administration, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

In Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, bike infrastructure is identified as one of the top 80 solutions for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. The book finds that in 2014, 5.5 percent of urban trips worldwide were by bicycle. If that number grew to 7.5 percent by 2050, displacing some 2.2 trillion passenger miles completed by vehicles, some 2.2 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions could be avoided, realizing approximately $400 billion savings over the next 30 years. What are the most important steps cities and communities can take to rapidly grow bike use?

Most people just don’t feel safe bicycling, which is the greatest disincentive. We spent nearly a century in this country building a transportation system that essentially only caters to people who are driving motor vehicles. We have a system that fundamentally doesn’t support bicycling.

The best thing cities can do to incentivize bicycling is make it feel safer for people. This can be accomplished through interconnected networks of bike facilities separated from traffic that don’t end at major barriers.

Safe separated bike lane in Denver, Colorado / Trung Vo

That’s a big problem right now: we have a lot of bikeways that might get you part of the way to where you want to go, but then you get to a big intersection or an interchange with a highway and the bikeway ends.

We also need need to reduce motor vehicle speeds across the board, so that when bicyclists and motorists cross paths, it’s in a safe and controlled way. And we need to provide high-quality and secure places to park your bike once you get to where you’re going.

None of this is rocket science. If you look at countries that have successfully increased the percentage of people bicycling by even a few percentage points, it’s because they invested in infrastructure to make bicyclists feel safe — and, in fact, bicyclists are now safer in those places.

Drawdown also identifies e-bikes as a critical climate solution. While many bike-riders feel comfortable biking a few miles on flat surfaces, half of all trips are estimated to be 6.2 miles, which may be too far in the heat or if the route is hilly. E-bikes also better support riders who may be older or less able. What are some other ways cities and communities can incentivize e-bike use?

I am really excited about e-bikes because they eliminate another major disincentive to bicycling: hilly areas, with long, difficult uphill climbs. I live at the top of a really steep hill. Many times I have done that calculus in my head. Am I going to ride my bike? If I ride my bike, when I come home, I am going to have to come back up that hill.

When you look at a normal bike trip, it’s usually someplace between one to three miles in length. An e-bike trip is typically a little bit longer than a normal bike trip, because you don’t have to expend as much energy to make that trip.

The keys to incentivizing e-bike use are the exact same as they are for regular bikes. You’ve got to provide spaces where people feel safe riding their bike. E-bikes are a little bit faster than regular bikes, so that makes it even more evident that sidewalks are not the right place for them. E-bikes really need their own space. They need separated bike lanes. They need shared-use paths and bike boulevards. You have to feel like you have safe places to ride.

E-bike riders in Seattle, Washington / Kenneth Loen

Cities are also providing e-bikes through their bike share services, which gives people a way to check them out and realize how much fun they are to ride. It’s one of the reasons why e-bike sales are just soaring all around the country.

According to the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), researchers in the U.K. found that biking to work is associated with 45 percent lower risk of developing cancer and a 46 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared to commuting by car or public transit. UNEP also states: “daily exercise prolongs life expectancy by approximately 3.4 years. Regular cycling boosts physical health as an efficient way to prevent obesity.” How can we better promote the health benefits of biking to communities?

Those are some pretty incredible statistics I think that most people are not aware of.

It’s more about providing ways for people to introduce exercise into their normal, everyday life without even thinking about it. There are a lot of studies that show people are more active and healthy in places where walking and biking for everyday trips is common, so making sure that destinations in shopping areas and workplaces are in close proximity to home is really an important part of making sure that people take those everyday trips on foot and by bicycle.

We need to make bicycling the logical choice — the no-brainer choice — for a certain segment of short trips we make. When you go to The Netherlands and ask people why they are riding bikes, they almost never talk about the exercise or the environment. They are riding a bike, because it’s the most efficient way to get where they want to go.

Countries like The Netherlands have a lot of folks who bike well into their 70s and 80s, because they have provided places that feel safe for riding a bike. I have no doubt it contributes to a much longer lifespan.

Data also shows that the pandemic has resulted in a bike boom in many cities and communities. According to a report from Strava, a fitness tracking company, bike use in car-centric cities like Houston increased by 138 percent and in Los Angeles by 93 percent. The Rails to Trails Conservancy found that trail use increased threefold in March 2020 over 2019. Do you think bike use will continue to remain at high levels after we have all been vaccinated? What role do you think “slow streets” have played? And if the bike boom continues, will it result in greater investment in permanent bike infrastructure?

I think it will. Bike use will continue to remain at higher levels, because our travel patterns have been disrupted in ways that we’re only now just beginning to realize. There’s a whole segment of workers who will probably never go back to working in an office from 9:00 to 5:00 five days a week. The flexibility of being able to work from home will mean that our rush hour is going to look different in the future.

Why drag yourself out of bed to go and sit in the car for an hour longer than you really need to just to get to work at a certain time? A certain segment of workers are going to make that calculus and say, “I don’t need to go into the office to work. I can do it right here,” because they’ve been doing it for over a year, and it worked fine. Working from home is going to become much more accepted and prevalent and, with that change, people are going to continue to look for ways to use a bicycle for trips that originate from their homes.

Slow streets have really been great, because they gave people places to ride that feels safe. I’ve heard so many stories of slow street projects that had opposition in the beginning and now people are getting upset when cities remove their slow-street designation. From what we’re seeing, cities are looking for ways to have more permanent, connected networks of bike facilities, and that was starting well before COVID-19. It’s not something that was new; I just think COVID brought it home how much we needed more infrastructure.

Research also finds that low-income communities bike to work more often than other groups. The Chicago Tribune reports that the biggest group of Americans who bike to work are from households that earn less than $10,000. But a report from the League of American Bicyclists also found that Hispanic bike-riders had a bike fatality rate 23 percent higher, and Black riders had a fatality rate 30 percent higher than white riders. How can cities and communities make bike infrastructure more equitable and improve safety for historic marginalized and underserved communities?

We need to do a better job at providing better infrastructure in underserved areas of our cities. Often these are the same neighborhoods that have been impacted by highway construction, where we have widened roads so that suburban commuters can get to their jobs and downtown. It’s not a surprise those are the same places that have higher rates of crashes for Hispanic and Black riders. They need more attention than we’re giving them in terms of providing safer facilities.

Bicyclists in Columbus, Ohio / Catherine Girves

A lot of the work we do for cities is about adjusting that balance and giving more attention to neighborhoods that have been neglected when it comes to providing good places to not only to bike but also to walk. Among other things, we aim to reduce traffic speeds on those streets, which is not an easy thing because they were built for higher speeds.

Many of the projects we work on are focused on equity. For example, we are working on an expansion of the trail network in Fresno, California. We analyzed all the proposed trails the city has planned to build in the next 20 years using a tool that prioritizes equity factors. The city then selected four connecting trails segments in a community facing environmental injustices. It relied on a tool used in California that helps identify communities most affected by pollution and where people are often especially vulnerable to pollution.

The Biden administration just released a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which could result in much greater investment in complete streets, bicycle networks, trails. If you were somehow in charge of all the billions, how would you allocate it on bicycle infrastructure?

In many communities, they have already tackled their easier projects, the ones that weren’t difficult to build — streets that were overbuilt for the amount of traffic they’re carrying and required a road diet to reconfigure space.

The next phase of work is much harder. It’s closing the gaps between facilities. Imagine a trail that ends at a major intersection. It’s hard to get across that intersection in order to connect one part of town to another part of town where you have bike networks. You really need an overpass across the highway built for bike and pedestrian traffic. If I were in charge of that infrastructure investment, I would make it available for major infrastructure projects that close gaps in bike and pedestrian networks.

In South Bend, Indiana, your staff partnered with the administration of then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is now U.S. transportation secretary, to create an open space and smart streets plan to revitalize South Bend’s downtown. The plan resulted in the transformation of St. Joseph’s Boulevard to a green complete street. Secretary Buttigieg said the streetscape improvements led to $90 million in private investment by downtown businesses along the corridor. Can you tell us more about Secretary Buttigieg and his understanding of the connections between streetscape improvements and revitalization?

The most basic answer for how that revitalization led to all the private investment is that the design prioritizes the movement of people over cars. It was a very controversial approach to their downtown revitalization, and there were a lot of people who were worried that it wouldn’t work. To Secretary Buttigieg’s credit, he had a vision for making their downtown be a place where people felt comfortable walking everywhere.

Downtown South Bend, Indiana before image / City of South Bend
Downtown South Bend, Indiana after image / City of South Bend

The downtown businesses saw that it was going to be a place that was really special, which is what led to the investment. And it hasn’t stopped with downtown. The work we’re doing now in South Bend is going out like tendrils into the community. The city is systematically tackling their street network and prioritizing pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Secretary Buttigieg’s vision has continued to transform the city’s approach to transportation and it has clearly benefited the community.

Your firm is leading an interdisciplinary team working with the city of Atlanta’s Department of City Planning to re-imagine Peachtree Street as a shared space that blurs the lines between public space and streets. What are the benefits of these environments? How do you overcome safety or accessibility concerns?

Peachtree Street has long been Atlanta’s main street. The street receives a lot of traffic and is dominated by cars. The city is looking to change that dynamic and make it a destination for people. The benefit of making Peachtree Street a flush street — so all one level, no curbs — is that it really promotes that feeling that it’s a street where pedestrians are the highest priority. They don’t have to go to an intersection in order to cross the street. They can move freely across the street. It’s modeled on the types of streets that have been built really all over Europe, where there’s just one street surface.

Re-imagining Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia / Toole Design

Another benefit is that it slows everybody down. Cars can still travel down the street and park, but drivers don’t feel comfortable going fast down a flush street. Often there are fewer traffic signals or signs to direct traffic. This is due to a concept in traffic engineering: when you introduce an element of uncertainty, everyone slows down. It’s fundamentally about making sure motor vehicle traffic goes slower.

Also, a flush street is inherently more accessible. You can imagine people on wheelchairs don’t have to go to the corners to find a place to cross. People pushing baby strollers can easily move about. But you do need special accommodations for people who are blind or have low vision, because they need to know how to navigate down that street. They often use a curb line as a guide.

Fortunately, there are new ways to help people who are blind to navigate. A different type of pavement treatment with raised grooves can help guide a person with a cane down a street. These have been used in train stations and other places where there is a need to navigate through plazas and other open areas.

Landscape architects integrate safe, accessible pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure with green infrastructure. In St. Paul, Minnesota, your firm designed the Jackson Street Reconstruction Project, which transformed an outdated avenue into a truly multi-modal corridor that features two-way protected bike lanes, wider pedestrian walkways protected by green buffers that manage storm water. How is this project a model? How do you make the case that communities should spend the extra money for the green infrastructure?

Jackson Street is just such a great example of the way we should be designing streets in this country.

It’s important to think about what the street looked like before to understand the opportunity it represents for many other streets in this country. Jackson Street was as wide as six lanes, a classic example of an overbuilt street. Somebody at some point in the past decided that the road needed to have four lanes. The street didn’t have the traffic volume to support those lanes.

We were able to take up to two travel lanes off the road, which gave us 20-plus more feet of space to work with to provide a wider sidewalk, a two-way separated bike lane, and generous rain gardens between the bikeway and the road. We were able to use the green infrastructure to provide that much needed separation between the bikeway and the street. The bikeway itself is built from pervious pavement. The runoff from Jackson Street is directed into those rain gardens.

Jackson Street Reconstruction Project, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design
Jackson Street Reconstruction Project, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design

St. Paul is a city concerned about water pollution, runoff, and flooding. It’s on the banks of the Mississippi, so this type of street design is logical. There are so many cities around the country that are increasingly concerned about flooding and need to find ways to let stormwater seep into the ground instead of run off into nearby waterways. Cities are feeling the impact of major flood events and the financial cost of those events, which is why they are looking at these streetscape projects as an opportunity to rethink the way that water flows in their city.

There are generations of work for landscape architects to fix all these streets and make them greener by providing vegetation in the streetscape on a scale that we’ve never done before. We were sort of stuck in the past with these tiny tree boxes. That was the conventional way of providing green in the landscape. This new way of designing streets is going to give us so much more room to work with different types of plants and soils. It’s a really exciting time to be a landscape architect.