As an urban planning student and environmentalist, I often find myself thinking about cars — why we have them, why we subsidize them, what makes us give them up in favor of other modes of transportation.
Most recently, it was my mother who reminded me just how deep our car culture runs.
About two years ago, my brother got in an accident on the New Jersey turnpike and totaled his car (no injuries, luckily). Knowing that he was about to start student teaching in Delaware and wouldn’t be able to get around easily without a car, my mom helped him out in buying a new one. Always wanting to be fair, she told me she’d give me the same amount towards replacing my car, which she thought was way overdue for an upgrade. Granted, I had been driving the same ‘98 Ford Contour since I was 16. It’s been to Florida and back, and driven many miles in between. The gas gauge, speedometer, and odometer rarely work. The trunk leaks. It had definitely seen better days.
But here’s the thing. Over a year ago I moved to Brooklyn, NY. I don’t need a car, and I really don’t want one. In fact, I don’t ever really see myself needing my own car again. Yet despite my protesting, my mom kept that old Ford Contour parked in her driveway for month after month, just in case I came to my senses and decided that life without a car was too much to bear. After telling her for the bazillionth time that walking, biking, and public transit were all I needed, she finally gave the car away to a mechanic down the block.
So remember that extra money she set aside for me for a new car? Well, it’s just sitting in an account somewhere. I could use it tomorrow if I were to change my mind and decide to buy a car. My mom just can’t let go of the idea that in order to have a perfectly fulfilled life, I need 4 wheels under me. Meanwhile, there are a ton of other things I could use a little extra monetary help with (ahem, NYU tuition). It’s one thing to decide you’re the type of person who can live a carfee life, but it takes a bit more discipline to have money for a new car staring you in the face and still declining. (Don’t worry - I’m holding strong!) I’ve just been caught off-guard by how insistent my mom has been, as she’s generally not so insistent about anything. It’s a reminder that it really is still a tough battle to convince folks that as a society, we are all too reliant on cars when there are so many other options available.
On the heels of a recently released report in Injury Prevention Journal, the Department of Public Safety at NYU just sent out a Community Safety Alert about the dangers of walking while wearing headphones or earbuds. In fact, this report has been widely circulated by local and national media all week. In NYU’s statement, they cited the fact that “accidents involving people hit by vehicles while wearing earbuds have tripled since 2004.”
Now that does sound pretty alarming, doesn’t it?
Well, maybe it will sound less alarming when you consider that these 116 incidents only make up about 0.3% of all pedestrian fatalities during that time period.
Transportation for America does a great job of illuminating one of the major reasons why pedestrians continue to fall victim to the streets (hint: it has to do with the car-centric design of our towns and cities).
It’s always worthwhile to be aware of your surroundings, and I personally try not to walk or bike with earbuds in, but the coverage of this report has just been ridiculous and a distraction from the real problem: The prevalence of unsafe walking conditions throughout our country.
This is a great visualization of the streetscape changes to NYC’s iconic Broadway. With the pedestrianization of Times Square, Grist reports that there’s been a 63% reduction in pedestrian injuries between 42nd and 47th street, quite an accomplishment in public safety. It’s been good for economic development too — Retail rents went up 71% in Times Square, which is the largest increase in the city’s history (and during a recession, no less)!
When you think of people who use social media, you generally don’t think of traffic engineers or state DOTs, but last week’s web-based conference on social media held by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) would surely change your mind.
With panel discussions and interactive breakout sessions, the conference mimicked a true bricks-and-mortar event and attracted hundreds of attendees. For an organization that usually caters to a more traditional and technical audience, I was impressed by both the innovative format and accessible content. Clearly the transportation sector is embracing social media and looking for additional ways to take advantage of tools like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. And this comes with great benefit to the public, who are increasingly using social media as a means to keep updated on news, express their opinions, and connect with others.
During an afternoon session called “Engaging Your Audience,” several panelists shared their success stories around using social media, and I’d like to share a couple of my favorites:
Starting locally, NYC DOT’s Neil Freeman talked about The Daily Pothole, a surprisingly entertaining and lighthearted Tumblr started by the agency to connect with a broader audience. They mainly use the site as a place to post pictures and impressive statistics about their efforts to repave troublesome roads, but more importantly, they’ve gotten residents to actually use the site to report potholes in their neighborhoods. As Neil put it, they’re “making potholes and asphalt fun!” Now who would have thought that was possible?
Image: Screenshot of The Daily Pothole, 9/26/11
Another successful case comes from Bobbi Greenberg in Arlington County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. With a dense population and plethora of good transportation options (including trains, buses, bike lanes, and zip cars), Arlington County Commuter Services really wanted to encourage more people to leave their cars at home.
They launched a campaign called the Car-Free Diet that relies heavily on social media to spread their message. Their website features interactive tools like the car-free diet calculator, and they routinely post informative videos on their YouTube site. But their major success comes from the Car-Free Skeptics Challenge, which follows the experiences of self-proclaimed “car-free skeptics” who agree to ditch their cars for 30 days. With regular blog posts, YouTube videos, and Facebook & Twitter updates, the contestants become ACCS’ biggest proponents of walking, biking, and taking public transit, putting real faces on their campaign.
Image: Screenshot of Car-Free Diet twitter page, 9/23/11
As can be seen from just these two examples, social media allows for a level of creativity and dialogue that just isn’t possible through traditional methods of outreach. It’s promising to see interest growing in these types of initiatives among transportation agencies and organizations, and I expect that the most effective & innovative applications are still to come as more agencies embrace the social web.
The sessions from the conference were recorded and are available on the TRB website, so if you’re interested in checking out what you missed, click the following link. Additionally, most presentations have been made available in PDF version on the same site: http://www.trb.org/conferences/socialmediaonlineworkshop2011.aspx
There’s no way you can ignore the tension that exists between bikers, pedestrians, and drivers on the road (just take a look at this video). And this is especially true in a city as dense as New York, with 8 million people sharing streets, sidewalks, subway platforms and parks.
While I’m wholeheartedly an advocate of biking and walking over using cars (for too many reasons to list), I’m not comfortable ignoring the fact that many cyclists and pedestrians do exhibit some pretty bad behavior. While I’m sure the majority of them are doing the right thing and being mindful of those around them, it’s no small number who aren’t.
But what I see as the problem is this tendency to pit mode against mode and jump to conclusions. Yes, there are plenty of cyclists whose habits and aggressive tendencies intimidate pedestrians, but that is not cause for calling for the removal of bike lanes or an excessive ticketing policy. Fact is, there are inconsiderate users of all modes of transportation.
If I were to ask you to list symbols of American consumerism, I bet the words “shopping mall” would come to mind pretty quickly. And that’s because for the past 5 decades, shopping malls have been a dominant feature of the retail scene in a country that has more retail space than most. In 2009, NPR reported that the U.S. had 20 square feet of retail space per person (almost 7x as much as the country who came in 2nd, Sweden).
But is all this set to change?
Witold Rybczynski makes the bold assertion in his book Makeshift Metropolis that in 25 years, many shoppers will have never stepped foot in a shopping mall. While recent reports do indicate that they’re on the decline, this is surely a bit of an exaggeration on his part. Nevertheless, it is interesting to re-envision a world without them.
A Little Background
Shopping malls first rose to popularity as the American population shifted to the suburbs, becoming an increasingly autocentric culture seeking greater efficiency and convenience in their lives. At suburban malls, parking generally comes at no cost, and comes in the form of expansive street level lots (i.e. “dead zones”) that intimidate even the most fearless pedestrians. As such, a majority of shoppers have no choice but to drive.
Aerial shot of Citrus Park Mall in Florida. Genesis Group 2011
A Mall with a “Facelift”
In a few places, like my hometown of Stamford, CT, malls are located in suburban downtowns, and can be reached by public transportation. (In my experience, most people still drive there.) These malls tend to be less successful due to higher real estate costs, space constraints, and traffic congestion on downtown streets. In the case of Stamford, the exterior of the building and parking garage also functioned as a type of pedestrian “dead zone,” as the blank, street-facing walls offered no visual appeal whatsoever. In 2007, they completed a major renovation to change the streetscape on the south side. Not exactly in my taste, but a major improvement.
Many malls have not had the opportunity to pursue “facelifts” in hopes of staying afloat, as evidenced by a growing number of entries on deadmalls.com, a site that chronicles the decline of America’s retail supercenters. And it seems that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Greg Beato cites a statistic in a recent article for Reason Magazine that 10% of our nation’s malls are on the verge of financial collapse.
Rybczynski mentions a few factors that he believes are laying shopping malls to rest. For one thing, American developers built malls at a speed that outpaced demand in many areas (about 140 per year in the mid-1990s). Coupled with a serious downturn in the US economy, it’s no wonder that so many are failing. Additionally, there has been some momentum around the effort to create more shopping, dining, and cultural areas that are accessible to pedestrians, cyclists, and those using public transportation. In essence, more people want to take their shopping experiences outside onto well-planned, lively streets.
The Mall That Won’t Die, But Has Never Truly Lived
But if all this is true, then surely our country’s most densely populated state, which happens to have the most malls per capita, would be at the forefront of change. Not so. Anyone driving down the New Jersey turnpike knows the eye sore known as Xanadu. If ever finished, it will be a 2.4 million square foot retail & entertainment center, and the most expensive mall ever built.
The ugliest building in New Jersey. New York Times 2011
As the New York Times reports, Governor Chris Christie intends to see the completion of Xanadu (under the new name American Dream @ Meadowlands) while in office. Despite shutting down a project of real, tangible benefit earlier this year, citing fiscal concerns (yes, I’m talking about the ARC tunnel), Christie is willing to put up money and forfeit substantial amounts of sales tax revenue for this monstrosity. It’s hard to hope when this kind of backwards-thinking advances.
A Mall, Re-Imagined
But hope I shall, for the many other sites across the country that have a chance to re-imagine the traditional enclosed shopping center into something much better for the environment, public health, and the vibrancy of communities.
Although this particular redevelopment project in Utah has been stalled due to financial problems, it serves as a decent vision of how a defunct mall can be turned into a mixed-use neighborhood. The old mall was bulldozed, and plans were drawn to include shops, cafes, offices, and residential units connected by walkways. The storefronts would be located on the first floor, with the residential units and offices on upper floors. Unfortunately for the folks of Holladay, Utah, they’re left with an empty dirt lot for as long as the project remains stalled.
Plans for Cottonwood Mall Redevelopment Stuck in Studio 2009
Although I have not yet had a chance to read Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, I understand that it delves into this topic much deeper, and has been cited in several articles on the subject. For anyone interested in seeing vacant warehouses, big box stores, parking lots, and the like turned into thriving, sustainable, mixed-use communities, I suggest you pick it up. I certainly intend to!
Have you heard of any similar projects to redevelop malls or shopping centers? Please share.
Growing up, I always found it a bit odd that my grandparents enjoyed taking lunch at the nearby cemetery. Given all the other options in town (Cummings Beach, Scalzi Park, Cove Marina, our own backyard), why choose to dine at the final resting place of Stamford’s departed?
But over the years, I’ve discovered that my grandparents may not have been so crazy after all. In fact, it was cemeteries like Highgate in North London and Brookwood in Surrey that inspired Joseph Paxton to design Britain’s first publicly funded park (called Birkenhead).
(Left): Overgrown grave at Highgate Cemetery. (Right): Grave in Brookwood Cemetery.
So refreshing were the quiet views and lush landscapes of Brookwood Cemetery that the people of London visited in flocks. In his book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson describes a railway line, known affectionately by its workers as the “Stiff’s Express,” that ran three classes of service between London and Brookwood up until 1941. Popular indeed.
When it first opened in 1847, Paxton’s Birkenhead Park enjoyed similar success. Perhaps most importantly, it caught the attention and imagination of a young Frederick Law Olmsted, who went on to design such iconic works as Central Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and the grounds of the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina, among many, many others.
Soon, the ordinary working people of cities had access to cleaner air, natural landscapes, and an escape from the chaos of urban streets. Public parks continue to play an important role in our cities, but interestingly, cemeteries are making a resurgence.
Mausoleums lining Sylvan Water at Green-Wood Cemetery
Just this past weekend, I found myself on a tour of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, alongside at least 50 other guests who were eager to walk the grounds and learn the history of the cemetery’s most nefarious residents. With rolling hills, glacial ponds, and majestic trees, Green-Wood’s landscape proves just as interesting as its histories.
In this article that appeared in the December 2010 issue of Landscape Architecture magazine, Peter Harnik and Eric Merolli explain that the recreational use of cemeteries is catching on across the country, in part because many are looking for new sources of revenue to keep up with the costs of maintaining their grounds. (At some point, all cemeteries must concede that they’ve run out of burial ground.) Increasingly though, cities are just realizing the untapped resource they have: hundreds of acres of green space in the form of public and private cemetery lands.
So how do you feel about the use of cemeteries for tours, performances and book readings? Genius use of underutilized space, or disrespectful use of sacred grounds? Or is it all just too creepy to think about?
If you’re as fascinated by cemeteries as I have become, you may want to read some more:
Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries, Rebecca Greenfield, The Atlantic (2011)
London’s Necropolis Train, Paul Slade, Fortean Times (2004)
Cemeteries Alive: Graveyards are resurging as green spaces for the public, Peter Harnik and Eric Merolli, Landscape Architecture (2010)