Tuesday, May 29, 2007

An organic relationship

Last weekend we did one of those Boston things that tourists normally do: take a ride on the swan boats in the Public Garden. Stepping off at the end and walking past the gift shop set up at the dock, I noticed the blurb on the back of the classic book for sale, Make Way for Ducklings, in big letters that said: "Boston's busy streets are too dangerous for these eight ducklings!" But all around the park, pedestrians stepped into crosswalks and cars, taxis and trucks yielded. The foundation for this behavior has less to do with danger, fear, or enforcement, but a simple reality: that drivers and bikers and people on foot -- and ducklings -- share the public realm. They must deal with each other. Cities and their street networks encourage this kind of recognition, because drivers in these environments have either just become, or are about to be, pedestrians too (they have either parked, or are headed to their cars). But the strip mall near my neighborhood features a de facto woonerf as well, in front of Target and Home Depot. The slow speeds and yielding that goes on, I'm convinced, is because every driver knows he or she is about to cross, on foot, to the store entrances themselves; they expect the same courtesy. I thought of all this upon reading a story about how many crosswalks in Boston need a fresh coat of bright white paint. The message here of course is that drivers and pedestrians desperately need help managing a relationship that can occur more naturally; yes, the word "danger" is in the headline. There was also an incident in Baltimore of a car running into a sidewalk cafe, as if tables and chairs near a street was somehow an arrangement that was inherently unsafe. Context and design are important, but for subtle visual cues more than flashing lights and bright paint and the culture of danger and us vs. them. See www.walkinginfo.org for more ideas, though darned if they don't start from the premise of safety.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Bangkok and New York

The clarion call for sustainable development, alternative energy, and cleaner-burning power plants was issued in Bangkok today by the International Panel on Climate Change. But for the real action on a huge part of any agenda for reducing emissions, New York is the place to be. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who proposed the sustainable growth plan called PlaNYC on Earth Day last month, addressed the general assembly of the Regional Plan Association, which focused on steps that big cities can take to cut emissions and reduce energy use. Later this month, leaders from over 30 of the world's largest cities will gather in New York for the second C40 Large Cities Climate Summit 2007, where the model New York and London climate action plans will set the standard for what big cities can do. It's slowly sinking in that a key climate policy centers on how we grow, develop and arrange ourselves physically on the land, and that cities have the most to offer for being green, super energy-efficient places. They're the places that can maximize transit use and eradicate energy waste, through building retrofits and green building standards. Bio-fuels and better technology for coal plants is all great, but cities remain an obvious solution to avert a baked planet. The planning, environmental and smart growth agenda have become the climate agenda.