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Posts in category Public Spaces

Public Spaces

Arlington has a great new park, and it was easy to build

What if you turned parking space in your neighborhood into the area's newest park? Staff members from a handful of Arlington County agencies recently did just that, creating a new "pop-up plaza" near Courthouse Plaza. It only took paint, plantings, outdoor furniture, and two days of work.

Though the County may have borrowed this idea from New York City, it has recently shown an ability to get innovative in transforming public spaces using inexpensive materials: in May, tape, paper, and potted plants were all it took to build a temporary bikeway.

The pop-up plaza calls to mind the temporary "parklets" that pop up on Park(ing) Day each September, but it's great to see these innovative spaces being created at other times of year.

Hopefully this plaza will remain a permanent fixture of the Courth House neighborhood (at least until the entire parking lot is reclaimed and transformed into a park).

Where do you think Arlington's next pop-up plaza should go?


When airports give your kids a place to play, traveling is far less stressful

If you're a parent, flying out of Dulles International Airport will soon be a somewhat more bearable experience. That's because the airport recently opened a children's play area in Concourse B, where many international flights leave from. The contained space—known as the "FunWay"—has airport-themed climbing structures and a video console with 100 games.

The FunWay at Dulles Airport. Photos by the author.

This is a good thing. A very good thing. And it's actually a bigger deal than you might think.

A few months ago, I wouldn't really have given a kid's play area in a local airport much thought. But after a recent visit to Switzerland with my wife and two-and-a-half year old daughter to see relatives, it became painfully obvious to me that compared to most of Europe, the US doesn't really consider the needs of families—especially those with young children—when it comes to how we get around.

We started our trip at Dulles in mid-July, a few weeks before the FunWay was finished. We had a few hours to kill, so we play zone defense the best we could: one of us would rest while the other took off running as my daughter sprinted down the concourse and into just about every nook and cranny Dulles has to offer. (There's lots, and a toddler will find them all.) To her, it was new and exciting, and she got to explore it all. But for us as parents, it was exhausting and, at times, stressful. There was no easy way to contain her, lest I put her in front of a screen. (Certainly not beyond me, but we were saving that for the 8-hour flight.)

But when we landed in Copenhagen, our five-hour layover was significantly easier. That's because the Danish airport not only has communal strollers for parents to use (we had checked ours in Dulles, and it wouldn't get to us until Zurich), but also a large play area. She got to run around and play with toys in a safe and contained space, while we got to sit back and relax as we waited for our next flight.

And so it went for the rest of the trip. The inter-city trains in Switzerland had designated cars for families—and those cars had small playgrounds for kids. The buses in Berne, where we stayed with family, allowed parents to park strollers in the area designated for passengers in wheelchairs. Even the highway rest stops in Switzerland had playgrounds.

A playground in a train in Switzerland.

This isn't to say that some US airports haven't been ahead of the curve. Chicago O'Hare, San Francisco and Boston Logan are regularly ranked as some of the most kid-friendly in the country—and even compete with some of the better airports internationally. But that hasn't really been the case locally.

Until now, Dulles had nothing for kids—but it did have multiple smoking lounges, not to mention four designated pet relief areas. (Don't get me wrong—I love pets. But I'd bet more kids travel than do pets.) And on Metrobus, you're required to fold up a stroller and carry it. It goes without saying that it's probably a distant hope that Amtrak—not to mention MARC or VRE—would ever consider a kid-friendly car. (Per its website, the best Amtrak offers is the suggestion that parents should "download a train-themed movie for your little ones to watch while they ride the real thing!")

Don't get me wrong: There are far bigger things the US could tackle to make the country more friendly to new families. We're nowhere near Europe—much less most of the world—when it comes to paid family leave, for one. But that's not an excuse not to tackle the smaller things, most of which would be far easier to implement anyhow.

Those small things send clear signals about what we collectively prioritize. Cities that prioritize bikes have great bike infrastructure; just the same, cities and countries that prioritize kids and families will build things like a play area in an airport or have a designated car for kids in a train. Kids are accommodated, not avoided.

And for anyone who thinks I'm just an annoying parent trying to bend the world to my needs and decisions, consider this: the happier kids are anywhere they go, the happier we all are. No one likes a bored, screaming child, least of all their parents. Accommodating children in small ways during travel is cheap—and has a big payoff for everyone.

On our way back to the US earlier this month, our flight was delayed by nine hours. We were all tired and bored, but there was one saving grace: We were delayed in Copenhagen, and we knew we had a place to take my daughter.

Full disclosure: Dulles Airport has provided underwriting for my employer, WAMU 88.5. And to be honest, I only heard about the FunWay when it came up in one of their underwriting spots on our air last week. The idea for this piece predated that spot, though, and I've received no compensation from Dulles Airport for writing this.

Public Spaces

This DC park is pretty much the definition of desolate. How can the National Park Service change that?

Though it's only a few blocks south and west from the epicenter of new restaurants and high rise apartments in neighboring Navy Yard, Buzzard Point has largely gone undeveloped. That's going to change soon, including at Buzzard Point Park, where the National Park Service (NPS) is asking the public for its ideas on how to best use the space.

Buzzard Point today. This is the Pepco station, but there isn't much more going on at the park. Photo by David Meni.

Buzzard Point is the area south of Q Street SW, east of Fort McNair, and west of South Capitol Street. Though it had a few residents in DC's early history, it was almost always a dumping ground for things that needed to be out of the way—like disposing of dead horses in the 19th century. A Pepco power plant went up there in 1933 (and was in use until 2012), and in 1940, the area had a population of only 34 people.

Buzzard Point right now is still staggeringly empty. There's the shutdown plant, the Coast Guard's abandoned headquarters, and a Pepco substation. While demolition is underway to make room for the new 20,000 seat DC United Stadium, it's currently just empty lots and piles of dirt.

Image from Google Maps.

Coming soon: A new Buzzard Point

Along with the DC United Stadium, there's a master plan for Buzzard Point Park that includes tons of mixed use development, a new Frederick Douglass Bridge, and a new plaza at the end of a redesigned South Capitol Street.

One key to all these plans is a makeover for for Buzzard Point Park, where just south of the powerplant, the green space nestled against the edge of the Anacostia doesn't have much to offer the community. There was a marina there for 50 years, but it closed last December (on some of Google Maps' images, it's still there because they're from 2009). The docks are gone, with only a parking lot, a small office building, and showers remaining.

Through October, the National Park Service is conducting a visual preference survey to find out how the public wants to use the space. NPS hopes to emphasize the space's unique presence in the city, redeveloping the bankside park into a community resource that respects the ecology of the area.

The survey consists of nearly 50 images that show ways to build a park, and participants are asked to rank each. There's also space for saying what you like or don't like about particular designs.

These are some of the options on the survey:

All images of park possibilities are from the National Park Service.

Rotating food trucks, a DC staple, could be an option.

Bleacher-style seating, like that near the Memorial Bridge, would emphasize views of the Anacostia, which look across to the Bolling Air Force Base training center.

River recreation at the site is another option. As it stands, the Anacostia isn't safe for swimming. But this could certainly draw in visitors when that changes.

At some point, the Anacostia Branch Trail is due to cut through the park. A pedestrian/bike overpass could be an effective way of using vertical space to make a more inclusive park.

A playground seems an obvious choice for any new park—there aren't any in Buzzard Point yet.

The old marina served about 60 boats, and perhaps the new park could serve boats as well.

A skating rink, like a handful of others in the list, are reminiscent of amenities that have popped up in Navy Yard over the past few years. Nearby neighborhoods are almost sure to be inspirations.

A ferry that took people across the river, to Anacostia Park, could be an option.


How do the places we live shape us? How do we shape them? This art exhibit explores that.

An art show on U Street encourages viewers to think about the difference between shelter and the outdoors. Whether you're outside or inside, your place in the built environment depends on your perspective.

Exhibit-goers take a look at Theaters of the 13th Dimension by Mars Tokyo at Outside-In's opening reception. All photos by the author.

Outside-In is showing at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery on U Street NW. This group exhibition of four artists "explores the dwelling from various points of view," according to the show notes.

The gallery's front window houses Modern Colossus, a work of wood, acrylic, and gouache paint by DC artist Carson Murdach. At once simple and complex, the artwork depicts a city skyline of gray low-rises and skyscrapers towering over an anarchistic assembly of white wooden houses of varying sizes, some with red rooves.

Modern Colossus by Carson Murdach.

The houses cohabitate with other indeterminate residents. White wooden rectangles are painted red on one side, visually and materially identifying with the houses even as they play an unclear role in the urban construct.

Pure white houses, squares and rectangles are speechless about their raison d'Ítre. A few upwardly mobile figures have summited the high-rise buildings, perched on rooftops at precarious angles. A few others have strayed off the grid. The landscape is devoid of people.

In his artist statement, Murdach says his work seeks to "narrate cautionary tales of humanity's pattern of civilization."

New Metropolis by Carson Murdach.

Artist Michael Nakoneczny creates three-dimensional structures in the form of houses. "My inspiration and ideas often come from observing and interacting with the funky, decrypted, abandoned buildings, shacks, and houses I seek out while riding my bike up and down alleys and industrial areas," wrote Nakoneczny in his artist statement. He surveys the grounds to collect "whatever catches my eye and can fit in my backpack."

Small Talk, Big Talk by Michael Nakoneczny.

The other two Outside-In artists speak to the urban experience more indirectly. Mars Tokyo creates three-dimensional miniature theaters so small that only one person can view the art at a time. Perhaps equipped with a magnifying glass for a closer look, viewers see universal situations and emotions played out on an urban stage.

Mars Tokyo's Theaters of the 13th Dimension. This is an accidental metaphor for the theme of perspective: you see reflections of me and the opposite wall of art. It's an interesting case of "the medium is the message."

Though he may not be a household name, artist Lee Wheeler is familiar to DC nightlife patrons. His work inhabits popular bars such as the Big Hunt and Lucky Bar on Connecticut Avenue NW, as well as Hill East local favorite Trusty's. He designed the H Street Country Club golf course and his handiwork appears in Rock & Roll Hotel and other H Street NE Corridor hotspots.

Wheeler's contribution to Outside-In is mixed-media birdhouses, "metaphors of things that can threaten, enhance, challenge or transport," said curator Dolly Vehlow.

Is art imitating life or vice versa? Those verbs universally apply to the real-life housing and transportation issues we write about here at Greater Greater Washington.

Crowd at July 29 opening reception.

Outside-In shows at Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, 1632 U Street NW, through September 2. There's an artist and curator talk on August 20 from 3:30 to 5:30 pm. Want to meet up? I'll be there, wearing a fluorescent bicycle lapel pin! If we get a group, we can go for dinner or drinks afterward if there's interest.


Exit Metrobus using the rear doors and more station name signs! These are two more MetroGreater finalist ideas.

Last week we announced the MetroGreater finalists and opened voting. Between now and August 26th, when voting closes, we want to tell you more about each finalist idea. Today's featured finalists: a campaign to exit Metrobus using the rear door and more station name signs for Metrorail.

Photos by pinelife and mirsasha on Flickr, respectively.

Exit through the rear doors: A campaign for improved Metrobus egress

There were many MetroGreater submissions that offered improvements to boarding and disembarking from Metro. One of those ideas is a campaign to encourage Metrobus riders to exit the bus from the rear doors. It became one of the finalist ideas.

Photo by pinelife on Flickr.

Here's the original submission:

Customers should exit MetroBus using the rear doors when possible. This will expedite the onboarding/off-boarding process at bus stops because onboarding customers in the front will not need to wait for off-loading customers coming out the front door.

The message to "exit from the rear" can be messaged through on-bus advertisements, pamphlets, social media, etc. The Portland, OR, are TriMet has instituted and marketed this policy for years and it is quite successful.

This proposal will significantly reduce the average wait time at bus stops for customers onboarding and off-boarding.

Alex L. submitted this idea and notes that "getting people to exit through the rear door might sound like a minor change (and it is!), but it's an important issue that transit planners and academics actually think about." Alex shares how surprised he was when he moved here, after living in many other cities, to discover "that DC bus riders are just as likely to exit through the front doors than through the rear doors. How could a population that has so perfected the behavioral norm of 'stand right, walk left' on Metrorail escalators be so indifferent about "enter front, exit rear" on Metrobus?"

Seattle's brochures and New York's recorded announcements are two examples Alex offered for how Metro could roll out such a campaign here in the Washington region.

Tells us what you think about this idea by voting at Or, share your thoughts in the comments section below.

More station name signs

Another finalist idea focused on more signage to help passengers traveling by rail know which station they're arriving at.

Photo by mirsasha on Flickr.

Here is the original submission:

Right now, it can be difficult to see from inside the train what stop you are at. We should have more signs to the station so people in a train car can see what station they are stopped at.

I think we should have more signs on the wall, saying the name of the station. The pillars with station listings only use two sides--the other two could say what the stop is. You can print out giant stickers and put them on the pillars. Even if you can't do the wall signs, the pillars should be cheap and easy.

Several commenters support Hester G.'s idea. Amanda says "Great idea! I want to vote for more station name signs." Rick also thinks this is a "great idea and a no-brainier. Especially with cars packed to the brim and packed station platforms, more station name signs are definitely needed."

What do you think? Would more station name signs improve the experience for Metrorail riders? Vote today at!

And, ICYMI, check out the two finalist ideas we profiled yesterday.


Was your neighborhood "obsolete" in 1950?

The National Capital Park and Planning Commission, forerunner to today's NCPC, declared most of Shaw, Mount Vernon Square and Triangle, Capitol Hill, Southwest, Buena Vista and other neighborhoods "obsolete" in 1950. Yes, amazingly, they really used that term.

"Problem areas" and "obsolete characteristics" according to NCPPC, 1950.

That's some of the astounding information in the 1950 document Washington, Present and Future from NCPPC. ShawNeighborhood listserv participant RayM scanned a number of pages showing plans to radically remove multi-family dwellings from historic neighborhoods and force the kind of low-density, single-use, less walkable pattern of development that permanently destroyed many urban areas.

What was wrong? People lived in neighborhoods with alley dwellings, some of which were less well maintained. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs talked about how planners in Boston declared the North End a similar "slum" simply because people lived at a certain population density per acre, and the view at the time was that government had to force people to live more spread out.

There are certainly reasons to believe race played a part as well; these neighborhoods were predominantly African-American. The solution, people thought at the time, was to tear down the old neighborhoods and build new ones in the "towers in the park" style of the housing projects we all know and loathe today. Here is their plan for Shaw:

Fortunately for Shaw, a thriving neighborhood with beautiful old row houses and some of DC's best-preserved carriage homes, most of this plan never came to pass. It largely did, however, in Southwest:

Besides wholesale demolition of neighborhoods, planners tried to push people out of so-called "blighted" neighborhoods with zoning. On Capitol Hill, for instance, the zoning plan wanted to take the fabric of different size buildings coexisting and declare that illegal. Instead, all commerce in the NE quadrant of the Hill would be restricted to H Street, Massachusetts, and a 2-block stretch of 8th, and all multifamily to Maryland Avenue.

They also wanted to widen 11th Street and demolish everything for 2 blocks on either side of East Capitol to create a new extended Mall. (This is the reason that the street between A and C NE is Constitution, not B, and likewise in SE is Independence, even though the original L'Enfant plan called them B Street).

Many of these decisions were efforts to segregate

It's important to recognize that some characteristics of the District today come directly out of explicit "social engineering" decisions that planners pushed on the District when the 1958 zoning code was written. Rules against accessory dwellings and corner stores, parking minimums and single-use zoning were all efforts to zone many of the people, mostly African-American, out of the neighborhoods.

That's just one reason to be pleased that last January, DC's Zoning Commission adopted a new zoning code that will take effect on September 6th, doing away with the code that came from this era.

This post originally ran in 2012, but since the history hasn't changed and the new zoning code goes into effect soon, we wanted to share it again!


Kojo Nnamdi's voice on Metro? Art by non-professional artists? Vote for your favorite MetroGreater ideas!

Last week we announced the MetroGreater finalists and opened voting. Between now and August 26th, when voting closes, we want to tell you more about each finalist idea. Today's featured finalists: Kojo Nnamdi making train announcements and the local (non-professional) artists' work in stations.

Photos by Ted Eytan and steve loya on Flickr, respectively.

Kojo on Metro: Recorded rail announcements by local personalities

More than 100 submissions to MetroGreater focused on improving the announcements on Metrorail. The jury chose an idea to have prominent figures from the Washington region, such as WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi, lend their "voice talent" to create recorded announcements for Metro. Here's the original submission:

Providing a real human voice is vital to providing a friendly and comfortable transit experience. With our new Metro cars, we've gone to automated announcements (which is fine), but lost the real human voice (which leaves the system feeling dull, sterile, and not original); we need to record a great voice that can become known as our region's transit voice. I think it would be great to feature none other than Kojo Nnamdi!"

Ryan W. submitted this idea and notes that even though this idea may seem "whimsical," he thinks it would help Metro be able to "deliver the service we as a region need it to." He also shares that it would be a "huge branding opportunity for the Washington region as whole" whereby tourists and locals alike would come to associate a particular voice with our region.

In Ryan's opinion, Kojo is a unique candidate to record Metro announcements since he has a "recognizable and distinguished voice" and is also distinctly connected to the DC region. But Ryan also shared that Mayor Muriel Bowser or President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama would make excellent candidates if they were willing to lend their voices.

What do you think? Would Kojo's voice announcing stops make your Metro rider better? Vote at or share a comment below.

Feature local artists' work in stations

Another finalist idea focused on featuring art in Metro stations. Here is the original submission:

Invite local non-professional artists to submit works of art to be displayed safely in Metro stations for a period of time, say six months, then have new works displayed. Have a group of artists form a panel to choose the art to be displayed.

Jennifer S. envisions an ongoing program that exhibits local artists' works on rotation, changing every six months or so. She recommends that a "Metro panel decide on a uniform frame size for submissions" so all works can be easily displayed and rotated. "Of course the size would have to be large enough to be seen from trains as well as up close", notes Jennifer.

When reviewing this idea, the MetroGreater jury wondered if a small stipend could be offered to each artist who lends their work. Jennifer worried that this would limit the program's ability to be sustained into the future, noting that "the money would eventually be used up and later artists chosen would not receive the stipend." Instead, she suggested that the funds remaining after purchasing and installing the frames could be donated to local public schools to support their arts programs.

Tells us what you think about this idea by voting at Or, share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Do you want Metro to implement one of these ideas? Vote today at!

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