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Posts in category Public Spaces


Why can't Metro change how it runs escalators, what info its signs display, or how easy it is to walk on station stairs?

There will soon be compass roses outside of every Metro station to help riders find their way thanks to our MetroGreater contest. This was a great idea, but so were others, like making the system's escalators and signs more sensible and making dimly-lit stairs easier to walk on. Here's why those ideas didn't win.

This sign in Berlin isn't that different from Metro's, but the white paint at the top actually makes a big difference in how much info the sign can display. Photo by Matt Johnson.

No need to change how the escalators run... right?

One idea, from Larry M., was to "run escalators with rationale," or in other words, run them in the direction most people want to go in. For example, if it's rush hour at a more suburban station, it'd probably make sense to set most of the escalators to run out of the station, as the majority of the users are probably on their way out. During particularly busy events, the escalators can sometimes become the limiting factor preventing people from entering or leaving a station—not the trains—so making sure they're configured properly can be a big deal.

According to a Metro representative I spoke with, this is already happening all over the system. Metro's overall approach is to run more escalators out of stations rather than in since people tend to trickle in to wait on trains but leave all at the same time. In other words, Metro says its approach to escalators is rational.

Station managers also generally don't reverse escalators by themselves; the reversal process typically requires two people for safety—one at the bottom and one at the top—to make sure nobody tries to get on while it's being reversed. Also since escalators can wear into operating in a particular direction, it might require a "tune-up" of sorts before being switched in the opposite direction.

Photo by Pabak Sarkar on Flickr.

One way to ensure that escalators do in fact run in a rational direction would be to encourage—or even require?—station managers that might not already be doing so to walk around the inside of the station every so often to make sure not only the escalators and other equipment are working properly, but also to ensure the escalators are set in the direction of the most traffic when possible.

At stations with more than two escalators at an entrance, ensure at least one is going in either direction, and allow the third or fourth to be switched per the station manager's discretion (with the help of escalator maintenance or MTPD). Or maybe an internal Metro department should perform more unannounced "spot" checks to ensure the escalators are in the right positions. Or maybe there should be better schedules for station managers to use to know which directions their escalators should be running in to best manage crowds.

Changing Metro's display screens would take too long

Another suggestion, this one from from Scott K. in Alexandria, was to create extra space on Metro PID displays by painting the Line/Car/Destination headings, which currently take up a row on the screen itself, onto the actual signs.

As Matt Johnson wrote back in 2010, that'd mean room for both estimated train arrival times, as well as other crucial info, all on the same screen:

With this approach, Metro's signs could use the top three rows for next trains and the bottom row for disruptions and elevator outages. Major disruptions might warrant using the bottom 2 rows. If there are no disruptions, four next train departures could be shown.
According to the Metro official I spoke with, this idea isn't doable because it'd take longer than six months, and part of the MetroGreater rules were that ideas have to be doable within less time than that. More specifically, painting all of the PIDS would require track access at each station, which would mean shutting down power and working the updates in with other overnight system work already on the schedule. It'd also mean experimenting with the best paint materials, which would take a while.

Stairwells could be easier to see in

Another idea came from Melanie in Arlington, who suggested adding reflective stripes to stairs in dimly-lit stairwells, like on the eastern side of the Navy Yard station, so people walking on them are less likely to fall.

When I spoke to Metro, they said this is an idea the agency is open to, and may try out as a pilot at a few stations to figure out what materials, colors, and reflective surfaces, work best and are least confusing to passengers. There was a concern that installing and maintaining striping could cost more than $100,000 over the long run given time and material costs.

Picture this kind of tape, but maybe brighter. Photo by vxla on Flickr.

Metro is definitely aware that lighting around its stations isn't totally adequate. One line of the WMATA Customer Accountability Report includes some station lighting improvements, partly due in thanks to the Accessibility Advisory Committee. The agency is currently testing a few different types of station lighting for the entire system, although there's no timeline for that project yet.

While these three ideas didn't make the cut in MetroGreater, there's no reason to stop talking about them. Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld is continuing to beat the drum of safety, reliability, financial well-being, and a focus on the customer. Small improvements proposed by customers are likely to be a key way for the system to get better.

Update: We've updated this post to include more detail on Metro escalator policy which says most escalators should be in the up direction out of a station. The post previously did not make note of this policy, which can restrict which station managers are allowed to change escalator directions.


Some Silver Spring residents want a park instead of affordable housing

Montgomery County wants to turn the former Silver Spring library into affordable housing. Now neighbors are circulating a petition to make it a park instead, even though there's already a park next door.

The former Silver Spring Library. Photo from Google Street View.

Even before the Silver Spring Library moved to a new building last summer, Montgomery County has been trying to figure out what to do with its 1950's-era building and parking lot on Colesville Road.

In the past, Parks Department officials said they want to make it a recreation center. But that may not be necessary if the county goes with a proposal to build a bigger recreation center and aquatic center in a new apartment building a few blocks away.

This summer, county officials floated the idea of replacing the old library with affordable apartments for seniors and a childcare center. But some neighbors insist that the library become a recreation center and park, and are circulating a petition claiming that downtown Silver Spring has "no open space," that Silver Spring has enough housing, and that a park is the "green" solution.

Aerial of the former library site. Image from Google Maps altered by the author.

This isn't the first time some residents have raised these arguments, particularly when there's a proposal to build new homes. But Montgomery County has the right idea in using the old library for affordable housing.

You'd be surprised how much open space Silver Spring has

Would you believe me if I told you downtown Silver Spring had 38 acres of open space, or more than seven Dupont Circles? That's what the Montgomery County Planning Department found in a 2008 study of downtown green space.

Current and proposed "public use spaces" in downtown Silver Spring. Map from the Planning Department.

That number includes public parks, like the 14-acre Jesup Blair Park. But it also includes the open spaces Montgomery County requires developers to include in their projects, which has resulted in dozens of pocket parks and plazas, and even playgrounds around downtown.

Some of them are great, while others poorly designed and underused. But even the bad parks represent an opportunity to reclaim open space in downtown.

As a result of that 2008 study, county planners have encouraged developers to provide bigger parks, and now Silver Spring is poised to get them. A new, one-acre park will soon open at the Blairs as a placeholder for an even bigger set of parks. The Studio Plaza redevelopment off of Georgia Avenue will have a 13,000 square foot park.

There are also several public parks right next to downtown that are getting renovated or expanded, including Ellsworth Park and Woodside Park, or Fenton Street Park. Meanwhile, major regional parks like Rock Creek Park and Sligo Creek Park are two miles of downtown, giving urban dwellers easy access to nature.

Silver Spring still needs more new housing

Thousands of new homes have been built around downtown Silver Spring in recent years, and thousands more will come soon. That includes some buildings dedicated to affordable housing, including The Bonifant, which just opened this year.

But housing prices are already out of reach for many people and continue to rise. New two-bedroom apartments in Silver Spring can rent for upwards of $3,000 per month, while in the surrounding neighborhoods, some homes have quadrupled in value over the past 20 years.

Silver Spring has become an increasingly desirable area over the past 20 years. Even as new homes get built, they don't meet the demand from people who want to live here, so prices continue to go up. As a recent study from George Washington University notes, Silver Spring has remained diverse in spite of revitalization. That's partly because we do build new housing here, preventing the area from becoming even more unaffordable.

Building in downtown is the "green" solution

Today, the old Silver Spring Library is surrounded by a driveway and parking lots. Building here, on an already paved-over site, makes much more sense than paving over farms or forests. And building new homes here, in the middle of downtown Silver Spring, means that more people will be able to walk to shops and jobs and transit instead of driving long distances. Turning this site exclusively into green space means that existing green space somewhere else gets paved over.

New townhomes in downtown Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

Silver Spring prides itself on its progressive politics and embrace of diversity. But fighting all new development is not progressive and ultimately makes our community less diverse. As President Obama said last week, communities that fight new housing become more expensive, less equal, and lose tremendous amounts of economic productivity.

That's not to say that the old library should become housing with no open space. The site is shaped like an "L," meaning that county officials could decide that part of it becomes housing and the rest becomes an extension of Ellsworth Park. That could meet some neighbors' concerns about open space, while meeting the very real demand for affordable housing.

If you agree, we have a petition of our own that we'll send to the Montgomery County Council and County Executive Ike Leggett, asking them to support housing on the former library site.

Public Spaces

Add a piano to make your city square sing

Here's a fun way to add vitality to a public space: Outdoor pianos.

In 2009, Denver started adding public pianos along its busy mile-long downtown pedestrian mall. The pianos have become a popular and noticeable part of that city's public realm. 5 years later, they're still there, and people are still playing them.

Photo by voteprime on flickr.

Even if weather or careless use ruins them after one season, upright pianos aren't particularly expensive. It would be completely practical for DC to buy one or two per year and put them in squares or circles around the central city. Roll them out in spring, and pack them back up around Thanksgiving.

The Mosaic District in Fairfax caught onto this idea a few years ago, and it could totally work great in Farragut Square or along the Georgetown waterfront.

A potentially bigger holdup might be getting the National Park Service to allow it.

We first ran this post in 2014, but since the idea is still great, we wanted to share it again!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


In DC, access to medical care really depends on where you live

We know that emergency vehicles take longer to get to DC residents who live east of the Anacostia River, but how does where people live in DC affect their access to non-emergency medical care? Fewer clinics, pharmacies, and vaccine locations east of the Anacostia River means access to non-emergency medical care is more difficult there as well.

Photo by Jared Hansen on Flickr.

Health clinics

Let's say you come down with the flu. Your first stop may be a clinic. Since 2010 many urgent care clinics, like MedStar PromptCare, and retail clinics, like CVS Minute Clinic, have opened across DC. These walk-in clinics provide immediate care for injuries and illnesses that don't require an emergency room visit, such as your flu-like symptoms, but also infections, sprains, and minor wounds.

DC's eight wards. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

Retail clinics are staffed by nurses with a more limited range of services, while urgent care clinics have doctors who can provide more complex treatment, like stitches.

DC is split up geographically into eight wards, each of which has a representative on the DC Council.

No urgent care or retail clinics have opened in Wards 4 or 8 since 2010, and nearly 70% of all DC's clinics are in Wards 2 and 3.

All graphs by the author.

This gap is partially filled by community health centers. Community health centers receive federal funding to provide primary care to underserved populations. One such clinic, Unity Health Care, operates a community health centers in all wards except 2, 3, and 4, with varying degrees of walk-in services.


Once you've been diagnosed by a clinic with the flu, your next trip is probably to the pharmacy. This may be more difficult east of the Anacostia; Wards 7 and 8 have the fewest pharmacies of any ward. Combined, they have a total of 18 pharmacies. This is less than Wards 2, 3, and 6 individually, and equal to the number of pharmacies in Ward 1.

Places to get vaccines

Hopefully you won't get the flu at all because you thought ahead and received a flu shot—and you were able to actually get the shot. Vaccine locations are another area of disparate care across the District.

There are fewer vaccine locations east of the Anacostia, including both Wards 7 and 8, than any other individual Ward.

For this post, I got pharmacy locations through a FOIA request to the DC Department of Health; I didn't include pharmacies located in hospitals. Vaccine and clinic data came from the DC Open Data portal, as well as I verified the data through internet searches and phone calls. You can find complete code for this on my github page.


Thereís no place likeÖ the Ballston Metro station

I love the Ballston Metro station. And that makes sense, given that I'm an unabashed Metro fanatic and Ballston has been my home station since I moved to the region in 1997. It's a shining example of just how great a neighborhood can become when we build good transit and then use it to anchor retail, commerce, and housing.

Image by the author.

With 11,520 average daily boardings in 2015, Ballston-MU (the station's official name as of 1995) was ranked as the 17th-busiest of WMATA's 91 stations, and the fifth-busiest in Virginia (behind Pentagon, Rosslyn, Pentagon City, and Crystal City). Ballston's status as a major bus transfer station no doubt plays a factor in this high ridership: 13 Metrobus routes and seven Arlington Transit (ART) routes connect Ballston to the rest of the county, as well as to Alexandria, Fairfax, and even Georgetown and K Street via route 38B.

As detailed by Zachary Schrag in his seminal book The Great Society Subway, the portion of the Metro that now constitutes the Orange Line between Rosslyn and Ballston was originally supposed to run entirely in the median of I-66 (as it does from Ballston westward to Vienna), in order to speed commuters from Fairfax County into DC.

However, Arlington officials were able to convince Metro's planners to reroute the Orange Line about a half mile south of I-66, in a subway to be built beneath the declining commercial corridors along Wilson Boulevard and Fairfax Drive. By concentrating development around the new Metro stations in these areas, Arlington would be able to massively grow its population and job market in the coming decades without increasing automobile traffic.

Ballston in the 1970s, with station entrance circled in red. Note the bus bays located on the current site of Ballston Metro Center, as well as the still-existing IHOP. Photo courtesy Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing, and Development, with addition by the author.

As the western end of this new "Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor," Ballston was envisioned as the shopping and retail hub of the county. The station was to be located just a few blocks from Parkington Shopping Center (now the redeveloping Ballston Common Mall), and would eventually be connected to the mall by a series of skybridges. The entrance is also just a few blocks from Marymount University's "Blue Goose" building, which also recently underwent redevelopment.

The station was originally designated as "Glebe Road" in planning documents, but it was renamed to Ballston before it opened. Glebe Road is a major north-south arterial in Arlington that is served by numerous buses connecting to Ballston, and the station lies just east of Glebe's intersection with Fairfax Drive.

The Orange Line used to end at Ballston, even though that wasn't ideal

Ballston station opened on December 1, 1979, as the western terminus of the new Orange Line. The opening coincided with the completion of the Court House, Clarendon, and Virginia Square stations west of Rosslyn. From its opening until the western extension to Vienna opened in June 1986, Ballston was the western terminus of the Orange Line.

Interestingly, Ballston was one of the only terminal stations in the history of the Metro system to have side platforms. This would present several difficulties from an operational standpoint, as terminal stations are almost always built with island platforms so that trains can berth at either track, and customers do not have to wait on the mezzanine to see which platform their train will service.

(The Orange Line had technically commenced operations a year earlier when the extension to New Carrollton opened, but the extension to Ballston was the first time that it operated as a completely separate service from the Blue Line. See our evolution of Metrorail animation for an explanation of this discrepancy.)

Commuters at Ballston station shortly after it opened in 1979. Photo courtesy of DC Public Library, Star Collection.

When the station first opened, the Ballston area still mainly consisted of auto body shops and empty lots. The nearest major attraction, the 1950s-era Parkington Shopping Center, had fallen into decline and would not be renovated and reopened as Ballston Common until 1986.

Development from the 1980s onward

Ridership at Ballston declined steeply after the Orange Line was extended westward to Vienna in 1986, falling from 11,300 to 8,100 daily boardings over the course of a year. However, passenger volumes gradually increased over the coming decades as the area welcomed new development and an influx of residents, and the station was transformed into the focal point of a wonderfully walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood.

Photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Plans for the "Ballston Metro Center" complex were unveiled in 1985, and the project was completed in 1989. The building is directly adjacent to the Metro entrance (protected from the elements by one of Metro's first escalator canopies), and contains 300,000 square feet of office and retail space, as well as a Hilton hotel and 320 condominiums. New pedestrian bridges provided direct connections to Ballston Common Mall and the headquarters of the National Science Foundation.

Ballston Metro Center entrance from the station escalator. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Ballston was renamed to Ballston-MU in December 1995, to recognize the nearby Marymount University facilities on Fairfax Drive. Silver Line service to Ballston began on July 26, 2014, when that line began operating between Wiehle-Reston East and Largo Town Center.

Future plans for the station include a second entrance at North Fairfax Drive and Vermont Street, in order to better serve new development near the intersection of N. Fairfax and Glebe Road. The station will also see increased service from several ART bus routes under the recommendations put forward in Arlington's new Transit Development Plan, in order to foster connections between numerous local routes serving the County.

The Ballston neighborhood today. Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

Today, Ballston station continues to drive development in the surrounding neighborhood, with almost a dozen transit-oriented development projects in the pipeline. It remains the busiest Metro station west of Rosslyn, and ridership should only continue to rise with the addition of new TOD and bolstered bus service. Ballston-MU shows the power that rapid transit can have when its transformative development potential is fully realized, and I'm proud to call it my home station.

Do you live or work near Ballston? How has Metro changed your neighborhood for the better?


So you've got a friend in town and they're really into trains. Here's where to take them.

Last year, we published lists of toys you could give to a young train buff and places you could take them to visit. But what about the railfans who are all grown up? Where are the best places to take adult friends to hang out, do some train spotting, and learn some rail history?

The Dew Drop Inn. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Restaurants and bars are a good start

Payton Chung suggests a few places in DC to check out. The Dew Drop Inn, located in the Edgewood neighborhood near Brookland, is named for a number of "Dew Drop Inns" across America. Housed in a rustic stone industrial building that was used as a workspace for stonemasons and metal workers, you can get a great view of the CSX, MARC, and WMATA tracks on the Red Line between the Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland stations when you're hanging out on the porch.

Along the H Street corridor, there's Maketto, a communal marketplace that's made up of two buildings with a courtyard, roof deck, and a catwalk that connects the spaces together. The catwalk has retail, a Cambodian/Taiwanese restaurant, and a cafť and bakery on the second floor where you can get a great view of the DC Streetcar.

In Maryland, Julie Lawson says to check out Lotus Cafe, a Vietnamese restaurant located in Downtown Silver Spring at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Sligo Avenue that overlooks the CSX, MARC, and WMATA tracks as they cross over Georgia Avenue. She says her son "loves to watch the trains there so I would assume grownup railfans might enjoy it for dinner too."

The view from Lotus Cafe. Image from Google Maps.

A short walk from Lotus Cafe, there's Denizens Brewing Company, located on East-West Highway on the opposite side of Georgia Avenue near the rail overpass. Dan Reed mentions that the place as an appropriately-named beer called "Trainspotting".

Walk around and explore

If you live near a rail line and feel like doing a little bit of exploring, a simple walk around is always a best bet.

Jonathan Neeley says there's plenty to see in his neighborhood, Brookland:

I like going on walks, and a lot of my friends do too, so I'd probably go with something simple like being sure to walk over the Michigan Avenue and Taylor Street bridges by my house, where you can watch trains come and go from far away. I'd probably also take them on a ride on the Red Line between Rhode Island Ave and Silver Spring just to see the graffiti.

Looking south from the Taylor Street bridge. Photo by Jonathan Neeley

The Washington DC Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society has a list of "railfan hotspots" located within two hours of the beltway that have a lot of rail activity and history.

One of these hotspots is Long Bridge Park in Arlington, which has an extensive railroad history and a name that's a reference to the railroad bridge connecting Washington with Northern Virginia. Chris Slatt mentions that the esplanade is a "top notch spot for viewing CSX freight trains, Amtrak trains, and VRE trains."

The esplanade at Long Bridge Park in Arlington, Virginia. Photo by Chris Slatt.

Another hotspot, this one suggested by Canaan Merchant, is Burke Lake Park in Fairfax County. The park has an attraction that young railfans, and even some grown ups, can enjoy. The Miniature Central Pacific Huntington Steam Engine is a new version of the original one-third scale replica that makes the rounds on its own narrow gauge 1.75 mile track.

The Miniature Central Pacific Huntington Steam Engine at Burke Lake Park. Photo by Fairfax County Department of Parks.

David Cranor adds "there are several rail trails in the area, but the W&OD really does the best job of celebrating that. There are old train cars set up along it and lots of historical information/markers about the railroad too." Payton also mentions that "a ride along the Metropolitan Branch Trail is also a good option; it even parallels the Acela tracks for a bit."

Our region also has quite a few museums and other attractions around that are good bets for taking train aficionados or folks who just want to learn more.

Canaan points us to the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum in its namesake location in Fairfax County. This museum has displays, activities, and events that help preserve local history and promote railroading—even "a couple of cars you can go inside." The station itself played a critical role in the American Civil War as an important supply and medical evacuation site where Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, assisted in relief and evacuation efforts during the Battle of Bull Run in 1862.

The National Museum of American History in DC and the National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville in Montgomery County are also great options for railfans who want to learn more history.

The new National Museum of African American History and Culture will have an exhibit dedicated to transportation and race, exploring how Jim Crow laws affected streetcar and railroad travel, as well as the history of Pullman porters and railroaders behind the scenes.

Are there any other places in the area you know of that would be good spots to take a railfan? Let us know in the comments.


In San Diego, an example of how "within walking distance" does not always mean "walkable"

I like to ride the San Diego Trolley when I visit family there, but the mile walk from the station to their house is so, so awful that it always makes me think twice about riding the train. Here at home, my walk to the Metro is the same distance, and I do it happily all the time.

The walk along Jackson Drive in La Mesa isn't very inviting. Image by the author.

The 1.1-mile walk from the Grossmont Trolley station in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa to my family's house takes you through a strip mall parking lot, along the six-lane major arterial Fletcher Parkway and then up the overly wide four-lane Jackson Drive before you turn into their neighborhood. It's not pleasant, as the picture above shows.

The route of my walk in La Mesa. Image by Google Maps.

As a result, my family only drives to the station when they ride the Trolley, and I—someone who likes to ride transit—think twice about making the walk when I'm there.

The crazy thing is that this is a comparable distance to what I walk a couple of times a week from the Shaw-Howard U Metro station to my house in Eckington.

What's the difference? The walk in DC is along leafy streets lined with rowhouses in the Le Droit Park and Bloomingdale neighborhoods. Yes, I cross three major roads—Florida Avenue, and North Capitol Street and Rhode Island Avenue where they meet—but it is just two intersections, and I do not walk along either street for very long.

I use T Street NW when walking from the Shaw Metro station to Eckington. Image by Google Maps.

Street design and development patterns matter

Much of the residential development surrounding the Grossmont Trolley station, including where my family lives, was built during the post-war suburbanisation of the 1950s and 1960s. Miles and miles of single family ranch houses built for people that get around in a car.

Retrofitting this suburban, auto-oriented built environment for pedestrians is difficult. The basic infrastructure, including sidewalks and crosswalks, exists in La Mesa.

However, there are also a number of missed opportunities when it comes to changing the built environment to make the walk more pleasant. These include wider sidewalks, barriers between passing cars and the sidewalk that increase pedestrians' perception of safety, and streetside land use that is inviting to pedestrians, like store or home fronts, instead of strip mall parking lots and driveways.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of Retrofitting Suburbia, talked about turning major arterials into tree-lined "boulevards" as one example of a suburban retrofit in a 2010 TED talk. Transit access can be a catalyst to such retrofits, she noted.

La Mesa is trying. The 527-unit Alterra and Pravada apartment complex is immediately adjacent to the Grossmont station, built atop its parking lot.

But even the Alterra and Pravada building is not the most inviting pedestrian environment. The ground level lacks retail and is instead dominated by entrances to the parking lot.

DC, at least in its older neighborhoods, benefits from having a pedestrian-friendly streetscape already in place. However, the region faces many of the same issues at some of Metro's more suburban stations, for example in Tysons and White Flint.

Better walkability means more transit riders

PlanItMetro has found that a larger "walkshed"—the area around a station that is easily walkable—to a Metro station directly correlates to higher ridership. Shaw, which has a Walk Score of 97 out of 100, saw an average of 5,087 Metro riders on weekdays in 2015 compared to Grossmont, which has a Walk Score of 76 out of 100, that saw an average of 5,707 Trolley riders on weekdays during its 2016 fiscal year that ended in June.

However, Grossmont is a transfer station between the Trolley's Green and Orange lines, which boosts ridership numbers. San Diego measures ridership by the number of people who get on or off a train, versus the number of entries and exits to a station as DC's Metro does.

The Metro system handled an average of 712,843 weekday riders and the Trolley system an average of 122,157 weekday riders in 2015, data from the respective transit agencies shows.

La Mesa is a reminder that simply building transit is not all that it takes to make a suburban neighborhood walkable and generate new transit ridership. A fact that is applicable in many city's around the country, including in the DC suburbs, as they build out their own light rail systems to previously auto-oriented suburbs.

Public Spaces

This square in Philadelphia is everything DC's Franklin Square could be

Many celebrate Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square as one of America's best small urban parks. I visited this summer and found it alive with activity. It's a great model for DC's similarly-sized Franklin Square, which the National Park Service is currently redesigning.

Rittenhouse Square. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Rittenhouse Square has long had a reputation as an exceptional park. Jane Jacobs lionized it, highlighting the park's wide variety of users over the course of a typical day, in her famous 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She said that the fact that many different types of users with different schedules passed through the park was essential to making it feel like a safe and appealing environment, unlike the other Philadelphia parks she described as "a pervert park" and "a skid row park".

I visited Rittenhouse Square in the early afternoon on a Friday in late July, and while I didn't stay long enough to see a change in the park's users, I did see quite a variety of people there, including businesspeople in suits eating lunch, people walking dogs, several people doing yoga and other exercises, a couple of buskers, teenagers socializing, and an artist painting the scene.

Rittenhouse Square.

This wide variety of users is supported, in part, by the diverse uses in the neighborhood directly abutting the park. A number of small restaurants line the streets facing the park, as do a church, a hotel, a large Barnes & Noble bookstore, a clothing store, and condominiums. The neighboring blocks include several other large churches, but also a wide variety of restaurants and stores and a number of condominiums and office buildings.

Could Franklin Square become DC's Rittenhouse?

Although DC contains plenty of parkland—much of it controlled by the National Park Service—a common complaint is that the city has a shortage of good urban parks that attract a variety of users from the local community.

Franklin Square. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Franklin Square, which consists of just under five acres between K and I Streets in downtown DC, is similar in size to Rittenhouse Square, which is seven acres a few blocks south of Market Street in downtown Philadelphia.

However, despite their similarities in size and location, the two parks couldn't be more different. They both date to the early 1800s and were both vibrant urban parks in the early 20th Century, but Franklin Park began to decay and fell into disuse as the rise of the automobile changed land use patterns in the District. Rittenhouse Square, on the other hand, continued to be well-used.

Part of the reason for the difference in the parks' fate may be the differences in their neighborhoods. While Franklin Square is located in a dense downtown neighborhood, it is largely surrounded by office buildings and businesses that cater to office workers, such as restaurants that are mainly open for breakfast and lunch. This means that while it does attract office workers looking for an outdoor location to eat lunch, few others have reason to go there. A lack of nearby residences, shopping, and public buildings means that there is little to draw people to the park on weekends, or on weekdays outside of the lunch hour.

Franklin Square. Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

The differing state of maintenance of the two parks likely plays a role as well. Franklin Square's last major redesign was completed in 1935, when the current fountain, plaza, and pathways were installed. There was one major refurbishment in 1976 for the Bicentennial, but the park has not been well-maintained by the National Park Service, which owns and maintains the property, since.

Rittenhouse Square, on the other hand, has been well-maintained. The park is owned by the City of Philadelphia, but many recent improvements, including better lighting, landscaping, restoration of the park's fountains, and the installation and stocking of dispensers for bags that dog owners can use to pick up after their animals have been projects of a non-profit called Friends of Rittenhouse Square that works with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation to maintain and operate the park.

Franklin Square redesign plans

Although little can be done about the disadvantages of Franklin Square's location—-the high demand for downtown office space produces high rents and pushes out most other uses—-there is hope for improvements to the park itself.

An $18 million joint project between the National Park Service, the DC government, and the Downtown Business Improvement District to renovate the park and provide year-round programming is set to begin construction in January 2017. The planned renovations include a cafe, improvements to the fountain at the park's center, and a play area for children.

One day, Franklin Square might look like this:

Rendering of Franklin Square from the National Park Service.

Public Spaces

NoMa's first underpass park is almost here!

Work to brighten the otherwise-drab underpass on M Street NE is underway. Crews have begun installing "Rain," the first of what will eventually be four underpass parks in NoMa.

Installation of "Rain" has begun in the underpass on M Street NE. Image by the author.

Rain is designed to make the underpass on M Street safer and brighter, as well as knit the neighborhood on either side of the throat tracks to Union Station together, lead designer Andrew Thurlow said in 2015. Thurlow is a partner at Thurlow Small Architecture, which partnered with NIO on the underpass.

The installation is made up of 4,000 LED light rods that will be hung from ceiling of the underpass in a series of vaults, and react to people moving through the space.

Rendering of Rain. Image by the NoMa BID.

Rain is just the first of four underpass parks NoMa plans for the K Street, L Street, M Street and Florida Avenue in the neighborhood. Work on "Lightweave," a series of undulating, cloud-like lights hung from the ceiling in the L Street underpass, is also expected to begin later this year.

A rendering of Rain's vaults. Image by NoMa BID.

NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) director of parks projects Stacie West says she expects Rain to be finished in November barring any delays from other construction projects.

One such delay could be WMATA's SafeTrack work that is scheduled to close the Red Line between the NoMa-Gallaudet station and the Fort Totten station from October 29 to November 22.

The NoMa BID will hold a community meeting on its park plans on October 25.

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