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Public Spaces

This utility line carries more than gas

Utility lines provide us amenities like electricity, water, and gas, but they can also improve the physical connections between communities. A new video shows how one gas line in Montgomery County doubles as a trail and neighborhood gathering space.

John Wetmore, producer of the public access TV show Perils for Pedestrians, recently made a video about an underground pipeline in Olney. The line cuts a 200-foot-wide swath nearly two miles long through several neighborhoods, with just two streets crossing it.

Instead of closing it off, gas company Transcontinental opened the land above its underground pipeline in Olney to the public, building a foot and bike path along its entire length, as well as an informal playing field. Not only does this provide a usable open space for the neighborhood, but the trail's an important connection within the community, providing access to other trails, parks, a library, schools, and several shopping centers.

But the fun stops where Transcontinental's pipeline crosses Pepco's above-ground power lines. While there are examples of safe trails along power lines, this one is completely off-limits to the public. It's ironic because Pepco's slogan used to be "We're connected to you by more than power lines." But it's a bigger shame because there's a lot more to connect on the other side, including Magruder High School, the Intercounty Connector Trail, and Lake Needwood.

Not every utility line is safe for the public to be near, but there are lots of benefits for making them available, both for the larger community and immediate neighbors. As Wetmore says, "Transcontinental's right-of-way invites the community in. Pepco's right-of-way has no trespassing signs. Which corporation would you rather live next to?"

Public Spaces

DC sports spaces give short shrift to girls

The Department of Parks and Recreation doesn't allocate its resources in a way that matches the gender composition of the District. We are split, more or less, 50/50. Shouldn't DC support its citizens' recreational needs accordingly?

Photo by susieq3c on flickr.

The top five recreational activities that girls participate in are: dancing, swimming, basketball, jogging, volleyball. For boys, the ranking goes: basketball, football, soccer, jogging, swimming.

And yet, at least in Ward 3, that's not how DPR allocates its land or facilitiesnot even close. Neither baseball nor softball make either gender's list of top activities, but there are at least 14 public baseball fields in Ward 3. And girls are far less likely to play baseball than boys.

Numerous studies have shown that physical activity and recreation are essential to physical, emotional, and intellectual health. The White House, the American Medical Association, and numerous other organizations recognize the importance of the issue, as witnessed by the First Lady's "Let's Move" campaign. A recent study shows that urban children in particular get more exercise when they have the opportunity to play outside. And both boys and girls need exercise.

Allocating half the outdoor recreational space in Northwest DC to an activity that attracts less than one tenth of half the population leaves a lot of those kids to fend for themselves. This is a problem we can fix with compromise and consideration and by asking the right questions.

Perhaps our starting assumptions are biased. A lack of cyclists on dangerous arterial roads doesn't prove cyclists wouldn't ride on them if it were safe to do so. And it's possible there's no clear demand for girl's facilities because they can't even begin to play their sports.

In the 1990s, Vienna, Austria, realized that in formulating its urban policy it hadn't taken into account the problems that women and girls faced. So it started a successful program to redesign the city to meet their needs. DPR needs a similar strategy for identifying interest and providing facilities for all potential participants.

Otherwise, the message the city is sending our girls is either "we're just not that concerned about you," or "we haven't thought that much about you." My eyes have been opened to this situation as an equity issue because I have daughters. But no one should be comfortable with anything resembling those attitudes.

Physical activity, and how our city provides appropriate facilities for it, is not something frivolous. It has far-reaching implications for the individual, the community, the country, and beyond.

We should ask ourselves how we decide what uses are best for our green space and what kinds of facilities will meet the needs of both boys and girls.


McMillan plans show expansive new recreation spaces

Opponents to redeveloping the McMillan Sand Filtration Site often say it'll result in a loss of recreation and park space. But a recent video of the proposed plan by development team Vision McMillan Partners shows a compelling vision of a site with a large park and recreational component.

The newest plan, which the Historic Preservation Review Board called "very tangible and commendable" earlier this month, consolidates the site's green space, and ensures it's available to the whole neighborhood, rather than as piecemeal private yards.

While the fight to get redevelopment moving at the 25-acre site is far from over, winning HPRB approval is one more major hurdle cleared in bringing a 6-acre public park with pool and rec center, dedicated new affordable housing, and rowhouses and apartments to the long-shuttered site.

Public Spaces

"Skate plazas" can invigorate public space

Montgomery County's newest skate park in White Oak doesn't have any skaters, due to poor design and an isolated location. A "skate plaza" in the center of the community could give skaters and non-skaters alike a better place to hang out.

Paine's Park, a "skate plaza" in Philadelphia. Photo by JacGebhardt on Flickr.

The 6,000-square-foot White Oak skate spot, a sort of mini-skate park, is located at at the end of a cul-de-sac off of Lockwood Drive next to a new recreation center, both of which opened in the summer of 2012. Built by the county's Department of Recreation, the facilities cost $22 million to build, a very small portion of which went to the skate spot.

The recreation center is usually busy, along with the basketball courts and soccer fields. But I've dropped by the skate park at least dozen times this year, at different times of day, on different days of the week, in winter, spring, and summer. And I've never seen anyone using the skate spot.

"There's no flow"

28-year-old Mike Rious of Colesville visited the skate spot a few times, but he quickly got frustrated with it. Instead, he goes to the Woodside skate spot in Silver Spring or to skate parks in Prince George's County. "It seems as though no skatepark designers or anyone with knowledge of skateboarding was consulted before putting it together," he wrote in an email.

The White Oak skate spot is always empty. Photo by the author.

The skate spot is laid out in a way that makes skating almost impossible. I showed some photos of it to my friend Jordan Block, an urban designer and skater who used to work for Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that builds skate parks. "There's no flow," he explains.

Normally, skaters would do a trick on one side, then go over to the other side to do another one, building up momentum along the way. In order to do that, you need a clear, straight path with no obstructions. But officials at the Department of Recreation simply dropped pieces like ramps and rails around the site randomly. As a result, Block says, there's always something in the way.

There are also safety issues. The skate park uses prefabricated modular pieces bought off the rack. Skateboarding advocates like Skaters for Public Skateparks discourage using them instead of permanent, concrete pieces, because prefab fixtures often deteriorate faster than permanent ones, and they have exposed seams that can trip and injure skaters.

The skate spot's location is an issue as well. In 2008, county planners noted that 10,000 people live within a 3/4-mile of the site. But the street network is so disconnected that someone living on Carriage House Way, 1,000 feet away as the crow flies, would have to travel over a mile to reach the recreation center.

"If I were younger and didn't have my own transportation," wrote Rious, "I would probably still be skating the same places I had before these skate spots were built."

Location, design affect skate spot's use

Compare this to the Woodside skate spot, which the parks department built itself after consulting with local skaters. It also has prefab fixtures, but they were made flush with the ground, reducing tripping hazards. And it's in downtown Silver Spring, a short walk from buses and Metro, places to eat, and other hangouts. Not only is the Woodside skate spot popular with skaters, but it's become such a fixture in the local skating community that they even hold barbeques there.

Skaters at the Woodside skate spot in 2010. Photo by Chip Py.

In its current form, the White Oak skate spot is basically unusable. We could rebuild it to be safer and more attractive to skaters, but the location remains a problem. What if we moved the skate spot to the center of White Oak, instead of the fringe, and made it a destination for skaters and the larger community as well?

Skateboarding is a social activity, often drawing spectators. In downtown Silver Spring, crowds of people formed to watch skaters in Veterans Plaza and on Ellsworth Drive before the county banned it.

A redeveloped White Oak Shopping Center could be home to a two-acre park. Photo by the author.

Last month, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved the Science Gateway plan, which envisions creating a research and technology hub in White Oak. Planners also envision turning the run-down White Oak Shopping Center at New Hampshire Avenue and Lockwood Drive into a "town center" with shops and housing in taller buildings around a two-acre park.

That park would be a great location for a skate spot: it's across the street from the White Oak Transit Center, an important bus terminal, and is a short distance from thousands of homes and apartments, along with shops, restaurants, and the Food and Drug Administration campus. This is an accessible location for skaters, but it's also surrounded by a good mix of uses that could make it a unique public draw.

"Skate plazas" bring skaters to the center

Communities around the country are building so-called "skate plazas," a cross between a public plaza and a skate park. Franklin's Paine, where my friend used to work, opened a skate plaza in Philadelphia last May called Paine's Park. Designers call it a "not just a skatepark...a park for all that's made to skate."

Paine's Park. Photo by CJD on Flickr.

To the naked eye, Paine's Park looks like an ordinary plaza: there are benches, stairs, ramps, and rails. These all happen to be things skaters like to use, but here they won't get chased away for doing so. And everything's made from cast-in-place concrete, which can take lots of abuse and are still affordable.

Planners often build skate plazas alongside other uses, inviting skaters into the center of the community. Portland is building a big skate plaza in the middle of downtown. The Lafayette Park Skate Plaza in Los Angeles is part of a larger park complex with a library, amphitheatre, and even food carts.

These are spaces you'd go even if you weren't skating, and non-skaters can hang out in skate plazas as well, so long as they don't mind the thumps of skate trucks on concrete. But if skateboarding ceased to exist tomorrow, the community would still have a great public space.

Skate plazas aren't just better for skaters. They create more interesting, attractive public spaces for everyone. It's clear that this thinking went into the White Oak skate spot, which is next to a recreation center, but the design of the skate spot and its isolated location sends a message to skaters that they should be kept out of sight.

Montgomery County wants White Oak to become an innovative urban community. What better way to do so than by embracing the athleticism and spectacle of skateboarding?

Public Spaces

Congressional impasse shuts down DC's trails

DC bicycle commuters woke up this morning to find that one popular rail-trail was closed due to the government shutdown, which took effect at midnight.

Some cyclists are ignoring the barriers erected by the National Park Service and using the Capital Crescent Trail despite the shutdown. Photo by someone named Ricky, who is friends with DC Bike Ambassador Pete Beers.

The Capital Crescent Trail is the most heavily-used rail-trail in the United States, with more than a million users a year. Not just a weekend pleasure-ride spot, the CCT is thick with bicycles during morning rush hour as people use it as a safer and more pleasant bike-commuting alternative to DC's congested streets. Now, the government would give them no choicethough the Washington Area Bicyclist Association reports that there's little enforcement and intrepid bike commuters are using the trail despite the barriers.

Since this important bike route is managed by the National Park Service, it is part of the vast collateral damage of the embarrassing scenario unfolding on Capitol Hill. WABA warned yesterday that "all or part of the heavily-commuted Rock Creek Trail, Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, and George Washington Memorial Trail are on NPS property" and could also be shut down, but early reports seem to indicate that they're still open.

The 185-mile C&O Canal trail, which runs from DC's Georgetown neighborhood to Cumberland, is also closed.

The 185-mile C&O Canal Trail, which begins in Washington, DC, is closed. Photo tweeted by Bike Arlington.

All roads are open during the government shutdown, except some leading into national parks, which are closed. In DC, this would include Rock Creek Parkway and other roads through the largest urban national park in the countrybut, curiously, that key car-commuter route is still open. However, Rock Creek Park's Beach Drive is closed to car traffic during the shutdown, so people who enjoy riding their bikes there on weekends, when drivers are normally kept out, will enjoy riding it today. That's one nice trade-off for losing the CCT.

WABA learned about the possible Capital Crescent Trail shutdown yesterday, and bollards were put in place at the entrances to prepare to block trail traffic. The sections of the CCT within Montgomery County remain open, since they are owned by the county, not NPS.

DC has a disproportionate number of city parks under NPS, but certainly the shutdown will prevent people from using other popular off-road trails around the country, like this one in the Philly area. Where else are cyclists and pedestrian commuters being impacted?

Crossposted at DC Streetsblog.


Celebrating Park(ing) Day around the region

Last Friday, the region celebrated Park(ing) Day by turning parking spaces into parks. 22 pop-up parks sprouted in the District and Northern Virginia, encouraging people to imagine what they could do with space normally given over to cars.

Landscape architecture firm Oculus' Park(ing) Day installation in DC. Photo by Aimee Custis on Flickr.

Started in San Francisco in 2005, Park(ing) Day aims to illustrate alternative uses for precious urban space. Like pop-up stores or restaurants, which let entrepreneurs test consumers' preferences for new food, drink and products, pop-up parks gauge demand for more permanent parklets by inviting passers-by to take a contemplative rest, engage in conversation, or play.

History Matters' pop-up park in DC invited visitors to mull over books.

Photo by Aimee Custis on Flickr.

On K Street, Gensler's pop up park brought the indoor office outside, complete with dry erase boards to brainstorm ideas.

Photo by Aaron Schreiber-Stainthorp.

Jennifer Simmons, who organized Gensler's parklet, said they wanted to be mindful of not wasting materials. The carpet squares will be sent back to the manufacturer for use as floor samples. Some of the furniture was from Gensler's office.

Photo by Aaron Schreiber-Stainthorp.

Picnic tables were packed with people at Casey Trees' parklet, also in DC. Timothy Hoagland, Digital Media Associate of Casey Trees, explained that they wanted to engage people to think more about public green space and its fun uses.

Across the river in Old Town Alexandria, café seating in a parking space invited people to chat.

Photo by DearEdward on Flickr.

At some parklets, visitors could play games, cornhole, hopscotch or at the DC Department of Parks and Recreation's parklet on U Street, even hula hoop.

Photo by Kishan Putta.

At the Landscape Architecture Foundation's pop-up park downtown, hay bales and dogwood trees provided natural greenery and a buffer against traffic. Barbara Deutsch, the foundation's executive director, commented about the use of parklets and awareness it brings. "We want to design cities where we can dedicate more space to people," she said.

Photo by Aaron Schreiber-Stainthorp.

The Grassroots Cornhole parklet, led by Bobby Boone of Smart Growth America, was more stripped-down, featuring chalk writing, cardboard boxes, and a cornhole set.

Photo by the author.

By now, the picnic tables and benches have been whisked away, the artificial grass and carpet squares will be repurposed, and the parking meters are back to tracking cars. These pop-up parks expired before Friday's afternoon rush hour, but did they garner more interest for something more permanent? If so, what type of parklet would you like to see and where?

Photo by Aaron SchreiberStainthorp.

Public Spaces

Four suggestions for a new Franklin Square

DC and the National Park Service are partnering to redesign Franklin Square, the largest of the parks lining K Street in downtown DC. As they draw up plans, here are 4 ideas that will help transform Franklin from one of DC's most underused parks into one of America's best public spaces.

Franklin Square today. Photo by the author.

Work with the city's edges

Most of downtown DC's existing squares pay little attention to what's around them. They're laid out symmetrically, with paths emanating outward from a central statue through grass and trees to the street. Each side is close to identical, regardless of what's across the street. That works well for small spaces like Dupont Circle or McPherson Square, but not for larger ones like Franklin Square.

Larger squares need multiple sub-areas, each with distinct attributes that reflect what's around them. Franklin Square is big enough that it shouldn't be symmetrical. The more active 14th Street side should be more welcoming to large numbers of people, and should have more hardscaping and mixed-use. Conversely, the less active 13th Street side should be quieter and more park like.

Embrace transit

One big reason the 14th Street side is more active is the entrance to McPherson Square Metro station at 14th and I Streets. That's a big opportunity. Rather than treating that as just another corner, no different from the other 3, the new design for Franklin Square should focus acutely on the Metro station. That corner should be the most intense part of the park, and should function as its unofficial center.

New York's Union Square is a great example of what that might look like, with its hardscaped plaza surrounding a subway entrance, and quieter park area behind.

But the Metro station isn't the only big transit component to Franklin Square. It's also a major transfer point for several of DC's busiest bus routes. The southern edge of Franklin Square, along I Street, is essentially one long transit station, serving hundreds if not thousands of passengers per day.

But Franklin Square's current layout treats I Street the same as all the others. Landscaping curves away from the sidewalk, and benches face inwards towards the center of the park. As a result, every day tons of bus passengers stand in the grass facing I Street, while most of the benches sit empty, facing the wrong way. Except the grass is actually dirt, because too many people stand in it for grass to grow.

By ignoring bus passengers, Franklin Square's current layout makes it a worse park, and a worse transit stop. Embracing I Street with better transit amenities would make the whole park better for everyone.

And don't forget that the northern edge, along K Street, will eventually have streetcar service.

More stuff is better, but make it visible

Franklin Square's existing layout should teach us one thing, at least: That it's not always enough to simply plop some green space in the center of the city and hope for the best. If designers phone it in and just build a big grass lawn, the result won't be any better than what's there now.

The best parks are surrounded by extremely busy sidewalks, from which pedestrians naturally spill over and hang out. Except for the corner with the Metro station, Franklin Square is surrounded by moderately busy sidewalks, but not extremely busy ones. That means the park needs amenities to draw people.

Interactive features like movable seating, splash fountains, and vendor kiosks are all great ways to add vitality to parks, and should be considered in Franklin Square.

The existing fountain at Franklin Square fails to draw many users because it's nothing but a squat ledge set in a sunken plaza. It's impossible to see until you're right on top of it. If designers want people along the park's edges to enter and move towards the middle, there need to be highly-visible, interesting-looking things in the middle. That means they need to be taller than 2 feet.

Finally, the park does need a large central landmark. It may make sense to put such a thing at the southwest corner near McPherson Metro rather than the center, but regardless of its location within Franklin Square, there should be some single defining icon, to act as gathering place and landmark. A more grand fountain, or an archway, or a clock tower, or something.

Consider what's missing from downtown

Since Franklin Square is so much larger than McPherson or Farragut, it can fit things the others can't. It's worth asking what amenities are missing from downtown DC that
Franklin Square might accommodate. Downtown doesn't have any ponds, like Boston's Public Garden. Nor does downtown DC have a concert shell. Surely there are others.

Franklin Square won't be able to fit every possible idea, and some that it can fit may not be the best uses for Franklin's particular needs anyway. But redesigning such an important square isn't an opportunity that comes along every day, so while we have this chance it's worth exploring all the options.

The National Park Service will hold a public meeting to discuss the redesign on the evening of October 2, at the Sheraton at 1201 K Street, NW. Come with ideas!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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