What Snow Can Teach Us About Creating Better Public Spaces

Slate’s design blog.
March 5 2014 9:00 AM

What Snow Can Teach Us About Creating Better Public Spaces

140303_EYE_1
East Passyunk Avenue in Philadelphia.

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

This post originally appeared last month on the Philadelphia-based blog This Old City.

After record amounts of snow this year in Philadelphia, you could be excused for not wanting to see any more of it. But a recent snowstorm actually brought us some pretty cool ideas for public spaces and traffic safety improvements along East Passyunk Avenue in South Philly.

If you haven't heard of a "sneckdown" yet, it's a clever combination of "snow" and "neckdown"—another name for a curb expansion—that uses snow formations on the street to reveal the space cars don't use. Advocates can then use these sneckdown photos to make the case to local transportation officials that traffic-calming interventions like curb bump-outs and traffic islands can be installed without any loss to car drivers. 

Advertisement

One of the areas of Philadelphia with the best opportunities for pedestrian plazas is East Passyunk Avenue, which crosses the street grid at a diagonal, creating lots of triangular intersections. I thought the snow would provide some good examples to help you visualize what I'm talking about, so I headed over there to take some sneckdown photos. And to my delight, the snow revealed some awesome traffic calming ideas I hadn't considered.

At the intersection of 6th and Passyunk and Christian, near the excellent Shot Tower Coffee, there is a triangular plot of land that I always thought would make a great public plaza, but there's a "for sale" sign there now, indicating it will probably become housing.

The city's choice to allocate the public right of way around this triangle to curb parking for cars means the parcel is smaller than it could be, but even so, the snow formation shows it could be larger even without taking away parking. Try to imagine how much more sidewalk there could be if not for the curb parking around the island though:

140303_EYE_2

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

Even when this parcel gets some housing, there is still plenty of space on the road just to the north for a smaller parklet with a bench and a couple planters:

140303_EYE_3

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

140303_EYE_4

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

If maximizing curb parking spaces is the political goal, then there might be some objections to how wide this plaza is. That parking space on the north side of the island would probably go away, for example. But if the goal is to make this the nicest possible public space, then maybe we get rid of the seven parking spaces around this thing and extend the sidewalk.

As you'll see, another issue that pops up repeatedly with these plazas is the trade-off between allowing U-turns from East Passyunk vs. connecting pedestrian plazas to the corner sidewalk. You can see an example of this issue in the photo below:

140303_EYE_5

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

If parking isn't the paramount concern, then the new parklet can just connect to the sidewalk of the triangle parcel, but this eliminates the turnaround lane here that lets drivers make a U-turn onto 6th Street. It also means people trying to make a right on Queen Street have to drive another half block, loop around Catharine and back down 6th­—about a 30-second detour that will nonetheless draw two or three NIMBYs to your public meeting.

Here's a plaza for Rita's, where again we see the trade-off between easy U-turns for cars and nice plazas with café tables and planters where families can sit and eat Italian ice in the summer:

140303_EYE_sneckdown1

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

The snow formations reveal that this whole intersection could feature bump-outs without taking away any travel lanes or parking spaces from motorists. Here's the corner directly next to Rita's on Carpenter and Passyunk, down the street from The Dive Bar and Royal Tavern:

140303_EYE_sneckdown2

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

The Free Library branch on the other corner of Carpenter could have a similar bump-out. There'd be lots of room for street furniture and planters (stormwater absorption!), making this intersection a much greener and happier place.

Directly across from this intersection to the south at Kimball and East Passyunk, the snow reveals another good space for a ped plaza. This retail space is empty and appears to have been a Mexican restaurant:

140303_EYE_sneckdown3

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

I'm not sure if this intersection has many crashes, but check out where the stop lines are. This plaza would move the lines up closer together where drivers can fully see each other, as well as other drivers across Carpenter. Here's the view looking north:

140303_EYE_sneckdown4

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

Continuing south on East Passyunk across Washington, it's clear that a road diet is in order. Geoff Kees Thompson weighed in on the restriping options already. Here's what the snow tells us about how much space cars use now:

140303_EYE_sneckdown5

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

At the southern tip of the triangular block created by Washington, 8th Street, and East Passyunk, there is a triangular lot for sale, with the CRABS sign on it. The cars are a little confusing, so I highlighted in blue where the sidewalk currently ends, and in green where it could end. Upgrading the public infrastructure to include a nice plaza with some planters and street seating could potentially lure a higher value building to this parcel:

140303_EYE_Snow1

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

Here's the view looking north:

140303_EYE_Snow2

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

The opposite corner, around 8th, East Passyunk, and Ellsworth, has an auto parts business. This is a lower priority sidewalk extension at the moment, because if you gave the auto parts store some more sidewalk space, you know they'd just let cars park on it. Eventually rising land values in this neighborhood will price these kinds of low value uses out of the neighborhood, at which point we can think about a pedestrian plaza here.

For reference, this parcel is zoned CMX 2.5 so you can build a pretty big mixed-use building by-right, although of course nothing is really by-right in South Philly:

140303_EYE_Snow3

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

Continuing south, the next interesting intersection is 9th and East Passyunk. A ped plaza for Gino's deserves low priority as long as that "Speak English" sign is still in the window, but it would clearly be good for business. Gino's customers already line up in this road space while waiting to order. Why not extend the sidewalk further so they don't have to stand in the street?

140303_EYE_Snow4

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

140303_EYE_Snow5

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

This is right next to a park that lots of families walk to on weekend days and that lots of drunk people walk to on weekend nights. A road diet that gets motorists to pay closer attention to the sometimes unpredictable movements of kids and drunk people would be a big win for safety. Also, imagine how much more outdoor cheesesteak plaza space there'd be if the sidewalk were extended out to where the curb parking is now. That doesn't seem like a winnable political fight in this particular corner of South Philly, but it would make this a better space on the merits.

Same deal with the Pat's parcel:

140303_EYE_This Old City1

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

Here's the south side. Take away the curb parking, and you can have a pretty nice expansion of the outdoor space. If not, it's not really worth doing anything here:

140303_EYE_This Old City2

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

On the opposite corner, there's a community garden and mural across from Capitolo playground that might bring some botanical goodness out onto the public right-of-way with a sidewalk expansion:

140303_EYE_This Old City3

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

The next intersection of note is one of the most dangerous in South Philly, at Reed, 10th, and East Passyunk. The unused trolley tracks are a death trap for cyclists, and the intersection is just overly wide and confusing. Here's a screenshot from Google Streetview to give you an idea of what it looks like on a regular day:

140303_EYE_This Old City4

Screenshot via Google Maps

Basically a random suburban surface parking hellscape in the middle of an otherwise walkable neighborhood. But here are some good ideas from the snow for taking this space down to human scale.

First, a big ol' triangle traffic island right in front of Rita's:

140303_EYE_This Old City5

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

140303_EYE_Jon Geeting1

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

Once again we have the trade-off between U-turns vs. connecting the Rita's corner to the triangle island and eliminating that lane. I'd personally prefer the latter.

Next to Rita's at the Triangle Tavern­—aptly named, once we lay down this sweet triangle—there's another snow patch that points the way to calming this overly wide intersection:

140303_EYE_Jon Geeting2

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

The final piece for taming this intersection is a pedestrian plaza for Passyunk Market. Again, a trade-off between letting cars make a U-turn from East Passyunk onto 10th Street vs. attaching the triangle to the sidewalk:

140303_EYE_Jon Geeting3

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

Taken together, all of these traffic islands would cut traffic speeds and make it a lot easier for humans to traverse this intersection on foot.

A bit further south, we start getting into the really happening part of the Passyunk Square neighborhood business district. Here the snow says B2 could have a nice parklet with planters in front (maybe from Urban Jungle?) to draw in spontaneous patrons:

140303_EYE_Jon Geeting4

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

The Singing Fountain plaza could also be substantially bigger, especially if it didn't need to have curb parking surrounding it. Here's the north side:

140303_EYE_Jon Geeting5

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

130303_EYE_Philly1

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

And here's the south side:

130303_EYE_Philly2

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

Imagine this intersection filled with planters, café tables and chairs, maybe some designer bike racks. This is a way to bring a lot more greenery to a neighborhood that many complain lacks tree cover. Here's the view looking north:

130303_EYE_Philly3

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

And here's a closer look at the Metro Men's clothing store corner of Tasker. How many more spontaneous customers is this place going to get with a cool parklet out front:

130303_EYE_Philly4

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

Heading south, here's the Cantina Los Caballitos corner:

130303_EYE_Philly5

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

The intersection of Morris, 12th, and East Passyunk could be a real draw for this neighborhood, maybe even more so than the Singing Fountain. This is where we can fit two really good-sized pedestrian plazas if, once again, people are willing to trade off U-turns for nice public spaces.

Here's one next to El Zarape. Like the CRABS parcel, maybe upgrading the public infrastructure around it with nice landscaping, some public seating, maybe a statue, would help developers see some more potential for this space than a short ugly building.

140303_EYE_Final1

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

Here's another one, right across the intersection next to Birra and Doggie Styles and A Man's Image:

140303_EYE_Final2

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

140303_EYE_Final3

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

140303_EYE_Final4

Courtesy of Jon Geeting via This Old City

Again, whether or not people are willing to let go of the U-turn will determine whether the pedestrian plaza can connect to the A Man's Image sidewalk—already pretty elongated—and make a special new park of similar quality to the Singing Fountain.

The point isn't that none of these ideas would be controversial (people like to drive fast, and these interventions make them drive more slowly), but the political bar is much lower because most of them don't take away any space anyone is actually using.

The vast majority of these plaza ideas don't take away any parking spaces, but if you want some of them to be their best possible selves, there's typically only one or two property owners to persuade. In most of the cases where I recommend taking out parking, the Streets Department could take away the spaces unilaterally, if it's under 250 feet worth of parking spaces.

Politically, it would be easiest to get started on this stuff by persuading individual business owners to let you paint the traffic triangles or bump-outs, and then decorate them with planters and some cheap café tables and chairs. These are cheap, high-impact projects that can be done quickly, and once we get started they are going to get popular very fast. Once businesses see how nice they look (think The Porch at 30th Street Station, or Green Line Café's parklet in West Philly), and how much more spontaneous foot traffic they bring in, the political barriers to creating more will melt away.

This post originally appeared on the Philadelphia-based blog This Old City. For more on sneckdowns, visit its website.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?