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With Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm imbibing heavily of the green tech “cool” cities Kool-Aid, the state’s economy grew a meager two percent during the entire 2000s, the slowest by far in the nation. By contrast, rising fuel prices had an immediately catastrophic impact on manufacturing. Within months of the onset of peak oil prices, the era of the SUV had ended and GM and Chrysler were bankrupted. Green jobs did not come to the rescue. Unemployment reached 14 percent. Michigan’s square, folksy policy-makers didn’t have any idea how to create sustainable or creative cities. Terrible municipal governance cursed southeast Michigan cities. Congress’s failure to pass energy legislation or back a sustainable tech market left the state’s green initiatives isolated.
This paradigm of stalled industrial progress, experienced by small manufacturing cities throughout the Midwest and Northeast, and helped along by a federal infrastructure and housing policy morass, forms the backdrop of Catherine Tumber’s thought-provoking new book, Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World. A former news editor and currently a researcher at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Tumber animates Small, Gritty, and Green with character-driven storytelling and digestible revisionist histories of urban theory framed through the interests of small cities.
Ebenezer Howard gets revived as a rootsy regionalist, Lewis Mumford a defender of local culture against large cities, Scottish biologist Patrick Geddes an inspiration for ecological urbanism before the term existed, and Jane Jacobs as too embedded in Greenwich Village to appreciate regionalism and later as an advocate of economic localism. Most of the story is free from professional architecture-and-planning jargon except for its heavy reliance on the unfortunate term “transect,” a New Urbanist concept for how to encourage rural-urban connectivity through mixed-use neighborhoods and a variety of scales and building types. This commonplace is presented as if it needed defending against the cosmopolitan elites—entertainingly portrayed at a 2009 Harvard GSD conference where the rubric of “ecological urbanism” is introduced. Andres Duany makes a grandstanding appearance (too much the loner to agree to be on the program alongside his would-be peers), and pretends to be a canary in the coalmine of a modernism that has already completely adopted his logic by way of Jane Jacobs.
We follow Tumber as she crisscrosses the Great Lakes region, interviewing young mayors, regional planners, small farmers, windmill manufacturers, and urban gardeners, uncovering innovative sustainable practices in little-studied places like Youngstown, Ohio; Muncie, Indiana; Flint, Michigan; Janesville, Wisconsin; Rochester, New York; and Holyoke, Massachusetts. Glorification of cosmopolitan mega-regions has become the conventional wisdom within urbanist theory, Tumber argues, neglecting the interests and disregarding the integrity of small-to-midsize cities. The prevailing assumption is that every place should look like Saskia Sassen’s Global City, a networked metropolis where new-economy elites converge in a romp of science, technology, finance, and leisure.
Tumber frames her defense of small cities with the story of two policy factions in Janesville, Wisconsin at war over metropolitan development, both potentially disastrous. The regional planners want Janesville to expand its highways and annex townships, McMansioning their way into the parallel air-conditioned world. The farmers of LaPrairie Township object: they want to protect their high-yield crops and corporate agribusiness seed testing stations for Pioneer, Monsanto, and Syngenta. Federal policy promotes a lose-lose scenario. Compris.
Tumber envisions an alternative for Janesville and cities like it: a low-carbon future. Small-to-medium-size cities have an inherent competitive advantage that enables them to restructure in a sustainable manner. Their depopulated centers are perfect for installing urban gardens and community farms. Their sparsely developed suburban belts are ideal staging grounds in an emerging market for sustainable agriculture. Their slow growth patterns are opportunities to develop green manufacturing. All they have to do is plan for the eventuality of oil running out, tear down all the highways running through downtowns, plant vacant lots with vegetables, get the government to build a trillion dollar high-speed rail system that connects to small cities, and wait thirty or forty years.
The practices for a low-carbon future that Tumber documents are good in themselves, as far as they go. They are in some cases the only thing productive happening on abandoned property and should to be encouraged for promoting healthier lifestyles and environmental stewardship. Municipal transportation authorities in Rochester reduced bus fares, contracted with the school system, increased ridership, and bought new hybrid vehicles. A skilled farmer in Illinois is profiting from the Yuppie obsession with fresh food at farmer’s markets in Evanston. Muncie, Indiana succeeded in stealing several hundred jobs from Chicago by offering a new rail spur and nonunion labor to an Italian producer of windmill gearboxes, attracting an additional German turbine company.
But the small cities heralded by Tumber are already intensely local economies restructuring around regional-protectionist ideas. At times it sounds like in the future everyone is supposed to be a peasant farmer growing vegetables for local consumption in places like Flint. These cities are valiantly installing riverfront trails, remediating brownfields, restoring wetlands, and land-banking disused lots. But the die-hard localism Tumber champions is not new: it’s part of a deeply conservative tradition that isn’t expanding the economy, it’s shrinking it, year after year. Ironically the suburbs in areas she describes are often more economically and ethnically diverse than the cities.
Underlying Small, Gritty, and Green is a certain kind of magical thinking: somehow Congress, persuaded by the inexorable logic of a future without oil, will evolve into a happy bipartisan consensus and initiate a massive shift in federal transportation, housing, agriculture, and infrastructure spending. A shift in federal policy would make an enormous difference, but it will not happen at this stage without a massive national revolt. Until then, attracting capital investment from multinational corporations, redeveloping downtown centers to draw middle-class professionals, and connecting local economies to global markets centered in cosmopolitan mega-regions will remain essential to restructuring small cities.
A neighborhood is born in Cincinnati. After a decade of debate, financing, design, and construction, phase one of The Banks—arguably one of the country’s most ambitious urban design projects—is nearly complete. When finished, the 18-acre mixed-use development will add nearly three million square feet of building to long vacant land between Cincinnati’s Central Business District and the Ohio River.
While The Banks’ site has long been vacant, this is no blank slate. The project occupies a rectangle of land that has served as Cincinnati’s laboratory for urban design since the city’s inception. To clear the way for 1961’s I-71 / Fort Washington Way, a dense riverfront district was demolished and the resulting void filled with modernist mega-structures (including the Reds’ Riverfront Stadium of 1970) that left the city landlocked for decades. Other sites were entertained before the construction of two new stadiums in the 1990s, but in 1998 the public voted in favor of again siting the buildings on the river. Recognizing the flaws of this strategy but also its potential, the city appointed a commission to study the construction of a finer-grained urbanism between the stadiums and adjacent to the Ohio. In 2007, Carter and The Dawson Company partnered with the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County to pursue financing for The Banks. Construction of Phase One broke ground in 2008.
According to Terry Grundy, a professor of urban planning at the University of Cincinnati, the urban design here is smart. “The early concepts for The Banks development were just right: reclaim a scruffy and long-neglected riverfront for the city's future; put in a mix of public amenities and residential and commercial developments to add to downtown's residential population and tax base,” Grundy wrote in an email. The plan also “integrates the new structures with contiguous high profile infrastructure like two new sports stadiums, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and one of America's most charming and historic 19th century bridges, and connects it all to the historic Central Business District.”
The blocks of Cooper Carry’s masterplan, essentially an extension of downtown’s gridiron, average approximately 260 by 390 feet, or roughly half the size of a Midtown Manhattan block. Built out at six or seven stories, this density is roughly the scale of Haussmann’s Paris. Programming is textbook Jane Jacobs: retail at ground level, residential apartments in various configurations above, office and hotel sprinkled throughout. The architecture is fairly banal though, with nothing as formally inventive as Daniel Libeskind’s The Ascent directly across the river. “The Banks’ scale, massing and layout seem to be just right and will eventually create a vibrant urban neighborhood along the Ohio River waterfront,” said Randy Simes, urban planner and editor of UrbanCincy.com. Sasaki’s adjacent Riverfront Park and a stop on Cincinnati’s forthcoming streetcar enhance the district’s appeal.
For all its urban design strengths, The Banks still accommodates cars, a lot of cars. The entire first phase sits on a massive 1,800-car parking podium, and there’s also an above-ground garage. Simes explains, “While the underground parking was necessary in order to lift the massive, mixed-use development out of the Ohio River floodplain, the above-ground parking was not.” Presumably the development team is hedging its bets in a city still beholden to the automobile, yet these garages are a wasted opportunity to encourage more Cincinnatians to adopt a car-free lifestyle. They also were hugely expensive and required massive public subsidy from city, county, state, and federal sources.
In a country that long ago ceded its reputation for bold city-making to Europe and Asia, the construction of a dense new urban district in a mid-sized American city is grounds for optimism. The Banks was touted as a savior for Cincinnati, and the project had unusually strong support from Mayor Mark Mallory and other elected officials to push it forward. Despite its flaws, The Banks probably will be very good for Cincinnati. But given the amount of subsidy the project required, it is questionable whether this is a viable template for other American cities attempting to add inner-city density, especially given cash-strapped local, state, and federal governments.
While many of Mayor Daley's initiatives promoting citywide sustainability were visionary, transportation is one area where new thinking is still needed. Chicago traffic is among the worst in the country, and its air quality suffers as a result. Mayor Emanuel's planning policies are just beginning to take shape, though we are heartened with his selection of Gabe Klein as department of transportation commissioner.
Emanuel saw Klein's work first hand in Washington, where, as the capital city’s DOT head, he added hundreds of miles of bike lanes and implemented the nation's largest bike sharing program. Klein, like his better-known peer in New York, Janette Sadik-Khan, is one of the new breed of transportation planners who are seeking to give pedestrians and cyclists a bigger share of the road. For too long we have designed our streets with primarily the car in mind, to the detriment of street life, the environment, our health, and our cities. It also makes bad economic sense. The era of cheap oil is over.
Innovative commissioners like Klein and Sadik-Khan, recognizing their relative autonomy and the vast portfolios of public spaces under their control, are changing things quickly. Sometimes these changes ruffle feathers, but Washington and New York are seeing big increases in cycling and significant improvement in pedestrian safety. It has also helped make them celebrities in planning circles.
Bike sharing, complete streets, sidewalk extensions, and pedestrian scramble intersections change the look and texture of streetscapes, usually for the better. They help transform streets from pass-throughs into destinations. With its wide streets and flat topography, Chicago seems primed to be a leading bicycling city, expanding its already active and visible cycling population.
Architects, directly and indirectly, have been part of the car monoculture problem. In order to meet parking requirements most new high rises include vast parking podiums, which, even with ground floor retail, deaden street life and pull eyes off the street, to paraphrase Jane Jacobs. An overabundance of parking encourages casual, even constant, car use, and helps generate traffic and sprawl. But that could change. In a recent interview with the smart transportation blog “Grid Chicago” Klein said he wants to reduce the parking requirements for new construction: “I think we should have a maximum and no minimum.” I couldn’t agree more.
Klein also reiterated the Emanuel Administration’s commitment to building the Bloomingdale Trail. While that project is routinely compared to New York’s High Line park, the Bloomingdale Trail is being conceived as a transportation artery, not a merely as a place for a romantic promenade. It will be the most protected bike lane of all. I can’t wait to take a spin down it, preferably using a shared bike.
Remember highways, those ribbons of concrete that in the 1940s and 50s looped together cities, states, and regions in much the same way as ocean liners connected America to Europe in the 20s and 30s? Once highways represented the country’s proudest infrastructure. Those days are over, as are the urban policies that allowed New York’s ultimate powerbroker Robert Moses, late in his heyday in the 60s, to ram roads (the bigger, the wider, the busier the better) through fragile communities, ripping the urban fabric to shreds for decades to come. Today’s urban thinking puts pedestrians before cars.
For Robert Moses, a mastermind in the dawning age of the car, four-wheel travel promised the world and then some. Highways were supposed to be the “lungs of the city”—and those concrete behemoths, once thought to be permanent fixtures in cities, would preserve his legacy. But what would Moses say today if he knew that major cities across the country now see highways as a root of blight and are considering taking down his creations? Half a century after the height of urban renewal, a national movement is set to try a new road to urban growth, reintegrating communities through dismantling the highways that were the focus of Moses’ life’s work.
“It’s about rebalancing now,” said New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. “We’re looking for ways to reconsider highways to maximize their highest and best uses in light of today’s intensely urban settings, which are different from uses in earlier parts of the 20th century.”
Syracuse and Buffalo on the East Coast, Seattle on the West Coast, and Louisville, Dallas, and Cleveland in between, are among the cities talking about removing highways from their downtowns. The convergence of all these campaigns is no coincidence. As the National Interstate Highway turns 55 this month, many highways are reaching the end of their design lives. Cities now face the option of investing billions in maintenance or getting rid of them altogether. It makes perfect sense in the current economic climate, says John Norquist, the Milwaukee mayor who presided over the 2003 removal of Park East Freeway—a highway whose annual maintenance between $50 and $80 million would have cost twice as much as its demolition. But for Norquist, the current president of the Congress for New Urbanism, the end of the highway’s useful life was just an opportunity to end its damaging effects on pedestrian life and downtown real estate values. “If you look at the real estate near a freeway, almost always it’s degraded,” he said. “You get surface parking lots or buildings with high vacancy rates, no walking.”
Anti-highway sentiment is nothing new. In fact, the country is dotted with unfinished highway projects, from New York’s Sheridan Expressway to an extension of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, that were halted by public opposition. One of the watershed moments in the movement against highways was the campaign against one of Robert Moses’ most controversial proposals: the Lower Manhattan Expressway in New York, a ten-lane highway that would have razed the present-day neighborhoods of TriBeCa, Soho and Chinatown. Activist Jane Jacobs and local residents lobbied to defeat his proposal, ushering in what some would consider a new school of thought that emphasized neighborhood life and community input in urban planning.
Courtesy Waggonner & Ball Architects/Smart Mobility
The recent buzz about highway removal projects is another powerful testament to the reversal of Robert Moses and what post-war America accepted as good urban planning. Local officials are looking to demolish highways to end the blight they brought to the neighborhoods they run through, 60 years after cities first started putting them up in the name of progress and modernity. In New Orleans, community groups believe that replacing the stretch of Interstate 10 that runs above Claiborne Avenue—a once-thriving commercial corridor in the Treme neighborhood—with a boulevard would rid the city of an eyesore and promote economic development. The proposal has become central to rebuilding the city, included in both the Unified New Orleans Plan created for post-Katrina recovery and the city’s new master plan. Decades before the hurricane, the construction of I-10 in the 1950s precipitated Treme’s decline from one of the city’s wealthiest African-American neighborhoods to an area with high poverty and vacancy rates. The number of businesses on Claiborne Avenue fell 75 percent between 1960 and 2000, says the community organization Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition who commissioned the study from architects Waggonner & Ball working with Smart Mobility.
In New Orleans and elsewhere, removing highways is providing an opportunity to redress the racist urban renewal policies of the 20th century that impacted communities inhabited largely by minorities. In 1974, construction of Route 40 in West Baltimore demolished 700 homes and displaced 2,000 residents in a middle-class African American neighborhood. Demolition of Route 40, otherwise known as the infamous 1.4 mile “Highway to Nowhere,” began last fall. “Tearing down every last remnant of that ill-fated road will help heal the communities that have long been split by the portion of highway that we couldn't stop,” said Senator Barbara Mikulski, who launched her decades-long political career rallying against the highway. Now, demolition will restore a street connection between two neighborhoods and make way for expanded station parking for an existing commuter rail line and a future light rail line for the city. “It’s not just a good land use solution or transportation solution, but it rights many past wrongs done to the communities that the highway runs through,” said Joan Byron, the policy director at the Pratt Center for Community Development in New York.
Byron also credits the re-emergence of cities for the growing movement against urban highways. The United Nations reported that more than half the world’s population lived in cities for the first time in history in 2007. “Affluent middle class people are moving back to cities,” Byron explained, “So land blighted by highways is now being valued differently.” In New York, pressure to cap the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which forms a below-grade trench through Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Williamsburg, is mounting as more people move to the west side of the highway. Residents near the highway, which was built in the 1950s and 60s to connect the city’s boroughs, have contended with high asthma rates and noise pollution. Now, the city is exploring ways to make life near the highway less onerous, including covering the trench with a “green canopy” of acoustic and photovoltaic panels to reduce noise and generate electricity.
Courtesy Courtesy Starr Whitehouse/Kiss+Cathcart Architects
The most telling sign of the times was funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation for three highway removal projects last fall. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced $600 million for 75 infrastructure projects through TIGER II, a competitive grant program designed to promote livability and sustainability. The conversion of Route 34 in New Haven, Connecticut into a boulevard received $16 million. New Haven officials have long blamed the highway for stifling foot traffic downtown and choking downtown off from the rest of the city. Now, its removal will open up 11 acres to new real estate development for the city’s biotech boom and is part of larger efforts to create a pedestrian-friendly city, according to Bruce Alexander, vice president for New Haven and State Affairs. New Orleans and New York also received grants to study the potential teardowns of the Claiborne Expressway and the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx.
Courtesy Washington State Department of Transportation
A $1.5 million TIGER II grant will fund New York’s first study of alternative uses for the Sheridan. Opened in 1962, the 11⁄4 mile highway was originally intended to connect New York to New England, but it was never finished and now merely connects Bruckner Expressway and the Cross Bronx Expressway, which already intersect to the east. Local residents count the highway as one of numerous environmental injustices in the South Bronx, responsible for higher asthma rates, traffic congestion, and blocking access to the Bronx riverfront. It is a thoroughfare for truck drivers to Hunts Point, a major food distribution center for supermarkets in New York and New Jersey, but advocates of removal insist that the Sheridan’s low traffic volume—which amounts to 50,000 vehicles a day—justifies getting rid of it.
“The design is dysfunctional for drivers, and it’s harmful for the community because it sits at the hub of retail and transportation for Amtrak and Metro North,” argued Byron, who has been working with neighborhood groups to campaign for the Sheridan’s removal for over 10 years. “There’s no rationale for keeping it.” In 1997, the New York Department of Transportation’s proposal to expand the Sheridan spurred local residents to action. Working with the Pratt Center and other community organizations, they developed an alternative plan that would remove the Sheridan, build access ramps to Hunts Point off the Bruckner Expressway to accommodate truck traffic, free up 13 acres for 1,500 units of housing, and connect 15 acres of open space to the Bronx River Greenway.
Sojung You (top) and Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance
Byron called the TIGER grant for the city’s study “huge,” because states typically run their highways with little input from municipal governments and local communities. The study will integrate the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Department of Parks, and the New York City Economic Development Corporation into the planning process, a decision that Byron predicts will make the state much more likely to favor the alternative plan.
For now, the plan remains the subject of debate between community members and businesses at Hunts Point, who are skeptical that access ramps can replace a highway that carries 15,000 trucks everyday without crippling congestion. “One of the biggest challenges has been explaining the different parts of the plan to business owners and making sure it works for them,” Byron said.
What happens to traffic when a major artery is removed is probably the biggest concern for most drivers, and legitimately so. Intuition would suggest that replacing highways with boulevards with stoplights and lower speed limits would make traffic even worse. But that’s not necessarily the case, says Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do.
“The record seems to show that in many cases, when a highway segment is removed, the subsequent impact on traffic congestion and travel times has not been as dire as many would have predicted,” he said. Planners have consistently found that highway traffic demonstrates so-called “evaporated demand”—just as cars will come if there's a new highway, the reverse is true when highways are removed. “Traffic demand is elastic,” said Vanderbilt.
Courtesy Preservenet and Infrastructurist
One of the most dramatic examples was Seoul’s removal of the Cheonggyecheon Freeway, a major highway that carried 168,000 vehicles a day, in 2002. Despite cries that the highway’s closure would produce chaos, adjustments to the downtown traffic system and the introduction of the city’s first rapid transit bus line were able to absorb excess traffic. Dr. Kee Yeon Hwang, one of the project’s key planners, told the Guardian, “As soon as we destroyed the road, the cars just disappeared and drivers changed their habits. A lot of people just gave up their cars. Others found a different way of driving. In some cases, they kept using their cars but changed their routes." The highway’s removal made room for the restoration of a four-mile stream that had run underneath the highway and an urban park that has become a point of pride for the city.
“This is not to say you can just eliminate any highway and magically ‘cure’ a traffic problem,” Vanderbilt cautions. “But certainly in the case of highways built through major urban centers, with proper planning and given enough travel alternatives, what were once considered vital arteries in cities like Seoul have been removed—and whatever negatives on the travel side may have arisen have arguably been paid back by benefits on the public space and quality of urban life side.” The closure of the elevated West Side Highway in New York City in the 1970s presented a similar case. Sam Schwartz was an engineer at the Department of Traffic, responsible for diverting traffic after the highway collapsed. “What I found out was that the traffic was able to take different paths,” he said in an interview for the website Street Films. “Things didn’t get worse on all the other routes that had to pick up the slack.” A new highway was slated to replace the old one, but public opposition delayed the project for 30 years until then-Governor Cuomo and Mayor Dinkins announced the construction of a surface-level boulevard adjacent to a new waterfront park along the Hudson River.
But even with proper planning, highway removals don’t always turn out the way advocates envision. Though it’s been hailed as one of the country’s first prominent highway removal projects, the demolition of Park East Freeway in 2003 hasn’t spurred downtown development as advocates had hoped. Demolition freed up 24 acres for development, but only the city-owned parcels—about ten percent of the land—have been sold to developers, while the county-owned parcels remain untouched. Norquist points to such new projects as a $54 million apartment tower that recently broke ground and a $175 million residential and retail development near the Milwaukee River as signs of progress. But county politics and strict regulations stand in the way of further transformation.
Indeed, the issue of highways—whether building or demolishing them—is a contentious one. It’s no surprise that Norquist got his start in politics as an anti-highway candidate running for the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1974. “I beat an incumbent who wanted to build a freeway right in the middle of a park designed by Olmstead’s son,” he recalled. The public revolt against highways in Wisconsin in the 1970s and 80s elected a block of anti-highway legislators who stopped plans for three highways.
Elected officials like Norquist and his colleagues aren’t common. Removing a highway is still a political risk in cities where most residents believe it would only slow traffic. Byron points to lack of courage among elected officials as one of the main barriers to highway removal projects. But in Seattle, Mayor Michael McGinn has taken a controversial stand against a proposed bi-level four-lane tunnel slated to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a major highway that must come down after sustaining damage in a 2001 earthquake. The debate has engaged everyone from drivers, who say they need a tunnel, and union workers to environmental groups and budget hawks opposed to the tunnel’s $3 billion price tag. After months of lawsuits and public debate, Seattle’s residents will finally vote on the tunnel this August. Whatever the outcome, the vote will be a powerful statement on the future of highways. And to be sure, other cities will be watching.
When Downtown LA’s office buildings first started sprouting up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the city had a very different attitude about civic plazas. Most of those spaces were empty, windswept concrete yards meant as tributes to corporate power or to the singularity of modernist architecture, not places of dynamic urban activity or real civic engagement. Often they purposely impeded public gathering. This was, after all, a time when riots and protests were a large fear and homelessness was starting to rear its ugly head.
AC Martin’s recent renovation of the modernist plaza outside of the Citigroup Center at 444 South Flower Street is a good example of how that conception has radically changed in a city that now craves public space and ways to attract tenants to aging buildings. The esteemed LA firm designed the plaza the first time around, back in 1982, and also designed the tower itself.
“I suppose a lot of us architects were naive enough to believe that a beautifully crafted minimal design was enough to activate a space,” said AC Martin principal David Martin, of the firm’s first try at the plaza.
Their strategy this time was simple but not easy: to fill the once-barren space with an intricate network of elements that would make it as walkable, sittable, and people-friendly as possible, while still encouraging lingering and peaceful moments in the midst of the chaotic city.
But whereas the firm wanted to promote a sense of tranquility in the plaza, they didn’t want it to turn its back on the city. The space embraces the urban grid thanks to a diagonal pattern of stone pavers, which lead visitors to and from the main entry on Flower and 5th streets, a dynamic corner bordering John Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel, the classic Art Deco LA Public Library, and AC Martin’s own City National Plaza. Visitors enter the newly designed space, pass its sculpted basalt fringes, and slowly descend along a slight grade change. Colored glass boxes that line the entryways provide clear wayfinding.
To avoid Downtown’s inescapable heat island effect and the bright reflective glare—always an issue for urban plazas— the firm alternated light and dark pavers and filled the space with mesmerizing bright green Palo Verde trees that create an intricate dappled light. They also supplemented the plaza with new palm trees and installed new landscaping—most of it drought tolerant succulents—into handsome dark brown Cor-ten steel planter boxes. The landscape of yuccas and spiny, bulbous, and colorful plants was designed by Melendrez Design Partners. The area is further cooled and calmed by simple Cor-ten steel water features with their great gurgling noises and by a series of what seem to be countless orange umbrellas.
While old school civic plazas left nowhere to sit, seating is everywhere here, with 40 tables and 160 movable chairs (not even chained to the ground!) and gently curving benches that alternate from wood to travertine to match the striped pavers below.
The terraced storefronts in front of the building, which include the ultra-popular Mendocito Farms sandwich shop, were reimagined to include new steel blade signage with a smooth matte finish that not only unifies the facades but also gives the shops a sophistication they sorely missed before.
The popular new park has not become a home for vagrants, as past city planners might have feared. AC Martin has taken a soulless space and made it into an inspiration for the rest of the city. “Over the years I have become a fan of Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, and Holly White,” said Martin. “We’ve learned a lot in the last few years about sun, shade, a place to sit down, permeable walls, and food service. In other words, how to create more humane places.”
Renovated with a preponderance of white surfaces and natural lighting, SFO’s Terminal 2 strives—appropriately, given the current state of travel—for a spa-like atmosphere. The ticketing counters are paneled in faux zebrawood, and the post-TSA lounge area—aptly named “Recompose”—offers cushioned seating under a gossamer cloud of purplish threads (a ceiling sculpture by Janet Echelman). The food purveyors are primarily local: Napa Farms Market occupies a handsome space with tiled walls and an open oven, designed by Baldauf Catton von Eckartsberg Architects. In the main gate area, two tiers of clerestory windows and angled rooflines create a visual sense of uplift, while Arne Jacobsen Egg and Swan chairs lend a design edge to seating clusters. Slated for LEED Gold certification, the $383 million renovation incorporates energy-saving measures like a displacement ventilation system that brings in outside air for natural cooling, and prominently placed water fountains that are designed for refilling water bottles at the gate.