For more than fifteen years I’ve been traveling to other cities to mentally and visually record some of the urban interventions and details that make them work with the hope of synthesizing this new knowledge into future efforts around improving place.
After an extended hiatus, I finally was able to take a trip to Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati for some much needed streetscape and placemaking inspiration with my friend and colleague Ben. Here are a few takeaways from the excursion.
Our first stop on the trip was to Covington, Kentucky. We parked the car on Pike Street off Madison Avenue and just started walking around. I fell like that is the sign of a good urban environment when you can tell from looking there will likely be a coffee shop and other interesting amenities nearby without having to pull out a phone and see… though in all honesty I did pull up street maps once we started walking because we didn’t have a lot of time to wander around, but I was correct, there was a cafe at the other end of the block.
One of the first big takeaways was right in front of us where the street parking meets the curb. There are many names for these features like curb extensions, bump-outs, bulb-outs, but essentially the sidewalk and curb are extended into the roadway about the width of a car.
There are a lot of reasons to introduce these features into a streetscape, often at intersections like the photo above, to make the distance from curb to curb shorter, position pedestrians to be more visible to drivers at crossing points, slow vehicular turning action speeds and more. When thoughtfully executed, these features can also provide more room for pedestrian activities along commercial corridors like outdoor cafes, provide additional space for street trees, and offer enhanced amenities to transit systems and bike amenities. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has some more information and examples here in their guide.
The curb extensions along Pike Street are not only at the intersections. There are several along the block at regular intervals of about every three to four parking spaces. Though the tree wells could be bigger, the curb extensions offer much needed space for trees along the block. We measured one of them to be about 32 feet.
An important thing to point out is that by having the trees in the curb extension, they are able to be placed in such a way that the trees are not directly under the utility lines, which gives them the ability to grow much much taller, avoiding the dreaded "V" hack pruning jobs. Something like this could be a great solution to commercial corridors in Louisville where burying the utilities just isn't a realistic option.
There are instances of curb extensions around Louisville already, just take a walk down West Main Street in the Museum District to see some well executed examples. That is part of the point of noticing these features, at one point in the 1990s there was an effort to improve the walkability of that section of downtown to attract people and businesses to the area. It worked and these efforts and elements should be considered in other areas that have or need better walkable environments to attract people and businesses.
Lighting plays an important role in the walkability from the perceived and real safety of a place to the message the fixtures send to the user. The historic styling of the light fixtures along Main Street in Covington let people know even if unconsciously that the street is for pedestrians. The lights are just tall enough to extend past the first floor of the buildings along the street providing the right amount of light for people walking below.
The beautiful historic downtown of Covington reminds me of another town near where I grew up, Bristol, Pennsylvania along the Delaware River. The three or four story buildings similarly line Mill Street creating the sense of outdoor rooms. What is also similar are their pedestrian-scaled street lamps.
Compare the historic-styled street lamps to the often used high or low pressure sodium vapor (HPS) and (LPS) floodlights used along many commercial corridors. The sodium bulbs are meant to produce an extremely bright light that can illuminate large areas, so they are spaced much further apart than pedestrian scale street lamps. The harsh light can detract from the night experience of spaces, particularly in high walkability spaces.
Sometimes the HPS and LPS bulbs are a necessary evil to provide safe environments for vehicle travel at night, but in strategic commercial corridor locations, there are alternative lighting options that can provide both pedestrian scale lighting on the sidewalks and more spread lighting on the streets. We found an example of these lights on the street next to Findlay Market in Over the Rhine.
From Covington, we made our way through Newport and Bellevue over to Dayton, Kentucky, the last town along the southern shore of the Ohio River before the river bends south east away from Cincinnati. The commercial entertainment strip of Fairfield Avenue in Bellevue becomes 6th Avenue in Dayton but continues to be lined with storefronts until it makes an abrupt turn leading to a four-way stop.
It is at this four-way stop that our friends from YARD & Company have a great multi-use activation space called the Garage, and it is the place where we found them an their latest activation, the intersection itself. YARD worked with the City of Dayton to create a mural on the street with a theme tied to Memorial Day and a nod to the VFW across the street. Along with making the built environment more interesting, the intervention helps to catch drivers attention as they enter the excessively wide intersection, while it visually shrinks down the street to help slow traffic and provide a better walking experience for pedestrians. The intersection repair initiative was implemented just last weekend.
These interventions are the first steps in actively testing streetscape changes with low-cost, temporary prototypes, something that is baked into the YARD & Company process of problem-solving, and something I admire very much about my friends and their work.
Seeing the freshly painted intersection reminded me of the work of Tommy Pacello, a good mutual friend of Joe and Kevin (of YARD) and I. Tommy was the director of the Memphis Medical District Collaborative until his far too early passing last year. Like Joe and Kevin, Tommy was always testing ideas by doing.
I visited him in Memphis in 2014 and we toured an area he was working to improve which was to become the Edge District. On a return visit in 2017 I got to see the fruits of his work and experience a next-level approach to reconfiguring the built environment. The use of an epoxy gravel application was transformative. It goes beyond paint and actually creates a texture and dimensionality to the intervention that is somewhere between the first steps of temporary paint and full concrete curb extensions.
Along with the inclusion of large planters and basketball-sized concrete domes to help physically delineate the new curb edges, the interventions completely changed the look and feel of the area. I somehow had the presence of mind to take photos from similar locations in 2014 and 2017 that really help visualize these changes below.
Modern parklets evolved out of the Park(ing) Day events that began in 2006 by Rebar in San Francisco. It started with a simple idea, what if you used a parking space for something other than storing a vehicle. It was a question of how we use our public spaces. The notion captured the imagination of people around the world with Park(ing) Day events on the third Friday each September in cities across the globe. These one-day events led to longer interventions and in many cities have become codified and regulated with design criteria and approval processes, with San Francisco leading the way with initiatives such as GroundPlay SF.
While Ben and I were walking around on Vine Street in Over the Rhine, we came across a number of new parklets that mainly consisted of substantial metal planters and steel cabling that formed a safety perimeter around the outside of the parklet space with a modular wooden or composite decking. The parklets all had variations of tables and benches or seats. From talking with some of the locals it sounds like these parklets popped up during the pandemic as a way to increase outdoor seating space for the restaurants in the city. Though indoor seating has returned, the city of Cincinnati recently made the parklets permanent, or at least semi-permanent fixtures as the units are designed to be removable during winter due to the need for snow removal.
Along with the metal planters and steel cables, rubberized bumper wheel stops and reflective poles are at the ends of the parklets to keep cars from backing into them.
An important feature of the parklet is the attention to accessibility with the floor decking matching the curb height for a smooth transition from sidewalk to parklet. The modular floor decking appears to be designed to be easily put together and taken apart if the need arises. Most of the parklets appear to take the place of two or three vehicle parking spaces
When I was doing research on parklets in an attempt to help get a program going in Louisville, I visited Covington in 2016 to see the Curb'd initiative that brought the area's first parklets to the streets with a design competition with local businesses choosing five concepts. Each concept was very different and were more like public art than the newer more functionally driven versions seen in Cincinnati today. If this first one looks familiar it is because it was on Pike Street.
There are a lot of examples of parklets all over the world to check out for more ideas on how we can expand the pedestrian environment and make places more interesting. Hopefully Louisville can find a way to take advantage of this placemaking tool that has become a regular sight in many of the cities I have visited over the last few years to improve our pedestrian environments.
Our final stop during our expedition was to visit our friend James at the very northern edge of Over The Rhine known as the Brewery District, where he and his team are working to restore a variety of old warehouses and dilapidated historic buildings.
There is a buzz on the street in front of their main office building as construction workers and artisans scramble to pull together Somerset, a new bar and event space that will be opening in five weeks. The concept of the space as James described it is pretty amazing and based around the experience of the place, bringing an eclectic mix of materials from around the world and giving people the sense of visiting a faraway exotic place, just what is needed after being cooped up for the last year.
The bar will have a variety of different spaces from an entryway courtyard complete with a double-decker bus turned streetfood truck to an indoor lounge area and then out to a beautiful greenhouse and finally a lush outdoor patio space with a vintage trolley car and tropical plants. The space already looks amazing and you can tell from James' attention to detail and quality execution of the vision so far, that the place will be something people will always remember and the space hasn't even opened yet.
We walked around the block from Somerset to see some of the other restoration projects underway and the overall vision for revitalizing this area that James has lived and worked in for the past several years. The bold moves they are making to turn boarded up and unused buildings into a vibrant place is going to take time. But the ability to think and plan beyond a single building to address how the structures, uses and people interact and flow through an area’s public and private spaces is really inspiring. I’ll be making frequent trips here to follow the progress and enjoy a bourbon or two with James to hear more about the stories that lead him and his team to shape the places they live and work.
Seeing the work coming together here in the Brewery District and the "ideas into action" with YARD just across the river has provided a much needed recharge of the creative batteries.
I strongly believe that to improve and grow you need to be exposed to new ideas constantly. This is why I don’t believe, in the long run, successful companies will be able to be purely remote working situations. The accidental sparks of ideas that form from casual interactions with colleagues and new acquaintances cannot happen in the isolation of one's home office over zoom calls (for those fortunate enough to be able to work from home).
This same notion holds true working to improve the built environment. To unlock the next level of creativity you need to visit other places, seeing the good and the bad with an analytical eye, quizzically questioning why another human or group of humans decided to do something one way or another and if you are lucky enough, to spend time with other humans and hear their stories and understand their actions that shape the spaces we exist within.
Get out and see other places and meet interesting people, whether it is in a city street in a country on the other side of the world, or on a bench in a pocket park in a neighborhood you have never been to across town. Look at the places you occupy and take note of what you like about them and what you don't. Whether you are a formal designer or not, we all can work to make our communities better in our own ways. Having more experiences and ideas to draw from sharpens the tools we have to work with as we shape the places we share with our neighbors, families and friends.