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How redesigning crosswalks could make cities safer

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One San Francisco firm thinks of crosswalks as parks

Paige Vickers

Think about driving in a city park. Trees quaver overhead, flowers push toward car windows, the air smells fresher. The surrounding cityscape feels more remote. You might push down on the gas a little more softly, whether because, with all the visual stimuli, you don’t mind lingering—city parks host community convergence and leisure, not the haste of the everyday—or out of a sense of deference to that leisure, even if it isn’t shared.

You don’t, at least, drive in precisely the same way down a park lane as you drive down a busy urban thoroughfare, where you navigate around urban denizens doing all the things urban denizens do: rush to work and school, jaywalk, converge on street corners.

Among the central tenets of Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects’ redesign of San Francisco street crossings is this difference in how drivers comport themselves in different contexts. "What we wanted to do was think about making [crosswalks] into a park-like space," explains founder Zoë Prillinger. "We tried to develop edges, almost like a trim, a piece of park. A series of connected pieces that link streets from one block to another to larger green spaces. You’re taking that green space and pulling it into the street."

There’s good reason to rethink San Francisco’s crosswalks. At least three pedestrians are hit by cars every day, according to Walk San Francisco; 70 percent of these crashes happen in crosswalks. This summer, the city broke ground on a $26 million project to revamp Masonic Avenue, where a good number of the city’s traffic accidents occur.

OPA argues that such revamping could easily be expanded, if the notion of what a crosswalk is were reconsidered. "What we think is interesting is work that challenges received ideas about what things should be. When we started we had our own received ideas," says Prillinger.

"As we got into it, what became fascinating was this discovery of the space for potential design that is for me typically invisible, because it’s infrastructure," continues partner Luke Ogrydziak. "Those spaces are typically defined by a kit of parts, and they have engineering interests but there’s no design in those places. We all cross streets all day long; it was a funny experience to have it come into focus as something that could be much better. There’s no reason these things couldn’t be improved."

Their project hinges on two major changes, one graphic and one physical. The first involves highly visual yet simply executed zebra crossings designed to maximize impact and blur the edges between "pedestrian" and "vehicle" zones. By extending the simply executed white hatchings past the street itself so that they connect all four corners of surrounding buildings into an almost star-shaped bleed, pedestrians are front and center. "We were thinking of it on a meta level, almost a Sol LeWitt-type thing, to create certain constraints with a looseness in the executions, almost a set of instructions," Ogrydziak explains.

Unsurprising, perhaps, that city officials, when the project was first presented in San Francisco in 2013, were most interested in the painted street crossings, low-impact and inexpensive as the tactic is. "When you start investing in the three-dimensional, there’s more of a gesture towards permanence," says Prillinger. "There’s more of a challenge toward the various contingencies or users of the street. Pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers, as well as the firemen who often need to navigate corners in an emergency."

The project’s second arm is a three-dimensional kit of parts consisting of geometric concrete curb extensions that serve multiple purposes. They define the curbs, yes, but with planters and benches embedded in the concrete, they simultaneously expand parkland and urban furniture. A flat sidewalk extension would integrate greenery around hydrants; a low sidewalk rise holds a planter and bench; a "mega-rise" stretches even longer along the street, with more seating space and planting space; a ridge integrates and strengthens the median.

The proposal is a combination of the very practical with the whimsical. By inserting striping and a median island—each tactic has been shown to decrease pedestrian collisions by about 50 percent, according to Walk San Francisco—OPA gives pedestrians more time to cross the street and drivers more awareness of walkers. By highlighting both greenery and seating in the planters, they emphasize the communitarian possibilities of this particular public space.

"There’s a sense of mutation that happens along the street. It would be interesting as a pedestrian. There’s a visual pleasure that happens [with the installations], as well as possibility for people to gather and run into each other," Prillinger says.

A crosswalk isn’t customarily seen as a place to, say, sit down for lunch; but why not?