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6 clever urban design ideas that all cities should steal

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These small, smart innovations are worth building on in 2020

A blue New York City bus running through a busy Manhattan street.
The story of the 14th Street Busway project in New York shows how slight changes in street design can turn buses into a fast and efficient means of getting across the city.
Courtesy of New York City Department of Transportation

End-of-year lists for architecture and development are somewhat curious affairs. Many of the city-shaping megadevelopments or towering skyscrapers heralded at year’s end have arrived at the end of long cycles of funding, design, and construction—New York’s Hudson Yards has been talked about for more than a decade—and tend to exemplify urban thinking that requires massive funding and buy-in from numerous stakeholders.

But projects of smaller size and scope can have equally long-term impacts—and, unlike the megaprojects, can provide pilot opportunities to solve issues of transportation access, equity, and affordability. Let’s take a moment to celebrate some of those smaller, more under-the-radar works of 2019, which achieved impressive results through smart, surgical changes.

The 14th Street Busway (New York City): How a few coats of paint can change your commute

A New York City street marked up with red bus lanes.
All it takes is some paint and political will.
Shutterstock

The United States has a complicated relationship with buses as a mode of mass transit. While they’re the workhorses of our public transportation system and typically offer the cheapest and quickest way for municipalities to expand public transportation options, they’re also routinely looked down upon by planners, elected officials, and commuters, who see buses as crowded, inefficient, slow, and meant for commuters without any other options. But most, if not all, of the problems stem from how we prioritize buses, and what street infrastructure we set aside for them.

The story of the 14th Street Busway project in New York, a pilot program originally meant to serve as a replacement for an under-repair subway line, offers a clear view of the nation’s bus bias, and how slight changes in street design can turn buses into a fast and efficient means of getting across the city. After weathering delays and lawsuits, the New York City Department of Transportation’s plan to turn over 14th Street in Manhattan entirely to buses has been a wild success: According to preliminary research, travel times are down 30 percent, ridership is up, and traffic speeds on neighboring streets haven’t dramatically changed, all without costly new infrastructure investments.

While the busway has gotten rave reviews, it’s fair to say that its potential impact is underappreciated, since it’s only been tried on a single transit corridor. Barring an immediate, wide-ranging shift in transportation funding, we simply can’t solve traffic and emissions issues quickly enough to achieve significant emissions reductions without a rapid shift to buses. In a year when car-centric Los Angeles has successfully tested bus-only lanes, and Indianapolis introduced an electric bus-rapid transit line, another example of the effectiveness of properly supported bus lanes may just illuminate the way forward for public transit.

Harvard’s HouseZero (Cambridge, Massachusetts): How this old house can find new climate solutions

The front facade of HouseZero, a new demonstration project and office built by the Center for Green Building and Cities (CGBC) at Harvard University.
HouseZero suggests that, with the right technology and investment, the greenest house could be the one that’s already built.
Michael Grimm

One of the key energy-saving features that current presidential candidates are advocating in their housing and Green New Deal proposals involves retrofitting homes. Residential and commercial buildings contribute to roughly 40 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions, so there’s considerable room for new technologies, designs, and regulations to improve our built environment. Many of these innovations are in use at HouseZero, a new demonstration project and office built by the Center for Green Building and Cities (CGBC) at Harvard University, which opened its doors last December and started work in earnest this year. The prewar, stick-built home retrofitted by Snøhetta, with Skanska Teknikk Norway serving as the lead energy engineer, has resulted in a nearly zero-emission building thanks to the addition of solar panels, insulation, responsive windows, and lighting improvements, as well as other innovative energy-saving solutions.

The point, according to Ali Malkawi, a professor of architectural technology who leads the CGBC program, is that most of the country’s housing stock is decades old. While newly built, energy-efficient buildings will prevent additional emissions going forward, finding ways to bring older buildings up to date may offer the best chance to make a lasting difference. HouseZero suggests that, with the right technology and investment, the greenest house could be the one that’s already built.

(Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico): The value of culturally sensitive restoration

A restored pueblo-stylke dwelling in New Mexico.
The Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo Restoration project that respects cultural context and history.
Minesh Bacrania Photography for Preservation Magazine

Building restoration can breathe new life into classic structures. In the case of this ongoing project launched by a Pueblo tribal housing authority to restore a 700-year-old Native American village—which won an Architect’s Newspaper design award this month—preservation can also help resurrect a traditional way of life. Since kicking off in 2005, the project to restore homes, overseen by Atkin Olshin Schade Architects, has combined functional upgrades with respect for historic practice—for generations, these flat-roofed residences had been fashioned from adobe and native soil—informed by a new set of guidelines approved by tribal elders. Partially abandoned due to disrepair, the pueblo now boasts 34 restored homes clustered around historic plazas, capping an effort that restored an indigenous community. Not every city, if course, has centuries-old structures to rebuild. But all can learn from a project that respects cultural context and history.

Chicago Public Library and Housing Projects (Chicago): The power of proximity to public infrastructure

A colorful new apartment building with a multicolored facade.
An experiment co-locating libraries and public housing created new community hubs.
James Florio

Despite, or perhaps because of, rapid technological evolution, our public libraries have shown remarkable resiliency in recent years, constantly adding new services, such as online classes and community workshops, to become truly public spaces in a time of privatization. A trio of new projects unveiled this year in Chicago show how a library’s role as a community center can be further leveraged by housing developers by locating home and libraries right next to each other. Designed by a trio of firms—John Ronan Architect, SOM, and Perkins + Will—this experiment in co-location created new community hubs, opened up additional funding sources for public housing, and resulted in three exciting and architecturally distinct new apartment complexes. Simply bringing together two public goods created something bigger than the sum of their parts, especially considering the often-isolating legacy of U.S. public housing.

Park Avenue Green (Bronx, New York): Affordability and sustainability can go hand in hand

Most affordable housing projects in the U.S. involve some cost cutting: sacrificing spending on design or maintenance or amenities in order to make the math work. At Park Avenue Green, a 154-unit project in the Bronx that was built to strict Passive House standards for energy efficiencythe largest such project in the United States—builders and developers went the extra mile to deliver affordability and sustainability. By utilizing clever design alterations and sourcing specific products directly from suppliers to cut costs, the project was able to deliver incredible energy savings while still providing affordable rents: Heating and cooling costs will account for 5 to 10 percent of the building’s overall energy consumption, versus 38 percent for a typical New York apartment building, per Omni, the developer. In addition to boasting a 34-kilowatt array of solar panels, the project reserves 35 units for formerly homeless individuals, and features a 4,300-square-foot community studio and gallery for local artists.

Millworks Lofts (Minneapolis, Minnesota): Industrial chic for the working class

A restored factory loft building with a brick facade.
The original buildings, an old warehouse and a set of cold-storage sheds located in an industrial corridor in the southeast section of Minneapolis, were reborn with refurbished interiors that highlighted the original timber columns.
Dominium

It sounds like a typical downtown adaptive reuse proposal: a former warehouse or factory being flipped into high-end housing that preserves the character and grit of the old neighborhood. But this award-winning project wasn’t done for condos; instead, it created 75 units of affordable workforce housing with easy transit access to downtown. The original buildings, an old warehouse and a set of cold-storage sheds located in an industrial corridor in the southeast section of Minneapolis, were reborn with refurbished interiors that highlighted the original timber columns. The defunct elevator shaft was turned into a light well, while the clubroom became a community space with suspended light pendants hanging from the steel trusses. Even better, it was completed with a series of sustainability features, including LED lighting and geothermal heating, that cut the power bill by 40 percent compared to traditional construction. Affordable housing is in short supply near jobs and transit; projects like this show that yesterday’s workplace can be home to today’s workers.