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Klaus Philipsen, FAIA is an architect, urban designer and architectural writer specializing in urban architecture, adaptive reuse, preservation and transportation work. He is President ArchPlan Inc. past chairman of the Baltimore Design Center, member of the AIA National Regional and Urban Design Committee and president of NeighborSpace Baltimore County. He is a co-founder of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide smart growth group. Klaus has been a presenter, speaker or moderator at international, national and regional conventions and events about cities, design, smart growth, economic development, livability, sustainability and transportation. He writes an architectural column in a local paper and is a urban design contributor on a statewide radio talk show. For inquiries about presentations, participation in discussion panels or articles write to info@archplan.com

Friday, August 22, 2014

Schools as Place Makers

The nation spent over thirteen billion dollars on school construction in 2013. In my area,  Baltimore City and Baltimore County combined have earmarked over 2.1 billion dollars for their ten-year school construction programs. It would probably be no exaggeration to say that those types of investments will make a difference in the built environment. To understand how much school systems are players in our metros, consider this: Baltimore County schools alone transport 75,000 kids every day in their own buses, a ridership that
Transportation instead of place
represents 1/3 of the public transit passengers of the entire MTA, buses and rail combined. With almost 30,000 employees, the two Baltimore school systems (City and County) are by far the largest employer in Maryland. Combined, they operate over 350 buildings, as many as the entire downtown of a mid-size city. Shouldn't these mega organizations be considered highly important not only for education but also economic development, urban renewal, and urban space?

Unfortunately, for all the public attention that public schools get, economic development, urban renewal, and place-making aren't typically the topics of discussion. As a consequence, schools frequently undo places instead of making them, especially when they need more room and move out of their established spots.

We don't have to search too hard to find the reasons why schools are rarely considered as an integral component of urban development.
Booker T. Washington School in Baltimore, built to
last and instill pride and place

One reason is that schools and school systems are safely siloed and walled off from agencies concerned with urban development. In a desire to insulate education from politics, Mayor and Council typically have little influence on how schools are run beyond some control over the buildings themselves. Take the capital budgets of schools: In many cases it is actually quite unclear where the money comes from. School systems lead a life of their own and how exactly the governance works differs from state to state and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Elected school boards, appointed school boards, schools where local government owns the buildings but the school board runs the operations, does education fundingdoes come from property taxes, state budgets or both? All of these conditions and questions make forthe general public a system that is usually pretty obtuse and poorly understood. Urban design, then, is the least of worries for concerned parents or even the school boards themselves.

Instead, debates rage about how US education performs in international comparisons, to what extent schools should equip their students with computer tablets, whether “Common Core" or some other curriculum is better, how the deficiencies in science and math can be overcome, how arts can help students’ self-confidence, or how physical education and better cafeteria food can combat obesity. These issues seem all so much more relevant than the school as a place maker in the community. As a parent who shepherded five children to public schools I appreciate all those preoccupations. The obesity question, however, illustrates well that several seemingly unrelated issues eventually lead to place making. Why is it, for example, that kids can't walk to school anymore?

The departure of schools from their communities in which they were proud anchors in favor of the never-spaces between communities is the story of sprawl,  the dominant development pattern of the many decades after the war, not only in the US but also overseas. I experienced it first hand: My grandfather was a small town mayor and according to common lore his biggest achievement was to abolish one room schools in the three tiny villages of his district in favor of a brand new joint school shared between them, and located in green fields equidistant from each village, reachable only by bus. On my grandpa's seventieth, eightieth and even his ninetieth birthday the village elders never tired to tell the story how this forward looking man had brought progress to his communities in the shape of a school kitchen, a cafeteria, and even a library, and how my grandfather had gone into battle to get this done over the objections of those stuck in the past. Of course, a school which opened in the late sixties doesn't look so bright anymore. In fact, they come from a period when school design clearly had a low.
The school my grandfather initiated: Too unsafe to walk to

Similar stories played out all across the United States as well and they still occur to this day The tiny spot of Prices Fork outside Blacksburg, VA, for example, just last year rolled one of big sprawling single story educational villages into the fields that once constituted a considerable distance between Blacksburg and Prices Fork while the town of Blackburg itself gobbled much of the green buffer up with not just one but two sprawling compounds, a Middle and a High school side by side on an area larger than the entire town center. By now Blacksburg and Prices Fork have almost grown together, each having lost a good part of their previous identity in the process.Similar stories played out all across the United States as well and they still occur to this day. The tiny spot of Prices Fork outside Blacksburg, VA, for example, just last year rolled out a big sprawling single-story educational village in the fields that once constituted a considerable rural expanse between Blacksburg and Prices Fork.  The town of Blacksburg itself gobbled much of the green buffer up with not just one but two sprawling compounds, a middle and a hHigh school side-by-side on an area larger than the entire town center. By now, Blacksburg and Prices Fork have almost grown together, each having lost a good part of their previous identity in the process.
Prices Fork ES, hardly a place maker, certainly not
a walk to school

In addition to sprawl other forces are at play which don't help community development-based place making: Frequent attacks on schools foster a bunker mentality in which security concerns squash any desire for openness and community mingling. Immigration and demographics having to do with the baby boomer "echo" and their offspring made many centrally located schools too small or obsolete. Baltimore County, especially hit by overcrowded elementary schools, resorted to complicated new deals in which several historic school buildings and community centers are supposed to be gutted in favor of efficient and cost-effective new construction often in a new location. In one case a much beloved tree studded open space was selected as the site fora new school, pitting parents against dog-walkers, seniors, and runners. In Catonsville, the recently awakened main street is being threatened with the loss and demolition of its 1912 Elementary School, by far the largest historic structure on the street and an important character-shaping element of the village core.
Catonsville Elementary. In the community and of the
community but threatened by demolition

The relationship of school and community is increasingly recognized not necessarily for urban design but for its value to education itself. Needless to say, when schools moved away from their communities those relationships suffered in many ways. The Enterprise paper "Reconnecting Schools and Neighborhoods" summarizes the mutual dependencies:
Families,schools, and neighborhoods also influence each other. Families can reinforce or detract from school activities, and schools can influence family behavior by encouraging certain educational practices within the home. Neighborhoods can influence families by providing access to jobs, a sense of physical safety, and social networks.In addition, advantaged families tend to select prosperous neighborhoods where other affluent families send their children to school.The influence of families,schools, and neighborhoods are interconnected, making it exceptionally difficult to quantify the independent effect of each on children’s academic performance. Nevertheless, all three forces clearly play a role in shaping children’s outcomes.

Big cities, often landlocked inside the surrounding county, not only have a hard time  finding space for sprawling expansions, therefore spawning more urban solutions, but their long history also allows a nice comparison of school architecture over time and a comparison of facilities and how they performed in their communities. Let's just say, the schools from the seventies aren't the top performers. The windowless, low-flung imitations of the suburbs are absent of any architectural ambition and guided only by what was then considered functionality. As a result they are often the least loved and most in need of a drastic overhaul, while stately multi-story buildings that were designed to be proud civic landmarks in their community are still that, even if their interiors are outdated and in need of upgrades. A 2013 exhibit titled "the Edgeless School" showed many good urban schools that opened up to their surrounding communities in tight urban settings. (East Harlem Center for Living and Learning). Washington DC has a School Without Walls that "uses the city as a classroom".
Layout of the Henderson community
school, mimicking city blocks

Baltimore City, then, presents an instructive example for what community-based schools can be, especially with the promise of an even more community-based approach for the upcoming capital investment program, a concept that fellow Baltimore architect David Hong dubbed Community Investment Zones. The idea of school investment zones around the billion dollar city construction program is still mostly an idea supported by AIA. Baltimore City has yet to translate it into action in the form of focused improvement action in the communities surrounding the schools. David states this in his newspaper editorial:
True transformation will require a larger, more comprehensive vision for community development that addresses both the problem of failing neighborhoods and the problem of failing schools.
Two recently completed new schools in Baltimore City could be especially instructive: one, the public "magnet" Design School (graphic design, fashion and architecture), is a renovation of a three-story former garment factory funded by a private developer and leased back by the school system. The Design School is an important anchor of the Station North Arts and Entertainment district.

The other is the Henderson Hopkins School, a brand new,  state-of-the-rt K-8 "community school," located in what used to be the poorest area of Baltimore, "Middle East," Henderson Hopkins was funded for the most part by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Johns Hopkins School of Education, and is run as a "Contract School."
Rehabbed and partially re-built rowhouses for
Hopkins-Henderson library: In and of the
Both schools are interesting as buildings, as models for funding, as examples of wide ranging partnerships and as trendsetters for new pedagogy. But for the purpose of this article I bring them up as models of economic development, as urban design contributors and as anchors of their respective communities, each deeply disinvested and disenfranchised until recently. Both schools aim for interaction with the community down to special entrances that allow the public to use parts of the school even while other parts are full of students. Unlike their suburban counterparts they don't stand withdrawn in the middle of parking and greenery but form a street-edge on a regular city block just like city buildings normally do. The Henderson school design by Rogers Architects in New York was the design competition winner for the very reason that it rebuilt the urban patterns that were germane to the East Baltimore Community. As the architect explains:
 The Library is not only place for knowledge from outside the community but also a place for knowledge of the community from  inside the community.
Another interesting Baltimore example of the community building power of schools is far less direct, Seawall's recent strategy of providing affordable housing specifically for teachers. The purpose is  to attract quality teachers to urban communities which have often difficulties attracting them. Seawall has expanded its teacher communities from rental housing to starter homes for teachers and small businesses that serve the teachers and surrounding communities.

Pedagogy, the renaissance of cities, the interest in walkable mixed-use urban communities and the desire to create healthy communities all point in the same direction: Into a future where schools once again are engines, centers, and proud landmarks in their communities.

The concept of school/ community investment zones (David Hong, AIA)

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

edited Ben Groff
updated for link to Smart Growth Schools 8/24/14

Links related to this story:
Enterprise Report (2007): Reconnecting School and Neighborhood
Building a School with a Future (NPR)
Smart Growth Schools Report Card (A toolkit for assessing how much school investments are smart growth)
Baltimore City Schools, Baltimore City ten year construction plan
Baltimore County Schools, Baltimore County ten year plan
Baltimore School Community Investment Zones (suggested strategy, see also here)

Related stories on this blog:
Cities in Search of the 21st Century School
My Walkable Childhood Habitat
Why dealing with the Past through Demolition may not Work
Art as Neighborhood Regenerator
Baltimore Design School

Comments to this piece submitted on other websites:

  • Stuart Pertz
    Civic Design Advocate
    Thank you for a very thoughtful and thought provoking piece.
    Schools are one of the few public facilities that are able to create by their use and proximity, all the programmatic possibilities of a perfect community "place". The playground, the gym, the auditorium, the entrance hall, class rooms and the even modest surrounding green space often represents not only an essential resource, but an important sense of community pride.
    And as you note, often not.
    Poor design may well be a part of the problem, but were schools able to organize themselves as central places for their neighborhoods and communities without the overwhelming sense that they have so much else to do, the idea might be met with more internal support. Perhaps if school facilities were seen as a professional responsibility, not merely a janitorial one, or perhaps even independent of the school bureaucracy, it might help free up some leadership for placemaking goals.
    It is certainly not an easy idea or investment to promote to financially strapped towns and cities, but your article nudged the broader conversation along very well.
    Thanks again.
  • I enjoyed your “Schools as Place Makers” article.  I wanted to bring to your attention the “Smart Growth Schools Report Card” in the event that you have not seen it.  While it could benefit from being updated, it has helped frame a lot of the issues for some folks. Here is the link:
     http://smartgrowthschools.org/SGSReportCard.pdf Cheers,
     Nathan R. Norris
    CEO, Downtown Development Authority
    Lafayette, LA  70501

  • Anita McKeown
    Thinking Wilderness at LEAP
    Enjoyed reading your piece Klaus and exciting to hear a sort of a ripple regarding this in other parts of the world.

    There is currently a move in Ireland given the recession and public sector monies to reconsider Schools as central community assets. On average once holidays, weekends and weekday timetables are factored in schools are used approx 46% of the year. This is a huge potential asset to a community that is currently not being utilised.

    The move towards schools being re-conisdered as part of an ecology of a location with multi-use at the core of their activities rather than just education requires a conceptual shift across many disciplines and govt departments which is almost bigger than any practical enactment.

    Health and safety of young people is a concern ( silod / walled places) and of course the administrational systems are very different between the US and here in Ireland so would have very different obstacles to confront. However the similarities involve the need to move towards shared ownership, shared management and for that to really work as you say takes transparency, trust and a willingness to do things differently through a devolution of power.

    Yet despite the steep climb - I am optimistic and look forward to hearing more of the progression of this conversation within the US.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Can we Learn from Williamsburg?

There are plenty very lovely small towns all over the US, many of which I described in an earlier article (Is Small Town America the Home of Happiness?). But no matter how lovely their center may be, to get there one has to fight through layers of gas stations, fast food joints, billboards, abandoned, shopping centers, and cheap motels; in short, the usual junk that even small towns unfailingly produce in abundance. This is true whether one approaches Frederick, Hagerstown, or Chestertown in Maryland, Lancaster in Pennsylvania, Portland in Maine, or Arvada or Golden in Colorado. Even places that luck placed into a setting of great natural beauty like the town of Chincoteague, located on a barrier island and approached via miles on a causeway with nothing but marshes left and right, are marred by what seem like thousands of billboards rammed into the swamps even more frequently than the telephone poles.
Billboards on the causeway leading into
Chincoteague, VA

This experience is exponentially worsened when an attraction is well known and draws visitors from across the country like the Amish settlements do near Lancaster, the Civil War battlefields do near historic Fredericksburg, or the Rockies do in Breckenridge.

Heading towards Colonial Williamsburg after leaving Interstate 64 for VA 132, I fully expected an onslaught of billboards, motels, and colonial this-and-that to burst into view any second. Alas, the approach remained a lush green, aside from a traffic signal at the bypass road and a very unobtrusive interchange with the Colonial Parkway (more about that in a bit).  Then, suddenly the town of Williamsburg began with well-designed
Lincoln Highway, Lancaster PA
houses, a train crossing, and an intersection; all clean, small, in-scale, historic, and green looking. In an instant one reaches downtown with a couple of commercial streets filled with wonderful restaurants, coffee shops, and nic nac stores, but none of the loud or obnoxious ones of those national chains that populate, for example, the waterfront pavilions on Norfolk's waterfront nearby. Continuing on, one can find the bi-centennial park or turn right to see the fabulous campus of the William and Mary College.

Any way one turns the town remains small-scale
Gettysburg gateway
and tasteful, traffic is quite manageable, and a historic-district ambience is maintained. Where large amounts of parking is needed (next to the Colonial Inn), the cars are tucked behind hedges and only visible once one turns right into the lot. The exception – and there has to be one somewhere – is the Bypass Road. This is where the shopping centers, chain stores, Denny's restaurants and 7 Eleven gas stations are assembled along with a dozen or so hotel chains offering beds for those who want to study the beginnings of the first British Colony in America in more detail. But even here, and this is outside of Williamsburg proper, things seem to be arranged with an eye for a pleasant and verdant appearance.

Consulting an aerial image one can see that the signs guide the tourist on a somewhat circuitous route aiming to the Visitors Center of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation so one can park there and take the shuttle buses. Some other approaches may be less scenic. Still, the sheer concept of defining a preferred route into town and of making a major effort to make it pretty and scenic deserves applause and is worth writing home about.
In the "colonial" Williamsburg section motor vehicles are kept
at bay during the day but even around that area the auto
doesn't totally dominate

The ordering hand of the mighty Foundation, the obvious intents of the Williamsburg municipal planners in collaboration with those from York County, and last but not least, the influence of the National Park Service, is visible beyond the tasteful gateway into Williamsburg. Not to forget the power of citizens: in the late eighties a coalition of Virginia citizens groups joined several developers to oppose a new bridge over the James River. The bridge, which was to be located adjacent to Jamestown, would have
replaced existing ferry service and opened up large tracts of land to suburban sprawl, all at the expense of one of the nation’s most important historical sites. The coalition undertook a technical analysis of the bridge proposal and lobbied the state transportation board and the local metropolitan planning organization to scrap the bridge idea. By the end of
1991, the bridge project was put to rest. The area now enjoys expanded ferry service and a landscape that has remained relatively unchanged since the first English colonists arrived in 1607.

A particularly noteworthy accomplishment in the scenic and tasteful routes department is the Colonial Parkway, a three-lane concrete band that connects the three Colonial attractions of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. This project was conceived in the years of the New Deal and constructed over 26 years with completion in 1957.
Colonial Parkway is a meticulously crafted landscape that integrates the region's natural and cultural resources into a memorial roadway of the American colonial experience. It marks an important change in the history of National Park Service (NPS) road-building traditions as the first NPS-designed parkway that unifies dispersed sites as part of a cohesive national park.
This is what NPS says about its own creation and there is no better way of putting it. One can drive the whole 23 miles without any visual assaults of any type, even though York County and Williamsburg's growth have exploded since the completion of this artful roadway. Running a good stretch along the majestic James and York rivers with only foliage between the shore and the parkway, it dives under the historic core of Williamsburg and intersects with many of the area’s roadways by going into a cut with small underpasses. With a speed limit of 45mph and closed to commercial vehicles, the roadway has no double yellow lines, no guardrails or reflectors, and reminds one of the times when highways were such attractions that people used them for Sunday drives and picnics by the side of the roadway. It is astonishing that this design from a time of much lower traffic volumes can persist and function to this day. It is equally impressive to see how much such carefully crafted design can have a soothing effect on the traveler. 
Colonial Parkway connecting Jamestown, Williamsburg
and Yorktown

I cannot stop wondering what our very own parkway, the Baltimore Washington Parkway, could have achieved if our region had stuck to the original intention of a pleasant travel connection between DC and Baltimore. Completed in 1954 and 29 miles long, the BW Parkway should be quite comparable to the Colonial Parkway. Instead, it has become a lesson in what not to do. First, the parkway territory and powers end way too far outside the two metro areas allowing for terrible gateways into the cities on both ends. Both Baltimore and DC spilled out their urban guts to travelers entering from the Parkway with the full assortment of gas stations, motels, and billboards in the worst possible arrangement. 

Making matters worse is the very arbitrary location of the Arundel Mills mega mall-cum-casino, forced midways between Baltimore’s sprawl and a brand-new highway interchange.  Additionally, general accommodation of traffic volumes and modern roadway engineering standards led to the recent destruction of tight and inconspicuous interchanges and beautiful natural stone clad overpasses in favor of high-speed ramps and additional lanes. Given the rapid growth of the region this wouldn't be necessarily surprising, but DC and Baltimore already have the multilane I-95 corridor and a recently built out MD 29 corridor, not to mention Amtrak and commuter rail connections. Williamsburg's Parkway shows that regional growth doesn't have to result in the accommodation of sprawl along a Parkway. Clearly, our region is much bigger and no real comparison. Still, I think that a scenic parkway connecting Washington's Mall via New York Avenue with the National Arboretum and then the 6,500 acre green space of the Agricultural Research Center, the Goddard Space Center, the large open tracts of Fort Meade and finally with Baltimore's historic Westport and Middle Branch, could have been a huge regional asset. The shared BWI airport in between could have been an additional asset, not necessarily a threat. What was missing here, apparently was the type of vision and collaboration between NPS, the State of Maryland, the District and the City of Baltimore that guided the planners in the Colonial Triangle. (For attractions on the Parkway see here).
This older photo shows to what extent the B-W Parkway
was "modernized". This photo shows a mishap during
the construction of a new bridgespan

I don't know much about the Colonial Triangle but my recent travel there allows me to see our Parkway in a new light. Baltimore will open its own spanking new casino next week as part of its own new gateway design. The casino is large but the four gas stations directly across, the storage facility to its north and the budget hotel and trash incinerator to its south will require lots more work to make this entry into Baltimore the worthy terminus of a journey from the nation's capital. 

There, in the Capital itself, the ongoing construction boom is slowly converting New York Avenue into a more and more presentable affair, and planning as a way to control the cities destiny has come back into focus. Lately, a bridge gateway beautification was even included on the reconstructed bridge over the Amtrak tracks. 

Eventually both cities will realize that their future is one of partnership and that whatever they do, they are dependent on each other; from Washington's perspective maybe for no other reason than that Presidents like to do those quick trips to a nearby "real" place outside the Washington beltway. More often than not, that is Baltimore. The BW-Parkway and all the federal property in between still is a largely untapped asset.
The entry to DC is under constant improvement but still
largely a mess

As for Williamsburg: Eventually, even the most risk adverse tourist will tire of the sameness and predictability that national chains offer everywhere. What is the point of travel if everything is the same as at home? The Colonial triangle offers a truly different experience from the controlled gateways to careful historic preservation and well managed traffic, transit and parking arrangements. So many more places in the US could too, if they only resolved to highlight their differences. Those
Russell Street, Baltimore's gateway from the B-W Parkway
billboards and storage facility
differences don't have to be of high brow British origin but neither do they have to relinquish all aspiration and be satisfied with what the bottom shelves of kitsch have to offer.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

edited: Ben Groff

updated 8/19/14 for reference to the fight against the Jamestown bridge project.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Why US Pedestrian Safety Remains Elusive

Even though overall traffic fatalities continue to fall, pedestrian deaths not only stayed stubbornly high, they even increased in some areas. How come?
Pedestrian fatalities rose from 13% to 17% in
the US in the last nine years

The first guess may be technology. While improved vehicle safety protects the life of the driver and passenger better and better, those outside the vehicle, primarily bicyclists and pedestrians, are left out.  Even worse, the bigger, faster, and quieter that cars and SUVs have become, the more they have mutated into effective killing machines for those who are in their way. The safer the roads are made for driving (curves, straightened, sightlines improved, trees felled etc.) the more drivers are lulled into a false sense of security and the faster cars can safely go – both possibly to the detriment of the pedestrian.  

That the pedestrian carnage isn't an immutable price one has to pay for technological progress becomes obvious if one realizes that there are significant differences in pedestrian safety between different countries and states, between rural areas and cities, and between the various "cultures" of how to plan and design villages, towns, cities and suburbs.  My home state Maryland has 1.75 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 residents, a fatality rate almost twice that of Massachusetts (0.88).  In fact we are among the most unsafe states: only Florida, New Mexico and Puerto Rico are significantly worse. What are the safer states doing that the others are not? What can be done to make walking safer and what have those states with the low crash rates done right?
Big cities and southern states is where the danger lurks

Some think that education is the answer. In the Baltimore area, a current billboard campaign advocates "smart walking," with drastic images showing a person lying in the street in front of a car. The flaw of this campaign is obvious –  the message seeks to address the problem by placing the blame on "dumb" walking, a clear case of blaming the victim, a strategy well know from campaigns that try to curb violence against women. Ironically, those billboards for "smart walking" are placed along arteries for the benefit of drivers who, peering through their windshields, probably don't identify themselves as the intended target. Thus, the blame is even further shifted from where the real responsibility lies: the drivers. While education is always good, it needs to address the root cause of the problem which is likely not just the wrong behavior.

Maybe it isn't dumb walking as much as dumb street design that lies at the heart of the matter. The low pedestrian fatalities in some areas are likely not caused by brighter pedestrians that just walk smarter; it is equally unlikely that the drivers are just smarter there. Is it possible these areas designed their streets, villages, town and cities differently?  Did they just put a bit more effort into facilities for walking such as sidewalks, crosswalks, signals, lighting and signage? Perhaps by doing so they entered into one of those positive feedback loops we never tire to aim for in planning: Better design leads to more walking and biking, which in turn leads to even better facilities and so forth. (Naturally, those feedback loops also work in reverse). Can places be designed so that walking isn't so dangerous? Now after decades of crash test and perfected crumple zones, soft dashboards, deflective steering columns, air bags, and seatbelts it is high time that we focus on the facilities for people outside cars. At a time when the automobile is finally dethroned from its status as the symbol of western civilization it is appropriate that we take a hard look at what design, technological, and yes, educational options are out there waiting to be used to lower pedestrian fatalities.
Is there such a thing a smart and dumb walking?

In the interest of awareness and education it is helpful to remind ourselves how far we have come in giving the driver preference over the walker by recalling the times when the automobile had just been invented, not much further than a century back. Back then the automobile's danger was immediately clear to regulators: they mandated a person to 
This prettified crosswalk in "smart walking" Berlin, MD
is accessible on one side and has a curb on the other...ouch!
(Photo: ArchPlan Inc.)
walk in front of a motor vehicle carrying a red warning flag. Since then, the laws were steadily turned against pedestrian rights, forcing them into the small areas above the curbs and, most famously, by restricting the simple practice of crossing the street midblock and making it illegal to "jaywalk." Any approach to pedestrian safety has to recalibrate the imbalance in how space is distributed and how laws are written. It helps to invoke the purpose of cities as places for people in which motor vehicles can, indeed, be weapons. This has little to do with being anti- car or hostile to driving, it is more about recognizing that cities, towns and villages are by definition places where walking is necessary and where every driver also becomes a pedestrian. The more this is the case, the better these places perform, not only in crash statistics but also economically. A city that was re-designed for cars usually shows little vitality or urbanity while one that is very walkable and full of people walking around is attractive and urban in the original meaning. We realize, this isn't about smart or dumb walking but about the insight that walking in itself is smart.

walkable small town
(Photo: ArchPlan Inc.)
Once it is understood that walking is as a key tenet of urban design we see pedestrian safety as integral to the design of every aspect of city, from the city layout to land use and street design.
The latter realization gave rise to the term of "complete streets", describing a more holistic approach than just better crosswalks or more sidewalks, complete streets also include what happens left and right of streets. In the broadest sense complete streets include land use and the placement of activities so that they can be reached in other ways than driving. Avoiding unnecessary distance, creating density and proximity are enormously important aspects of accessibility. I have covered the question of "complete streets" in a previous articles but have to admit that cities have to address pedestrian safety immediately and in a time of sparse resources that may not always allow the comprehensive approach one would wish for. Unfortunately, some short term quick fixes carry the risk to fortify a bad approach as we shall see.

Once it is understood that walking is a key tenet of urban design we see pedestrian safety as integral to the design of every aspect of city, from the city layout to land use and street design. 
The latter realization gave rise to the term of "complete streets," describing a more holistic approach than just better crosswalks or more sidewalks, complete streets also include what happens left and right of streets. In the broadest sense, complete streets include land use and the placement of activities so that they can be reached in other ways than driving. Avoiding unnecessary distance, creating density and proximity, are enormously important aspects of accessibility. I have covered the question of "complete streets" in previous articles but have to admit that cities have to address pedestrian safety immediately and in a time of scarce resources that may not always allow the comprehensive approach one would wish for. Unfortunately, some short term quick fixes carry the risk of fortifying a bad approach, as we shall see.

How suddenly pedestrian safety can hit home and require quick design responses recently became clear in College Park, MD along a stretch of US 1 which runs along the campus of the University of Maryland. Bars, coffee shops and other commercial activity sit right across the heavily traveled street. In a relatively short period three students were killed while crossing Route 1,  a "State Highway," nomenclature that stems from a time when the state administered highways and the locals were responsible for the streets. Urbanization has long made this distinction obsolete. Maryland's State Highway Administration is a leader in "thinking beyond the pavement," a program that SHA coined some 20 years ago (my firm used the first dollars allocated under this expanded thinking to redesign the streetscape of the small Town of Port Deposit) followed by the 2001 guidebook titled, "When Main Street is a State Highway." The express purpose of the program and the guidebook was to change the design culture of engineers raised on the notion that moving cars is the first and only commandment they had to follow.
US 1 in College Park
(from blog Rethink College Park)

In College Park, SHA's response to the tragic deaths has two prongs, one addressing drivers and one addressing pedestrians, through education and physical design. Pedestrians will be barred from crossing midblock by fences to be erected in the median, an approach that SHA had already tested in another high pedestrian crash zone, Langley Park. There, two State Highways intersect and many dispersed bus stops made pedestrians dart for the bus across the many lanes. (My firm helped address the root cause by designing a central bus transfer facility which will bring all stops under one roof, a project still under construction. This will reduce the places where people would be motivated to dart across six lanes of traffic by a waiting bus). In College Park SHA will also install an additional signalized crosswalk and to rein in speeding drivers the speed limit will be reduced from 30 mph to 25mph enforced by patrol officers and automated speed cameras which are legal in school zones in Maryland. The speed limit is especially noteworthy because speed is a major contributor to American pedestrian crash statistics. The typically allowed in-town speeds of 30 to 45 miles per hr in most cases are much higher than in most other countries where in town speed limits are not only lower (in all residential sections in almost all European countries it is 18 mph) but also strictly enforced through automatic radar. In spite of Baltimore's unsuccessful attempt of automated speed cameras at intersections, US speed enforcement happens mostly on freeways where the traps may be lucrative but have little to do with safety.

While the proposed design changes  for College Park probably reduce crashes and deaths as they did on another Maryland danger area, Ocean City, MD, most of these measures actually channel and separate pedestrians and cars more. Inadvertently this could actually exacerbate the underlying "cultural" problem, the one where pedestrians get hit because they are "outside their territory." As I pointed out in my earlier essay about "Complete Streets," separation of modes tempts drivers and walkers each to insist more on their "rights" and to be more territorial. This strict separation also does little about the fact that the vast majority of available space is given to the automobile, precisely the anti-urban solution that has impoverished so many formerly urban environments. College Park resembles in large stretches the barren commercial strips we all associate with the car-dominated environment which is so predominant at the edges of all our cities.  An environment that segregates rather than integrates and which relegates walking to the status of inferior circulation hardly can be considered an appropriate design solution. As soon as College Park tried to be urban, tried to have some kind of "Main Street" and provide activities along the street, the pedestrian crashes increased. Fences in the median won't make a good Main Street, nor will inordinate amounts of through traffic.
Having to fumble for a button to even get to wait for a
walk signal discriminates against walking

Beyond this conundrum of channelization, what basic technical design aspects can enhance pedestrian safety? Simple safety design elements include allowing parking along the curbs to keep moving traffic further from the sidewalks. Parked cars act as a safety buffer. "Bulb outs" that shorten the crossing distance and move the pedestrian into a position to see and be seen.  Prohibiting right turns on red throughout the day and night. Are there enough crosswalks and are they placed where people want to cross? (Last weekend I saw students walking with "sandwich placards" through Berlin, a newly popular Maryland tourist destination – billed as “America's Smallest Cool Town" – handing out bookmarks admonishing visitors to use "crosswalks". The kicker: there weren't any crosswalks within 500' distance, not even where one had to cross side streets and at a green space where a festival was held.) 

How are the pedestrians protected? Can the motorists see the crosswalk and the crossing pedestrian? Are there any types of signals that change when a pedestrian is present in the street? Are signal times for passage long enough for slower walkers? Are the streets designed for higher speeds than what the legal limit indicates, i.e. are they seducing drivers to speed? Are sidewalks and traffic lanes too close to each other in areas where traffic moves at higher speeds or volumes? 
Clear signs, markings and flashing embedded pavement
lights allow pedestrians to be safer in crosswalk 

The technical and engineering side of pedestrian safety also includes the vehicles: are hoods, bumpers, mirrors and accessories designed to minimize low speed impacts, or are vehicles still allowed to sport designs and accessories that kill or maim even when the vehicle hits a pedestrian at low speeds. Items that come to mind are steel "cow catchers," sharp and protruding running boards, side mirrors of gigantic proportions that don't fold in (or not easily) and various types of spoilers that can be mounted to hoods and trunks.

New LED lighting technology has made it much easier to install solar-powered lighting that is designed to illuminate pedestrians in crosswalk or yellow warning flashers that can be embedded along the crosswalk edges or mounted to signposts. Those warning lights flash only while pedestrians are detected in the crosswalk area and are very hard to overlook.

Because the technical design aspects, no matter how fancy, will eventually have only limited effect if the character of the street remains highway-like, when Main Street happens to be a State Highway, the Main Street functions should probably get the upper hand. If design focuses on making a good Main Street first and managing traffic second it will become safer without too many fancy accessories like automatic flashers and the like. 
Pedestrian friendly multi purpose surface
Estes Park, Co

On a good Main Street the pedestrian's well being, interest, and activity would call the shots. Shopping, strolling, enjoying restaurants, sidewalk cafes, or any other urban activity would be promoted, driving through to get to other places, while allowed, would be subordinated. Instead of channeling and separating everything towards, a truly active commercial node will strive for mixing things up, including multi-purpose surfaces shared by pedestrians, drivers, bicyclists, and delivery vehicles. In the extreme this could mean no curbs at all. Does this sound far fetched for a roadway that carries some 50,000 vehicles a day?

Experiments in Europe show that multi-surface can work well in large cities and with relatively high volumes of traffic, although there is probably a limit somewhere. Instead of stopping traffic at red lights and then counting on fast movement during the green cycle, traffic is just overall slowed to a more steady stream. Traffic 
circles, for example can have that result, so do four way stops (as practiced in large parts of downtown San Diego). Once the speeds are near the 15-20mph rate, pedestrians and drivers can safely "negotiate" through eye contact who gets to move, bicycles can move safely at the same speed and almost nobody is in danger of instant death in the case of a collision. Once we extrapolate such strategies to more areas and make them a regional principle, a lot of reasons for driving will be eliminated which will drop traffic. This is a positive feedback loop in which convenience isn't sacrificed; actually a case of "having the cake and eating it, too" in which pedestrian safety, quality of life in urban places, and reduced traffic would result. That this isn't a pipe dream can be seen in Washington DC, a place that reduced vehicle miles travelled (VMT) while growing by 60,000 people. What’s not to like?

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff

Related articles on Community Architect:
Street Design
Complete Streets
A City for People not for Cars

External sources:
Wired Magazine: the 20 most deadly cities for pedestrians
International Road Safety
FHWA Focus on Pedestrian Safety
Dangerous By Design 2014 (Smart Growth America)

Comments on this article from Planetizen: (Status 08/11/14 16:30h)
  • Sadie Geisler
    Experience-Seeking Disaster Response Planner at Home
    all the technology in the world won't change the "hey! watch where I'm going!" attitude of American drivers. The only technology that might help would be to be able to send video footage directly to police dispatch and having the police actually do something about it.
     Jean SmilingCoyote likes this
  • Sadie Geisler
    Experience-Seeking Disaster Response Planner at Home
    all the technology in the world won't change the "hey! watch where I'm going!" attitude of American drivers. The only technology that might help would be to be able to send video footage directly to police dispatch and having the police actually do something about it.
  • Sadie Geisler
    Experience-Seeking Disaster Response Planner at Home
    all the technology in the world won't change the "hey! watch where I'm going!" attitude of American drivers. The only technology that might help would be to be able to send video footage directly to police dispatch and having the police actually do something about it.

  • Jean
    Architecture & Planning Professional
    One problem is that children may not routinely be taught "defensive walking" guidelines often enough, or at all, in school. I see parents teaching their children scofflaw pedestrian strategies by their own example, when walking places with their children in tow. If a stranger tries to tell them what the law advises, they snap back claiming "it's none of your business!" They repeat it if the stranger says that if someone's breaking the law in public, it IS the business of the stranger. Scofflaw strangers of all ages may show this "not your business" attitude. To them, there are no fellow citizens - just the downtrodden "folks" and the authority figure of the local police. They only respect the police, and only because of the threat of force. I learned about defensive walking a bit better the hard way, when I was knocked over by a left-turning van whose driver didn't see me. Fortunately, I was not hurt beyond an abrasion. Many police officers won't even be bothered to say something to jaywalkers.
  • David J Goodman
    David J
    Bicycle & Pedestrian Programs Manager at Arlington County
    There are a lot of cultural assumptions baked into the statement above that we might do well to dismantle. Think about it: When a pedestrian walks against the traffic rules, those rules were more often than not set up to privilege roadway traffic. Everything from the timing of the traffic signals (if there are any) to the width and number of the travel lanes and turning lanes - and thus the length of time pedestrians are exposed to traffic - to the spacing of intersections are all determined to minimize inconvenience and delay to the driving public. Pedestrians are trying to optimize their own needs against a backdrop of a system optimized for those of a very different roadway user. When a pedestrian gets hit crossing a road midblock between two destinations because the next nearest official crosswalk is 500 feet in either direction (and crossing there exposes them to threats from multiple directions, not just one or two) then the police cite the pedestrian for "crossing outside of the crosswalk". Thus the pedestrian was responsible for their own fate. That's textbook cultural bias and is an integral part of every state traffic code. Modify the design of our roadways to make it more intuitive and easy/safe to be a pedestrian and you'll see these numbers change. Alternately, do like they do in Europe and make the safety of the pedestrian the responsibility of the driver, and you'll see a lot more careful driving and (I suspect) the driving public clambering for better roadway designs so they're not faced with the potential dangers of coming across pedestrians in places that aren't designed for them.

  • Jean
    Architecture & Planning Professional
    David, if your comment is referring to mine, I object. I know Rules of the Road as they involve pedestrians were set up to protect pedestrians as well as vehicle users. Yes, the timing of traffic signals is for vehicles. And if motor vehicles will use the roadway, the roadway must be designed for their safety. There are many traffic signals which unfairly disadvantage pedestrians, and I try to raise a stink in favor of better timing etc. It's tiring.
    "Defensive walking" is just starting with a realistic understanding of who has the advantage in a collision. It's Physics, not attitude. I don't know any place where vehicle users are not legally required to do everything they can to avoid hitting a pedestrian. But motorists can't repeal the laws of physics. Whether the motorist who hits the jaywalker gets a ticket or not, I have no objection to the jaywalker being ticketed.
    When I first visited L.A. in 1972, I mistakenly jaywalked in a place I'd never been. All vehicles stopped to let me finish crossing safely. It was required. Might still be. But decades later, I was surprised to read that someone had actually managed to commit suicide by jaywalking there. The culture had changed.
    There are many jaywalkers for whom no amount of roadway redesign will make it easy enough to be a law-abiding pedestrian - short of banning vehicles entirely. One commercial stretch in my community is treated like a pedestrian mall by the pedestrians who shop there; most are legal immigrants from a certain part of the world. But most jaywalkers I see are native-born.
  • John Hooker
    Looking for new opportunities to serve the public in architecture and city building.
    I recommend that you all read "Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in America" by Peter Norton. http://www.textbookrush.com/browse/Books/9780262516129

    He describes how the automobile interests changed the language (re-framing the discussion) of roads and streets in the 1920s to make them "safe" for cars and dangerous for people. Before that time, the roads belonged to everyone - children, pedestrians, horses, trolleys and automobiles. Youtube has some clips of streets of NYC back in the 1910s that show the variety of users of the streets, and the relatively low speed of everybody on the road. Back then, drivers were considered competent and responsible and children were considered innocent and not responsible. If a driver hit and/or killed a child, it was assumed to be the driver's fault. We fixed that "problem."

    For drivers to truly enjoy the growing power, speed and advantages of their vehicles, the manufacturers had to convince us to ban everyone else from the roadway. And we did.
  • Laurie Mitchell
    Urban Planning & Sustainable Community Development Professional
    This is a great article, Klaus. I have lived all over the world and the U.S. and being a pedestrian in all of these situations has really opened my eyes. I do not have a vehicle, so I run all of my errands as a bicyclist or pedestrian (sometimes on public transit), and let me tell you, it can be very frustrating to get around the places that have been designed for cars. Current urban/town/etc planning is starting to focus more on bike/ped issues, and I hope that we can all come to a happy medium where everyone can get where they need to go efficiently and safely.
  • From:Mr. Allen E Neyman, AIA
    To:Regional and Urban Design Committee
    Posted:Aug 12, 2014 7:36 PM
    Subject:RE: Why Pedestrian Safety Remains Elusive
    As (radical) students we used to cry "the streets belong to the people" which became more of a lament than a promise of activism. Since then I have become an active dog walker in the evening. And ever more frustrated by the system. My neighborhood may be less urban than what Klaus envisions as we have neither sidewalks nor street lights, but cars and trucks and pedestrians nevertheless.. In this configuration, all walkers take to the street and assume as much right in doing, as the vehicles. But walkers do so at a great risk that drivers do not face. It is truly harrowing at times, and so dog walking has become about the most dangerous thing I do now since giving up bar fighting.

    All that Klaus says about the causes and reasons for so many pedestrian deaths are probably true.

    My own conclusion is that drivers have no understanding of how lethal their machines are on streets and only revel in the roar of their fuel injection addictions. How little respect for pedestrians there is in this world of driving machines is my current lament. People take on a different attitude about themselves "behind the wheel" and it shows in lack of respect in other ways too. I drive interstate long distance regularly and see countless carcasses of animals, still there, or what's left of them, the next time through. That we haven't figured out a way to simply and respectfully remove the meat from the street is woeful and our society's shame. I'm sick to my stomach from it and the promotion of speed, power and vehicular supremacy is on the wrong side of history. Not to be too moralistic or anything, you may feel inadequate at times but getting into your leather seat with 300 or more turbo charged HP - well that's performance enhancement and security and no one has the right to interfere or obstruct especially a pedestrian or a dog who can't anyway. Not.

    As far as I am concerned, pedestrians have the right of way. I slow down or stop for all, as well as for animals. That is impractical. But that's part of the solution, a consequence of our frenzy for vehicular rights of way. That is, if in fact, we still value life as it is.
    Allen E Neyman
    Rockville, MD