Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Truly Green 'Greening'

It's a nuance not without its risk of controversy, as SF Citizen expressed in a recent post.  The movement to add more landscaping to San Francisco streets has been gaining steam and literally gaining ground in the last few years.  It think this is a good thing for a lot of reasons.  But almost  all of the square footage that's been de-paved and planted has been taken from our pedestrian space, and that's a distinctly bad thing.

Instead, we could plant trees in the road, or we could green a street as part of a more comprehensive repurposing of the space.

For example, the redesign of Newcomb Avenue in the Bayview is being heralded as a "sustainable streetscape model," but the amount of car space seems to remain the same and the sidewalks are significantly narrowed to accommodate planting beds.  To be clear, we're not talking about a narrow street with barely any space for moving vehicles, Newcomb Ave has ample room for wide traffic lanes and perpendicular parking - an above-average asphalt width for a residential street.  But none of that was given up for greening, instead the sidewalks will shrink.

Another unscientifically-selected example that has come across my radar recently is a plan to landscape Turk Boulevard at Lyon St.  To be fair, it's unclear from this website what the specific details of the final plan are, but one photo in particular strikes me as a bad sign:

This is a sidewalk that has seen some fairly light planting, but the unobstructed sidewalk that remains is only 6 feet wide.  A sidewalk that wide barely allows two people to pass comfortably.  If you're walking and talking to a friend, one of you has to stop and fall behind the other to let a neighbor walk by.

One other questionable greening practice that seems to be picking up speed under its own momentum is the center median.  I'm not a fan of medians.  In those rare cases when the city family actually decides to remove some road space from the sole use of the private car it seems to be given exclusively to plants that nobody is allowed to get close to, and that are far from the gutters where they'd absorb some rainwater.  Take this very unspecific plan to give Bryant Street a road diet at Cesar Chavez, part of the Mission Streetscape Plan:

Again, this drawing is both unclear and unspecific, but it seems to show a street being converted from four lanes to two without widening the sidewalks.  Instead, we'll get a planted median.  We don't even see bulb-outs on the corner to shorten the crossing distance at this busy intersection.

I'd like to take a moment again to be very clear: I support increased landscaping as part of the streetscape of San Francisco.  I support more permeable surfaces to help with the problems runoff can present during storms.  But I know that the pedestrian realm, and the flexibility of the space we reserve for pedestrians, is vitally important to the success of our streets as public spaces.  Well-designed green streets will make more room for its greenest uses, not less.


Alai said...

As a bicyclist, I don't like this either. Narrow streets can be fine for biking--great, even--because cars naturally slow down and you can take the lane without issue. If traffic's heavy, it's not moving very fast, and if traffic's light, people can pass you by crossing over the center line and give you plenty of space.

But with this design, the protection from the opposite lane will encourage higher speeds, and at the same time make passing a biker dangerous.

shanan said...

In general, I'm quite happy with the general movement to make streetscapes greener and more mixed use, but I share your disappointment that we're not seeing bigger, faster change.

But you fail to address the cost issue.

When Divisidero recently underwent a streetscape upgrade, the plan very purposely avoided widening the narrow sidewalks because of cost. It would have entailed significantly higher costs to widen this space and move utility poles. So, they did without. Planting medians, however imperfect, are far cheaper, and Divis is better as a result of the project.

The question for SF is whether we want to more of these practical, if imperfect upgrades, or fewer more comprehensive ones?

We don't lack for more ambitious planning, either. The plans for the Masonic Boulevard and Market Street are far more grand, if slower moving.

Pedestrianist said...

Shanan, you bring up a great point. Cost concerns do significantly dilute the quality of street redesign projects. I have a couple thoughts on that.

The first is that in many cases we're building a cheaper project upfront, but locking it in for longer and preventing more comprehensive change down the road. In the case of Divisadero, there is no way that median is ever going away, and cars will continue to speed down it with its freeway-like design. If we truly wanted to save money *and* continue to improve out streets, the median could have been temporary - composed of planters, perhaps - which would set it up for easy replacement in a future budget cycle.

My other thought is that the cost of truly good street redesigns is inflated for no good reason. You mention the cost of relocating utility poles, but as we saw on Valencia, you can leave the poles in place with no harm. Other, bigger costs like sewer, utility and fire hydrant relocation don't need to apply either. San Francisco is somewhat unique in requiring fire hydrants to be within 18" of the curb. And many other cities have expanded sidewalks without moving sewers, storm drains, or utilities.

One can think of a watered down streetscape design as saving money and continue to charge ahead with them all over town. Or we can come up with a plan that can be applied city-wide that removes all the unnecessary costs. We may wait a year to come up with that plan, but then all the streets we redesign will be better; we'll have more better streets sooner than if we only take half-measures.

And thank you very much for the great comments!

shanan said...

Pedestrianist, I completely agree. I suppose I am a pragmatist, and love that the city is doing *both* large and small scale improvements. Sometimes waiting for an ideal solution means never arriving at a solution at all.

But I like the way you framed your idea about coming up with standards that can be applied city wide. It is indeed a shame that Divis, while improved, is in all likelihood not going to see any more improvements for a long time.