How do you shape a street that works well for everyone? During the Walk Bike Places conference in New Orleans, Mobycon and BRAND The Urban Agency introduced the new jointly developed Integrated Place Assessment tool. This tool brings together the best of two worlds; placemaking and mobility expertise. Over the course of two intensive workshops, 40+ planners, engineers, and placemakers put the tool into practice. The City of New Orleans pointed toward Elks Place as an ideal case study. This under activated transit street in downtown New Orleans will be part of a large redevelopment plan in the near future.
The DNA of a place
How does the place make you feel? Do you feel safe and comfortable? Do you know where to go? Establishing the identity of a place is the first step in the redesigning process. In addition to the identity we also need to evaluate the level of service for people that travel through the street. For this we developed a new form, inspired by the PPS’ Place Game, on which participants rate the place according to 8 distinct criteria. For this, they not only visited the place, they also interviewed people from the community and passers-by – enabling participants to develop a real sense of the place. For Elks Place the verdict was crystal clear. It is a car dominated, unsafe transit zone; empty and dull. Elks Place hasn’t got much to offer. As one participant put it: ‘It might have been an important place once, but at a certain moment people stopped caring.’ Using a spider web graph participants visualized their rating of the 8 criteria.
What could the place be?
Now that we’ve established the current identity, we can set the future ambition. What do we want the place to be? According to the participants, Elks Place could, and should be, a lively transit hub. Connected, clear and green. An Urban Oasis. Or even a Transit-Park. The desired new situation was drawn on the same spider web which made the difference between old and new evident.
How to get there?
With the starting point as well as the dot on the horizon set, the next step is to decide on the strategy for getting there. For this, a distinction between long-term street design and short-term interventions is useful. The key to success is that all alterations should be in line with the desired identity of the place. Short term action should lead to and contribute to achieving long term solutions. These long term ideas included street closures, a ‘bus island’ and activating the ‘plinth’, the ground floor of the surrounding buildings with shops and sorts.
To ensure the long-term design delivers on the vision for the street, the rapid prototyping tool “Streetsketch” was used to create various cross-sections. In this exercise, the bold, strategic decisions from earlier in the process were put to the test. The designs reflect the importance of transit, the focus on the pedestrian and bicycle experience and create a more livable, loveable transit oasis.
Starting now: light, quick, cheap
What can we accomplish within 1.5 months? Great public spaces do not have to be expensive projects. Sometimes the most exciting spaces are low-cost and easily realized. Making temporary and relatively inexpensive alterations to a public space is a perfect kickoff.
For Elks Place the ideas ranged from simply adding much-needed benches and bike stands to temporary road closures and pop-up shops in vacant office spaces. As a lively ‘transit hub in the making’ a free library, (board) games, a children’s playground and some exercise equipment would be valuable assets. Bringing in street vendors and food trucks, in collaboration with local entrepreneurs, would also add to the liveliness. A market with fresh local produce could be the cherry on the cake. And last but not least, adding a little color to Elks Place, is easily done. For instance, by adding flowers but also by painting murals or designs on the street surface. By working together with local artists and the community, Elks Place could become the community’s blank canvas. Elks Place is a place full of potential, just waiting to be activated.
With the new Integrated Place Assessment (IPA) planners, traffic engineers, and placemakers have a collaborative tool that helps them to shape a street, or square, that works well for everyone. Long-term design solutions go hand in hand with light, quick and relatively cheap alterations. This enables urban planners and engineers as well as local entrepreneurs and the local community to start tomorrow on re-inventing their own public space.
For Elks Place and the City of New Orleans the first steps have already been taken by the participants of Walk Bike Places. In addition to consuming the vast amount of knowledge shared through the conference, these visitors to the city have also made an effort to contribute to their host city. Hopefully this will be continued by the City itself in the coming weeks, months and years.
About the authors
Rinske Brand is a marketing strategist and placemaking expert and the founder of marketing agency BRAND The Urban Agency, based in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Lennart Nout is an urban mobility specialist with Mobycon, a boutique mobility consultancy based in Delft, The Netherlands.
Mary Elbech works with Mobycon to adapt best practices from the Netherlands that inform local solutions for North American communities.