Archive for the ‘Parks and public spaces’ Category

Brutalism has its charms

May 5, 2014

Washington, DC is a city of many, many museums. However, most are closed by the time the working day is over, and none are usually open at night, except for movies or performances. For the daily comfort and pleasure of the average working resident, museums matter a lot less than streets, public spaces, and buildings.


HUD building 1

One prominent, even historically significant, building is the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. From the neighborhood of Southwest, you see it brooding over the highway that divides that quadrant from central Washington.


HUD building 2

Designed by Marcel Breuer and completed in 1968, it’s ugly and forbidding in a way that’s all too common among federal buildings of that era. Some of the ugliness derives from the Brutalist exterior: slabs of stained and weathered raw concrete. Mostly, though, it’s simply an ugly, awkward design.



HUD building 3

However — also like many buildings of that era — it has a saving grace, from a pedestrian’s point of view: you can walk under it.


HUD building 4

Pretty much the entire sidewalk level of the building is a giant arcade. An ugly, dark, and severely utilitarian arcade, but in a city of hot summers and frequent precipitation, any shelter is better than none.


HUD building 5

One unintentionally comic touch, in the plaza facing 7th Street, is a cluster of donuts or flying saucers. Originally, Breuer left this plaza completely bare of seating, shade, or any other amenity for pedestrians. These elements were added in the 1990s with the intention of providing something for people to sit. In my anecdotal observation, they are never used.


HUD building 6

The building does yield one pleasant secret, however. On the west side, tucked in between it and the next building over, is a small green park-like area that should provide a bit of relief from the summer heat. Such spaces are too rare in Washington. This one is even accessible to people with limited mobility.



Retro-Future Washington, DC

March 13, 2014


View of street in SW Washington

When I visit Washington, DC, I generally stay in the quiet, friendly, tree-lined neighborhood known as Southwest.

View of SW

It’s not the well-known Washington of stately neoclassic buildings, famous monuments, and cherry trees.

Much of Southwest was wiped out by so-called urban renewal in the 1950s and 60s, when planners were in love with the idea of destroying the old-fashioned urban grid, with its pedestrians and human-scaled buildings and street life, and replacing it all with freeways, giant buildings, and parking lots.

Old and new building together

Such a freeway separates Southwest from the very heart of Washington — from the National Mall, in fact — and the result is incoherent and strange. The zone between Southwest and the Mall is a sort of demented, brutalist Radiant City gone dark.


Building on stilts

Buildings on stilts with highways running under them!


Underground parking zone

Soulless, creepy zones devoted entirely to automobiles!


More stilts

More stilts on top of crumbling overpasses!


Ugly structures and Smithsonian

… All within a few minutes’ stroll of the Smithsonian Castle, the other museums, and the Mall.


It’s the result of a conscious decision by planners and politicians to favor the automobile over people — a bias that is still very much evident in the Washington metro area today. I hope that some of my future posts will examine the consequences of that decision.


Monterey Bay Fisherman’s Wharf: Runaway Success

March 1, 2014

View of crowds on Fisherman's Wharf


Fisherman’s Wharf is the heart of a highly successful and heavily used public space in Monterey, California. On a mild afternoon in February, the crowds were thick and cheerful.


View of the wharf, late afternoon

Unlike the wharf in San Francisco, this one actually has fishing boats nearby, and the restaurants serve a certain amount of fresh local seafood.


Strollers on trail

The Wharf is just one feature along the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail, which runs for miles along the shoreline of the Monterey Bay. A very popular paved and accessible part of the trail connects the Wharf and downtown Monterey with the Monterey Bay Aquarium.


Strollers and wheelchair user on trail

 The trail, a converted railroad line, is a great example of a public space that actually encourages public use. A wide variety of  people of all ages and physical abilities were getting out and enjoying themselves along the shore of the beautiful Bay.


People enjoying the trail and the bay


Update: Sue Bierman Park, San Francisco

February 11, 2014

Sometimes, public space in San Francisco actually gets improved. That’s the case in Sue Bierman Park, down by the Embarcadero, where a playground opened in 2013. 

Photo of children's playground at Sue Bierman Park, San Francisco

In an earlier post, I expressed skepticism that this might occur, and am happy to be proved wrong.

plaque commemorating the construction of the playground at Sue Bierman park

Meanwhile, in a nearby tree…

Photo of tree near park

The local parrots amused themselves as usual, with no need of a slide or swings.

Photo of parrots in nearby tree




Pedestrian Arcades: Good enough for the Renaissance

September 14, 2012

Summer here in San Francisco has been foggier than usual, which gets me thinking of our looming rainy season–which in turn puts me in mind of a great idea from the Renaissance that we encountered on a  visit to Italy a couple of years ago: pedestrian arcades.

They are a common feature in public buildings from that era, and work very well at their intended function of protecting people from harsh or inclement weather so that they can go about their lives, errands, and business in comfort. They function in rain, in sun …

… and often come with built-in seating. A brilliant example of human-scale design. I often wonder why more buildings in the Bay Area don’t have them. After all, it rains here about half the year, and at other times it can get quite hot and sunny, especially outside of San Francisco proper.

Instead, we have overhead structures that don’t effectively keep off the elements, such as this porous faux-overhang at the De Young Museum (viewed from beneath):

Union Square in SF also has shelter-like structures that provide no actual shelter. Puzzling.

Sue Bierman Park, San Francisco: bland does not equal comfortable

December 10, 2011

The people/entities/forces responsible for creating public space in San Francisco have done another mediocre job – this time with Sue Bierman Park on the Embarcadero across from the Ferry Building.

After a couple of years of work and almost two million dollars in renovations, the park looks like the “before” image in some kind of open space competition – a blank slate just waiting for benches, trees, paths, recreational spaces, and other amenities.

There’s no shelter from wind (in windy San Francisco), no shade or shelter from sun or rain (ditto), and there are very few benches for sitting.


There are these strange items – either an art piece or someone’s idea of clever seating, or both. All they’re good for is collecting rainwater.

There has been an ongoing discussion of installing a children’s playground at the park — in a neighborhood with none — but apparently not everyone with a say in the issue is in favor. Why there is even a controversy about this is beyond me – what’s not to like about a playground?


Pinnacles National Monument: Nature made accessible

September 6, 2011

After a hiatus of several months, I’ve returned to this blog for more discussions of visitor comfort and accessibility in public spaces. Thanks to everyone for your patience while I’ve been away.

One of our recent trips that helped refresh and inspire me was a trip to Pinnacles National Monument, about 150 miles south of San Francisco off US Highway 101. It’s a little-known national park that feels as if it’s a million miles from the nearest city.

There are some excellent hikes for those who are so inclined – with wildflowers and California Condors in spring, or so I am told – but there’s a lot to see without going too far from your car. Acorn woodpeckers, for example, are everywhere.


In fact, you don’t even have to  leave your car to view wildlife such as wild turkeys, browsing in the woods:

There are a number of trails that are specifically designed to be accessible to visitors with disabilities. There’s camping, and motels and restaurants are about 40 miles away in King City, CA. Altogether, an easy place to refresh the body, mind, and spirit without leaving civilization too far behind.


Point Reyes Lighthouse: Comfort in the Big Outdoors

May 8, 2011

The lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore is one of our favorite day trip destinations in the Bay Area. In terms of access, one of its nicest aspects is its flexibility and open-endedness. From the parking lot to the viewing platform above the lighthouse itself, the entire experience is physically accessible to a very wide range of ages and abilities. It’s one of the best physical, psychological, and spiritual getaways around, just two hours north of San Francisco.

Even if you don’t get any farther than this bench a few yards from the parking lot, you’ll still have beautiful visit to a stunning location. (Be sure to bring warm, windproof clothes.)

The easy quarter mile road from the parking lot to the visitor center is closed to most vehicles. It’s an inviting path, with something lovely to see around every bend.

Even the signs – which are informative and well-designed, in an eighties sort of way – have gorgeous views.

The visitor center is just a small, folksy hut that hasn’t been improved or changed in at least 25 years – which I think is to its advantage. Nothing high-tech or intrusive, just functional and informative displays and very patient and knowledgeable personnel behind the desk.

If you can handle the long walk down to the lighthouse proper (and back up again), by all means do it. We have spent some of the most tranquil hours of our lives down there, sitting out in the sun, fog, wind, mist, and rain – sometimes all in the same visit – searching the ocean for migrating grey whales or just gazing out at the ocean, the birds, the occasional sea lion, enveloped by the sound of the sea and the moan of the fog horn. It’s comfort of a very deep kind.

If you are unable to go down the stairs, or not inclined, you can hang around on the upper viewing platform and have much the same experience, without the foghorn and with longer views. In all the years we’ve been going to Point Reyes, it has never been less than spectacularly beautiful and deeply refreshing to the mind and spirit, no matter what the season or the weather.

Citigroup Center, Los Angeles: A respite from the cubicle

April 27, 2011

We didn’t evolve to sit in cubicles. Every hour we spend staring at a screen, surrounded by beige walls and taupe carpet and khaki co-workers, is a stress. We need green, open spaces in which to momentarily reconnect with our primate selves.

One of the more pleasant retreats for the office workers of downtown Los Angeles can be found at Citigroup Center, a the corner of West 5th and South Flower.

There’s a pleasant mix of open and closed spaces, closed corners and wide views, trees and sun. Plus the refreshing sight and sound of water.

Follow the steps or escalator down, and you discover that it is in fact a waterfall.

This area would be especially cool and refreshing on a hot, sunny, smoggy day.

I like this space not because it is special, but simply because it’s an area of very expensive real estate that was creatively and thoughtfully designed to make people comfortable while they take a break from their jobs. Yes, legally mandated to be set aside for that purpose, I know – but better than it has to be.

San Francisco Botanical Garden: Just Go Away?

October 17, 2010

Ever since the San Francisco Botanical Garden started charging admission to visitors who are not residents of San Francisco, there has been a dramatic drop in the overall number of visitors. It’s obvious that SF residents are staying away, even though they still get in free. Why?

Taking a leaf from Stephanie Weaver of Experienceology, Beth and I decided to look at the Botanical Garden entrance experience to see if it had somehow been made inherently unwelcoming. Are potential visitors being subtly prompted to turn around and go away?

When it was free, you could just walk in through a wide-open, welcoming gate. Now the gate is closed, and the first thing that greets you at the main entrance is a kiosk.

There is often a line, because even those who don’t pay have to stop and show San Francisco ID. When you get to the head of the line, the booth is dark, and the person inside is semi-invisible.

Welcome to Passport Control! May I see your papers?

Next to the booth there is only a narrow space through which to enter the garden. To the right of that is a fence.

Note the ugly construction cones (this is a garden?) and the sign forbidding you to do you pretty much everything.

How do you say “keep out” in Spanish, Chinese, and Russian? Of course, nothing says “afterthought” like paper and Scotch tape.

Hey, you kids, get off my lawn! Okay, I guess we will.

A clear, warm, windless day on a holiday weekend in San Francisco, not a cloud in the sky – and hardly a visitor in the Garden. Back when it was free, this lawn would have been dense with visitors, tranquilly enjoying the sun.

These stone benches, located in an especially warm corner of the garden, would have been crowded with people, many of them elderly.

Today, hardly a soul.

It’s pretty clear that in setting up an admission process for all visitors, whether or not they actually have to pay a fee, the San Francisco Botanical Society has managed to discourage people in general from visiting their now exclusive-seeming garden.

They couldn’t have done it better if they had planned it that way.