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Unsolicited Architecture for Celebration and Place Making

buckybar_04At the 2016 New Partners for Smart Growth conference, PlaceMatters set up an exhibit demonstrating ways to incorporate pop-up design into community planning and stakeholder engagement. At the front end of the exhibit was a pocket park featuring a geodesic dome made out of umbrellas. I got the idea from photos I had seen of a pop-up event in Rotterdam where students from Dutch Architecture Studios created a dome made of umbrellas and re-assembled it in a few hours on the streets of Rotterdam catalyzing an impromptu party underneath. They called the structure a Bucky Bar, in honor of Buckminster Fuller and his multiple designs of geodesic domes. In one of the write-ups on this event, they gave the structure and associated event the label of unsolicited architecture  I like this term as another classification of what we often refer to as  tactical urbanism or pop-up up design, referring to the deployment of easy to assemble structures that draw attention and encourage spontaneity, socializing, and conversations about placemaking.

Live•Ride•Share - Pop-up Demostration - May 2016Since the New Partners conference, PlaceMatters did a pop-up demonstration of a protected bike lane and place making activities, May 17th as part of the Live•Ride•Share conference. A self imposed goal of this pop-up demonstration was to be able to set up and take down the demonstration in under 30 minutes, utilizing materials that had been used in prior demonstrations and/or would be reusable in the future with minimal waste and clean-up. The demonstration included contributions from the Ladies Fancywork Society that is famous in the Denver Region for their crochet bombing techniques, adding art and beauty to objects in the area. My favorite crochet bomb they made for us was the flower petals/leaf added to the “B” sign of the nearby B-cycle bikeshare rack. They also decorated the bike racks, trees, and one of the bikes next to the pop-up demonstration.


The Making of the Umbrella Tent

Luckily, I was able to find a Sketchup Design done by Taff Goch that I imported into my own SketchUp model of our exhibit area. Below are some screenshots of the exhibit and the dome design.

Sketchup rendering of NPSG 2016 parkletGeodesic umbrella dome - NPSG 2016

As you can see from the photos and the SketchUp model, this partial dome is made out of a combination of octagons, squares, and 7 prong stars, which I confess caused hours of head scratching on how these shapes could come together to form a dome. It helps to realize the pattern cannot be repeated to create a fully enclosed polyhedron. If I did it again, I would probably make a dome out of 5-ribbed and 6-ribbed umbrellas, mimicking the soccer ball design of a truncated icosahedron but with extra hexagons.

DIY 7 rib umbrella for geodesic umbrella dome - NPSG 2016One of the challenges I ran into was finding similar umbrellas to what creators at the Dutch Architecture Studios used. It’s not hard to find octagon umbrellas but finding heptagon or 14-rib umbrellas that are the right size is another matter. The umbrellas I ended up finding and ordering were shipped from China. And because I ordered them 2 weeks before the event, I realized they would not arrive until after the conference. To be able to build the dome without the 7 or 14 rib umbrellas, I ended up making a 7 prong hub in Sketchup and printing the hub with a 3D printer. I used ¼ oak dowels for the spokes. We then put a white photography umbrella in the hole of the center of the hub. Special thanks to Drew Hastings and Holst Architecture, in Portland, for offering to print the hubs on their new 3D printer. 

Here is a panoramic picture of the entire exhibit area.

Panoramic view of NPSG 2016 PlaceMatters Parklet

For a blog entry on all the parklets featured at the conference refer to the following overview put together by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). In addition to the indoor parklet, PlaceMatters partnered with ALTA Planning in Portland to do a pop-up demonstration of a protected bike lane on Broadway Street, just outside of the Hyatt Hotel where the conference was. Here is a nice blog posted on Bike Portland’s website about the demonstration and some of the challenges of doing a demonstration under wet conditions.

Additional notes on building your own umbrella dome

Not sure how long these links will remain valid, but here are links to the materials I found.

  • Octagon Umbrellas: Rainstoppers 34-Inch Children’s Umbrella – great price and the plastic knobs on the ends are perfect for tying the umbrellas together with pipe cleaner wire.
  • 14-rib Umbrellas: ColorDrip Business Style Windproof Automatic Travel Sun-Rain Umbrella – it took a long time to find these since 14 rib umbrellas are rare, and finding the right size is even more rare. Because these ship from China they took more than a month to arrive.
  • Top of geodesic umbrella domeFor the center support pole, I used a 10 foot black pipe from Home Depot with two floor flanges for each end. On the bottom, I screwed the flange into a 12X12X1” piece of oak. On the top, I used bailing wire to attach the flange to the four umbrellas at the top.

Feel free to contact me if you have questions or need further details on materials and construction of the dome.


Curbee Your Enthusiasm

PlaceMatters has a virtual water-cooler for employees to post interesting ideas and articles we want to share internally–things we could imagine discussing at the water cooler if we had a water cooler. One of the most frequently discussed themes is biking and bikability in cities. We have had long threaded discussion topics including bike safety, helmets, and bike infrastructure design. Recently, I was sent a link to a CityLab article about a curbside device called the Curbee, designed to make it easier for bicyclists to rest while stopped at an intersection. I was totally unimpressed.

Photo: Steve Vance (from Street blog)

Photo: Steve Vance (from CityLab article linked above)

Not including installation, the cost range was between $600 and $1200. I can think of a number of other things I would like that money spent on–like design elements on streets created to slow down cars and give bikers equal, if not priority, standing in the car-bike hierarchy. If Denver is going to keep painting sharrows on many of the roads, I would spend money on education/outreach to teach people about the etiquette of sharrows long before I would dedicate money for Curbees.

Not because I am a big sharrow advocate (I’m not) but if we are going to have sharrows, we need an information campaign so more people know how they should behave (both in a car and on a bike) when on a road with sharrows.

SharrowI did several searches on sharrows, etiquette, safety, and rules and found more postings indicating confusion on how to behave as a driver of a motorized vehicle and as a bicyclists than clear instructions on proper use. Wikipedia was one of the better links I looked at with a description of the city planner’s intensions behind the use of sharrows.

Sharrows are used to: assist bicyclists with lateral positioning in a shared lane with on-street parallel parking in order to reduce the chance of a bicyclist’s impacting the open door of a parked vehicle; assist bicyclists with lateral positioning in lanes that are too narrow for a motor vehicle and a bicycle to travel side by side within the same traffic lane; alert motorists of the lateral location bicyclists are likely to occupy within the traveled way; encourage safe passing of bicyclists by motorists; and reduce the incidence of wrong-way bicycling.

Other sites emphasized that under Vehicle and Traffic Law, a bicyclist is permitted to use the travel lane on a street to commute just the same as a motor vehicle and that sharrow bike markings indicate to a motorist and a bicyclist that the roadways has a shared travel lane.

I learned some credit goes to Denver for first instituting the use of icons to delineate shared roads. In our 1993 Bicycle Master Plan, James Mackay, the Master Plan’s Project Manager, describes its adoption as more of a compromise than a preferred best practice.

The City of Denver’s unwillingness to commit to bike lane markings meant that shared lane markings were the only pavement marking treatment for bicyclists that the City would implement. The hollow arrow surrounding the bicyclist was intended to reinforce the correct direction of travel for bicyclists (who were frequently observed riding the wrong-way, against traffic, in Denver).

Credit for the now more commonly used chevron over a bicyclist design (the sharrow) goes to San Francisco. This quote from Mackay reinforces my criticism of sharrows as a planner’s solution that while perhaps well intentioned does not fully address what’s needed. In fact, the trend of painting sharrows on many of the roads in Denver with little information on how to behave as drivers and bicyclists on roads with sharrows dilutes their utility. The same Wikipedia article cites studies researching different changes for bicyclists and which ones seem to make the most difference in decreasing the number of accidents and the severity of injuries. Evidence behind sharrows are inconclusive, if not negative. I found this cited study particularly helpful:

Despite the differing variables important in the two analyses, there are consistent patterns: features that separate cyclists from motor vehicles and pedestrians (cycle tracks, local streets, traffic diverters) and lower speeds (motor vehicle speeds less than 30 km/h, level grades) were associated with significantly lower injury risk to cyclists. These features are incorporated into transportation design in northern European countries with high cycling modal shares and low injury risk, and have been shown to encourage cycling in North America. Important additional evidence from this study includes the importance of obstacles in [improving] safety (traffic circles, streetcar or train tracks, construction). Transportation planners and engineers in many North American cities are interested in promoting cycling and will benefit from the accumulating evidence about the value of building environments sensitive to cyclists.

Portland bike enthusiasts have created blog sites on different bike lane designs. Delineated lanes with flexible barriers are described in great detail on this site, something that has been deployed in Denver on 15th Street, yet with mixed results in many user opinions.

If I had a say in where to invest money, I would love to see one intersection designed with a protected intersections for bicyclists (also described as Dutch Junction Design).

This seems like a brilliant way to delineate bike, ped, and vehicle traffic. Fortunately there is growing interest in designing bike lanes that dramatically improve safety for the bicyclists, pedestrians, and vehicles.

In November, the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP) launched the city’s biggest crowdfunding campaign to date for civic infrastructure with a pitch to raise $35,000 of the $155,000 needed to build a protected bike lane on Arapahoe Street. The first $120,000 was raised with donations from the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District and the Gates Family Foundation. PlaceMatters donated the final 1% needed to reach the campaign’s goal. The DDP has organized a task force to improve bikeability downtown, with the crowdfunded lane on Arapahoe the first of four priorities. The other priorities include devising a better bicycle parking plan; establishing a “Mile High Loop” that connects downtown with nearby attractions; and making the annual “Bike to Work Day” a monthly or even weekly event.

America Speaks’ Enduring Impact

Last week I learned about AmericaSpeaks shutting their doors due to financial troubles. I was saddened by this news. AmericaSpeaks has done amazing work for nearly 20 years. The tools and techniques they have experimented with and deployed have had a tremendous impact on improving civic engagement and governance in communities across the nation. I have deep appreciation for all they have contributed to the professions of planning and community building–contributions that will endure for years to come.

AmericaSpeaks has helped and influenced PlaceMatters in a number of ways. In 1998, the same year she started AmericaSpeaks, Carolyn Lukensmeyer was the charismatic keynote speaker at our inaugural Tools for Community Design and Decision Making (TCDM) conference in Chattanooga, a conference I helped organize while at the Department of Energy that provided the inspiration to start PlaceMatters. Joe Goldman, who was also an important thought leader at AmericaSpeaks for over a decade, worked closely with us at PlaceMatters on a number of occasions. They both provided guidance and inspiration for my work and the work of PlaceMatters overall.

Below is a stitched together picture I took at their Listening to New York event after 9/11 where AmericaSpeaks gave me a VIP pass to roam the event. Watching AmericaSpeaks in action was incredible: 5,000 participants sat at 500 round tables with volunteer facilitators and notetakers at each table using networked computers and keypads for each of the participants.  Dozens of tables set up to accommodate multiple languages offered simultaneous translation. Residents of the region alternated between full group presentations and more intimate roundtable discussions, followed by keypad polling to further prioritize suggestions collected from the table conversations. The tools and techniques AmericaSpeaks has tested and perfected over the years have inspired public agencies, professional facilitators, and organizations like PlaceMatters to experiment with similar techniques. Together we have worked to improve civic and stakeholder participation across the county.


Best wishes to staff as they find new jobs and begin new chapters in life. I’m sure we will continue to cross paths with many of them over time and that they will continue to do great things.


PlaceMatters work in Chula Vista published in best practices in modeling text book

The Future of Cities and Regions

The Future of Cities and Regions

A case study of PlaceMatters’ work in Chula Vista was published this year in The Future of Cities and Regions: Simulation, Scenario and Visioning, Governance, and Scale. The book features best practices in urban and regional simulation with nine case studies from around the world. The chapter was researched by our 2010 PlaceMatters’ Fellow, Elise Novak, in collaboration with Ken Snyder and Doug Newman (project leads) highlighting the project’s innovative integration of sophisticated building energy analysis and VMT modeling with planning at the neighborhood scale. The integrated use of land use, transportation, and building energy technologies was shown to reduce aggregate energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions of a large-scale development project by as much as 45% when compared with the Title-24-compliant project. The book is available in hardcover and as an ebook.

DIY Touchtable User’s Conference

February 26-27, 2013
At the historic Rice Lofts in
Downtown Houston, Texas

DIY Touchtable imageJoin us for the first ever gathering of DIY touchtable users to learn from experts and peers in the use of low-cost, do-it-yourself touchtables that can dramatically improve community planning and decision making. The two-day workshop is organized by PlaceMatters and the Texas and Delaware Sea Grant programs of Texas A&M and the University of Delaware.

Registrants already include planners, ecosystem managers, educators, and public outreach professionals from across the country.

·       10 continuing education credits for APA planners

Visit the conference website for agenda, registration, accommodations, and travel. Register today, space is limited!

Smart devices hold promise for DIY innovation*

photo*Smart devices hold promise for DIY innovation but in order to fully tap their potential, developers need to keep their promises on providing open source code, or at a minimum, access to an interoperable API.

While at the Open Planning Tools Symposium in Portland, I took a detour to the Apple Store with the lure of tax free purchases. A hour later I left with the startup kit for the Hue Personal Wireless Lighting System in hand. Not cheap, but I was persuaded in the end when the sales clerk mentioned the SDK to control the color/brightness of the bulbs was open source. Using your iPhone or computer, you can have up to 50 bulbs connected to a single system with settings for each bulb (including a clever setup that allows you to match and map colors to photos). I had immediately thought of a use with our DIY touchtables and the scenario planning workshops we conduct. If we added a bulb to each of the DIY touchtable tripods, people could scan the room and see the relative performance of each table linked to indicators in the analysis.  During report out, people could see the extent to which others were able to balance different planning objectives (i.e. farmland preserved while adding jobs and housing to the region).   The performance of each group would be reflected in the color of the bulb prominently visible on the 6ft tall tripods, transitioning from from bright red to bright green based on indicator values.  To do this I would need the SDK to create a program that sends color/brightness information from each computer to each bulb, reflecting performance or an already developed interface that periodically retrieves the color/brightness values from a shared database (i.e. a Google Docs Spreadsheet).

Alas, the promise of a free SDK turned out to be an exaggerated selling point of the store clerk. When you visit the Hue website and the provided link for developers, there is nothing available for download, just a note that the SDK is coming, someday. This leads to a growing frustration of mine – companies that use the promise of open source as a selling point for choosing their product when the source code and/or SDK are not yet available or remain inadequate long after their stated timeline of availability. This is particularly troublesome when a tool developer uses the promise of open source to help get public funding and the funding they receive helps them get service-provider contracts with clients wanting assistance in setting up and using their application and yet the source code, including documentation, remain inadequate for anyone to be able to use the application on their own. In the case of the Hue wireless lighting system, I wrote an email to Philips trying to get a sense of when the SDK will be available. Their response was a vague promise that it will be available soon.  Whenever someone uses open source as a selling point, we should be vigilant in getting the details on what will be made available and, when we can, hold them accountable to what they promise.

Participation by Design: Connecting People to Place

This post represents the wrap-up of our 20 blog series called Participation by Design.  The series focused on the diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers covered the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

Participation by Design Blog Contributors

Thank you to all the contributors to this series!  I really enjoyed reading each of the pieces and the different perspectives they brought to an ongoing conversation.  It was interesting to see common links amongst diverse topics. Not surprisingly, the importance of place-specific context came up frequently as a critical ingredient for planning, from multiple standpoints.  Here are some highlights showing the range of contributions and how they address the issue of context.

On data, tools, and technology issues, we have several contributors including Rob GoodspeedDaniel Saniski, Jason Reece, and Jason Lally.  Daniel describes how local information is critical to understanding complex data sets, giving an example in Denver where place-specific context was needed to accurately interpret unemployment stats in a region. Rob addresses techniques that integrate GIS and visualization tools to help people understand tradeoffs within the context of a specific transit oriented development.  Jason Reece of the Kirwann Institute examines spatial analysis techniques that can be used to address some of the more complex issues of equity, mobility, and economic development linked to place. A technique known as Opportunity Mapping provides a GIS-based platform for engaging a broad number of community stakeholders, and simultaneously focusing on the equity concerns of marginalized communities.

Nick Bowden and Jennifer Evans-Cowley provide observations on the efficacy of online sites and the use of social networking tools to encourage public participation linked to community planning.  For Nick, it boils down to content and context.  Online sites should not shy away from content that is emotional since emotion drives interest. Sites also need to be rich in context—linking people to the efforts of others and connecting people to the places they care about—since it is this context that fosters a sense of personal ownership and motivates people to get more involved.  Jennifer’s research looking at the use of social networking tools in Austin shows how communities can dramatically increase the number of people engaged in planning conversations by tapping into the blogosphere of respected bloggers and writers in the region.  Instead of trying to create a new following for a given community initiative, she suggests engaging established bloggers, adding to their conversation with thoughtful responses, and encouraging them to encourage others to link to the initiative.

On the artistic side of the planning spectrum, we had great pieces on museum exhibits, public art installations, and variations of performance art.  Jasper Visser notes the effectiveness of Candy Chag’s art installments in drawing people into meaningful conversations.  It is her skillful balance of urgency and simplicity that causes people to pay attention and to contribute their own personal reflections. Nina Simon, a thought leader in the museum world, focuses on how to make exhibits more engaging.  On her Museum 2.0 blog she suggests the role of museums is to create space that “encourages safe, friendly collisions in a community-wide pinball machine.” And in our last installment of the series, PlaceMatters’ own Jocelyn Hittle explores the potential of combining the somewhat whimsical qualities of flash mobs with the popular desire to celebrate the places we love, and how these gatherings might be used to catch people’s attention and encourage them to participate in other community building efforts.

The series also included terrific posts by Corey Connors on engagement with smartphones, Ethan Zuckerman on communicating complex data, Eric Gordon, Carissa Shively Slotterback & Cindy Zerger, Matt Baker, Jeff Warren, James Fishkin, Chris Haller, and Karen Fung on a range of very specific tools and techniques, Ariana McBride on using storytelling in decision-making, and Augusta Prehn on engaging kids in planning.  Thanks again to the contributors and thanks to many of you that provide comments and follow-up insights.  Stay tuned for our next series to be announced in the Fall.

Most Exciting Trends in 2012: Big Data, Collaborative Problem Solving

Big Data, Big Business

Decision support systems that take massive data sets from multiple public and private entities and synthesize the data into valuable cross-discipline information for city and regional decision making is clearly becoming big business. Television, online, and magazine ads are populated with ads from IBM, Cisco, and Siemens, to name a few, that are promising to improve our communities with sophisticated data management, synthesis and analysis. This fall I was struck by a large nine-screen interactive wall created by Siemens prominently displayed at National Airport in DC. The interactive touch screens invited travelers to experiment with different strategies to improve a city’s mobility and energy efficiency. The Decision Labs at the University of Washington has been experimenting with applications first developed in the gaming industry to combine dynamic data with scenario planning and visualization. They are creating a decision-making framework for the Seattle region that can be tailored to a wide range of public and private users for the different stages of planning and development.

A nine-screen touchscreen display at Washington’s National Airport.

On the low cost end, Google has improved the API for graphs in spreadsheets posted on Google Docs. You can now easily embed them into websites with nice hover features to view the details within the graph. More importantly, anytime new numbers are added to the cloud-based spreadsheet, the graphs get updated on your site. This opens the door for a wide range of interactive technologies where participants can push data to the site. PlaceMatters is using this functionality in the next iteration of the Omaha’s Comprehensive Energy Management Program website for tracking the progress on project indicators. Another company providing a more packaged deal for viewing data linked to maps is Geowise and their cool InstantAtlas indicator interface. For example, the Council of Community Services incorporated InstantAtlas into their website to display county and census data in a multi-county region in the Roanoke region of western Virginia.

Collaborative Problem Solving

This year PlaceMatters is collaborating with the Environmental Protection Agency to host a second round code-a-thon in pursuit of new and/or improved applications for data collection, analysis, and project implementation around sustainable development. Universities and software developers will join planners and practitioners to identify shortcomings with existing tools and highlight opportunities to create new tools that improve decision-making in communities. The first code-a-thon will take place in Washington, D.C. on January 22. PlaceMatters will take the lead in organizing the second code-a-thon to take place in Denver during summer 2012. This approach to collaborative tool development is in part inspired by past successes in the field of citizen science. Foldit is one such project that emphasizes the wisdom of crowds for certain types of problem solving. Scientists recruited volunteers to assist in the predicting where to expecting folding to occur in protein and RNA strands. It turns out this is the type of problem where collective brainpower excels. Untrained online gamers outperformed even the best computer programs.

Another great example of collaborative problem solving can be found at OpenIdeo, where an individual, group, or organization poses a challenge and various participants contribute to various stages of problem solving (including inspiration, concepting, and evaluation). Last month, one of the posted challenges was: “How might we restore vibrancy in cities and regions facing economic decline?” Nearly 900 ideas where submitted at the inspiration stage with twenty final concepts emerging to the top. This week the project will shift into evaluation of the winning concepts.

OpenIdeo’s status screen on the ‘How might we restore vibrancy in cities and regions’ challenge.

GeoDesign about process, tools, and interdisciplinary approach

Shannon McElvaney at ESRI is working on a book on GeoDesign — a growing movement of academics, community planning and development practitioners, ecosystem managers, and geospatial tool developers interested in the nexus between geography, design, planning, ecosystem management and community decision making. Shannon asked PlaceMatters to contribute to the book, asking us a series of questions. In the process of answering the first question “What does GeoDesign mean to you?” I fell in love with the combination of the two words and how they truly captured the range of interests engaging in the GeoDesign conversation.

Here were a couple of my thoughts:

GeoDesign is about decisions connected to place. It’s about context sensitive process, perspective, action, and implementation – nature and nurture integrated. The interplay of the two words offers a framework and paradigm for decision making. Geo can be as simple as 2 coordinates pinpointing location or as complex as the geological, biological, social, economic, and built elements associated with a park, city block, neighborhood, town, region, or watershed. Because the word Geo is often associated with the earth and its natural components – natural systems are given appropriate prominence in GeoDesign decision making. Design adds intention to decisions. It can lead to art, economic strategies, building construction, environmental mediation, or conservation priorities to name a few. It can be a single event but is more often an iterative process of continuous improvement. The GeoDesign movement represents a broad range of professionals interested in making the world a better place with belief that location-based decision making provides a valuable framework tackling a wide range of challenges.

Others out there, reading this, active in the GeoDesign movement, what does the term mean to you?

Visit the website if you’re interested in learning more about the GeoDesign Summit hosted by ESRI.

This blog was first posted on Planetizen.

Livable streets and driving don’t mix

Here is a video from Street Films that was sent to me from colleagues working on the ICLEI STAR Community Index several months back. It revisits some of the pivotal research done by Donald Appleyard starting back in the 60s and leading to his work on Livable Streets. The video uses wonderful animation to illustrate the findings quantifying the negative effects cars and speed can have on sense of community.

Meant to blog about it back when I first saw it but projects kept me busy. The imagery and message, nonetheless, stuck with me as I traveled to several communities and could see what was being described firsthand. While the results are intuitive, the level of impact is higher than I would have guess. In areas where traffic is light, communities are much more likely to interact with each other, identifying more than 3 times as many friends on the block as folks living on heavy traffic streets.

Writing this blog sent me on a journey to learn more. The first thing I discovered was how coveted copies of Appleyard’s book Livable Streets have become. Used copies are selling for more than $250. In the Wikipedia link I provide above, I also learned Donald was tragically killed by a speeding car in Athens in 1982. I’ve share with you 2 sentences from the article:

Appleyard was that rare combination of innovative path-breaking academic researcher and quiet, insistent activist, professional, intent on getting things done–things that made cities better places for people to live. He was a person of ideas– especially concerned with expanding the scope of urban design to encompass thinking from the social sciences.

Tomorrow we travel to Boston to work with the City of Somerville to conduct a Walkshop in the Inner Belt/Brickbottom region. The area is ripe with opportunities and challenges including an elevated highway that divides the study area and a new transit station on Washington Street included in plans to extend the Greenline through Somerville. Participants will spend the morning walking around the area, taking photos with their phones and digital cameras, and talking about many of the same issues Appleyard brought up in his work. Will have this video on hand to help illustrate things to consider when thinking about walkability in the area.