With public consciousness of cities at an all-time high, planning and design projects have been commanding the imaginations of urbanities in ways unforeseen. On the positive end, more governing bodies and planning agencies are placing higher value on public awareness, information dissemination, and “ground-up” development. There’s certainly a long way to go, even in cities like New York City, but below are 10 of some of the more innovative and impactful projects going on across the United States right now. Though some have captured the imagination and support of masses while others hang in limbo, all will affect the lives of many in their wake.
1. New York City Tri-State Area’s Fourth Regional Plan
Beginning in an area that is no stranger to broad-scale planning projects, the Regional Plan Association’s Fourth Regional Plan is a once-in-a-generation prospectus geared towards prepping one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas for economic and environmental change over the next several decades.
A non-profit organization independent of government regulation, the RPA thinks beyond the city limits and incorporates an area that includes nearly 800 political bodies. In New York City proper, they’re currently involved in the redevelopment of Governors Island, waterfront projects in Jamaica Bay, and the campaign for a new Penn Station.
Dating from 1929, the First Regional Plan embraced the optimism of expansion beyond the crowded regional core and the growing abundance of private ownership. However, the Third (titled “A Region At Risk”) and now Fourth Regional Plans have sought to combat the threats to the region’s relative prosperity by addressing four key issues: opportunity, livability, sustainability, and policy. The Fourth plan brings together a large group of experts from across the disciplines primarily, but are also taking resident opinion via their online poll. Is it enough?
2. Denver FasTracks
New York isn’t the only core city thinking on a regional level, and Denver FasTracks looks to revitalize transit infrastructure on a scale inconceivable in most post-industrial cities. The project includes over 122 miles of new rail lines and an 18-mile bus rapid transit route from Denver to Aurora, of which the 12-mile the West Rail Line has been completed.
At the crux of this entire network is the rejuvenation of Denver’s Union Station into a multimodal transit facility, which opened officially on July 26th. These two signs of progress have restored much faith in a project that has seen its own fair share of adversity and is, at present, far from over. Budgeting for the project has ballooned to over 40% of its initial costs, and the Regional Transportation District estimates that the network wont open in full until 2042.
3. Las Vegas Mass Transit
The Las Vegas we have come to know is a single thoroughfare on an unincorporated plot of land in the Nevada desert, so it’s not surprising to hear that the area lacks a cohesive and extensive mass transit network. You needn’t remind the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, who has gone ahead and hired the consultation services of Michael Gallis to help plan a mobility network to connect points on The Strip, McCarran Airport, and several other notable locales in the vicinity.
Though Clark County as a whole sprawls with reckless abandon, The Strip boasts densities of up to 150,000 people–mostly tourists and those serving them–at any given time. Beyond the apparent demand based on this raw figure, the RTCSNV is aware that Las Vegas is on the verge on falling short on its economic competitiveness, to both other cities in the region and others that attract a similar touristic base worldwide. Their incentive to diversify Las Vegas’ economy comes with the recognition that businesses are less interested in locating to cities that can’t support alternative means of transportation.
4. Minneapolis’ Nicollet Mall
Sometimes the problem exists in something that has long since been completed, as is the case with Minneapolis’ Nicolett Mall. Though functioning, the pedestrian-only street space is considered dull, out of touch, and barren, particularly in winter. The city’s response was to build the Skyway System, which only further entrenches Nicollet Mall into obscurity.
Instead of directly competing with the successful Skyway, James Corner Field Operations (designers of the High Line) has adopted a “both and” approach, which will seek to link the two disparate public spaces into a dynamically interwoven network. This will be done by way of “The Island,” a plaza that will facility seamless movement between the mall at street level and the Skyway above. JCFO will then aid Nicollet Mall by making it “disappear,” into a virtual urban forest. This green space will ultimately link Mississippi Woods at one end to Loring Woods at the other, providing pedestrians with continuous access to a natural landscape the whole way.
5. D.C. Streetcar
While the opening of the Silver Line basks in the limelight, the D.C. Streetcar looks to be the low-scale, high-impact transit project that will truly reshape mobility throughout Washington’s urban core–if it ever gets done. The project, which is currently constructing a 2.5-mile route with five more planned on the way, has been met with considerable backlash from preservationist groups. Their argument: a federal law that prohibits overhead electrical wires in the historic Georgetown and Downtown neighborhoods.
Inspired (and supplied) by the Inkenon Inc. trams that serve Prague, this project is indicative of new wave of alternatives that have become ever more popular in older, denser cities that have a storied tradition with rail but have had trouble quickly and efficiently building new heavy rail projects. Oddly enough, the project has had more than enough trouble getting off the ground, having started, switched agencies twice, been shut down, and started up yet again. The move D.C. made to dismantle its original streetcar system in 1962 now seems all the more frustrating in retrospect.
6. Chicago‘s Green Healthy Neighborhoods Plan
Farms on rooftops are cool, but what about a whole neighborhood that acts like a farm? On Chicago’s Southside, this dream is marching its way towards reality, as the City of Chicago Plan Commission gave the go ahead for the Green Healthy Neighborhoods Plan. Targeted at the city’s Engelwood, Washington Park, and Woodlawn neighborhoods, this multifaceted project will make better use of the area’s large swaths of vacant space over the course of the next two decades.
Once the epicenter of Chicago’s African American community, the area suffered from similar blight that many cities faced during the latter part of the 20th century. Today, the area is home to about 800 acres of vacant land, which is slightly larger than Central Park. Beyond the creation of bike lanes, pedestrians greenways, and urban farms, Green Healthy Neighborhoods looks to expand services similar to Growing Home, a community-based organization that helps citizens to develop skills in agricultural practices.
7. San Diego‘s Otay Mesa East
If you thought your commute was hellish, imagine the insufferably long queues across the U.S./Mexico border. The wait times here can last several hours, and the distance traveled for most is minuscule compared to some commutes across large American metropolises. Currently, Otay Mesa and Ysidro are the only two ports of entry by road between the two nations in the San Diego-Tijuana region, though a new 2.5 mile road, State Route 11, will soon join them as early as 2017.
Unlike its two predecessors, Route 11 will charge a toll for use, thereby expecting to deter non-commercial traffic. Which is exactly what CalTrans hopes to achieve, as the current delays cost the San Diego economy to lose billions of dollars a year. To rail enthusiasts, a road might sound dull, environmentally irresponsible, and ineffective in decongesting traffic. But the cost effectiveness of the project, at $700 million, is its biggest selling point. Plus, the goal is to encourage freight, not human, mobility.
8. Houston Astrodome Indoor Park
Daring to challenge common conceptions of “green space” is Judge Ed Emmett of Houston and his plan to convert the old Astrodome from a sporting facility to a full-fledged indoor park. This project bares all the markings of a logistical nightmare, resurrecting memories of a sporting facility with lighting so dim that the original grass died and was replaced by a medium you might have come to know today as astroturf.
Scoffed at by some as impractical and bizarre, supporters point an exemplary finger at Ski Dubai, an indoor skiing facility that is as exuberant as it seems out of place with the environment outside. While no concrete plans or timetable yet exist, this proposal has gained considerable traction and is considered a last resort for the dome’s future.
The building itself is owned by a sporting team–the Houston Texans–that have moved on to a newer facility. At the same time, voters repealed a $217 million bond issue to convert the facility into a convention center last year, a clear indicator that the public is showing increased interest in utilizing the facility for its original purpose: to provide outdoor activities in a climate-controlled environment as an alternative to Houston’s brutal climate. A successful iteration of an indoor park project such as this could reimagine what can be done in indoor spaces around the world.
9. Buffalo Removing Its Pedestrian Mall
We think of urban design progress in egalitarian, inventive ways that would make Jane Jacobs proud–but Buffalo’s pedestrian mall seems to drop the ball on that one. An acute indicator of the city around it, the mall is increasingly barren and void of life. Unlike its Minneapolis counterpart, the mall does not benefit from a nearby public space that is used well.
Although city officials are similarly looking to make the mall disappear, they plan on adopting a more literal approach by replacing the mall with an automotive transit corridor. Their rationale is to (hopefully) increase private investment in Buffalo’s heart by way of dedicated bike lanes and more easily accessible light rail stations. And the pedestrian functions of the corridor won’t disappear entirely, they will simply be scaled back to proportionally compliment the other traffic movements.
Philadelphia is a city that is holding itself captive, and its 2035 Plan hopes to set it free. While real estate values, retail and leisure amenities, and tourism thrives in Center City, the fringes of this Manhattanized core reveal a metropolis that is crumbling away nearly everywhere else. For a city that hasn’t caught a break since it lost a bid for the 1976 World’s Fair, Philadelphia2035 looks to overall the city’s zoning codes, which were mostly recently set in the 1960s.
The Plan is broken down into two phases, the first a city-wide initiative that looks to capitalize on the Delaware Valley’s thriving suburban economy as whole. Secondly, the Plan addresses the specific needs and goals of the city’s 18 neighborhood areas. Philadelphia has garnered the nickname “Bostroit” in recent years, a telling sign as teeters in two directions. One threatens to bring the city to its knees, the other looks to the optimism of rejuvenations seen in other Northeast metropolises with a vibrant sense of human capital. Philadelphia2035 will stop at nothing to sway its fortunes in the latter direction.