This piece originally appeared in the December issue of the Biscayne Times.
Think Big. It’s a mantra preached by entrepreneurs, politicians, business people, motivational speakers, and coaches. But is that motto really the key to releasing the potential of downtown Miami?
The “think big” catchphrase has played out quite extravagantly before our eyes in Miami over the past 15 years or so. Grandiose projects like the Adrienne Arsht Center, American Airlines Arena, Marlins Park, and mega-condos galore come to mind. The Miami Art Museum and Miami Science Museum are both under construction, and a downtown resort casino could be on the horizon. These projects represent tremendous investments geared toward turning downtown Miami into a cultural and entertainment hub on a par with those of other leading world cities.
When measured individually, the new cultural and entertainment destinations can boast varying degrees of success. But big, expensive projects are not a foolproof formula for urban revitalization. The vitality of a city isn’t measured by the annual revenue or number of visitors to a particular attraction. A city’s dynamism is greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s often the smaller, finer grains of the urban experience that enhance the quality of a place and foster affection toward it.
There are a series of questions we should be asking about life in downtown Miami that are emphatically about the small and simple things: Are the sidewalks clean and inviting, or are they caked with old chewing gum and poorly lit? Are there public maps to guide people around? Is the transit system easily navigable? Are there attractive public spaces with places to congregate? Is bicycle parking readily available? Are there places for children? Pets? Adequate crosswalks and crossing times? Does walking feel safe and inviting?
If the answer to some of these questions is no, the solutions are usually simple, relatively inexpensive, and can offer a high return on investment. Their importance must not be dismissed, though it sometimes feels like these basic livability issues are hardly being addressed.
I spend a lot of time downtown and often imagine myself in the shoes of a first-time visitor. What is their experience like? One place new visitors frequently wind up is the Metromover, Miami’s elevated transit system. For a free service with a seemingly simple route network (three “loops,” as they are called), the Metromover can be fraught with potential misadventures. While the maps on the station platforms identify the three loops using distinct colors (blue, pink, and orange), the maps onboard the actual cars inexplicably abandon those colors, instead using three different shades of bluish-gray to demarcate the same exact routes. Confused yet?
As the train approaches, you need to make sure you’re boarding the right loop. A digital display on the platform is supposed to tell you this information, but when the screens are frequently unintelligible or not operational, this poses a real problem. A recurring sight is a confused rider sticking his or her head inside a momentarily stopped train to ask other riders which loop the train is on. The typical reaction is a lot of shoulder shrugging.
If you are fortunate enough to arrive at your destination without boarding the wrong train, many of the stations lack crosswalks at their exit points to the street. Roaring traffic is hardly an inviting welcome in an unfamiliar place.
Even as a self-identified transit buff, I find navigating the Metromover system maddeningly frustrating. Why must it be so difficult? The negative impression this experience has on visitors must not be underestimated.
Presently, popular destinations like the Arsht Center and American Airlines Arena sit on islands lacking any integration with their surroundings. Are people leaving the Arsht Center or the arena likely to visit the restaurants or shops downtown? Will they walk there? The answer is probably not, if the walking conditions are as uninviting as they currently are.
In 2009, Miami’s Downtown Development Authority drafted a master plan for downtown titled, “The Epicenter of the Americas.” It outlines a number of projects intended to “enhance our position as a business and cultural epicenter.” To the DDA’s credit, the plan addresses many of the smaller details that would elevate the downtown experience: improved pedestrian conditions, public art installations, more ways to get around (like trolleys and pedicabs), and enriched public spaces, among others. While the plan is well intentioned, progress has not exactly been transpiring at warp speed.
That is where ordinary citizens like Scott Douglass have stepped in. Douglass is a Miami resident and founder of the Miami Improvement Alliance, a group of Miamians eager to speed up the revitalization of downtown by executing low-cost but impactful projects on their own. Their mission statement is powerful: “We will be the manifestation of positive force downtown. Using both sanctioned and unsanctioned tactics, we will work to improve the safety, beauty, and prosperity of Miami’s core districts. The city must endure and thrive if it is to have a future; we are the agents of that success. Where bureaucracy fails, we will prevail.”
The group’s first project was the creation of “urban wayfinding signs” to encourage visitors to the recent Red Bull Flugtag event at Bayfront Park to venture across Biscayne Boulevard and explore what downtown Miami has to offer. While unsanctioned by any local authorities, the initiative had the blessing of many local business owners. The 11 wayfinding signs featured simple walking directions to things like public transportation stops, ATMs, cultural destinations, local businesses, and also featured a Twitter hashtag (#WalkMIA) so people could interact with the project.
“People tend to overestimate the amount of time it takes to walk somewhere,” says Douglass. “These signs showed people just how close things actually are.”
These types of interventions — quick, cheap, often temporary projects that aim to make a small part of a city more lively or enjoyable — have a new name: tactical urbanism. Guerrilla gardening, converting parking lots into temporary parks, pop-up retail shopping, weed bombing (painting brightly colored “weeds” on forlorn lots) are all examples of tactical urbanism projects that ordinary citizens have recently executed in Miami.
While it’s easy to be seduced by the flashy mega-projects, they are not a cure-all for absent urban vitality. To truly unlock the potential of downtown Miami, collectively we need to take a closer look at the human-scale experience — how we interact with downtown on a daily, street-level basis — and perhaps follow the lead of Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, who declared, “We invested in high-quality sidewalks, pedestrian streets, parks, bicycle paths, libraries; we got rid of thousands of cluttering commercial signs and planted trees. All our efforts have one objective: happiness.”
Put this in the “Things that can make life better NOW” category.
The project was based on a feasibility analysis that indicated it would improve traffic flow on 6th and 7th Avenue and improve traffic safety along Broadway. Both before and after implementing Green Light for Midtown as a pilot, NYCDOT collected extensive data on travel times, traffic volumes, pedestrian volumes and traffic accidents in the months just prior and just following project implementation. According to this data, the project is delivering on its expectations.
DOT collected and analyzed extensive data from GPS units in taxis to understand the impacts on this project for travel in and around midtown. Findings show:
- Travel speeds for northbound trips throughout West Midtown improved 17% from fall 2008-2009, compared with 8% in East Midtown.
- Travel speeds for southbound trips in West Midtown fell by 2% while East Midtown showed an increase of 3%.
- The speed of eastbound trips increased by 5% and westbound trips by 9% over the same time period.
- Bus travel speeds increased by 13% on 6th Avenue and fell by 2% on 7th Avenue.
Safety has also been vastly improved as a result of this project.
- Injuries to motorists and passengers in the project area are down 63%.
- Pedestrian injuries are down 35%.
- 80% fewer pedestrians are walking in the roadway in Times Square.
And the project has had additional benefits as well.
- 74% of New Yorkers surveyed by the Times Square Alliance agree that Times Square has improved dramatically over the last year.
- The number of people walking along Broadway and 7th Avenue in Times Square is up 11% and pedestrian volume is up 6% in Herald Square.
Based on these findings, Mayor Bloomberg has decided to make these changes permanent. NYCDOT will begin a capital project to design and build the plazas and corridor treatments with permanent, high quality materials.
Imagine walking out of the Metromover station at Biscayne and East Flagler Street and stepping out onto a linear park that runs under the elevated tracks, and continues north between the travel lanes of Biscayne Boulevard. Parking lots replaced with park space where people are sitting, having coffee, or even doing their morning yoga routine.
Great cities have great parks. What is left of our great downtown waterfront park (after taking out the excessive number of buildings cluttering the landscape -read Museums, Bayside….etc) is underutilized by local residents; separated from area residents and businesses by FDOT’s 8 lane highway design for Biscayne Boulevard. What should be an easy five minute walk for folks living across the street is distorted by excessively wide travel lanes, speeding motorists, and a few crosswalks to get to the park. What Biscayne Boulevard needs is a road diet that reallocates car space, both in the form of travel lanes converted to on-street parking and parking lots converted to park space. This will not only provide a natural expansion of Bayfront Park – at a time of shrinking park budgets and ever growing needs for park space, it will also help traffic calm the street and bridge the distance between the park and the growing population of residents and businesses along Biscayne from I395 to SE 1 Street.
For five days Miamians will be able to get to experience what this space would be like if it were permanently converted into a park. From Tuesday February 29 to Sunday March 4, we will take over the parking lot between Flagler and NE 1 Street, and convert it into a grass covered park with moveable seating, food trucks, exercise equipment and more. There will be street performances throughout the five days, from spoken word to jazz shows, sponsored by Miami-Dade College. Our goal is simple – to activate this space as much as possible with the everyday activities of a typical park.
Please join us for your lunch hour, or stop by after work. We want to show you how great it will be – Bayfront Parkway!
Visit the project website at: http://bayfrontparkway.com/index.php for more information.
Come join us at Grand Central Park (The old Miami Arena Site) from 12-8 today for park(ing) day, where we will take part in a worldwide event and transform metered parking into a public park for a day. There will be live music as well as food trucks Mac n Go and Frazier’s ribs, so come hang out and take part in what’s sure to be a great, fun event. For more information on park(ing) day visit http://my.parkingday.org/
Parking spaces around the globe to be temporarily reclaimed for people
Miami, FL September 16, 2011 — In cities around the globe today, artists, activists and citizens will temporarily transform metered parking spaces into public parks and other social spaces, as part of an annual event called “PARK(ing) Day.”
Originally invented in 2005 by Rebar, a San Francisco-based art and design studio, PARK(ing) Day challenges people to rethink the way streets are used and reinforces the need for broad-based changes to urban infrastructure. “In urban centers around the world, inexpensive curbside parking results in increased traffic, wasted fuel and more pollution,” says Rebar’s Matthew Passmore. “The planning strategies that generated these conditions are not sustainable, nor do they promote a healthy, vibrant human habitat. PARK(ing) Day is about re-imagining the possibilities of the urban landscape.”
Locally, a group of organizations such as OPRA, Transit Miami, the Street Plans Collaborative, and the Urban Environmental League have partnered with the City of Miami Parking Authority to transform ten metered parking spaces in one of Downtown Miami’s least green neighborhoods into a park. The event will take place at 700 N. Miami Avenue, directly in front of the old Miami Arena, demolished in 2008. The Old Arena site is also the future site of Grand Central Park (www.grandcentralpark.org), an OPRA project to convert five acres of rocks on the former arena site into a three year temporary park.
Since 2005, the project has blossomed into a worldwide grassroots movement: PARK(ing) Day 2010 included more than 800 “PARK” installations 180 cities around the world. This year, the project continues to expand to urban centers across the globe.
PARK(ing) Day is an “open-source” user-generated invention created by independent groups around the globe who adapt the project to champion creative, social or political causes that are relevant to their local urban conditions. More information regarding local PARK(ing) Day activities can be found and a global map of all participating cities are available on the PARK(ing) Day website, at parkingday.org.
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