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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Re-designing Cities

Air Date: Week of

Architect Hillary Brown offers some tips on how to make the most of miles of concrete and pavement rights-of-way in big cities.


CURWOOD: In New York City, a team of architects and urban planners have figured out how some taken-for-granted real estate could make for a healthier environment. They did it by taking to the streets: rethinking how to use pavement, drainage, utilities and landscape; and looking at what other cities are doing. They came up with what they say is the right way to use all those public rights-of-way in an attempt, says team leader Hillary Brown, to put the principles of sustainability to work where the rubber meets the road.

BROWN: First off, we noticed that cars, surface transit, pedestrians, and bike riders all compete for the right-of-way. But too often, autos win out. So, we proposed carving out more space for bikers and separating them from cars and walkers with islands and corridors of trees and vegetation.

We also found that in many places, wider sidewalks and green outdoor alcoves can entice us out of our cars to stroll, walk to work, and enjoy exercise in comfort and safety.

We all appreciate the seasonal colors of trees and other street plantings, but these pockets of nature offer other tangible benefits by removing air-borne dirt, producing oxygen, dampening street noise and keeping the city cool in summer. Some studies even show that the more trees you have on a street, the less crime you have.

Creating continuous trenches for these trees can prevent both damage to their roots and cracks in the pavement. Selecting mixed species that are water-efficient and pest-resistant produces healthier plants that need less tending to.

And instead of letting polluted rainwater flow into storm sewers, let’s direct it onto porous surfaces such as gravel or open spaced pavers, or into planted trenches where it can be filtered by roots while refreshing underground aquifers.

We also learned that something as simple as the color of concrete or asphalt makes a big difference. Lighter shades of concrete improve visibility at night. By day, it reflects the heat of the sun, reducing summertime temperatures - - and a cooler street means less energy is needed for air-conditioning.

This pavement lasts longer too, and may be an excellent medium for recycling a variety of wastes such as old concrete, glass, or rubber.

Open up the street and you’ll find a deep tangle of conduits and pipes. We recommend organizing this messy infrastructure into trenches with removable lids for repairs. Radar can test pipes, and you can drill them with lasers, a practice called micro-tunneling that allows workmen to make repairs without digging, keeping neighbors happier.

Now, these may not sound like grand solutions but small improvements, taken together, can make a big difference, simply because so much of our urban environment is paved. The 20,000 lane miles of right-of-way in all of New York City comprise an area as big as Manhattan.

All in all, we learned that greening our streets does far more than create a lovely, living mosaic of the city’s diverse neighborhoods. With better air and water, healthier natural systems, and a more active population, it’s a long-term investment in our city’s quality of life.

CURWOOD: Hillary Brown is an architect and principal of the firm “New Civic Works” based in Manhattan.

For more information on how to green your city, go to our website – Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot O-R-G.



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