September 2010

Proposed crosswalk design that jibes with the actual paths of pedestrians crossing the street

The conventional zebra-stripe crosswalk of stripes of equal lengths may not mirror how most pedestrians actually travel across intersections. Think for a moment about how and where you yourself step out into the street at an intersection and what path you take. Does it follow to a T the path of the crosswalk? Or does it more so mirror the paths of the pedestrians photographed below?

Korean designer Jae Min Lim has developed a new crosswalk design that more accurately matches the actual travel paths of most pedestrians when they cross a street. Since the birth of the crosswalk, municipalities have sought to ensure that all pedestrians conform to right angles, or slight variations thereof. Jae Min Lim suggests that this attempt at boxing in the pedestrian verges on futile, and that it is time for crosswalk design to move beyond nearly 100 years of wishful thinking. The dubbed “Ergo Crosswalk” is an attempt to invite the world’s cities into the 20th Century, where pedestrians (aka urban residents) might share an equal or greater standing with motor vehicles, where design jibes with real behavior, where urban form follows user function.

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Hammarby Sjöstad, set to the music of Pistol Disco

Hammarby Sjöstad is an expansive redevelopment area located in a former industrial area just south of Stockholm proper (formerly known as Norra Hammarbyhamnen and Södra Hammarbyhamnen). Save a couple of former factories now converted into offices and housing, little remains from the district’s industrial (and trailor-park) past. Over the remains of a bygone era has been constructed, in essence, the physical manifestation of the most current discourse on sustainability and urban development: multi-family housing placed within a grid of walkable/bikable streets, easy access to greenspace – and ample quantities of it – relatively close proximity to transit, and commercial spaces lining the ground floors of buildings on major boulevards in the district. To walk and bike within Hammarby Sjöstad is to get a sense of a particular statement about a desired direction of modern development. Absent much indication of what came before it, and given the sheer newness of the entire zone, the result is a district that feels much like a shell of buildings and streets, a zone that is devoid of the aggregate layers of experience and memory that are mixed within the older districts of the city. This begs the question as to whether we can even create satisfying places and spaces where there is little to no physical memory – housed equally in structures as well as the minds of its residents – of what has come before.

Looking out over the Baltic from the edge of Sandhamn

There has been much ado within urban planning and design circles of late over the notion of place and the perennial quest for creating a sense of place in the day and age of strip malls, drive-thrus, and cul-de-sacs. Much of this discourse has centered around physical form and has argued that a sense of place cannot be found within the strip-commerical, auto-oriented development that has become virtually synonymous with the modern American built landscape. The reasoning goes that if every place looks like everywhere else, than how can that place cause one to feel that they are anywhere in particular? Yet nonetheless within these seemingly faceless landscapes people do live their lives, fall in love, stay up too late, vow never to speak to someone ever again. History – the history of human experience and memory – still occurs and is produced within the most banal of spaces.

This is not to say that the nature of one’s physical surroundings cannot heighten one’s experiences; they can and they do. Rather, it is to suggest that this sense of place cannot be produced by good urban design and physical form alone. Place, to be created, may require memory and a layering of experiences across time. The Baltic Sea at the edge of the Stockholm Archipelago appears as a virtual carbon copy of Lake Superior along the Arrowhead of Minnesota. One location is perhaps no more striking than the other. However, if one holds years of memory and experience of one or the other environment within their psyche, the other virtually similar environment might not ultimately seem as salient, or moving.

In this same vein, Hammarby Sjöstad may simply be too young to feel like much more than the physical, constructed version of a contemporary idea; the physical vestiges of history that were once there have by and large been erased, and the new fibers of experience and memory in the newly built environment have barely been created. The lesson we draw from Hammarby is not that we shouldn’t try to steer modern development away from the strip-commerical crumminess that has become all too familar to us as a civilization, but that we need to remind ourselves that built form is part of a much larger, time-spanning puzzle in the quest to create a sense of place in a world of noplace.

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