Sensitive solutions for changing times

August 2007 » Exclusive
Context Sensitive Design has gained recognition and mementum as a successful design approach.
John L. Flint, P.E.

Context Sensitive Design focuses on pedestrian- and downtown-oriented transportation projects.

Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) and Context Sensitive Design (CSD) have gained recognition and momentum as a successful design approach and descriptor during the last five to 10 years. CSS has proven its value and is beckoning planners, landscape architects, and engineers back to a pedestrian- and downtown-oriented time in American history.

The process and the paradigm shift that CSS represents has become a new way of thinking in the transportation industry. It traces its roots to the late 1960s with the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act, which required transportation agencies to consider the potential adverse impacts of highway projects on the surrounding environment, and replaces the approach of the Interstate era that moved vehicles with the greatest speed and least possible delays.

Key in CSS is the use of techniques such as widened curb lanes and designated bike lanes; bump-outs at intersections; continually evolving ADA-compliance techniques; reduced speeds and increased access; and even selection of materials reflecting the architectural style and urban fabric of the surrounding area.

Transportation design history
In the 1950s and 1960s, most transportation engineering work was centered on completing the Interstate system. Travel distance was less important than speed and movement of vehicles around congested population centers.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, even through the gas crisis years, highways were still being designed to move traffic. Many cities—supported by the planning and design community—converted arterials and major collectors to one-way streets to reduce conflict points and accident potential and to move traffic through town as quickly as possible.

By the late 1980s into the early 1990s, the work that our firm, FRA, was doing in local and state highway planning and design began to change. Public hearings required for a planned project were moving away from the staged process of simply informing the public about the project. Instead, two- and three-step processes were being implemented, where the public was at least given a chance to comment before planning and design were complete.

At the same time, the effects of our decisions in the 1970s and 1980s were beginning to be realized. Downtowns were losing retail population, soon to be followed by the commercial and even professional populations. The once major population centers were being replaced by multiple nodes of activity along the bypasses we created to move traffic.

The mid- to late-1990s saw a paradigm shift in transportation planning and design. Suddenly, there was focus on pedestrians, bicycles, transit centers, and buses. Communities became engaged in the process of deciding how to handle transportation-related changes. They told us that maybe some of the decisions we as transportation professionals made in the past 20 years actually hurt our communities. The public involvement process and awareness of all aspects of the activities that define our communities grew, and positive changes resulted.

A new approach
By the end of the 1990s, the design community recognized the need for an approach that considered the environmental impacts of new and reconstructed highways and began to think in terms of integrating its work into the human and built environment. Sensitivity to community and stakeholder input also became a popular and, ultimately, required effort in nearly all projects.

CSD and CSS are the labels our profession has chosen to define this shift, but it really is about a comprehensive answer to the issues that face our urban centers. All elements that comprise our smaller cities must work well together to make them a place we want to live, work, and play, and a place that others want to visit.

Today, with support of important legislation such as SAFETEA-LU, which promotes consideration of CSS core principles in planning and project development processes, the trend is quickly becoming a way of life for the design community. FRA has also seen those principles become a growing client expectation.

All communities now demand an engaged and involved project. Transportation planners and designers are asking questions such as the following:

  • How do we accommodate bicycles in the roadway?
  • Why not widen sidewalks to encourage people coming to the street to support the local shops and businesses?
  • How do we improve pedestrian safety in our downtown?
  • How can we get grocery stores to return to the downtown area?
  • How can we slow down traffic?
  • How can we encourage traffic to stop in the downtown area?
  • How can materials that represent historic elements of our community be incorporated into a portion of the transportation project?
  • How can we improve access to our retail core?
  • What can we do, as part of our transportation projects, to improve water quality in local streams?

Every community we work in has developed at least a process for engaging the public in public works projects. The techniques vary from place to place, with some using focus groups, others using design charrettes, and many staying with an expanded version of the old public hearing and public information process. What’s important, however, is that there is a procedure for learning what the community concerns and important issues are, and then responding to them as part of the planning and design process.

This process needs to begin with project planning, and be carried through until the project is built. And, community members truly need to feel that they have been listened to. We try to identify as many specific elements of a project as possible where we can offer choices in style, appearance, or materials, then present those options and implement the community’s preferences.

CSD techniques
We have also worked extensively with the techniques that are key to CSD and incorporate them into our projects. We no longer think in terms of 4-foot- or 5-foot-wide sidewalks in downtown areas. Except where restricted by right-of-way or other factors, we now use a minimum of 6 feet as an acceptable sidewalk width, with 8 feet preferred.

Defining the pedestrian zone versus the building and landscaping zones is also important because it offers an opportunity to select materials that reflect historic elements of the community, while differentiating areas that need to remain clear for pedestrian travel and those for other activities.

Lighting selection can also be an important element of CSD. Period-style lighting in historic districts, as well as sensitivity to the visibility and security of all modes of travel, are important considerations. At FRA, we completely disagree with the trend toward strictly pedestrian-scale lighting in downtown districts. Street lighting heights of 8 feet to 12 feet do not adequately illuminate a street that is more than two lanes wide. Combination street and pedestrian poles are a more appropriate choice in most downtown areas.

We recommend bump-outs in all locations where on-street parking occurs. Bump-outs improve safety and shorten crossing distances for pedestrians at signalized intersections without loss of vehicular operating capacity.

Roundabouts are a safe and efficient means of intersection control. Studies have shown that significant safety gains are achieved by implementing roundabouts instead of conventional intersections. Many state and local agencies are beginning to use roundabouts as an alternative to conventional intersection designs, as well as a means for improving traffic safety. In Rochester, N.Y., significant economic redevelopment successfully occurred in the area surrounding a roundabout project FRA completed.

We also successfully implemented the concept of self-enforcing roadways through the use of traffic calming techniques. A previously wide and uncontrolled local street was transformed into an inviting and quiet park road—used by all modes of transportation and supporting the historic lakefront extension of the city—through use of narrowed travel lanes, lighting, and well-defined access points. Measured travel speeds were reduced from more than 45 miles per hour (mph) to 25 mph in the half-mile corridor, and enforcement issues were dramatically reduced.

In Atlanta, Ga., we are working on projects that are part of PATH, a non-profit foundation developing a metropolitan-wide, multi-use trail system, with one trail that will connect to Alabama. The West End Trail is a segment of the proposed Atlanta Beltline, which will connect intown neighborhoods along a former rail corridor. The Centennial Park Trail connects a developing infill housing neighborhood across the Interstate to Atlanta’s downtown core and Centennial Olympic Park, the Georgia Aquarium, and the World of Coke. These projects reduce excessive lane widths to accommodate a widened sidewalk, improve pedestrian access at intersections, and add street trees and lighting.

Neither the main highway nor the side road accommodate pedestrian or bike traffic in this Atlanta neighborhood, where residents rely heavily on both (left). When complete, both roadways will be narrowed and tree-lined to accommodate a paved trail for a multi-user environment (right).

 

Consideration of cost is always important. However, one of the things we have learned as we develop our thinking in a context sensitive way is to consider the tangible as well as the intangible costs. How do we, in the design community, assign a cost to the loss of a retail business from a downtown area? How do we measure community endorsement and support of our projects?

After a particularly emotional public meeting, a client asked, "Can we afford to do what they are asking?" I replied, "Can we afford not to?" The point is exactly the concept of CSS: Consideration is given to the desires and needs of the community by inviting the appropriate stakeholders to participate in development of a project, thus influencing some of the solutions so they are acceptable to the community.

It has been our experience that most of the elements of CSD have cost implications that are immeasurable or insignificant. Even the Rochester roundabout was completed for about the same cost as a signalized intersection.

Sustainable design elements such as stone curb, porous concrete, and oil separators add a measurable cost to the initial construction of a project. But their useful life and the environmental benefit they provide over the life of the materials far outweighs the additional initial cost of these items.

Conclusion
One thing seems clear: Gone are the days when a transportation agency could work in a vacuum and develop a project, then simply tell the community what they were about to receive. As it should be, the most successful projects will be those that have engaged the community, not just in the design process, but also in selection of materials and elements to be built—and in the construction process itself. A project that is supported by the community is accepted by the community. What better project representatives to have during the always disruptive construction phase than a community of folks who can’t wait to see it completed? After all, they own it.

John L. Flint, P.E., is CEO of FRA, a professional consulting firm with offices in New York, Georgia, and Kentucky. He can be reached at jflint@fraengineering.com. Dennis J. Decker, ASLA, is project manager, and Dennis J. Kennelly, P.E., is a transportation and civil services manager, also with FRA.

 


 

Context Sensitive Design resources
While FRA has been involved with CSD for some time and has worked on many projects to restore downtown areas, firms that are just becoming involved in CSD have a number of resources available to them. Nearly every state department of transportation has a guidance manual on the use of CSD techniques, providing procedures and details for the area. Workshops are conducted at the state and federal levels on a regular basis, offering design and procedural guidance in managing the process.

The Context Sensitive Solutions organization is probably the best clearinghouse-type source for design guidance in addition to your state transportation department. Other sources for design guidance include the American Planning Association and American Society of Civil Engineers. All have a great deal of reading material on implementing the CSS process, as well as some good discussions on the pros and cons of specific techniques for accomplishing a particular objective.

The Georgia Department of Transportation has on its website one of the better collections of best practices guidelines that we have found. Many others, including the Federal Highway Administration, have also compiled best practices publications.
Of course, these documents will evolve as the concept evolves. As with the design community’s work in the last 40-plus years, there will be great ideas that work as intended, and those that will be replaced by new approaches.


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