Author Archive

Imagining Art for a Site in Willimantic, CT

I love public art, especially art that is functionally integrated into infrastructure. I believe that public art has the capacity to activate public spaces, generate conversations, and educate the community.

During the past months, I have had the amazing and unique opportunity of using my engineering and urban planning skills and combine them with my love for public art. In December 2017, our team -composed of Höweler+Yoon Architecture, Gray Organschi, PUSH Studio, and Nspiregreen- was selected to be one of the three groups to participate in the final round of the Land Art Generation Initiative (LAGI) Competition. The purpose of this competition is to imagine, create, and develop an art piece for a specific site that captures energy from nature and cleanly converts it into electricity. This artwork should also be constructible, use market-available technologies, and respect the natural ecosystem of the design site.

Our specific challenge was to envision a public art piece for a parcel in Willimantic, Connecticut, located 30 miles southeast from Hartford. Willimantic is commonly known as the Thread City given its history with threading manufacturing in the 19th Century. In fact, the old Smithville Cotton Mill used to be located on the property and used hydropower as its source of energy. Today, Willimantic has a vibrant cultural scene and is home to Eastern Connecticut State University.

The 3.4-acre triangular site is a blank canvas as seen in the following pictures. The parcel is located beside the downtown area, just a few minutes from the town’s commercial area. The site is owned by the Willimantic Whitewater Partnership and was recently remediated for the presence of petroleum hydrocarbons. In addition, the site grading provides beautiful views of City Hall and the rapids of the Willimantic River. The site also includes a stretch of the river, a deteriorated dam (installed when the site used hydropower), and a retaining wall.

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View from south side of the site towards City Hall (left) and view of amphitheater, river, and change in grading (right). (Picture owned by Gray Organschi)

After doing research, visiting the site, having a series of internal discussions, and talking with the community, we developed Eddy Line (an eddy line is the shear plane between two directions of water). As seen in the following pictures, our proposed design is a vertical structure, visible from many areas of town, that captures the water currents seen in the river, as well as the movements of threads in historic textile processes, while harkening back to the smokestacks of old textile factories. On the south side of the structure, a 1,250 square feet array of flexible thin-film solar panels capable of generating 94 MWh of energy annually is being proposed. Some of this energy will be used to power LED panels at the back of the structure which will change in color, allowing the community to know how much power has been generated. In the addition to the public art piece, our team is proposing an overlook and an amphitheater. With this design, we hope to transform this blank space into a place for the community of Willimantic to enjoy, create recreational and economic development opportunities, and trigger conversations around renewable energy, especially solar.

The winner of the competition will be officially announced on April 24 (here is a link to all three proposals). It would be amazing to continue seeing this vision come to reality. Regardless of the results, this has been a unique opportunity personally and professionally. In addition, it makes me happy that towns are embracing public art and their cultural heritage for placemaking, economic development, and building community.

Jimena Larson is an environmental engineer and urban planner from Bogota, Colombia interested in water, infrastructure, and urban design challenges.

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Rebuild or Rethink?

Earlier this month a $14.2 million pedestrian bridge collapsed in Miami, Florida killing six and injuring ten people. Immediately, new articles sprang up trying to figure out the cause, such as here, here, and countless others. I’ll leave it to the structural engineers and the courts to sort out the cause of the bridge collapse.

When I first saw the photos and video, I thought the pedestrian bridge was over a highway. As more photos became available, I realized this was a bridge over SW 8 Street, or Calle Ocho, with traffic lights and crosswalks. The purpose of the bridge was to connect Florida International University (FIU) students to campus housing and the adjacent community. The real problem with this street is that functions as a highway that prioritizes motor vehicles over people. If we can change our mindset to prioritize people, can reduce the roadway footprint and reduce our infrastructure needs.

From what I can tell on Google street view, the street is about 10 lanes wide (8 travel lanes, 1 hashed area the width of a lane, and 2 bike lanes that equal 1 travel lane) plus a median. Based on data from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), the Average Annual Daily Traffic on the street was 66,500 vehicles, which is about the same volume as New York Avenue NE in DC between Montana Avenue and Bladensburg Road which has 6 lanes plus a median.*

I made an approximate cross-section of the existing conditions at the location of the pedestrian bridge, based on Google Earth images. This perspective is looking westbound.

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After the investigations are finished, there is the question to rebuild the bridge. Rather than rebuild, FIU and FDOT should consider other options that would make it a complete and safe street. I played around with cross-sections including some that do not require putting SW 8 Street on a road diet. All the cross-sections are looking westbound. Some options they could consider, not necessarily mutually exclusive.

  • Widen the median: It appears that the westbound lane had a double left turn at one point. Rather than narrow the roadway it looks like the lane was removed by hashing. Given the space available, they could reorganize the roadway, so the median is equal to the current median and the hashed travel lane or about 16 feet. It would create a pedestrian refuge. Below is a cross-section that I mocked up that maintains the existing number of travel lanes. 

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  • Install protected bike lanes: From the Google aerial, it appears there are bike lanes on both sides of the street. The speed limit is 40 miles per hour, which means people are probably driving closer to 50-60 mph. For even the most fearless of cyclists, that is terrifying. They could consider installing a two-way cycle track on the south side of the street or raised cycle tracks on both sides of the street. Below is an example of a two-way cycle track

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  • Increase public transit: The Sweetwater Trolley operates every half hour. The Miami- Dade Transit has three bus routes that serve the university even at their peaks they are about every 30 minutes. While the system is free, 30-minute headways are not ideal for encouraging ridership. FIU could work with Sweetwater and Miami-Date Transit to develop a robust public transit system that benefits the university and residents. For the illustrative, I repurposed two travel lanes for bus only lanes and added in a bus shelter.

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  • Create people friendly public space: The sidewalks are right at the curb, which means people are walking right next to the roadway. In addition, there is very little shade along the sidewalk. Even with the location of the utility poles on the south side of the street, it is possible to create a grass median between the curb and a wider sidewalk as well as adding trees to add more shade. On the north side, it is possible to add a sidewalk and shade trees to make the linear park something more special that how it is today. If the roadway is narrower by a lane, that space could be added to the linear park. For the illustrative, I kept the cycle-track, narrowed the inside lanes to 10 feet and reduce the capacity from 7 travel lanes to 5. I left the outside lanes 11 feet to accommodate public transit.
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These are some ideas based on doing a digital tour on the site. After the investigations conclude, hopefully, there will be consideration of turning SW 8 St into a boulevard that is a gateway to FIU and Sweetwater.

*Note: FDOT’s data is 2016 and District Department of Transportation’s data is 2015. The point of comparison is volume and number of lanes.

Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.
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Life In the City: The Daycare Hustle!

I’m just a country girl with big city dreams. At least that’s what I tell myself every time I’m confronted with something that seems out of the ordinary. City life isn’t for the faint of heart or for those of us who like to carefully watch our pennies. There is a price (usually a steep one) associated with everything. On a trip back to my native state, Alabama, I scrunched my face and squinted my eyes when I realized I could buy milk and eggs for what seems to be half of what they cost in the District of Columbia. As I’ve gotten married and more recently, had a child, I have soon found out the grocery store isn’t the only place with prices exceeding my expectation… and my pocketbook.

Fortunately, for the first year of my son’s life, we had willing family members who came for extended visits and helped fill our childcare gaps.  For us, this worked out great because his initial medical issues would have made it hard to comfortably place him in a traditional daycare; however, that wasn’t a permanent solution. A few months ago, once all the family had gone home, we started the daycare search. Of course, my husband entirely entrusted me with the process, and so I trudged around the city going on site visit after site visit.  We had already heard all the horror stories. You need to be on the list before you’re even pregnant.  Your boss needs to write you a letter of recommendation. You need to cough up three goats, two cows and one chicken every month. It was all true!

Our initial search started near our home in southeast DC. Prices weren’t as cheap as Alabama but were reasonable compared to the area – about $700-$1200 a month. However, I hung up each call more frantic and anxious than the one before. There were literally no openings at ANY of the daycare centers within my geographic boundaries. Everything near my house was entirely full until basically 2027.

Time was starting to run out, and I entered into full on panic mode. By this point, I was working from home or trying to bring my kid into the office.  We were still on several waitlists, but nobody was calling me back.  We decided to try a home daycare in our neighborhood—one of the few that had space—at first it was a relief, but after a few short weeks, we realized it wasn’t a good fit.  And so, we were back to the daycare hustle.  I decided to expand my search closer to my office and voila!  I lucked out and nabbed what had to be the only open toddler space in all of DC. It was more than double the cost of what we were paying the home daycare, but we realized that at this point, peace of mind was everything. But still.  When my friends in Alabama discuss their $80/week daycare center, I cringe wondering how people—myself included—afford to live and raise a family in this city when daycare costs are comparable to mortgage and rent.

Finding suitable, reliable, affordable childcare in the District shouldn’t be this difficult. I’ve watched this panicked scene unfold several times in our office as babies make their debut. Families have to make really hard life choices because of child care, like deciding if it’s really worth it for both parents to work. When calculating the costs, some families decide it’s better for one parent to stay home. Let’s keep it real. The majority of the time this falls on the woman’s career taking a back seat. No matter who has to stay at home, the impact is negative because it takes valuable people away from the workforce. It sets them back in their career in terms of upward mobility and keeping their skills sharpened, and financially their future social security takes a hit. Emotionally this is draining because these are parents who want to work but have to choose not to. Unfortunately, our institutions are just not set up to accommodate two working parents, especially in major cities. Not only is the cost challenging but think about our institutions and how they are not designed to fit homes with working parents.  (yes, this is a tangent but it’s my blog) The post office and schools close before most parents get off work. Schools open from 8-3 or 7-3 but “typical” work hours are 9-5 leaving parents scrambling to identify before and after school care, juggle schedules or rely on family for support. In a place like DC, where many people live far from family the latter is usually not an option.

Reform is necessary in the childcare space so that it is affordable and accommodates two working class parents. Beyond childcare, we have to rethink the way our institutions are designed and if they support the way we work or maybe the way we work needs to change. These issues aren’t mutually exclusive. There is much “talk” about it but working parents need action. It shouldn’t be a hustle to find quality, affordable, reliable daycare that allows both parents to work. We have put a man on the moon and even developed driverless cars. Certainly, our childcare can be better than this.

Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.





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