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Daley Plaza is the “realest” public space in Chicago

People in Daley Plaza from Steven Vance on Vimeo.

I find that Daley Plaza is Chicago’s “realest” public space in the city. Real in the tradition of public spaces in cities around the world where history is made in the form of speeches and protests and where people are not afraid to occupy the space to relax, be idle, chat, and eat. Also real in that the legally space is owned by the city, and by extension its citizens, but never its corporations. Real in that commercial interests for that space are maintained. Real in that people have adopted the space as a natural, close, and unblocked meeting point.

Where Daley Plaza isn’t a real public space is that it is surrounded by roaring machines on three sides (the fourth doesn’t function as part of the plaza). It becomes less peaceful because of the metal boxes hurtling through space at every edge and vertex of the granite.

Millennium Park fails as a public space because it has rules. Because private security enforces these rules and bothers guests for the most normal of activities. The space is managed by contract from the city to a corporation. It has hours of use. You surely can’t protest, let alone ride a bike. Half of it was paid for by the names that adorn its features.

In Millennium Park, and many other corporate “plazas”, you can be told to leave.

Panorama of Daley Plaza during Critical Mass in March 2013. 

It would be disingenuous of me to only compare Millennium Park as an example of real public space in Chicago. It’s the extreme opposite of Daley Plaza in the spectrum of public spaces here. Grant Park is closer to Daley Plaza, but lacks the closeness, the tight feeling that you are in a community of other humans. There are smaller spaces that would be in the same vein as Daley Plaza, like Giddings Plaza in Lincoln Square, and Federal Plaza just down the street at Adams. There are plenty of smaller examples, like the sidewalks and tiny plazas at Blue Island, Loomis, and 18th Street.

Daley Plaza’s water fountain near the southwest corner does a good job of masking the rumbling automobile engines and tires rubbing on the pavement. It provides stimulation for other senses, including vision (the water seems infinite!) and tactile perception (the water has a temperature and a texture against the skin).

I wrote this on June 18, 2013. I have a tendency to draft articles and then not publish for a long time. I have a draft about Berlin, Germany, from September 2012. 

I need a visualization tip for showing pedestrian and auto traffic in downtown Chicago

Madison Street over the Chicago River. Pedestrian traffic is very high, and very constrained, near the Metra stations.

Here’s the goal:

Show that pedestrians don’t get sufficient space or time to have a high quality pedestrian experience given that they comprise the largest mode share on streets in the Loop. The trips are highly delayed at traffic signals, pedestrian space is encroached upon because of automobile turning movements, and the sidewalks aren’t wide enough for two-way or even one-way traffic at certain times of the day. It’s possible to build our way out of pedestrian traffic…

Here’s an example data set:

On October 3, 2006, for all of the 24 hours, at 410 W Madison Street, there were 17,100 automobiles counted.

On some day in summer 2007, for 10 hours, at 350 W Madison Street, there were 43,987 pedestrians counted.

The two locations are practically the same as the bridge here prevents more pedestrians or automobiles from “slipping in”.

It’s possible to download the data sets from CDOT’s Traffic Tracker so you can see the whole city on your own map, but you’ll have to do some digging in the source code to find them.

What downtown means

Not the guy from the story. 

I was “downtown” photographing situations that make it hard to walk (hard to be a pedestrian) on Sunday, November 13, 2011. While waiting for the light at LaSalle and Adams, a man wearing a Bears jersey in the front passenger seat of a taxicab asked me if I had pizza in my Yuba Mundo’s Go-Getter bag.

“No”, I said, adding, “It has my backpack in there”.

“It’s a very large bag”, he replied.

Realizing that he was sober and that we could hold a conversation, I explained, “It holds a lot of groceries”.

“Oh, you live downtown”, he ascertained.

Not quite. “I live a few miles outside of downtown”.

The light turned green and the driver moved on, but the guy left me with, “Have a nice day”. I said, “You, too”.

After I got home and was looking through my photos and recounted this story, I  realized that to him, “downtown” meant the entire City of Chicago. To me, downtown meant the Loop community area and some surrounding blocks. I might define “downtown” as a place bounded by Kennedy, Division, Lake Michigan, and Roosevelt. But to this suburban football fan, downtown is that big place that one has to travel a ways to get to. I remembered that I had the same understanding of downtown when I lived in Batavia, Illinois, a suburb 40 miles west of Chicago. You can access it by driving on I-290 and I-88, or by taking the Metra UP-West line to Geneva.

There’s at least one other assumption I can make from this conversation: If I shop for and carry groceries on a bicycle, I must live in Chicago; people in the suburbs are never seen shopping for and carrying groceries on a bicycle.

Another photo from my photo mission on Sunday. It’s Roosevelt University’s vertical campus building on Wabash and Van Buren. 

Gaps

A map that focuses on striped bikeways in downtown Chicago.

When you look at your bikeways more abstractly, like in the graphic above, do you see deficiencies or gaps in the network? Anything glaring or odd?

It’s a simple exercise: Open up QGIS and load in the relevant geographic data for your city. For Chicago, I added the city boundary, hydrography and parks (for locational reference), and bike lanes and marked-shared lanes*. Symbolize the bikeways to stand out in a bright color. I had the Chicago Transit Authority stations overlaid, but I removed them because it minimized the “black hole of bikeways” I want to show.

What do you see?

Bigger impact map

This exercise can have more impact if it was visualized differently. You have to be familiar with downtown Chicago and the Loop to fully understand why it’s important to notice what’s missing. It’s an extremely office and job dense neighborhood. It also has one of the highest densities of students in the country; the number of people residing downtown continues to grow. If I had good data on how many workers and students there were per building, I could indicate that on the map to show just how many people are potentially affected by the lack of bicycle infrastructure that leads them to their jobs (or class) in the morning, and home in the evening. I don’t know how to account for all of the bicycling that goes through downtown just for events, like at Millennium and Grant Parks, the Cultural Center, and other theaters and venues.

*If you cannot find GIS data for your city, please let me know and I will try to help you find it. It should be available for your city as a matter of course.

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