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The Tools: 13 Short-Range Livability Projects

These placemaking solutions can be implemented quickly, for not too much money

Editor's Note: The Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, AARP Livable Communities' partner in creating The Imagining Livability Design Collection, has closed shop. However, the 40-page publication the nonprofit helped develop in 2015 remains a valuable resource for communities and local leaders. 

The transformations presented here show real locations as they appeared during visits by AARP and WALC between 2010 and 2015. WALC helped each community develop a vision for the future, and it created photovisions to reflect those changes and how each place could be made better. 

Local leaders, planners, engineers and visionaries of all kinds use a range of innovative and tested techniques to make a community more livable and walkable

For instance, communities that are looking to make tangible, doable, affordable livability changes can get started simply — such as by relocating the painted lines (or removing the paint altogether) on existing streets.

The following "short-range," relatively low-cost improvements can typically be implemented in less than a year — sometimes as quickly as a few weeks — and cost anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

1. Bicycle Lanes (Including Protected Bike Lanes)

Marked Bicycle Lane, Path, New York City, Pedestrians, Livability Index, Livable Communities

Photo by Melissa Stanton

A marked bicycle land on Prospect Park West, a busy boulevard in Brooklyn, New York.

When done well, bicycle lanes are 6 feet wide or more and marked with a white stripe.

A protected bike lane — sometimes called a "cycle track" — is an exclusive lane that is physically separated from motor vehicle traffic by bollards (short, vertical posts), parked cars or other barriers that provide elements of a separated space and an on-road bicycle pathway. Cycle tracks may be one-way or two-way paths that are placed at road level, at sidewalk level or at an intermediate level.

For more about bicycling and bike facilities, read the Livability Fact Sheet: Bicycling.

2. Chicanes

Chicane, Neighborhood, Street, Street Sign, Livability Index, Livable Communities

Photo by Dan Burden

A chicane in Brighton, Michigan.

A chicane is a traffic safety treatment that slows vehicles by using landscaped curb extensions, planters, tree wells, bollards or other barriers to create short curves on a straight segment of roadway.

For example, one form of a chicane is an S-shaped turn that is created by the placement of two closely sequenced curb extensions on opposite sides of the street.

Because the result is a curved roadway that requires the driver to turn slightly left and then right again, the chicane helps reduce vehicle speeds.

3. Crossing Islands

Woman At Crosswalk Island, Busy Street, Cars, Livability Index, Livable Communities

Photo by the WALC Institute

A crossing island in Asheville, North Carolina.

Also called a pedestrian refuge island or median island, a crossing island is a traffic-calming measure that's used when a roadway is very wide or when no traffic light exists.

The "island" provides pedestrians with a safe harbor after having navigated across one direction of traffic before taking on the next. The pictured crossing island features a "Z" crossing, which helps ensure that pedestrians are looking in the direction of oncoming traffic as they prepare to step into the vehicle lane.

By reducing the crossing distance, an island also increases pedestrian visibility and safety. Another benefit: Crossing islands can feature signage and attractive landscaping.

4. Curb Extensions

Curb Extension, Rendered Drawing Of Street And Town Layout Crosswalks, Livability Index, Livable Communities

Photo by the WALC Institute / Photovisions by the WALC Institute, TDC Design Studio and AARP

A proposed curb extension and streetscape renovation in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

A curb extension (sometimes called a "neckdown" or "bulb-out") is a traffic-calming measure that's primarily used to extend the sidewalk to the outside edge of the vehicle travel lane.

Doing this reduces the distance a person must cross, which in turn increases pedestrian visibility and safety.

Curb extensions are especially helpful to the most vulnerable roadway users, including children, older adults and people with disabilities. Curb extensions can also include landscaping, signs, seating and bicycle racks. Learn more by reading the Livability Fact Sheet: TraffiCalming.

5. Directions (Or "Wayfinding")

Wayfinding, Signs, Directory Signs, Livability Index, Livable Communities

Photo by the WALC Institute

Wayfinding signage in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Wayfinding is a term that describes the use of signs and connected walkways and bicycle routes to help travelers navigate through neighborhoods, towns and cities.

Directional (or wayfinding) signage should be highly visible — preferably with a standardized, decorative color and style — and placed to guide users through a network of routes that connect destinations and neighborhoods.

6. Head-Out Diagonal Parking

Head Out Diagonal Parking Spaces, Cars, Woman On Bicycle, Pedestrian, Livability Index, Livable Communities

Photo by Dan Burden

Head-out diagonal parking in Seattle, Washington.

Parallel parking, in which parked vehicles line up single file flush and parallel to the side of the street, is a common parking configuration.

An even safer approach is to convert to head-out diagonal parking, which allows a vehicle to back into a parking space at a slight angle so the front or "head" of the vehicle faces the street. In such a scenario people are protected from moving traffic when they get into or out of a car. Also, when leaving the spot, the driver's visibility of the road is improved.

Another bonus: Head-out diagonal parking can yield more parking spaces than parallel parking. Learn more by reading the Livability Fact Sheet: Parking

7. Lane Narrowing

Lane Narrowing, Rendered Drawing, Town And Street Layout, Livability Index, Livable Communities

Photo by the WALC Institute / Photovisions by the WALC Institute, TDC Design Studio and AARP

Proposed lane narrowing in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico.

Many traffic lanes are unnecessarily wide, which encourages high vehicle speeds and increases the chance and severity of collisions.

Narrowing lanes from 12 or 15 feet wide to 10 or 11 feet wide encourages lower, safer vehicle speeds and increases safety for all users — especially for people who are walking and bicycling. The narrowing of lanes rarely disrupts the normal traffic flow, even for trucks and emergency vehicles.

In the proposed vision for Hato Rey, Puerto Rico (above), vehicle lanes are made narrower and "sharrow" markings are added. (Sharrows, which are shared bicycle and vehicle lanes, are discussed on page 3.) Crosswalks and street parking also help to naturally slow down vehicles, create a safety buffer between cars and pedestrians and increase livability. Landscaping, bicycle parking, colorized parking spaces and a sidewalk parklet all help create a new sense of place. Learn more by reading the Livability Fact Sheet: Road Diets.

8. Parklets And Pocket Parks

Parklets, Pocket Parks, Pop Up Spaces, Livability Index, Livable Communities

Photos by Jack Verdon Architecture (top) and (above)

A parklet (top) and pocket park in San Francisco.

A parklet (shown in the top image at right) is a small space that serves as an extension of the sidewalk, providing amenities and green space for neighborhood retail streets and commercial areas. In fact, a parklet is so small it's not only the size of a parking spot, it is a parking spot.

The idea behind parklets originated in San Francisco in 2005, when Rebar, an art and design studio, turned a single two-hour metered parking space into a temporary park. The purpose was to call attention to the vast amount of public space dedicated to parking while contrasting it to the dearth of outdoor public spaces. Today, many parklets are permanent or semi-permanent. (Here's an AARP "Livable Lesson" about creating a parklet.)

A pocket park (seen in the bottom image at right) is a tiny park, often located within curb extensions or in alleyways, parking lots, empty building lots and other underused spaces that create places where people can rest, gather and socialize.

Parklets and pocket parks both accommodate an unmet demand for public spaces and often have a distinctive design that incorporates seating, landscaping, bicycle parking, signage, play structures and even artwork.

9. Pedestrian-Scaled Lighting

Pedestrian Scaled Decorative Lighting, Street, Shops, Trees, Livability Index, Livable Communities

Photo by Dan Burden

Decorative, pedestrian-scaled lighting in Takoma Park, Maryland.

In many communities, lighting is installed on very high poles in order to light the street for the safety and visibility of motor vehicles.

By contrast, pedestrian-scaled lighting is intended to illuminate sidewalks, bus stops, seating areas, paths and other walking and bicycling features.

Pedestrian-scaled light fixtures are closer to the ground (standing about 15 feet high) than roadway lights. The fixtures are spaced closely together to, explains ChangeLab Solutions, "create an even lighting of the sidewalk instead of alternating bright and dark spaces." Pedestrian-oriented lighting generally uses a white light-style bulb, rather than yellow light, and the fixtures are often decorative in some way as opposed to being purely utilitarian.

"As a further benefit," adds ChangeLab. "Human-scale lighting, like other street furniture, alerts drivers to the presence of pedestrians in an area." The Project for Public Spaces concurs: "The difference between a pedestrian-lit street and a highly illuminated highway automatically signals drivers that they have entered a new and different zone, and compels them to slow their driving speed."

10. Rain Gardens

Rain Gardens, Street, Sidewalk, Livability Index, Livable Communities

Photo by the WALC Institute

A rain garden in Port Townsend, Washington.

A rain garden or "bioswale" is a landscaped depression or hole that allows rainwater runoff from roofs, streets, driveways, sidewalks, trails, parking lots and compacted lawn areas to soak into the ground as opposed to flowing into storm drains and surface waters.

The creation and smart placement of such landscape features help prevent erosion, water pollution, flooding and diminished groundwater quality.

11. Safety Buffers

Safety Buffers Opposing Traffic, Cars, Busy Street, Bicyclists, Pedestrians, Livability Index, Livable Communities

Photo from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) Urban Street Design Guide

Traffic safety buffers along Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn, New York.

A buffer is a painted or physically separated area that provides a safety zone between people walking or bicycling and moving vehicles.

For instance, a line of paint creating a 3-foot-wide gap on a road to the right of a bicycle lane creates a "door zone" between people on bicycles and the parked cars, thereby removing the threat of a bicyclist colliding with an opening car door.

Other buffer examples include parked cars, bicycle lanes and crossing islands that act as protective buffers between pedestrians and passing vehicles.

In the image above a crossing island protects pedestrians who are crossing the street. A bicycle lane acts as a buffer for a driver getting into and out of a parked car. People walking on sidewalks are buffered by trees, parked cars, a bike lane and street furnishings such as benches and informational kiosks that are placed next to the sidewalk.

12. Sharrows

Sharrow Lane, Bicyclists, Street, Livability Index, Livable Communities

Photo courtesy Arlington County, Virginia

A sharrow lane in Arlington, Virginia.

A sharrow is a shared-lane marking that's placed in the middle of a travel lane to indicate that bicyclists are permitted to use the full lane.

Such a marking (which is typically painted onto the road surface) helps establish a shared understanding between drivers and bicyclists that they can each use the lane, so they'd best keep an eye out for one another.

13. Street Trees

Tree Lined Street, Cars, Sidewalk, Pedestrians, Livability Index, Livable Communities

Photo by Dan Burden

A tree-lined walk in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

In a neighborhood setting, street trees provide shade, safety, greenery, storm mitigation, energy savings, fresh air and a haven for songbirds and squirrels.

Trees visually screen utility poles and concrete sidewalks, and they help to quiet street noise. Trees can be planted in (among other streetscape locations) tree wells, between sidewalks and streets and in curb extensions and refuge islands. Learn more by reading the Livability Fact Sheet: Street Trees.

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