Moving the curb…with cones

At Buro Happold we strive to find innovative ways to move projects forward and bring new possibilities to market. Being at the cutting edge of design and implementation requires not only substantial quantitative analytics, the latest data and technology, but an inherent common sense and an insight into human behaviour. Moving the curb with cones is a great example of this as Michael King reports…

When designing or making changes to public spaces, gauging how the public will react is crucial to a project being approved. As an early pioneer of traffic calming and tactical urbanism, I’ve been using traffic cones to test and demonstrate innovate design for streets and traffic since my days at the New York City Department of Transportation. Cones palpably show how a street or plaza is to be transformed. People can walk and drive through the new design while designers can observe and iterate, gaining real time feedback on their ideas.

The ‘moving the curb with cones’ technique can be used in a number of ways. For example, as a training exercise during a workshop: standing in the street watching drivers and cyclists and people walking react to circumstances changed by cones allows designers to immediately understand how their design works (or does not work). For public relations: it allows people to get an impression of the potential design firsthand, and photos and videos of the installation give wonderful copy for publicists. Its honest and rapid results can be used to bring even the nay-sayer and pessimist around.

Recent orange cone projects include:

Moving the curb with cones is a form of tactical urbanism, a demonstration project that quickly tests an idea and provides immediate opportunity for feedback. The next step would be a pilot project, then an interim design, and finally a permanent installation ( Cities have come to realize that the time it takes for most capital projects to come to fruition is longer than the evolutionary cycle of street design. The feedback loops and exchange of ideas is happening so quickly, that cities need the ability to explore and change more rapidly. Design in the public realm is highly iterative. The following videos show the possibilities of moving the curb with cones:

The idea works in streets, intersections, driveways, parks and plazas. It can be applied to pick-up and drop-off zones, building lobbies, transit stations, and other places where people and vehicles move about and interact. The principles of flow dynamics – how people react to elements placed in their path – are universal.

Working in the public realm requires being in the public realm.

Two seminal works unpinning the science of this technique are Life Between Buildings by Jan Gehl (1971) and the Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William Whyte (1980). Moving the curb with cones is, as some call it, real engineering. Too often we are trapped by our cubicles and screens to take stock of our surroundings. Working in the public realm requires being in the public realm. The analog lessons learned are applied to our digital models through analysis and interpolation.  They provide evidence-based data which inform our SMARTmove models and vice versa.

Innovation comes from looking at human behavior as well as computer screens. Moving the curb with cones demonstrates these fundamental relationships between people, places and things, which we always try to incorporate in our work at Buro Happold.

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