City Paper is not for tourists
A half-moon of concrete sits above Connecticut Avenue where the traffic dives underground and tunnels beneath Dupont Circle. A curious selection of objects appeared a few months ago inside this little hemisphere: several granite cubes, three shiny black posts, two raised flower beds outlined in rust-colored metal, and a mysterious, ATM-like kiosk. If you’ve seen it, you may have wondered: What is all this stuff?
It’s not the astrological chart of a lost civilization or an artist’s take on musical chairs. It’s the new Connecticut Avenue Overlook Park, a “pocket park” created by the District Department of Transportation and the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District to beautify and enliven an ugly, leftover scrap of the street. The concrete pad isn’t an eyesore anymore, as it was when bike storage boxes occupied the space and throughout the long construction process. But the new, publicly-funded space is a disappointment.
Let’s start with the concept: a park poised between the traffic of Dupont Circle (four lanes) and the traffic of Connecticut Avenue (four lanes plus ramps), yet only 50 feet away from one of the city’s best loved urban parks, which offers grass, shade, benches, and relative peace and quiet.
If this site is predestined for one use, it’s as a pass-through for people on their way to and from work via the Metro. In fairness, the park’s creators baked this into the design: In the middle of the tiny park, and on the sidewalk facing it across a turn lane, are strips of rubbery pavement that actually generate energy from footsteps. When you walk on the three-pointed pavers, you feel a small bounce. That sensation is the pavers harvesting mini-jolts of your motion energy.
A sidewalk that turns steps into power has a hugely appealing a-ha factor. But here’s the catch: These “kinetic” pavers produce vanishingly small amounts of energy. An estimate provided to D.C. in 2014 by the manufacturer of these tiles, a British company called Pavegen, claimed the three strips would generate a total of 1.25 kilowatt hours each day. That’s about enough power to keep one clothes dryer tumbling for 30 minutes, or to keep a single plasma TV on for an evening.
Since they don’t produce a meaningful amount of energy, kinetic sidewalks are better seen as interactive, educational public-space features. They can make us aware of how much energy we consume in our daily lives in a fun and accessible way. But so far, the park misses this opportunity. Passersby direct puzzled looks at the new pavers. Shortly before this story went to print, a small sign appeared in one of the planters explaining the pavers.
The pavers do supply power to LEDs that light up when people walk on them—inviting you to do a version of Tom Hanks’ piano dance in the movie Big—and they feed the lighting under the cube benches. (This functionality broke a few weeks after the park’s opening and has since been fixed.) Pavegen is also supposed to collect data from the system and disclose it to the public on the BID’s website but no data has appeared there. Alex Johnson, a company spokesperson, said in mid-March that Pavegen was feeding the data to be displayed on the Golden Triangle BID’s website and sent a link to a page with a footstep counter. But the counter was broken and, as of March 20, still is.
Otto Condon, a principal at ZGF Architects, helped design the park with his colleagues and emphasized its nature as a pilot. “Going into it, everybody knew this is going to be a pilot project,” he says. “There are going to be some growing pains because it’s testing the product, but it was part of the whole reason behind [it]: Let’s invest in something that’s an experiment, not something that’s been done.” Condon notes that Pavegen switched from an older, square-shaped product to a brand-new one right before the installation so that both company and city could try the most advanced technology. “I think it’s a much better product, because with the triangle [design], it picks up more energy from the sides of the paver,” Condon says.
Johnson says the pilot’s best day so far has been March 9, an unusually warm Thursday, when the kinetic pavements generated a record 110,000 Joules. That translates to .03 kilowatt hours—a small fraction of the 1.25 kilowatt hours per day the company predicted back in 2014. That’s enough to run a clothes dryer for one minute or a slow cooker for nine.
How much of this discrepancy is attributable to lower-than-expected foot traffic isn’t clear. When I’ve watched, I’ve seen a fair number of walkers skirt the pavements the same way many of us instinctively avoid grates. The cubes surrounding the pavement may even send a subliminal signal to back off, given the lack of more welcoming environmental cues.
Despite the attractiveness of the cubes and flower beds, the park is missing too much context to succeed as a demonstration space. The signage is inadequate to signal that here is something fun to try—and offers little reason to sit and watch your friends do a test walk.
DDOT received a $200,000 Sustainable DC Innovation Challenge grant from the Office of Planning to create the new park. The grant program supports projects that “test new innovations contributing to the District’s sustainable future or plan for large, longer-term projects,” according to its website. Asked about the goal of the Connecticut Avenue Overlook Park, spokesperson Terry Owens writes in an email: “DDOT continues to explore smart technology as a way to make the District more sustainable.”
The park cost just under $300,000, including $200,000 from the grant, another $60,000 from DDOT, and the remainder covered by the Golden Triangle BID. Pavegen was paid $100,000, reflecting a per-paver cost of $840 (as of 2014, when the project was green-lighted). The architects worked on a pro-bono basis.
D.C. is an environmental leader among American cities. And being so progressive entails having to reach farther for ideas to pilot. Green roofs and solar arrays are already standard practice here. But should taxpayer money be spent on moonshots?
Kinetic sidewalks likely fall into the category of what some critics call “gizmo green”—high-tech devices promising revolutionary environmental gains without requiring difficult changes to human behavior. Most of these gadgets are a distraction from the global effort to rein in greenhouse-gas emissions and stop further environmental damage. Given that one American home consumes 30 kilowatt hours of electricity every day, on average, repurposing public space to offset less than 1/24 of that amount misses the mark.
Pavegen’s track record, as a tour through its website reveals, is heavy on corporate sponsors and commercial settings, including Heathrow Airport and Harrods. Kinetic pavement would fit right in at CityCenterDC or Tysons Corner—and that’s where it should have gone. Now that climate-change deniers have moved into the White House and, shockingly, the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s more important than ever that cities press ahead on the fundamentals of their climate agendas, like carbon-neutral buildings and better mass transit. Leave the gizmos to the marketers and real-estate developers.