Archive | February, 2012

Campus Planning…What’s the Deal?

29 Feb

After graduating from my masters programs this past August I made a dive into the job market and came across a lot of firms and professionals that specialized in campus planning. Some of these made a big distinction between campus planning and town and city planning, and often only concentrated on one type or the other. Often times I would hear, “you obviously have experience in urban planning and design…but what about campus planning?” This question first baffled me, but of course there are logistical reasons for this separation, mostly a difference in the development process. Universities and colleges have private ownership of large amounts of land, different funding processes, and a sometimes intricate growth and space organization plans that differ greatly from more traditional projects. Even after learning more about the campus planning process, I still have to ask, why the distinct separation between campus planning and land-use planning?

This issue lies in a great debate of what urban design actually is and what scope it covers. I think there is an assumption among many, that urban design is at a very small-scale and deals primarily with the design of streetscape and placemaking. I couldn’t disagree more. As I’ve written before, urban design is based around certain principles that can be applied across many different situations and scales within the built environment. Campus planning is a perfect example of how urban design principles such as connectivity, legibility, variety, and adaptability, to name a few, can be applied on the large and small scales: looking at how a campus connects with its greater context vs. how a person feels in one small space.

Let me interject here to tell you a personal anecdote. I have always had a huge appreciation for the importance of campus design. I have spent a majority of my life on campuses: my elementary and middle schools were on a 122 acre campus, my high school was designed and built in the early 1800s, and my college was once part of the 1904 World’s Fair. Alternatively my graduate school lacked identity and legibility. It operated more as a collection of buildings. On graduation day there wasn’t even a place to take a picture. I have always been acutely aware of how campuses have operated, but more importantly how they have made me feel and in turn, how they have contributed to my personal identity.

Nothing warms my heart more than seeing the Phillips Academy Andover clock tower appear in the tree tops as I make a turn on Massachusetts Highway 28. That is the urban design principle, legibility, at it’s best. That clock tower is practical: it lets you know where you are on campus and what direction you need to walk in, and its emotional: it is a landmark for the school and your experiences there. But what Andover really was to me, was a home. Its sprawling greens, intimate courtyards, and building space planning created the backdrop of my adolescence.

The social implications of urban design are very much related to place identity, social inclusion, and community cohesion. In no other place than campuses are these more important. Today, as the urban and suburban continues to grow, how campuses connect and reference their local neighborhoods and cities are becoming increasingly relevant. Should campuses be walled off for exclusivity like Duke? Or completely integrated like NYU? Or perhaps somewhere in between like Harvard?

Duke University, Harvard University, New York University

Duke University’s campus is self-contained surrounded by private property. It is accessible on private roads. (Source) Harvard University fits within Cambridge’s block structure, but is organized around courtyards and quads. While it is clear that these very much “belong” to the school, they are open to the public. (Source) New York University and New York City are one in the same. Campus open spaces are city public spaces, which can confuse the place identity of the institution. (Source)

While the answer to these questions varies based on context, I think in most cases a university should never segregate itself from the world around it. In doing so, they could keep their students from the real life learning experiences that surround them, and could instill a sense of eliteness and social exclusion within the community. But because the edges where campus meets the city are becoming increasingly crucial to how institutions and the city relate to one another, I believe it is a detriment for campus planning and greater land-use planning/design to be separated. On the large design scale, they are one in the same, and urban design principles apply to both. Hopefully as the urban environment continues to expand and be retrofitted, our private and public worlds can meld together a little more seamlessly. In my opinion, there are only good implications in creating a connected and well designed boundary between the two.

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Hello Cigar City!

22 Feb

At the end of next week Tampa, Florida will become my new home. My husband and I are excited for this new adventure, and I certainly can’t wait to get started in my new job as an urban designer for a transportation planning firm. Anytime I move to a new city it’s important to me to understand how, when, and why it is there, and who helped build it. That will be my heritage, and as I have mentioned before, that is critical in continuing to develop a place with the utmost meaning in people’s lives. My home city of Charlotte, NC was developed around a trading post where two Native American trading paths crossed. I have always felt comfort in knowing how my built environment originated. I wanted to learn the heritage of my new city, and I thought we could do it together.

Of course Tampa has a long Native American and Spanish history, but who really caught my attention in the development of Tampa as part of the 4th largest metropolitan area in the Southeast, was Mr. Henry B. Plant. For those who live in Florida or have studied transportation history in America, Mr. Plant is a well-known character. But I must admit, the story of Mr. Plant’s contribution to the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in the late 1800′s was new to me.

South Florida Railroad (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1888_SFRR_north.jpg)

The Plant System is an intricate system of railroads that begin in Savannah and extend throughout Georgia and Florida. While obviously there were some towns established in Florida, like Tampa, Mr. Plant’s railroad not only caused those cities to boom in population, it was a catalyst for brand new development. It also started entire industries for Florida, including tourism. Mr. Plant was a businessman and knowing that his railroad allowed Americans to travel to the state for the first time, he built a series of hotels along the line. On the edge of the tropics, Florida offered sunlight, constantly warm weather and fresh air believed at the time to treat breathing disorders. People came in the masses, filling his rail cars and hotels.

The Tampa Bay Hotel (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Old_Tampa_Bay_Hotel.jpg)

The Tampa Bay Hotel still stands today as the Henry B. Plant Museum on the campus of the University of Tampa. Preserved in its original Moorish Revival style, it is literally breathtaking in person. Henry Flagler, another railroad tycoon, built hotels in Miami, St. Augustine, Daytona, West Palm Beach, and Key West. With an extensive railroad transportation system and luxurious places to stay, Florida development boomed.

Hav a Tampa! (dailycapitalist.com/2009/06/24/adios-have-a-tampa/)

You might ask where the cigars come in to play. It’s simple, when Tampa was connected to the rest of the state, the southeast, and country by Mr. Plant’s railroad, it allowed a gentleman by the name of Vincente Martinez Ybor, a cigar maker of Spanish descent, to move his cigar company from Key West to Tampa. An industry was born. A neighborhood directly north of downtown Tampa was filled with warehouses that produced Cuban cigars for decades. Today this neighborhood, abandoned after the U.S. Embargo against Cuba, is being revived as an entertainment hub in those same warehouses. My godfather clued me in on the phrase “Hav-a-Tampa!” A non-smoker myself I was completely unaware that an entire product was named after the city in which it was created.

The biggest lesson learned from this story is that transportation in the key. Of course, I have become very aware of this in the present day, but what is disheartening and hopeful at the same time, is that we have fore-thinkers like Mr. Plant as an example. Building transportation before there was anything to be transported to currently is a completely revolutionary idea, when in fact it’s not revolutionary at all. There were no thriving industries or development to build a railroad to, but Mr. Plant built one anyway, and in doing so, he created them.

My wish for us as Americans and our country is that we can have the forethought to learn from our predecessors like Mr. Plant. We are at the turning point, the precipice, or whatever you want to call it. Right now we have to put the investment into our built environment that will allow us to stop polluting the earth, depriving our health, and tearing apart our communities. Public transportation must happen. And when it does, only positive benefits will ensue. What new industries will be created? How will we rebuild our relationships with each other?

Starting next week as I pass the glorious Tampa Bay Hotel and eat dinner in an old Ybor City warehouse, I will remember Mr. Plant and be inspired by his gutsy and brave commitment to changing the world he knew. I hope I can do the same.

17 Feb

Erin Chantry:

Check out the Ink and Compass blog for some interesting facts on how Americans’ housing desires have started to shift. However, in my opinion, not fast enough. Can someone tell me who those people are who would extend their daily commute by 40 minutes? But for those 75% who want walkability, 60% who want mixed-uses, and the 88% who crave a sense of community, the design of the physical environment must start meeting their needs.

Originally posted on Ink & Compass:

I’ve heard it said, and have often repeated, that one can get used to living in a smaller house (or condo or apartment), but you never get used to a long commute. After decades of continued car-dependent sprawl, maybe we’re all finally cluing in. Or maybe not.

According to the 2011 Community Preference Survey that outlines what Americans look for when deciding where to live:

Six in ten (59%) would choose a smallerhouse and lot if it meant a commute time of 20 minutes or less. Four in ten (39%) would stick with the larger houses even if their commute was 40 minutes or longer

OK, so we’re not exactly all on the same page here.

A couple other interesting factoids from the survey:

1) We want to walk.  More than three quarters of Americans consider having sidewalks and places to  walk one of their top priorities.

2) In fact…

View original 156 more words

Preserving Old Life…Breathing New Life.

16 Feb

I love adaptive reuse…of anything.

I first came across the term while studying architecture. In that sense it’s taking a building used for one purpose and using it for another.  Abandoned factories can be turned into apartment lofts, or church sanctuaries into restaurants. The possibilities are endless. I originally loved these projects for their unique architectural spaces and details. Having historic materials like railroad ties, contrasted with chic metal or glass in your living room creates visual interest wherever you look.

Of course reuse can be applied to anything. For our recent anniversary my husband got me a ring that was made out of a silver sugar spoon handle. This practice was originally done in Victorian England by servants who stole silverware from their employers because they couldn’t afford wedding rings. Creative, huh?

It is clearly understood in the architecture community that adaptive reuse is very environmentally sustainable. The reuse of buildings prevents the large amount of CO2 that is emitted during demolition. Of course it also preserves the destruction of raw materials that would be used to build a new structure, along with the fossil fuels used to transport them.

However, in my architectural education the other very positive benefits were barely mentioned. The adaptive reuse of buildings, especially those that hold a very significant place in the identity of a city, contribute massively to the place-making of neighborhoods and communities.

It’s always heartbreaking for me to see buildings that are so loved by people imploded. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been someone who’s always placed a great deal of importance on my physical surroundings. When I moved from my childhood home at the age of 16, it was the first big loss I had experienced in my life. I came across the demolition of the Old St. Louis Arena in 1999, while I studied in St. Louis. “The Old Barn” was the term St. Louisians called it during its 65 years of housing events for the community, including sporting events, concerts, the circus. For 27 years it hosted the St. Louis Blues, the NHL hockey team. It’s closing sparked months and months of protesting to prevent its demolition. People shared their memories of the building, hoping that collectively the communities love could save it. They couldn’t. On February 27, 1999 thousands of people went to watch it be imploded. In a poor attempt to try to make it a celebration, the developer set off fireworks. For many, it was a funeral.

 

I often think about what that building could have become. Of course it was economically unfeasible for the St. Louis Blues to continue to play there, but the beautiful example of Art Deco architecture surely could have lived on as a concert hall or an entertainment complex where people could have continued to make it part of their lives. Unfortunately, no remnants of the site’s history or its landmark status remains. Now it is this…an office park. Much loved? Probably not.

Of course this post can be viewed as unrealistic or unaware of development, progress, and economic feasibility. Adaptive reuse is not always a marketable or feasible option. But I choose, in this post at least, to remember those special places that mean so much to each and every one of us. In the case of the St. Louis Arena, its adaptive reuse, while not immediately economically feasible, could have been more economically sustainable in the long run. Creating unique and emotionally significant structures, where people want to spend more time, and therefore are more economically valuable, becomes more challenging every day. The question for me is: how long will that office park last, and when it is torn down will anyone try to save it?

Book Review: Urban Code.

12 Feb

I recently picked up a coffee table book at an architecture bookstore in LA, named Urban Code: 100 Lessons for Understanding the City by Anne Mikoleit and Mortitz Purckhauer. This is a great book for city lovers; it simply lists one hundred facts about the city operates, and how people use it. Some will be very familiar to an urban designer, such as “pedestrians are potential buyers”, but others are obviously amusing, like “people walk in the sunshine,” and “snack stands smell of food.” Of course, there is a breadth of meaningful design advice behind these; here is preview:

#01: People walk in the sunshine: “Man mistrusts many things, but he will follow the sun blindly…Alongside the pulsing reactions to the dictatorial presence of the sun, its influence has long become a decisive advantage for shops’ positions.”

People walk, and when they do they follow the sun, crossing streets back and forth again. This has major implications on the urban elements that depend on the pedestrian, especially stores, restaurants, and street vendors. Which of these benefits most from the wandering pedestrian? Street vendors, who can move their cart into the sun.

Lesson: When we decide where community facilities, commercial uses, and mobility networks should be located, don’t forget to check out the sun studies! 

#13: Tourists carry bags: “Shopping bags are becoming more popular as objects of advertisement, since they are constantly present in the public realm, catching the eye of potential customers…the presence of the bag should not be underestimated as a means of orientation in the streetscape.”

Bags can tell you a lot about who a person is:tourist or a local. It tells us their interests: cooking, sports, or reading. Seeing people who share the same interests as us can make us feel comfortable and safe in the public realm. Branded packaging can help orient us: If I see someone with a Starbucks cup walking in a city I am not familiar, I immediately walk in the opposite direction. I will be bound to find one.

Lesson: Urban environments benefit greatly from a dense, and walkable commercial atmosphere.

#42: People walk more slowly in the afternoon: “While the feel of the city is dominated in the mornings by the strapping tempo of the working population, the afternoons bring ambling tourists (in every sense,) who seems intuitively to take their cues from window displays.”

There are many different types of people in this world, who are going different places, enjoy doing different things, and go out at different times of day. This is a gift to urban design because there is a constant user to maintain the activity and safety of the public realm.

Lesson: Make sure to provide a reason for users to be part of the urban development 24/7.

# 65: People sit with their back protected: “Human anatomy has evolved to possess a privileged front and a disadvantaged rear…our back remains in need of protection. It is for this reason that covering one’s back becomes a critical criterion in our choice of place to sit.”

We are evolutionary creatures. Successful urban design maintains a constant level of activity in the public realm, which means we need to provide a place for people to sit. People are comfortable sitting in different ways in different settings: older people love park benches, teenagers love lounging on the grass, and everyone loves sitting next to water.

Lesson: provide lots of seating, with a range of qualities, with interesting things to look at.

#80: Cobblestones tell stories: “The pedestrian is placed in dialogue with the past through encounters with textures and features…Rectangular cobblestones mediate between past and present, they carry hidden, lyrical accents that reveal other geographic and temporal associations.”

In short, the urban environment is made up of layers and layers of history that convey and represent the identity and culture of place. People look to these elements to define themselves and their own identity. At the very least, something like cobblestones can spark an urban users imagination and enjoyment of their environment.

Lesson: preserve local, historical, and unique urban features. This preserves local heritage and identity.

These lessons are invaluable in designing an urban environment. Truthfully, urban designers are armed with a toolbox of urban elements, as I call them: streets, blocks, plots, and buildings. We are responsible for putting them together in a way that leads to social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and economic regeneration. We also have our own experiences of the built environment (that are sometimes the most obvious) that affect our designs, but unfortunately these can be easily overlooked in favor of urban design theory or design guides. This book reminds us as we can draw our lines on AutoCad, juggling the many factors that influence a design, that sometimes those that we should remember most are the simple observations that we know just from being users of the city. The preface states, “Urban Code tries to move beyond passively looking at [city] scenes and to encourage a way of “seeing” into them – to understand the forces that shape a place, and how these forces lead to the creation of its special atmosphere.” It certainly does, definitely check it out!

Guest Post: Meditations on Mobility in England

11 Feb

I am happy to introduce a new guest post series on this blog. It’s my goal to create a place where lovers of the built environment can share their thoughts, observations, and passions. Please let me know if you’re interested in writing!

My choice of first guest blogger was an easy one. I first met Franny when I was 16: we lived across the hall from each other at boarding school. We didn’t know it at the time, but we would both become urban designers and planners. After losing touch for over a decade, we recently reconnected through social media and a mutual friend. She moved to England at the same time I left England. It’s been a joy to share thoughts, build my blog, and enter a design competition with someone who shares a trans-Atlantic knowledge of planning. Enjoy the post and please check out her blog, Ink and Compass, here.

I spent the last two years of my life in Cambridge, MA, which is notorious in the US for being one of the least car-friendly cities in North America. There are one-way streets, roads that double back on themselves, lots of no-left-turn signs, and lots of pedestrians, buses, cyclists, and other cars. Even though I had a car while I lived there, I loathed to drive it anywhere but the grocery store.

When I moved to Cambridge, UK, I left my car behind. The city is small and compact. The terrace house architecture means that few houses come with dedicated parking spots, and on-street parking is hard to come by. Although most streets are two-way, they are so narrow that they can accommodate a car and a cyclist, if both slow down and pass carefully. When two cars meet going opposite directions, an elaborate dance happens.

A friend tried to drop me off at my house last night, but even after four months here, I was foiled by the labyrinth of dead-end streets in my neighborhood, which I have only navigated on foot. We finally gave up when she got me within a few minutes’ walk of my house.

In short: you have to be nuts to want a car in my neighborhood. Of course, people still have them, and car ownership is still an aspirational thing in England, as it is elsewhere. People feel strongly here, as they do in the US, that policies that discourage car ownership are an infringement on their freedom.

And yet: in 2008, the UK had only 525 cars per 1000 people, while the US had 828. What are the fundamental differences in our cultures that the US has 60% higher car-to-resident ratio?

The most obvious thing is the built environment. Below is a map of my neighborhood. I’ve included the most efficient route between my house (point A) and the nearby commercial strip, Mill Road, in a car. Some of the streets are one-way, but most are bisected by cute little cut-throughs. Most allow for emergency access. The streets are also so narrow that driving and parking can be extremely unpleasant; see below for a typical street.  And there are all sorts of very small ways in which the design of streets is more accommodating to cycles (without making things worse for automobiles). My favorite is that many of the old homes have hitching rings that have been re-purposed or replaces as cycle lock-up site.

Cambridge has also invested heavily in keeping cars out of the city center. While this is partly to do with pollution, congestion, quality of life, etc, I think it mostly has to with the fact that there is simply not space for all the cars. The city has five park-and-ride locations outside the city. There is a centrally-located bus depot and a brand-new bus rapid transit line with accompanying cycle path.

Courtesy railforthevalley.com

Which brings me to my next point: the UK also has an extensive off-road bike network. Although in many places it is not well-lit, which makes year-round use a problem, it does provide a sheltered and safe means of transport for people who are not confident sharing the street with cars. I did my friend Lauren’s 10 mile commute in December, just for an adventure, and I was amazed by how much of the route was on dedicated paths.

Because of the urban design considerations, and the difficulty driving, many people elect to cycle where Americans would throw in the towel. In my neighbourhood, it is common to see two or three children strapped to their parents’ cycles, or riding in a cargo trailer.  I personally like the ones that have a front cabin for children; I’ve written about ways to encourage riding with childrenat Ink & Compass.

Of course, urban design is not destiny. There is also the fact that the UK has no domestic source of oil and no major car manufacturers to howl about petrol prices, so the cost of car ownership is higher here. The bus system is privatized and covers more territory because of the need to serve small villages, reducing the isolation of people who live in rural or quasi-rural areas. And while I am new to the country, it seems to me that buses have less stigma – less association with poverty – than in the US.

There are many occasions, both here and in the US, where car ownership is necessary or practical, but in England, people do not suffer from dramatically decreased mobility despite having far fewer cars per capita. There are all sorts of lessons that the US could take from the UK to begin to move toward less dependence on personal cars.

Franny Ritchie, of the planning & geography blog Ink and Compass and is a recent graduate of MIT’s urban planning program.  She moved from Cambridge, MA to Cambridge, UK this past October, and she’s thrilled to be the first guest blogger at At Helm of the Public Realm.

How Public are our Public Spaces?

10 Feb

We see it all the time these days: a new development is built with beautiful courtyards, open spaces, and roads that connect into the urban context. But who do those spaces actually belong to and who can use them?

This is a question that first sparked my interest as I worked on mixed-use and multi-family architecture projects. All included open space, especially those on a large-scale, that was “public space” in disguise. In fact the space was owned by the developer, which meant that they had control over its design, operation, maintenance, and who could use it. The issue came up again on a wider scale, while I was writing my second dissertation on the effects of design-led regeneration on social and economic sustainability. While the strength of the free market has been relied on in recent past as the catalyst for development in urban areas, this dependency has led to a real crisis of public space. This issue remains: how does this effect our communities and the equality of the built environment?

Examples of privatized "public" space in urban and suburban environments.

(Source)(Source)(Source)(Source)

Traditionally public spaces were funded with public money and built by the local government. With a commitment to public service and less emphasis on returns on investment, design decisions could be made for the greater good. Absolutely amazing open, public spaces have resulted from this process, the most famous perhaps being Central Park in New York City. The recently developed, government-led public spaces that I have been most impressed by are in the city center of Sheffield, UK. This city regenerated itself through an enormous investment in civic, open, public space. Organized in a network connecting the urban core with the train station, these spaces have attracted investment and development, including big name companies to headquarter themselves in the city. But most importantly these spaces, some of which can be seen below, are owned and operated by the city for all citizens.

The Peace Gardens, The Winter Garden, and Barker's Pool: 3 of the most well-known public spaces part of the Sheffield One regeneration masterplan

(Source)(Source)(Source)

You might ask: how do I tell the difference between privately owned “public” space, and real public space? Sometimes it’s really hard to tell. So, then why does it matter? Most developers create open space within their own development as an amenity for users and an attraction to investors, whether they are commercial tenants or home buyers. They manage and maintain it to protect their investment. Unfortunately there can be some very negative side effects on the local community in some cases.

1) Poor Quality of Design

With sometimes few requirements by the city to reach a high standard of design, public spaces can become “the space left over” in between buildings. Quality urban open space should have places to sit, landscape elements to create a sense of identity, and use local materials to make it unique to the area. This costs a lot of money, and with developers receiving no direct return on open space investment they often get away with as few physical interventions as possible. Or sometimes they choose to under-design public space because of the effect it has on users. It is common in outdoor private shopping malls to provide very few design-interventions, including seating. This is to keep shoppers moving: loitering=bad; shopping=good.

2) Who Can Use It?

Private commercialized space appears to be open to the public. In some cases privately owned pedestrian routes appear to flow seamlessly from the public street grid. However, if users appear to be the “type” that causes trouble, or the homeless loiter too long, they can be removed from the property. These spaces are often patrolled by security and users can feel ostracized. This is not how true public space should operate. This urban culture can lead to groups of people in a certain demographic or certain communities to feel excluded. The payoff? A gentrified development lacking local identity and culture.

3) Lack of Community Cohesion

With more gated, privatized open space being provided, especially in housing developments, people might feel less inclined to spend time in truly urbanized open spaces, such as city parks. Often times the same demographic can live in an apartment and condo building that has open space only residents can access, which could mean that people are only socializing with people like themselves.While this will allow you to get to know your neighbor, it can discourage you from mingling with people in your local community. When people keep to themselves, social inclusion and community cohesion can suffer.

Some would argue that we have bigger fish to fry in the built environment than the ownership and management of open space. And I might agree. But its important to be aware of the issue and how even small changes that arise out of the evolution of how the built environment is design and developed, collectively can have an enormous effect on the strength and inclusiveness of our communities.

How to Series: Residential Parking.

7 Feb

I’ve written posts on how to make room for the car in the urban environment without letting it take over the city. This is definitely harder said than done, and one of the most important factors in making sure this happens, is the design of parking. Cars have very negative effects aside from the pollution and destruction of the natural environment; its important that they do not disrupt the pedestrian and community culture of a place.

Currently, parking policy differs across the country, depending on its context, consumer expectations, and beliefs. A reasonable assumption for a typical residence, in my opinion, is to provide a parking space per bedroom, up to 2 cars. Below are some good steps into making room for the car, without letting it take over the neighborhood:

1. Parking on the Street

No matter the type of residence, parking is best on the street. Parallel parking slows down drivers (it takes some time and skill to park) and forces them to be aware of people around them. This allows playing children, joggers, and dog-walkers to access their built environment comfortably. Street parallel parking also provides a barrier between the sidewalk and street, which also improves pedestrian safety. But arguably the most important benefit of street parallel parking is that it activates the public realm. Where people park in relationship to their home has become increasingly important as car usage has increased. If people park on the street in front of their homes, the activity of them walking from their car to their front door adds to the liveliness of the public realm. To the neigh-sayers who say that home-buyers won’t buy residences without private parking, I beg to differ. There are historic neighborhoods developed before the car a dime a dozen that don’t have designated parking. People pay good money to live there. Granted, they have other attractive factors that are hard to recreate in a neighborhood from scratch, but parallel parking can still be assigned to residents in areas where parking is limited.

In the residential context, an active public realm is crucial to social inclusion and community building. The best way in achieving this is by not separating users (pedestrians, drivers, cyclists, public transportation.) If room is made for everyone in the same public realm, people will see and meet each other more. In short, active public realm = social sustainability.

This Washington, DC street makes room for parallel parking, cyclists, and pedestrians. (http://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2011-dec-guest-series-carmen-godwin)

2. Driveways

In cases where driveways are necessary, its important that they are on the side of the residence so that people will exit their car and still walk to the front of their house. This once again increases surveillance and community interaction with their neighbors. However, it is important that parking is not located in front of the residence because cars will dominate the streetscape instead of buildings. This will minimize ground floor activity, which can lead to a dormant and less safe public realm.

3. Garage Doors

Garage doors, especially as part of a townhouse or rowhome, are detrimental for the public realm. The townhouse typology that has a garage and main entrance at the front with the living area at the back creates zero activity on the street. If the living area is at the front of the property instead, more passive overlooking opportunities will be created. This can create a more social and safer environment. Before the car and air conditioning were invented, a classic housing type was the townhome with a living room and porch at the front. Neighbors sat outside to cool off and actually spoke to each other. Borrowing and egg? A common occurrence. The common occurrence now? Driving into your garage, walking straight into the house, and sitting in the lazyboy.

Townhouse types: devoted to the car vs. devoted to the person. Townhouses in Charles Village, Baltimore allow for community interaction and an active public realm (http://idx.theearlofrealestate.com/i/7178/Springfield_VA_Townhouses)(http://www.planning.org/greatplaces/neighborhoods/2008/charlesvillage.htm)

4. No Alleys!

Putting garages and driveways behind residences along an alleyway can create quite dangerous urban environments. With absolutely zero surveillance of personal property and walking to and from the car, it can be a breading area for crime. Even if these areas are secure, the same issue is created as stated above: streets become dormant.

 5. Parking Decks

In the case of multi-family housing, street parking is not sufficient in meeting required parking counts. In this case parking decks should be wrapped with townhomes to hide blank walls and create as many doors to the street as possible. Obviously, while people who live in apartments or condos on upper floors won’t enliven the public realm, residents at street level can access their homes straight from the street. Wrapping parking decks with units is also a great opportunity for the live/work typology. Often at high densities with nearby commercial uses and a built-in customer base, live/work units can thrive. In any event, whether it is residences, commercial uses, or community centers, there are plenty of opportunities to bury parking garages so the streetscape can reach its full active potential.

Townhouses at ground level with individual entrances; apartments above. (http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_HC0tnd5ZsdY/S04FKxVfBTI/AAAAAAAABAY/wBKbtjzontM/s400/Loree+Grand+Rendering.jpg)

6. Parking Lots

Parking lots are typically never good for the neighborhood or community in their traditional form; however, sometimes they are unavoidable. In this case, parking lots should be designed in landscaped detail so they can be transformed to community gathering spaces when not being used for cars. Take a look at this older post that looks at this issue more carefully. At the very least, parking lots should be designed with permeable and sustainable materials to reduce runoff, the heat index, and other negative environmental effects.

The car is here and realistically, until public transportation is developed a faster and more extensive rate, some argue that we’re kind of stuck with it. But that doesn’t mean that we can create some great urban design around it. As a built environment professional, I refuse to let cars continue to tear communities apart the way they have in recent planning history. Hopefully the above how-to design tips will make room for the car in our neighborhoods, while creating the community cohesion that we so desperately miss.

Place Identity: A Sensual City.

4 Feb

I recently reblogged a great post on environmental psychology by The Happy Spaces Project that looks at how people’s surroundings directly affect how they feel. Urban design takes this concept a step further in the concept called place identity. Place identity is how someone defines the perception of themselves through the environment around them. Read more here. The slight difference between the two is quite a big one: feelings vs. self-identity.

The medium of urban designers is the physical: streets, blocks, plots, building frontages, and public space. But one of their purposes is to form rich communities based on heritage of place and interaction with the natural environment that people reference in establishing their self-identity. As soon as urban designers neglect this responsibility, developments can become monotonous, generalized, and undefined in any way. The result? A person can go to any part of the country, and sometimes the world and it will feel the exact same.

What effects can this have on a person as they look to the built environment to define themselves?

I’ve always prided myself on being a southern girl. I know lovely women who pride themselves on being New York girls. California girls…you got it! Midwestern girls…some of the best! I speak to people who enjoy exploring the country, but when they want to settle down they can’t imagine living anywhere different then where they grew up. While there are lots of cultural factors that contribute to this, the physical form is a big contributor to parts of the country feelings so different. And diversity is a good thing!

Identity by Design, by Ian Bentley and Georgia Butina-Watson, address almost a century of globalization and generalization of design, which resulted in deprivation of the factors that contribute to peoples’ emotional response to their built environment. Definitely check out this book…listed below are 4 factors as a preview:

Co-dwelling with Nature

Co-dwelling with nature can be expressed through a better integration with wildlife habitats, open green space, and natural landscape elements. Research has demonstrated that the more contact humans have with nature the less stressful and more healthier their lives are. This can be achieved on different scales and can be reflected in the underlying structure of a city.

Place Identity NYC

A landscape detail that represents the integration of the built and natural environments.

Rooted in the Past, but not Stuck

Creating a place that is rooted in the past, but not stuck there is extremely important to how people create their own identity. If a place reflects only the past and not seen as forward-looking, then people might feel like they won’t be seen as someone who is forward thinking and relevant. However, if a place is constructed with no relevance to the rich history and character of its region and is designed in only a contemporary way it can lose its foundation as a strong and secure community. This can cause its residents to feel disconnected from a culture and a heritage that contributes to their identity.

Empowerment

Designing a development that is empowering is reflected directly in the morphological layers of the physical environment that give people a feeling of strength and confidence. Empowerment relates directly to choice, and the ability of people to determine every aspect of their lives, even if it is walking to the store to get a pint of milk. Having an infinite amount of choices for the simplest of tasks creates a variety in people’s everyday life. With these choices comes a better understanding of their neighborhood, richer relationships with people, and be more confident in themselves.

Transculturality

When laying out the streets and the block structure of a development they are constructing an urban fabric that will remain longer then the people who live there. Therefore it is important that while a design exemplifies the other three principles, it is able to be accessible to generations of people, especially as our world becomes more globalized. A clear distinction of public and private space will allow people to personalize their built environment, addressing their cultural expectations and needs.

A tool in achieving these factors is creating a sensual city, meaning characteristics that address all of ours senses. Urban design can be very focused on visual identity, but actually it can address all five senses. The more senses a development incorporates, the more unique its place identity, and the greater chance people can find their own identity in their environment. These don’t have to be extreme gestures…here are some great examples of simple details:

Examples of how the built environment can address the senses: sight, smell, sound, touch, and movement.

Sources: Bakery, Fountain, Stairs
A variety of street to building ratios can create visually interesting streetscapes. Mixed-uses allow for local businesses such as this bakery, which leaks delicious smells onto the street. People can hear the wind blow through clusters of trees and leaves crunching under their shoes on the path. Water is a wonderful tool that allows people to interact with their built environment; people can’t help but brush their fingers, dip their toes, and get sprinkled by fountains. Stairs, ramps, and platforms allow people to experience the topography changes of the city in an interesting way. These are all examples of how addressing the senses in a simple way create intriguing environments throughout the typical cityscape.

Urban designers have an opportunity to not only sustain the way people healthily operate in their built environment, but to create inspirational moments or a “humane response” that enriches and inspires their lives. Whether it is the experience of walking down a street, enjoying vistas over a valley, or connecting with a landmark across the city, all of these experiences contribute to peoples’ happiness and how they define themselves. Therefore it is a great responsibility of urban designers to carefully address each of these factors so that when working together, they will create a place that reflects the history, region, and natural environment in which people draw from to reflect their own identity.

2 Feb

Erin Chantry:

I wanted to share a wonderful post about the emotional effects the built environment has on people’s everyday lives. Urban design, planning, and architecture is the world around us (for most people), and as professionals we have a great responsibility in shaping what that world is. We can make it happy, we can make it sad. This post on The Happy Spaces Project Blog caught my eye with the picture of Pruitt Igoe, an enormous public housing development that was demolished in St. Louis, after it gained the reputation of making the people who live there miserable. Studying architecture in St. Louis and visiting this cleared site that lays barren has always served as a reminder of the responsibility we carry. Enjoy this post – I think we should all look a little harder into the field of environmental psychology.

Originally posted on (the) happy spaces project (blog):

Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis

(the) happy spaces project is concerned with understanding “how the physical environment affects people’s happiness.” Essentially we are interested in how space affects human emotion and perception. The field of Environmental Psychology is, broadly, investigating human behavior and space. They are concerned with better understanding how the environment affects human behavior.

Three Definitions of Environmental Psychology

Stokols & Altman (1987): The study of human behavior and well-being in relation to the sociophysical environment.

Russell & Snodgrass (1987): The branch of Psychology concerned with providing a systematic account of the relationship between a person and the environment.

Bell, Fisher, Baum & Greene (1996): The study of the molar relationships between behavior experience and the built and natural environments.

Many spatial design projects take little responsibility for the fact that their designs have social impacts — some good, some bad, some neutral. Design projects associated with commercial ventures have embraced the…

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Can Urban be Natural?

1 Feb

As I’ve come across a couple of posts recently that address the natural environment it occurred to me that there is often a disconnect between the city and nature. It made me pose the question: how integrated can the urban fabric be with its natural surroundings?  Architects are often very successful at this. In architecture school we spent hours marrying the design of our structure with its site. How did we best exploit what the landscape best had to offer? Some of the best at doing this were Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, and Antoni Gaudi.

So, what can we learn from these pioneers of design?

First we must understand the influence that industrialization has had on the city. Cities were very dirty for a very long time. During the pre-industrial revolution they were just filthy: dirty roads filled with waste that often led to disease and plague. During the post-industrial revolution, factories left soot on the buildings and in the air. With growth and wealth came the mind-set that the city was something that must be escaped. Of course now this opinion has been eradicated with the city becoming synonymous with culture, diversity, and entertainment. But with industry came the destruction of nature. And this is very much a residual identity of the city.

In answer to the belief that the city must be escaped was the Garden City movement. Originating in England as the brain child of Ebenezer Howard, it quickly spread to America, and other parts of the world. His thoughts were very much based on bringing nature into the built environment. Touched upon in one of my recent posts, The Original Suburb, this movement laid the foundation for suburbia as we know it today.

However, built environment professionals have condemned modern-day suburbia for the many negative effects its had on the environment, communities, and the local economy. It’s low density and wide streets could achieve foundations that Howard set out at the turn of the last century, but instead they have come to represent a wasteland. As a result, the one city planning movement that really set out to incorporate nature with the built environment has been condemned by association with what the very movement inspired in the first place.

So where does that leave us? How do we create an environment that is still very much urban but incorporates elements so that people benefit from feeling emotionally connected to nature?

Here are defining characteristics of the city that post the biggest challenges:

Density

One of the defining characteristics of a city is its density. More buildings in less space allows little room to exploit the land. An extreme example of a dense neighborhood is the walled city of Kowloon, Hong Kong that was torn down in 1989. You can see from the pictures that there were zero opportunities to appreciate the natural landscape, natural light, ventilation, or water that lies beyond its walls because of its high density.

The interior and exterior of the walled city of Kowloon, Hong Kong before it was demolished. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kowloon_Walled_City.jpg, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:KowloonWalledCityAlley2.jpg)

The Grid

There is a mentality of the traditional American grid that it must be rigid and efficient, which comes from the fact that many places in America were masterplanned instead of growing organically. The best example of course is New York City, check it out here. But connectivity and permeability do not require a certain shape or design. Movements, such as Transit-Oriented-Design and New Urbanism, can still be successful while creating an interesting, connected, and efficient grid that shies away from the unforgiving rigidity of historic masterplanned towns.

Open Space

The open green space that is often found in cities is anything but natural. While they serve their own, very valuable purpose of social inclusion and economic sustainability (see a great example of Savannah here) their perfectly manicured state clearly show that the “green” was inserted back into the grid instead of preserved. I came across a great blog post entitled A Garden City for the 21st Century, that details a new project in Aberdeen that is revitalizing its center and reconnecting the city to its natural landscape. While it has many inherently positive intentions and I am sure achievements, this over-engineered public space is not natural. We should learn to tell the difference.

Any development is composed of morphological levels: streets, blocks, plots, buildings, and open space to name a few. The design is in how these elements are put together. This is never more important than in preserving the natural landscape. Just as an architect, an urban designer must study a site carefully to determine its unique characteristics that will add natural character to a development. Whether it is beautiful views, the feeling of inclining up a hill, maximum interaction with water, creating space to sit under tall trees…all of these are exploiting the natural, or what is already there. When creating the first morphological layer, streets should be placed to maximize the natural elements of the site.

Some other thoughts to keep in mind:

  • Block Orientation – light studies should be carried out as a tool in designing the block orientation. In dense urban environments, buildings can overshadow open space and create a dim and dark environment. If blocks are orientated to maximize sun exposure throughout the year users will feel more connected to nature.
  • Perimeter Blocks – perimeter blocks (with buildings around the outside facing the street) allow the preservation of trees and natural growth in their center. Animals often live here.
  • Preservation of the Green – preserve the most unique parts of the natural landscape instead of building them back into a grid. While Central Park certainly is beautiful in its own right, it was designed and built from scratch by Frederick Olmstead. As a result nothing remains of Manhattan’s original natural landscape.
  • Visual Connection – preserve views of the natural environment that surrounds the development. Design the streetscape so it frames and celebrates these views.
  • Landscape Details – when all else fails always use natural, local materials and indigenous plants in the city. A great example of this is a water feature in the St. Louis City Garden, the winner of the 2011 ULI Amanda Burden Open Space Award. Naturally shaped stones welcome interaction with resources, such as water.

As a quick example I want to share a masterplan that I designed as part of a larger group of urban designers. The site was a flood plain and bordered by creeks that constantly overflowed. Instead of concreting the banks of the creek to move the water faster downstream away from the site, we preserved them in their natural state. In doing so we saved many indigenous plant and wildlife species. By making room for the water we able to use the flood risk of the site as an opportunity for residents to emotionally connect with their natural environment. A greenway with bike paths and leisure activities, as well as the incorporation of an extensive swale system allowed green elements to be constantly present in the development. By creating a street hierarchy of a strict grid that was interrupted by 3 undulating boulevards that followed the contours of the land, the development preserved the natural conditions of the site while achieving the densities of a city.

Botley Road, Oxford.

So yes, I do believe in using some of the tools above that the city can be natural. Of course achieving this will come down to the same thing it always does: the power of money and policy. Planners must put in place the structure of policy that rewards investment in the preservation of the natural landscape and the use of sometimes more expensive local materials and species. They must also learn to communicate with developers their direct benefits – return on investment and acquiring grants and public funding. Even in achieving this, built environment professionals must be educated in high-quality design and its direct positive effects. You can’t implement high-quality design, if you can’t recognize it.

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