Archive | March, 2012

Holy HOA.

30 Mar

My husband and I recently moved into a great townhouse that is part of a Home Owners Association. It is the first time I’ve ever lived where one of these was present and didn’t really think twice about what it would be like. Of course I’ve always known the purpose of them: to manage communal property and open space while maintaining a pleasant environment. And of course I’ve heard the horror stories of power crazed individuals making people’s lives hell. I’ve never really had a reason to have an opinion, until now. After almost a month in our new home I thought I’d give a quick review.

On Wednesday morning after the first HOA meeting since we’ve lived here, I walked outside to find our small garden flag moved to another position in our small 2 ft. x 5 ft. green space in front of our home. It had been turned 45 degrees so the homeowners across from us wouldn’t have to look at it when they walked out their door. Now instead of using this post as a personal rant (which is tempting, trust me), I thought I would explore HOAs in the context of some urban design principles. That, I think, would be a lot more productive :)

In my opinion, the number one purpose of urban design is to empower people. Building a pleasant and connected environment gives people the greatest amount of choice in accessing their built environment. Making choices in our lives, is by far, the thing that empowers us the most. Deciding whether to take the bus or take the train, instead of having to sit in traffic, should be a choice. Deciding to walk or ride a bike to get a gallon of milk, should be a choice. Being able to afford to live in a neighborhood close to your work and school, should be a choice. Urban designers work everyday to make these real choices for people.

According to Responsive Environments, one of the founding books on urban design, personalization is one of the seven qualities that empower people in their urban context. The ability for people to personalize their own space, can cause them to not only be more committed to maintaining their property, but feel more emotionally connected to their neighborhood and neighbors. It can also enliven the public realm, and be one of the most influential factors in contributing to a neighborhood’s character. When we’re in Chinatown we know it, when we’re in New Orleans’ French Quarter, we know it. When we’re in the Manhattan’s Lower East Side we know it. Residents here have a personality, and they show it. Personalization at its best? Christmas lights.

So, HOAs…

Yes, they have many wonderful qualities I am sure. They probably have a huge role in maintaining higher property values and thwarting those with less than great taste from turning their front yard into “gnomes gone wild“. But in some cases, like mine, they strip people of power. Power to use the 2’x5′ patch in front of their front door to make their house feel like home. When I walked out the door and saw my personal property had been altered, I honestly felt dis-empowered. While I only live in a development of 10 units, my HOA will not have a huge impact on my neighborhood. But when HOAs strictly dictate the house colors, height of fences, and mailbox designs in a development of 4oo houses, that development will suffer for it. Multiply that by thousands, and you have the bland vanilla that is suburbia.

In great defiance and at risk of being equally passive aggressive, I moved my small garden flag back to its 45 degree position – because I refuse to let myself be dis-empowered by my built environment.

The personalization of private property at its best!

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Local Series: Architecture Isn’t Everything…

28 Mar

But it’s something.

As a trained architect, I understand the influence that buildings can have on urban design. They connect people with their heritage, they give a place a unique identity, and they help create hustle and bustle in cities and neighborhoods. They can also be works of art. There are some buildings by the greatest architects, my favorite being Daniel Libeskind, that take my breath away and actually alter the way I look at the world. The greatest architecture speaks to a higher conceptual idea, and every design element of the building answers to it. Buildings have the power to truly affect people’s emotions and contribute to their lives…but they are not necessary.

This was evident in my visit to Sarasota this past weekend. My weekly explorations of my new state took me to Saint Armands Circle, which was developed by John Ringling of….you got it!…the Ringling Brothers Circus. Turns out that in addition to juggling and eating fire, John Ringling designed and built one of the most loved parts of Sarasota. After travelling to Italy, he was inspired to create a “people friendly place of broad boulevards, beautiful homes, classical statues, lush landscaping, elegant shops and restaurants, and a central park for musical performances.” In 1917 he began his vision, which grew until the Great Depression. It took another two decades after that for his neighborhood to be complete.

An aerial of Saint Armand’s Key with the circle in the center of the island. (www.thesaundersblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/SAC-Aerial.jpg)

Saint Armands Circle was a very successful piece of urban design. It’s ample and pleasant pedestrian environment thrives despite it being wrapped around a road carrying high volumes of traffic. Multiple users were able to share the public realm comfortably and safely. Angled and paralleled parking protected the pedestrian further. In fact, there was parallel parking around the traffic circle, which baffled my English husband (we know how the English are about their roundabouts…) But in fact, it was perfectly safe. People were so concerned about not being able to park on the curve that they did so very carefully and slowly, further protecting pedestrians. The mixed-use area hustled and bustled on this Saturday afternoon, while the central park was quaint and quiet. The pedestrians crossings were very short and very wide. They were interjected so often by median parks that their short distance was almost cute. If a pedestrian crossing can be cute, these certainly were. It truly was charming, I didn’t want to leave.

But what really struck me about this part of the city was the lack of architectural integrity in the buildings. Some buildings were nothing more than a storefront that seemed to be held up by the structures on either side. Others were built from the cheapest materials, playfully mimicking Greek and Italian style. It was laughable, and yet it really didn’t matter. No one noticed the buildings, no one cared. People just loved sitting at the sidewalk cafe people watching, eating ice cream in the shaded park, and window shopping. The activity and interaction with people is what made people love this space. And I have to say, I think that is the case of most well-loved places. Buildings do not have to be beautiful, conceptually designed, and breathtaking to make a difference.

What made Saint Armands Cirle work so beautifully was how the fabric was constructed around one central point. Connected streets and perimeter blocks with dense, mixed use buildings, like so many other most-loved places, created the structure for the community and visitors to flock to it for decades.

John Ringling certainly has brought us all a lot in our lives. For most of us its tricks, animal performances, and trapeze acts found only at the oldest and most successful circus in the world. We’ve all been, and it was magical. But for the lucky residents of Florida he gave us a perfect piece of urban design, which serves as a sustainable example of how to continue to construct our built environment.

And remember, it’s not all about the architecture people.

The Great Divide: What Urban Design Can’t Accomplish.

18 Mar

Urban Design certainly can accomplish a lot and have an enormous effect on how people live their lives. The built environment can give people choice to live a healthy, community-oriented, and an environmentally friendly lifestyle – or the opposite. But research shows that physical interventions can only accomplish so much. There are obviously hugely influential societal factors, such as race, class, and years of oppression (or privilege) that can have an enormous and sometimes a seemly irreversible effect on neighborhoods.

I came across a BBC video that explores this issue in a Saint Louis neighborhood called The Loop. Please check it out here. This video explores how one street can divide two demographics so intensely. I couldn’t help but share it because I spent four years living right next to the street in question while studying architecture at Washington University in Saint Louis. On one side is a predominately affluent, white neighborhood, with gorgeous stately homes and the home of a top 12 university. On the other, is what can be described most simply as the ghetto.

I was surprised that the video didn’t touch upon the total revitalization of Delmar Boulevard, or The Loop as it is known. The 5 block stretch of this area acts as the retail and entertainment heart for both sectors of society. Here you can see people of all eccentricities and identities having fun harmoniously. In 2007 the American Planning Association recognized it as “One of the 10 Great Streets in America.” (Read about it here.)

I spent many weekends at Blueberry Hill, where Chuck Berry still to this day performs his trademark duckwalk monthly. I also witnessed the younger generation performer Nelly, film his music video on Delmar. With the lyrics “I’m from the Loop and I’m proud” there is no doubt that the street plays a part in everyone’s self-identification. Having said that, as students we were told never to cross Delmar Boulevard. As a result, embarrassingly, I rarely experienced and witnessed some of the conditions documented in this video.

The famous St. Louis institution and home to Chuck Berry, Blueberry Hill, attracts a diverse demographic and generates lots of activity in the public realm. (http://cache.virtualtourist.com/15/2056706-In_Front_of_Blueberry_Hill_Saint_Louis.jpg)

Delmar Boulevard got the nickname “The Loop” from the now-retired streetcar route. The turn-around point right at end of this part of the street, gave it its name. By the 1930s, the Loop was booming with retail, entertainment, offices and apartments. It was accessible and popular with many St. Louisans. Like so many main streets across America it suffered from the suburban mall movement, and by the time the streetcar system was terminated in the 1960s it was deserted and dilapidated. Luckily for all of us, the city had enough sense to preserve the historic character of the area, including the store-fronts and instill zoning changes that required all then-future ground-floor vacancies to be filled by commercial uses.

Enter the entrepreneur, Joe Edwards, in 1972. There is no greater story of one individual having more effect in one neighborhood. He in himself is a success story. His is well-known in St. Louis and there is no doubt his passion, commitment, and business savvy made The Loop’s regeneration happen. He opened Blueberry Hill when few healthy businesses existed on the street, and set up a Business Improvement District (BID), that funneled money into the streetscape and public realm. He opened more unique businesses such as an old-style bowling lounge, a concert-venue, and restored independent movie theater. He also funded the St. Louis Walk of Fame, which placed stars in the pavement for famous St. Louisans. He is now instrumental in bringing the street trolley back to Delmar, which will connect the entertainment district with Forest Park and the museum district.

Joe Edwards’ crowning achievements in addition to Blueberry Hill: The restored Tivoli Theater, The Saint Louis Walk of Fame, The Pin-Up Bowl, and The Pageant music venue.

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The main point of me telling you this story, is that Delmar Boulevard has achieved an extremely high level of urban design. It is walkable, overlooked, has an active public realm, and a strong economic presence in the area. The light-rail system, MetroLink, connects the area with the rest of the city. The street network on each side is well-connected, creating a grid that allows multiple connections into this thriving part of town. The eccentricity and affordability of the businesses and corridor identity is all-inclusive and welcoming to all.

Yet, still, it is segregated. Just as the video shows, the surrounding context north of Delmar continues to suffer from poor education, employment, crime, and drug use. As an urban designer, we have to realize that in some situations that improving physical conditions can only go so far, and social and political interventions are required. It is up to the city and community groups to give these people the training and education that can help to start improve people’s lives who have long suffered. Of course, this takes time. And I would bet my bottom dollar that if given the right support, The Loop and its surrounding neighborhoods would improve faster than other parts of the city that aren’t able to tap into such a thriving and strong heart, serving as a foundation for so many people’s self-identity.

People might then ask, “well what’s the point of urban design, if it can’t create change?” Well, we already know that it creates an enormous amount of change and any resident of the area will tell you that Joe Edwards and the Loop’s revitalization has had an effect on people’s self-identity and quality of life. What this example does show, is that there is a limit to what urban design can achieve, especially those that are the most severe situations.

Local Series: Celebration.

11 Mar

I have been a supporter of New Urbanism ever since I was educated enough to understand traditional urban design principles and the effects they can have on people’s lives and local businesses. I wrote my first masters dissertation on the New Urbanism movement, mostly because I realized there was a a disconnection between the CNU (Congress for New Urbanism) Charter, and what was actually being built on the ground. I was witnessing a fourth and fifth wave of New Urbanism developments being built where I lived, and saw little to no direction on the how CNU’s principles should be implemented, or any measure on which to judge them. Developments were being built, that in my opinion, weren’t properly embodying the movement; my research proved that this was the case.

Since moving to Florida I have been itching to make it to Celebration and Seaside, two of the most well-known examples of New Urbanism. Yesterday I had the opportunity to check out Celebration, and I took it! I have to say, overall I was very pleasantly surprised. But this was a reaction I wasn’t expecting. Reports of people who have been weren’t stellar, and time has provided lots of criticism of the movement.

The main criticism of New Urbanism on the public, national scale is the architectural design often used in these developments. It is almost always traditional and sometimes lacks design detail. The result is that buildings can look unsubstantial, almost like a movie set. Which is ironic, since the New Urbanism development of Seaside was used as just that for The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey. For a movement that is supposed to be so forward thinking addressing the modern issues of society, critics ask why does it appear to be stuck in the past?

After visiting Celebration my answer to this question was confirmed: because architectural style is the least important issue of New Urbanism, and it ticks almost every other box pretty well. A very wise professor pointed out to me the great responsibility that urban designers have, that architects don’t. Urban designers design the public realm, which will remain for thousands of years. When we design a street, millions of dollars of public infrastructure will be designed along with it. In Europe the busiest of roads were designed and built by Romans – they are still there. Buildings on the other hand are a very transient layer of the built environment. While they are of course instrumental in giving a piece of town its unique identity, they last a comparatively short amount of time; demolished and rebuilt on the average of a 40 year cycle. My point is that street network and design is more important to contributing how we can navigate our world in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.

The majority of the architectural design of Celebration was very traditional, but also very nice. The truth of the market speaks: we are in Orlando, FL, not southern California where modernism and post-modernism is the accepted architectural style. However, the developers, which of course was Disney, backed up Celebration with some big architectural heavy hitters. Michael Graves, Phillip Johnson, and Robert A.M. Stern all designed civic buildings in the Celebration town center. ‘Nough said.

My own personal criticism of New Urbanism is that it often focuses on the small-scale design details, such as streetscape and pedestrian experience. While of course these are crucial, larger and arguably more influential factors like connectivity with its urban context are sacrificed. Of course you hear me harp on about connectivity like I’m a broken record, but it’s so important to being able to use our built environment in an environmental sustainable way. While Celebration is very permeable within itself, with perimeter blocks and connected streets, it is not connected to its greater context. Of course that in part is because there is nothing much to connect to; it’s location like a traditional subdivision, is off the side of a highway with no efficient mode of public transportation.

And this is where the greater conclusion of my research on New Urbanism comes in: it’s worth it anyway. Because one day I truly believe that we will get our acts together (out of necessity instead of choice I’m afraid), and provide our citizens with an efficient, accessible, and extensive public transportation network. And when that happens, developments like Celebration will best be prepared to accommodate it without any alterations. Like the most ancient towns built around the same traditional urban design principles, it will be the most flexible and sustaining.

If you can look beyond the architectural design or the fact that on the large-scale it isn’t accomplishing large environmental change like the movement aims to do, Celebration does so much right. Mixed uses that include retail, commercial, residential, office, educational, and institutional truly allow residents to not have to leave the town for days on end. Perimeter blocks allow public spaces to be completely overlooked. Opportunities are provided to connect with nature, including fishing in the town center lake, an active/play water feature, and natural corridors that make room for wildlife. A true mix of housing is provided: small apartments, townhouses, small and dense single-family homes, and large mansions with water and wooded views means a family can be accommodated their entire lives. Celebration is very legible: landmarks galore create place identity unique to the town. While of course Celebration has the weather in its favor, the public realm is very active. Ground level spaces create lots of hustle and bustle on the main streets, filled with people doing my favorite activity: people watching. This is evidence of a healthy public realm.

Above all else, it is extremely walkable with a stunning pedestrian environment. I saw one of the most beautiful streets I’ve ever seen in Celebration. It was proportioned perfectly with a stream and wildlife corridor down the center, one lane of traffic with a one bay of parallel parking on each side. Intermittently it was crossed by beautiful, arching bridges to provide a connected street network. A welcome arch of shade over the sidewalk is created by a line of trees. Kudos…it was perfect.

Water Street, Celebration, FL

Finally its important for me to say there was not one trace of Mickey mouse in this whole place. While it might have been developed by the Walt Disney World corporation, it will sustain itself as a town in its own right for sure. It has matured well, and grown into its own over the last two decades. Celebration was the first, younger generation example of New Urbanism I got to witness first hand, and what a treat it was. If the New Urbanism developments built in later years, and those still to come can adhere to the CNU principles as well as Celebration did, we can perhaps start to see some real change in our suburban built environment.

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