Archive | July, 2012

Outdoor Space and Public Housing: How Do We Design it?

20 Jul

I have written about the history of public housing a few times on At the Helm of the Public Realm. Studying it as an urban designer and as an architect, has given me many different views on how developments like Pruitt Igoe and Cabrini Green got it so wrong. It seems that every built environment professional has learned their lesson: out of scale, brutalistic structures surrounded by vast amounts of shared, open space fails.

But what we discuss much less often, is how to get it right. The blog post, Housing Design Outdoors on Polis last month gives an overview of what the necessary principles are to create a housing development. The article while written by a planner, Peter Sigrist, who concentrates his research in public housing. While planning is important, the fact that his research yielded results that are so design oriented, proves to me that urban design is one of the most dominant contributors to a successful public housing development.

public housing mixed uses

Public housing and the importance of proximity and accessibilty to mixed-uses. (Image: Wired NYC)

In his own words, the author provides this list of necessary principles for designing space around buildings in a public housing apartment complex as follows:

  1. Proximity between buildings
  2. The sense of Enclosure in outdoor spaces
  3. The Scale of buildings
  4. The Accessibility of buildings to residents, and of residents of local amenities
  5. Additions of items and facilities between buildings (including trees, parking, and places of leisure)
  6. Materials that improve aesthetic quality and maintenance
  7. The Style and the architectural elements of a space

What has the greatest influence on the design of public spaces are the buildings that form them. Therefore, if we get the building form, scale, and interior spaces wrong, their isn’t much hope for what surrounds it. Consequently, while Sigrist says these principles are about the design of public space, he is actually listing architectural principles of building form.

The first 3 principles, proximity, enclosure, and scale, while slightly different, are very much integrated with one another. Proximity between buildings is important, because it provides a human (and comfortable) scale of open spaces. Buildings have to be close enough to one another, so that the entirety of the space between them can be overlooked for safety purposes. Enclosure of outdoor spaces, which should also be at a human scale, is directly affected by the proximity of the buildings that form them. What Sigirst doesn’t explain, is that the sense of enclosure that makes humans feel comfortable needs to be formed by “active edges” to a building, whether its retail or residential openings in the facade. This once again allows overlooking of the enclosed space. Blank walls and fences make people feel unsafe and uncomfortable and should be avoided despite enclosure. If these are unavoidable, it should only be in private and physically secure spaces.

Finally, scale is the principle that completely determines the first two. Sigrist is right on when he says, “Higher buildings result in cavernous settings when grouped together, and conspicuous voids when spread apart. Longer and wider buildings can impede walkability and reduce green space. Expansive façades highlight repetition, monotony and decay. Smaller buildings tend to be associated with comfort around housing, perhaps because of the psychological effects of less-polarized differences in scale.” The end and short of it is that people’s comfort is tied to their human nature, which scale directly reflects. When people are disconnected from the elements that reflect their humanity (such as trees, for example), they have the tendency to lose it.

Open Space Public Housing

A comparison between the overlooked, public space designed at the human scale, and the negative effects of the opposite in public housing (Image: Studio Engleback and The Affordable Housing Institute)

Accessibility between residents and community mixed-uses, such as transit, retail and schools, are just as important as the form of open public spaces. Public space can only be healthy if it is actually used. If people do not use it as a pedestrian route from their home to local destinations, it may become less used, less loved, and less looked-after. One of the largest issues in public housing complexes is the maintenance of open space. One of the largest reasons is because people can feel like it doesn’t belong to them. If people have an emotional connection to a place, they will want to care of it. Level of activity is crucial to the success of public spaces, which is directly dependent on a development’s location to its surrounding neighborhood and strong physical connections with its context. If a development is within a hot climate, trees (as the author states), are crucial in providing a micro-climate in which people can still use a space all year round, which is imperative to maintaining activity. However, while Sigrist says that hedges are acceptable despite their disconnecting effect of residents from the public realm, I completely disagree. Not only do they impede access, they prevent overlooking and harbor unsafe places.

While the last two principles, material and style, certainly contribute to the health of open, public spaces, they are not necessary; if we achieve the first 4 we have fought 99% of the battle. This research shows that the success of public housing, or any housing for that matter, is dependent on their location in relation to mixed-uses, the human scale of the architecture, and defining the relationship between buildings.

The takeaway of this research is that the issue of public space must be considered at the nascent of the planning process…some benches can’t fix what is already broken. Also, the slight difference and fine minutia that differ between an urban designer and an urban planner discussing the same issue is evidence that the built environment is a challenging and complicated professional sector. If we learn to work together, and fill in the gaps that our expertise leaves, we can create big change and solve even the most challenging problems….So, an architect, a planner, and an urban designer walk into a bar…

About these ads

Can Emerging Nations Avoid the US Path?

17 Jul

Erin Chantry:

When I visit emerging or even European countries, I am saddened by seeing mistakes on the ground that America has made three decades before. Why can’t we learn from each other? Is it because people and cities are so giddy with new found wealth that they can’t resist the temptations of over-development, sprawl, or car use? I stumbled across this blog entry that attempts to answer this question and thought I’d share. Please enjoy!

Originally posted on Dom's Plan B Blog:

By Dom Nozzi

Since the emergence and rapid spread of car ownership and use in America since the early part of the 20th Century, the United States has taken a large number of ruinous, unsustainable actions to make life happy for cars rather than people.

While it is true that car travel initially resulted in many positive improvements in our society, those improvements are now increasingly overwhelmed by negatives, as the continued provision of infrastructure, programs and finances to promote car travel is now experiencing severely diminishing returns that started later on in the 20th Century.

We are now at a point that each “improvement” for car travel – an “improvement” that is increasingly unaffordable – provides fewer and fewer benefits. And the costs of such “improvements” provide increasingly enormous decimation. A classic case, in other words, of diminishing returns.

Tragically, the US is largely trapped in this downward spiral…

View original 1,279 more words

Mayberry: Is Small Town America a Myth?

14 Jul

It’s true that the American icon of Mayberry was well before my time, but as a native North Carolinian it certainly has been indoctrinated into my personal culture and maybe even identity. Fictional Mayberry, North Carolina was in almost every American’s living room for nearly a decade, and many more years after through syndication. Even as a young child, I knew the whistling theme tune. In my house The Andy Griffith Show was revered, and in my own mind, I made the assumption that what had made it so special had to some extent been lost in pop culture. On July 3rd, Andy Griffith passed away, and I questioned myself: has Mayberry been lost?

In the wake of Andy Griffith’s death I came across the BBC article, Is the ideal of small-town America a myth?. Author, Rob Dreher believes that Mayberry has always been a myth and therefore it was impossible for it to have been lost. While this fictional world often led to idealised story lines I am sure, after hearing stories of my parents and grandparents’ generations growing up in the South, I find it hard to believe that places like Mayberry never existed, or perhaps, I am happier living in denial that perhaps it can’t be recreated. But Andy Griffith said himself, even though it was based on his own experiences in North Carolina, that Mayberry was a myth.

What shocked me most about the BBC article was, “We are instructed to spite Mayberry as a kind of ironic inoculation against the supposed unreality of a traditional, square way of life. You can’t go back to Mayberry, they say, by which they mean forget it, small-town and rural life is over, and was a lie in the first place.” I’ve never been told or sensed in American culture that we are instructed to spite small-town America, in fact, with movements like New Urbanism, etc., I think as a planner I am instructed to feel just the opposite. One could argue that whether it is through television, country music, or an urban planning movement, the community and culture that goes along with small towns is revered and should be recreated.

As a bit of research I asked my father about how he felt watching The Andy Griffith Show when it first aired in the 1960s and what it meant to him. His first comment was, “it represented the way I wished it was.” He commented that Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith’s character), represented a rational and quiet calmness that was a breath of fresh air in the midst of the Equal Rights Movement. It seems that even in during the 1960s, one of America’s most challenging times, small town culture might have already been lost. While my father lamented the fact that Mayberry represented a lost culture where everyone tried to help everyone else, he did say that the physical urban character was a very accurate depiction of what it was like to live in a small, agricultural, American town. The Main Street served as the center of the town, and most residents walked everywhere, and children rode their bikes. Even when The Andy Griffith Show was aired, the urban form of small towns hadn’t yet been lost.

Today, or at least before the bust, marketing campaigns like the one below  (a development masterplanned by the New Urbanism firm, DPZ), for a new housing development was common. The New Urbanism movement has clearly shown that small towns and all the preconceived notions that come with it, sells houses. In my opinion, it’s not that people miss living in a small town, necessarily, but they miss the sense of community. With marketing tag lines like “A Place Where Yesterday Meets Today,” for The Vermillion development in North Carolina, some people believe that if they can leave their subdivisions, cul-de-sac, and Escalades behind they might feel like they belong to a place and the people who live there.

The New Urbanism Marketing Campaign

New Urbanism Marketing Campaign (Image: http://www.newvermillion.com/home.htm)

I am a strong believer in the marketing of smart growth and sustainable development, and on some level, believe that anything that sells these important design principles should be championed in the development profession. But I can’t help but think that thousands of people have moved to these “small town” developments, and turn up to find they just can’t fit their escalade in their back alley…and nothing much else. I have to agree to some extent with the BBC reporter, Dreher, that the cultural ideals that are represented by small town America have been lost. Mass globalization, automobiles, cultural and national events, and technological evolution can pretty much take responsibility for the loss of places like Mayberry. Of course, with these things, have come very positive contributions to our world that we would never trade back.

I may assume from the limited research into my father’s mind, that the sense of community and neighborly friendliness left America and their small towns, well before the physical urban form changed. So, therefore even if we design our urban form to answer to traditional design principles, we may not be able to bring that back. Not all hope is lost however… There are numerous other reasons to design and build places that adhere to urban design and smart growth characteristics that New Urbanism often embodies. Climate change, public health, and social equality are just a few. New Urbanists, developers, and everyone else who is trying to sell sustainable smart growth based on what community meant in the past, needs to find a new argument. Otherwise, one day, people will catch on to the fact that they are being sold something that doesn’t exist and can’t be recreated. Let’s stop living in the past, cherish what we have now in our culture, and try to figure out what “community” means for us in society today.

Mount Airy Mayberry

Mount Airy, NC today. Andy Griffith’s hometown and what many think was the inspiration for Mayberry. (Image: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2477/3844702155_f909e86718_z.jpg)

Erin’sGoogle+

Guest Post: “Invisioning Tampa” Through Public Involvement

7 Jul

Hi everyone! I hope you had a wonderful July 4th holiday. I apologize for being a little MIA this week. I was busy studying for the LEED-ND exam, which I thankfully passed this morning. While I had my head buried in prerequisites and credits, my fellow designer, Garrett Honeycutt wrote a great piece about his experience with a prominent public involvement project funded by HUD in Tampa: Invision Tampa. Enjoy!

Tampa recently began a planning process to create a master plan for Tampa’s city center. The area in consideration stretches from downtown to Ybor and up Nebraska Avenue. This planning process includes a major public involvement aspect, which allows Tampa’s residents to get involved and share their ideas about how to improve the community. The public involvement process includes public meetings at the convention center, neighborhood walking tours, and two websites—one of which is designed to allow the public to share their own ideas.

Invision Tampa area

The Invision Tampa study area. (Image: Invisiontampa.com)

The first experience I had with the planning process began at the main web page, invisiontampa.com, where I watched a video of Mayor Bob Buckhorn speak about the plan and how it would include the public perspective, “…we need your thoughts, your ideas, your experiences, and your voice,” said Bob. So, I perused the website and followed the links to read about the project, and how to get involved. Under the ‘get involved’ link is where I discovered the Mindmixer website. The title reads, “Inspire Your Community Through Virtual Idea Sharing.”

youinvisiontampa.com, the idea sharing website, was created by a company named Mindmixer whose websites are designed to encourage public participation using a points system based on participation. The points are given to users when another person agrees with their idea, when the user posts an idea, when the user comments on someone else’s idea, and when a user seconds someone else’s idea.

As of now, there are 286 users who have shared 455 ideas total on 26 different topics. The ideas people have been posting revolve around transportation, economic development, housing / retail / entertainment development, neighborhood connectivity, parks, and street design. Right now the most popular idea-post in the most popular chat room, under the most popular topic, is about urban design and urban housing. The first couple of sentences from JoAnne F1’s post reads: “If I had a magic wand for Tampa I would wave it twice. Once for more urban housing and revitalized downtown neighborhoods and another to help everyone understand that good urban design must be a priority for our city.”

So far, JoAnne F1 has had 20 seconds, and 11 comments from other users around Tampa. A lot of the comments are about the idea of creating minimum density zones in and around the city center in order to create high enough densities to support local business and public transportation, as well as encourage redevelopment in surrounding, low density ,neighborhoods.

Some of the ideas I posted became popular as well, and some are now marked as “Under Consideration.” The idea under consideration with the most Seconds that I posted is titled “Encourage Restoration of Buildings Along Franklin Street.”

It reads: “We should give incentives to renovate historic buildings along Franklin Street and encourage economic diversity in order to continue to create a kind of pedestrian oriented outdoor mall. We should also extend the street-car line up Franklin Street north of the new CAMLS building.”

Historic Franklin Street Tampa

Tampa’s Franklin Street (Image: All Posters)

Another idea I posted, which received a lot of Seconds but was not labeled Under Consideration is titled “Boats Along Bayshore.” It reads, “Sometimes I look out over Tampa Bay from Bayshore Boulevard and imagine sailboats coming in from the Caribbean to port. If Tampa had a youth sailing club and facility, across from Tampa General Hospital where the vacant boat docs are, the already dynamic Bayshore atmosphere would become even more so. Tourist would come from all over to see the longest continuous water front walkway in the world. Lets enhance Tampa’s great atmosphere along Bayshore with a youth sailing club.”

This and the previous idea were just two of the 11 ideas I posted, proving the website to at-the-least, catch my attention.

Boats Hillsborough Bay Bayshore

Boats in Hillsborough Bay along Bayshore (Image: Garrett Honeycutt)

In addition to the websites, the new master plan process reaches out to the community through walking tours. The walking tours were two-in-one public involvement meetings organized around the Tampa Bay area and promoted on the InVision website. The first part being a walk around the area of discussion, and the second being an idea sharing charette about the area in question. These walking tours were created for 8 different neighborhoods around Tampa: Ybor Heights, Tampa Heights, North Downtown, Old West Tampa, the Channel District, North Hyde Park, Historic Ybor, and Seminole Heights.

Personally, I attended the Channel District neighborhood walking tour, which proved to be very useful for collecting the public point of view, but not very effective at answering some of the more nitty-gritty questions. What are the limitations of the new master plan? Would it be possible to develop the land directly on the channel even though it is currently privately owned by the ship yard? Could the city give some type of incentive to convince the port it would be more profitable for them to develop the land into housing and retail than it would be to keep it as a ship yard? Questions like these seemed less interesting to the tour guides than questions about the public realm. Perhaps these ideas would be addressed at the final leg of the public involvement aspect of the InVision Tampa master plan, the Knowledge Exchange meetings.

The Knowledge Exchange meetings were held at the convention center and were designed to alternate between lectures from AECOM staff and table exercises from the audience.

At the Knowledge Exchange on May 30th sitting at a table 15 minutes before the meeting, Pete Sechler, the project manager and a principal at AECOM, asked me what I think should be priority for Tampa’s downtown master plan.

So, remembering my experience at the Channel District walking tour, and how developing private lands seemed to be more challenging than some other opportunities for improvement, I suggested that we should determine how difficult each idea would be to implement, in order to help rank priorities. He must have thought that was a good idea because he mentioned it and our conversation when he spoke to the room. He also spoke generally about how the project has been coming along with the website feedback and he talked about the success of the walking tours , then he said how important it was for us to get the word out and come to the next Knowledge Exchange meeting. The other speakers were very interesting and the table exercise were pointed and engaging.

So, between the news coverage with Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the two websites, the walking tours and the Knowledge Exchange meetings, I feel the master plan process was very successful in hearing the people’s point of view. In all there were 485 ideas contributed, from the Mindmixer site about how to improve Tampa’s city center, virtually hitting every aspect conceivable. I feel the public involvement process was a big success and the Tampa community should feel their ideas were at least taken note of. However, as successful as the process was, there were some frustrating limitations, almost as if the people in charge could not tell us the truth, the bad news, what usually happens with master plans once all the big ideas the public had become hopeful of achieving are spilled out and left in the hands of whoever. What happens next? Are the people who had high hopes for Tampa achieving big ideas through this master plan just getting their hopes up only to be let down?

One of the speakers at the Knowledge Exchange meeting saw Chattanooga Tennessee’s downtown planning process from beginning to end, and he emphasized how much time these things take, it was a common theme in his speech.

He saw Chattanooga riverfront development-plan implemented, changed, redesigned and implemented again for over 30 years into what it is today, and again, he said these things take time—information that would have been helpful on the walking tours, and information that should have been emphasized throughout the whole process.

So, I guess, if there is any criticism to Tampa’s master planning process so far, it would be that the public should be made more aware and better educated about how these things work and how exactly change happens. The public should not only know where the funding for the master plan came from, but also and more importantly where the future funding will come from in order to make these grand, but equally necessary, changes to Tampa’s city center into realities. The planning staff should be more informed and equipped to answer these tough questions, or if they are capable of answering the tough question they should not be discouraged to share incite with the public. The walking tours should have been more give-and-take, designed to gather public opinion and inform the public about what types of changes are likely to come sooner through the planning process and which changes would take more time, and how much time different ideas usually take, and what kind of ideas may just simply be out of the question.

If the intent was to inspire the public without discouraging, or discriminating between ideas, I feel the Mindmixer website did a sufficient job in doing this, and that the walking tours should have been a little more informative.

In all, the entire experience was fun and collaborative, but I wish it were a little more informative. I am hopeful and excited to see where the InVision Tampa master plan takes us from here.

Garrett Honeycutt has a Bachelor of Architecture from Florida Atlantic University and works as a designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Team at Tindale-Oliver & Associates in Tampa. 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,223 other followers