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How to Series: Creating a Community Vision.

26 Jun

Urban designers and planners are passionate about bringing new life to those special parts of the city that have lost their heart and identity. Whether it was through urban flight, a change of industry, or the loss of public transportation, neighborhoods that were once the gems of our cities seem easily forgotten. Urban designers and planners are continuously working to return that glory to our city centers.

As a designer myself, I understand how easy it can be to get swept up in the physical design of a place. Being able to vision what a place will look like and how it will function comes as second nature. However, the most important part of redevelopment is to remember that ultimately design is about people. No matter where you are in the city, that neighborhood, street, or public space belongs to people. It affects how they live their life and it informs their identity. The best urban design should reflect the vision of the community, not a designer’s.

Identifying the vision of a community is easier said than done. People have different dreams, desires, and priorities for their neighborhoods. One of the biggest responsibilities urban designers and planners have is to define a cohesive vision that can guide development. How is this done?

One way to identify a community vision is through a series of workshops with the community. CNU Tampa Bay, the regional group of the Congress for the New Urbanism, had the opportunity to run a Visioning Workshop for Franklin Street in the Tampa Heights neighborhood. Right outside of Tampa’s urban center, this section of Franklin Street was once one of the most popular commercial and retail streets in the City. Served by the streetcar, it was a hub of entertainment. Now, there are a small collection of historic buildings that still define the street among a much larger group of abandoned structures and surface parking lots. A couple of cafes and small local businesses are the highlight of Franklin Street today, and with their commitment to the neighborhood, are starting to bring some life and most importantly passion into revisioning the once bustling street that is so important to Tampa’s identity.

Franklin Street and the Rialto Theatre: Now and Then.

Franklin Street and the Rialto Theatre: Now and Then.

Given the important responsibility of helping the citizens of Tampa Heights to define their vision for Franklin Street was quite a responsibility. We accomplished it through a series of interactive and creative exercises that allowed the community to explore their vision in different ways: discussion, polling, answering questions, drawing and map exercises allowed all participants regardless of their comfort level to be integrated into the visioning process. Here are the steps below for creating a successful visioning workshop.

1) Ask participants how they would describe a place now, and how they would like to describe it in the future. 

These are simple questions that are easy for people to answer that will identify a large group of priorities, concerns, and opportunities for a place.

VisioningBoards

Visioning Boards

2) Ask people what they like.

The majority of people always have an opinion and they love to be able to share it. Sometimes its hard for them to know how to articulate how they  see the appearance and operation of a place. A great way to make this process easier is to create a visual preference polling activity. In this case, we identified urban design elements that are important to placemaking along a street: architectural character, building frontage, building scale, public realm activity, parking options, bike facilities, and street furniture; and provided pictures of many different options for each. Using stickers, participants voted for pictures they liked best for Franklin Street. As you can see below, a very visual and easily understandable result occurs. This allows people to comprehend how others in their community see a place quickly and clearly.

Visual Preference

Visual Preference

3) Identify what works and what doesn’t.

Small group discussion is an effective way to make sure every participant has a voice. In large groups or in public activities, not everyone feels comfortable sharing their opinion. A compelling activity to do in small groups is a table map exercise where participants can identify the positive assets of a place, as well as its biggest opportunities. Participants can mark these on a map and identify the physical location where appropriate. This helps define the priorities of a community and can show insight into those important elements of a place that can serve as a foundation for building a new identity.

Small Groups

Small Groups

4) Ask people to visualize.

For half of the people in the room who have a left brain, creating an opportunity for them to visualize their ideas can be the most effective way to identify the future vision of a place. Whether it’s the design of a street, site, or neighborhood asking people to draw can inspire creativity. Even the most unconventional ideas can identify the most unique design solutions. For Franklin Street, we asked participants what it should look like and gave them a list of potential elements they could include in the right-of-way. While everyone’s designs will be different, common and recurring elements and themes can be identified.

Street Visioning

Street Visioning

5) Report back.

It’s very important that participants in a visioning workshop walk away from the process knowing they have contributed to a meaningful process. Having small groups report back to the larger group about their top priorities for a place is the first step to showing participants that an agreed vision is starting to form. This is also a helpful summary process for urban designers and planners.

6) Process and follow-up.

Urban designers and planners will walk away from the  visioning process with a plethora of information and data. It is their responsibility to make conclusions and identify clear themes on which to help a community build their vision. Depending on the scope of the project and the next steps, these conclusions may the basis for further public involvement or neighborhood events. Or it might be appropriate to publish results publicly in a report, online, or through social media. Either way, there must be follow up steps with members of the community.

A community workshop is just one way to identify a vision for a place. Depending on the scale or goals of a project there might be more appropriate and more extensive processes to reach a conclusion. However, even the smallest scale of design projects should be based off a conclusive direction from the public. A simple workshop with 6 interactive steps is an efficient and very effective way to identify the goals, passion, and vision of people and place.

 

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Andres Duany’s Lean Urbanism.

8 Feb

This week at the CNU Florida Summit in Sarasota, Andres Duany presented a follow-up to the “New, New Urbanism” that he first introduced at the statewide meeting last year. Previously, he has spoken about the importance of Tactical Urbanism and Mike Lydon’s work for the “Next Gen” of New Urbanism. As an example of why the future of the movement must now be flexible and affordable in the face of the new normal, Duany has spoken of simplifying the planning profession as most of us know it, and going back to the basics of incremental urban growth.

LeanUrbanism

“Lean Urbanism” fills the gap between Tactical Urbanism and the CNU Charter

Duany has spent the last 12 months refining these ideas and developing his vision for the future of the New Urbanism movement. New Urbanism, as Duany explains it, has two extremes: CNU the powerful, and CNU the tactical. Last year Andres Duany fessed up to the boom-time New Urbanism being bloated, inflexible, and powerful. CNU as a national organization over its last two decades of existence has grown into a power that is lobbying those in DC with its unapologetic principles and mantras. On the other end of the spectrum is the growing Tactical Urbanism movement by the next generation of new urbanists. It is quite the opposite with purposeful irreverence to policy.

Duany’s newest vision has filled the gap between the two with something he’s calling “Lean Urbanism.” He argues that development has reached an unbelievable level of red tape and regulation that has made it virtually impossible and unaffordable for small  and incremental growth to occur. Professionals of his generation evolved aside these growing regulations, so much so that they have become experts at navigating them. However, Duany has witnessed a younger generation of urbanists, who have become so bogged down by the red tape they tend to ignore it all together. These young, or tactical urbanists, do things quickly and effectively, but sometimes bail when things get sticky. That perhaps is the greatest gift and one of the biggest challenges of Tactical Urbanism.

“Lean Urbanism” will reform the system of development so that he, as one of the older urbanists, can leave New Urbanism in the hands of the Next Gen “first-rate minds.” If New Urbanism can’t adapt from the powerhouse on Capitol Hill, Duany explains that it might become irrelevant. First rate minds of younger generations will not hang around to administer what people like him have already achieved – they will want to achieve something in their own right.

To better illustrate his concept, Duany described the succession of the development process. First the “risk oblivious” or “bohemians” find value in a place because it is affordable, and easy to develop and personalize (such as Miami’s Wynwood District that he has previously heralded as a model.) Small, simple projects are completed that over time give the place value and an identity that becomes attractive to the “risk aware” or developers. Larger, more expensive, and often less unique projects lead to gentrification that eventually waters down the identity that it was built on in the first place. And then, the “risk averse” move in (the dentists from New Jersey Duany joked), so boring and uncool, that the “bohemians” go and find the next cool place. This cycle has occurred in Brooklyn, and now it’s just beginning in cities like Detroit.

Why Detroit? Detroit is so bankrupt that it can’t afford to regulate itself. Millennials are starting businesses there without permitting and regulation. It’s an affordable model (a fraction of the cost of development in Brooklyn by the way), that allows more people at greater income levels to hop on the development food chain. Instead of other cities subsidizing companies to come to their city to retain their millennial population, companies are moving into Detroit unsubsidized because their workforce is already there. In the new normal, lean is what works.

The “Lean Seam” is where Tactical Urbanism and classic New Urbanism meet. Going forward, Duany hopes to daylight the bloated codes and regulations in our cities. Often times manuals are so over complicated, that the most simplistic version of the regulation is implemented. Instead of understanding the context and flexibility of code that might permit variation, absurd and impractical solutions win out for a lack of understanding. First putting a spotlight on the problem will show the absurdity of the development process. For example, for the last 5 years regulations require 120 megs of power in buildings. Historic buildings were originally wired for 30 megs, but were easily updated to 60 because the same conduit could support the upgrade. Now that 120 is required the same conduit can’t be used, which in a multifamily building would require the unrealistic tearing up of multiple units. Essentially, an overbearing electrical code has just blighted older units that will never be able to be “modernized” to code, even though a household is easily supported by previous regulation.

Instead day-lighting the ways to “get around” regulations will help the “bohemian” or “risk oblivious.” Duany told the story of visiting a school in San Diego that did just that. As he was visiting their studio he noticed it had no insulation or fire proofing on its exposed steel columns. When he asked why not, he was told he was in fact standing on a terrace with “shade protection”. It met the codes for a terrace in California perfectly, but instead acted as a building for the young school. This is an example of what Duany hopes to achieve by pulling apart the regulations with a fine tooth comb.

Second, Duany will identify thresholds in which professionals or developers can “opt out” of the regulation. A certain square footage, certain uses, certain context, etc. can all determine what codes are necessary or which ones can be realistically “opted out” of. In the last decade that Duany has taken a break from architecture to focus on urbanism, the amount of required drawings have increased by 10 pages. By producing these pages, which most people will never read, architects are taking full liability for the result of their design and are required to implement it exactly as drawn on site. Instead of being able to make small adjustments during construction that would actually make it more successful or safe, architects are being held in a straight jacket of liability. The truth is, no matter how many pages of drawings are completed, it’s the architect, not the official who approved them, who will be held liable. In fact, Providence, RI is so poor that it allows its architects to opt out of many of these required drawings because they don’t have the workforce to review them. Duany’s goal is to establish certain thresholds based on many factors where these “opt outs” are reasonable. This will allow the small, vernacular, and incremental development to happen affordably and quickly to incubate the creativity of young developers.

Duany and team will now go across the country studying the states with the most bloated regulations. He will begin in California, move to Florida, and continue in New England to expose the red tape that paralyzes development by the “Next Gen” of urbanists in hope of leaving his movement in the hands of first-rate minds who feel as though they have the ability to incrementally change cities and neighborhoods without having to resort to the impermanence of Tactical Urbanism.

Why Your Gas Tank Matters: An Alternate View to Public Transportation.

7 Dec

I’m sure it’s been beaten into your head by now that driving your car is bad, and that the more enlightened choice is to take public transportation. We’ve all heard the stats of pollution and we know that the built form being designed around the car has destroyed a walkable environment based on nuclear neighborhoods. We’ve abandoned the charm and livability of almost all of our cities, and it will take centuries to get them back. The car does take a lot of the blame.

As an urban designer I’ve been battling with this guilt, especially in a city that offers some of the worst public transportation option in the country. In addition, we have the third highest rate of pedestrian fatalities in the country. And of course, professionally, I’m expected to want to use public transportation, cycle, and walk. It’s so inconvenient and inefficient, that for me (like most Americans) it is not an option. And I certainly don’t want to use it in its current condition.

From my years living in England, I know what really good public transportation looks like: headways of 5 minutes, perfectly timed with trains, and mixed-use walkable downtowns. You could go almost anywhere in the country on your own two feet. But it cost a hefty price, and in many cases for me, became unaffordable. And as cliché as it sounds, Americans do enjoy their “freedom,” which for many is synonymous with their car. This culture shift is a way of life, and changing it is a battle I don’t think we will see in our lifetime without an enormous federal commitment to projects that we haven’t seen since after World War II. I don’t know about you, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.

So where does that leave us? Last week at a red light, I looked down at my gas tank and it occurred to me I hadn’t filled it up in 2 months. I realized that even in a city that is the most auto centric place I have ever lived, it is possible to not get out of your car and have a very tiny carbon footprint.

The Land Use Perspective

Urban designers and planners strive for perfect development: walkable, tree-lined streets, beautiful public spaces, and a car-free lifestyle. We search for this in our own personal lives, and in most cases we come up shorthanded. Unless you live in New York, Chicago, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco (our country’s gems) we often feel unsatisfied. However, I believe you can stay in your car (gasp!) and choose just as valuable of a sustainable lifestyle.

Choose to live near your work, or second place.

I hate commuting.

At its worst my commute was an hour and fifteen minutes one way, and at the end of the day I felt depleted. I promised I would never do that to myself again. So, when I moved to Tampa, I chose to live 2 miles from my work place, which is located Downtown. My other criteria was that I’d like to be able to walk to get a cup of coffee. As a result, I live in a denser neighborhood (made of mostly single-family homes) that is built on a connected street grid and is in close proximity to other neighborhoods that surround the downtown core. Each of these neighborhoods has a small commercial center that has the basics: grocery store, restaurants, coffee shop, etc. A few of the other necessities (Target!) are located on major arteries on the outside of these neighborhoods. I travel in between these mid-town neighborhoods and downtown. Granted we live a geographically small life and look for little entertainment outside of going to the movies and having a nice dinner, we are able to fill our gas tank up very infrequently. The following graphic shows the Tampa city limits in orange, and in blue, is the part of the city I actually use.

Tampa city limits downtown

Tampa city limits vs. the part of the city I actually live use

I’ve chosen to live in a slightly smaller house on a smaller lot. I’ve chosen to redefine “what I need” and really look at what influences my life the most. I put a lot higher value on not commuting then I do housing square footage. Life is a game of tradeoffs, and just through my daily life preferences, I have defaulted in choosing the “land use” option to sustainability.

Almost any time I go anywhere (except to get a cup of coffee of course,) I get in my car. And I don’t feel bad about. I drive in an entire week, what some of my colleagues might drive one way to work in a morning. While I can’t access what I need by public transportation, all of my needs are in close proximity.

This illustrates that land use must be considered along with transportation. I live in an older part of the city where development is denser. Large subdivisions and enormous shopping centers don’t exist. So for a Tampanian, who might be waiting on efficient public transportation for a very long time, the other option is to make choices in your life so that you don’t NEED to feel guilty about not using it.

And of course, my lifestyle, while by no means always occurs along those walkable, tree-lined streets, demonstrates how important density and diversity of uses is on the environment. Worse than the invention of the car and the pollution it creates in itself, is the land use form that followed it. Its disconnected street grid, single-use, and large size made public transportation impossible, and even travelling in a car inefficient.

Now of course in some of the largest cities, living near your work is unaffordable, or perhaps the public schools are not of an acceptable quality. And that might be the case. My lifestyle of choice would not be possible everywhere. And this is why transportation modes like BRT and light-rail are crucial to every American city. Slowly, and in some cases very slowly, we are making small progress to get there. But in the meantime, planning policy can ensure that we require mixed-uses in close proximity to new development at the densities required for a sustainable lifestyle.

In the meantime, walk or cycle if possible, if you want to. But if you live a geographically small life, and you want to stay in your darn car – don’t sweat it and sleep soundly at night. You are one of the good people.

Erin’s Google+

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…

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

Semantics: Redevelopment vs. Regeneration.

21 Jun

I received my urban design and planning education in England, which sometimes leads to little, yet awkward, misunderstandings. It has been a slight challenge to get comfortable in the drastic differences between the two planning systems, but mostly I have made peace with the translations. However, one term: regeneration, which is often substituted with redevelopment in America does not sit well with me. People see my specialization: “Urban and Regional Regeneration” and they ask me, “what is regeneration? Is like redevelopment?”

The answer is yes, and no. They overlap quite a bit, and while the number of anomalies are few, they are so distinctly different, that the terms are more dissimilar than at first glance. In its simplest form, to redevelop, is to develop again, which implies doing it over completely. While regeneration most directly means “rebirth or renewal” of something, implying that the entity remains throughout the process. In my experience these simple definitions distinctly describe the difference in the urban planning context.

The American Planning Association (APA) defines redevelopment as “one or more public actions that are undertaken to stimulate activity when the private market is not providing sufficient capital and economic activity to achieve the desired level of improvement. This public action usually involves one or more measures such as direct public investment, capital improvements, enhanced public services, technical assistance, promotion, tax benefits, and other stimuli including planning initiatives such as rezoning.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) defines regeneration as “a holistic process which aims to reverse the economic, social and physical decline of places where market forces alone will not suffice. The planning process provides the opportunity to enhance the role and capacity of communities as well as balancing community, business, environmental and individual needs. Effective regeneration requires active and meaningful long-term community engagement and involvement, as well as changes to the physical environment.”

The slight difference in definition is that redevelopment focuses on monetary investment and physical changes. Regeneration focuses on the existing community and “social decline” of a place, equally with the economic and physical factors. It even goes further to say that it addresses “holistically,” “individual needs.” Of course there are many redevelopment projects that do address the community, but because the APA distinctly says that “the private sector may initiate redevelopment projects without any active public involvement beyond the government’s traditional regulatory role,” I would argue that it is not enough to measure against the social investment of regeneration.

Perhaps the distinct difference in the responsibility to act directly on behalf of existing residents versus the primary goal of monetary investment is that England’s planning system is much larger and more politicized (and therefore receives more federal funding.) Of course, this comes with its own hindrances, but in this case social decline being put on equal footing is well worth what some call the overreaching arm of the government. While in America, gentrification might be seen as an inevitable and therefore an accepted side effect of redevelopment, in England, I would argue it is seen as sometimes inevitable and therefore tragic side effect of regeneration.

To illustrate this point, let me give you an example of the power behind a true regeneration project: Angell Town in Brixton, London.

Angel Town, Brixton

Angell Town Brixton Estate - Improvements

The urban design and physical improvements made at Angell Town Estate.

Problem (courtesy of Rudi):

  • Lack of public space for social interaction – derelict communal areas were unused.
  • The garages provided were dark and unsurveyed, and therefore, never used.
  •  The estate was perceived as crime ridden as the multiplicity of bridges and walkways provided ideal escape routes for criminals, often from outside the estate itself.
  • Litter accumulation resulted from removing the bridges (which gave access to the waste removal pick-up points), in an attempt to reduce crime
  • The estate came to epitomize neglect and decline
  • The estate became stigmatized a sink estate.

Solution – A summary of simple urban design changes:

  • The first main part of the scheme involved re-orientating the existing deck-access housing into a more “normal” street format, based on terraced dwellings which related to the street through individual entrances.
  • Each dwelling was given an individual, recognized identity (surveillance on the street was improved, as windows now faced directly out
  • Terraced housing replaced the monotonous, unsafe corridors of entrances.
  • The pedways, which were perceived as unsafe, were removed so that the houses could be extended to face on to the street.
  • New central grassed areas were defined as focal points for the houses. These areas were separated from the new vehicular perimeter roads by railings, enabling children to play, away from the danger of traffic and dogs.
  • The un-used garages on the ground floors were replaced with shops and community facilities, such as a bar, cafe, workshops, and even a recording studio in one area – to provide the previously, much lacked social amenities. This design measure also helped transform dark and bleak spots into animated facades of street level activity.

Instead of looking at this place, and only seeing its problems, the urban designer, planners, and architects looked at them as opportunities to build on the strong community that had lived there for decades. The project improvements didn’t eradicate every trace of the place that had become their home, but committed a large investment to renovate the buildings they could and design the new ones to complimented the existing so well you had to look hard to tell the difference between the two. Members of the community could still look and see where they came from, in other words, it still felt like home, but most importantly they could look again a little harder and see their bright future. This might sound like I’m laying it on a little thick, but the success of this regeneration stunned so many nationwide, and contental-wide, that intense project documentation occurred, including resident interviews. The members of the community realized what so many times planners don’t: they looked to their physical environment to define their identity. With the existing bones of the original Angell Town Estate still in existence, they easily correlated the physical improvements to be improvements in themselves.

This outstanding result came from an intense and time-consuming community consultation process (another distinctly different term than public involvement). The lead urban designer was so involved with the community that he actually lived there are the weekends in a flat. While this is rare in either country, it certainly is to be commended.

Perhaps the most powerful item in Angell Town now are the benches that poetically are made from the rubble from the demoed parts of the old buildings, caged, with a stone seat atop them. People can actually sit on the physical representation of what was destroying their community: a poorly designed public realm. This was recited by residents often as what made the biggest difference to them. Don’t ever underestimate the power of poeticism.

Caged Rubble Wall

Caged rubble representing moving forward to a healthy and safe community.

I will let you make your own observations and would love for you to share them on this blog. But I invite you now to look at redevelopment projects that have occurred in similar conditions (public housing sites) in America:

So, what will it be redevelopment or regeneration?

Magnolia Street New Orleans Louisiana

The Magnolia Street homes that were demolished even though they were listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance as an early federal housing effort in New Orleans….replaced with “traditional” suburban housing. (Images: CoLab Radio and McCormack Baron Salazar)

Mission Hill Boston Design

What does it say to a community when you eradicated everything that was their home and build it back with sub par architectural crap? (Mission Hill, Boston) (Images: Affordable Housing Institute)

Erin’s Google+

CNU20: The New World in West Palm Beach.

29 Apr

In 9 days, a lot of us will be traveling to West Palm Beach in Florida for the CNU20 conference to celebrate and learn more about New Urbanism. I have been invited by CNU to attend as a member of the press. I will be there to represent my blog and my employer, Tindale-Oliver and Associates. Honored and excited, I will be posting live throughout the week on the Plenary and Breakout sessions I attend daily. To get updates from CNU20 as I post them, please sign up for email alerts on the right hand side of this page. Also check me out on Twitter @helmpublicrealm. I will surely be tweeting a lot that week. I can’t wait to get writing and share what will no doubt be an exciting time with you. For those new to this blog, catch up on my previous posts by selecting a topic on the right or click the title at the head of the page to visit the home page.

Below are the sessions I will be writing about daily:

Plenary Sessions:

Looking Forward: New Urbanism and the New World with Andres Duany, Peter Calthorpe, and Others

Friday Night Plenary with Richard Florida

Saturday Morning Plenary Featuring Leon Krier

Break Out Sessions:

Space, the First but Not Final Frontier: Analyzing Space, Uses, and Transportation

Why Did We Stop Walking& How Do We Start Again? The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City

From Balanced Roads to Transit Oriented Development

Florida Mobility Policies: Regional Rail to Enhance Mobility

Clear Thinking: Urbanism + Transit

Functional Classification: The Least Interesting Policy That Dominates Most Everything

Realizing Streets for Everyone, and Getting Someone Else to Pay for Them: Funding, Designing and Implementing Complete Streets

Beyond Bike Lanes: Building a Culture of Bicycle Safety

You might notice the sessions I am attending are mostly transportation oriented. There are two reasons for this: The first, and most straightforward is that I am an urban designer at what traditionally has been a transportation planning and engineering firm in Florida. As the planning demands and expectations for a more sustainable built environment have shifted, it is undeniable that transportation planning and land use design are required to be more integrated. Secondly, and most importantly, the last few years of my career have made it clear that a real change in behavior from people requires public transit. Without it, it is unlikely that you will be able to peel us away from our cars and large parking lots. The result will continue to be devastating. Therefore, it is my commitment as an urban designer to become as knowledgeable as I can about how to make public transit a reality throughout the entire country. I want every individual to easily be able to access a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, light rail, a streetcar, or safe cycling lanes (and I want them all to be connected to one another), in my lifetime. Let the challenge begin…

My regular readers out there will know that I am a fan of the Congress for the New Urbanism, because unlike many of us, they have figured out a way to market (and even make trendy) traditional urban design principles, sustainability, and my favorite: connectivity. They did not reinvent the wheel, they did not come up with huge new ideas. They took traditional urban design principles that every place was built around before the introduction of the automobile, and repackaged them to make them relevant for our modern-day challenges. In short: genius. Often built environment professionals try to figure out the difference between TOD, TND, New Urbanism, mixed-use developments, etc. My answer is: not much. They are all variants on introducing the same age-old traditional urban design principles to the way we develop land today. What all these movements have done is brand themselves around that slight variant. Power to them, and anything that makes traditional urban design principles popular and easily understood, I am in support of. So  in short, yes, I have officially jumped on the CNU bandwagon.

No matter where my journey as an urban designer has taken me I have always met some critics of the movement, and let me address those here before we get this CNU20 party started.

Some of the most famous examples of New Urbanism: Seaside, FL; Celebration, FL; Kentlands, MD: Mesa del Sol, NM

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

One of the most popular criticisms of CNU is that the developments appear as if they are stuck in the past, and not addressing what is contemporary and relevant. This trait is mostly identified by the very traditional architecture that in some cases shadows the true beauty of historic styles. The argument: shouldn’t a movement that is addressing the most critical and relevant concerns appear to be modern? My response: Yeah, that’s a totally fair argument.

Another criticism is that some of the big thinkers of the movement do not properly understand the economic impact that the design of New Urbanism developments can have, or at the very least, there is not a clear correlation between physical design and economic impact. They are accused of not realizing that mixed uses are extremely difficult to achieve in some locations, that the development’s “town centers” are often way to small and cannot grow and adapt over time, and commercial uses are often located where they are promised to fail. My response: Once again, I can see this point and in some cases it is warranted.

Finally, one of the last criticisms of New Urbanism developments is that they’re often being built on greenfield sites. This wastes more land instead of retrofitting the acres and acres of suburban wasteland. Umm….yeah, this is partly true.

But here is my response to all of those, and it is very simple. The urban design process is built on layers, the first being the most permanent, the last being the most transient. The first layer (the Underlying Landscape) is the terrain that we have been given. While it can be morphed through some expensive engineering work, it for the most part is very permanent and rarely changes. The second layer (the Street Network), often lasts for centuries. Many of the most used streets in Europe were built by Romans. Of course they have been modernized, but the actual route was first determined by the Roman Empire. When we build roads, we lay very expensive and complicated infrastructure. In reality, the street network we build will always be there. The third layer (Plots), is the way we divvy up the blocks made by the street network. These get tied up in legally and don’t change a whole lot. However, developers come along all the time and acquire lots for their projects. Compared to the first two, plots can change much easier. The fourth and fifth layers (Buildings and Public Spaces) can change comparatively easily and all the time. While we cherish our historic buildings, the average structure has a lifespan of only 40 years. So when we build that buildings that kills the life of the urban realm all around it, don’t worry it can be knocked down, and it often is.

I take the time to explain this, because a lot of the New Urbanism criticism is hung up on the fourth and fifth layers. My point is, is that we have so royally screwed up the second layer and in some cases the third, that we have bigger fish to fry. The connectivity and design of our street network is SO important in creating social and economic opportunities, not to mention allow a public transportation system to run efficiently, that we have to get that right. I love New Urbanism because it makes connectivity, grids, and perimeter blocks trendy. And in almost all the cases New Urbanism developments are very connected with beautiful streetscapes. I honestly don’t really care about the buildings that are being built within them. Because in 100 years they’ll probably all be gone, but that street network will still be going strong.

And yes, it’s not so great that greenfield sites are still being rampantly developed, but this is not New Urbanism’s fault. Development along highway exits will happen in this free market society until there is an enormous shift, it might as well be connected, permeable, and not a bunch of cul-da-sacs. One day when we sort out our public transportation, New Urbanism developments will be able to adapt and therefore be more successful than auto-centric developments.

So there are my two cents on New Urbanism. It ain’t perfect, but what is? The part that is done right, is the most important. I can’t wait to get to West Palm Beach and hear the biggest fore-thinkers in our profession speak. It will be a huge joy to write about it and hopefully see this blog turn into a place for lively discussion. I am honored to be in attendance, and I will no doubt leave as a better designer….and with a suntan!

West Palm Beach – the location of CNU20. Tough life right!? (http://miamiagentmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/west-palm-beach.jpg)

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine alone and do not represent those of Tindale-Oliver & Associates, Inc.

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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.

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!

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…

View original 442 more words

27 Jan

Erin Chantry:

I stumbled across this wonderful post on the physical and built environments. We can constantly get caught up in urban design and planning terms, but its important that we understand their true meaning. I certainly plan to take these definitions on board when writing. Check out the Happy Spaces Project blog HERE!

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

On (the) happy spaces project’s “About page” we described the purpose of the project as attempting “to create a synthesized understanding about how the physical environment affects people’s happiness.”

The physical environment includes all of your surroundings, those designed and those natural. The built environment is a part of the physical environment, but it is only that which is “designed.” It has been wonderful to see how posts deal with the physical, natural, and built environments — though both Gong and I deal with the world of design, acknowledging what about the physical and natural environments brings people happiness is crucial.

I was thrilled to stumbled across the Health Canada’s 1997 definition of the “Built Environment.” I have always loved the precision of definitions and thought I would share how the “Built Environment” is defined in the academic world.

The built environment is part of the overall ecosystem of our…

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Communication is the Key!

21 Jan

The most wonderful quality about urban design is that because of its vocational nature it is accessible by everyone. On the first day of my urban design masters course my professor said, “by the end of this degree you will become an expert in what you’ve known your whole life.” I have had instincts from a very young age about the built environment. I’ve always known that architectural design and suburban development was suffering, I just didn’t have the vocabulary to say why. Education has given me the greatest gift, and that is a voice to speak about what I love.

I recently came across the most refreshing person, who is not an urban designer by training, but has become one through his intuition and commitment to design. Through exploring what he sees as common sense, he has built an urban design and development practice as part of his ever-growing and impressive person brand. Wayne Hemingway is an Englishman who gained his fame from starting the Red or Dead fashion label in London in the 1980s. His urban design career began when he publicly criticized Taylor Wimpey, the largest housing developer in the country, about the lack of imagination and personability in their designs. They responded him with the challenge of masterplanning their next development, which he did, and it became the most well-loved in their portfolio.

Wayne Hemingway’s design for Staiths Southbank development. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/property/article-1215070/Revealed-Home-winners-2009.html

The best thing about Wayne is he is just so darn funny and relatable. He speaks about design in a way that makes the average Joe stop and think about he lives his life. The reason why Wayne Hemingway is so successful, with no degrees or professional titles to his name, is because he can communicate. This is the most important thing they teach you when you’re becoming a designer: you can have the greatest ideas in the world, but if you don’t know how to explain them to your audience, you might as well not bothered.

Of course because urban design is such an accessible subject and the built environment belongs to everyone, sometimes people think they are experts in it, when they aren’t. I was reminded of this a couple of days ago as I was driving down the newest highway, US 74, in Charlotte with my mother. This city has transformed this main artery into a highway, eradicating the life on both sides of it. Houses and businesses have been relocated and torn down. Possibly the worst consequence of this new highway is that it permanently divides the struggling neighborhoods on either side of it from connecting with one another other and parts of the city that are thriving. It’s so disappointing to see this happening in a city that I love. Haven’t we learned our lessons?!

My mother’s response? “Well I have to get the beach and now I can do it faster!” She could not understand how this road was so detrimental. She thought because there were mature bushes and brick walls on the side of the road that it was “beautiful.” That literally made my stomach turn. I was shocked how committed she was to the idea of this highway…she wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t blame her, I think a lot of people are trained by the status quo around them to think the same thing. In this moment I thought, what would Wayne say? While I don’t have the sarcasm and irony of Wayne Hemingway, I instead relied on my knowledge. I explained how a system of boulevards that were connected with a greater network of streets would have moved traffic just as quickly while preserving the identity and future prospects of the surrounding neighborhoods. This was the most socially, economically, and environmentally responsible way of re-designing US 74 until at least the city limits. I think I at least got her to think. My best weapons in communicating? Knowledge and being kind. What are yours?

We might have missed our chance in turning a US 74 and Independence Boulevard into a catalyst for regeneration in Charlotte. But for this project there are an infinite other corridors waiting to be redeveloped. We all need to take a page out of Wayne Hemingway’s book: learning how to communicate our design ideas better and make them more relatable to our audience. Click Here for Wayne’s website, and click below to check out one of his classic lecture on urban design and placemaking. The good stuff is between 48:30-1:18.

designing the future: design lecture & masterclass series the shape of things to come – Wayne Hemingway, Hemingway Design from c4di on Vimeo.

Welcome to the Public Realm.

27 Dec

Speaking to you from the Helm…this is Erin Chantry! Welcome to At the Helm of the Public Realm, a blog on urban design, planning, and architecture. I am a trained urban designer, planner, and architect and a lover of the built environment. I hope to create a place where professionals, teachers, students, and people interested in the world around them can discuss their views of every aspect of the built environment…cities, neighborhoods, street patterns, streetscapes, communities, economic development, regeneration and many more.

I invite you to comment on my posts and follow them by subscribing on the right. If you have any questions or suggestions I’d love to hear them…please get in touch at erin.chantry@helmofthepublicrealm.com. You can also visit my Twitter feed through the menu on the right or at @helmpublicrealm. I hope to post at least 3 times a week so please check in. I’ll see you here!

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