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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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A “Place” in the Queen City.

26 Dec

As an urban designer and planner, I’m always excited to return to my home city of Charlotte to witness the “next big project.” I recognize that a city is always changing and evolving – it’s a living organism – but the urban core of Charlotte has transformed drastically, possibly faster than any other major city. Perhaps it’s because I long to return to my beloved Queen City and I’ve gotten a bit nostalgic, but there is a noticeable and excitable shift in the urban core of Charlotte. It has become a true place, or shall I say, series of places, that makes a unique and livable city.

Development for development’s sake is one thing. If we look around our built environment the change in the urban form over years in many places is too drastic to even document. Subdivisions, apartments, retail centers all sprout up in cities across America, often without any discernible meaning. Development has its benefits, such as an increase in tax revenue, affordable housing, and neighborhood services to name a few, but the real achievement is encouraging investment through placemaking.

In my opinion there is no better investment than one in public space. The direct and quantifiable correlation between public and private investment is a difficult one to prove – but there is no doubt that in the right place at the right time investment in public spaces can create immeasurable socio-cultural and economic value for a city.

The center city of Charlotte has benefited recently from huge investments in the public realm: The Levine Avenue of the Arts and the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, albeit very different in their purpose, are just two that contribute to a growing network of public spaces. The most recent gem, however, is the newly opened Romare-Bearden Park, a public park in Uptown Charlotte that offers a finely-tuned symphony of places in one public space.

Sugar Creek Greenway and Levine Avenue of the Arts

Sugar Creek Greenway and Levine Avenue of the Arts (Source: Go Carolinas, Meetup, Charlotte in 2012, CharMeck)

Uptown Charlotte, like other cities that flourished during the heyday of the automobile, has long suffered from the thief of urban life: the surface parking lot. Of all the neighborhoods in Uptown, the Third Ward has endured the longest. Most recently an entire block of surface parking was transformed to one of the best urban neighborhood parks I have witnessed. What made this special was that the urban designer was able to transform an entire city block, not just into a park, but into a series of places for people.

BeardenPark-082913

(Source: Charlotte Center City Partners)

Romare-Bearden Park: Before and After (Source: Land Design)

Romare-Bearden Park: Before and After

One of the country’s most well-respected landscape architects, Michael Van Valkenburgh, has designed hundreds of public spaces and parks, the most recent being Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. In an article discussing Valkenburgh in the “Urban Landscaper”, the project was described as follows:: “it is clear that what Van Valkenburgh most cared about in this park – perhaps the most prominent project of its kind under way in the United States – is people and their daily experiences.” In each part of the very large park, careful attention was paid in ensuring a series of unique and emotionally moving experiences as one journeyed from space to space. He describes “landscape architecture (as being)… inspired by the disorder of cities themselves, where you enjoy not knowing what’s around the next corner.”

This was the exact same experience I had in my first journey through Romare-Bearden Park. Romare-Bearden is a series of unique places, each offering a different experience, organized along a continuous spine that meanders from one side of the park to another. A large green for events, a children’s interactive area, an herb garden, a more intimate courtyard with pergola, a formal sitting area, an arbor,  and at the center a dynamically lit waterfall, all make this park usable by many different people for a variety of purposes at all times of day. Please check here for more information about the themes and experiences of Romare-Bearden.

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1. The Evocative Spine; 2. Big Moon Green; 3. Interactive Water Fountain; 4. Childhood Muse Area; 5. The Formal Oval and Arbor; 6. The Gardens

Just walking through this park on any given day, you will find a diverse group of people using these spaces in different ways:  kids playing tag and throwing the football on the green, small children playing the chimes and dancing in the water, people sitting at a table having lunch, or a couple meandering through the garden. The change in elevation hides the spaces from one another, so that each of these activities feels intimate and special. People spending time in such a place is the catalyst for the success of an open public space. Romare-Bearden is becoming the community gathering space for the growing population of residents downtown.

Private development adjacent to Romare-Bearden Park

Private development/multi-family housing adjacent to Romare-Bearden Park

So what is the art of placemaking? Here are a few qualities that Romare-Bearden Park accomplishes to make it a meaningful space in the city:

  • A Physical Connection – The Evocative Spine is oriented to connect the linear park from S. Tryon and the orientation of the spine from The Square (intersection of Trade and Tryon Streets). This serves as the distinct center of the urban core with Bank of America stadium, the newly constructed BB&T Ballpark, and newly constructed multi-family residential development. One of the challenges in keeping a large public space safe is maintaining robust citizen activity. By accommodating and enhancing a natural and heavily used pedestrian route through the park, the public space becomes more relevant to its users. Elements like the cascading linear steps along the street and a linear promenade connecting the park with Tryon Street integrates the public space and Third Ward with the entire urban core.
  • Our Heritage – The entirety of the design is themed and routed in Romare Bearden, an African American artist and writer born only blocks from the park. Educated and practicing in both New York City and Paris, his work was rooted in his Southern identity. The honoring of a great legacy to the city through public space provides the opportunity for citizens to be aware and to connect emotionally with their heritage.
  • Sense of Place – The journey along the Evocative Spine is anchored constantly by overarching views of the skyline, perched perfectly in the users’ cone of vision. When you are in Romare Bearden Park, you are constantly reminded that you are in the center city of Charlotte.
  • Enhances the Senses – Experiencing Romare Bearden Park is enhanced by all of the senses: the cascading water on the skin, the scent of herbs, and the bright colors of flowering plants. Natural materials and local plants enhance the identity of the public space. Above all else, the constant element of “play” experienced by dancing and playing the chimes in the Muse Area and climbing on the boulders that frame each unique space creates constant fun!

The Romare-Bearden Park achieves a true sense of place in a growing center city neighborhood that endeavors to establish an identity – perhaps more than any other part of the urban core. The investment in public space not only has been instrumental in attracting private development and bringing more residents downtown, it will also serve as the “living room” of a growing community and will enhance the growing network of public spaces in the center city. As a native Charlottean with roots in the city that span over seven decades, I am ecstatic by the commitment of resources to transforming our urban core into a true place that continues to build the identity of the city locally, regionally, and nationally, as a livable and walkable city.

The Calabash Collage (1970), Library of Congress. Romare Bearden.

The Calabash Collage (1970), Library of Congress. Romare Bearden.

Trees and Trains: Tampa’s Downtown in the Next Decade.

18 Jun

This past Thursday the Tampa Downtown Partnership hosted their 27th Annual Meeting and Luncheon for board members, officers, members, and the general public. This year, the Partnership introduced a twist to the usual program: a panel of mid-career men and women to discuss what Tampa needs to and should become in the next decade. The “Fast Forward” panel that included myself of Tindale-Oliver & Associates, Brandon Hicks of Twelfth Street Studio, Brian Seel of The Beck Group, and Ann-Eliza Taylor of the Yates Law Firm was moderated by Shaun Drinkard, the Director of Placemaking with the Partnership. Incoming Chairman, David Smith of Gray Robinson, introduced the panel to offer a different perspective than the more mature and experienced speakers at the usual meetings, and represent the shift he hopes to make in the organization: expansion of membership and more leadership from young professionals.

fast forward panel tampa

The TDP Fast Forward Panel

The Tampa Downtown Partnership serves as an advocate of downtown Tampa, focusing on the physical and economic development, cultural activities and events, and continuing public and private partnerships among stakeholders. The Partnership promotes the downtown community by fostering vibrant and diverse multi-use neighborhoods and plays a key role in creating an urban center where people can learn, live, work, and play. Each panelist is committed to the same objective, and works within different organizations within the community to enhance the vibrancy of Tampa’s downtown and it’s surrounding neighborhoods.

The “Fast Forward” panel discussion revolved around four questions, each providing a different insight into the challenges and triumphs in Tampa’s future. Conversation focused on the hopes and commitments for Downtown Tampa over the next decade, the hurdles encountered and opportunities used to overcome them, and the momentum for future change. From the diverse experiences of the panel, themes emerged from the discussion as the most important for moving Downtown Tampa forward.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!

Arguably the largest priority necessary to make Tampa a first-class city is to be able to attract industry and workforce, and be able to retain it. There is no doubt a host of reasons why Tampa is challenged to compete with cities like Charlotte, Houston, or Raleigh/Durham, but two of the most influential are how the city is perceived and what people can find when they get here.

The Florida reputation will be a hurdle to overcome in attracting industry. Among the most talented young professionals in the country, many silo Florida off into three categories: Miami, Disney and retired people. Unfortunately, Tampa easily can be put in the last category, especially since the Tampa Bay area does host a large number of tourist destinations that draw retirees and snowbirds. Tampa isn’t seen as a place that attracts a large number of young professionals on a national scale, and therefore industries are less likely to move here. They want to establish themselves where young professionals will want to stay indefinitely.

Furthermore, the talent that Tampa is able to attract is easily lost later to more competitive opportunities nationwide. Because of the sometimes-limited industry growth it is hard for employers to promote and develop their employees at the pace expected. When that great opportunity comes up in Charlotte or Atlanta – they take it.

The question becomes – how to we evolve Tampa to be a competitive force for industry and jobs on a national scale?

Pirates, Not Palms

The first is to change the conversation. We need to shift our focus from the Floridian identity of palm trees and sunshine, to what makes Tampa real. Defining a city’s identity on what makes it unique is crucial in its competitiveness. The two things that set apart Tampa from any other American city is its Cuban culture and Gasparilla season.

Ybor City was mentioned numerous times by the panel and was a driving force in attracting at least two of us to live and stay in Tampa. Ybor City is where Tampanians can most easily emotionally connect with the Cuban heritage. The cigar factory architecture, ethnic clubs, cigar shops and bars, and restaurants like The Columbia communicate palpably the cultural heritage that makes Tampa unique.

The Gasparilla festival season that runs for the majority of the winter months exhibits the rich arts character of the city. The art, music, and film festival put Tampa on the map as a culturally relevant city. The fun devotion and commitment to the invasion of pirates during Gasparilla is a refreshing exercise that identifies Tampa as a creative, fun, and interesting place.

Let Clearwater sell the palms – let’s change the conversation to what no other city in the country can offer. We’re already very proud of our Cuban and Gasparilla culture, we just need to communicate and market it more effectively.

7th Avenue Tampa

7th Avenue, Ybor City, Tampa (Image: Steve Minor)

Trees and Trains

The second way to make Tampa competitive on the national scale is to build our way into offering the lifestyle that young professionals want and expect out of their home city. The reason why Mayor Buckhorn sets up Charlotte as perhaps our main competitor is because they have been able to attract a lucrative industry and enhance an urban environment based on walkability and transit. Professionals, who might normally choose Manhattan or Chicago to work and live, are now choosing Charlotte because it offers the foundation of urbanity for a more affordable price.

As a native Charlottean, I believe the city did two things that I believe have led to its transformation in a relatively short amount of time. The first is that Charlotte made a commitment to be a green city. It has arguably the best urban design and complete street guidelines in the country. Every time a street is repaved or redeveloped, where appropriate, its lanes are narrowed, bicycle facilities are included, sidewalks are widened, and planting of mature trees creates a street canopy. The result is that most of the streets in the city center are a comfortable, safe, and attractive place where people want to spend time.

Secondly, Charlotte embraced very early that it could not increase the capacity of its roads indefinitely. It committed itself to developing a premium transit system in a part of the country that had very little. At times it wasn’t understood or seen as necessary by local residents. But the light rail system opened to great success – it’s expansion and the introduction of the streetcar and BRT are following close behind. While the transit system is not expansive yet, it is extremely effective in the territory it does serve. The result is a small, but high quality urban center that has attracted many factors that create a livable environment.

What has followed both of these investments in public infrastructure is economic development. Building along the light rail corridor exploded, even through the recession, to transform a historically industrial area to a dense, connected, and lively part of the city. Furthermore, hubs of walkability have popped up in central neighborhoods throughout Charlotte where significant amounts of residents can access local retail and entertainment along redesigned and pedestrian oriented streets. A 24 hour environment that offers a place to live, work, and play is becoming clustered in neighborhoods throughout the city.

Tampa has the perfect opportunity to emulate the city that has been labelled countless times as its competition. Tampa has benefited from some projects of the highest design quality in the past decade that has already had a large influence in developing Tampa’s downtown into a neighborhood. Curtis Hixon Park, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Riverwalk, and the Tampa History Museum are new additions that enhance its existing cultural identity built by the Tampa Theatre and Franklin Street. With the addition of two boutique hotels and a new residential tower, Tampa will have even more destinations downtown.

What Tampa doesn’t do well enough is connect these assets together. The city’s gem is the TECO streetcar line that connects Ybor City, the Channel District, and Downtown. It is failing, with little funding, poor operation hours, and inadequate support by local government. It should be revived and rebranded to be seen as a viable choice in public transportation instead of a tourist attraction, and be expanded to connect multiple urban neighborhoods like Hyde Park, the Heights, and the west bank to the urban core. This is imperative to building the type of city that young professionals expect – economic development will follow.

Streetcar Tampa

The TECO Streetcar, Tampa (Image: lightrailnow.org)

Additionally, Tampa suffers from roads that are far too wide and lack the facilities and the character required to make a pedestrian feel comfortable or safe. If Tampa could make a commitment to rebuilding the streets just in the very core of the city by taking back right-of-way from the automobile, it would communicate to current and potential residents that the city is committed to becoming a more livable place. What will result will be a more active public realm that attracts the 24-hour lifestyle that so many on panel called for.

A video was shown at the event where eleven community members shared their vision of downtown in ten years from now, including a Rampello School second grader who wants more trees, and trains like at Disney where you can get on and off all the time.  Olga is right – ‘Trees and trains’ will create the type of urban culture that is wanted and expected by the following generations. Tying the assets of downtown together with high quality public realm design and infrastructure is crucial to making Tampa competitive on the national scale.

A Grassroots Vision

The “Fast Forward” panel was asked how momentum could be built to see real change in Tampa over the next 10 years. The most notable was that the process must be a grassroots effort. The city has just gone through an extensive masterplaning process that has established a vision that reflects the priorities of Tampa citizens and stakeholders. While many feel like it doesn’t adequately address the need for extensive transit in the city, it does call for many enhancements in public infrastructure, including streetscape redesign. Many Tampanians work through community and non-profit organizations constantly to implement this vision. The entire panel agrees that more could be done to bring them together to be more effective in guiding the biggest changes that need to occur. Tampa certainly needs to capitalize the work of young professionals.

Second, Tampa and those involved in the community need to do a better job of owning our vision and “selling” it to each other. Many residents of the city aren’t aware of the culture, physical, and natural assets that Tampa has to offer. The question was raised – How to we sell the city to others when we can’t sell it to ourselves?

Third, while it’s important to focus on the future, the city and its champions should identity the elements of the city that already exemplify Tampa’s newly defined vision. If we can communicate the past successes, no matter how small, to Tampa’ neigh-sayers, we will be well on our way to changing it’s perception on a national scale.

The Mayor’s Mantra

Also in attendance was the Honorable Mayor Bob Buckhorn. In office for just over two years, he has committed his work to making Tampa the economic engine south of Atlanta. This has meant facilitating milestone projects like the last segment of the Tampa Riverwalk, the renovation of Tampa’s historic federal courthouse as a boutique hotel, the planned construction of a riverfront residential tower, and the completion of the Invision Tampa Downtown Master Plan. In continuation of the themes identified by the panel, the Mayor focused building upon Tampa’s biggest strength: diversity. The mayor’s speech focused on the investment in the built environment, especially through enhancing the city’s relationship to the water and expanding the downtown core to the west bank of the river. He stated this is necessary to create a strong economic climate worthy of attracting the best talent in the country.

The “Fast Forward” panel was an informative process in changing the conversation around Tampa’s Downtown. In addition to their usual program, the Tampa Downtown Partnership will continue to have more community conversations through the hard work and leadership of Tampa young professionals over the coming year. Competitiveness, marketability, livability, and communication are sure to remain as the themes that continue to move Tampa “forward.” Stay tuned…

Panelists

Erin Chantry, LEED AP, CNU-A is a Senior Urban Designer with Tindale-Oliver & Associates, Inc. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MS in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment. Erin is the author of At the Helm of the Public Realm, has written articles for Next City, New Geography, and served as a journalist for the national organization of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Erin serves on the executive committee of CNU Tampa Bay, the local chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Brandon Hicks, RA, LEED AP is a licensed architect for the state of Florida and a LEED accredited professional with the U.S. Green Building Council. After tenures with award-winning firms in Gainesville and Tampa, Brandon co-founded the firm Studio Independent with his extremely patient and understanding wife and is currently a Principal in the Channel District-based architecture and design firm, Twelfth Street Studio. Brandon has been fortunate to be integrally affiliated with the headquarters for the South Tampa agency SPARK Brand, the New York City-based video installation ThruLines.

Brian Seel is a Senior Project Engineer with The Beck Group where oversees large commercial constructions projects. A Tampa Bay native, Brian graduated with a degree in political science and real estate from the University of Florida. He earned a Master’s degree in Construction Management from Georgia Tech. He has been actively involved in a number of community groups. He is the Chairman of Emerge Tampa Bay. He also serves as a representative in the Tampa Heights Civic Association and as Secretary of Connect Tampa Bay. He was named an “Up and Corner” by the Tampa Bay Business Journal in 2011 and a Next Generation Leader by 83 Degrees Magazine.

Ann-Eliza Taylor is an attorney with the Yates Law Firm and a co-founder of Philanthropic Young Tampa Bay. Ms. Taylor has been a member of the artist collective Experimental Skeleton since 2002 and is currently a board member of Hampton Arts Management and Tempus Projects. She lives in Ybor City with her husband, visual artist Brian Taylor.

Erin’s Google+

Guest Post: West Side Story.

19 May

One of the most wonderful things about urban design is that every one of us understands the city, because we live, work and play there. On some level everyone can articulate their feelings about why they love their neighborhood and community, and how it should be transformed or changed for the better. I want this blog to be a platform not just for urban designers and planners, but for everyone to learn about the issues that face our cities today. I have asked my father, Joseph McGirt, who is a  teacher, lawyer, businessman, blogger and long-time Charlottean to reflect on his experience with his home town. Perhaps his story will make you think of your own city stories – feel free to share them in the comment section.

Additionally, as my father is a blogger-extraordinaire and has his own blog based on higher education, called the Academic Exchange. I have written a guest post on his blog as well. Although it is more education related I do discuss how the current education system has and will affect the field of urban design… check it out, here!

West Side Story … with apologies to Leonard Bernstein (and I guess Shakespeare). I have a story of unrequited love, abandonment and neglect, all followed by the passion of reconnection and unity. The heroic catalyst of this narrative is a commitment by my hometown, Charlotte, NC to finally unify the urban communities surrounding its center into the fabric of the city. Specifically I am referring to the notorious West Side of Charlotte, the long neglected and misunderstood neighborhoods at the cusp of the developed town center and the renewal and change created by the Gateway Plaza development in the center city in the early 2000s.

I guess my point of view of this story is shaped by a variety of experiences. It is centered on the experience of my family and myself in connecting to our neighborhood and community, but not to the city I still call home. Over time my perception was shaped by my years in the military, a financial and management career that included real estate development and financing, a legal career interacting with developers, city planning and zoning boards and of course, politicians. My most recent career stop has been all about higher education and the role it plays in improving and enhancing our community. Lately my ideas have included the philosophy of my daughter, Erin Chantry, an Urban design specialist in Tampa, Fl.

I was born in a family residing in West Charlotte almost 70 years ago. Although my memories are generally positive of that experience, I can now remember many issues that confronted our neighborhood. Of course this predated the urban explosion that occurred a bit later, and there were no shopping centers, malls, belt-loops or super highways. If we needed something we could walk to the local grocery or take a bus to the center city, called “downtown” in those days. Everything was in the city and we could reach it all on foot. The serial movies and western heroes were the high spot of my weekly visit, followed by a stop at the dime store and an OJ at Tanners. The city was designed to accommodate bus transit and foot traffic and it was terrific. I loved my trips downtown and all the activities it included.

The Open Kitchen - a landmark restaurant on the West side of Charlotte

The Open Kitchen – a landmark restaurant on the West side of Charlotte

I loved my neighborhood. We all went to the neighborhood elementary school and played in the neighborhood park. We played in the neighborhood during summer evenings until 9 pm with no concern of trouble or crime. Of course we were all poor, but at least we were generally comparable in background and family. But to be honest, our low economic level directly translated to NO POLITICAL POWER. There were no advocates for our community and no one who saw we got our fair share. The infrastructure was not maintained. I remember digging our long drainage ditches because the city would not respond to our request for relief from flooding from the streams. Our Community Center, our Elementary School, our local roads were not maintained to the level as neighborhoods on the more affluent side of town. Visiting one of those schools for an away sports game was an education in how the city and its leadership was shifting resources away from the West Side and into the affluent neighborhoods. This was the basis of my relationship with my neighborhood and city. Over time the disconnect between the City and the West Side grew.

Community retail in West Charlotte

Community retail in West Charlotte

The West Side continued to decline as the income levels and wealth of inhabitants persistently decreased. The small, well maintained cottages deteriorated and the problems with crime began to grow. My family eventually left as the neighborhood became worse. The City’s efforts to help were largely ineffective. As the number of car owners surged and road traffic increased, a major interstate was built through the neighborhood. A major connector was built to enhance the driver’s experience, but did little for the neighborhoods. My old neighborhood became a major crime area. The baseball diamond where I played baseball became a leading site for drug deals. No inhabitants, especially children, ventured out after dark.

Over the years, as the West Side continued its decline, the City of Charlotte was booming as an economic center of the Southeast. The government built roads and more roads, feeding residential and commercial development in all directions, except the West Side. All these sections of the center of town developed high end residential space for the ever growing downtown business community, except the West Side. I remember standing in my wife’s old neighborhood, then mostly run down, slum like buildings, that overlooked a glorious urban skyline. Those views were priceless in other sides of town, but worthless in the West Side.

But as the City moved into a new century, a truly transformational decision was made that has completely changed the attitude toward the West Side. It began with strong business and financial leadership. The Bank of America, the biggest lessee of office space in the center city, was expanding its space needs again. The decision was made to move the data processing operation out of the center city towers into a new campus like development on the western edge of the center city. The real estate in the area was underutilized and unattractive for new development. But the bank saw beyond that. The City Urban Planning apparatus joined the effort to became an early partner in the process to build an “outpost” on the West Side and plans came together. The West Side Community Leadership was fully involved as new plans were created and vetted among the players. The Chamber of Commerce moved quickly to step up its recruiting for businesses to become tenants and financial institutions to supply capital. There was an early success, developing a partnership to bring the main campus of Johnson and Wales, a leading Culinary College, to this development, now called the Gateway Plaza. But that couldn’t occur without government assistance in the form of tax relief. This meant that local, county and state officials had to work together to structure a regulatory and taxation benefit program that would close the deal. It happened.

The result? The West Side is now being more fully integrated into the city. Development has continued along the western corridor, with a hotel, restaurants and shopping expanding. The recent recession was a negative blow to the process as it was everywhere, but the tide is now turning. Residential development has seen the rehabilitation of hundreds of classic older homes, modernized for a new generation. My wife’s old neighborhood has been transformed from a slum to a “National Historic Neighborhood”. New housing is being developed and transit service improved.

A rehabilitated house in West Charlotte

A rehabilitated house in West Charlotte

More importantly, I believe, is the further unification of the city. Residents of the West side can finally see their rightful role in the structure and fabric of the City. As more and more activities move to the Center City, like Pro Sports, Fine Arts and museum attractions, the West Side residents are able to reunite more fully with their city. It is a win for the West Side, but a greater win for the Center City.

What is ahead? It’s not hard to see large segments of property stretching out to the West, ripe for development. The international airport is further to the west and is spurring growth back toward the city. It is clear to me that the only way to change our attitudes and vision for urban living is by working together. After 7 decades of hit and miss, it took a concerted partnership among Urban Planners, Developers, Corporations, the Financial Community, Government and political interests, including community representation, to make a real difference and reach success. My fear? We are in a terrible historic period of ideology and philosophical rigidity, which greatly impedes the use of the one catalyst that can bring success – COMPROMISE.

I believe we will rise to the occasion, and avoid the fate we saw visited on the Jets and the Sharks – the only way to avoid the rumble is to put aside our difference and focus on the vision of Urban unification.

Urbanism on Tap: Helping Shape Tampa’s Vision.

19 Mar

The regional chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU Tampa Bay) and The Urban Charrette have launched Urbanism on Tap, a series of community events in which citizens can engage in constructive conversations about current issues facing the Tampa Bay metropolitan region. Presented in an open-mic format, the events will be a bi-monthly source of free-flowing discussion about how Tampa can continue to grow as a progressive, competitive and vibrant city. Presented in a series of three events at a time, the goal is provide a forum for diverse members of the community to work together to address issues in our city.

Urbanism on Tap

The first series of events called Rival Cities is focused on understanding Tampa’s vision for the future and how that compares to other vibrant communities throughout the country. The first event of the series, held March 12 at the Tampa Museum of Art, outlined the vision recently established by Invision Tampa, a downtown master plan completed for the City of Tampa. Then the mic was turned over to the audience, which included city commissioners, city officials, business owners, designers and interested citizens. They discussed questions like: What do you think about this vision? What’s missing? and How do we start to make it a reality?

Participants had a lot to say, but’s let’s step back and consider why is it important for a city to talk about vision. Economies now span across regions, countries and the globe. Cities play a different role today: Instead of just providing for its citizens, cities must attract new professionals, industries and services that allow it to be on the world economy stage. If a city can’t compete with similar cities, it will lose out on growth and subsequently a larger tax base. Less money in a city means less of an ability to maintain its infrastructure and provide the daily necessities of living. Every city wants to grow, and grow sustainably. Uncontrollable growth can lead to negative effects that plague cities for decades; example in point, the growing suburbs of the last half of century that have left cities and counties struggling financially. So if a city has a vision that will attract the right type of investment, that will lead to the right type of growth that will contribute to the city’s livability and health the city will be a player in the world economy.

So what is Tampa’s vision? According to Invision Tampa, “Center City Tampa will be a community of livable places, connected people, and collaborative progress that embraces and celebrates its river and waterfront.” The plan states that it “should help address and make downtown Tampa the people’s downtown for the next 20 years, responding to the ideas and needs of the community.” In discussing this vision, The Urbanism on Tap team asked event participants to define what these terms mean to them.

Urbanism on Tap participant's definition of the terms included in the Invision Tampa vision statement.

Urbanism on Tap participant’s definition of the terms included in the Invision Tampa vision statement.

Defining the Terms

The Invision Tampa vision statement carries a familiar message to residents of Tampa. The Tampa Downtown Partnership’s Vision and Action Plan and the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Sustainable Design Assessment Team: Connecting Tampa Plan established similar visions in 2005 and 2008. Both call for more walkable neighborhoods with local amenities built around a vibrant downtown core with active public places along the riverfront.

The Urbanism on Tap discussion of this vision focused on a strong economy, strong neighborhoods, transportation, urban places/urban design, livability and citizen participation. Visit CNU Tampa Bay’s website to continue the Urbanism on Tap discussion and to see more detailed participant comments on Tampa’s vision. A few suggestions include Tampa’s need for a primary target industry, neighborhoods with communal space that can be accessed by walking, cycling and public transportation, the best technology in efficient mass transit, safe and secure public spaces, and individual responsibility to demand action.

The next installment of the Rival Cities series will examine other cities that are Tampa’s direct competition on the global economy stage. Invision Tampa mentions San Diego and Charlotte as cities to emulate for their expertise in economic development and transportation livability, respectively. While Charlotte is no doubt a competitor, we can look a little closer to home: Orlando is perhaps our largest investment competitor with similar industries, climate, population and geography. Stay tuned to CNU Tampa Bay and The Urban Charrette for the announcement of the date of the next Urbanism on Tap event, as well as an announcement of which cities we consider Tampa’s rival cities.

Spoiler Alert

The first Urbanism on Tap event established that the lack of mention of Tampa’s streetcar in the Invision Tampa plan is a missed opportunity for achieving a more efficient mass transit system, which was identified in the Invision Tampa public involvement process as the most important thing the city must do. As one of the oldest streetcar systems in the U.S. revival of streetcars, Tampa’s system has suffered a lack of funding and political support that systems like Portland (just one year older) have enjoyed. Since their inceptions in 2002 and 2001, respectively, Tampa has remained at 2.7 miles, while Portland has grown to over 9 miles.

The word cloud from the Invision Tampa Issues and Opportunities Report (November 2012) that shows the public's input of what the city must do over the next 15 years.

The word cloud from the Invision Tampa Issues and Opportunities Report (November 2012) that shows the public’s input of what the city must do over the next 15 years.

While the Invision Tampa plan mentioned cross river transit and an urban form that could support it, it didn’t set forth a vision for a mass transit system that would bring competitive investment to Tampa, as well as serve the desires and needs of the community. Some more food for thought? Rival cities like San Diego, Charlotte and Orlando have invested in premium transit — San Diego in a streetcar, light rail and commuter rail; Charlotte in light rail and a streetcar; and Orlando in commuter rail. Transit talk and discussion around Tampa’s streetcar will certainly be a topic of conversation at the next installment of Urbanism on Tap. Stay tuned.

Tampa TECO streetcar

Erin Chantry is an urban designer and executive committee member of CNU Tampa Bay, the regional chapter of The Congress for the New Urbanism. She is also the author of the urban design blog, At the Helm of the Public Realm. With a BA in architecture, an MA in urban design and an MS in urban planning, she has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.

Erin’s Google+

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+

Tampa City Spotlight: A City of Corridors

17 Sep

In a series of posts part of the Congress for the New Urbanism‘s City Spotlight Series, members of CNU Tampa Bay will examine the current conditions of Tampa, urban trends and the initiatives (or lack thereof) put in place by the city, and how CNU can meet these needs. In this first post, I will examine Tampa’s network and condition of arterial roadways and how they are relevant to CNU’s Project for Transportation Reform.

I have written and preached a lot to the importance of a connected road network in a city. I grew up in North Carolina where suburban sprawl is vast, often with roads that end in cul-de-sacs or that are lined with gated subdivisions. I believe that if a city’s roads are built on a connected grid, traffic will permeate more freely through an urban area and streets will maintain a human scale that is appropriate for all users, including pedestrians and cyclists. Connectivity is often a necessary condition to foster social, economic, and environmental sustainability. I have always thought that if a city is well connected it had won most of the battle of making room for cars without sacrificing the streets as public space for people. Similarly, CNU’s Designing Walkable Thoroughfares (part of the Project for Transportation Reform) mostly stresses this point as well with their slogan, “Connect Your Streets. Connect Your Communities.”

When I moved to Tampa just this year, I was relieved to see that it is a very well connected city. Blocks may vary in size and form, but every urban neighborhood is woven together in a tight grid. The assumption was that the city could be a fertile ground for mixed-use walkable areas. However, I soon learned, despite my urban design training, experience, and education, that connectivity is not everything.

TampaMap

A map showing Tampa’s connected street grid. (Source: http://www.hillsclerk.com)

TampaTypicalRoad

A typical corridor in Tampa. (Source: Sprinkle Consulting)

In addition to connectivity and a consistent investment in infrastructure, land use development is also crucial to making thoroughfares walkable. While other connected roads in Tampa are still host to older and historic buildings that once formed small pockets of pedestrian-oriented mixed-uses, most of modern commercial development along the afore mentioned corridors are auto-oriented. The result is that large surface parking lots line roads with low-density buildings set back far from the sidewalks. Not only does this deprive the corridors of an easily accessible pedestrian network and an in scale building height to street ratio, it makes uses separated at a distance that is unwalkable. Even in the most urban neighborhoods, new development still often follows this form. The lesson learned is that connectivity cannot lead to change alone. Tampa is one of the most connected cities I have ever lived in, but the adherence to Functional Classification and poor land use development, creates corridors  inhospitable to pedestrians.

ParkingLotDaleMaybry

An example of typical land use along Tampa’s corridors. (Source: Loop.net)

How is the city fixing it? Slowly. Perhaps the best example is the Kennedy Overlay District project along Kennedy Boulevard, which the city has recognized as a gateway into the city. Carrying traffic from nearby St. Petersburg and Clearwater, as well as Tampa International Airport, Kennedy is a very important corridor to the city. It also plays an enormous role in the social sustainability of the city by connecting a large number of historic neighborhoods together, some healthier than others. The City describes it: “Providing a form-based, aesthetic framework that promotes development that creates a sense of interest and promotes a physically attractive, functionally integrated environment is essential. Additionally, provisions are introduced that establish pedestrian and transit friendly design standards for this corridor.” (City of Tampa, 2012.) Essentially, new development requires a private investment in a much wider sidewalk with street trees and most importantly that buildings front the street. The result over time is a multimodal corridor that serves as a spine of sustainability for the city.

Tampa Kennedy Boulevard Design

The City’s vision for the Kennedy corridor (Source: tampagov.net)

Progress has moved slowly along the corridor, in part I am sure to the economic downturn. Some successful examples do exist however, that show a much-improved future for Tampa pedestrians. The best example is a Starbucks that provides a widened sidewalk enhanced with brickwork, street trees, outdoor seating against the public realm, a small parking lot to the side of the building instead of in front, and a curb cut entrance on a side street to maintain a consistent streetscape on Kennedy. The difference is very noticeable when compared with the development next to it. With eight similar overlay districts along its corridors, Tampa is making a slowly growing commitment to adopting more urban and sustainable standards.

Kennedy Boulevard Starbucks Tampa

Starbucks, Kennedy Boulevard (Source: jrts on Flickr)

Another project that is improving the use of Tampa corridors by all users is the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Walk/Bike Plan. In summary, “the Walk‐Bike Plan identifies bicycle and pedestrian mobility projects which can be constructed within existing roadway alignments and other public rights‐of‐way that provide a basic accommodation for walking and bicycle mobility. As the plan is implemented, elements such as landscaping/streetscaping and other enhancements may be considered to improve the quality of the cyclist/pedestrian experience and to incentivize private investment within Walk‐Bike Plan project corridors.” (City of Tampa Walk/Bike Plan, 2011.) In essence and its implementation to date, as regular maintenance and repaving of roads occur striping is amended to include thinner lanes, on-street parking, and a connected network of bike lanes. This project is admirable because it can make a large difference in a street’s safety and comfortability, without requiring an increase in funds. This is particularly important in today’s economic climate. On streets where restriping has occurred, traffic has slowed and the number of cyclists have increased.

Swann striping Tampa

Swann Avenue, Tampa: an example of Tampa’s Walk/Bike Plan (Source: Bicycle Stories)

However, while these are admirable advances by a city that is cash-strapped in a recession (like many), a much larger shift in theory and commitment in practice are required to make a noticeable difference along Tampa’s corridors. At the recent CNU20 Conference in West Palm Beach, I attended the Mobility and the Walkable City track, which explored many of the issues that face the implementation of walkable thoroughfares.

I very impressed with new urbanist, Rick Hall’s adaptation of Functional Classification to New Urbanism’s transect. In his quest to see more complete streets built, he realized that to see change, he must speak the language of the people capable of making change. As a former employee of the DOT, he knew that the Functional Classification System was so imbedded in the U.S. transportation culture that he needed to adapt it to consider land use, contextual character, and multimodal uses. The traditional DOT focus has been on safety = less congestion = moving cars quickly. While the traditional system defines a lot, along with establishing this belief, it doesn’t clearly demarcate the difference between suburban, rural, and urban. In many cases, the system defaults to rural and suburban, resulting in large roads devoid of place. Hall’s new Augmented Functional Classification manipulates the speed and design for the same road type based on the land use context.

Instead of a corridor maintaining the same design despite whether it is in the suburban or urban, which occurs constantly in Tampa, Hall’s system suggests that road design change based on the land uses along it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the street would carry less traffic, but curb/gutter, sidewalk and public realm design, cycling facilities, and crosswalks would adapt throughout the city. The result would be a more walkable street when it was required.

New Urbanism Functional Classification

Rick Hall’s Augmented Functional Classification (Source: Rick Hall, CNU20)

While this new urbanist idea requires more research, development and implementation before it can be fairly judged as a solution to the adaptation of Tampa’s many deficient corridors, it is this “big idea” thinking that is required to make an impact for pedestrians and cyclists for my city, and many others in Florida. And while a “big idea” can’t be applied consistently to every corridor in the city, one is required to be a catayst for a large change. Therefore, Tampa could benefit greatly from adopting a new framework in corridor retrofits.

Many roads in Tampa, despite it’s connected grid network, are a mess and pose a huge threat to the mixed-use walkable development that is at the heart of CNU’s Charter and core mission. While the city is making small steps to improve it’s corridors over time, Tampa is a perfect testing ground for the Project for Transportation Reform and big ideas like Rick Hall’s Augmented Classification.

Erin Chantry is an urban designer and writer of At the Helm of the Public Realm. She is also a member of CNU Tampa Bay, which is a local chapter of Congress for the New Urbanism. Please visit  http://groupspaces.com/CNUTampaBay/ and
https://www.facebook.com/CNUTampaBay to learn more!

Erin’s Google +

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)

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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)

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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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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.

17 Feb

Erin Chantry:

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

Originally posted on Ink & Compass:

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

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

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

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

A couple other interesting factoids from the survey:

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

2) In fact…

View original 156 more words

Preserving Old Life…Breathing New Life.

16 Feb

I love adaptive reuse…of anything.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

How Public are our Public Spaces?

10 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Poor Quality of Design

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

2) Who Can Use It?

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

3) Lack of Community Cohesion

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

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

Place Identity: A Sensual City.

4 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

Co-dwelling with Nature

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

Place Identity NYC

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

Rooted in the Past, but not Stuck

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

Empowerment

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

Transculturality

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

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

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

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

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

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