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Urban Designer Series: Jane Jacobs, The Mother of Urban Design

18 Nov

In the first post of my Urban Designer Series I wrote about Robert Moses, the man whose urban planning philosophy was the precipice for the modern-day urban design profession. It was from his staunch modernist dogma that some of the greatest urban designers we know, such as Jane Jacobs who will be discussed in this post, responded so passionately to his beliefs. To any who have studied urban design, it’s been made clear that without the fundamental disagreement between the modernist planning beliefs centered on the automobile and urban renewal, and those that wished to return urban planning back to humanity and people, urban design would not be a profession today. We all still would be urban planners. The truth is that the automobile and planning principles accompanying it were instrumental in creating a demand for human-centered design.

(Source: Jane Jacobs Walk)

Jane Jacobs was not a trained urban planner. She was a writer and an activist. As a concerned citizen she was able to see the negative and devastating impacts modern planning was having on communities and neighborhoods in New York City. She believed that a city was like an ecosystem that depended on a mix-of uses and planning based on community. This fundamental belief made her a tough critic of slum cleaning and high-rise housing, both practices that were becoming popular in New York in the 1950s. She was an instrumental catalyst in ground-up protest and activism, which undoubtedly saved many of the most loved parts of Manhattan today. However, it is her seven books, especially The Life and Death of Great American Cities, that propelled her an international scholar in planning; or as I call her, “The Mother of Urban Design.”

The Death and Life…

The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1961 at the arguable height of the modernist urban renewal movement. This book is considered by many as the number one most influential work in American planning history.

(Source: The Planning Issue)

Zoning laws that accompanied the urban renewal being practiced my modern planners separated uses (residential, commercial, industrial, institutional, etc.) from one another leaving places void of diversity and in many cases eradicating their identity. The Death and Life presents a lot in 458 pages, but perhaps most influentially advocates “four generators of diversity:” mixed uses, permeability, variety in the built environment, and high density that should determine the character of the city. She discusses how these effect the social and economic vitality of place.

The entirety of this work is based fundamentally on the fact that urban planners should discover the complexities and unique characteristics that determine how places work and enhance them, instead of write policy and design large projects that determine how a city should work. That argument: that places should be unique and reflect the identity of the people who live there instead of places answering to lofty academic principles of homogeneity is a fundamental core of urban design.

Throughout this book, Jacobs uses her own neighborhood, Greenwich Village, as a model for a healthy and active neighborhood. It is ironic that immediately following the book’s release Robert Moses was at the forefront of the project that would put a highway right through the middle of it, sacrificing Jacob’s own home. Here begins the battle of Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses.

Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses

Robert Moses was focused on the automobile. His belief was that “cities are created by, and for traffic,” and in his love to move cars he had built tunnels, bridges, and highways to Manhattan, connecting Long Island to the city. It was his dream however to build three highways through Manhattan: the Lower Manhattan Expressway the first to be constructed. A small group of Greenwich Village residents were going to fight the Goliath of engineering and planning, and they chose their neighbor, Jane Jacobs to be David. Off the release of her book that was quickly climbing to fame, Jane Jacobs led a movement that rapidly grew, bringing different types of people together from throughout the city. The result was a strong and active coalition that appeared at every public hearing, wrote articles, protested in the streets, and counter-planned a healthy rehabilitation project for the neighborhood.

Plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (Source: The Bowery Boys)

Moses’ only argument was that Jacobs and her coalition were simply too stupid to understand his plans and visions for the city. That this backlash was simply a case of nimbyism (“not in my back yard.”) And that when his projects were completed and the greater good was achieved that they would all be thanking him.

He did not have that chance. On December 11, 1962 the City Commission rejected the Lower Manhattan Expressway in favor of the argument that to Moses, expressways were more important than people and more than often his dreams turned out to be instead nightmares for the city. With this battle all over the media throughout the entire country it had become a political hot potato that every politician was forced to have an opinion on. Jane Jacobs not only ended the Lower Manhattan Expressway; it can be argued that she also ended Robert Moses’ career. His “super projects” lost favor politically. The notion that just because an idea was new, that it was good was soon dismissed by the power brokers in New York. Legend has it that Moses’ ego never recovered from not accomplishing his dreams in Manhattan.

Jacobs won another battled three years later on April 19, 1965 when the Landmark Preservation Commission was established. While it was two years too late to save Penn Station that fell victim to another Moses project, it has saved many buildings, districts, and neighborhoods that make New York City the place it is today.

Take a look at this great video summarizing the Jacobs vs. Moses battle.

Her Legacy

Of course Jane Jacobs went on to write more works, solidifying herself as the “Mother of Urban Design,” including The Economy of Cities, which she herself believed should have been much more influential then the Death and Life. Because of her work (mostly) alone, the urban planning profession was forced to abandon it’s focus on what a city should be instead what a city was. Unfortunately it took a couple of more decades for profession to slowly come around to where the majority of professionals recognize that planning must have a bottom-up approach.

Today, every project must have an element of active public involvement and consultation. Meetings, hearings, charettes, and workshops are all funded through every project, with the belief that a plan is only as strong as the community that it serves. Buy-in from the public is perhaps one of the most sought after elements in urban planning. While this might seem as routine in the profession now, this would have been revolutionary to Jane and her coalition.

In addition, Jane Jacobs was able to look outside her front door and through nothing more than her humanity, define the four of the most important urban design principles that guide the development of many of the healthiest places in this country, and the world.

  • Permeability – the belief that roads and pedestrian routes should be very-connected and intersect often to allow people an abundance of choice and efficiency in how they navigate an urban environment
  • Mixed Uses – different uses (residential, commercial, institutional, etc.) in the same place strengthens the identity of a place and those that live there
  • Density – the close proximity of the mixed uses to one another strengthens the economy of place and allows people to travel less distance for their daily needs
  • Natural Surveillance – when the built environment is built at a human scale with buildings bordering public spaces, people watch them in their daily activities, which creates safe urban environments where people will feel welcome. The resulting active urban places foster a strong community.

Jane Jacobs also realized that these principles alone cannot create a healthy place, but actually they are interdependent on each other and act as a complex puzzle, than when put together correctly produce a unique identity each time.  She broke down the building blocks of what urban planning should be, and these now form the toolbox of every urban designer – simply by watching the urban dance, or “ballet” that was on show just outside her front door. Jane Jacobs’ legacy has no doubt not only helped shaped cities across the globe, but made New York City arguably the best city in the world. Much to Robert Moses’ dismay I am sure, New York is one of the few places you can live in America without a car.

However, while the shift in urban planning has been shifting for more than four decades now, I often witness policy and projects that do not honor the Jane Jacobs’ legacy. She said she could see the whole city from her doorstep. Today, even in the biggest cities in the country that is not a truth. We still are alive and well in the zoning and separation of use planning culture that Jane fought so hard against. And there is no doubt that we are still entrenched in the world of the automobile. As streets are continually widened at the detriment of the pedestrian, and historic structures are demolished in favor of the bigger and better, we often times continue to build the world that Jane Jacobs fought so hard against.

Perhaps it’s because she stepped outside her gender role at a time where she was supposed to be doing nothing but cooking for her family and raising her children, or because she was short and slightly plump with an amazing fashion sense, or because she was a woman who never gave up on what she knew was right – she serves as a daily inspiration for me in my career. As an urban designer she is my hero and everyday I hope to spot the Robert Moses’ out there so I can make a fraction of the difference that she has in my industry and in my city.

(Source: Treehugger)

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Tampa City Spotlight: A Transit Past – But is There a Future?

24 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 second post of the series, Stephen Benson, a transportation planner, will examine Tampa’s transit past and if its holds potential for its rebirth in the future.

Creating great urban places relies heavily on providing reliable and efficient mass transit. A pedestrian or cyclist can only get so far on foot or on bike. In this article I will discuss Tampa’s lost love affair with the streetcar, how suburbanization deprived Tampa’s urban core of 60 years of economic growth, and how Tampa’s lack of reliable, efficient transit service has left it a second-tier city.

Tampa began as a blue-collar manufacturing town – industrial, urban, and extremely diverse. Unlike nearby St. Petersburg, Tampa was not a vacation haven for rich northerners. It was a testament to the melting pot of cultural diversity and hard work that personifies what it meant to live in early twentieth century America. Immigrants from all over the world came here to work in and support the booming cigar industry.  My great grandparents came to Tampa from Spain and Cuba to work in factories. My grandparents ran a restaurant that catered to working class cigar rollers. For most of the 20th century, Tampa’s historic Ybor City district was dubbed the Cigar Capital of the World – rolling out millions of cigars every year. This rich history of manufacturing left its physical mark on the city and makes Tampa’s roots unique to most places in Florida, and the world.

Cigar Workers in Tampa

Photo courtesy of Burgert Brothers Collection, Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library

As Erin Chantry discussed in the first post of this series, Ybor City and early Tampa were well planned. A connective street grid supported walkability. The more remarkable urban amenity of the city was its robust streetcar system. In its heyday, Tampa’s streetcar boasted over 50 miles of track and had 190 vehicles in operation, running from 4:30 AM to 2:00 AM everyday. The system reached peak ridership in the 1920s – with almost 24 million riders in 1926. My grandmother recounts a common saying about the Tampa streetcar – “if you can’t get there for a nickel, its not worth going.”

Streetcar in Tampa

Photo courtesy of Burgert Brothers Collection, Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library

map of tampa's streetcars

Photo of vintage Tampa streetcar map courtesy of The Heights Tampa

The rise of the automobile and subsequent conversion to motorized bus systems led to the streetcar’s demise in Tampa, as it did in many other cities throughout the US. Some historians cite conspiracy on the part of the automobile industry as causing the unpopular transition from streetcar to bus. One by one, the automobile industry gained control of popular streetcar systems and dismantled them, promising more efficient (and profitable) gas-powered bus lines. Suspicious locals complained of bribery, spotting elected officials driving new Cadillacs shortly after voting in favor of the transit system’s conversion. Tampa’s documented history of corruption and mob influence supports this theory. To learn more about why this happened, read Internal Combustion by Edwin Black.

Tampa’s last streetcar ran on August 11, 1946. This began a journey on the path of suburbanization and sprawl that supported growth and industry for many years. Now, it plagues the city’s economy, culture and built environment, as it necessitates the use of a car, which to many is quickly becoming financially burdensome.

The modern bus system that eventually replaced the streetcar – today called Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) – has never come close to the streetcar’s peak ridership in 1926 – almost a century and over 4 Million people in growth later.

While the merits of the transition from streetcar to bus to automobile can be debated, the impact on the urban form of Tampa and nearly every American city is undeniable. During the second half of the 20th century, Tampa grew outward instead of upward. The popularity of the automobile and the availability of cheap far-flung land led to widespread low-density suburban development, severely diminishing the small-scale urbanism of the historic central city, which fell into blight and disrepair. Urban renewal demolished much of Ybor City, made big promises for urban redevelopment and instead delivered a sea of vacant lots. In the 1960s, the interstate highways were expanded through Ybor City and West Tampa, destroying existing communities and disconnecting the urban core even more.

Central Tampa Aerial

Photo of central Tampa courtesy of Google Maps

Like the rest of the nation, anti-urban sentiments lured residents to suburbs outside of town. As a result, the City of Tampa’s population has seen little growth since the 1960s– only about 20%. In the same time, surrounding unincorporated Hillsborough County has tripled in population and neighboring Pasco County’s population has increased tenfold. In 1988, the City of Tampa annexed 24 square miles located 15 miles to the north of downtown and dubbed it ‘New Tampa.’ Originally, this newly incorporated area was discontinuous from the rest of the city, but the state legislature later passed a requirement mandating municipalities to maintain a contiguous land area. To comply, the City annexed a small strip of land to connect New Tampa with the rest of the city, near the University of South Florida (USF) campus. The image below depicts the current gerrymandered city boundaries.

Tampa CityLimits

Photo of Tampa city limits courtesy of Southern Spaces

Aerial of New Tampa

Photo of New Tampa courtesy of Google Maps

Today, the Census Bureau estimates the population of the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater Metropolitan Statistical Area at 4.2 million, making it the 17th most populous in the nation and the 15th largest in land area. Yet, it doesn’t even make it into the top 100 for population density. Even with several walkable urban activity centers, the surrounding metro area’s nearly 1,000 square miles of established suburban development is gargantuan. Serving the metro area with efficient transit service is nearly impossible without a staggering financial investment and strong, coordinated political will across the region. Even then, with residents spread so thinly, bus routes would have to criss-cross the county like a tightly-spun spider web.

In 2010, a one percent sales tax increase referendum, to fund transportation improvements (including light rail between Downtown Tampa, Tampa International Airport, and the USF campus) in Hillsborough County failed. Abysmally. The reason? A combination of confusion and distrust of government. Generally speaking, most of the major improvements (including light rail) would have been implemented within the City of Tampa limits and the more urban parts of the unincorporated county.  But the resounding question among more suburban county residents was “what’s in it for me?” Transportation planners failed to clearly and accurately answer that question to the general public.

Sure, you’re building light rail over in Tampa, but what about that nasty pothole on my cul-de-sac? The typical suburban-versus-urban dynamic is alive and well in West Central Florida.

Post-referendum reports cite that over 70% of residents think something needs to be done to improve transportation. Where they disagree is what to do to fix it, and how to pay for it. Local leaders have failed to effectively explain that improvements to the overall transportation system don’t only benefit those who regularly use it, but they help grow and support the economy of the entire region, attracting businesses and residents alike. Traffic congestion impacts the entire region, not just the specific neighborhood or road where it occurs. Wasted time and fuel as a result of congestion trickles down to higher costs for goods and services for consumers. Improving regional transportation is a win-win for everyone.

Suburban residents can’t rationalize walking a half-mile through winding, indirect subdivisions to get to a bus stop, and wait 30 minutes for a bus to arrive. When they moved in, they never intended to use transit and without any major infill and redevelopment they likely never will.

This doesn’t change the fact that building a premium transit system to support the walkable urban core will create a more prosperous region. The economic benefits will positively impact outlying suburbs by preserving their quality of life, and potentially alleviating some of the choking congestion they encounter. At some point, cities like Tampa must choose between a transit system that serves everyone equally across a region, or a system that supports more intensive future urbanism by effectively and reliably serving the urban core. Without an effective transit system, any significant level of density, activity, or growth, is impossible. Sure, Tampa is on the map. But is it somewhere worth going? After all, “if you can’t get there on a nickel…”

Stephen Benson is a transportation planner and third-generation Tampa native. He 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!

Urban Designer Series: Robert Moses

3 Aug

In an attempt to dive a little deeper into what urban design is, and how it became the important profession that it is today, I have decided to start an “Urban Designer” series. Periodically, I will look at the most well-known urban design writers, scholars, and professionals throughout history and contemporary society. Some will have created the most influential of design movements, some will have created controversy, some will have answered the challenges created by those, some will answer the most pertinent issues of today. Most importantly with this series, I hope to paint a picture of the vast array of opinions and views of built environment professionals, but highlight the fact that the greatest focus on very similar principles.

There are many urban designers that this series could begin with like Kevin Lynch, Gordon Cullen, or Jane Jacobs : many are considered great in our history. However, I am beginning with the man whose urban planning philosophy was the precipice for the modern-day urban design profession. Without him, and the fore mentioned people who responded so passionately to his beliefs, I am not sure that I would have the career I do today.

Robert Moses

Robert Moses (Image: wikimedia)

His Philosophy and Work

Robert Moses began his career as an urban planner/highway engineer at the exact same time as the automobile was gaining favor and abundancy in America. Many would argue that it is no coincidence that his urban planning philosophy, in turn, was so car oriented. Moses came from a time when driving a car, was just not seen as utilitarian, it was seen as entertainment. As it became common place, planners shifted their focus from the experience of the pedestrian or the community, the experience of the driver. Robert Moses was not alone in his view, he just happened to be perpetuating it in the most high profile city in the world: New York City.

Moses was instrumental in the construction of the Triborough, Throgs Neck, Bronx-Whitestone, Henry Hudson, and the Verrazano Narrows bridges, as well as the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Staten Island Expressway, the Cross-Bronx Crossway, the Belt Parkway, and Laurelton Parkway, just to name a few. Later in his career, the design of these roads shifted from a well-landscaped and beautified design, to the utilitarian highways we know today.

Moses was also a very political man, and had placed himself of a position of great influence. He was the Construction Manager in New York City after WWII and found himself in great favor with mayors and those who funded large construction projects. These bridges and highway systems he had masterminded made lots of money for the city, and in turn, he had power among other planning projects in the city. He also prohibited the creation of a city-wide Comprehensive Zoning Plan already underway, that would prohibited a majority of the visionary projects he had planned for New York City. With policy, funding, and politics in his corner there was little stopping him…New York was his.

No doubt influenced by other planners’ philosophy of the time, like Corbusier, Moses favored the eradication of “blight” and the construction of high-rise public housing projects. Historic neighborhoods and communities were bulldozed to make way for idealized and controlled housing plan across New York City. At the time these places were considered ghettos by many, and eradication was viewed as an improvement.  It’s been reported that unlike other public housing authorities, at least those planned by Moses were high-quality construction. And many of them still stand today. Robert Moses built 28,000 apartments based on Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” design scheme. With the separation of people, especially pedestrians, from cars and ground floor activity, an idealized design of the concentration of residents surrounded by green space was favored. If you look at the east side waterfront of Manhattan, the housing projects from 14th street to the Brooklyn Bridge are the result of Moses’ work.

Jacob Riis

Robert Moses’ Manhattan public housing (Image: The Age of Nepotism)

His Legacy

Later, after duplicates of Moses’ work popped up all over the country, and led to worse blight than existed in the first place, his philosophy and work was questioned. Many cities today regret and constantly suffer from the social and economic impacts that have resulted from the highway segregation through urban fabric. Unpredicted by Moses, this is just one large negative impact that modernist urban planning had on communities. Moses would later witness that tower public housing led to the worse crime and ghetto conditions that cities had ever seen.

Some people have great respect for Robert Moses (many call him the Master Builder,) but if you ask most urban designers about him, they will quickly mention  Jane Jacobs. I will write about Jane Jacobs in the next post in this series, but it was her realization of the negativity of Moses’ practices (revolutionary at the time) and her direct and explicit opposition to his projects and political gusto that set the foundation for the urban design profession today. Quite simply, if there were no Robert Moses, there might not be a Jane Jacobs as we know her, and there might not be urban design.

Robert Moses was one of the most politically active members of the modernist planning movement, and perhaps implemented more of the ideas than anyone on the ground. And for this reason, he is a famous character in the fruition of urban design. The sacrifice of the pedestrian in favor of the car, and the eradication and segregation of existing communities (no matter how blighted or poor) was a unique urban planning view. Since the car was a new invention, until then planning was based on the most traditional principles: people. This major shift in planning philosophy changed the way people lived everyday of their life because of large changes in their built environment. This new way of thinking was adopted long enough for there to be a large transformation in many of America’s largest cities, including New York City.

This questioning of Robert Moses’ beliefs and some of his personal actions led to the end of his era of planning. Many would argue it began with his encouragement to demolish the historic Penn Station (a New York landmark) in favor of a much less impressive development. Subsequently, he proposed that Greenwich Village and Soho be eradicated for the construction of a highway. This met so much opposition, it never occurred. Finally, he committed political suicide when he went up against governor, Nelson Rockefeller, who wanted to use toll money from one of Moses’ bridges to fund public transportation. No longer having the mayor’s trust and allegiance, Moses’ project ideas fell on deaf ears.

Old Penn Station NYC

The original Penn Station before demoltion (Image:Architecture Here and There)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s is when urban design really became a vocation and later evolved into a profession. Before, that term truly wasn’t recognized. There was no need to return to traditional urban planning because it hadn’t been abandoned. Today, most urban designers (or at least everyone I’ve worked with) continue to work against the philosophy of Robert Moses. While most planners realize the destruction his work had on the city, its heritage, and communities, there is still a huge dependence on automobiles that still must be considered in policy making and development every day.

Robert Moses does have a positive legacy with his development of Long Island and the New York State Park system. Unfortunately that is often ignored due to the result of the 13 highways in New York City that have resulted in the eradication in the city’s character. There is no doubt, despite his ideas, that he was a huge influence in the creation of the urban design profession, which has been instrumental in sustainable design and development. And for that, we can be grateful for his career.

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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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Building Smarter Cities…In the Year 2060.

29 Jun

When my colleague put an article on my desk today with the subtitle, “Climate change will drive people to urban areas. How will urban planners accommodate them all?” it caught my attention, not because of the topic, but because of the double spread striking image of the “flat tower” proposed by architect Schirr-Bonnan. With an opening line of “The world’s population will top nine billion by 2060,” I read on.

Paul-Eric Schirr-Bonnan's Flat Tower building

Paul-Eric Schirr-Bonnan’s “Flat Tower” building (Image: Bryan Christie in Popular Science, July 2012)

These huge nebulous buildings house 40,000 people, as well as offices, recreational areas, and transportation hubs. They spread across acres of the city, hovering over green spaces like a web. My first reaction to this piece of architecture was fear. This “flat tower” concept reminded me of Le Corbusier’s City of Tomorrow and more terrifyingly (since they were actually built), American public housing failures like Cabrini Green in Chicago and Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis. This is all very ironic because the architect defends his design by saying, “the conventional skyscraper model- a tower surrounded by green space- leads to the isolation of communities from one another. A greenbelt area under the building would encourage communities to interact.” Even more ironic, is that “interacting community” is the exact same argument architects used to promote the green space that surrounded towers. As I sat pondering the article, it baffled me how organizing people in massive structures that covered green space was any different from towers sitting in it. My conclusion: they are the exact same.

Public housing towers have gone down in history as one of the largest architectural failures in America for many reasons. One of the largest, I believe, is mostly because the architectural design of the building separated people from public space. By only providing shared public space, it meant that no one supervised it, took care of it, or cared one bit about it. It also disconnected people from the human scale. Quite simply, when you do this, it makes people feel less human. The architect of Pruitt Igoe, Minoru Yamasaki, simply stated about its failure: “I wish I had never built it.” That kind of sums up what a massive failure the last City of Tomorrow vision was.

Visions are great, don’t get me wrong. They are better than great, they are necessary. Without vision, change is not possible and it is very clear to accommodate the enormous growth of cities into the year 2060 we will certainly need it. However, sometimes visions go bad – like Le Corbusier’s and the modernism movement that followed. But this is where John Powell’s famous quote, “the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing” pops into my head. And then the fear sets in. This “visionary” idea by Schirr-Bonnan, will no doubt have the same segregation and community-killing effects that modernist architecture did. These mixed-use webs separate people from their built environment at an inhumane scale and create public spaces that are unclaimed and unsupervised.

Minoru Yamasaki - hallways of Pruitt Igoe

A sketch showing Minoru Yamasaki’s vision for the hallways of Pruitt Igoe vs. the reality before demolition. (Images: When Art History Goes Bad Blog)

I have said it before, but it bears repeating: the real vision in urban planning lies not in revolutionary reorganization of how people live or interact, but using traditional design principles to address the most challenging issues of our day, like climate change, obesity, and social exclusion. Just as every “vision” into the future, whether its Orwell’s 1984, 2001 Space Odyssey, or The Jettson’s, has not come to fruition, neither will a world where we have to abandon our most human need: sense of community. So lets stick to our dense residential townhouses and live/work units and mixed-use mid-rises. We know they work; they have for centuries. The proof is in the pudding. No “vision” required.

As this article is in Popular Science, I shouldn’t be surprised by its futuristic, or should I say, far fetching ideas. However, most in this article weren’t. MIT professor Dennis Frenchman, says the most important factor is accommodating a huge influx of population into cities is efficiency. Transportation networks, city locations for manufacturing firms, power generation, and food production, and mixed-use buildings are solutions to cut down on commuting and pollution. Now these are ideas I can get on board with.

We have our work cut out with these issues that are relevant to today. These are not challenges of 2060, but challenges of 2012. While a summary of solutions, which include “community-shared electric cars, neighborhood nukes, hyper-efficient housing, really local eats, all-in-one recycling, and multifunctional buildings” have varying degrees of reality, they all require a massive cultural shift in people’s behavior.

While most of this article creates an enormous level of fear that comes from reorganizing human nature, one idea is an exciting indulgence in the visionary future: the LO2P Recycling Center, envisioned by Gael Brule and Julien Combes. A turbine harnesses wind power to run a recycling plant in the building, while carbon dioxide from the plant reacts with calcium to become lime in mineralization baths. Pipe dream? The process is already being used to make the lime in cement.

Certainly is food for thought. Take-away: revolutionize technology, not human nature.

LO2P Recycling Center

The LO2P Recycling Center (Image: Bryan Christie in Popular Science, July 2012)

Erin’s Google +

High Demand for Transit and the Consequence of Little Supply

16 Jun

What happens when you provide something that everyone wants?

When there is a huge demand for something prices are high, and usually markets answer with a large supply. As a result prices lower. Supply and demand…we all learned about it in high school. But in the case of housing along transit lines, in many places across America that demand is never met. With gas prices rising, commutes getting longer, obesity levels increasing, and quality of life deteriorating, the demand for accessible and efficient transit has never been higher. No matter what sector of society you are in, most people add to that demand. However, building high speed rail, light rail, and commuter rail require an oftentimes insurmountable level of funding.

So, when rail is built and housing is constructed along it, the cost per unit is through the roof. It is not unusual for rail to traverse deprived parts of town as a result of taking advantage of existing infrastructure and actively trying to revitalize areas most in need. Therefore the result is often gentrification: people who have lived in one neighborhood for years are forced to move because they can no longer afford it. For people in the later years of their life this uprooting can be devastating.

Architectural style and building form is indicative of gentrification - Andrew Smith

A familiar site of redevelopment along transit lines. Architectural style and building form is indicative of gentrification (Image courtesy of Andrew Smith) http://seattletransitblog.com/2012/05/23/gentrification-the-cause-of-and-solution-to-displacement/

Gentrification is arguably the worse effect of urban redevelopment and it certainly has been the most debated for decades. The debate lies in the nobleness of improving the quality of the built environment, which has enormous effects on the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of a city, versus the inevitable result of people being displaced from their homes and neighborhoods after decades of living there, because of the growing unaffordable cost of living. Is there a way to reap the benefits of redevelopment while avoiding the natural effects of the economic markets?

The June 2012 issue of Better Cities and Towns, explores how Los Angeles will try to avoid displacement as a result of the “largest transit expansion in the United States.” In the Reconnecting America last month, it was reported that the city will get 42 additional transit stations as a result of the $40 billion ballot measure approved by voters in 2008. LA County will benefit as well.

So, in a city where the average family spends 28% of their income of transportation, how will LA curb the negative effects of growth that have plagued planners for decades? Unsurprisingly, the instruments have not been completely identified, but will most likely focus on:

• Acquiring key properties for long-term preservation and development.

• Coordinating existing tools that can be used to keep buildings intact and reasonably priced.

• Anticipating the behavior of property owners and aiming outreach and enforcement activities at owners and tenants.

Is this government overreaching into the market? Are these practices sustainable and effective over time? Will restricting development hinder the spillover effects of regeneration? Doesn’t a larger amount of the population than you are protecting need and deserve access to public transportation?

These are questions that the LA Housing Department, with the support of Reconnecting America, will be hard-pressed to answer and defend. I will be interested to see how withholding land from development and preserving lower rents affects the lives of the gentrified. I am weary that these few measures will be effective. My gut tells me they will restrain the positive benefits of TOD development, while not prohibiting, what years of redevelopment has shown to be the inevitable. I do have to applaud the city for maintaining the restraint of social responsibility instead of succumbing to the giddy attractiveness of an exponentially growing tax base and re-branding of their city. This is important because “approximately 70 percent of workers who commute by transit earn less than $25,000 a year.” That is a sobering piece of data…

In the Next American City article, “Why We Struggle to Talk About Gentrification,” author Christine McLaren suggests that the unquantifiable result of gentrification makes it impossible to integrate in policy. After all policy is based on provable data, not anecdotal evidence. As a result the conversation of gentrification has become misguided: do we focus on the gentrified or the gentrifiers? Does perception lie in human right issues or social and commercial diversity?

Also, like other societal issues that are often oversimplified to one of race, the debate on gentrification is reduced to a black vs. white issue constantly. In another Next American City article, “Gentrification: Not Only About White People,” Matt Bevilacqua focuses the conversation back to socio-economics and reports on stronger ties to education level and weaker ties to race. With the challenge of collecting accurate data and standing against hot topic debate, the gentrification conversation constantly loses its way and is very difficult to control through policy.

Poor Redevelopment: Loss of culture and identity

The devastating effect of insensitive redevelopment = a loss of culture and identity. (Source: DToronto) http://media.photobucket.com/image/recent/dtoronto/b6.jpg

As an urban designer who has studied gentrification case studies of the past and witnessed it on the ground..I don’t know the answer. And I’m confident no one does.

Through our public finance work at Tindale-Oliver & Associates, I come across counties that suffer from a tax-base that has nose-dived as a result of the recession and crumbling infrastructure that they cannot afford to repair, much less expand. Facilities like fire stations, schools, libraries, etc. are burning a hole in local government’s pockets because low densities cannot support them. So I get it, and as a planner, I want to help these places redevelop themselves to be self-sustaining and healthy environments. And perhaps the best catalyst for growth and redevelopment to higher densities is transit.

I think until we can collect the data to be implemented into policy, redevelopment and regeneration should be done sensitively using the following tactics:

• Require high levels of funding for public involvement to ensure local communities are instrumental in the planning process.

• Preserve the physical structures and urban form that contribute to the historical identity of a neighborhood and design sensitively around them.

• Incentivize high levels of public and affordable housing as part of the development.

Sensitive redevelopment, preservation of urban form.

Sensitive redevelopment = preservation of urban form, character, and identity. (Image: http://www.rhiz.eu/artefact-52197-en.html)

Will generation still occur using these tactics, probably. Will it be done more sensitively with the result of preserving it’s identity? Probably. Gentrification is no doubt a hot topic that after decades has appeared to be inevitable, but many projects demonstrate that the level of destruction that it causes can be curbed. As long as we are constantly aware of everyone’s lives we are affecting as planners, including those who might suffer loss as a result of gentrification, we can have a clean conscience while we continue to debate.

All eyes will certainly be on LA as they actively try to maintain the current population along the future transit line and 40+ future stations. While they will certainly have the luxury of providing a higher supply, for what is guaranteed to be a high demand, hopefully they can set an example of how policy can control gentrification without controlling the market.

Erin’s Google +

Holy HOA.

30 Mar

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

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

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

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

So, HOAs…

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

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

The personalization of private property at its best!

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Local Series: Architecture Isn’t Everything…

28 Mar

But it’s something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 Feb

Erin Chantry:

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

Originally posted on Ink & Compass:

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

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

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

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

A couple other interesting factoids from the survey:

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

2) In fact…

View original 156 more words

Preserving Old Life…Breathing New Life.

16 Feb

I love adaptive reuse…of anything.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Book Review: Urban Code.

12 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Post: Meditations on Mobility in England

11 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy railforthevalley.com

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

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

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

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

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

How Public are our Public Spaces?

10 Feb

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

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

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

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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.

How to Series: Residential Parking.

7 Feb

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

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

1. Parking on the Street

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

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

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

2. Driveways

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

3. Garage Doors

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

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

4. No Alleys!

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

 5. Parking Decks

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

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

6. Parking Lots

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

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

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