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

20 Jul

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

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

public housing mixed uses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Space Public Housing

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

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

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

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

Film Review: Urbanized

25 Apr

Tonight I had the awesome pleasure of hanging out with some friends to watch the documentary, Urbanized by Gary Hustwit. Just recently released on DVD in 2012, this was my first opportunity to see this inspiring film about world-famous architects’ and planners’ strategies for urban design solutions in cities across the globe.

Urbanized The Book Review

First, let me start with a side note. My husband and I got bikes this past weekend. How could we not? With perfect weather, a well-connected neighborhood with pleasant streetscapes, and always feeling like we’re on vacation, it would seem wrong not to. While I’ve always been a fan of cycling for leisurely purposes, tonight I did something I’ve never done before: I cycled for mobility purposes. One might think this is pretty bad since I am an urban designer, but this is the first city I’ve lived in where all the factors have come together to make it possible…well for me. Charlotte = disconnected, very few mixed uses, and spread out; Boston = umm, 4 feet of snow?; St. Louis = dense college campus easy to walk around and not particularly needed; Baltimore = anyone seen The Wire?; England = umm, rain…all. the. time.

So how suitable that on the way to see Urbanized, we practiced urbanism at its best. Because our destination had little and paid parking, and was easily accessible with bike paths, we made a choice (because it was available), to ride our bikes. So as a disclaimer, I started watching this film in a very empowered state. It was a wonderful feeling to be given the option to make a sustainable and healthy choice, and then choosing to make it.

This film was inspiring, empowering, and motivating at many times. As we watched some of the greats: Ellen Dunham-Jones, Amanda Burden, and my all time favorite, Jan Gehl, do their usual thang, there were some other characters that really shined: Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Candy Chang, an artist who uses public space to share information, and Yung Ho Chang, an architect in Beijing. This film made my love affair with the former continue to grow, and with the latter, blossom.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, Jan Gehl etc.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, Amanda Burden, Jan Gehl, Enrique Penelosa, Cindy Chang, and Yung Ho Chang.

This film made me feel two things: inspired and a citizen of the world. Perhaps it was because I was watching it with five young people who share the same goals and belief that they can make a change, and a loving husband who is always committed to learn more about my passions. Or perhaps because this film reconfirmed for me that I have chosen the career where my talents and passions most meat the needs of the world. Or perhaps because I was watching the rock stars of my profession say things that made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

I felt like a citizen of the world because the film concentrated on cities all over the globe, some of which I was completely unfamiliar with. As Americans we sometimes find it hard to look beyond our boundaries to how other countries handle the same problems. This of course is not unique to us. As a planning student in the classroom and local councils in England there was no time or energy to look beyond the new planning system policies. And of course there is this view by some, that we live in one of the greatest countries with the most educated visionaries in the world. We got ourselves into this mess, can’t we fix our problems on our own?

That may be true, but enter Enrique Penalosa of Bogota, Colombia. Who would think to look to Bogota as an example of cycling culture? Amsterdam? Yes. Copenhagen. Sure. Bogota? Not Really. This guy is awesome. With a population of over 6 million people, Bogota had the growing problem of maintaining infrastructure and traffic congestion. To fix the latter, he recognized the stigma associated with traditional buses (also alive and well here in America), and introduced a bus rapid transit (BRT) system to strengthen ridership. Acknowledging the more affordable cost versus rail and its necessary adaptability of routes in the future it was a perfect solution (and one that should be used WAY more often here.) But what was really creative was that the stations appeared and felt more like a subway stop than a bus stop. Elevated platforms, automated ticket machines, and flashy stations made taking this bus modern, relevant, professional, and cool.

In addition Penelosa put money into a very complex and extensive dedicated cycle network throughout the city. As opposed to linear routes favored by American cities along well-used corridors, Bogota has a mesh grid of paths that infiltrate the city making cycling the favored choice of citizens to get, well, anywhere. Amazing right? Penelosa made clear that first money went to the bike paths, and then to the roads. The film showed cars navigating bumpy dirt roads full of potholes, while cyclists zoomed by on their bikes. Penelosa made Bogota put their money where their mouth is…he got shi*t done in who knows what political opposition. The result of having state of the art, first-world cycling routes, and in some occasions third-world car lanes is inspiring.

Bogota Urban Design and Planning - Enrique Penelosa

Enrique Penelosa, former mayor of Bogota’s lasting contributions: BRT and cycle network.

(Source)(Source)

Another of my favorites was Candy Chang who works in New Orleans. As she passed delapidated and abandoned buildings throughout the city, she had the idea of using the boarded up windows as a means of communication. Leaving name tags simply stating, “I wish this was a…” and a sharpie she was able to communicate with the whole city. But what really struck a chord with me was that she said “today it is easier to reach out to the entire world, then to communicate with your own neighborhood.” Man, how true this is. And how I wish it wasn’t this way.

Any finally there was Yung Ho Chang who simply shared his memories of taking walks with his parents around the city as a child and running into his friends. As Beijing is viewed as a thriving and healthy city by most, he sadly stated that Beijing has lost its liveability…and that it didn’t need to happen. Perhaps what struck me most about Chang was that when he said this you could see in his eyes that he was mourning the loss of his city as he once knew it.

Finally, Urbnized addressed the controversy of Stuttgart 21 in Germany. While I am sure with a little research I could write a whole blog series (and probably more well-balanced) on this one topic, what almost brought me to tears was watching hundreds of people put themselves in harms way to desperately, carelessly, and heartfully try to stop the demolition of a group of hundred year old oak trees. It was heartbreaking to watch a grown man wipe his tears as he watched them pulled down in seconds by a bulldozer. After all, even during WWII when the city was desperate for firewood to stay warm, they never dared touched those trees. The film left it unexplained, but I imaged that they stood defiantly representing the beauty of nature in the country’s most uncertain times.

Stuttgart 21 Protest Trees

The heartbreaking attempt of protesters to try to save the beloved trees in the way of Stuttgart 21.

(Source)(Source)

Based on your mood this film will pull at your heart strings and turn you into a sappy mess, or pull at your “brain strings” and challenge you intellectually, and in time as I recover from my inspiring and empowering evening, will probably do both.

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.

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

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.

Hello Cigar City!

22 Feb

At the end of next week Tampa, Florida will become my new home. My husband and I are excited for this new adventure, and I certainly can’t wait to get started in my new job as an urban designer for a transportation planning firm. Anytime I move to a new city it’s important to me to understand how, when, and why it is there, and who helped build it. That will be my heritage, and as I have mentioned before, that is critical in continuing to develop a place with the utmost meaning in people’s lives. My home city of Charlotte, NC was developed around a trading post where two Native American trading paths crossed. I have always felt comfort in knowing how my built environment originated. I wanted to learn the heritage of my new city, and I thought we could do it together.

Of course Tampa has a long Native American and Spanish history, but who really caught my attention in the development of Tampa as part of the 4th largest metropolitan area in the Southeast, was Mr. Henry B. Plant. For those who live in Florida or have studied transportation history in America, Mr. Plant is a well-known character. But I must admit, the story of Mr. Plant’s contribution to the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in the late 1800’s was new to me.

South Florida Railroad (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1888_SFRR_north.jpg)

The Plant System is an intricate system of railroads that begin in Savannah and extend throughout Georgia and Florida. While obviously there were some towns established in Florida, like Tampa, Mr. Plant’s railroad not only caused those cities to boom in population, it was a catalyst for brand new development. It also started entire industries for Florida, including tourism. Mr. Plant was a businessman and knowing that his railroad allowed Americans to travel to the state for the first time, he built a series of hotels along the line. On the edge of the tropics, Florida offered sunlight, constantly warm weather and fresh air believed at the time to treat breathing disorders. People came in the masses, filling his rail cars and hotels.

The Tampa Bay Hotel (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Old_Tampa_Bay_Hotel.jpg)

The Tampa Bay Hotel still stands today as the Henry B. Plant Museum on the campus of the University of Tampa. Preserved in its original Moorish Revival style, it is literally breathtaking in person. Henry Flagler, another railroad tycoon, built hotels in Miami, St. Augustine, Daytona, West Palm Beach, and Key West. With an extensive railroad transportation system and luxurious places to stay, Florida development boomed.

Hav a Tampa! (dailycapitalist.com/2009/06/24/adios-have-a-tampa/)

You might ask where the cigars come in to play. It’s simple, when Tampa was connected to the rest of the state, the southeast, and country by Mr. Plant’s railroad, it allowed a gentleman by the name of Vincente Martinez Ybor, a cigar maker of Spanish descent, to move his cigar company from Key West to Tampa. An industry was born. A neighborhood directly north of downtown Tampa was filled with warehouses that produced Cuban cigars for decades. Today this neighborhood, abandoned after the U.S. Embargo against Cuba, is being revived as an entertainment hub in those same warehouses. My godfather clued me in on the phrase “Hav-a-Tampa!” A non-smoker myself I was completely unaware that an entire product was named after the city in which it was created.

The biggest lesson learned from this story is that transportation in the key. Of course, I have become very aware of this in the present day, but what is disheartening and hopeful at the same time, is that we have fore-thinkers like Mr. Plant as an example. Building transportation before there was anything to be transported to currently is a completely revolutionary idea, when in fact it’s not revolutionary at all. There were no thriving industries or development to build a railroad to, but Mr. Plant built one anyway, and in doing so, he created them.

My wish for us as Americans and our country is that we can have the forethought to learn from our predecessors like Mr. Plant. We are at the turning point, the precipice, or whatever you want to call it. Right now we have to put the investment into our built environment that will allow us to stop polluting the earth, depriving our health, and tearing apart our communities. Public transportation must happen. And when it does, only positive benefits will ensue. What new industries will be created? How will we rebuild our relationships with each other?

Starting next week as I pass the glorious Tampa Bay Hotel and eat dinner in an old Ybor City warehouse, I will remember Mr. Plant and be inspired by his gutsy and brave commitment to changing the world he knew. I hope I can do the same.

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!

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.

The Shrinking City: Urban Agriculture.

19 Jan

As an American who has lived most of my life in economic prosperity I have been brainwashed to believe bigger is better and development is a sign of success. The more we grew, the healthier our economy was. And now that our economy is unhealthy, we are trying to figure out ways to grow again. We see a new building going up as a sign of good things to come. This mentality is certainly not new in America. How did we make our way out of the Great Depression? We built our way out with the New Deal. One of the greatest American building achievements was the Hoover Dam that employed thousands out of work for years.

I recently became aware of the concept of the Shrinking City movement, which is essentially the opposite mentality. The idea is for a city, that has been the victim of sprawl and leap-frog development to slowly return to its original core and “urban villages.” During the recession families and individuals have been reducing their lifestyles in many ways. Recent reports show that the average American home size is shrinking (http://blogs.wsj.com/developments/2012/01/18/the-new-american-home-continues-shrinking/) and average credit card debt has decreased in the last year. There is no doubt that recent times have made us watch our pocket books and reconsider what we really need.

So we are downsizing, why shouldn’t our cities? Of course with development always comes job creation and in turn, growth, but perhaps some cities’ dependence on superfluous resources are killing their pocket books. For example, if I alone lived in a 4,000 SF mansion the cost of maintaining it would offset any positive benefits. Shrinking a city and going against what is a well-accepted economic movement of growth is certainly revolutionary and suited to only to cities with certain characteristics.

One of these cities is Detroit, and it is cutting its loses. Detroit is returning abandoned and desolate parts of their urban grid to agriculture. Urban Farming is an organization that moved its headquarters to Detroit to head up the movement. With the goal of tripling the amount of land cultivated within the city limits every year, the urban city will shrink and the green city will grow. The concept would allow urban villages, or areas of healthy economic urban living, to be preserved, while farming permeates through the once sprawled city.

The results in Detroit have been astounding. The largest urban agriculture farm in Detroit is called Hantz Farm, which has taken financial burden off the city by purchasing vacant sites. It has developed an economic business model that shows how it can make money as a company while improving the identity of the city and its residents.They have kept the original city grid and sidewalks to allow the farm to belong to the city and citizens. This allows the new identity of the neighborhood to be rooted in its past, while looking towards the future.

Urban Agriculture - Detroit

Urban Agriculture In Detroit – source:http://jessicawinderl.com/organic-farming-in-detroit/

Check out the great video that describes the project further:

Urban farming has numerous and revolutionary side effects, that Hantz Farm undoubtedly benefits from.

  • Health: The poorest people often have the worst health, suffering from obesity and its associated complications. This is because the worst food for you is often the most processed and cheapest. Local food production on a large-scale would offer cheap and healthy food to the poorest citizens.
  • Education and Tourism: I will never forget the English chef Jamie Oliver taking a tomato into the LA public school system where middle-schoolers identified it as a potato. The growing distance between the farm and the plate in America is taking its toll on our children’s education. With farming integrated with our cities, children will be able to witness first hand food, its origin, and production.
  • Ecology: With greening the city will come a return of ecology and wildlife.
  • Economy: With an unlimited amount of dilapidated and deprived urban landscape in America is the possibility for a new business industry to develop. This on its own will bring business and investment to cities in a new and creative way.
  • Employment: Hantz Farm on its own employs 600 workers, mostly local residents. Urban agriculture is offering training opportunities to those that otherwise would be jobless. They are able to provide for their families and spend their time in ways that are contributing to their future success.
  • Social Sustainability: These once dilapidated neighborhoods are becoming places where people are proud to live. With safety increasing and crime decreasing, the sense of community is growing. With many local residents operating the farms and buying their products, they are becoming a hub of social inclusion and a “third place.”

The burgeoning movement in Detroit is exciting and can revolutionize the way we live our lives as city dwellers. Urban agriculture is truly growing from having tomatoes on your balcony, to a huge industry that could transform our country. As blight starts to creep in on suburbs in cities across America after the bursting of an enormous real estate bubble, this concept just might be more relevant than we think.

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