Archive | December, 2011

The 1959 Warning of Sprawl.

30 Dec

Community Growth Crisis and Challenge – The Urban Land Institute and the National Association of Home Builders (1959)

Original Article:

When I came across this video via the article above I was so interested to know that the issue that I am most passionate about in my career was on the radar in 1959. The negative effects of urban sprawl are so horrifying to me I had assumed that it hadn’t been recognized as a problem before the 1960s and 70s when the worst of it was built. To know that it could have been prevented was a little disheartening to say the least. Another surprise were the origins of zoning. What from first impressions has always seemed like a rational way of dealing with land use (ie: we don’t want toxic factories next to schools), actually was also a statement in social class. In order to keep lower classes and poorer people out of their neighborhoods they raised the minimum plot land area to raise property prices. Of course I shouldn’t be surprised. Class warfare has played a major part in our land and population patterns for centuries – “White Flight” being one of the most influential occurrences in modern history.

The ULI’s 1959 proposed solutions to urban sprawl were actually quite enlightened. The Planned Unit Development, or masterplan, as we would call it ensured a certain level of mixed-use, mixture of housing types and densities. Despite the video’s condemnation of the Victorian townhouse, one of my favorite elements of the city, the reinvention of this housing type to encourage high densities and beautiful streetscapes was refreshing. Also, the suggestions of loop and circular streets supported the use of perimeter blocks, one of the most sustainable urban elements.

The ULI also proposed some pretty horrifying suggestions, including the Cluster Method, which is no more than a glorified cul-de-sac. We know now that this method of planning prohibits pedestrian activity and a connection with a neighborhood’s surrounding context. This encourages the use of the car and single-use development, which is one of the major problems urban sprawl has left us with. At least with the Cluster Method proposition, a higher density was taken into consideration. Another suggestion of separating car and pedestrian traffic, we know now, can lead to an unsafe and less active public realm. In time this can weaken the community and social inclusion.

The ULI concludes with a challenge to American planners, developers, builders, and the “American Community”…did we live up to it? I would argue not, but after the turn of the century we certainly have realized the mistakes of our past and have moved forward with solutions that far outshine the “before-their-time” thinking of some in 1959. As we move into 2012, I look forward to moving the ideas of our time ahead. See you in the new year!

The IKEA Neighborhood?

29 Dec

IKEA, I love it. Who doesn’t? When this pre-fab, affordable furniture store landed near me in 2006 I became its biggest fan. I can spend hours there and my whole apartment is furnished by it. So you can imagine my reaction when I heard LandProp, IKEA land developers, were designing a neighborhood as part of the 2012 Olympics’ site legacy. Saying I was excited was an understatement. The question everyone is asking is Will this be a new era in Urban Design? My questions in response are Do we really need a new era? and Will their one size fits all approach to housing be healthy for a community?

Original articles: and

IKEA Neighborhood

The IKEA neighborhood site as part of the 2012 Olympic legacy development.×250.jpg

Certain professions within the built environment require a New Era. Planning? Absolutely. We always need to be thinking of more creative solutions in land use and environmental sustainability, bringing equality to housing and community facilities, and learning the best ways to monitor development. Architecture? Absolutely. Architects should always be looking to establish new designs that challenge the way people experience their visual environment. Urban Design? It’s arguable.

For centuries places were designed the same way. When people needed some buildings they built some more next to the ones already built. Since cars hadn’t been invented everything was compact, accessible, and organized neatly in a clear network of roads and paths. After all, because you had to walk, there was no reason to go further than you needed to. The most loved public spaces and cities in the worlds are like this. People spend thousands of dollars to visit them and love them for their vitality and culture. Since the early to mid century and the boom of the automobile we changed the way we’ve developed land. Social inclusion and community, the environment, and economic sustainability of place have all suffered. Now through movements like New Urbanism we are trying to create the places that we so quickly go rid of. So its begs the question, “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

Of course we can not judge IKEA now on this project because the design really will be in the details: how buildings meet the street, how different users are allowed to use the spaces, how public space is integrated and how the street network connects with its urban context. But I do think its safe to say- Let’s not get too excited. While there are exciting elements of this project, such as waterside living for most of the residents in London’s “Mini-Venice,” the 130 foot sculpture featured in the second article is hugely out of scale and possibly inappropriate for a neighborhood. However, it’s the one size fits all approach to IKEA’s affordable housing shown in the examples below that are the most worrying.

IKEA housing design

IKEA housing design: a statement of homogeneity and catering to the automobile.

First and foremost, this cluster of housing is designed to cater to the automobile, not the pedestrian. Instead of the building addressing the street they are focuses around an auto court, which takes activity off the public streets and therefore away from the community. This along with the unclear distinction between public and private space prohibits the overlooking of land, which can lead to more crime. The confusion over what land belongs to who could lead to poor management in the future. The architecture design of the buildings could land them in absolutely any part of the UK, or Europe even. They wouldn’t even look too out of place in America. By looking at the conceptual site plan above here’s hoping this housing model won’t be present, but the fact that IKEA’s LandProp chose to highlight this as their crowning success of housing stock doesn’t inspire high hopes for attention to detail in how their buildings will meet the street.

Creating a “Mini-Venice” in this part of London where a historic canal system is a predominant feature is appropriate and celebrates the heritage of its industrial past. This development has the potential to create a legacy of the 2012 Olympics that will be socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable for centuries. I just hope that the managing director of LandProp, Harald Muller, will worry less about creating “a new hot spot in London” and more about designing a neighborhood that respects its culture and surrounding heritage while creating its own identity and strong community. Remember Harald…design is in the details!

Language of the City.

28 Dec

Every day when we walk out of our homes we spend the day being shaped by the built environment around us. No matter where we are going or how simple the task, we at the very least are subconsciously influenced by what we experience or see. If we live in a dense city with sidewalks and necessities nearby we will walk because it’s the most convenient. If we live in the countryside, we may only retreat to our barn or garden to get supplies. If we live in suburbia we will drive because we have absolutely no other choice. These experiences and lack there of will shape our lives. Of course the power of humanity determine the form of cities, and in turn they shape the individual.

Just as the city is built on many scales, so is this theory. One of the most influential professionals on this topic, Jan Gehl, a Danish urban designer, gives the example of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. One of the major arteries into the cities that was constantly filled with traffic was destroyed. While its re-construction was being planned there was no alternate route – cars were simply not as welcome into the city. Traffic did not increase but public transportation use did. San Fransisco soon realized they didn’t actually need a new highway. Users had simply adapted their behavior to the situation. Upon realizing this the city replaced the highway with a boulevard – less cars, more pedestrians and public transportation. Everyone still gets to work!

A highway San Fransisco before and after the Earthquake. Where would you rather spend your time? Now this public space welcomes public transport, cars, and pedestrians. Shops and restaurants can now operate in an active public space required for business. The neighborhood has been brought new life.

You might ask, why is it better to have less traffic? Of course no one likes to sit in traffic, but I would argue the benefit of welcoming all users (drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, people-watchers, pigeon-feeders, school children, street workers, cafe-dwellers, and postmen) promotes city life and a strong community. More people will sit and perhaps speak to the person next to them, they might bump into an acquaintance on the street a chat, and they might be more likely to support local organizations. There are so many benefits to street life and activity that I will explore in this blog every week. And of course, we cannot forget to mention the environmental benefits…less traffic, more pedestrians = less pollution, healthier people.

Obviously, it should be the goal to form socially and environmentally sustainable people and places. But in order to do this we really must understand the language of the city. The city or any development is made of many pieces, at every scale, that work together. For example, the street layout and how they connect with one another, blocks, plots of land, buildings, how buildings meet public space, open space like squares and parks, sidewalks and street design. These must all work together seamlessly. An argument can be made that if each one of these elements is well-designed, a sustainable city will emerge. Further reading: check out Kevin Lynch’s “The Image of the City” or Ian Bentley’s “Responsive Environments.”

Think about this post when its easy or difficult to cross the road, hard to park your car on a busy Friday evening, or when you can’t find a place to sit in a square to have lunch. How would you make changes in the built environment around you to make your life easier or more convenient? And what are the changes that could happen to make you life your life in a healthier and more responsible way?

Welcome to the Public Realm.

27 Dec

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

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

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