Archive | January, 2012

Travel Series: Savannah

30 Jan

Every year since I was born my family and I have gone to the beach in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. A 33 mile drive down the coast is one of the most beautiful and well-planned cities in America: Savannah, GA. Savannah was established in 1733 and is rich in history. The city played a large part in the American Revolution as a port city in the cotton-rich south. But perhaps its saving grace was that it was spared as the ending point in Sherman’s March to the Sea across Georgia. General Sherman of the Union Army on his quest to capture Savannah burned down most towns and fields that he passed by, including the capital city of Atlanta. Because of Savannah’s usefulness as a port city, it was saved instead and presented to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift. Even today when you visit Atlanta, it is comparatively void of any physical history of its colonial days. Savannah on the other hand is rich in historic architecture and planning.

Savannah is often overlooked for its grander and more visited counterpart to the north: Charleston. Charleston is located on a sound with direct views of the Atlantic Ocean, filled with large, historic mansions, and was the start of the Civil War. While Savannah’s historic homes are more modest in size, its genius masterplan and open space steals my heart as an urban designer.

Historic map of Savannah showing the connected network of streets and public, open squares. (

Savannah has many landmarks that any tourist should see, including one of my favorites, the home where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island. But what any visitor will appreciate is the network of open squares, each with their own history, personality, and community identity. Savannah is designed around town square parks (each numbered in the map above.) These still remain, serving as anchors of the street network that connects them all together. My favorite part of the masterplan was the strategy behind it: self-defense.

Described as a British “social reformer, visionary, and military leader”, James Edward Oglethorpe discovered, founded, and designed Savannah as a trustee of the Georgian colony. I can’t help but feel a personal connection to this urban designer: he is from the small village of Godalming, Surrey where some of my best friends currently live. He studied in Oxford where I received my two masters. He set sail from Gravesend, Kent, close to my husband’s hometown, for Georgia. And of course, he designed my favorite city.

The legend alive and well in Savannah is that Oglethorpe was very much aware of a possible British threat of violence and designed the city to protect itself. With no telephone or means to connect quickly with one another, the idea was that if one person stands in the center of a town square and yells urgent news in four directions to another person standing in those town squares, it would quickly spread across the city. No need for Paul Revere or his horse!

Of course today we are safe from the threat of the British, but Oglethorpe’s design has an infinite amount of positive effects that has made Savannah the unique and sustainable city that it is today. Here are some of those:

  1. Safety – perimeter blocks perfectly intersected with the network of town squares allows all public space to be completely overlooked and monitored.
  2. Personalization – with each district having its own green space, the town squares easily transform to host formal neighborhood festivals and informal get-togethers by members of the local community. It is popular to even get married at the center of your town square.
  3. Connection with Heritage – town squares are named after historic generals and town leaders, and they often have a statue in their honor at the center of each. This allow residents to appreciate where they have come from and understand how it has shaped themselves and their community.
  4. Walkability – I have never been to a city that provides a more enjoyably walkable environment. Because public spaces are so connected to one another, perimeter blocks are a manageable size, and buildings are built at a high density, you can easily navigate the town.
  5. Legibility – Because each town square has its own identity and connected by an axial and rigid street network, the city is very legible. You always know where you are, and how to get to where you are going.
  6. Variety – Even though Savannah’s street network grid is rigid and similar to New York City’s, it offers an enormous amount of variety. The interruption of the grid by the town squares creates interesting visual views in streetscape and tree pattern that constantly and pleasantly surprise the pedestrian.
  7. Flexibility – the city’s town square and street network allowed it to be easily added on to. It often was, growing exponentially between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, to a total of 28 districts (each organized around a town square.) The city was able to grow organically, but still to this day be part of a well-connected and integrated masterplan.

The City of Savannah has done an amazing job at preserving the historic masterplan and the heritage that it represents. Of the 28 original town squares, 21 still exist. Most of seven that were lost were to make way for necessities that required larger plots including a courthouse and convention center. Perhaps the greatest legacy of this city is that it is now a teaching tool in placemaking and how to create unique developments. There is no doubt that when exploring the streets of Savannah, one can easily and simultaneously connect with the history of our country and the future of sustainable city planning

For further reading please click here for a fascinating entry from The New Georgia Encyclopedia.

A great architectural drawing showing how building relate to the Savannah street and town square network. (

Local Series: The War Over Walmart.

28 Jan

I wrote a post a week ago about how important communication is in achieving high quality urban design. It included the example of Independence Boulevard in Charlotte, which has been transformed from a main road to a highway. This week, along this road, where many local businesses once were, a new Walmart had its grand opening. It has received a lot of local press, and everyone is asking the same question – is this good for the area?

Of course, my gut reaction is no. Absolutely not. Walmart is never good for a neighborhood. While the local media asked the question, they continued to paint the issue in a mostly positive light. Check out a clip here: Jobs, convenience, tax money, increased property values, and advertisement are all arguments. Educated in urban regeneration, and very much aware that bringing new life to an area is extremely challenging, I had to think: am I missing something? Is it possible for a big box store to be a good thing for a local community and the city?

So my husband and I went to a check it out. A grand opening of Walmart is something I never saw myself attending, but I did, and wasn’t surprised to see the parking lot packed. I assume people were at Walmart for the same reason they always are: a big selection at the lowest prices. There is a whole argument that underlies this debate that I will not go into here. But unlike other big box retailers, Walmart creates a debate over workers benefits and rights, specifically unionization and healthcare. Let’s just say boycotting was the thing to do in college. I never did, but never really set out to shop there either. I definitely received a stink eye or two for not jumping on the band wagon. So now, when I hear that Walmart is providing jobs for the area at the very least I’m skeptical.

What I really care about is how a store like Walmart affects the local neighborhood and city from a physical standpoint. Here are the given urban design and planning disadvantages of having a store like Walmart in your community, no matter where it is:

A Killer of Local Business

It is impossible for local stores to stay in business anywhere near Walmart. It sells everything for way less expensive that any independent business could ever compete with. It succeeds on the economy of scale: huge amounts of cheap goods made in China with lower overall overhead costs. Local and family owned businesses that have been at the heart of communities all over America are put to death within months of a Walmart opening their doors. Some might say this is progress. I say it is taking away the unique identity, heart, and economic stability of a neighborhood. Instead of profit being put back into the community, it goes to Walmart headquarters in Arkansas and manufacturers in China. Local businesses are something we should always fight for.

A Killer of the Environment

The carbon footprint of Walmart has to be enormous. The shipping of products across the globe and their distribution across the country rely on fossil fuels. The farther products have to travel, the more environmentally unfriendly an organization is. The large size of the store and even larger size of the parking lot is, in many cases paving over green fields and adding, and at the very least, maintaining the heat index and water runoff issue that over-urbanized environments create.

A Killer of the Pedestrian Streetscape

You can not walk to Walmart. Well you can, but not comfortably. There are very few pedestrian connections to their surroundings, the parking lot is usually too big, and customers are encouraged to buy large amounts, which means they can’t carry their shopping home. A Walmart in a neighborhood encourages more people to drive to purchase their daily necessities, even if they could walk. More driving = less walking = poorer health.

A Charlotte resident might say to me…Erin, there weren’t any local businesses there before it was built. Isn’t something better than nothing? No, what’s best is to get it right. I have watched Independence Boulevard go from a busy road lined with business after business to deserted buildings and plots of land. Some of these businesses were chains, but many were local. Part of this transition was because investment moved to other parts of the city, as they often do. I personally believe that the introduction of new urbanism and mixed-use commercial shopping destinations was partly responsible for this. After all, Independence Boulevard has been very car centric.

A before an after of the Amnity Gardens Shopping Center that was booming in 1961 and had fallen dilapidated by the early 1990s. The new Walmart has replaced it. (

But the city of Charlotte missed an opportunity that made sure that businesses never had the ability to ever prosper along Independence Boulevard again…they turned it into a highway. Such a missed opportunity, and so sad. The city has permanently segregated neighborhoods from each other and killed the possibility of a mixed-use, pedestrian environment that could serve local residents in an environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable way. They were short-sighted. Being patient and committing investment into this Charlotte artery could have revived the whole area to be the new “it place” in the city. It was before, it could have been again.

I was shocked to find that the city of Charlotte planning department designated this area as a transit-oriented and mixed-use development in its 2009 Independence Boulevard Concept Area Action Plan. TOD cannot work, and certainly not reach its full potential next to a highway with no tram line and pedestrian routes. Additionally, there is no way that a Walmart is an example of a business that can help foster a TOD development. Click here to read more. The city has certainly let the city and local neighborhood down.

So yes, there were no local businesses there before this Walmart. But with the fate the highway has sealed, I would argue it would have been better for the community to be planted with local tree specimens and turned into a green lung along the highway and a park for local residents. Something is not better than nothing. Independence Blvd. should have been revived as a true boulevard…a tram line, buses, cars, pedestrians, and cyclists together. This Walmart will only suck business away from local stores across the entire area, including Monroe Road, Eastway Drive, and Central Avenue.

When I visited the Walmart, it was like every other Walmart. But here are some particular urban design details I will share. Some make me laugh…my favorite? The sidewalk to nowhere.

The Independence Blvd. Walmart fails on all three counts: environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and economical sustainability.

Finally, here is a shout out to my favorite local business on Independence Blvd. As one of the last long-standing Charlotte landmarks, it is where my parents used to date in the early 60s. Good ole’ South 21 Drive In. We haven’t had to seal its coffin just yet…

South 21 Drivein at 3101 E. Independence. Blvd. (

27 Jan

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

Local Series: The Original Suburb.

26 Jan

I grew up in Myers Park, a much-loved neighborhood near Uptown Charlotte. Today, it is celebrated for its historic homes and beautiful tree-lined streets. Some families have lived there for generations. The neighborhood is seen as a present day icon, but many are unaware of its history. Myers Park was a streetcar suburb developed at the turn of the 20th century (c. 1905) by George Stephens on his father-in-law’s cotton farm and designed by the famous John Nolen, a Harvard trained urban planner. Nolen gained notoriety by designing neighborhoods and cities all over the country.

Queens Road West: one of Charlotte's most beloved streets (

Charlotte was originally condensed to four wards densely surrounding the heart of the city, Independence Square. Its population grew as a cotton trading town that expanded to the cotton mill and banking industries. Businessmen looked to farmland south of the city as a development opportunity they couldn’t pass up. But what made this all possible was the electric streetcar. Before the widespread use of the automobile, the streetcar allowed people to live out of the city but still be able to access the urban center, the location of the workplace and daily necessities. A short 1.5 mile ride, the easy commute and comparatively country living was irresistible for many Charlotte residents.

The streetcar in historic Uptown Charlotte ( and the then undeveloped Myers Park neighborhood. (

Unlike other cities, the move to the suburbs in Charlotte was due to the incredible growth of the town. Before the Civil War it was a hamlet of several hundred people. By 1900 it was 18,000. For reference, the metro area now has a population of 1,745,524. The four original wards had gorgeous, large mansions of the rich. Of course Myers Park and other suburbs attracted the wealthy, but the large expansion of the city was really about its steady and enormous growth in population. Other suburbs part of this overall growth, such as Plaza Midwood to the west of the city, expanded at a slower rate because of its poor access to the streetcar. George Stephens made one very important move – he subsidized the streetcar in Myers Park so it would serve his community first and extensively.

You might ask – how is Myers Park different from the growth patterns that we see in cities across America today? Isn’t suburban growth now the same? An example of the Garden Suburb movement, Myers Park was typical of early 20th century growth, and the majority of similar neighborhoods exhibit at least three characteristics that have sustained them as some of the most loved parts of cities across the country.


As can be seen from the map below, Myers Park is a very connected and permeable neighborhood. Its perimeter block structure connects easily and clearly with its surrounding context. When Charlotte citizens travel from one side of the city to another they pass easily through the neighborhood. While this supports economic sustainability, which has led to successful commercial businesses, its real success lies in social inclusion. Because Myers Park operates as part of the larger city, it belongs to every one, not just the people who live there. This is its greatest quality. In consequence, the neighborhood has become well-loved and cherished.

If Myers Park were built in the disconnected street structure of modern-day suburbs, it would exclude citizens in favor of exclusive residents. Not part of the larger city, it could have been forgotten over time. When a place is forgotten it isn’t socially or economically sustainable, suffering from dropping property values and closing businesses.


While houses are spread out and set back from the road, three rows of trees are what give the street definition. The Myers Park streetscape is cherished and at any time of day you can see families taking walks, children riding their bikes, and adults going on runs. The side walks are buffered by a generous amount of green space and shaded by a canopy of beautiful oaks. Two lanes of traffic separated by large medians in the middle of predominant roads make room for the car while not overwhelming the pedestrian. Both live harmoniously. Visible and overlooked, the streets are safe and remain active in a car-centric culture.

Many streets in modern-day suburbia have no sidewalks, or if they do they are small extensions of the road with no pedestrian buffer. Even if the streets were connected, which can be rare, the focus on the car can makes a pedestrian uncomfortable.

Infrastructure Investment

There is an enormous amount of space in Myers Park that is donated to the public realm. While this land did not directly achieve a profit, there was no question on the part of George Stephens to its necessity in the development. Because of the inclusion of the streetcar, a larger amount of public space was necessary as part of the streetscape. But even so, the desire for open, country living allowed for a green infrastructure to infiltrate the city. Along with it comes ecosystems and a green lung that positively affects the people who spend time there.

Today many developers are focused on a turn on profit. Public open space and investments in the public realm do not receive a direct profit. Recently, cheap housing prices and large amounts of space attracted buyers, despite little investment into making their neighborhood feel unique.

A site plan showing the connectivity of the Myers Park street network. (

Despite these very important and crucial urban design qualities, there is no doubt that Myers Park is still very much a suburb. Even with its modern-day central location, it does not feel urban. The reasons for this is that it is lacking two very distinctive urban qualities that would make it a completely sustainable development: density and mixed uses. Because of the trends of the time, these qualities were purposefully neglected. People wanted space from denser urban living and the streetcar allowed easy accessibility to the city center for daily necessities. Over time commercial uses have become established nearby. However, the large plots and low density make walking there a less attractive option than hopping in your car. But, it can be done. Some of the fondest memories from my childhood were walking from my house to the old Black Forest toy store with my grandmother.

As I was researching Myers Park’s history, the drive for development built around public transportation reminded me of another part of Charlotte that saw a boom of development recently based on its location near the new Charlotte light rail system. In the same spirit as Myers Park’s development, mixed-use high density and multi-family housing, and restaurants sprung up along the South Boulevard corridor. While the light rail system isn’t expanding at a rate fast enough to satisfy urban designers, planners, and even citizens, it has shown to be a powerful and unparalleled catalyst for redevelopment and sustainable growth.

Poetically, the reintroduction of the streetcar is happening at this very moment along a main corridor in Elizabeth. Time will tell its modern-day success, but I have faith that the streetcar will encourage the same sustainable growth that it did 100 years ago. In a time when the car is so prevalent, will the streetcar return glory to the city?

The Third Place.

25 Jan

The Third Place is the most important part of our society and relationship with each other. Unfortunately it has become an endangered species, if not extinct. What is the third place? The first place is the home, the second place is work or school, and the third place is where you go to connect with your community in a social and supportive way. Many things have contributed to the demise of the third place and many things will contribute to its rebirth: the physical environment is one of these things.

Ray Oldenburg, who has written on the topic defines third places as “anchors of community life that facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction.” He continues by saying traditionally the third place offers food and drink, are highly accessible, and usually have a group of regulars. Think Cheers (where everybody knows your name.) Some other good ones? Barber shops, bookstores, pubs, cafes, city parks, community centers, and places of worship.

Celebrating The Third Place

A recommended read!

The first question one might ask is “why do we need it?” This is a tough question. Literature suggests that it is crucial to civic engagement and even democracy. But I think when I am part of a third place I’m a happier, more secure, relaxed, and kind person. Check out this post for a similar take:  A Mourning for the Third Place, and a Search for New Ones and Ray Oldenburg’s “Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories About the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities.

I’ve had many third places play a part in my life, but more so as a child then as an adult. As a child I LOVED my little league softball team and other city-wide sports, I attended summer camp in the NC mountains for a whoppin’ 9 years, and I was very active in church groups and girl scouts. School can be challenging for children (I had it good!), and I still found a great deal of comfort and security being part of communities that weren’t focused on my home life or my private school, where everyone was the exact same. It expanded my view of society and acceptance, and comfort around people different from myself. These third places made me a citizen of a greater community, the city, and the world. Luckily, a lot of children still benefit from these third places.

As an adult I find myself constantly searching for a third place that can give me the same security in myself and community as it did when I was a child. I do find the occasional community at the pub on Saturday morning watching Fulham football with my husband, or on Sunday afternoons cheering on my Carolina Panthers. But experiencing the stereo-typical mid-20 something crisis of faith and outgrowing even adult sports leagues, I find myself spending hours sitting in Starbucks willing it to offer the same comfort for me. It hasn’t. The third places are dwindling…

What are their threats?

  • There has been a change in how we operate as a society. Globalization has made the world a smaller place, with people jumping between cities, states, and even countries for their careers. People stay in one place for a shorter amount of time and see less of a necessity to put down roots.
  • We have become more dependent on technology and social media to build community. Facebook is not a third place. Interactions at these sites are disguised as a community, motivating us less to go out and try to build our own. As I’ve said before, people are creatures of convenience…what they find on their laptop, tablet, and smart phones is easier than finding it at third place.
  • The physical environment where people live has become single-use and unwalkable. Cities that have a connected street network allow for multiple uses to survive and prosper. They also allow people to conveniently access them by public transportation or walking. A disconnected street network full of cul-de-sacs and unwalkable feeder roads make people get in their car to access even the basic necessities. Once they get into their car (it’s the easiest option!) they can travel long distances to find the best haircut or the cheapest cup of coffee. There is less incentive to stay in their community.

Globalization and the technology revolution are wonderful evolutions in our society, which have changed the way we live and operate for the better. Unfortunately, some negative side effects have come with them. Why I am not suggesting that these two factors change, I do believe the bubble will burst one day. People will realize (I already have), that online connections are not substitutions for a community and that the patterns of communications that these sites force us to use are not natural and can sometimes be unhealthy. Many of my friends and people my age are coming to the same conclusions. People will always crave the third place, and I have faith that my generation will rediscover them.

As far as the physical environment goes, this is where we have the greatest influence to bring back the third-place and community. Planning policies that require outdoor public spaces and zoning that encourages transit-oriented design, new urbanism, and mixed uses will at least make room for the third place, while society is rediscovering it. I find myself preaching it often, but physical connectivity will directly lead to social connectivity with one another. Hopefully the desire to rediscover our neighborhoods, the power of our pocketbooks, and a growing professional devotion to social sustainability will guide us back to…where everybody know our names.

Communication is the Key!

21 Jan

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

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

Wayne Hemingway’s design for Staiths Southbank development.

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

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

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

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

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

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 ( 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:

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.

How to Series: Street vs. Road

17 Jan

It was recently brought to my attention that there is quite a big difference between a road and a street in their function and design. Usually these terms are inter-exchanged freely and while I am fluent in the design of streetscapes and networks, I never sought out the difference between the terms. While both are elements in the public realm, a road is primarily for transportation or circulation. A street has a more active role as a facilitator for activity and community.

A classic examples of a road is below. It is used to get to point A to point B and while there might be development on either side, people do not spend time there. While urban designers might decide where roads are located, their specific design is more the work of highway engineers and transportation planners.

But streets are where the magic happens. Street festivals, parades, bicycling to brunch on a spring day, finishing up books during lunch breaks, or strolling leisurely at dusk all can happen in a street. Foremost, well-designed streets put all users on the same playing field: drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists can all use this space comfortably. This is a task that engineers are usually not capable of.

road vs street

The image on the left shows a pedestrian, probably uncomfortably, walking along a road. The image on the right shows a “homezone” where people can spend time in the street.

How do streets achieve this?

  • Grade Changes: Grade changes, or lack there of, are used to communicate to users how to use a street. The less there are, the more judgement drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists will have to depend on in navigating a space. This can slow down traffic and place more priority on other users. A homezone, seen above, is a type of street designed on one grade often used in residential areas, to promote community interaction and social inclusion.
  • Paving Materials: When fewer grades are used in street design, different paving materials can be used to designate certain uses. Parking spaces can be designated by brick, cycle lanes in yellow stone, and the rest of the street in gray pavement to clearly communicate their uses. But because the street is on one grade, these spaces can be “borrowed” by other uses when not being used. This allows the street to be more flexible to the needs of users.
  • Active Pavement: People spend time where they feel safe and have a reason to be there. In commercial areas, storefronts, cafes, and restaurants should have many windows and doors that allow the maximum amount of activity to spill out onto sidewalks. Outdoor seating and window shopping are classic examples of this. In residential areas, the rooms where the most time is spent (usually the living or family room) should over look the street. As many doors as possible should lead to the street, even in an apartment building setting, to encourage the safety of spending time there. In the above picture, these two boys can be easily monitored by their parents and neighbors as they play soccer.
  • Street Furniture: To really allow a space to be active and well-used street furniture most be provided. And not your typical park bench that restricts how it is used (sitting side by side isn’t a natural position to talk to one another), but creative pieces, walls, and steps that allow for groups of people and different sitting positions. Without a place to sit, reading, eating and people watching (some of the most common street activities) aren’t possible.
  • Pockets of Open Space and Other Elements: Allowing space within the street network for larger events than every day activity will help boost community activities and interaction. Pocket parks are perfect for picnicking and frisbee throwing, while fountains are perfect for cooling off your feet on a hot summers day.
Flexible Street Furniture

Flexible street furniture that welcomes sitting in different ways with groups of people.

Of course in many situations the above elements are not appropriate. Often streets within the city are desperately needed as transportation routes for cars and public transportation. But that doesn’t mean that these streets only have to be used to get from point A to point B. They can still provide lots of social interaction. The perfect example? A boulevard.

A quick look at how to design a boulevard…

  • Lanes of traffic are left open and are clearly marked.
  • Sidewalks are on either side of the street, and often down a median in them middle. They are wide, well-planted, and with street furniture. They can accommodate high levels of activity from bordering buildings.
  • Crossings are often provided and can sometimes (depending on traffic volumes), be at the same grade as the sidewalk.
  • Parallel parking protects the pedestrian and makes them feel more comfortable around traffic at higher speeds and volumes.
  • Lighting and landscaping are used as elements that soften the pedestrian space and allow it to be used more times during the day and year.

There are many ways to design a street. Every urban designer has building blocks of urban elements that they can put together in different ways to create a streetscape. Knowing when to use which elements and how to create a street hierarchy to create a legible and clear identity for an area, is when urban design is crucial. Even when what a place needs most is a way to get from point A to point B, there are always ways to bring activity to a street, and therefore a neighborhood.

The Hope for Suburbia.

13 Jan

I’ve always been a fan of Ellen Dunham-Jones’ concept of retrofitting suburbia and I’ve often thumbed through her book with absolute excitement. After writing about urban sprawl and our unfortunate dependency on the automobile, I thought I’d return to Retrofitting Suburbia to regain my faith again in our urban planning and urban design future. Often times, I, like many others I am sure, feel a slave to the economy, the market, and years of poor development precedents. I think its important that we remember that the miles of suburban wasteland all over this country, isn’t that at all. It is an opportunity to halt greenfield development, re-green our cities, and redevelop parking lots, or “under performing asphalt,” to be the mixed-use and walkable places that we so badly need.

I came across this lecture about Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones that is a nice summary of her work and the possible future we have in front of us as urban designers, planners, developers, and architects.

The hope lies for me in statistics. Because after all, the proof is in the pudding. And our pudding is market drivers. Here is a list of some of Dunham-Jones research and some observations of my own:

The Movement Has Begun

It’s much harder to get an idea off the ground than encourage one that already exists. There were 80 examples of suburban retrofitting in 2010, and probably a few more since then. A majority of these projects have shown that the movement is a success with an increase in land prices, local investment in the area, and celebration by the surrounding community. They range on scale from a small strip center that was re-branded as an organic food hub, to a large shopping mall that has been leveled and redeveloped. The point is, that where retrofitting suburbia is happening it is successful, which will encourage the further spreading of the movement.

Changing Identity

Suburbia, which used to be where you moved as soon as you had kids, has diversified its demographics. Surprisingly, especially to me, 2/3 of households do not have children living there. The baby boomers are retiring and by 2025 the majority of new households will not have children. Generation Y prefer an urban lifestyle within a the city or a suburban setting. This has already been demonstrated by the market success of more dense, multi-family, and multi-use living. Perhaps as families become less traditional with more adults in the workplace, the value of walking to a restaurant or food market for dinner is becoming more attractive. As Dunham-Jones says, “don’t underestimate the power of food.” Also, because many households are retired or young couples without children, there is a growing hunger for a “third place,” which is a place (neither home or work) where people go to build community. It can be a church, or community center, and probably more popular: retail environments. More market drive for development.

Housing Market

There was an article the other day that demonstrates that suburbia is economically unsustainable. Along with the general climb of poverty in the suburbs, comes the drop is property value. This of course is only worsened by the housing bubble that popped with the recession. The once glorified suburban house is not as a good of an investment as it used to be, which means they will stop being bought by a large part of the population, namely the part that has a choice. Once it can be established that this housing type is not sought after anymore, more sustainable and dense dwellings, which are often part of suburban retrofitting, will become more in demand.

Surburbia McMansions

The once popular “McMansions” are forming the next slums

“Underperforming Asphalt”

All the many parking lots that have been left fallow in suburbia, as greenfield development leapfrogged over it, are owned by someone. In many cases these are now in a central location within the city, which means the land is becoming too valuable not to develop. Lucky for us urban designers, a parking lot with no activity around it doesn’t make any money. Many of these lots are becoming the perfect sites for rehabilitation.

Incremental Changes

When thinking about how much suburban landscape there is in this country it can become a little overwhelming. This change will not all happen at once – and this is ok. Actually, it’s better than ok, it’s a positive. So much poor development has occurred because it has happened quickly, instead of organically over time in response to the needs of the city, the neighborhood, and the community. This will only lead to more environmental, social, and economically sustainable places.

Of course we attribute a lot of change to the market, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for municipal planners and politicians. Actually, they are responsible for the most important aspect of retrofitting suburbia. For these large changes to the built environment to be the most sustainable over time, they must be part of a larger environmental, social, and economic masterplan. Policy must be a driving force, especially in introducing public transportation and transforming roads into boulevards. These are often the greatest driver of retrofits. We have a greater need for visionary masterplanners than ever.

Ellen Dunham Jones has a goal for the next 100 years: 1,000 feet buffers on stream corridors, public transportation on all major street and boulevards, and improve the architecture quality of suburbia. How can we help? Start demanding more sustainable surburban places and support the changes we see for good in our community. How can I do this? Walk a half of a mile and sit at my local coffee shop instead of drive to Starbucks. Remember, change starts small with every one of us.

The Car: Taking Back Our Public Space.

11 Jan

Aah the car. The constant topic of conversation, debate, and controversy in urban design, urban planning, and essentially every other aspect of the built environment. We have certainly talked the subject to death, but unfortunately it has become such a dominant force in our society that we have no choice but to keep talking about it.

The car really came on my radar during my first semester of my MA Urban Design program in England. As one of the token Americans in the program I felt like I was often having to speak on this topic on behalf of my country and fellow citizens. Truthfully I was happy to, because the general view by some professors and many students were ones of mostly misinformed but sometimes judgmental. The American stereotypes were out in full force. I spent the two years of my graduate education constantly trying to explain that America was an enormous country and the majority of people have absolutely no choice. For most there is no subway, tram system, and the bus system is inadequate…the car is the only choice.

But what was even more striking was the car being persecuted as the nemesis of urban design. I am by no means a “car lover,” but I do consider myself a realist. People will almost always choose the most convenient and easiest option – its human nature, call it animal instinct. If public transportation becomes the easiest option in navigating people’s lives and their environment, people will abandon their car. I would too. Unfortunately most of America doesn’t operate like Manhattan. Much of the country has been developed at low densities, no mixed-uses, with a hard to navigate layout. Unfortunately we cannot change this on a large-scale and realistically can’t fund the public transportation to efficiently access all these areas, making it more desirable than driving a car. This of course doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Every little bit helps and change is always gradual.

I was taught, and I certainly believe, that the biggest responsibility of urban designers is to empower people in the way they live their lives and access their built environment. Building cities that provide the infrastructure for efficient public transportation, allow for local stores selling healthy food within walking distance of every dwelling, and create a connected city accessible by all will give people the most choice in living their lives, and therefore the most power. I wholeheartedly agree. From here on out, we must do this.

Houston Walkable Street Design

A walkable street offering sustainable and healthy living.×294.jpg

But by the same argument there is nothing that gives more choice or is more empowering than the car. You can go where you want, when you want, listening to the music you want, most of the time park where you want (there are 8 spaces for every car in the country!!!), listening to the music you love, with the temperature set just right. Sometimes the most empowered I have felt is driving down the road in the summer’s evening, singing to my favorite song, with the wind blowing in my hair. Let’s just say, public transportation has a lot to compete with before it becomes the more empowering option. It’s greatest help? Traffic jams and rising gas prices.

We have certainly put all our eggs in one basket in the hope that the development of green technology will save our natural environment. Because of the reasons stated above, in my opinion this is the only realistic option in saving it from the polluting effects of the car. In the meantime we have to focus on mitigating measures that will save us our communities, our health, and our businesses from the negative effects of the car that are often overlooked in favor of its environmental effects. The car is the #1 killer of community, but that doesn’t mean it must be eradicated. But the emphasis in the built environment must be taken away from the car and returned to the people.

The recent New York Times article by Michael Kimmelman, who is quickly becoming my favorite journalist, made a point today I’m not sure I had 100% realized on my own: parking lots are public spaces. Check out the article at For the majority of my career in architecture we tried to hide parking. This is often the case in new developments where the public realm is given to only the pedestrian and cars are hidden in parking decks surrounded by ground level retail. I quickly learned as an urban designer that the best method was parallel parking which calmed the street, protected the pedestrian, and concentrated activity in the public realm. The problem in America, however, is that often more parking is needed.

While well-designed parking decks are still good, dense options for excess parking, they are sometimes cost prohibitive. Ground parking lots are so negatively viewed because of their past influence on the built environment (when a flock of geese mistakes the Wal-mart parking lot for a body of water from the air, it’s too big!), but as Kimmelman explains, urban designers must start looking at them as an opportunity.

Designing parking lots with green methods to mitigate the poor natural environment effects, significant pedestrian movement channels, and the flexibility to welcome other uses, they can start to acquire a new reputation and identity. As Tobias Armborst of New York planning firm, Interboro, states, parking lots should be “responsive to the ways people already use spaces,” and “enhance their urbanity.” Instead of using paving lines, perhaps curbs and green areas can define a group of spaces. This would allow a natural organization for market stalls or clustered social areas in residential neighborhoods. Or perhaps no lines or designations at all will cause people to be more careful when they park and acknowledge other users more. Perhaps in city centers parking lots can transform to public squares or street sport facilities. This requires attention to detail, stellar landscape design, and of course money.

We see examples of this as people are already taking over their built environment. My favorite example: tailgating. Nothing makes me happier than seeing otherwise dead parking lots turn into huge Carolina Panthers parties every Sunday morning. There is no doubt that if we build our environment in a flexible and responsive way, people will do with as they need and see fit. And that…can be a beautiful thing. Also, we must not scold people for using their car. Instead of making city centre parking prohibitively expensive we must find a creative solution to accommodate them until better public transportation is feasible. Otherwise, we will just be encouraging people to shop in suburban shopping malls, killing the life of Main Streets across America.

Carolina Panthers Tailgating Public Space

Panthers fans taking back their public space.

This is how we rebuild our communities: make room for the car, but make clear that they belong to the people. If we can start accepting the car’s presence as designers, we can start to address its real negative effects that we can control: social exclusion, poor health, and loss of local business. It is our generation that must reinvent what was America’s promise: the car.

Travel Series: Edinburgh

9 Jan

This past weekend my husband, Matt and I, traveled to Edinburgh to celebrate our first anniversary. Little did I know that the small getaway we planned during a trip to England for Christmas was a city so rich in urban planning history. I honestly didn’t have any expectations of this capital city and didn’t know too much of its history or appearance.

My first impressions were of slight disappointment; many of the stone buildings were black with soot, giving the city an unloved appearance, people weren’t too friendly, and the city streets were absolutely lifeless for a Saturday afternoon. In the present time the city is apparently less affluent than other cities in the UK, obviously London, but most of its surrounding towns as well. Matt had a clear explanation for this: it’s January in Scotland, it’s freezing, there’s little sunlight wouldn’t I be snuggled up at home in front a fire as well?  He had a good point, because as I’m writing this post in a Starbucks on a Monday afternoon, the city centre has appeared to become much more alive.

As I learned about the history and development of the city, my interests and my impressions peaked. Perhaps with a strong Scottish ancestry (my maiden name, McGirt is bastardized from MacCart, part of the Scottish McArthur and Campbell clans) I could almost imagine myself in the city centuries before.

Edinburgh Old Town Urban Design

On the Royal Mile in the Old Town

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Edinburgh is that it is clearly split between the Old Town, the original and oldest part of the city, and the New Town, which was designed and built from 1765 to 1850. These two areas, while both connected and legible, feel completely different. This is emphasized by the Nor Loch, a drained valley once filled with water, which acts as a physical separation between the two. This fact in itself will certainly ensure that the young James Craig’s design will continue to be recognized as the first modern planner in Edinburgh for centuries to come. The common tourist can pick up the differences between the two parts of the city within an hour.

The Old Town is like walking through a small village in the countryside: small winding streets, narrow pedestrian gaps, and modest leaning buildings. It clearly is ancient and was built organically over time with little planning. With bagpipers and tartans lining the streets its hard not to imagine that you are in a scene from Braveheart. It’s quaint, charming, and feels very Scottish.

Edinburgh Old Town versus New Town

A comparison between the residential streets of the New Town (left) and the narrow closes of the Old Town (right).

The first development of the New Town in contrast has wide roads organized in a strict pattern with stately Georgian buildings. It feels elegant, orderly, and European. The simple axial grid is bound by two boulevards, including the famous Princes Street, that link together drained Nor Loch bordering the Old Town and the green fields beyond (now the Queen Street Gardens) and butted by two stately public spaces, Charlotte’s Square and St. Andrew’s Square. While it originally was planned as a suburb, the area became so popular that commercial and other mixed uses soon filled the ground floors of the buildings. The New Town expanded north, east, and west over 100 years in the vein of Craig’s design. It was classical in its organization and unfortunately traditional in its social influences: the rich moved to the large countryside homes and the poor remained in the overcrowded squalor of the old city.

Matt and I were able to witness this first hand by going on a tour of St. Mary’s Close, underground and preserved in its 18th century state. Closes were narrow streets of about 6 feet with tenement houses, sometimes 7 stories high, on either side. This is where the majority of the Edinburgh population lived in the old city. The higher up on the hill the richer you were, the lower on the hill, the poorer you were. You were reminded of this twice as day as everyone who lived above you disposed of their excrement and it ran down the close to the polluted Nor Loch. With 12 people living in a 10’x10’ room, the plague spread rampantly. The resulting realization by the wealthy that these conditions had become unhealthy, led to the need for the urban planning profession in Edinburgh.

It was fascinating to witness the preservation of the old and the celebration of the new so clearly in the 21st century. In so many places the augmented city grid, redevelopment, and modernization hides the boundary between pre-planning and planning. The result can be a muddled cultural identity. It was a joy to be able to see clearly the before and after in one city. This can allow Edinburgh residents to more easily understand and connect with their heritage: a gift that many cities don’t benefit from. When people can do this they can have a clearer sense of where they came from, who they are, and how they fit into their community. While Edinburgh clearly preserved their past in the Old Town, they designed the New Town looking forward to a new identity during the Scottish Enlightenment. Perhaps the residents moved forward in the same manner, mirroring the impressive modern development of the city.

I have to admire the Scottish Enlightenment planners who acknowledged the inadequacy of their urban fabric and solved it so drastically by engineering their land through the drainage of the polluted Nor Loch, creating the Earthen Mound, a large mound of dirt and the North Bridge, to connect the Old and New Towns, and designing the New Town with an elegance that has stood the test of time. Edinburgh’s boulevards, open public gardens, distinct perimeter blocks, and stately Georgian architecture solidify Edinburgh’s identity as a proud European city for generations to come.

Nor Loch Edinburgh New Town and Old Town

The Old Town and the New Town separated by the drained Nor Loch (now the Princes Street Gardens)

Urban Never Tasted So Good!

6 Jan

This fall I made my first trip to Portland, Oregon. I have to say I was pretty excited to finally make it to the Northwest. It has gained the reputation of being the most sustainable part of the country, and after growing up in the Southeast where there seems to be very little in comparison, I was anticipating what I could learn from my visit. It was so inspiring to see a city that operated on streetcars, diverse cultural influences, and an active public realm. But refreshingly, it was also like any other city, which shows us that any place can achieve sustainability. Surprisingly, the most exciting thing I came across during my visit was the food cart.

You may have noticed that I am a big champion of sustainability in three parts: social, environmental, and economic. I was surprised how something as simple, flexible, and temporary as a food cart can affect sustainability almost as much as any other small-scale urban element I have seen. These aren’t your typical food carts. These are way more than your hot dog stand on the corner or a food truck at a little league baseball game. Portland’s food carts are feasts of cultural delicacies and creative combinations: food you’ve never tasted before!

Pop Up Urbanism at its best - food carts of Portland.

Examples of the many food carts on the streets of Portland.

My favorite food cart that I came across in Portland was the Grilled Cheese Grill. (My friends can tell you…I’ve been going on about it!) Check it out if you’re in Portland… This was devoted to one of the most loved and simplest American dishes explored in the most creative ways. My favorite: the jalapeno popper. But what struck me more than my grilled cheese with tortilla chips and jalapenos, was how much fun it was! I ate my sandwich in the attached seating area: a school bus sitting on the side of the road. At their other location? A double-decker.

I met the owner and spoke with him about his food cart and realized what an economically sustainable business they were. He was a film director who didn’t quite make it in Hollywood who wanted to open his own restaurant. Without the income to do so, he opened up his cart as a stepping stone to his new life goal. He didn’t know how to cook but one thing…you guessed it, grilled cheese. So that’s what he did. At an affordable ground rent of $315 a month, he can run his business, not to mention live out his dream. Food carts have no doubt turned neighborhoods quiet from economic activity (especially in these times), to visited and explored parts of the city. Businesses have developed around the food carts as well. I went on a company-run “cart hopping” food tour, which took me to parts of the city that I, or probably any other tourist, wouldn’t have seen. This is clearly an economic model that is working in the recession: in 2009 the number of food carts jumped by 20%.

The socially sustainable benefits of food carts were obvious to me on my visit. Vacant lots and hidden plots of land were becoming full of people at all times of day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night snacks.) They were clustered, within walking distance of each other and other commercial businesses. An easily accessible social network was formed: I saw a group of friends buy their food at different carts and meet up to eat and socialize on the street. It was clear that social gatherings were beginning to revolve around the food carts, instead of the other way around.

The food cart is also an effective way in spreading culture throughout all income levels. It’s no longer down to the ballet or the opera. Food is a medium everyone enjoys and needs. Operated by individuals often times from another country, not companies, they are affordably and accessibly able to share their grandmother’s recipe with you and me. And am I grateful for it! I tried the most delicious rice, meat, leaf dish from the most rural part of Vietnam.

The environmentally sustainable benefits, if multiplied on the large-scale, could be revolutionary. Especially within lower incomes America has resorted to a “McDonalds” food culture. The food that is the most processed, the most unhealthy, and travels the most miles on our highways, is unfortunately the cheapest. Portland’s food carts can allow the most affordable, healthy, and in many cases local food is to be accessible to everyone. This can be used as a model in other cities to promote local and organic urban farming to feed those who might need it the most.

Of course a network of food carts would be challenging to introduce to any environment. There is certainly a larger culture that exists in Portland that welcomes them so freely throughout the town. You can’t plop down most of these establishments in a Wal-mart parking lot and expect the same food culture to arise. But there is no doubt that this model is so effective that in it, there has to be a lesson for us all.

The Grid…200 Years On.

4 Jan

The Greatest Grid: the Masterplan of Manhattan, 1811-2011 is an exhibit now showing at the Museum of the City of New York that details what the New York Times calls “a landmark in urban history and a defining feature of the city:” the grid. Starting north of the oldest part of the city all the way past Harlem, the strict grid of avenues crossing with streets defines how New Yorkers live their every day life. I wanted to write about the Manhattan grid following the post on connectivity yesterday because New York City is perhaps one of the most connected and permeably designed cities in the world.

Original Article: Also check out this awesome interactive map that shows the growth of New York City over time

Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times columnist, mentions some classic urban design elements defined by the strict grid:

  • Legibility: It’s simplicity and orientation allows the city to easily be grasped by users, even tourists who have been there for a few hours.
  • Flexibility: The planners originally thought that the population of New York City would be moving east and west to waterside parks. When the city’s orientation changed to north and south, the grid was able to handle the shift in movement. The grid also was able to adapt to the inclusion of a Central Park, which was introduced to the masterplan later in its development.
  • Economic Vitality: Because there was ease in navigating the grid and made the growing city so accessible to users, property values soared and began what some consider the beginning of the property market in America.
  • Sociability: The permeability of the grid’s design makes the entire city feel like it belongs to everyone. Equality and social inclusion are a result. It is easy to run into your neighbor or become a regular at your corner diner. Kimmelman gives the examples that consistency of its design allows the public realm to become a “public theater.”

What Mr. Kimmelman hasn’t realized in this article is that the above positive characteristics are not because of the grid, but because of the connectivity that the grid offers. Connectivity can be achieved with many different designs, which can be seen from the street layouts of cities above. The organic nature of London, or the intricate network of Paris, are both very connected in a different way and both provide the same benefits of the New York grid. These three cities all feel completely different. One might say the way the way a person feels in a city is down to a matter of opinion. Let me offer mine…

There is no doubt there is a culture associated with being a New Yorker. I know many New Yorkers and they have more pride in the place they come from than almost any other person I have met. I have always admired this about them. An emotional connection to place is growing more rare as technology and poor planning has begun to define our sense of community. Having said this…I just don’t get New York, which I 100% believe is because of its grid. I understand that “the city that never sleeps” has the most amazing cultural and artistic offerings of any other city in the world. You can’t get any better in that respect. But while it has tugged on my heart-strings it has never done so in a positive way.

I have never immediately felt like a New Yorker like Mr. Kimmelman claims. Unlike him, born and raised in Greenwich Village, I’ve always felt the opposite: an outsider. I think it’s a mistake to think the strict design of the grid allows everyone to personalize the urban environment or feel at home in New York. I agree with Frederick Law Olmstead, one of the greatest American landscape architects, that the New York grid is monotonous, and I would further say…heartless. We are lucky that the culture of New York that has developed has given it its huge heart. Mr. Kimmelman is correct in saying that its the New Yorkers’ constant attempt to break the grid that actually gives it its character.

My experience in a city like London is a breath of fresh air. While it might take a little longer to get your bearings it is still very legible. It’s organic layout is even more flexible than the strict grid and can constantly shift. It’s so connected any development can easily tie back into the contextual urban fabric. It has gorgeous public spaces where “street theater” can be witnessed by hundreds. But the real difference for me as I walk the streets of London is that every turn of a corner is a surprise! Whether its a landmark, a pocket park, or a beautiful streetscape, I am always left pleasantly surprised by every step I take. The diversity in street design easily lets the city dissect itself into neighborhoods, each with their own very distinctive character.

Don’t get me wrong, there is no doubt that Manhattan’s grid was a tremendous act of urban planning that must be congratulated. The gung-ho attitude required by city planners to survey an enormous space and reorganize privately owned land for the betterment of society and the city is a huge task. As Kimmelman states, and I agree, this is an attitude our urban planners could use a little more of in the face of issues such as global warming and sprawl.

In the New York Times article John Reps, an urban historian at Cornell, is quoted saying that the city commissioners “were motivated mainly by narrow considerations of economic gain.” Even if money was the motivation behind the grid and not creating a beautiful place with “squares and boulevards,” the grid’s connectivity allows enormous benefits over the design of the majority of America’s development. It allows for a density that makes New York City one of the greenest places on earth and the most active public realm that I have ever witnessed. With little public space, aside from Central Park that is centralized, the excitement and surprise of human nature is in front of you wherever you go…there is no space for it anywhere else.

But here’s the food for thought. The grid works because the street network is very permeable and connected, not because of the design itself. Connectivity, while it is the first step in creating a development, doesn’t take away the ability for urban planners to design it well.

How To Series: Connectivity

3 Jan

I want to create a mini “How To” series on this blog that gives clear methods on how to design a development. There is so much talk of principles and goals in our profession that there is sometimes little time for how to actually achieve those things. I came across this when writing a dissertation on New Urbanism in Suburban America.

When I looked at the CNU Charter which states admirable principles that should be achieved through development I was lost wondering how people knew how to actually implement them. When I looked at the quality of New Urbanism in my home city of Charlotte it was clear that some developers thought that adding sidewalks was enough to “encourage walking.” There seemed to be an unclear standard of success in the movement. While it is important to understand the great cultural, environmental, political, etc. context of our profession at the end of the day urban designers must know how to do things well. Otherwise principles will never be achieved.

Paris at Night: The bright streets highlight the connected street network

Connectivity is arguably the most important first step in designing a development. There are different layers to a place that must be considered in a certain order so that it operates in the most efficient and sustainable way. The first is the natural landscape that you are given. A site might have hills or valleys and these can be changed by expensively moving earth, but instead these elements should be seen as giving the development a unique character and contribute to the place’s identity. The second layer, and the first that designers create, is the street network, and therefore how the development connects with the urban context around it.

This step can often be overlooked or pushed aside in a project’s design. Design teams can get stuck in prototypes, or reusing a layout because it has been successful in the past. But a good idea in one place, can be a bad idea in another. It is crucial that each site is analyzed and its context completely understood before moving forward.

Connectivity is the most effective tool in creating a socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable development. First, the more connected a place is the easier and more efficient walking can be, which will encourage a healthy and social lifestyle. Community can be strengthened and social inclusion encouraged by more gateless entries into a development. If all people are welcome, all people could feel included.

Second, if a development connects the urban fabric and its context together it has the potential for vibrant economic zones. It people can get from one side of your development to the other side easily, pass through foot and car traffic will increase, creating a greater market for commercial real estate. This can increase the value of property in the development and the greater area. This is a wonderful tool in urban regeneration.

Third, the more connections there are the easier it is for public transportation systems to operate. If your development is a dead-end to no where you can be assured a bus route will never serve it. Connectivity can lead to the decrease in car usage and the increase in a healthier and cleaner lifestyle. These are just some of the biggest benefits of connectivity. The opposite, a disconnected place, can kill the life in the public realm before it even has the chance to form its own identity.

The risk of getting this wrong? Huge. We’ve talked about the first layer of the built environment: the street network. Following that are the plots of land within the network, and the buildings that sit within them. Other elements such as open spaces are parks lie within this system. Plots of land change as owners change and acquisitions occur. There is such a focus in the design world on buildings, but when you look at these layers the street network is the most permanent and can last thousands of years. Buildings most often last for a few decades. But when a street is built, expensive infrastructure and land ownership follows suit; both very hard to change in the future. For example, some of the most used roads in England were originally laid by the Romans. So when we lay the classic suburban layout of cul-de-sacs and streets to nowhere we can be doing damage could last millenniums.

4 Steps to Connectivity. Check it out in the Urban Design Compendium

So how do we create a connected development?

  • Analyze the existing urban context and determine its most used and active streets, as well as its public transportation routes. These will be the most important to connected to.
  • Continue these streets across your development so that all available connections are made. The freedom in movement choice will create a more efficient pedestrian system and allow direct access to existing public transportation routes.
  • Strengthen this by avoiding the use of cul-de-sacs, which fail to integrate with its surroundings, and instead use perimeter blocks, which can create an active realm.

A connectivity analysis of a proposed street network in Oxford, England.

The image above shows a project I did in Oxford. The image on the left shows the most vibrant and active streets in Oxford (shown in red and orange) and the quiet and more residential ones (blue and green.) After the steps above are followed, its important to know the best place to locate commercial or community uses. There doesn’t need to be any guesswork in making these decisions. By using the Space Syntax program, or an analysis of your own based on street intersections within your site, you will know where the most activity will occur. The image on the right shows which streets were most active, where I located shops, a school, community center, and office space, and the streets that were quieter is where I located houses and apartments. It’s a simple method, urban designers and planners just need to be aware of it.

Connectivity is a tool, and if you use it right, every place will have its own identity. Tomorrow we will look at the grid, as it turns 200 years old in New York City, and see how connectivity can shape a place’s uses and identity. Stay tuned…

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