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.
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.
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.
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…