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How Public are our Public Spaces?

10 Feb

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

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

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


Traditionally public spaces were funded with public money and built by the local government. With a commitment to public service and less emphasis on returns on investment, design decisions could be made for the greater good. Absolutely amazing open, public spaces have resulted from this process, the most famous perhaps being Central Park in New York City. The recently developed, government-led public spaces that I have been most impressed by are in the city center of Sheffield, UK. This city regenerated itself through an enormous investment in civic, open, public space. Organized in a network connecting the urban core with the train station, these spaces have attracted investment and development, including big name companies to headquarter themselves in the city. But most importantly these spaces, some of which can be seen below, are owned and operated by the city for all citizens.

The Peace Gardens, The Winter Garden, and Barker's Pool: 3 of the most well-known public spaces part of the Sheffield One regeneration masterplan


You might ask: how do I tell the difference between privately owned “public” space, and real public space? Sometimes it’s really hard to tell. So, then why does it matter? Most developers create open space within their own development as an amenity for users and an attraction to investors, whether they are commercial tenants or home buyers. They manage and maintain it to protect their investment. Unfortunately there can be some very negative side effects on the local community in some cases.

1) Poor Quality of Design

With sometimes few requirements by the city to reach a high standard of design, public spaces can become “the space left over” in between buildings. Quality urban open space should have places to sit, landscape elements to create a sense of identity, and use local materials to make it unique to the area. This costs a lot of money, and with developers receiving no direct return on open space investment they often get away with as few physical interventions as possible. Or sometimes they choose to under-design public space because of the effect it has on users. It is common in outdoor private shopping malls to provide very few design-interventions, including seating. This is to keep shoppers moving: loitering=bad; shopping=good.

2) Who Can Use It?

Private commercialized space appears to be open to the public. In some cases privately owned pedestrian routes appear to flow seamlessly from the public street grid. However, if users appear to be the “type” that causes trouble, or the homeless loiter too long, they can be removed from the property. These spaces are often patrolled by security and users can feel ostracized. This is not how true public space should operate. This urban culture can lead to groups of people in a certain demographic or certain communities to feel excluded. The payoff? A gentrified development lacking local identity and culture.

3) Lack of Community Cohesion

With more gated, privatized open space being provided, especially in housing developments, people might feel less inclined to spend time in truly urbanized open spaces, such as city parks. Often times the same demographic can live in an apartment and condo building that has open space only residents can access, which could mean that people are only socializing with people like themselves.While this will allow you to get to know your neighbor, it can discourage you from mingling with people in your local community. When people keep to themselves, social inclusion and community cohesion can suffer.

Some would argue that we have bigger fish to fry in the built environment than the ownership and management of open space. And I might agree. But its important to be aware of the issue and how even small changes that arise out of the evolution of how the built environment is design and developed, collectively can have an enormous effect on the strength and inclusiveness of our communities.


How to Series: Residential Parking.

7 Feb

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

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

1. Parking on the Street

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

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

This Washington, DC street makes room for parallel parking, cyclists, and pedestrians. (

2. Driveways

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

3. Garage Doors

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

Townhouse types: devoted to the car vs. devoted to the person. Townhouses in Charles Village, Baltimore allow for community interaction and an active public realm (

4. No Alleys!

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

 5. Parking Decks

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

row home v townhome

Townhouses at ground level with individual entrances; apartments above. (

6. Parking Lots

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

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

Place Identity: A Sensual City.

4 Feb

I recently reblogged a great post on environmental psychology by The Happy Spaces Project that looks at how people’s surroundings directly affect how they feel. Urban design takes this concept a step further in the concept called place identity. Place identity is how someone defines the perception of themselves through the environment around them. Read more here. The slight difference between the two is quite a big one: feelings vs. self-identity.

The medium of urban designers is the physical: streets, blocks, plots, building frontages, and public space. But one of their purposes is to form rich communities based on heritage of place and interaction with the natural environment that people reference in establishing their self-identity. As soon as urban designers neglect this responsibility, developments can become monotonous, generalized, and undefined in any way. The result? A person can go to any part of the country, and sometimes the world and it will feel the exact same.

What effects can this have on a person as they look to the built environment to define themselves?

I’ve always prided myself on being a southern girl. I know lovely women who pride themselves on being New York girls. California girls…you got it! Midwestern girls…some of the best! I speak to people who enjoy exploring the country, but when they want to settle down they can’t imagine living anywhere different then where they grew up. While there are lots of cultural factors that contribute to this, the physical form is a big contributor to parts of the country feelings so different. And diversity is a good thing!

Identity by Design, by Ian Bentley and Georgia Butina-Watson, address almost a century of globalization and generalization of design, which resulted in deprivation of the factors that contribute to peoples’ emotional response to their built environment. Definitely check out this book…listed below are 4 factors as a preview:

Co-dwelling with Nature

Co-dwelling with nature can be expressed through a better integration with wildlife habitats, open green space, and natural landscape elements. Research has demonstrated that the more contact humans have with nature the less stressful and more healthier their lives are. This can be achieved on different scales and can be reflected in the underlying structure of a city.

Place Identity NYC

A landscape detail that represents the integration of the built and natural environments.

Rooted in the Past, but not Stuck

Creating a place that is rooted in the past, but not stuck there is extremely important to how people create their own identity. If a place reflects only the past and not seen as forward-looking, then people might feel like they won’t be seen as someone who is forward thinking and relevant. However, if a place is constructed with no relevance to the rich history and character of its region and is designed in only a contemporary way it can lose its foundation as a strong and secure community. This can cause its residents to feel disconnected from a culture and a heritage that contributes to their identity.


Designing a development that is empowering is reflected directly in the morphological layers of the physical environment that give people a feeling of strength and confidence. Empowerment relates directly to choice, and the ability of people to determine every aspect of their lives, even if it is walking to the store to get a pint of milk. Having an infinite amount of choices for the simplest of tasks creates a variety in people’s everyday life. With these choices comes a better understanding of their neighborhood, richer relationships with people, and be more confident in themselves.


When laying out the streets and the block structure of a development they are constructing an urban fabric that will remain longer then the people who live there. Therefore it is important that while a design exemplifies the other three principles, it is able to be accessible to generations of people, especially as our world becomes more globalized. A clear distinction of public and private space will allow people to personalize their built environment, addressing their cultural expectations and needs.

A tool in achieving these factors is creating a sensual city, meaning characteristics that address all of ours senses. Urban design can be very focused on visual identity, but actually it can address all five senses. The more senses a development incorporates, the more unique its place identity, and the greater chance people can find their own identity in their environment. These don’t have to be extreme gestures…here are some great examples of simple details:

Examples of how the built environment can address the senses: sight, smell, sound, touch, and movement.

Sources: Bakery, Fountain, Stairs
A variety of street to building ratios can create visually interesting streetscapes. Mixed-uses allow for local businesses such as this bakery, which leaks delicious smells onto the street. People can hear the wind blow through clusters of trees and leaves crunching under their shoes on the path. Water is a wonderful tool that allows people to interact with their built environment; people can’t help but brush their fingers, dip their toes, and get sprinkled by fountains. Stairs, ramps, and platforms allow people to experience the topography changes of the city in an interesting way. These are all examples of how addressing the senses in a simple way create intriguing environments throughout the typical cityscape.

Urban designers have an opportunity to not only sustain the way people healthily operate in their built environment, but to create inspirational moments or a “humane response” that enriches and inspires their lives. Whether it is the experience of walking down a street, enjoying vistas over a valley, or connecting with a landmark across the city, all of these experiences contribute to peoples’ happiness and how they define themselves. Therefore it is a great responsibility of urban designers to carefully address each of these factors so that when working together, they will create a place that reflects the history, region, and natural environment in which people draw from to reflect their own identity.

2 Feb

I wanted to share a wonderful post about the emotional effects the built environment has on people’s everyday lives. Urban design, planning, and architecture is the world around us (for most people), and as professionals we have a great responsibility in shaping what that world is. We can make it happy, we can make it sad. This post on The Happy Spaces Project Blog caught my eye with the picture of Pruitt Igoe, an enormous public housing development that was demolished in St. Louis, after it gained the reputation of making the people who live there miserable. Studying architecture in St. Louis and visiting this cleared site that lays barren has always served as a reminder of the responsibility we carry. Enjoy this post – I think we should all look a little harder into the field of environmental psychology.

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. (

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.

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.

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.

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.

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