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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. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/03/the-next-slum/6653/ 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 http://cdn.theatlantic.com/static/coma/images/issues/200803/housing.jpg

“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. http://www.houstontomorrow.org/images/uploads/cache/promenade-charlier-web-325×294.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 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/arts/design/taking-parking-lots-seriously-as-public-spaces.html?pagewanted=all. 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. http://www.sportsshade.com/tailgating/nfl/carolina.jpg

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). http://images.travelpod.com/users/zimmel08/1.1288826019.edinburgh-new-town.jpg

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) http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/edinburgh/edinburgh/images/castleview-450.jpg

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: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/03/arts/design/manhattan-street-grid-at-museum-of-city-of-new-york.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1 Also check out this awesome interactive map that shows the growth of New York City over time http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/03/21/nyregion/map-of-how-manhattan-grid-grew.html?ref=design

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 http://www.loupiote.com/photos/508581524.shtml

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 http://www.homesandcommunities.co.uk/urban-design-compendium?page_id=&page=1

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…

Language of the City.

28 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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