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CNU20: The New World in West Palm Beach.

29 Apr

In 9 days, a lot of us will be traveling to West Palm Beach in Florida for the CNU20 conference to celebrate and learn more about New Urbanism. I have been invited by CNU to attend as a member of the press. I will be there to represent my blog and my employer, Tindale-Oliver and Associates. Honored and excited, I will be posting live throughout the week on the Plenary and Breakout sessions I attend daily. To get updates from CNU20 as I post them, please sign up for email alerts on the right hand side of this page. Also check me out on Twitter @helmpublicrealm. I will surely be tweeting a lot that week. I can’t wait to get writing and share what will no doubt be an exciting time with you. For those new to this blog, catch up on my previous posts by selecting a topic on the right or click the title at the head of the page to visit the home page.

Below are the sessions I will be writing about daily:

Plenary Sessions:

Looking Forward: New Urbanism and the New World with Andres Duany, Peter Calthorpe, and Others

Friday Night Plenary with Richard Florida

Saturday Morning Plenary Featuring Leon Krier

Break Out Sessions:

Space, the First but Not Final Frontier: Analyzing Space, Uses, and Transportation

Why Did We Stop Walking& How Do We Start Again? The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City

From Balanced Roads to Transit Oriented Development

Florida Mobility Policies: Regional Rail to Enhance Mobility

Clear Thinking: Urbanism + Transit

Functional Classification: The Least Interesting Policy That Dominates Most Everything

Realizing Streets for Everyone, and Getting Someone Else to Pay for Them: Funding, Designing and Implementing Complete Streets

Beyond Bike Lanes: Building a Culture of Bicycle Safety

You might notice the sessions I am attending are mostly transportation oriented. There are two reasons for this: The first, and most straightforward is that I am an urban designer at what traditionally has been a transportation planning and engineering firm in Florida. As the planning demands and expectations for a more sustainable built environment have shifted, it is undeniable that transportation planning and land use design are required to be more integrated. Secondly, and most importantly, the last few years of my career have made it clear that a real change in behavior from people requires public transit. Without it, it is unlikely that you will be able to peel us away from our cars and large parking lots. The result will continue to be devastating. Therefore, it is my commitment as an urban designer to become as knowledgeable as I can about how to make public transit a reality throughout the entire country. I want every individual to easily be able to access a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, light rail, a streetcar, or safe cycling lanes (and I want them all to be connected to one another), in my lifetime. Let the challenge begin…

My regular readers out there will know that I am a fan of the Congress for the New Urbanism, because unlike many of us, they have figured out a way to market (and even make trendy) traditional urban design principles, sustainability, and my favorite: connectivity. They did not reinvent the wheel, they did not come up with huge new ideas. They took traditional urban design principles that every place was built around before the introduction of the automobile, and repackaged them to make them relevant for our modern-day challenges. In short: genius. Often built environment professionals try to figure out the difference between TOD, TND, New Urbanism, mixed-use developments, etc. My answer is: not much. They are all variants on introducing the same age-old traditional urban design principles to the way we develop land today. What all these movements have done is brand themselves around that slight variant. Power to them, and anything that makes traditional urban design principles popular and easily understood, I am in support of. So  in short, yes, I have officially jumped on the CNU bandwagon.

No matter where my journey as an urban designer has taken me I have always met some critics of the movement, and let me address those here before we get this CNU20 party started.

Some of the most famous examples of New Urbanism: Seaside, FL; Celebration, FL; Kentlands, MD: Mesa del Sol, NM

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One of the most popular criticisms of CNU is that the developments appear as if they are stuck in the past, and not addressing what is contemporary and relevant. This trait is mostly identified by the very traditional architecture that in some cases shadows the true beauty of historic styles. The argument: shouldn’t a movement that is addressing the most critical and relevant concerns appear to be modern? My response: Yeah, that’s a totally fair argument.

Another criticism is that some of the big thinkers of the movement do not properly understand the economic impact that the design of New Urbanism developments can have, or at the very least, there is not a clear correlation between physical design and economic impact. They are accused of not realizing that mixed uses are extremely difficult to achieve in some locations, that the development’s “town centers” are often way to small and cannot grow and adapt over time, and commercial uses are often located where they are promised to fail. My response: Once again, I can see this point and in some cases it is warranted.

Finally, one of the last criticisms of New Urbanism developments is that they’re often being built on greenfield sites. This wastes more land instead of retrofitting the acres and acres of suburban wasteland. Umm….yeah, this is partly true.

But here is my response to all of those, and it is very simple. The urban design process is built on layers, the first being the most permanent, the last being the most transient. The first layer (the Underlying Landscape) is the terrain that we have been given. While it can be morphed through some expensive engineering work, it for the most part is very permanent and rarely changes. The second layer (the Street Network), often lasts for centuries. Many of the most used streets in Europe were built by Romans. Of course they have been modernized, but the actual route was first determined by the Roman Empire. When we build roads, we lay very expensive and complicated infrastructure. In reality, the street network we build will always be there. The third layer (Plots), is the way we divvy up the blocks made by the street network. These get tied up in legally and don’t change a whole lot. However, developers come along all the time and acquire lots for their projects. Compared to the first two, plots can change much easier. The fourth and fifth layers (Buildings and Public Spaces) can change comparatively easily and all the time. While we cherish our historic buildings, the average structure has a lifespan of only 40 years. So when we build that buildings that kills the life of the urban realm all around it, don’t worry it can be knocked down, and it often is.

I take the time to explain this, because a lot of the New Urbanism criticism is hung up on the fourth and fifth layers. My point is, is that we have so royally screwed up the second layer and in some cases the third, that we have bigger fish to fry. The connectivity and design of our street network is SO important in creating social and economic opportunities, not to mention allow a public transportation system to run efficiently, that we have to get that right. I love New Urbanism because it makes connectivity, grids, and perimeter blocks trendy. And in almost all the cases New Urbanism developments are very connected with beautiful streetscapes. I honestly don’t really care about the buildings that are being built within them. Because in 100 years they’ll probably all be gone, but that street network will still be going strong.

And yes, it’s not so great that greenfield sites are still being rampantly developed, but this is not New Urbanism’s fault. Development along highway exits will happen in this free market society until there is an enormous shift, it might as well be connected, permeable, and not a bunch of cul-da-sacs. One day when we sort out our public transportation, New Urbanism developments will be able to adapt and therefore be more successful than auto-centric developments.

So there are my two cents on New Urbanism. It ain’t perfect, but what is? The part that is done right, is the most important. I can’t wait to get to West Palm Beach and hear the biggest fore-thinkers in our profession speak. It will be a huge joy to write about it and hopefully see this blog turn into a place for lively discussion. I am honored to be in attendance, and I will no doubt leave as a better designer….and with a suntan!

West Palm Beach – the location of CNU20. Tough life right!? (http://miamiagentmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/west-palm-beach.jpg)

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine alone and do not represent those of Tindale-Oliver & Associates, Inc.

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Film Review: Urbanized

25 Apr

Tonight I had the awesome pleasure of hanging out with some friends to watch the documentary, Urbanized by Gary Hustwit. Just recently released on DVD in 2012, this was my first opportunity to see this inspiring film about world-famous architects’ and planners’ strategies for urban design solutions in cities across the globe.

Urbanized The Book Review

First, let me start with a side note. My husband and I got bikes this past weekend. How could we not? With perfect weather, a well-connected neighborhood with pleasant streetscapes, and always feeling like we’re on vacation, it would seem wrong not to. While I’ve always been a fan of cycling for leisurely purposes, tonight I did something I’ve never done before: I cycled for mobility purposes. One might think this is pretty bad since I am an urban designer, but this is the first city I’ve lived in where all the factors have come together to make it possible…well for me. Charlotte = disconnected, very few mixed uses, and spread out; Boston = umm, 4 feet of snow?; St. Louis = dense college campus easy to walk around and not particularly needed; Baltimore = anyone seen The Wire?; England = umm, rain…all. the. time.

So how suitable that on the way to see Urbanized, we practiced urbanism at its best. Because our destination had little and paid parking, and was easily accessible with bike paths, we made a choice (because it was available), to ride our bikes. So as a disclaimer, I started watching this film in a very empowered state. It was a wonderful feeling to be given the option to make a sustainable and healthy choice, and then choosing to make it.

This film was inspiring, empowering, and motivating at many times. As we watched some of the greats: Ellen Dunham-Jones, Amanda Burden, and my all time favorite, Jan Gehl, do their usual thang, there were some other characters that really shined: Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Candy Chang, an artist who uses public space to share information, and Yung Ho Chang, an architect in Beijing. This film made my love affair with the former continue to grow, and with the latter, blossom.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, Jan Gehl etc.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, Amanda Burden, Jan Gehl, Enrique Penelosa, Cindy Chang, and Yung Ho Chang.

This film made me feel two things: inspired and a citizen of the world. Perhaps it was because I was watching it with five young people who share the same goals and belief that they can make a change, and a loving husband who is always committed to learn more about my passions. Or perhaps because this film reconfirmed for me that I have chosen the career where my talents and passions most meat the needs of the world. Or perhaps because I was watching the rock stars of my profession say things that made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

I felt like a citizen of the world because the film concentrated on cities all over the globe, some of which I was completely unfamiliar with. As Americans we sometimes find it hard to look beyond our boundaries to how other countries handle the same problems. This of course is not unique to us. As a planning student in the classroom and local councils in England there was no time or energy to look beyond the new planning system policies. And of course there is this view by some, that we live in one of the greatest countries with the most educated visionaries in the world. We got ourselves into this mess, can’t we fix our problems on our own?

That may be true, but enter Enrique Penalosa of Bogota, Colombia. Who would think to look to Bogota as an example of cycling culture? Amsterdam? Yes. Copenhagen. Sure. Bogota? Not Really. This guy is awesome. With a population of over 6 million people, Bogota had the growing problem of maintaining infrastructure and traffic congestion. To fix the latter, he recognized the stigma associated with traditional buses (also alive and well here in America), and introduced a bus rapid transit (BRT) system to strengthen ridership. Acknowledging the more affordable cost versus rail and its necessary adaptability of routes in the future it was a perfect solution (and one that should be used WAY more often here.) But what was really creative was that the stations appeared and felt more like a subway stop than a bus stop. Elevated platforms, automated ticket machines, and flashy stations made taking this bus modern, relevant, professional, and cool.

In addition Penelosa put money into a very complex and extensive dedicated cycle network throughout the city. As opposed to linear routes favored by American cities along well-used corridors, Bogota has a mesh grid of paths that infiltrate the city making cycling the favored choice of citizens to get, well, anywhere. Amazing right? Penelosa made clear that first money went to the bike paths, and then to the roads. The film showed cars navigating bumpy dirt roads full of potholes, while cyclists zoomed by on their bikes. Penelosa made Bogota put their money where their mouth is…he got shi*t done in who knows what political opposition. The result of having state of the art, first-world cycling routes, and in some occasions third-world car lanes is inspiring.

Bogota Urban Design and Planning - Enrique Penelosa

Enrique Penelosa, former mayor of Bogota’s lasting contributions: BRT and cycle network.

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Another of my favorites was Candy Chang who works in New Orleans. As she passed delapidated and abandoned buildings throughout the city, she had the idea of using the boarded up windows as a means of communication. Leaving name tags simply stating, “I wish this was a…” and a sharpie she was able to communicate with the whole city. But what really struck a chord with me was that she said “today it is easier to reach out to the entire world, then to communicate with your own neighborhood.” Man, how true this is. And how I wish it wasn’t this way.

Any finally there was Yung Ho Chang who simply shared his memories of taking walks with his parents around the city as a child and running into his friends. As Beijing is viewed as a thriving and healthy city by most, he sadly stated that Beijing has lost its liveability…and that it didn’t need to happen. Perhaps what struck me most about Chang was that when he said this you could see in his eyes that he was mourning the loss of his city as he once knew it.

Finally, Urbnized addressed the controversy of Stuttgart 21 in Germany. While I am sure with a little research I could write a whole blog series (and probably more well-balanced) on this one topic, what almost brought me to tears was watching hundreds of people put themselves in harms way to desperately, carelessly, and heartfully try to stop the demolition of a group of hundred year old oak trees. It was heartbreaking to watch a grown man wipe his tears as he watched them pulled down in seconds by a bulldozer. After all, even during WWII when the city was desperate for firewood to stay warm, they never dared touched those trees. The film left it unexplained, but I imaged that they stood defiantly representing the beauty of nature in the country’s most uncertain times.

Stuttgart 21 Protest Trees

The heartbreaking attempt of protesters to try to save the beloved trees in the way of Stuttgart 21.

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Based on your mood this film will pull at your heart strings and turn you into a sappy mess, or pull at your “brain strings” and challenge you intellectually, and in time as I recover from my inspiring and empowering evening, will probably do both.

Walking: Is it Just for Charity?

20 Apr

This made me laugh…uncontrollably.

There was an absolutely wonderful series written by Tom Vanderbilt in Slate last week titled, American’s Pedestrian Problem. In it he lamented that whenever he went on a walk for utilitarian purposes, people responded with “Are you doing it for charity?” How hilarious, and how sad. But it’s the truth. Today when people go on long walks it’s usually for breast cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, aids, or most ironically, diabetes. We act like going for a walk, the most instinctual human behavior, is something so unique and special that people give money for it.

America’s Pedestrian Problem by Tom Vanderbilt

While I found the data and science of pedestrian behavior and determining the walk score of my new neighborhood (82 out of 100 baby!) extremely interesting, valuable, and entertaining, the last series, “Learning to Walk” struck me the most. What first caught my attention was the title. How ironic that as a 28-year-old car owner, I am not dissimilar from my 8 month old nephew preparing to take his first steps. But what really struck a chord was that this article stressed what urban designers have been taught at the center of their practice, and what very few planners, especially transportation planners, don’t understand: people are inherently lazy (or perhaps call it evolutionary smart), ie: we make the easiest choice.

Perfect example? The little worn paths across the quads on your college campus. Mr. Vanderbilt makes a great point: college students carry the stereotype of having the most leisurely travel times and distances compared to your typical Manhattaner for instance. And boy are there pathways galore across a college campus (perhaps the most pedestrian oriented places on earth), and yet you will still find those little worn paths. Diagonally across the quad, at the corner where two paths meet, and directly up to the “do not walk on grass” sign. If my memory serves me correctly I think I was subject to work-study if I walked on the grass at my boarding school leading up to the prestigious graduation ceremonies. This is the perfect evidence that people choose the easiest path, even if it’s making one of their own.

So why do some planners think shepherding pedestrians a quarter of a mile down a busy arterial to cross at an intersection instead of allowing them the shortest distance between their location and their destination reasonable? And why do they always blame a person for doing any differently? Because at the end of the day, if those planners had to walk in the same conditions (which they most likely don’t…at all), they would probably make the same choice. We must step away from “if we build it, they will come” and move towards designing the built environment to reflect human behavior…as it naturally exists.

A common occurrence: pedestrian barriers. I have actually walked in the street to avoid these to take the shortest route. (twango.com)

Mr. Vanderbilt tells an absolutely heart-braking and infuriating story as an illustration that no doubt will haunt me as the reality of how this country, especially the part I live in, is moving so painstakingly slowly in its progress. Along Austell Road in Marietta, Georgia, a woman who was crossing the street with her four children was charged for manslaughter for the death of her own son…wait for it, instead of the car driver, in possession of a hit and run record, who hit him. You got it, she wasn’t behind the wheel. But because she jaywalked instead of walking her whole family, with 8 short little legs, an additional 2/3 of a mile out of the way of their home, she was first sentenced to more time in jail then the driver.

Holy cow. Any one else furious?

Mr. Vanderbilt’s other interesting tidbits include explanations of why we see narrow sidewalks up against roads with 6 lanes of traffic…transportation engineers wanted to protect drivers from hitting the trees that often lined them to protect pedestrians. So now? Pedestrians are up for a good mow down. I guess the plus side for drivers is that unlike trees, pedestrians have a slight chance of jumping out of the way. This mindset turned into a nasty cycle: because people no longer felt comfortable walking along roads, they stopped, and the lack of pedestrians encouraged some planners to eradicate sidewalks all together. Even today with such a large culture shift in the profession, when shown how concepts of shared space and other pedestrian-oriented street designs significantly improve safety for all users versus bollards and flashing lights that try to corral humans like cattle, some planners still focus on the liability of drivers.The culture of having to make room for people, instead of having to make room for cars, is alive and well… Unfortunately.

Culture shifts take ages, absolute lifetimes. It’s my belief that we will make more of an impact if we stop telling people what not to do, and start encouraging them to make the right decisions. As I have said before, urban design and the built environment is about providing people with choice. When people have a choice, it empowers them, and the result is that they will often chose the right one just by being given it. Telling people what to do and threatening them with big flashing lights and big signs on the side of the road can encourage them to do the opposite. Barbara McCann, a pioneer of the Complete Streets concept, states in this article, “The road itself should send signals. If you have a road with 12-foot lanes and clear zones, it’s safe for you to open up the throttle and you see the pedestrian scuttling across the road and think ‘they’re in my way.’ ” But add a raised crosswalk, trees, and narrow the road, says McCann, and “this is signaling to you, without a stop sign, that there are going to be all these other users, that you need to pay attention.”

Mr. Vanberbilt’s series is full of many great observations, but I will end with this one. There is a difference between providing facilities and providing facilities that will actually be used. As part of a public consultation exercise in a very auto-centric part of Florida recently, a planner for the Department of Transportation was complaining that when people beg for sidewalks in places, DOT builds them, and then they don’t get used. Other planners think that just by providing a bike lane that it will get used. Peter Lagerway, formerly a transportation engineer with the city of Seattle, explains there is a “three-legged stool” required to make walking desirable: safety, accessibility, and aesthetics. If the public realm doesn’t achieve these three things, people will not want to walk there. Just because there is a sidewalk, doesn’t mean that it is pleasing or safe for a pedestrian. The same is true for bicycle lanes. It is a mistake to assume that a cyclist is as hardened as a driver. I would be happy to ride a bike on my short 1.5 mile commute to work if my own lane was shielded from drivers by a physical and aesthetic barrier, but there is no way I’m tangoing with the some of the worst drivers in America.

As a novice cyclist what I want my cycle lanes to look like vs. what they actually look like. Shout out to Denver and Boulder for getting this right.

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I think after reading Tom Vanderbilt’s enlightened series, you might feel a little downtrodden. There is no doubt that the final installment shows how far we must go as a country to provide our citizens with the basic human right of using their own two feet, but there should be encouragement found in the second and third articles. There has been a huge increase in the knowledge of human science and behavior, as well as an increase in walkability in some of the most auto-dependent cities. The awareness is here, mostly, and admitting that we have a problem is the first step to recovery.
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8 Apr

Love this candid reflection of a city dweller now living in the suburbs. It goes to show that our built environment dictates more than just our actions…it also affects how we think.

I admit it.  I used to judge people that lived in the suburbs.  Who wouldn’t?  I was a twenty something living in Chicago.  I had no kids, no car and no utilities coupled with cheap rent and a resilient liver.  My biggest worry was catching the next train or if my music was too loud.  I could walk out the front door of my apartment building to endless opportunities for entertainment, food and friends.  When I thought about the suburbs, I would shiver as the theme song from Weeds would start coursing through my veins.  It was all very vanilla.  And that was not the flavor I was seeking as a twenty something.  And yet, despite all of my judgment, I moved to the suburbs.  

 When I compare the city to the suburbs, there are pros and cons to both.  But what gets me the most (and makes me…

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Travel Series: Ahh, the Places We Love…

3 Apr

That place. That place where when you arrive you feel immediately calm, centered, and most like yourself.

That place for me is Hilton Head Island, SC. I left my true home in Charlotte when I was 16. My parents sold our childhood home in the city and moved to the suburbs. It was devastating and at the time I attributed this to the loss of my actual house, but in retrospect it was the loss of my neighborhood and community. Ever since then, when I needed to find a place that provided the same security and sense of love to me, Hilton Head has stepped up to the plate.

Perhaps it’s because it’s the only place I can go to and feel the memories that I had as a child. Perhaps it’s because its been the only place throughout the entirety of my life that I return to consistently. Perhaps it’s because I went there right after my grandmother’s passing to mourn. Perhaps it’s because I took my first steps in Hilton Head. It’s always been there, I love this place.

My favorite places in Hilton Head: Pirates’ Island Adventure Golf, South Beach, the beach at Palmetto Dunes, the Omni Hotel, the Crazy Crab, the Oyster Factory, Harbor Town, and Shelter Cove.

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So when I drove almost a 14 hour round trip for a day and a half on the island this past weekend, I am pretty sure some of my fellow Floridians thought I was crazy. After all, we have the fourth nicest beach in the world 35 minutes away. It was only when I arrived there that I realized how much I needed it. I am a trooper; I went to boarding school when I was 15 and since then, I have had many new beginnings in my life. My move to Tampa and beginning a new job has been amazing and everything that I’ve worked for my whole life. But it’s still a transition, and when I crossed that bridge at 11:40 pm on Friday night, Hilton Head reached its arms around me like it has my entire life and I felt at peace.

There is one special place on the island that means more than all the others…I just have to share it. Charles Fraser, the original developer of Hilton Head Island, was committed to saving an ancient oak that stood in the middle of his planned harbor. He designed it and the rest of Harbor Town, one of the most beloved places on the island, around its preservation. Every night in the summer a children’s singer by the name of Gregg Russell (shout out to Gregg here), sings. He even has little children come up on stage to sing with him. My brother sat on that stage of children before I was born, then myself, and now my nieces and nephews. This show is a foundation for our family. Gregg Russell a great entertainer for sure, but why I love going to his shows decades later is the place where it is held. There is nothing more beautiful than sitting under an oak tree that is hundreds of years old with the moonlight shining through it.

This is all very ironic because Hilton Head Island actually has pretty appalling urban design. Hilton Head has a long history steeped in Native American, African-American slavery, and Civil War culture, but most of what you see on the ground was built in the 1960s and after. It was developed as a resort town, and therefore is divided up into “plantations.” The name, given the island’s history, is very irksome. As a result more than 70% of the island is in gated, private communities. The public can enter many of these plantations, but for a cost and at the discretion of security. Unfortunately, this pretty much goes against everything that I believe our built environments should represent. The result is that the island feels very exclusive…and I hate to say, upper/middle class.

While Hilton Head has a very active cycling culture, it is impossible to be a pedestrian for utilitarian purposes. Sure, you can take a stroll down the beach, or walk to the tennis courts, but if you want to actually leave your plantation you are pretty, well, screwed. The island’s land uses are organized around one arterial highway. It has a completely disconnected street network (but remember, they wanted it that way), and uses that are very spread out. It’s not a big enough place where you couldn’t tackle it on your bike, but these rides are always saved for leisure purposes, not trips to the grocery store. In fact the majority of land along this arterial doesn’t provide a sidewalk at all.

I do have to say Hilton Head did achieve one crowning glory. They saved their trees. As a result the island is for the majority under tree cover, and I a mean beautiful hundred year oaks with hanging moss. They also have strict town ordinances of very little public lighting and natural wood carved signage. I tell you, that is one classy McDonald’s. As a result there is a distinct character, so much so that I can be any where in the United States and say “hey that’s Hilton Head architecture.” It’s not really, it’s just that Hilton Head is very much representative of the early 70s. And yes, they managed to make that charming, trust me.

So yes, there are some great things about Hilton Head and most people who go there love it. But from an urban design and planning perspective it can be very damaging. And there is no doubt that it has, especially early on in its history. It’s resort identity and associated development pretty much forced an entire, quite healthy African-American culture and community from its shores. Even today, if you aren’t among the more well-off visitors you strive to find adequate public beach access or really experience some of the most naturally beautiful parts of the island. As I became an expert in urban design, this has always haunted me…

…but hey, sometimes you can’t help who (or should I say where) you love.

Holy HOA.

30 Mar

My husband and I recently moved into a great townhouse that is part of a Home Owners Association. It is the first time I’ve ever lived where one of these was present and didn’t really think twice about what it would be like. Of course I’ve always known the purpose of them: to manage communal property and open space while maintaining a pleasant environment. And of course I’ve heard the horror stories of power crazed individuals making people’s lives hell. I’ve never really had a reason to have an opinion, until now. After almost a month in our new home I thought I’d give a quick review.

On Wednesday morning after the first HOA meeting since we’ve lived here, I walked outside to find our small garden flag moved to another position in our small 2 ft. x 5 ft. green space in front of our home. It had been turned 45 degrees so the homeowners across from us wouldn’t have to look at it when they walked out their door. Now instead of using this post as a personal rant (which is tempting, trust me), I thought I would explore HOAs in the context of some urban design principles. That, I think, would be a lot more productive 🙂

In my opinion, the number one purpose of urban design is to empower people. Building a pleasant and connected environment gives people the greatest amount of choice in accessing their built environment. Making choices in our lives, is by far, the thing that empowers us the most. Deciding whether to take the bus or take the train, instead of having to sit in traffic, should be a choice. Deciding to walk or ride a bike to get a gallon of milk, should be a choice. Being able to afford to live in a neighborhood close to your work and school, should be a choice. Urban designers work everyday to make these real choices for people.

According to Responsive Environments, one of the founding books on urban design, personalization is one of the seven qualities that empower people in their urban context. The ability for people to personalize their own space, can cause them to not only be more committed to maintaining their property, but feel more emotionally connected to their neighborhood and neighbors. It can also enliven the public realm, and be one of the most influential factors in contributing to a neighborhood’s character. When we’re in Chinatown we know it, when we’re in New Orleans’ French Quarter, we know it. When we’re in the Manhattan’s Lower East Side we know it. Residents here have a personality, and they show it. Personalization at its best? Christmas lights.

So, HOAs…

Yes, they have many wonderful qualities I am sure. They probably have a huge role in maintaining higher property values and thwarting those with less than great taste from turning their front yard into “gnomes gone wild“. But in some cases, like mine, they strip people of power. Power to use the 2’x5′ patch in front of their front door to make their house feel like home. When I walked out the door and saw my personal property had been altered, I honestly felt dis-empowered. While I only live in a development of 10 units, my HOA will not have a huge impact on my neighborhood. But when HOAs strictly dictate the house colors, height of fences, and mailbox designs in a development of 4oo houses, that development will suffer for it. Multiply that by thousands, and you have the bland vanilla that is suburbia.

In great defiance and at risk of being equally passive aggressive, I moved my small garden flag back to its 45 degree position – because I refuse to let myself be dis-empowered by my built environment.

The personalization of private property at its best!

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Local Series: Architecture Isn’t Everything…

28 Mar

But it’s something.

As a trained architect, I understand the influence that buildings can have on urban design. They connect people with their heritage, they give a place a unique identity, and they help create hustle and bustle in cities and neighborhoods. They can also be works of art. There are some buildings by the greatest architects, my favorite being Daniel Libeskind, that take my breath away and actually alter the way I look at the world. The greatest architecture speaks to a higher conceptual idea, and every design element of the building answers to it. Buildings have the power to truly affect people’s emotions and contribute to their lives…but they are not necessary.

This was evident in my visit to Sarasota this past weekend. My weekly explorations of my new state took me to Saint Armands Circle, which was developed by John Ringling of….you got it!…the Ringling Brothers Circus. Turns out that in addition to juggling and eating fire, John Ringling designed and built one of the most loved parts of Sarasota. After travelling to Italy, he was inspired to create a “people friendly place of broad boulevards, beautiful homes, classical statues, lush landscaping, elegant shops and restaurants, and a central park for musical performances.” In 1917 he began his vision, which grew until the Great Depression. It took another two decades after that for his neighborhood to be complete.

An aerial of Saint Armand’s Key with the circle in the center of the island. (www.thesaundersblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/SAC-Aerial.jpg)

Saint Armands Circle was a very successful piece of urban design. It’s ample and pleasant pedestrian environment thrives despite it being wrapped around a road carrying high volumes of traffic. Multiple users were able to share the public realm comfortably and safely. Angled and paralleled parking protected the pedestrian further. In fact, there was parallel parking around the traffic circle, which baffled my English husband (we know how the English are about their roundabouts…) But in fact, it was perfectly safe. People were so concerned about not being able to park on the curve that they did so very carefully and slowly, further protecting pedestrians. The mixed-use area hustled and bustled on this Saturday afternoon, while the central park was quaint and quiet. The pedestrians crossings were very short and very wide. They were interjected so often by median parks that their short distance was almost cute. If a pedestrian crossing can be cute, these certainly were. It truly was charming, I didn’t want to leave.

But what really struck me about this part of the city was the lack of architectural integrity in the buildings. Some buildings were nothing more than a storefront that seemed to be held up by the structures on either side. Others were built from the cheapest materials, playfully mimicking Greek and Italian style. It was laughable, and yet it really didn’t matter. No one noticed the buildings, no one cared. People just loved sitting at the sidewalk cafe people watching, eating ice cream in the shaded park, and window shopping. The activity and interaction with people is what made people love this space. And I have to say, I think that is the case of most well-loved places. Buildings do not have to be beautiful, conceptually designed, and breathtaking to make a difference.

What made Saint Armands Cirle work so beautifully was how the fabric was constructed around one central point. Connected streets and perimeter blocks with dense, mixed use buildings, like so many other most-loved places, created the structure for the community and visitors to flock to it for decades.

John Ringling certainly has brought us all a lot in our lives. For most of us its tricks, animal performances, and trapeze acts found only at the oldest and most successful circus in the world. We’ve all been, and it was magical. But for the lucky residents of Florida he gave us a perfect piece of urban design, which serves as a sustainable example of how to continue to construct our built environment.

And remember, it’s not all about the architecture people.

The Great Divide: What Urban Design Can’t Accomplish.

18 Mar

Urban Design certainly can accomplish a lot and have an enormous effect on how people live their lives. The built environment can give people choice to live a healthy, community-oriented, and an environmentally friendly lifestyle – or the opposite. But research shows that physical interventions can only accomplish so much. There are obviously hugely influential societal factors, such as race, class, and years of oppression (or privilege) that can have an enormous and sometimes a seemly irreversible effect on neighborhoods.

I came across a BBC video that explores this issue in a Saint Louis neighborhood called The Loop. Please check it out here. This video explores how one street can divide two demographics so intensely. I couldn’t help but share it because I spent four years living right next to the street in question while studying architecture at Washington University in Saint Louis. On one side is a predominately affluent, white neighborhood, with gorgeous stately homes and the home of a top 12 university. On the other, is what can be described most simply as the ghetto.

I was surprised that the video didn’t touch upon the total revitalization of Delmar Boulevard, or The Loop as it is known. The 5 block stretch of this area acts as the retail and entertainment heart for both sectors of society. Here you can see people of all eccentricities and identities having fun harmoniously. In 2007 the American Planning Association recognized it as “One of the 10 Great Streets in America.” (Read about it here.)

I spent many weekends at Blueberry Hill, where Chuck Berry still to this day performs his trademark duckwalk monthly. I also witnessed the younger generation performer Nelly, film his music video on Delmar. With the lyrics “I’m from the Loop and I’m proud” there is no doubt that the street plays a part in everyone’s self-identification. Having said that, as students we were told never to cross Delmar Boulevard. As a result, embarrassingly, I rarely experienced and witnessed some of the conditions documented in this video.

The famous St. Louis institution and home to Chuck Berry, Blueberry Hill, attracts a diverse demographic and generates lots of activity in the public realm. (http://cache.virtualtourist.com/15/2056706-In_Front_of_Blueberry_Hill_Saint_Louis.jpg)

Delmar Boulevard got the nickname “The Loop” from the now-retired streetcar route. The turn-around point right at end of this part of the street, gave it its name. By the 1930s, the Loop was booming with retail, entertainment, offices and apartments. It was accessible and popular with many St. Louisans. Like so many main streets across America it suffered from the suburban mall movement, and by the time the streetcar system was terminated in the 1960s it was deserted and dilapidated. Luckily for all of us, the city had enough sense to preserve the historic character of the area, including the store-fronts and instill zoning changes that required all then-future ground-floor vacancies to be filled by commercial uses.

Enter the entrepreneur, Joe Edwards, in 1972. There is no greater story of one individual having more effect in one neighborhood. He in himself is a success story. His is well-known in St. Louis and there is no doubt his passion, commitment, and business savvy made The Loop’s regeneration happen. He opened Blueberry Hill when few healthy businesses existed on the street, and set up a Business Improvement District (BID), that funneled money into the streetscape and public realm. He opened more unique businesses such as an old-style bowling lounge, a concert-venue, and restored independent movie theater. He also funded the St. Louis Walk of Fame, which placed stars in the pavement for famous St. Louisans. He is now instrumental in bringing the street trolley back to Delmar, which will connect the entertainment district with Forest Park and the museum district.

Joe Edwards’ crowning achievements in addition to Blueberry Hill: The restored Tivoli Theater, The Saint Louis Walk of Fame, The Pin-Up Bowl, and The Pageant music venue.

(Source)(Source)(Source)(Source)

The main point of me telling you this story, is that Delmar Boulevard has achieved an extremely high level of urban design. It is walkable, overlooked, has an active public realm, and a strong economic presence in the area. The light-rail system, MetroLink, connects the area with the rest of the city. The street network on each side is well-connected, creating a grid that allows multiple connections into this thriving part of town. The eccentricity and affordability of the businesses and corridor identity is all-inclusive and welcoming to all.

Yet, still, it is segregated. Just as the video shows, the surrounding context north of Delmar continues to suffer from poor education, employment, crime, and drug use. As an urban designer, we have to realize that in some situations that improving physical conditions can only go so far, and social and political interventions are required. It is up to the city and community groups to give these people the training and education that can help to start improve people’s lives who have long suffered. Of course, this takes time. And I would bet my bottom dollar that if given the right support, The Loop and its surrounding neighborhoods would improve faster than other parts of the city that aren’t able to tap into such a thriving and strong heart, serving as a foundation for so many people’s self-identity.

People might then ask, “well what’s the point of urban design, if it can’t create change?” Well, we already know that it creates an enormous amount of change and any resident of the area will tell you that Joe Edwards and the Loop’s revitalization has had an effect on people’s self-identity and quality of life. What this example does show, is that there is a limit to what urban design can achieve, especially those that are the most severe situations.

Local Series: Celebration.

11 Mar

I have been a supporter of New Urbanism ever since I was educated enough to understand traditional urban design principles and the effects they can have on people’s lives and local businesses. I wrote my first masters dissertation on the New Urbanism movement, mostly because I realized there was a a disconnection between the CNU (Congress for New Urbanism) Charter, and what was actually being built on the ground. I was witnessing a fourth and fifth wave of New Urbanism developments being built where I lived, and saw little to no direction on the how CNU’s principles should be implemented, or any measure on which to judge them. Developments were being built, that in my opinion, weren’t properly embodying the movement; my research proved that this was the case.

Since moving to Florida I have been itching to make it to Celebration and Seaside, two of the most well-known examples of New Urbanism. Yesterday I had the opportunity to check out Celebration, and I took it! I have to say, overall I was very pleasantly surprised. But this was a reaction I wasn’t expecting. Reports of people who have been weren’t stellar, and time has provided lots of criticism of the movement.

The main criticism of New Urbanism on the public, national scale is the architectural design often used in these developments. It is almost always traditional and sometimes lacks design detail. The result is that buildings can look unsubstantial, almost like a movie set. Which is ironic, since the New Urbanism development of Seaside was used as just that for The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey. For a movement that is supposed to be so forward thinking addressing the modern issues of society, critics ask why does it appear to be stuck in the past?

After visiting Celebration my answer to this question was confirmed: because architectural style is the least important issue of New Urbanism, and it ticks almost every other box pretty well. A very wise professor pointed out to me the great responsibility that urban designers have, that architects don’t. Urban designers design the public realm, which will remain for thousands of years. When we design a street, millions of dollars of public infrastructure will be designed along with it. In Europe the busiest of roads were designed and built by Romans – they are still there. Buildings on the other hand are a very transient layer of the built environment. While they are of course instrumental in giving a piece of town its unique identity, they last a comparatively short amount of time; demolished and rebuilt on the average of a 40 year cycle. My point is that street network and design is more important to contributing how we can navigate our world in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.

The majority of the architectural design of Celebration was very traditional, but also very nice. The truth of the market speaks: we are in Orlando, FL, not southern California where modernism and post-modernism is the accepted architectural style. However, the developers, which of course was Disney, backed up Celebration with some big architectural heavy hitters. Michael Graves, Phillip Johnson, and Robert A.M. Stern all designed civic buildings in the Celebration town center. ‘Nough said.

My own personal criticism of New Urbanism is that it often focuses on the small-scale design details, such as streetscape and pedestrian experience. While of course these are crucial, larger and arguably more influential factors like connectivity with its urban context are sacrificed. Of course you hear me harp on about connectivity like I’m a broken record, but it’s so important to being able to use our built environment in an environmental sustainable way. While Celebration is very permeable within itself, with perimeter blocks and connected streets, it is not connected to its greater context. Of course that in part is because there is nothing much to connect to; it’s location like a traditional subdivision, is off the side of a highway with no efficient mode of public transportation.

And this is where the greater conclusion of my research on New Urbanism comes in: it’s worth it anyway. Because one day I truly believe that we will get our acts together (out of necessity instead of choice I’m afraid), and provide our citizens with an efficient, accessible, and extensive public transportation network. And when that happens, developments like Celebration will best be prepared to accommodate it without any alterations. Like the most ancient towns built around the same traditional urban design principles, it will be the most flexible and sustaining.

If you can look beyond the architectural design or the fact that on the large-scale it isn’t accomplishing large environmental change like the movement aims to do, Celebration does so much right. Mixed uses that include retail, commercial, residential, office, educational, and institutional truly allow residents to not have to leave the town for days on end. Perimeter blocks allow public spaces to be completely overlooked. Opportunities are provided to connect with nature, including fishing in the town center lake, an active/play water feature, and natural corridors that make room for wildlife. A true mix of housing is provided: small apartments, townhouses, small and dense single-family homes, and large mansions with water and wooded views means a family can be accommodated their entire lives. Celebration is very legible: landmarks galore create place identity unique to the town. While of course Celebration has the weather in its favor, the public realm is very active. Ground level spaces create lots of hustle and bustle on the main streets, filled with people doing my favorite activity: people watching. This is evidence of a healthy public realm.

Above all else, it is extremely walkable with a stunning pedestrian environment. I saw one of the most beautiful streets I’ve ever seen in Celebration. It was proportioned perfectly with a stream and wildlife corridor down the center, one lane of traffic with a one bay of parallel parking on each side. Intermittently it was crossed by beautiful, arching bridges to provide a connected street network. A welcome arch of shade over the sidewalk is created by a line of trees. Kudos…it was perfect.

Water Street, Celebration, FL

Finally its important for me to say there was not one trace of Mickey mouse in this whole place. While it might have been developed by the Walt Disney World corporation, it will sustain itself as a town in its own right for sure. It has matured well, and grown into its own over the last two decades. Celebration was the first, younger generation example of New Urbanism I got to witness first hand, and what a treat it was. If the New Urbanism developments built in later years, and those still to come can adhere to the CNU principles as well as Celebration did, we can perhaps start to see some real change in our suburban built environment.

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Campus Planning…What’s the Deal?

29 Feb

After graduating from my masters programs this past August I made a dive into the job market and came across a lot of firms and professionals that specialized in campus planning. Some of these made a big distinction between campus planning and town and city planning, and often only concentrated on one type or the other. Often times I would hear, “you obviously have experience in urban planning and design…but what about campus planning?” This question first baffled me, but of course there are logistical reasons for this separation, mostly a difference in the development process. Universities and colleges have private ownership of large amounts of land, different funding processes, and a sometimes intricate growth and space organization plans that differ greatly from more traditional projects. Even after learning more about the campus planning process, I still have to ask, why the distinct separation between campus planning and land-use planning?

This issue lies in a great debate of what urban design actually is and what scope it covers. I think there is an assumption among many, that urban design is at a very small-scale and deals primarily with the design of streetscape and placemaking. I couldn’t disagree more. As I’ve written before, urban design is based around certain principles that can be applied across many different situations and scales within the built environment. Campus planning is a perfect example of how urban design principles such as connectivity, legibility, variety, and adaptability, to name a few, can be applied on the large and small scales: looking at how a campus connects with its greater context vs. how a person feels in one small space.

Let me interject here to tell you a personal anecdote. I have always had a huge appreciation for the importance of campus design. I have spent a majority of my life on campuses: my elementary and middle schools were on a 122 acre campus, my high school was designed and built in the early 1800s, and my college was once part of the 1904 World’s Fair. Alternatively my graduate school lacked identity and legibility. It operated more as a collection of buildings. On graduation day there wasn’t even a place to take a picture. I have always been acutely aware of how campuses have operated, but more importantly how they have made me feel and in turn, how they have contributed to my personal identity.

Nothing warms my heart more than seeing the Phillips Academy Andover clock tower appear in the tree tops as I make a turn on Massachusetts Highway 28. That is the urban design principle, legibility, at it’s best. That clock tower is practical: it lets you know where you are on campus and what direction you need to walk in, and its emotional: it is a landmark for the school and your experiences there. But what Andover really was to me, was a home. Its sprawling greens, intimate courtyards, and building space planning created the backdrop of my adolescence.

The social implications of urban design are very much related to place identity, social inclusion, and community cohesion. In no other place than campuses are these more important. Today, as the urban and suburban continues to grow, how campuses connect and reference their local neighborhoods and cities are becoming increasingly relevant. Should campuses be walled off for exclusivity like Duke? Or completely integrated like NYU? Or perhaps somewhere in between like Harvard?

Duke University, Harvard University, New York University

Duke University’s campus is self-contained surrounded by private property. It is accessible on private roads. (Source) Harvard University fits within Cambridge’s block structure, but is organized around courtyards and quads. While it is clear that these very much “belong” to the school, they are open to the public. (Source) New York University and New York City are one in the same. Campus open spaces are city public spaces, which can confuse the place identity of the institution. (Source)

While the answer to these questions varies based on context, I think in most cases a university should never segregate itself from the world around it. In doing so, they could keep their students from the real life learning experiences that surround them, and could instill a sense of eliteness and social exclusion within the community. But because the edges where campus meets the city are becoming increasingly crucial to how institutions and the city relate to one another, I believe it is a detriment for campus planning and greater land-use planning/design to be separated. On the large design scale, they are one in the same, and urban design principles apply to both. Hopefully as the urban environment continues to expand and be retrofitted, our private and public worlds can meld together a little more seamlessly. In my opinion, there are only good implications in creating a connected and well designed boundary between the two.

Hello Cigar City!

22 Feb

At the end of next week Tampa, Florida will become my new home. My husband and I are excited for this new adventure, and I certainly can’t wait to get started in my new job as an urban designer for a transportation planning firm. Anytime I move to a new city it’s important to me to understand how, when, and why it is there, and who helped build it. That will be my heritage, and as I have mentioned before, that is critical in continuing to develop a place with the utmost meaning in people’s lives. My home city of Charlotte, NC was developed around a trading post where two Native American trading paths crossed. I have always felt comfort in knowing how my built environment originated. I wanted to learn the heritage of my new city, and I thought we could do it together.

Of course Tampa has a long Native American and Spanish history, but who really caught my attention in the development of Tampa as part of the 4th largest metropolitan area in the Southeast, was Mr. Henry B. Plant. For those who live in Florida or have studied transportation history in America, Mr. Plant is a well-known character. But I must admit, the story of Mr. Plant’s contribution to the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in the late 1800’s was new to me.

South Florida Railroad (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1888_SFRR_north.jpg)

The Plant System is an intricate system of railroads that begin in Savannah and extend throughout Georgia and Florida. While obviously there were some towns established in Florida, like Tampa, Mr. Plant’s railroad not only caused those cities to boom in population, it was a catalyst for brand new development. It also started entire industries for Florida, including tourism. Mr. Plant was a businessman and knowing that his railroad allowed Americans to travel to the state for the first time, he built a series of hotels along the line. On the edge of the tropics, Florida offered sunlight, constantly warm weather and fresh air believed at the time to treat breathing disorders. People came in the masses, filling his rail cars and hotels.

The Tampa Bay Hotel (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Old_Tampa_Bay_Hotel.jpg)

The Tampa Bay Hotel still stands today as the Henry B. Plant Museum on the campus of the University of Tampa. Preserved in its original Moorish Revival style, it is literally breathtaking in person. Henry Flagler, another railroad tycoon, built hotels in Miami, St. Augustine, Daytona, West Palm Beach, and Key West. With an extensive railroad transportation system and luxurious places to stay, Florida development boomed.

Hav a Tampa! (dailycapitalist.com/2009/06/24/adios-have-a-tampa/)

You might ask where the cigars come in to play. It’s simple, when Tampa was connected to the rest of the state, the southeast, and country by Mr. Plant’s railroad, it allowed a gentleman by the name of Vincente Martinez Ybor, a cigar maker of Spanish descent, to move his cigar company from Key West to Tampa. An industry was born. A neighborhood directly north of downtown Tampa was filled with warehouses that produced Cuban cigars for decades. Today this neighborhood, abandoned after the U.S. Embargo against Cuba, is being revived as an entertainment hub in those same warehouses. My godfather clued me in on the phrase “Hav-a-Tampa!” A non-smoker myself I was completely unaware that an entire product was named after the city in which it was created.

The biggest lesson learned from this story is that transportation in the key. Of course, I have become very aware of this in the present day, but what is disheartening and hopeful at the same time, is that we have fore-thinkers like Mr. Plant as an example. Building transportation before there was anything to be transported to currently is a completely revolutionary idea, when in fact it’s not revolutionary at all. There were no thriving industries or development to build a railroad to, but Mr. Plant built one anyway, and in doing so, he created them.

My wish for us as Americans and our country is that we can have the forethought to learn from our predecessors like Mr. Plant. We are at the turning point, the precipice, or whatever you want to call it. Right now we have to put the investment into our built environment that will allow us to stop polluting the earth, depriving our health, and tearing apart our communities. Public transportation must happen. And when it does, only positive benefits will ensue. What new industries will be created? How will we rebuild our relationships with each other?

Starting next week as I pass the glorious Tampa Bay Hotel and eat dinner in an old Ybor City warehouse, I will remember Mr. Plant and be inspired by his gutsy and brave commitment to changing the world he knew. I hope I can do the same.

17 Feb

Check out the Ink and Compass blog for some interesting facts on how Americans’ housing desires have started to shift. However, in my opinion, not fast enough. Can someone tell me who those people are who would extend their daily commute by 40 minutes? But for those 75% who want walkability, 60% who want mixed-uses, and the 88% who crave a sense of community, the design of the physical environment must start meeting their needs.

Ink & Compass

I’ve heard it said, and have often repeated, that one can get used to living in a smaller house (or condo or apartment), but you never get used to a long commute. After decades of continued car-dependent sprawl, maybe we’re all finally cluing in. Or maybe not.

According to the 2011 Community Preference Survey that outlines what Americans look for when deciding where to live:

Six in ten (59%) would choose a smallerhouse and lot if it meant a commute time of 20 minutes or less. Four in ten (39%) would stick with the larger houses even if their commute was 40 minutes or longer

OK, so we’re not exactly all on the same page here.

A couple other interesting factoids from the survey:

1) We want to walk.  More than three quarters of Americans consider having sidewalks and places to  walk one of their top priorities.

2) In fact…

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Preserving Old Life…Breathing New Life.

16 Feb

I love adaptive reuse…of anything.

I first came across the term while studying architecture. In that sense it’s taking a building used for one purpose and using it for another.  Abandoned factories can be turned into apartment lofts, or church sanctuaries into restaurants. The possibilities are endless. I originally loved these projects for their unique architectural spaces and details. Having historic materials like railroad ties, contrasted with chic metal or glass in your living room creates visual interest wherever you look.

Of course reuse can be applied to anything. For our recent anniversary my husband got me a ring that was made out of a silver sugar spoon handle. This practice was originally done in Victorian England by servants who stole silverware from their employers because they couldn’t afford wedding rings. Creative, huh?

It is clearly understood in the architecture community that adaptive reuse is very environmentally sustainable. The reuse of buildings prevents the large amount of CO2 that is emitted during demolition. Of course it also preserves the destruction of raw materials that would be used to build a new structure, along with the fossil fuels used to transport them.

However, in my architectural education the other very positive benefits were barely mentioned. The adaptive reuse of buildings, especially those that hold a very significant place in the identity of a city, contribute massively to the place-making of neighborhoods and communities.

It’s always heartbreaking for me to see buildings that are so loved by people imploded. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been someone who’s always placed a great deal of importance on my physical surroundings. When I moved from my childhood home at the age of 16, it was the first big loss I had experienced in my life. I came across the demolition of the Old St. Louis Arena in 1999, while I studied in St. Louis. “The Old Barn” was the term St. Louisians called it during its 65 years of housing events for the community, including sporting events, concerts, the circus. For 27 years it hosted the St. Louis Blues, the NHL hockey team. It’s closing sparked months and months of protesting to prevent its demolition. People shared their memories of the building, hoping that collectively the communities love could save it. They couldn’t. On February 27, 1999 thousands of people went to watch it be imploded. In a poor attempt to try to make it a celebration, the developer set off fireworks. For many, it was a funeral.

 

I often think about what that building could have become. Of course it was economically unfeasible for the St. Louis Blues to continue to play there, but the beautiful example of Art Deco architecture surely could have lived on as a concert hall or an entertainment complex where people could have continued to make it part of their lives. Unfortunately, no remnants of the site’s history or its landmark status remains. Now it is this…an office park. Much loved? Probably not.

Of course this post can be viewed as unrealistic or unaware of development, progress, and economic feasibility. Adaptive reuse is not always a marketable or feasible option. But I choose, in this post at least, to remember those special places that mean so much to each and every one of us. In the case of the St. Louis Arena, its adaptive reuse, while not immediately economically feasible, could have been more economically sustainable in the long run. Creating unique and emotionally significant structures, where people want to spend more time, and therefore are more economically valuable, becomes more challenging every day. The question for me is: how long will that office park last, and when it is torn down will anyone try to save it?

Book Review: Urban Code.

12 Feb

I recently picked up a coffee table book at an architecture bookstore in LA, named Urban Code: 100 Lessons for Understanding the City by Anne Mikoleit and Mortitz Purckhauer. This is a great book for city lovers; it simply lists one hundred facts about the city operates, and how people use it. Some will be very familiar to an urban designer, such as “pedestrians are potential buyers”, but others are obviously amusing, like “people walk in the sunshine,” and “snack stands smell of food.” Of course, there is a breadth of meaningful design advice behind these; here is preview:

#01: People walk in the sunshine: “Man mistrusts many things, but he will follow the sun blindly…Alongside the pulsing reactions to the dictatorial presence of the sun, its influence has long become a decisive advantage for shops’ positions.”

People walk, and when they do they follow the sun, crossing streets back and forth again. This has major implications on the urban elements that depend on the pedestrian, especially stores, restaurants, and street vendors. Which of these benefits most from the wandering pedestrian? Street vendors, who can move their cart into the sun.

Lesson: When we decide where community facilities, commercial uses, and mobility networks should be located, don’t forget to check out the sun studies! 

#13: Tourists carry bags: “Shopping bags are becoming more popular as objects of advertisement, since they are constantly present in the public realm, catching the eye of potential customers…the presence of the bag should not be underestimated as a means of orientation in the streetscape.”

Bags can tell you a lot about who a person is:tourist or a local. It tells us their interests: cooking, sports, or reading. Seeing people who share the same interests as us can make us feel comfortable and safe in the public realm. Branded packaging can help orient us: If I see someone with a Starbucks cup walking in a city I am not familiar, I immediately walk in the opposite direction. I will be bound to find one.

Lesson: Urban environments benefit greatly from a dense, and walkable commercial atmosphere.

#42: People walk more slowly in the afternoon: “While the feel of the city is dominated in the mornings by the strapping tempo of the working population, the afternoons bring ambling tourists (in every sense,) who seems intuitively to take their cues from window displays.”

There are many different types of people in this world, who are going different places, enjoy doing different things, and go out at different times of day. This is a gift to urban design because there is a constant user to maintain the activity and safety of the public realm.

Lesson: Make sure to provide a reason for users to be part of the urban development 24/7.

# 65: People sit with their back protected: “Human anatomy has evolved to possess a privileged front and a disadvantaged rear…our back remains in need of protection. It is for this reason that covering one’s back becomes a critical criterion in our choice of place to sit.”

We are evolutionary creatures. Successful urban design maintains a constant level of activity in the public realm, which means we need to provide a place for people to sit. People are comfortable sitting in different ways in different settings: older people love park benches, teenagers love lounging on the grass, and everyone loves sitting next to water.

Lesson: provide lots of seating, with a range of qualities, with interesting things to look at.

#80: Cobblestones tell stories: “The pedestrian is placed in dialogue with the past through encounters with textures and features…Rectangular cobblestones mediate between past and present, they carry hidden, lyrical accents that reveal other geographic and temporal associations.”

In short, the urban environment is made up of layers and layers of history that convey and represent the identity and culture of place. People look to these elements to define themselves and their own identity. At the very least, something like cobblestones can spark an urban users imagination and enjoyment of their environment.

Lesson: preserve local, historical, and unique urban features. This preserves local heritage and identity.

These lessons are invaluable in designing an urban environment. Truthfully, urban designers are armed with a toolbox of urban elements, as I call them: streets, blocks, plots, and buildings. We are responsible for putting them together in a way that leads to social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and economic regeneration. We also have our own experiences of the built environment (that are sometimes the most obvious) that affect our designs, but unfortunately these can be easily overlooked in favor of urban design theory or design guides. This book reminds us as we can draw our lines on AutoCad, juggling the many factors that influence a design, that sometimes those that we should remember most are the simple observations that we know just from being users of the city. The preface states, “Urban Code tries to move beyond passively looking at [city] scenes and to encourage a way of “seeing” into them – to understand the forces that shape a place, and how these forces lead to the creation of its special atmosphere.” It certainly does, definitely check it out!

Guest Post: Meditations on Mobility in England

11 Feb

I am happy to introduce a new guest post series on this blog. It’s my goal to create a place where lovers of the built environment can share their thoughts, observations, and passions. Please let me know if you’re interested in writing!

My choice of first guest blogger was an easy one. I first met Franny when I was 16: we lived across the hall from each other at boarding school. We didn’t know it at the time, but we would both become urban designers and planners. After losing touch for over a decade, we recently reconnected through social media and a mutual friend. She moved to England at the same time I left England. It’s been a joy to share thoughts, build my blog, and enter a design competition with someone who shares a trans-Atlantic knowledge of planning. Enjoy the post and please check out her blog, Ink and Compass, here.

I spent the last two years of my life in Cambridge, MA, which is notorious in the US for being one of the least car-friendly cities in North America. There are one-way streets, roads that double back on themselves, lots of no-left-turn signs, and lots of pedestrians, buses, cyclists, and other cars. Even though I had a car while I lived there, I loathed to drive it anywhere but the grocery store.

When I moved to Cambridge, UK, I left my car behind. The city is small and compact. The terrace house architecture means that few houses come with dedicated parking spots, and on-street parking is hard to come by. Although most streets are two-way, they are so narrow that they can accommodate a car and a cyclist, if both slow down and pass carefully. When two cars meet going opposite directions, an elaborate dance happens.

A friend tried to drop me off at my house last night, but even after four months here, I was foiled by the labyrinth of dead-end streets in my neighborhood, which I have only navigated on foot. We finally gave up when she got me within a few minutes’ walk of my house.

In short: you have to be nuts to want a car in my neighborhood. Of course, people still have them, and car ownership is still an aspirational thing in England, as it is elsewhere. People feel strongly here, as they do in the US, that policies that discourage car ownership are an infringement on their freedom.

And yet: in 2008, the UK had only 525 cars per 1000 people, while the US had 828. What are the fundamental differences in our cultures that the US has 60% higher car-to-resident ratio?

The most obvious thing is the built environment. Below is a map of my neighborhood. I’ve included the most efficient route between my house (point A) and the nearby commercial strip, Mill Road, in a car. Some of the streets are one-way, but most are bisected by cute little cut-throughs. Most allow for emergency access. The streets are also so narrow that driving and parking can be extremely unpleasant; see below for a typical street.  And there are all sorts of very small ways in which the design of streets is more accommodating to cycles (without making things worse for automobiles). My favorite is that many of the old homes have hitching rings that have been re-purposed or replaces as cycle lock-up site.

Cambridge has also invested heavily in keeping cars out of the city center. While this is partly to do with pollution, congestion, quality of life, etc, I think it mostly has to with the fact that there is simply not space for all the cars. The city has five park-and-ride locations outside the city. There is a centrally-located bus depot and a brand-new bus rapid transit line with accompanying cycle path.

Courtesy railforthevalley.com

Which brings me to my next point: the UK also has an extensive off-road bike network. Although in many places it is not well-lit, which makes year-round use a problem, it does provide a sheltered and safe means of transport for people who are not confident sharing the street with cars. I did my friend Lauren’s 10 mile commute in December, just for an adventure, and I was amazed by how much of the route was on dedicated paths.

Because of the urban design considerations, and the difficulty driving, many people elect to cycle where Americans would throw in the towel. In my neighbourhood, it is common to see two or three children strapped to their parents’ cycles, or riding in a cargo trailer.  I personally like the ones that have a front cabin for children; I’ve written about ways to encourage riding with childrenat Ink & Compass.

Of course, urban design is not destiny. There is also the fact that the UK has no domestic source of oil and no major car manufacturers to howl about petrol prices, so the cost of car ownership is higher here. The bus system is privatized and covers more territory because of the need to serve small villages, reducing the isolation of people who live in rural or quasi-rural areas. And while I am new to the country, it seems to me that buses have less stigma – less association with poverty – than in the US.

There are many occasions, both here and in the US, where car ownership is necessary or practical, but in England, people do not suffer from dramatically decreased mobility despite having far fewer cars per capita. There are all sorts of lessons that the US could take from the UK to begin to move toward less dependence on personal cars.

Franny Ritchie, of the planning & geography blog Ink and Compass and is a recent graduate of MIT’s urban planning program.  She moved from Cambridge, MA to Cambridge, UK this past October, and she’s thrilled to be the first guest blogger at At Helm of the Public Realm.

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