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Tag Archives: empowerment

Place Identity: A Sensual City.

4 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

Co-dwelling with Nature

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

Place Identity NYC

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

Rooted in the Past, but not Stuck

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

Empowerment

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

Transculturality

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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