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Tag Archives: grid

Can Urban be Natural?

1 Feb

As I’ve come across a couple of posts recently that address the natural environment it occurred to me that there is often a disconnect between the city and nature. It made me pose the question: how integrated can the urban fabric be with its natural surroundings?  Architects are often very successful at this. In architecture school we spent hours marrying the design of our structure with its site. How did we best exploit what the landscape best had to offer? Some of the best at doing this were Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, and Antoni Gaudi.

So, what can we learn from these pioneers of design?

First we must understand the influence that industrialization has had on the city. Cities were very dirty for a very long time. During the pre-industrial revolution they were just filthy: dirty roads filled with waste that often led to disease and plague. During the post-industrial revolution, factories left soot on the buildings and in the air. With growth and wealth came the mind-set that the city was something that must be escaped. Of course now this opinion has been eradicated with the city becoming synonymous with culture, diversity, and entertainment. But with industry came the destruction of nature. And this is very much a residual identity of the city.

In answer to the belief that the city must be escaped was the Garden City movement. Originating in England as the brain child of Ebenezer Howard, it quickly spread to America, and other parts of the world. His thoughts were very much based on bringing nature into the built environment. Touched upon in one of my recent posts, The Original Suburb, this movement laid the foundation for suburbia as we know it today.

However, built environment professionals have condemned modern-day suburbia for the many negative effects its had on the environment, communities, and the local economy. It’s low density and wide streets could achieve foundations that Howard set out at the turn of the last century, but instead they have come to represent a wasteland. As a result, the one city planning movement that really set out to incorporate nature with the built environment has been condemned by association with what the very movement inspired in the first place.

So where does that leave us? How do we create an environment that is still very much urban but incorporates elements so that people benefit from feeling emotionally connected to nature?

Here are defining characteristics of the city that post the biggest challenges:

Density

One of the defining characteristics of a city is its density. More buildings in less space allows little room to exploit the land. An extreme example of a dense neighborhood is the walled city of Kowloon, Hong Kong that was torn down in 1989. You can see from the pictures that there were zero opportunities to appreciate the natural landscape, natural light, ventilation, or water that lies beyond its walls because of its high density.

The interior and exterior of the walled city of Kowloon, Hong Kong before it was demolished. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kowloon_Walled_City.jpg, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:KowloonWalledCityAlley2.jpg)

The Grid

There is a mentality of the traditional American grid that it must be rigid and efficient, which comes from the fact that many places in America were masterplanned instead of growing organically. The best example of course is New York City, check it out here. But connectivity and permeability do not require a certain shape or design. Movements, such as Transit-Oriented-Design and New Urbanism, can still be successful while creating an interesting, connected, and efficient grid that shies away from the unforgiving rigidity of historic masterplanned towns.

Open Space

The open green space that is often found in cities is anything but natural. While they serve their own, very valuable purpose of social inclusion and economic sustainability (see a great example of Savannah here) their perfectly manicured state clearly show that the “green” was inserted back into the grid instead of preserved. I came across a great blog post entitled A Garden City for the 21st Century, that details a new project in Aberdeen that is revitalizing its center and reconnecting the city to its natural landscape. While it has many inherently positive intentions and I am sure achievements, this over-engineered public space is not natural. We should learn to tell the difference.

Any development is composed of morphological levels: streets, blocks, plots, buildings, and open space to name a few. The design is in how these elements are put together. This is never more important than in preserving the natural landscape. Just as an architect, an urban designer must study a site carefully to determine its unique characteristics that will add natural character to a development. Whether it is beautiful views, the feeling of inclining up a hill, maximum interaction with water, creating space to sit under tall trees…all of these are exploiting the natural, or what is already there. When creating the first morphological layer, streets should be placed to maximize the natural elements of the site.

Some other thoughts to keep in mind:

  • Block Orientation – light studies should be carried out as a tool in designing the block orientation. In dense urban environments, buildings can overshadow open space and create a dim and dark environment. If blocks are orientated to maximize sun exposure throughout the year users will feel more connected to nature.
  • Perimeter Blocks – perimeter blocks (with buildings around the outside facing the street) allow the preservation of trees and natural growth in their center. Animals often live here.
  • Preservation of the Green – preserve the most unique parts of the natural landscape instead of building them back into a grid. While Central Park certainly is beautiful in its own right, it was designed and built from scratch by Frederick Olmstead. As a result nothing remains of Manhattan’s original natural landscape.
  • Visual Connection – preserve views of the natural environment that surrounds the development. Design the streetscape so it frames and celebrates these views.
  • Landscape Details – when all else fails always use natural, local materials and indigenous plants in the city. A great example of this is a water feature in the St. Louis City Garden, the winner of the 2011 ULI Amanda Burden Open Space Award. Naturally shaped stones welcome interaction with resources, such as water.

As a quick example I want to share a masterplan that I designed as part of a larger group of urban designers. The site was a flood plain and bordered by creeks that constantly overflowed. Instead of concreting the banks of the creek to move the water faster downstream away from the site, we preserved them in their natural state. In doing so we saved many indigenous plant and wildlife species. By making room for the water we able to use the flood risk of the site as an opportunity for residents to emotionally connect with their natural environment. A greenway with bike paths and leisure activities, as well as the incorporation of an extensive swale system allowed green elements to be constantly present in the development. By creating a street hierarchy of a strict grid that was interrupted by 3 undulating boulevards that followed the contours of the land, the development preserved the natural conditions of the site while achieving the densities of a city.

Botley Road, Oxford.

So yes, I do believe in using some of the tools above that the city can be natural. Of course achieving this will come down to the same thing it always does: the power of money and policy. Planners must put in place the structure of policy that rewards investment in the preservation of the natural landscape and the use of sometimes more expensive local materials and species. They must also learn to communicate with developers their direct benefits – return on investment and acquiring grants and public funding. Even in achieving this, built environment professionals must be educated in high-quality design and its direct positive effects. You can’t implement high-quality design, if you can’t recognize it.

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Travel Series: Savannah

30 Jan

Every year since I was born my family and I have gone to the beach in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. A 33 mile drive down the coast is one of the most beautiful and well-planned cities in America: Savannah, GA. Savannah was established in 1733 and is rich in history. The city played a large part in the American Revolution as a port city in the cotton-rich south. But perhaps its saving grace was that it was spared as the ending point in Sherman’s March to the Sea across Georgia. General Sherman of the Union Army on his quest to capture Savannah burned down most towns and fields that he passed by, including the capital city of Atlanta. Because of Savannah’s usefulness as a port city, it was saved instead and presented to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift. Even today when you visit Atlanta, it is comparatively void of any physical history of its colonial days. Savannah on the other hand is rich in historic architecture and planning.

Savannah is often overlooked for its grander and more visited counterpart to the north: Charleston. Charleston is located on a sound with direct views of the Atlantic Ocean, filled with large, historic mansions, and was the start of the Civil War. While Savannah’s historic homes are more modest in size, its genius masterplan and open space steals my heart as an urban designer.

Historic map of Savannah showing the connected network of streets and public, open squares. (http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1865/january/savannah-map.jpg)

Savannah has many landmarks that any tourist should see, including one of my favorites, the home where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island. But what any visitor will appreciate is the network of open squares, each with their own history, personality, and community identity. Savannah is designed around town square parks (each numbered in the map above.) These still remain, serving as anchors of the street network that connects them all together. My favorite part of the masterplan was the strategy behind it: self-defense.

Described as a British “social reformer, visionary, and military leader”, James Edward Oglethorpe discovered, founded, and designed Savannah as a trustee of the Georgian colony. I can’t help but feel a personal connection to this urban designer: he is from the small village of Godalming, Surrey where some of my best friends currently live. He studied in Oxford where I received my two masters. He set sail from Gravesend, Kent, close to my husband’s hometown, for Georgia. And of course, he designed my favorite city.

The legend alive and well in Savannah is that Oglethorpe was very much aware of a possible British threat of violence and designed the city to protect itself. With no telephone or means to connect quickly with one another, the idea was that if one person stands in the center of a town square and yells urgent news in four directions to another person standing in those town squares, it would quickly spread across the city. No need for Paul Revere or his horse!

Of course today we are safe from the threat of the British, but Oglethorpe’s design has an infinite amount of positive effects that has made Savannah the unique and sustainable city that it is today. Here are some of those:

  1. Safety – perimeter blocks perfectly intersected with the network of town squares allows all public space to be completely overlooked and monitored.
  2. Personalization – with each district having its own green space, the town squares easily transform to host formal neighborhood festivals and informal get-togethers by members of the local community. It is popular to even get married at the center of your town square.
  3. Connection with Heritage – town squares are named after historic generals and town leaders, and they often have a statue in their honor at the center of each. This allow residents to appreciate where they have come from and understand how it has shaped themselves and their community.
  4. Walkability – I have never been to a city that provides a more enjoyably walkable environment. Because public spaces are so connected to one another, perimeter blocks are a manageable size, and buildings are built at a high density, you can easily navigate the town.
  5. Legibility – Because each town square has its own identity and connected by an axial and rigid street network, the city is very legible. You always know where you are, and how to get to where you are going.
  6. Variety – Even though Savannah’s street network grid is rigid and similar to New York City’s, it offers an enormous amount of variety. The interruption of the grid by the town squares creates interesting visual views in streetscape and tree pattern that constantly and pleasantly surprise the pedestrian.
  7. Flexibility – the city’s town square and street network allowed it to be easily added on to. It often was, growing exponentially between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, to a total of 28 districts (each organized around a town square.) The city was able to grow organically, but still to this day be part of a well-connected and integrated masterplan.

The City of Savannah has done an amazing job at preserving the historic masterplan and the heritage that it represents. Of the 28 original town squares, 21 still exist. Most of seven that were lost were to make way for necessities that required larger plots including a courthouse and convention center. Perhaps the greatest legacy of this city is that it is now a teaching tool in placemaking and how to create unique developments. There is no doubt that when exploring the streets of Savannah, one can easily and simultaneously connect with the history of our country and the future of sustainable city planning

For further reading please click here for a fascinating entry from The New Georgia Encyclopedia.

A great architectural drawing showing how building relate to the Savannah street and town square network. (http://www.planning.org/greatplaces/spaces/2009/gallery03/image01.jpg)

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