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Tag Archives: open space

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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How to Series: Street vs. Road

17 Jan

It was recently brought to my attention that there is quite a big difference between a road and a street in their function and design. Usually these terms are inter-exchanged freely and while I am fluent in the design of streetscapes and networks, I never sought out the difference between the terms. While both are elements in the public realm, a road is primarily for transportation or circulation. A street has a more active role as a facilitator for activity and community.

A classic examples of a road is below. It is used to get to point A to point B and while there might be development on either side, people do not spend time there. While urban designers might decide where roads are located, their specific design is more the work of highway engineers and transportation planners.

But streets are where the magic happens. Street festivals, parades, bicycling to brunch on a spring day, finishing up books during lunch breaks, or strolling leisurely at dusk all can happen in a street. Foremost, well-designed streets put all users on the same playing field: drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists can all use this space comfortably. This is a task that engineers are usually not capable of.

road vs street

The image on the left shows a pedestrian, probably uncomfortably, walking along a road. http://www.futurecommunities.net/files/images/Dings1.jpg The image on the right shows a “homezone” where people can spend time in the street. http://www.walksydneystreets.net/photos/varroville-country-road-w.jpg

How do streets achieve this?

  • Grade Changes: Grade changes, or lack there of, are used to communicate to users how to use a street. The less there are, the more judgement drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists will have to depend on in navigating a space. This can slow down traffic and place more priority on other users. A homezone, seen above, is a type of street designed on one grade often used in residential areas, to promote community interaction and social inclusion.
  • Paving Materials: When fewer grades are used in street design, different paving materials can be used to designate certain uses. Parking spaces can be designated by brick, cycle lanes in yellow stone, and the rest of the street in gray pavement to clearly communicate their uses. But because the street is on one grade, these spaces can be “borrowed” by other uses when not being used. This allows the street to be more flexible to the needs of users.
  • Active Pavement: People spend time where they feel safe and have a reason to be there. In commercial areas, storefronts, cafes, and restaurants should have many windows and doors that allow the maximum amount of activity to spill out onto sidewalks. Outdoor seating and window shopping are classic examples of this. In residential areas, the rooms where the most time is spent (usually the living or family room) should over look the street. As many doors as possible should lead to the street, even in an apartment building setting, to encourage the safety of spending time there. In the above picture, these two boys can be easily monitored by their parents and neighbors as they play soccer.
  • Street Furniture: To really allow a space to be active and well-used street furniture most be provided. And not your typical park bench that restricts how it is used (sitting side by side isn’t a natural position to talk to one another), but creative pieces, walls, and steps that allow for groups of people and different sitting positions. Without a place to sit, reading, eating and people watching (some of the most common street activities) aren’t possible.
  • Pockets of Open Space and Other Elements: Allowing space within the street network for larger events than every day activity will help boost community activities and interaction. Pocket parks are perfect for picnicking and frisbee throwing, while fountains are perfect for cooling off your feet on a hot summers day.
Flexible Street Furniture

Flexible street furniture that welcomes sitting in different ways with groups of people. http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_x4FADDdzHdM/SjFk_PBa_0I/AAAAAAAAAV0/6CrsaVN2YK4/s400/IMG_0541.jpg

Of course in many situations the above elements are not appropriate. Often streets within the city are desperately needed as transportation routes for cars and public transportation. But that doesn’t mean that these streets only have to be used to get from point A to point B. They can still provide lots of social interaction. The perfect example? A boulevard.

A quick look at how to design a boulevard…

  • Lanes of traffic are left open and are clearly marked.
  • Sidewalks are on either side of the street, and often down a median in them middle. They are wide, well-planted, and with street furniture. They can accommodate high levels of activity from bordering buildings.
  • Crossings are often provided and can sometimes (depending on traffic volumes), be at the same grade as the sidewalk.
  • Parallel parking protects the pedestrian and makes them feel more comfortable around traffic at higher speeds and volumes.
  • Lighting and landscaping are used as elements that soften the pedestrian space and allow it to be used more times during the day and year.

There are many ways to design a street. Every urban designer has building blocks of urban elements that they can put together in different ways to create a streetscape. Knowing when to use which elements and how to create a street hierarchy to create a legible and clear identity for an area, is when urban design is crucial. Even when what a place needs most is a way to get from point A to point B, there are always ways to bring activity to a street, and therefore a neighborhood.

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