Tag Archives: urban design

The built environment and its occupants (or why Gymkata is the greatest gymnast-themed movie dealing with the American ‘Star Wars’ program)

I’m a guy, so I like stupid stuff. A 1989 Ford Escort painted neon green with a five foot tall spoiler and an exhaust system louder than most NASA rockets at takeoff? Like it. A video of an elderly man nearly snapping his spinal cord after falling off an obstacle during his run at American Ninja Warrior? Definitely smitten. An American gymnast being chased by cannibalistic villagers in the fictional country of Parmistan and confronting these “foodies” in Pommel Horse Square? You had me at cannibalistic.

I could write about how architecture is shaped by its occupants, and how this relationship ultimately shapes societies, but that would take time away from you watching the above video and I know you only had a few minutes before you needed to walk away from the computer to 1) go to bed, 2) get back to work, or 3) head off to gymnastic practice.

Seriously though, what are the odds that Johnathan Cabot, the champion gymnast working for the United States government, would face his pursuers here? How many villages in the world have a pommel horse in the middle of a square, and under what search term on Kayak.com can I find them?

Again, you had me at cannibalistic.

What should be the next urbanism buzzword?

Apparently the term “smart growth” is out of style as much as a Sony Walkman and Crystal Pepsi (tastes just like Pepsi, and now with more transparency!). In this article on Next American City’s website they are looking for the next urbanism buzzword. So, for you who are not in the know about urbanism slang (which I mean slang used by city planners, not urban youths), “smart growth” is out, and “intelligent cities” is in.

I’m not sure if the next urbanism buzzword will change anything. We use these terms to succinctly describe (apparently in two words or less) the strategy of designing our built environment and of protecting our natural environment. Seems like for something so important we could get away with using at least three or four words. These terms at least try to communicate a way to design our cities with a more holistic approach rather than a focusing on each parcel of land as though it existed in the vacuum of space-time.

So, if you’ve read all of Nostradamus’ quatrains and feel like sharing with the rest of us on what will be the next urbanism buzzword, you can post your suggestion via Twitter @NextAmCity, or on their Facebook page.



The democratization of public space

I love history. I believe that we do not live on preordained paths, but I also believe that history repeats itself. The second our present ends, it becomes our history. (Which makes me wonder how thick history books will be when my son reaches middle school.)

I’ve been captivated by the images and news coming out of Egypt, not because it fills my daily quota for violence on television, but because it’s history. I imagined this is how all democracies began. There’s a ruling monarch (whether it be a person of royalty or a person in charge of a dominant political party, the buck usually stopped with one person) that pushes just a bit too hard on the general populace, and then people begin to gather. Tens of thousands of individuals, independent moving cogs in society, take on one voice. And that one voice begins to echo from the most democratic space in all the land – the public square.

The public square has historically served as a center for commerce and a living room for societies, typically flanked by what influenced society the most when the square was built (like a market, cathedral, government building, or football stadium). In a bygone era when communication relied on word of mouth, the public square served as a beacon for information. It essentially served as a place where the government could influence its people.

Of course the flip-side to that is public squares became a place for impromptu gatherings of people to complain about the government, to voice concern over the imbalance of power, and in some instances as a spark for to overthrow the government. These gatherings are the very root of democracy – an uncensored discourse over civil liberties, and that a truly democratic government is one that fears the people, not rules over them.

And just like architecture, public spaces are filled with symbolism. I suspect there are many public squares in Cairo, and that the protesters could have voiced their message from any of them. But they chose Tahrir Square, meaning liberation square. The name evokes freedom, and the symbolism spawns a sense of destiny in the protesters’ cause.

So I began to think what if people in my immediate area wanted to protest against the government (I love what-if scenarios), where would they meet? Are there any public spaces that promote people coming together voicing their concerns, that convey the symbolism of freedom, that honor democracy? Do we design public spaces in this country that advance a public discourse on freedoms and liberties?

Democracy depends on civil participation. Without this participation democracy morphs into a type of government where our leaders assume more control. In order to answer if our public spaces are democratic, one only needs to ask if our spaces promote participation.

What’s old is new again – the American city

We as a culture, as a society, and even as a species are infatuated with the future. We look for trends that will tell us what stocks to buy, which team to win the game, which neighborhood to live in, and which type of car will save us money. Design tries the same thing as far as figuring out what the future will bring us, but the inherent problem with design trying to forecast the future is that it goes against the primary purpose for design – to solve problems. We design to solve problems, so if we don’t know what the chief problems are needing to be solved in the future then the design becomes art – philosophically inspirational, but functionally useless (unless the art is being used to prop a door open to allow a breeze in).

Design in the 20th century – especially in regards to architecture and urban planning – was paramount with redefining the 19th century city. The high density, mixed uses, and a focus on the pedestrian and centralized transportation were replaced with sparse development, separated uses, and a focus on the automobile with decentralized transportation. For the most part this modern approach to urban planning has failed (or at least is in the process of failing), and I guess it’s failed because it really wasn’t solving a problem. I think like other modern approaches to architectural design the new way of creating an urban fabric didn’t complement (or even try to complement) with what worked with the existing model of designing and constructing our urban environment. Instead of improving upon what already worked it started from scratch in an effort to redefine how people lived, and with that set itself up for complete failure.

So here we are, living in the early part of the 21st century. We’re already a full decade into the new millennium, and the trend in urban design does not involve blocks of equally spaced high-rises as far as thee eye can see, or living in large biomes designed to accommodate a million people, or space colonies that can be reached by space elevators. The look and feel of most newly designed urban environments look more like the 19th century American city.

As I read this article about the renaissance of streetcars in American cities, I began to think how future American cities will probably look more like 19th century cities. A lot of resources (money and materials) are devoted to the accommodation of automobiles in our cities. There is a fine balance between how many people a city can house with how many automobiles can be handled by its streets. If our cities are designed in a manner that requires every resident to own a car then there is a maximum number of residents a city can have before people have to move further away from the city.

In 2003 London created the Congestion Charge Zone in an effort to reduce the amount of automobiles driving through Central London. This might seem like a crazy idea, but I feel that larger cities will someday eliminate most vehicular traffic through their most dense areas. The less vehicular traffic means fewer resources and less land devoted to the automobile, which means more land to construct buildings to house more people and offices. And that translates a larger dependence on public transportation, which means less automobile ownership. And this ultimately means a city that looks more like the 19th century.

Book review – Small Scale: Creative Solutions for Better City Living

There are many spaces in our built environment that are consciously designed and fall within the bureaucratic scope of local government. The architect designs the buildings and the immediate surroundings of the building. The landscape architect designs the “natural” areas and other parks. And the urban planner lays out a larger plan that is assumed will provide a better cohesion between the destinations and the circulation within the built environment.

But there are those spaces, almost accidental in a sense, that are realized after its surroundings are developed. Sometimes they are defined by their boundaries, other times they are identified by an object or an event. These spaces typically reside in the peripheral of the design focus of the architect, landscape architect, and even the urban planner. These are the spaces that are chronicled by Small Scale: Creative Solutions for Better City Living.

The authors – Keith Moskow and Robert Linn – categorize the projects into three categories: service, insight, and delight. The projects dedicated to service play a more functional role within their respective programs, whether it’s a pedestrian path and demonstration space symbiotically attached to the underside of an existing vehicular bridge (Marsupial Bridge, Milwaukee, WI), a four-story high tower that dispenses rental cars (Zipcar Dispenser, Boston, MA), or a security measure against potential vehicular terrorist attacks that actually eliminates the need for unsightly and cumbersome barriers (Tigertrap, Prototype Design). The most famous project listed within the service category is The High Line in New York City, which transformed a dilapidated railroad bridge into a nature-inspired linear park.

The other two categories – insight and delight – seem to dwell within the same realm of form without a purely utilitarian function. The insight projects combine art with a sense of social commentary or awareness (such as Sidewalk Series or the TKTS Booth), whereas the delight projects are formed more on a pleasing aesthetic with a subordinate purpose (Canopy and The New York City Waterfalls).What these projects remind me is that art does not have to be something displayed indoors with a paid admission. Art can occupy our everyday world, and can easily become part of our daily routine.

The hardest part of designing anything for the built environment is having too many variables. Design suffers greatly when every alternative is an option. It’s when designers face strict parameters concerning budget, scope, construction limitations, and the surrounding built environment that design can elevate itself above the mundane and find that harmonic balance between form and function.

Dense urban environments lend themselves well in providing a test ground for reimagining, repurposing, and reinventing small-scale design. The authors have provided an intelligent collection of projects that will provide inspiration for anyone solving a large problem for a small space.

Are “Living Streets” bad for cars?

The term “Living Streets” is just one of a plethora of words being used to describe a design and implementation strategy of humanizing our transportation corridors. In more simpler terms it means having streets focused more on people and not solely having them promote vehicular flow.

At some point during the modernization of America (after World War II) more people became enamored with living away from the typical city neighborhoods. There were many factors that made suburban development a reality including changes with financing a home, job growth for returning soldiers, the US having one of the only economies not severely hampered by the WWII, new highway construction making it easier to live outside of the city boundaries, and probably to a certain degree people making a quick buck on land speculation. (I don’t mean to sound cynical, but if you ever wonder why a capitalistic society follows a certain path there’s a good chance that someone is telling us that we absolutely need what they’re selling.)

I live in a neighborhood that was first built in the early 1960’s. Besides noticing the obvious suburban development patterns such as single-zoned uses (no integration between the residential and the few commercial developments on “the block”) and the winding streets that make it difficult to navigate through the neighborhood (most likely an attempt to reduce the amount of non-resident traffic through the neighborhood), I was amazed at how wide certain neighborhood streets were. I swear there’s one street that if lanes were painted on it you could have street parking on each side of the street and still have room for four more lanes.

So why are neighborhood streets that rarely ever provide a short cut to people who don’t live in the neighborhood so wide? The one reason I can think of is that in most jurisdictions the local fire department requires a certain width for streets to allow them easy access to homes. So as the fire trucks have become larger the streets became larger to accommodate them. Of course the byproduct of this is that streets create an environment more accommodating to cars than people, which if you ever watch the few cars traveling on the “multi-lane” neighborhood street you’ll notice these streets allow cars to travel much faster.

But then there are suburban traffic corridors (i.e. the primary streets for getting around suburbia). These streets, with their many lanes, multiple access points onto side streets and parking lots, and fast speed limits are incredibly unfriendly for pedestrians. Here in Colorado there is an organization called Denver Living Streets that is trying to provide solutions for turning major urban corridors into a more pedestrianized environment.

Of course there is concern that turning some of the larger traffic arteries into a more pedestrian friendly environment will create more traffic on these streets. One of the streets aimed at for creating a “Living Street” is Colorado Boulevard. I’m sure you know of a street like it where it’s 3-lanes in each direction with a continuous middle left turn lane in the middle. It lacks right turn lanes at certain major intersections, and it’s most usually a pain in the butt to turn left onto any street or parking lot where there’s no traffic light. And because of the suburban development where the major traffic arteries are spaced apart from each other by at least a mile, Colorado Boulevard is usually the only street you can take when you want to go from one certain place to another.

So if Colorado Boulevard isn’t designed for pedestrians, does that automatically imply that it’s designed for automobiles? After years of driving on Colorado Boulevard, and being dumb enough to try to make a left turn where there wasn’t a traffic light, I would answer with a resounding no. As far as providing access to automobiles Colorado Boulevard’s purpose is to be a thoroughfare for people traveling from one part of town to another, and to provide people who are driving access to the businesses, residences, and offices along the street. When you combine these two purposes together (at the same time) this seems to create the traffic jams that are prevalent with most streets like Colorado Boulevard.

When I read the “Living Street” initiative (especially in reference to Colorado Boulevard) I imagined something like this, where the lanes dedicated for the thoroughfare traffic was separated from the lane dedicated for access to the buildings along the street. The byproduct of this is a more pedestrian environment where buildings can be closer to the street edge because of the slower traffic in the “access” driving lane, and people crossing the street no longer have to cross the equivalent of eight or nine traffic lanes at once.

We will always need streets that provide vehicular access where one can travel from one part of town to another in a timely manner. For me “Living Streets” promotes this idea by separating this vehicular access from a part of the street that is a more pedestrian oriented environment. I believe this strategy will work (and has worked), because the currently streets like Colorado Boulevard are really good for nothing.

The Patterning of Architecture

I’m a sucker for a good architectural book, and if contains a cool axonometric sketch on the cover I’m usually sold.  I came across a book recently called The Architectural Pattern Book that I found intriguing enough to borrow from my local library.

Creating an architectural pattern is essentially establishing rules and guidelines on what the designer considers to be a viable and pleasant architecture.  It’s a manifesto to ones style.  If you look at the works of most notable architects (and actually most ordinary architects as well) you’ll discover a prevailing style that’s embedded with most of their buildings.  The great ones will allow their style to evolve and transform over the years to best adapt to technological and societal trends, but even with this their style will typically have one or two prevailing themes that tie their work together.  The prevailing theme can be based on an environmental adaptation to site, or it could be based on a particular building material, or it could be based on the advancement of experimentation.

Another reason for establishing an architectural pattern is to convey a design standard to other designers for the sake of consistency and order.  When I was in undergrad I studied Durand, a French engineer that was approached by Napoleon for creating a consistent style for government buildings.  Durand created a system of simple patterns for governmental buildings that allowed architects and engineers with minimal experience and talent the ability to create a building that consistently conveyed the core message that the government wanted to be perceived by the general populous.  A more contemporary example of this is how fast food restaurants typically have the same exact building no matter its location (you can point out an old Pizza Hut building even if it’s not occupied by Pizza Hut anymore).

The Architectural Pattern Book is about creating neighborhoods.  The book contains a history of successful neighborhoods in the United States, and by using those examples establishes parameters for the massing of houses and guidelines for placing those houses to best create a neighborhood.  It also provides examples where other architects have used a pattern book (specifically for a single development) to establish guidelines for architectural detailing, which typically lean towards a very traditional style (a good example of this is the New Urbanism town of Seaside, Florida, where the move The Truman Show was filmed).

After perusing this book I realized that we (as a design profession and as citizens) no longer have the ability to create good neighborhoods.  Since the end of World War II the built environment shifted from being designed to accommodate people towards providing easier access for the automobile.  I just have to look at neighborhood, which was built in the early 1960’s, to see the evidence of this shift – narrow sidewalks, houses that lack any front porch that promotes the interaction of neighbors, wide streets that actually allow people to drive up to fifty miles per hour, and a street layout that’s confusing to say the least (it reminds me of ancient Middle Eastern cities that had a haphazard street layout which was used to confuse invading armies).

I agree with the idea that most of our newer neighborhoods don’t address the issue of creating a viable neighborhood that promotes social interaction, but I also believe that strict guidelines for architectural aesthetics creates a Disney-esque atmosphere (funny enough Disney created their own New Urbanism community called Celebration, where last I read pink flamingos were not allowed on people’s front yards).

Learning from the past is a very important attribute for great architecture.  Creating a pattern for architecture based on the successes of guiding principles of the past is a step in the right direction.  Great neighborhoods are great because the architecture is more than merely a building – it serves as a boundary that forms and creates functional urban spaces.  It also contains an interstitial zone (like front porches) where the occupants of a building are in a protected space that also promotes social interaction.  The strategy of instilling aesthetics of previous architectural styles in order to reestablish the core values of a neighborhood is ignorant to say the least, and in effect stifles the evolution of building upon what actually works.  Architectural patterns should incorporate the number one rule about rules – rules were made to be broken.