Posts Tagged ‘urban’

Jane Jacobs, in the seminal Death & Life of Great American Cities, espouses the emergent traditional fabric of city streets and districts. Throughout the book it is implicit that residents, if asked, know what is best for their neighborhood, and these insights are in opposition to plans of idealistic planners, politicians and financiers. The well-intentioned official plans would actually destroy the functioning of the neighborhood, and the average person-on-the-street would recognize it and oppose it, if their voice is allowed to be heard.

Greenwich Village, New York (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Urban)

Jacobs’ guidelines for successful city districts rest on a very high population density and diversity of uses, to provide the continuous “sidewalk ballet” of passersby, public figures and “eyes of the street” throughout the day and evening, even on quiet side streets. Shopkeepers keep an eye on neighborhood children; the mailman gets to know elderly residents who relax on front porches. Without this ballet the street cannot police itself and could become undesirable or dangerous. She decries the extensive “gray zones” that filled the outer portions of many cities, with a population density too low to support the “sidewalk ballet” yet too dense or industrial to be a green, pleasant suburb or a small town.

However, the vast majority of North Americans today live neither in the idealized small town community or the Jacobean city district. Instead, we live in an atomized suburban world of automotive arterials, television, internet, membership gyms, big box stores, programmed children’s activities, anonymity and long commutes. Small towns, suburbs, large cities, regardless: we essentially live the same lifestyle. Virtually every neighborhood, from the suburbs to the cities to small towns, functions as a “gray zone.” This is due as much to culture as to urban design.

Even in Greenwich Village, the prototypical city district, Jacobs noted that residents of the new elevator apartment building across the street didn’t interact with the neighborhood as much as the older residents. Those eyes on the street didn’t add as much. She implied that this was due to the building design. I believe was a marker of cultural change. Why would a resident of a fourth-floor apartment be more connected to the street if she walked up stairs to her flat instead of took an elevator? The new residents were simply less connected to the neighborhood than existing residents, who had been woven into a local fabric that took decades to develop. That local fabric didn’t die overnight; it would fade away slowly. But in newly constructed buildings, it would never develop at all. The rise of television was the symptom of an inward turn in North American culture, away from front porches and balconies towards the living room. Rising prosperity meant that you could rely on yourself to solve problems, instead of involving the neighbors. The automobile meant that you could shop and maintain friendships anywhere, not just your immediate neighborhood.

Outside of a handful of districts in cities like New York, Toronto, Boston, San Francisco, our neighborhoods have been converted to suburban functionality, where supermarkets are driven to and jobs are strictly separated from residences. Virtually every city in the United States, including New York, employs zoning codes developed for suburbia: setback requirements, open space minimums, height maximums. In Jacobs’ world the average neighborhood resident knew these requirements were antithetical to their neighborhoods, along with renovations to improve traffic flow such as freeway construction and street widening. Jacobs’ grassroots pro-city point of view was about preserving the existing neighborhood fabric. But sixty years of suburbanization has flipped the script: today’s residents implicitly know that free parking, wide arterials with free-flowing traffic, setbacks and separated uses allow their neighborhoods to function most conveniently.

Typical Seattle neighborhood scene (Source: Google Streetview)

Since the 1990s the limitations of the suburban model have been recognized by a growing “urbanist” movement: endemic traffic congestion, air pollution, loss of community, and global environmental problems like climate change and resource consumption. Urbanists look back appreciatively to Jane Jacobs and her insights in Death & Life of Great American Cities, looking for guidance. What does she say about urbanization, the process of converting greenfields, suburbs or gray zones into successful urban districts? Very little. Jacobs describes, historically, the ingredients of a successful urban district, in the face of a challenge to preserve that success against attrition.

Today’s urbanists face a challenge of cultural change. Many if not most political leaders and planners espouse urbanist principles: they want to create walkable live-work-play neighborhoods. Yet they are limited in action by opposed residents. We urbanists believe that converting to an urban structure will yield many benefits. But what if a majority of a neighborhood’s residents like it the way it is? Jane Jacobs faced a different political and cultural environment, and cannot tell us how to convert gray city neighborhoods and suburbs into thriving urban districts. We have to develop new tools.


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In late May I went on a European vacation, visiting four cities in two weeks: Prague, Vienna, Paris and Barcelona.  All four cities provide reams of insight into building the city, four interpretations based on different histories, cultures and climates.  It is impossible to exhaustively describe a city’s architecture, history, urban form, main sights and culture in a blog post.  So what follows are brief impressions of the cities, and comparisons one to another and to my hometown of Seattle.

First, a general note on history: European cities are widely perceived as ancient; artifacts of medieval urbanism and architecture.  True, to an extent, but the vast majority of neighborhoods I visited on this trip were built out in the nineteenth century as a result of Europe’s industrial revolution, which turned rural peasants into urban factory workers.  The cities’ building stock is not particularly older than Boston, New York or even San Francisco.  Paris was rebuilt during the Hausmann renovations of the late 1800’s.  Medieval Paris was almost entirely swept away, covered over with boulevards lined with buildings representing a high point of wealth, grandeur and gracious urban design.  The other cities visited have historic districts in their centers, dating back to the fourteenth century, yet most of what is considered “the city” was built in the 1800’s.  In some cases the winding, narrow medieval streets survive, yet the poorly-built, one-to-three story medieval building were all replaced with the nineteenth century with grand, solidly-built six-story edifices.  European cities were purposefully built, around 150 years ago, and built grandly.  It is within our means to build new cities along the same guidelines today.

Paris versus Barcelona:  These two large Western European cities vie with each other to be the busiest and most stylish.  Both are very densely populated throughout the municipality (while having a wide range of suburban suburbs)and provide immense transit networks.  There is never a break in central paris:  no matter where you attempt to stop and take a photo, you will be in someone’s way.  The streets appear as canyons cut through a pre-existing mass of six-story buildings.

Now Barcelona, my favorite city of the trip, is in a whole different category.  The level of density and intensity went beyond the typical European city into an Asian realm.  People, people everywhere.  Shops, shops everywhere.  Bicycle and motorcycle are the only practical personal transportation devices.  Many streets were wide enough to accommodate a vehicle (such as an ambulance), but cars just aren’t practical in such as environment.  The question isn’t “is there a grocery store within walking distance?”; but “which of the half-dozen produce shops, bakeries, meat markets and supermarkets within two blocks should I go to?”  Streets are still crowded with pedestrians at midnight.  Our room faced onto a 10-foot “lightwell” fronted with windows into kitchens and bedrooms from other apartments.  The street-side windows faced towards the balconies across the street, a mere 20 feet away.  Basically, no privacy, no quiet.  But urban energy everywhere.  I loved it. 

Typical Barcelona street

Prague versus Vienna:  These two central European capitals have similarly sized metro areas, in the same range as Portland and Vancouver.   Despite having top-notch transit systems, street-level activity paled in comparison to the larger Paris or Barcelona.  Yet, life was convenient, and many needs could be met within a few blocks.  Prague and Vienna are generally built on a grid of superblocks, with streets lined with continuous 6-story buildings holding large interior courtyards. 

An intersection in Prague New Town

The streets have moderate width, similar to narrower Seattle streets, typically with at least one row of parked cars.  On busier streets, the ground floors house retail businesses.  On quieter streets retail is more rare.  The interior courtyards provide everyone access to ample greenery, as a view out the interior-facing windows or as a gardening or recreational area. Building coverage area is low as a result, as is the population density, which results in a lighter smattering of shops and quieter streets than Paris.  Vienna, in particular, appeared to be equally optimized for automobile as well as bicycle and public transit.  Car parks were common, as was separated bicycle  infrastructure.  The example of Vienna is the most applicable to Seattle: moderate density, eminently livability, lots of green space and transportation options.

Vienna is still under construction

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Cascadia concept (Source: http://www.livecascadia.com)

Two large-scale master planned communities have been proposed in the Puget Sound area over the past decade.  Cascadia would provide 6,500 homes and office parks on 5,000 acres, on a forested greenfield site 21 miles east of Tacoma and 43 miles southeast of Seattle.

The Yesler Terrace project replaces a low-rise public housing project with up to 5,000 homes and 1,500,000 square feet of commercial development, on a 30 acre site directly across I-5 from downtown Seattle.

The Puget Sound region is expected to add over 1 million new residents in the next few decades.  It sounds logical that the metro area must continue to expand at its edges to accommodate all these people.  But 30 acres near downtown can accommodate nearly as many people as were proposed for 5,000 acres on the exurban fringe. There is plenty of capacity within existing urban areas to accommodate everyone, if we choose to build the city.

Post script:
As of September 2010, the proposed Cascadia community is defunct, repossessed by a bank from the bankrupt developer.  For the Yesler Terrace redevelopment the City will issue the project EIS in February and plans to begin construction in 2012.

Yesler Terrace concept (Source: Seattle Housing Authority)

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Vienna, Austria. Source: Wikimedia

Streetwalls are a fundamental component of the built city, which is what we advocate for here at Build the City.  What is a streetwall, you ask?  A streetwall is the “wall” made by continuous multi-story buildings flanking the edge of a street, on one or both sides.  It is the wall the defines the street space.  Streetwalls provide a feeling of shelter and security to pedestrians; shade on a sunny day or possibly a shelter from the rain.  Continuous buildings, doors and shop fronts keep the walker entertained when walking through the neighborhood, making the walk feel shorter.  Street furniture such as sidewalk cafe tables, trees, bike racks, newspaper racks, street food vendors and bus shelters creates both destinations and diversions.  Eyes on the street provide safety.

Buenos Aires, Argentina. Source: Wikimedia

Most large cities (outside the United States) consist primarily of neighborhoods with continuous streetwalls.  Wherever you go, you know you are in the city.  Your viewpoint is limited to streets lined with four to seven story buildings in all directions, and to all the public life contained in those streets.  Paris, Bangkok, London, Guangzhou.  The photos along the left show the variety of streetwall forms, streets and architectures, drawn from four continents.

Tokyo, Japan. Source: Wikimedia

North American suburban environments, however, eschew the streetwall.  Minimum setbacks are the norm, to prevent a building from ever touching a sidewalk.  Who knows what could happen, claustrophobia?  But over the past 60 years the suburban has crept into the city.  Cities all across the U.S. have land use codes similar to suburbs: setback limitations, parking minimums, no requirements for curbs or sidewalks.  The result is that many U.S. cities resemble suburbs more than the cities of the rest of the world. 

Lagos, Nigeria. Source: Wikimedia

Building the city, a process which thankfully has begun in many places in the U.S., requires building streetwalls.  “Breadloaf” apartments or condos – 4 floors of residences over street level shops – are a common building form.  A form that has become hated by many due to bland architecture, repetitive chain stores and a lack of street amenities.    But the advantages of urban density and the creation of streetwalls far outweighs the downsides of these developments.  Due to a combination of poor materials and poor installation, most multi-story residential buildings, particularly here in Cascadia, require replacement of the building facade (“envelope”) within 10 to 20 years to correct water damage.  The building, its 5 story streetwall and all its residents will remain as a permanent feature of the city, while the bland architectural elements will be replaced many times.  They can always to upgraded to something more aesthetically pleasing in the future.  Meanwhile, building by building, block by block, the city is built.

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