Category Archives: urban design

Pedestrian Culture

A short article and slide show from the NY Times looks at vanishing Newsstands in NY and suggest that they signify the pedestrian vitality and cultural character of the city. “Each reflects the personality and business acumen of its owner as well as the needs and tastes of its neighborhood.”

This form of street vending is threatened by increasing regulation, cost of operation and a new partnership with Cemusa.

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Part 2: Is New Urbanism a New Civitas

Cities all over are on the rebound. But this isn’t you parent’s urbanism; it’s a New Urbanism. These two words are often equated with mixed use, public transit, walkability, and my personal favorite ambiguous term, livability. New urbanism may encompass these some of these ideas, but it also represents a new ideology in planning that in some ways is not that different from Modernism. Before we start jumping on the bandwagon we should know where we are headed.

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Is New Urbanism a New Civitas?

Civitas, a roman term, described the status of citizenship in the Roman empire as well as a type of semi-autonomous settlement made up of cives. Doug Kelbaugh, in comparing different paradigms of urbanism (New Urbanism, Everyday Urbanism & Post Urbanism), focuses on this term in an article that relates the differnt types of urbanism to the public realm (PDF). While it is relatively academic there are a number of interesting insights throughout the article.

The final section that binds the three urbanisms together, subtitled Civitas: the Public Realm, talks at length about how “Without community, without civitas, we are all doomed to private worlds that are more selfish and loveless than they need to be.”

The following ideas fly counter to much of the conventional thinking in American cities, but maybe radical reconfiguration of values is just what is needed as, like rest of the world, we become increasingly urban.

Kelbaugh cites Andrés Duany’s observation that there is “a widespread tendency within architectural avant-garde to equate order with repression and, by extension, disorder with democracy”

I’m guilty of this so it caught my attention. He goes on to say that

“the modern conception of democracy, as set out by western philosophers such as John Locke, has been about civic responsibility as well as personal rights and freedoms. Only this century in America have individual freedom and license trumped civic responsibility and duty. Private rights now overwhelm group rights, at great cost to community. “

There is some explanation o ideas that lead into a more detailed discussion about community that deals with the arguments and counter arguments about why this is, but generally it boils down to the dichotomy between people needing to be part of a larger social system and needing to express themselves as individuals. This requires a balance of tolerance and respect.

This, as he admits, “is easier said than done, as America has found after centuries of slavery and immigration. It is becoming an even bigger challenge as more and more American grow up without first hand experience and skills in city living.”

Community must deal with the full range of human nature, including its own dark side. If it projects its own disfunction and pathologies onto an outside enemy or stigmatized minority, it has not fully faced itself and is in collective denial. More typically, the unity in community is bought at the price of identifying enemies, who are sure to return the favor.

Enemies will get even some day, as the chain reaction of intolerance and injustice is perpetuated. If this dialectic is an inevitable part of the human condition, the question arises as to what is the most hospitiable scale for social harmony and political unity and the least hospitable scale for hatred and enmity.

Americans have been quick to exchange the more raw and uncomfortable sidewalk life of the inner city for the easy and banal TV life of the suburban family room. We have been to quick to give up the public life that American cities have slowly mustered in spite of a long legacy of Jeffersonian rural yeomanry and anti urbanism. It has been our good fortune that immigrants from countires with strong public realms have imported urban and ethnic values for which we are much the richer.

The property rights movement is, in my opinion, one of the greatest threats to civitas. The conflict between private property rights and community rights (including intellectual property rights) could shake this country to its constitutional roots inthe next decade. Property rightist must come to grips with the fact that rights attached to land ownership are part of a social contract and not inalienable, absolute, natural, or God-given.

… property rights are stronger in the U.S.A. than in any other country on earth. They have long played a central role in shaping American urbanism or, more accurately, in keeping government from shaping it. We have increasingly fragmented private development within a public realm that is often little more than leftover space. In other counties, the public sector takes a stronger planning and regulatory role in urban development, and private property rights are more frequently trumped by the public good.

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Indy’s Cultural Trail

Yesterday Indianapolis celebrated the completion of the first phase of the Cultural Trail. There is more to be done, but the completion of this stage is noteworthy for a number of reasons. First, there is no other project like it, probably anywhere but certainly not in the region of similar sized cities. Secondly, in the context of current social and economic trends it signifies the type of efforts that can be accomplished. Related to that point, it shows that cities like Indianapolis can be forward thinking, and innovative and not just rely on what other cities have done.

The Cultural Trail, when fully completed, will be a “urban bike and pedestrian path that connects neighborhoods, Cultural Districts and entertainment amenities, and serves as the downtown hub for the entire central Indiana greenway system.”

The design of the Cultural Trail reclaims lanes of city streets and dedicates this space to pedestrians and cyclist. This entire greenway system and specifically the cultural trail integrates issues of mobility, health, economic development, physical planning and land-use, social justice, cultural heritage and public art and much more all through the redistribution of public space.

This project is an excellent example of good planning and design, not just in its final product, but also the process, financing and functionality.

These images are from a few weeks back, and center around one intersection, but show a good amount of the various details.

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Learning from Bogotá

I came across this excellent series of videos about Bogotá’s mayor, Peñalosa. The series talks at length about the public spaces of the city and how the mayor has created an extensive system of pedestrian, bicycle and bus transit. The scale and political will is unmatched. Check it out.

UPDATE: And an interview in the NYTimes with Peñalosa

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NY Times Magazine Architectural Issue

This weekend the NY Times Magazine will issue its annual architecture issue. The one article that has been published online, The New, New City, as the title suggest, is more about cities than buildings. Still, its focus is architects and not planners. This is not unusual, but curious to me. I know Koolhaas and many of the others interviewed in the article are experienced and trained in urban design and presumably have planners on staff. But the difference between designing a building and urban districts seems to be lost all the while referring to the failures of Modernism, specifically Le Corbusier, to create successful urban design.

Referring, almost exclusively, to development in Asia the article has some great insights. Some of the things that caught my interest were related to the struggle to create a new city that resists the tendency of “modernism” to ignore context and create a sense of place without resorting to cliché or creating a theme park, as “postmodern” design often does. Specifically the article mentions efforts in China to understand “how people carve a living space out of seemingly inhospitable environments, hoping to develop an urbanist model more deeply rooted in the spontaneity of everyday life.” This is what cities are to me.
In China it might be extreme, but the same can be said of many places closer to home. This doesn’t imply that life is intolerable or even that it lacks happiness. Quite the contrary. Some of the places that appear to be inhospitable are actually innovative solutions to the “problems” of urban life. Even in the “slums” of South America, or any developing country, there is beauty in the everyday solutions to city life.

We have this in my neighborhood too. But it is easier to associate it with the negative activities that receive more attention and concern. But living together within a community, rather than as an “pioneer” it is easy to see that the ugly, gritty, and unsafe aspects of urban neighborhoods are in fact its essence. For me, and as one person in the article aptly points out, the trick is to “to extract the essence of its character without romanticizing the squalor.

Squalor is probably too intense of a word to describe anything close to home, but it is probably perceived as such. I know we aren’t going to be designing anything at the scale of China or UAE, but even the small scale developments that we see popping up are likely to create what the article refers to as instant cities. At least something that might be in a location that we are familiar with but in a manner and character that is entirely devoid of its context.

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Community Living Rooms

Community Living Rooms are something that I first came across this article in DESIGNER/builder Magazine, but this article in the NY Times caught my eye. I am glad to see that they have caught on, and in LA of all places. I think that it interesting how they were done in collaboration with the transit authority, but still retain their original intent

The idea is to “build an outdoor living room that included a couch and end tables (a bench flanked by planter boxes), ottomans (sitting boxes that could be moved around to create space on the sidewalk), and other seating (three- or four-step stoops that didn’t lead to doors but sat up against walls or fences).

There is a strong intention to make these spaces domesticated public spaces that encourage people to use public space for living. Rather than create some officially designated park space they build off the existing needs and spaces in a community.

The original efforts in Oakland were done illegally and were intended as an anti-gentrification statement as well as a functional solution to a design problem. Despite the dirty g-word the logic makes sense to me and if you read the DB article it might help place it in context.

For those that think that gentrification is not a problem, or inevitable I hope this begins to illustrate that it is not a simple process that is universally bad, or good. It is not about black and white, but shades of gray that should be accepted, but not un-mediated. Community Living Rooms are one intervention that I think helps to mediate the differences in social, economic and cultural uses of public space. It is an innovative design solution that doesn’t just solve a functional issue, but is confronts a social reality.

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