“The true value of urbanism occurs when are able to interact with each other. These physical connections will redefine our ability to both endure and thrive into the 21st century.” – Howard M. Blackson III
“Segregation Sucks.” – Bruce Donnelly
“The true value of urbanism occurs when are able to interact with each other. These physical connections will redefine our ability to both endure and thrive into the 21st century.” – Howard M. Blackson III
“Segregation Sucks.” – Bruce Donnelly
Times they are a’changing.
We all hear that the New Urbanism has a gentrification/displacement perception problem in big city discussions. One of New Urbanism’s revolution was in shifting the 60s/70s planning by numbers approaches to city issues towards a design-oriented solutions. And, our anti-modernist stance in the ‘90s led us to advocating for aspirational design approaches to city making problems. We figured out how to fit the new into the older ‘community character’ at all scales and everyone wants mixed-use, walkable, pedestrian-oriented solutions today. However, this approach brings up two contemporary problems.
First, community character is code for a long-standing NIMBY argument against anything new. Second, ‘good design’ is perceived as expensive by reactionary YIMBY movements who advocate for density/housing-at-all-costs and towers in a park are cool again (in fairness, SF’s YIMBYs advocate for FBCs and better). The Tactical Urbanism’s hay bale, traffic cone, and wood palette aesthetic is now ubiquitous in design mags/schools, as Less is again… more.
The value of Lean Urbanism’s “Making Small Possible” is its city-building ramifications as we wrestle with Social Equity today (We went through the enviro in the 60s-80s and economics in the 90s/00s). Making Small Possible serves to balance the two sides of economic equilibrium (the good times side and the bad times side).
The Big Idea
The appropriate urban design response to Social Justice and Economic issues is to build towards Social and Economic Stability.
The economic market vacillates in value at the neighborhood and lot scale. It ranges from disinvested (value at the neighborhood and lot scale are leaving), to static (balanced/stable values at both scales), to invested (values at the neighborhood and lot scale are rising). While neighborhood and lot values are linked, depending on a variety of factors, in San Diego lots have inherently high land values that combine to raise neighborhood values. The dynamic between neighborhood values and lot value differ throughout the nation by city/region.
As equitable city builders, we strive to mollify hot markets by adding affordable/attainable housing at the lot scale to take advantage of their high valued neighborhood, and invigorate fallen markets with new housing value at the lot scale to bump up their overall neighborhood’s value (raising comps lot by lot until the neighborhood is perceived as valuable). Equilibrium is the goal as static/balanced neighborhoods can carefully add neighborhood value (such as ped/bike/transit improvements) as well as lot values (granny flats, additions). An issue I’ve let slip by is that I haven’t thoroughly planned for neighborhoods cycling through these levels as investing in poorer neighborhoods too robustly displaces residents as gentrification makes monied buyers move quickly to shift a disinvested or static neighborhood into a hot market. I forget that it is not in the developers best interest to lower the rent or build cheaper housing… that’s the city’s job (see apartment rents dropping right now as developers did their feeding frenzy thing again).
Individual, piecemeal projects that add subsidized housing to disinvested neighborhoods provides too little value added at the lot and neighborhood scale. Every new project at the lot scale must purposely add value in disinvested areas at both the lot and neighborhood scale, as well as allowing for neighborhood-scale projects that add value. On the other hand, projects that add ‘luxury’ housing to a hot market only serves to make it hotter. Hot markets need more smaller, less valuable housing at the lot scale to add enough supply to stabilize demand in a valuable neighborhood. And, the city should not allow for neighborhood-scale projects in a hot market.
City zoning can only serve to supply housing to the market, but only if that market shows profit margins. Meaning, its limited in its ability to provide attainable housing to middle class citizens. The market serves the high income families and the Fed/State/local subsidies provide for defined Affordable Housing renters. City/State/Fed plans, discretionary entitlement processes, housing/transit programs, tax credits/abatements, land trusts, and other subsidy mechanisms to influence markets are in our tool box to address middle class shifts.
Rather than waiting for the city/developer to build a neighborhood-scale silver bullet to raise lot values, disinvested neighborhoods are in need of new development at the lot level that provides ‘comps’ and tenant leases that banks can use to lend money to many local projects as opposed to spending money on a singular project every few years. Making Small Possible does this explicitly.
San Diego is unique in its land values being very high throughout the region. This inherent value should be leveraged neighborhood-by-neighborhood through educate/train, borrow, and build value at the lot scale that raises the neighborhood’s value with each new intervention. And, development, construction, and building trades is a tremendous economic vehicle in San Diego. Having locals enter this market creates jobs and local investment while educating our youth to compete for San Diego’s tremendous wealth of high-tech jobs luring people from all over the world.
A contemporary social equity issue, disinvested neighborhoods in San Diego are where our local, regional, and international immigrants begin to (re)build their lives. We know this is an American topic in our toxic national political dialog. NU-ists understand that the place where we live in, grow up in, remember, and the culture that is cultivated matters. As we choose to spend time, which is all we really have in this world, comes a tremendous cost and forms the heritage we leave behind.
New and Lean Urbanism is extremely well-positioned to turn our chaotic, drive-by, unfulfilling SoCal auto-oriented lifestyle around to offer a more connected, comfortable, and convivial neighborhoods with the tools to raise/lower values at the lot scale. The value of mixed-use and walkable urbanism at the neighborhood-scale is built on the idea that the quality of our lives hinges upon our free choice and not upon the fate of those who came before us. Truly, a new urbanism.
First, introduce and train locals to understand the local community building elements and processes at the lot level. Assist locals in navigating building process through a variety of public/private partnerships (such as banks and unions) who gain from more people entering the development and construction trades industry. The more lot level housing add supply to high-demand cities (I call this Beach Density in San Diego).
Second, precisely build mixed-use, walkable urbanism catalytic projects in disinvested neighborhoods that bring more resources to raise the neighborhood’s value. This second step is already in place except for the idea to make this easier in disinvested neighborhoods and harder in invested neighborhoods. Making Small Possible is the big idea as lot level housing builds social equity throughout the city (I call these Climate Action Zones in San Diego).
This begins with defining the neighborhood with its identifiable place-based elements (core, centers, edges). Collaborate with locals to determine a vision, then codify that vision, and then take strategic actions to implement the vision (New Urbanism). Revisit outcomes every 1, 5, and 10 years to adjust the vision, coding and implementation as needed. During the vision/coding process set up measurable outcomes to be monitored and used to cultivate more partnerships and local activity.
Introduce and educate through Incremental Developer Boot Camps locally in partnership with the Congress for the New Urbanism, local Urban Land Institute, Building Industry Association, Carpenters Union, Bankers Expos, and beyond. These Make Small Possible (Lean Urbanism). Use these events to recruit risk-oblivious builders and help them build towards the communities expectations and memories of its neighborhood (this is how to build towards a specific community character, but don’t tell the millennials). Visioning efforts to build towards that neighborhood’s shared intent are make through intensive consecutive-day workshops with as many stakeholders involved in short time frame to make and act upon commitments, champions, and compromises (charrette). Move towards working with political/municipalities to legally enable these strategies over the long-term (form-based codes) while allowing more tactical/temporary interventions to test/measure ideas before fully committing all resources to a bigger investment idea (Tactical Urbanism). Entities such as LISC, NeighborWorks, Community Housing Works, and other CDFI entities are great partners for this approach (CNU is capable of such).
Measurable outcomes that indicate success and lessons learned (See Denver’s rental market success here). And, ultimately, a neighborhood that has moved from disinvestment towards a more static/stable market place to compete for development at the local and regional scale while guarding against national and international scale developments that behaves in a manner that doesn’t obliterate a neighborhood’s memories and expectations. By Making Small Possible, middle class housing is finally built in our nation’s Top 50 cities.
Any thoughts? Silly thinking? Which points have any merit?
San Diego has historically struggled with implementing our progressive mixed-use policies found in our General Plan (City of Villages) and Community Plan documents. In 2017, I see San Diego’s most obvious city-building needs as the tremendous need to build new attainable and affordable housing on our transit corridors. And, to focus on initiating the necessary mode shift from auto-centric to people-centric places.
It is well known that San Diego is in desperate need for more easily built by-right housing to alleviate the housing crunch happening today. We know this needs to be located on our strip commercial corridors lacking any housing today, of which we have miles and miles available for relatively easy retrofit. We also know that we need transit, pedestrian, and bicycle facilities to make this new housing fit in our older, more established urban neighborhoods and strip corridors. And we need predictable implementation tools to be coordinated, such as our on-going zoning updates matching funded transit projects, in order to get this new housing built.
For example, in the North Park Community Plan update, the 46% increase in housing ‘programs’ takes an arduous and unpredictable discretionary permit process (appealable to the city council and therefore very political) to be approved. This needs to be fixed immediately as the public weighed in and said, “build on this corridor.” In addition, the public weighed in and said, “We want to address Climate Change.” When these collective voices are expressed, we need to make it so…
In the spirit of getting it done, the following image is a list of my Top 10 Zoning Hacks to get us closer to solving our greatest needs in 2017:
The following are my thoughts on the ethics of good community planning that serves the public interest:
For many years now, Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) opposition has stymied new projects and development via vocal and protracted public processes. These few individuals group together out of fear of change to stop improvements that would benefit the larger community. This phenomena has become such a deep ethical issue in our nation that the White House recently issued a Housing Development Toolkit (see here) to assist municipalities in taking action to enable new development in the face of this long-standing NIMBY opposition.
Design vs. process?
The role of community planning is to expertly guide both municipal and private development clients through land use decisions that build safer, stronger and more sustainable places. The planning and design tools we use to achieve this include comprehensive plans, policy documents, regulatory codes, master planning, community visioning, and urban design plans.
These techniques also must include public-engagement tools to educate and foster collaboration with key stakeholders in local communities to build the political will necessary to drive new development or redevelopment forward. Ultimately, our profession provides expert guidance to enhance the overall livability of cities, towns, and other places.
The ‘livability’ of a place, according to city planner and author Bruce Appleyard, a professor at San Diego State University, in a 2014 article in Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, is best understood as an individual’s ability to readily access opportunities to improve a citizen’s personal quality of life for living, working, playing, shopping, learning, worshiping, resting, and moving within his or her city, town, or neighborhood.
However, community planners face an ethical challenge in balancing these individual self-interests with the collective needs and interests of those many other individuals who comprise a given community, such as artists, the elderly, professionals, and even social clubs. The profession’s ethical principles, established by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), state, “The planning process must continuously pursue and faithfully serve the public interest.”
To add complexity to this balancing act, community planners also have to plan for these collective interests in terms of scale, time, and intensity. An example of balancing these challenges is revealed in planning for mobility, such as main streets, transit corridors, and bicycle lanes, as one’s personal travel inherently touches the private lives of many others along that public path. Our municipal clients, for instance, typically are concerned with the safety, air quality, noise pollution, congestion and economic viability of public thoroughfares, while our private clients tend to express concerns with safety, maintenance, time, and accessibility.
The pursuit of happiness
The definition of livability given above by Dr. Appleyard (i.e., people’s access to opportunities for the pursuit of improvements to their quality of life) is based on the pursuit-of-happiness clause in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Couple this with AICP’s code of ethics, and we can begin to think of planning for livability as a tool to justify a basic American right that can be used, for example, to build transit-oriented development (TOD) that provides an accessible mobility option that serves the greater public.
Today’s TOD development pattern is based on long-standing, traditional mixed-use, walkable villages and neighborhoods that have become cities over time. Mobility supports urbanism. The number and types of individual mobility options, from commuter rail, light-rail, streetcar and bus, to jitney, shared car, private car, bicycle and walking, determines the intensity of a given neighborhood or city and its ability to scale up or down over time.
Think of the mobility options New York City offers as opposed to San Diego. While the example above focused on mobility, community planners – seen as stewards of shaping the places we live our daily lives – also must focus as much attention on issues such as housing, jobs, parks, and services. Measuring this balance between individual specificity and collective inclusiveness is at the heart of planning for ethical livability. And, this greater common good versus the individual wishes dialog happens in every city, town, or neighborhood. It is our profession’s purpose to guide this dialog towards building more livable and sustainable places for everyone.
Design vs. process?
I agree with famed new urbanist Andres Duany, who promotes giving equal value to both design principles and public process as keys to successfully navigating this balancing act. He says that relying only on design principles that have gone untested by local public participation is coercive and lacking authority. Meanwhile, relying solely on a public process without a basis in design principles lacks structure and a credible outcome. These are important because design principles guide individuals and groups toward decisions, and the process provides the structure through which these decisions and compromises can be made.
The benefits created by balancing the rights of all people with smaller groups
are found in increasing the opportunities for everyone to improve the quality of their lives. Cities that enable new development to meet collective needs and interests, particularly since adequate housing development reduces mismatches among housing, jobs, and infrastructure spending, will find themselves in a better position to compete in the contemporary economy.
For the past 4 or 5 years, I’ve been working on the North Park Community Plan Update for the North Park Community Planning Group, and here at the end it simply is not achieving the goals the community set out to accomplish when the project started 8 years ago. The three issues I have with the North Park Community Plan Update (CPU) are:
1) Any up zoning beyond our 1986 plan that enables 2016 mixed-use, walkable urbanism on Transit Corridors necessitates an expensive + time consuming Planned Development Permit/Process 4. We wanted to focus, encourage, and make easy new development on El Cajon Blvd – ECB;
2) Dismissal of requested Historic District Designations in older bungalow neighborhoods that need/want the discretionary review mentioned above for ECB as local ‘preservationist’ agreed to this compromise as we intended to give additional protections and make it harder to bungalow neighborhoods, and;
3) 1960s city-wide zoning replaces 1986 local zoning and both still enable new single-story/use drive thrus (new Starbucks, Wendy’s, Sonic as examples) on ECB by-right and easier than vertical mixed-use buildings (this shift was a big deal to build more housing and shops in NP).
I will post my PEIR issues at a later date…
So, Community Plans are only used to review discretionary process as zoning does the heavy lifting to build San Diego. You have a zoning designation on your lot now and to change that takes discretionary review. So, status quo has been maintained and all of the new policies written into the CPU are only reviewed on those few projects requesting changes. The problem is we have now made new development on ECB more difficult than new development in our bungalow neighborhoods.
It is important to know that San Diego zoning does not have to be in conformance with its policies b/c we are a Charter City. This makes our City of Villages big idea near impossible to Implement. And, we didn’t upgrade/change any of our zoning from 1986 all we have essentially maintain status quo with this CPU.
All of our zoning is based on 1960s suburban community building tools and is built on segregating Land Uses from each other (Residential/Commercial/Industrial) and is difficult to use to build mixed-use, walkable urbanism (think about the difference in vertical mixed use in older east coast cities versus in newer southwest cities).
The best example of how our single-use zoning doesn’t implement the type of contemporary city we want is found near one of our obvious Transit Village Centers at University and 30th Street. This could be either the next great place or Another PB or College bar scene.
Today, our best vertical mixed-use walkable building’s are a half-block off University (La Boheim, You’ve Got Mail, New Senior Housing, and Parking Garage) b/c University is zoned heavy commercial and the neighborhood behind is zoned heavy residential. But planners knew that a transition was needed, so they made very flexible zones to allow either commercial or residential or some of both… which put our best urban buildings closer to historic homes than ON the transit corridor. Almost every new building is OFF the night street (crazee burger, CWH on Texas & Howard) b/c of this vert good mistake.
How to fix this? Well, it is too late to fix in the Community Plan Update, but the Land Development Code is updated annually and zoning is the key to success anyway. So, I recommend using a Zoning Overlay, or a Place-Based, Form-Based, context-sensitive zoning tool to achieve the overall density within 600-feet of major transit station areas to shift or mode of transportation from predominately autos to walking, biking, riding transit, and cars. Here is what the results could deliver:
Way back in 2010 I asked the City of San Diego Planning Commission, “Why screw up the bridge to fix the plaza?” Six years later it still rings true as it makes very little sense to significantly alter/change one of San Diego’s best places, the Cabrillo Bridge, in order to remove the few cars now flowing through the now beloved Plaza de Panama. Back then, the project passed our city council amidst volatile debate and subsequently failed a court challenge. Very few cried its demise. Mayor Sanders and beloved philantropist Dr. Irwin Jacobs walked away from their “all-or-nothing pedestrian-oriented plaza Centennial Plan” that consisted of an auto-oriented ‘by-pass bridge’ appendage off the Cabrillo Bridge that funneled traffic into a 200-car parking garage. However, last year the lawsuit was overturned and the exact same project was quietly resurrected by new Mayor Falconer.
Three years ago, a group of us assisted Mayor Filner (curse his name) to design a temporary pedestrian plaza that has been a clear success (for 60 plus years it was a parking lot for 57 cars). It was a ‘tactical urbanist‘ approach to test and measure success before investing in such a dramatic change in its character from a parking lot into the plaza it was designed to be. We had to be mindful of local institutions fear of losing customers (all have since had record breaking years) who would want to park in front of their museums as well as the Uptown Planning Group not wanting people to park in their community if the bridge was closed to all traffic. The plaza sits on an isolated mesa and as design icon Leon Krier noted, the plaza core needs traffic to bring people to it as nobody lives in easy walking distance, which makes it very different from European city plazas in the center of town (Plaza San Marco in Venice, Piazza Navona in Rome, and Rittenhouse Square in Philly).
The new by-pass project looks like any other auto-oriented grade-seperated off-ramp leading to a parking garage between Sabre Springs and Riverside. The design is an after thought, breaking the flow of one of the world’s best designed places found in San Diego (the other might be the Salk Institute).
My concern is that the poorly conceived, traffic engineering focussed space that will scar our Panama Exposition core as every other building, street, plaza, park space and parking space in it was executed with tremendous design acumen over a century ago for our pleasure. What will be beloved about this new appendage a 100 years from today. It appears we are honoring our cultural heritage with what will now be two new dreary parking garages (the other is between the Botanical building and the zoo) and a ‘by-pass’ that diverts people away from intended beauty and into an enclosed parking lot.
Unfortunately, San Diego has again forgotten what, Bertram Goodue, and George and Hamilton Marston knew: Building towards social and cultural value always equates to economic value while the converse is not always as true. Point is, we need to design in ways to celebrate, exhaust, express our local cultural values… maybe the by-pass does this?
I understand the construction documents are currently under review in the city’s Development Services Department, so this is essentially a moot point. I’ll go on as an explanation for posterity purposes, and thank you for continuing to read this…
In my century old edition of Carleton Winslow’s, The Architecture and the Gardens of the San Diego Exposition, master architect, Bertram Goodhue, clearly explains Panama Exposition’s big design idea. His metaphor was to give visitors to San Diego a virtual tour of traveling across the Atlantic Ocean (The Cabrillo Bridge); Through the Panama Canal where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans collide (California Quadrangle and its California Tower as a beacon); Up the Mexican Rivera coastline (the Spanish Arcades), and finally; A majestic arrival at a new California Arcadia (The Plaza de Panama)… all set in a ‘garden!’
1. Shared Street: Keep everything as is… and rather than build more auto-oriented facilities (by-pass bridge + 200 space parking garage), a more austere solution would be to make the street a ‘shared space,’ and keep the traffic flow to minimum speed of bikes and pedestrians with valet drop off, in order to access and enhance – rather than alter – San Diego’s greatest civic space. Everyone wins, even the parking garage can be built, and the cars/trams will behave even better, while continuing to deliver people directly to and from the institutions, and it only takes the cost of a sign. Supporters of the Sanders/Faulconer plan say the traffic today is dangerous. This would improve that for essentially $250 dollars (the cost of five signs).
2. Use the Existing By-Pass to the Existing Parking Garage: Irving Gill, another great designer, already built an arcade portal that links to the north that needs just one short connection to access existing streets and an existing subterranean parking structure. Add 200 parking units (one deck) to the existing structure, make that one connection, and viola! A well-designed By-Pass that drops the elderly and patrons direction in front of the Theaters. Supporters of the Sanders/Faulconer Plan say they want the access/parking for the theaters and the core… this is closer, cheaper, faster. (Post-script: Heard the Quince Street off-ramp could be a better solution for this access point and should be discussed)
3. How about a Beautifully Designed Bridge: Propose a new addition that carefully and thoughtfully adds dignity, value, and delight to visitors biking, walking, tramming, or driving to visit the Panama Exposition Grounds. Simply host a design competition. Ask the best in the world to give their best ideas, be bold and transparent to San Diegans about the value of the place that we all love and care for! I have never understood why a world-class design competition has been avoided from the beginning and this project being handled in this ‘my-way-or-no-way’ manner?
The design issue is, beyond its mindless deconstruction of the Nationally Registered Historic Cabrillo Bridge, the banal by-pass bridge in a sea of beauty that purposely impedes the flow of Goodie’s original design idea while adding nothing to the culture and heritage of San Diego’s most recognized jewel. Well, now we can hope for the best as we have zero assurances the best is being considered a century after our forefathers delivered such for our benefit.
On this blog, I write about San Diego issues that could use straight forward explanations. Most people don’t have time to wade through the technical differences between an enterprise fund and a general fund, or complex deferred maintenance documents related to infrastructure. If our city is to do anything meaningful about how hard it is to afford to live under a roof in San Diego, as a community we must get a better working knowledge of how homes are built. Over the next couple months, I’ll release several straightforward pieces about real estate development – the process by which companies turn land into places to live, work, or play. First up, let’s talk big picture.
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Whitehall was envisioned eight years ago on a 2nd story corner design studio located in a historic brick building in downtown San Diego. It came from a rudimentary understanding that small town culture was dependent upon the conception of balancing nature with our daily needs. Instead of forming a single and isolate subdivision of housing or commercial strip center shops that disregarded the surrounding landscape’s natural setting, Whitehall was organized as a variety of streets, blocks, houses, shops, schools and squares set within the beautifully Delaware’s timbered countryside. The master plan illustrates how streets radiate deep into a neighborhood defined by streams and woodlands that becomes a transcendental experience when the fall colors turn.
For this vision to becoming a built reality, New Castle County’s conventional suburban subdivision development policies and zoning regulations were updated to offer an alternative to reflect this long-standing neighborhood-to-nature interdependence upon which the character of each neighborhood is complete. Whitehall’s neighborhoods are being built as a 3-dimensional form of our spiritual and material worth expressed. The town expresses our collective values in how we choose to live our daily lives. It’s dignified, it’s flexible, and it accommodates everyone. This is a choice. To live in a city, town or neighborhood is not an accident, but the result of a coherent vision that built old New Castle, and the newer Kentlands, and King Farm, Maryland.
Conceived in the long-standing tradition of town building as a series of neighborhoods that coalesce into a new town over time, the interactions of neighbors, residents, visitors, and those who are ‘just passing by’ will build both past memories and future expectations that will shape the town’s eventual ‘community character.’ The design team understood that this traditional place making pattern brings people together while also siting lightly on the local landscape. These traditional urban design tools were used in order to build upfront a comfortable ‘sense of place’ to be accentuated over time with specialty and civic buildings as citizens move in, engage, and shape their built environment to their collective values. It also respects the existing neighbors to the east and doesn’t impede on their choices and built expressions, and the new highway will provide access to the region in need of towns, and districts, and forests, and bays.
Yes, Whitehall is personal and it is yours. And it is your choice to live and prosper in close proximity to your neighbors, shops, schools, and nature. Your parents auto-oriented status quo is shifted back to being human-oriented by this purposefully natural living arrangement as we have been expected to just get in our cars and drive to and from our homes, shops, schools, squares and parks without question. This new/old arrangement of streets, squares and buildings within walking, biking, scootering, hop-scotching, strolling and driving questions status quo as you choose to make your home personal, which matters if you care enough to change conventional expectations of how you live your life.
The place we live in, grow up in, remember, and the culture that is cultivated in these sorts of places matter to our lives. As where you choose to spend time, which is all we really have in this world, comes a tremendous cost and forms the heritage we leave behind. Whitehall has purposely turned the chaotic, drive-by, unfulfilling auto-oriented lifestyle around to offer a more connected, comfortable, and convivial neighborhood setting to make with it what you will. You can go to school, or a shop, as well as drift off into the woods. This is a recognizably different set of promises built on the idea that the quality of our lives hinges upon our free choice and not upon the fate of those before us.
And then yet you will find Whitehall.
“Caltrans does not restrict the right of free speech with handheld banners, but attaching flags or banners is not allowed,” a Caltrans-Spokesman told the San Jose Mercury News. He added, “We are concerned that people waving handheld banners could cause driver distraction — putting their safety or that of the motoring public at risk.”
Today, we have prioritized the ‘motoring public’ over all other aspects of public life.
Our failure to cultivate the value and quality of our public spaces and public life is found in this picture of protesters and political advocates on a freeway overpass. Our cities are made up of public buildings, streets, squares and private lots, blocks and buildings. But when people want to be heard, seen, and get their message out to as many people as possible, they now gather on freeway bridge overpasses… for its on the freeways where everyone else can be found today, and not on our public street corners and squares.
Public assembly, free speech, and protests are cornerstones of American society. Our history includes the creation of National Parks and grand public spaces, such as Central Park, Golden Gate, and Balboa Park. They were created by us to, among other things, excercise our inalienable right to free speech and assembly. And, we continue to express our values in public and innovative ways as seen in the Occupy Wall Street protests, vile Trump rallies, and New York’s High Line success. These events are reflective of how our civilization grows and transitions over time.
We collectively expect access to public space in order to communicate with the bureaucracy running the machinery of our nation, state and city. We also know we must endeavor to protect these rights, as well as the spaces where these rights are exercised; Neither of which is easy.
In San Diego, our historic downtown ‘Speakers Corner’ is now long forgotten as 5th & E Street was the scene of great civil unrest a century ago. And, today’s homelessness explosion in our city has disturbed our relationship with public spaces. And, now our public parks and plazas are security patrolled, well-programmed, and require permits to use.
We also expect them to be animated with attractions to hold our limited attention spans or they’re considered ‘boring.’ As Camillo Sitte wrote over a century ago that, “In former times the open spaces—streets and plazas—were designed to have an enclosed character for a definite effect. Today we normally begin by parceling out building sites, and whatever is left over is turned into streets and plazas.” And, admittedly so, these stand-alone left over space ‘parks’ are too often inadequate and in need of bells and whistles to attract the ‘motoring public’ from far flung suburbs.
When I see people expressing their views on freeway overpasses, I see our civilization under duress or at least in transition – from gathering in the square to holding signs on an overpass bridge. These are one-way statements and this type of conversation does not facilitate a dialog and understanding. Sadly, this illustrates how far we’ve receded from what urban design guru Leon Krier teaches, “The architecture of the city and public space is a matter of common concern to the same degree as laws and language – they are the foundation of civility and civilization.”
It has taken me years to learn that no matter how many times I draw my little comic pictures, which I’ve been doodling since I was a kid, I am not an artist. Limited by well-honed procrastination techniques (see this blog), my design technique is to ‘craft’ images by any media/means necessary to express my design ideas. Understanding that I’m a craftsman has made it easier for me to convey my ‘design thinking’ to others. The following is my design process… for better or worse!
The duality of life… life/death, sun/moon, light/dark, man/woman, formal/informal, yen/yang, etc… is an inherent basis for my design approach.
As Viennese architect Camillo Sitte wrote in 1889, the distinction of these dual powers is found in the Temporal realm (political) and the Spiritual (religious) realm. These require distinctive public centers, such as the Public Forum/Agora, Market Hall, Temple/Church Square, and Manor Palaces/City Halls. Leon Krier further identifies that our neighborhoods (res Civitas), and their resulting character, are defined by a public realm (the street, square, and civic buildings – res publica) in relationship to our private realm (blocks, yards and building – res economica). And, Andres Duany’s brilliant planning and design tool, the Transect, distinguishes the gradations between nature and the urban core. These truisms set the context or parametric for how I begin to design a place.
The duality of designing places begins with the assembly of two components. The first is man-made geometry (the circle, square, and triangle are not found in nature), and the second is crafting these shapes towards a specific location’s cultural values. Geometry equates to the project’s spiritual aspiration and higher purpose. When applied to a local culture’s memory and expectation it provides the design an emotion or accent. How ‘local’ you apply these shapes shifts the design from either a more formal classical pattern or towards a more local vernacular or dialect.
The story told by the above language is the design’s ‘Controlling Purpose,’ (per Frederick Law Olmsted), ‘High Concept,’ (per J Mays), or ‘What’s the Big Idea!‘ (per Frank Wolden). And then everything else plays a supporting role to the big rational idea. This is when the project moves from diagrams towards design.
As a child I enjoyed drawing. As a New Urbanist, my design aspiration is beauty, to improve the quality of people’s lives, and connect us with places that we feel good in. This agrees with Aristotle who summarized every principle of city building with: “A city should be a built to give its inhabitants security and happiness.”
I agree with JMay’s that beauty is revealed in the further refinement of proportion (scale/intensity), line (flow), and shape (form)… in that order of importance.
A correct proportion is determined by the project’s aspiration, role, and character as expressed in a locale’s memory and expectations. The line leads the project’s ‘flow’ and the form/shape expands from the line (See Renzo’s image below). A favorite quote on lines from ‘The Education of Henry Adams‘ is: “He knew the artistic standard was the illusion of his own mind; that English disorder approached nearer the truth, if truth existed, than French measure or Italian line, or German logic.”
Following this yen/yang big picture thread, Leon Krier once said, “All it takes is just one wiggle…” to make a tremendous difference in making a great place within a monotonous grid of US west city streets. Leon tends to lean towards a less formal ‘flow,’ much like my other design hero Geoff Dyer. And, I understand that I lean towards a more formal ‘flow’ starting with a grid pattern and deviating only stubbornly during the public charrette.
Another helpful design tip came from Andres Duany, who encouraged me with, “Don’t get in the way of the flow,” and allow the local context to tame my classically ordered street patterns. And finally, Liz Plater-Zyberk, Andres’ partner, wrote that ‘Urbanism is the tension between two buildings,” as that tension gives ‘life’ to these two forms. Indeed.