Placemaking begins with hearts and minds, but is never actually realized without the toil of human hands. Today we rest, honoring the back-breaking labor that helped build the communities, big and small, we’re now privileged to call home.
See you back on Thursday, as we unveil some hard work of our own: An all-new PlaceShakers.
I live in a city that is currently updating its Community Plans. This is an historically difficult planning job because Community Plans transcend both broad policy statements (such as the amorphous “New development should be in harmony with surrounding development…”) and specific development regulations (“Front yard setbacks shall be 25 feet deep from property line…”). An issue with updating Community-scaled plans is the personal sentiment people feel for their homes and the difficulty we have in expressing such emotion within conventional 2D planning documents. The source of most conflicts and confusion I see occurring during these updates is due to the confusion over the scale and size difference of a ‘Community’ versus a ‘Neighborhood’ unit.
I’m big on local. Not because I hate Walmart and 3,000 mile Caesar salads but because, as I see it, communities built on interdependent systems are better suited to taking on the challenges and opportunities presented by time.
That’s why, when it comes to the decisions that most directly impact day-to-day quality of life, I tend to advocate for smaller, more local, more responsive increments of control. Things like neighborhoods, NPUs, districts, and towns.
The world around us, whatever form it takes, comes to reflect the priorities of the people setting policy, making rules, and allocating funds. The more those people understand the nuances of context and maintain a shared stake in the outcome, the better things tend to be.
“Don’t dance, drink, smoke or chew, or go with girls who do.”
If you grew up in the south, it’s a good bet you’ve heard this one before. In short, reputation is a precious thing. You may show up in church in your Sunday best but, if your actions every other day paint a different picture then, well, that’s the impression that sticks.
Actions, especially over time, speak the loudest.
I’ve always found this reality fascinating in the aggregate. That is, what happens when all these people of countless reputations start living together, making the day-in-day-out decisions that add up to community? Reputation then transcends the actions of any one individual and comes to reflect collective actions, which no one person controls.
Ottawa celebrates Canada’s cultural mosaic, its urbanism full of delight and engagement. As with most North American cities, its oldest neighbourhoods have positive lessons for urban design today. This is because much of what makes Ottawa character delightful is illegal in the development bylaws that govern its more auto-centric outskirts. On a recent visit, I was inspired by Centretown, The Glebe, Sandy Hill, Byward Market, Lowertown, New Edinburgh, Rockcliffe Park, and of course, Parliament Hill.
I am fortunate to sit as a non-voting member on a SoCal city’s Design Review Board, which is a difficult job and I applaud the many people across our nation who serve on these boards to make difficult decisions for individual land owners and neighbors on behalf of their respective cities. The overwhelming majority of the issues I see monthly are redesigns in response to conflicts between neighbors due to a simple confusion between how new and existing buildings should relate to their lots and to each other.
As the second in a three part pictorial series finding inspiration in Canadian urbanism, I’ve been invigorated again by a short stint of cottage living. Which of us hasn’t felt the delightful lightness that comes with downsizing our primary residence? Some of my most carefree years were spent living in an 800 SF cottage in German Village, Ohio, and last week’s trip to the countryside near Mont-Tremblant, Québec, has reminded me why. Even if this round in the cottage was thanks to the hospitality of a kind friend, and not for keeps.
Leveraging your Town Center for Economic Development
So far, this series has taken on three of the essential components of a healthy walkable town center: hotels, retail and multi-family residential. But, traditionally, our town centers were not simply a collection of residences and shops. They formed the commercial and civic centers of our towns and cities — an economic development engine that attracted the industries that gave all those homes and shops a reason (and means) for existing in the first place. Of course — and you know the story — as we moved into the suburbs in the post WWII era, we placed our offices into “office parks” in our campaign to separate the activities of our daily lives and reconnect them through compulsory car trips.
Ever had a teacher who was so amazing at storytelling that difficult subjects become clear – and riveting? Some of my favourites that come to mind are Professors John Kraus and Robert Garbacz on electromagnetics, and Andrés Duany and Léon Krier on urbanism. The last few days, I’ve spent some time in la belle province, and I’ve felt that the Ville de Montréal is such a teacher.
In 2006 I was in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, for a planning event. On display downtown at the time was the prototype Katrina Cottage and a number of us spent one evening there conducting a spontaneous test of its ability to host a party. At some point, I ended up on the porch with a prominent new urban architect and, noting the cottage’s smooth Hardiplank siding, asked him, “Why do you think people always seem to choose the Hardiplank with faux woodgrain when the smooth is so much more natural and attractive looking?”
His response: “I don’t know. Vulgarity?”
While it’s admittedly dated in relation to internet time, this recent Upworthy post resurrects a 2009 New Scientist article comparing the environmental footprints of household pets vs. those of various vehicles. Its soundbite takeaway? Your medium-sized dog has roughly twice the footprint of a Toyota Land Cruiser.
Guess it’s time to issue some formal letters of apology to the owners of plus-sized roadsters and start setting up euthanasia camps for our former furry friends and their silent agenda to destroy the earth, right?
The other day on an urbanism listserv, someone asked for parameters to qualify a new development as a walkable, mixed-used, livable place. While measures like CNT’s H+T Index, Walkscore, and IMI’s Walkability Index go a long way toward measuring, there isn’t a single source that awards the title of Livable New Place.
So I’m watching Asheville, the closest city to my rural community in western North Carolina, celebrate the announcement that Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing Company will be opening a brewery in the city’s redeveloping River Arts District. And based partly on extensive research with PlaceMakers partner Scott Doyon in the Atlanta Metro’s beer mecca of Decatur, GA – I’m thinking it’s time to address the concept of beer as economic development.
Experiencing the most recent façade-ectomy in Winnipeg has left me asking again the much-debated question of the validity of preserving just the façade of a building.
A façade-ecotomy will likely:
- Lose historic, cultural, architectural significance
- Waste embodied energy
- Increase cost of construction over full demolition
- Increase tax revenues over doing nothing
- Decrease long term viability of new construction
Over a decade ago Andrés Duany of DPZ taught me that, more times than not, NIMBY opposition stems from a sense that proposed development is not of equal or greater value to what would be lost.
Tony Nelessen, the inventor of the Visual Preference Survey, confirmed this lesson a few years later when he came to my town and conducted one. Continue reading
Residences: An Obvious Ingredient
One obvious yet undervalued ingredient of an effective mixed-use town center is the residential component. To emphasize its importance, I would go as far as to say that it is actually the substrate on which a healthy mixed-use environment is based. In a healthy, balanced region, with the exception of noxious uses, no land uses are set aside as a single use and all are integrated into a walkable neighborhood.
I don’t like pedestrian malls. There, I said it. And it’s not because there aren’t some good ones, because clearly there are.
Let me explain. By the mid 60s, America’s race to the suburbs had left many downtowns in tough shape. Once vibrant streets, alive with the sounds of community and commerce, began to find themselves empty and foreboding after 5pm. And not that it mattered either, because the streets themselves — increasingly reengineered over the preceding decade to expedite the daily flow of workers into and out of the city — were no longer a place where any rational person would ever want to be anyways.
Taking a break from Geoff Dyer’s series on town centers this week with a refresher course on the simple elements of mixed-use development.
Citizens, politicians, and planning officials have embraced the need to allow for walkable neighborhoods across North America and mixed-use is an essential component for achieving walkability. However, the term mixed-use has held different meanings in different places over the past 40 years or so.
This week my family enthusiastically celebrates both Canada Day and Independence Day, wishing Canada a happy 145th birthday, and the US a happy 236th. We honor the effective portions of the collective community vision that made these two nations great! The oldest continuously occupied settlements in each country are St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador, at 429 years, and Acoma and Taos Pueblos, both in New Mexico, at 1,012 years.
Shops: Everybody Wants ‘Em
Last week we started this series off with Hotels, a sometimes overlooked, value-adding addition to a walkable town center. This week we are looking at one of the essential ingredients of a town center: the retail shops. The retail component of a town center is the most visible component, often defining the character and pedigree of a place. It is also the biggest generator of traffic, an attractor of street life and pedestrian activity, and value-adding convenience for neighboring office workers and residents. But where it gets into trouble is the fact that successful retail spells m-o-n-e-y. It makes bucks for the developers and operators, it is often a key line item on municipal tax roles, and it can bring great value to surrounding neighborhoods. But the problem is that while everybody wants ’em, there is only so much to go around.
Several years ago I had the fortune of collaborating with architect Teddy Cruz, artist Joyce Cutler-Shaw, and landscape architect Michael Sears on a study of San Diego’s rich history of creating Visionary Planning documents. Our documents included John Nolen’s 1907 and 1926 City Plans, Kevin Lynch and Donald Appleyard’s seminal 1974 shot-across-our-bow “Temporary Paradise?“, and Adel Santos’ 1993 “Urban Futures” plan to re-urbanize downtown’s East Village. During a work session, Michael was thinking aloud when he said, “… building towards cultural and social value always equates to economic value, while the converse is not as true.”
While walkable mixed use town centers may not be the *easy* choice for the asphalt guy, the engineer, or even the developer who has to attract tenants to an environment they may not be as used to… they are certainly becoming best practices for sustainable community development. More importantly, they are quickly becoming a market favorite and a valuable amenity to their adjacent (and integrated) residential neighborhoods. Too often, however, municipalities and developers choose only to commit to this model halfway, viewing it as a niche market with limited potential where quaint mom and pops struggle away (you know, that one-off new urbanist development at the edge of town), while the “real stuff” happens in large conventional single-use centers down the street.
This lack of commitment allows many of the essential ingredients of a successful walkable town center to get sucked into car-focused single-use centers (the easy place to put them) so that everyone can make excuses as to why the poor mixed use village struggles and we still have to do the conventional stuff until oil hits $10 a gallon.
Last week brought a barrage of polls about Americans’ attitudes. And despite the spins some of the sponsoring organizations offered, the underlying message is that we seem to be holding steady with our conviction that the farther we get from our own little corners of the world, the less confidence we have in the competence and good will of others.
Here’s a graphic that tells you all you need to know:
Having worked in communities big and small across the continent, we’ve had ample opportunity to test ideas and find approaches that work best. Urban design details. Outreach tactics. Implementation tricks. Many of these lessons are transferable, which is why we’ve created “Back of the Envelope,” a weekly feature where we jot ’em down for your consideration.
Over the weekend, I had a Twitter exchange with Mitchell Silver and Steve Mouzon about a PlaceMakers concept that I’m feeling the need to explain in more detail.
Return on No Investment – my new friend, RONI – is the whole idea of leveraging assets and connections that are already in place, while investing a little more time and energy, to create a significant return. It’s a simple concept that PlaceMakers has championed since lean times made for more careful spending practices in city planning circles.
Last year about this time I wrote on the subject of NIMBYs and laid out a challenge to the NIMBY nation. It’s time to stop talking about what you don’t want, I said, and start talking about what you do want.
In short, it’s time to develop the criteria under which a Not-In-My-Back-Yarder will say yes. And to that end, I want to consider a shift in perspective that might help the process along. I call it the Sphere of Emotional Ownership.