Traffic calming on a city street

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This is a small street in London near Covent Garden. The street is a shared space, with little beyond the paint on the pavement to mark it for autos – it would be better if it didn’t have that. The best thing is perhaps a lack of curbs and sidewalks in the space.  Traffic is calmed by this blurring of priority.  It is further calmed by the creation of a chicane, behind the protruding bollards, protecting trees. Most of the bollards seem a little like overkill, but I guess the building owners were scared of the cars getting too close.

This is a simple, effective and seemingly cost efficient way to humanize a street.

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The dream of Modernism

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A building at Exeter College.  This photo represents the dream of modernism:  elegant buildings situated in lush environments.  The building sits lightly on the land.   The strong, low horizontal form contrasts well with the sloping ground.  The dark skin blends well  with the surroundings.  These combine, perhaps, to impart to the building’s inhabitants a feeling of connection to the earth and to it’s viewers a sense of harmony of man and nature.

There is just one problem with the vision of design.  And it is a fatal flaw.

If all buildings and landscapes are designed like this, then by necessity, a city becomes very spread out.  No matter the density of an individual building, the overall city sprawls to great distances.  Walking, biking and mass transportation become difficult, if not impossible;  private cars become the only realistic transport option.  Publicly funded infrastructure is very expensive to install and maintain.   Single use buildings kill street life, creating a retreat into the private realm.  In this one picture, I can trace the decline of urban America, and by extension, public life in the U.S.

The problem is not the individual cases, which often are stunning in their beauty.  The problem lies in the near universal application of the theory of modernist architecture set in landscaped grounds.  This is found in nearly every highway commercial strip in the U.S.  In those places, we see disconnected, single-single buildings, adorned with token landscaping, accessible only by private car.

Our mental adherence to this design theory has placed us in a very vulnerable position regarding the very real limits of resources and finances.  It has also exacerbated global warming, as inefficient land use increases carbon use.

We must return to our urban roots – those small scale, jumbled, walkable places that humans created and sustained over the last few thousand years.   The problem lies in the spaces between our buildings; there too will be found the answers.  We must reclaim those spaces, which will mean giving up the dream of buildings set in parks.  Those spaces, and in many cases the buildings themselves, must be re-purposed, changed into denser mixed use places.   Will we be able to dream a new dream?

 

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Random thoughts….

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I continually marvel at how supposedly “unmodern” people built such places of lasting beauty.  Yet we, who are modern, seem incapable of much besides their destruction.  Those people made these places without a grand designer or masterplanner.  They knew their materials and they knew a pattern and they knew each building’s place and purpose.  No government bureaucrats needed.  No developer’s “visions” required.  They also weren’t in a hurry.  Building a beautiful city takes time.

Additionally, consider the buildings above in relation to the building in the post below.   Aren’t the buildings above “green” too?  Their materials were locally obtained.  They have provided shelter for hundreds of years with a very low carbon budget.  And because they are timelessly beautiful, they are unlikely to be demolished when fashions change.

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“Green” architecture can ruin a neighborhood

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I used subscribe to Dwell magazine.  I don’t know why.  I hated Dwell magazine.  I think they should call it Sprawl magazine.  Every issue had some fantasy house out in the country that was described as “green” without mentioning the embodied energy used to create those places, nor the fact that they are only accessible by car, nor the fact that those “green” houses are in some way infringing on a local eco-system.

But today’s screamer is the place shown above, in urban Portland, Oregon.

The magazine profiles this place and headlines it as adding to the “neighborhood’s density and it’s green cred.”  I shit you not.

The article begins by rah rahing about how Portland gets it environmentally.  But the poor Portlanders are  “often stuck in the architectural past, clinging tightly to Douglas fir roots and craftsman moldings.”

Yeah, we don’t need any of that shit anymore. Fuck local traditions and craftspeople, we gotta get green and Modern!

Fortunately, an architect and his realtor wife bought a lot and are gonna show us just how to do it.  Their goal was to “show that well-integrated modern design is as much a part of sustainable community building as are the latest, greatest green products.”

Well, look at the monstrosity above and tell me how they can say that with a straight face.  Really.

Exactly what about this place is “well-integrated”?  First off, there are no front doors on the Borg-like cube,  which kinda says “fuck you, neighborhood.”  All we see are garage doors – yeah that sends a “green message.”  And gotta love the “creativity” the architect displayed on the windows – “Let’s NOT line them up.  That will help with my architectural-integration strategy.  And then I’ll paint the whole thing black!  That will really help this place integrate into the neighborhood.”

The poor old-fashioned house on the side there?  Yeah, the one that actually seems integrated into the neighborhood.  It has a front porch so that families can sit and watch the street, talk to neighbors.  There is a front door that proves that human beings live there, not cars.  The windows are actually useful for looking at the neighborhood. You know, corny, non-Modern shit.

I’ll tell you what this place is:  a piece of greenwashed bullshit.  The architect is using our fetish for “green” to try and disguise his utter disdain for real neighborhoods as well as his lack of talent.    This might be the worst building I’ve ever seen in Dwell, and that’s saying something.

Folks, we can never let our desire to protect our environment be held hostage to architects who really hate cities and the people who live in them.

I have nothing against density, or even Modern architecture, but both must have human elements that connect and truly integrate the structure into neighborhoods – either existing or new.   Front porches, front doors, useful windows, minimized automobiles.  Corny stuff, sure, but vital for the long-term success of any place where people live.
see it here and learn all about how wonderfully green it is.

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Bridgetown Housing Estate Totnes

Urban planners in the mid 20th century really got a lot wrong.  In fact, from this distance, it seems as if they got everything wrong.  In simplistic terms, they insisted that that old was bad and modern was good, that cars should come first, and that housing for the masses should be mass produced.  As if with a twinge of guilt, to offset that, planners decreed that housing should be placed in meadows of green.  Green is good for housing right?
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Well, when it is done like this, not so much.   So many cities in England and North America have residential areas like this.  They are low density odes to some perceived benefits of a pastoral life.  The thinking seemed to be:  “Cities bad, polluted, dark, and scary.  The suburbs good and bright, clean and healthy.” To a certain extent, there was some truth in this.  Many industrial cities prior to World War 2 were not nice places to live.  But the other extreme to which the planning for these suburban areas created a whole new set of problems.

This is a housing estate of about 400 units that was built from the late 1960s into the 1980s.  My experience tells me that this place will be a colossal failure in meeting the realities of the 21st century.  For one, this place requires very high energy inputs to make it work. The low density and single land use of the development ensures that no one does any meaningful walking. These two factors also combine to make mass transit use inefficient.  The development sprawls up the side of a very steep hill, ensuring that biking is limited for most people.  Thus by default, private cars are by far the dominant form of transportation.   Any community that is over-reliant on private automobiles is extremely vulnerable to energy and financial shocks.

Another energy related issue is with the houses themselves.  While they have better windows than many much older buildings, all in all they appear to be rather flimsy.  They lack the dense building material that can make it easy to regulate temperate year round.  The low density groupings of no more than four units per building also limits the conservation of energy via thermal mass.

On a smaller energy scale, but important symbolically, is all that grass.  It has to be mowed, which these days means gas powered machines.  More importantly, that grass represents the value of consumption over production;  those green areas do nothing for anyone or the environment.   They don’t produce food,  fiber, or energy.

So this is a high energy place, with a large, primarily carbon, footprint.  This is what I would consider to be the antithesis of a truly sustainable community.

The design of this place also shows glaring weakness in meeting the social needs of the 21st century.  Planners in the 20th century never understood the difference between an ideal density and crowding.  In the reaction to horrid overcrowding in industrial cities, planners spread out houses in an attempt to introduce open space, thus reducing the anti-social effects of crowding.  In the trade however, they lost the benefits of density.  Those benefits are numerous and have been detailed by urban luminaries such as William H. Whyte and Jane Jacobs.  Two of the most important benefits of density are increased security and the serendipitous social effects of random meetings.

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These low density developments have an eerie quietness about them.  The houses are so far removed from the street that it feels quite risky walking on them.  Not that anything is likely to happen, but it is an unsettling feeling just the same.  This contributes to the lack of meaningful waking here. This lack of walking lessens the possibility of meeting someone offhand and having a conversation.  This leads to an increased feeling of isolation, which is unfortunate at a time when creating true community is more important than ever.

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Finally, this development is just a mass of random greenspace.  Public, semi-private, and private spaces are ill, or even not, defined.   It is unclear where people are supposed to be or not supposed to be.  The result is that the spaces become no-man’s lands, avoided by everyone but the anti-social (and teenagers.) They are random, uninspired and uninspiring.  The architecture of the development was not used to create street scenes nor frame the green spaces.

Here’s an alternative vision.  New building masses are combined with those existing.  These new buildings will be residential, commercial, and even hand-scale manufacturing.  Every building will also be an energy plant, with solar panels and small windmills.  Parking areas will be redeveloped as building sites;  only on-street parking will be allowed.  Streets will be reclaimed into living streets using low-impact-development methods.  The open green spaces of the development will be better defined by the buildings. Pavement will be placed in gathering areas, and the rest of the open spaces will be put to productive use.  These lands will be used for production of food and fiber, harvesting rain water, as well as generating solar, wind, and biomass energy.

This area could support 50 years of new growth in the Totnes area as well as become a true model of sustainability.  How daring are the visionaries of the city and region?  How truly daring is Transition?

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Narrow streets are people streets

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This is Smith Street, Dartmouth.  It is clearly a residential street – there are no commercial signs – except one – an historic anomaly or recent intrusion? The street is no more than 12 feet wide; where the nice glass walled building bumps into the street, it’s around 8 feet.  The buildings are three stories.  This street is steep:  I estimate that it rises 15 feet over 100 feet.  The buildings have a high degree of articulation, vertically and horizontally.  It is wonderfully enticing with the deflected scene.

While the sidewalk has a warm texture, the street itself needs to not read as a street.  Rather, the entire horizontal surface should be uniform.  This contrasts with narrow residential streets in Italian towns, shown below.

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picture totnes

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I like to think that this picture shows both the days past of Totnes – the need for walls and the dependence on smokestacks – and the future -solar power, green land, true community.

blue rowboat matt

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Points in space

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The use of obelisks as points in urban space has long held sway in the minds of humans.  See my post about them in Rome.

This is Torquay.  While not an obelisk in the strictest sense, the tower in the town center serves the many of the same functions as those in Rome.  It is the physical statement delineating to the center of the town.  It is also a visual link to that center, in that the tower is visible from the three main street directions into the center.  I imagine too that it serves as welcome homecoming site to sailors entering the harbor beyond.  It serves a symbolic function of commemoration and Christian heritage.  And it is functional in that provides the time. That’s a lot going on in such a relatively small structure in a fairly small town.

Note how much more pleasant the scene would be with less driving lanes and wider sidewalks.

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Historical land use integration

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The Quay, Exeter.  In the pic above, we can see three distinct historical land uses and about 200 years worth of buildings.  On the left, a covered commercial market, in the middle are vertical warehouses, and residential on the bluff above.   Granted the houses appear to be upper end, and they are separated from the action on the harbor, but imagine these kinds of houses anywhere near commercial and industrial uses in today’s world.

Note too the reuse of the buildings.  The warehouses are now offices, galleries, cafes and shops.  The commercial market still functions.  And the houses are still desirable.  Mixing land uses and building to last are great low energy strategy for cities.

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Townscape lessons

For 500 years Exeter was a prosperous and handsome town, with a thriving commercial center.  This center was heavily bombed by the Germans in WWII. Initial rebuilding began in the late 1950s and continued into the early 1970s.  Unfortunately this coincided with the influence of the “modern”.  Thus, much of the rebuilt area still has a desolate, recently bombed out feel.  In the early 2000s a new wave of makeover began.  While better in material terms, it still sadly lacks a human scale.

The ultimate question becomes:  why did the town planners, when surrounded by the finely detailed, human scaled streetscapes like this…..

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………….do places like this?IMG_3262

Was creating a human scaled townscape not heroic enough to satisfy egos? Was the dream of transportation so beguiling? Was it a fatalism, in light of that recent past, that nothing was worth building well since it would probably only be destroyed again soon? Was it an optimism, that rebuilding something fast and cheap would send a message of hope?  Was it an impatience to just get on with it? Was it an acknowledgement that the townscape skills, and the time in which to practice them, just weren’t available?

Whatever the reasons, this happened.  And it happened at a time when the leaders should have known better.  The most humanistic and artistic of all town planners, Raymond Unwin, had died only a few years before much of the rebuilding took place.  Yet little of his influence is evident in any of the bombed out – or even just “revitalized” – cities.  Perhaps his seminal book “Town Planning in Practice,” published in 1909, was considered too quaint by then.

Yet, who can seriously argue with Unwin’s philosophy?  It should be guiding us in all we do:

“there seems to have been such an all-pervading instinct or tradition guiding the builders in past times, that most of what they did contained elements of beauty and produced picturesque street pictures….The influence of the tradition we have mentioned was not confined to the buildings themselves, but seems to have extended to the treatment of streets and places as well as to such minor details as steps, entrance gates, walls, and fences, which often enhance the beauty of the picture…

two prominent elements in the tradition which influenced builders in old times were that the work should be well done, and that it should be comely to look upon when finished. While obviously the cost was carefully considered, it was not deemed legitimate to sacrifice proper construction, good design, or good finish in order to attain the last possible degree of cheapness.”

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