Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Mixed messages

So what is it, Stop or Yield?
This would be comical if it weren't a photograph.  This picture goes to the core of why urban design is so critical and yet so ridiculed when poorly practiced.  The interface between people and vehicles is difficult to legislate.  Engineers like to have everything settled in firm rules that will forever be followed.  In our minds, indecision leads to insecurity, so every contingency must be considered and legislated out of existence. 

People are far more flexible than that.  Uncertainty and attention are friends of the pedestrian and it turns out, they are also the friends of community building.  Isabelle de Pommereau wrote in the Christian Science Monitor about Bohmte, a German village that has become another example in the evolving “Shared Space” movement.  Bohmte removed all of the signage and signalization in its town square.  So what happened to the 13,000 vehicles per day that used that square?  They're still there, but they behave quite differently and the people who walk and drive there see their lives differently.  One of the residents had this to say:

“Two months into the experiment, ‘Instead of thinking, ‘It’s going to be red, I need to give gas, people have to slow down, to look to the right and the left, to be considerate,’ says Ms. Rubcic…  ‘The whole village has become more human. We look at each other, we greet each other,’ she says.”

That's a big deal.  I could go for that. 

Notice that this is a downtown--a very urban environment where people and cars should share the space.  There's no confusion about whether people should be trying to get somewhere because they're already there.  That's what the planners and architects are talking about when they talk about "placemaking."  These are the places you're trying to get to, not the road on the way there.  You can clearly see that the minute you enter the space.  No mixed messages here. 

It's far too easy to confuse the destination with the path.  My friend, Chuck Mahron is talking constantly about the danger of Stroads--vehicle pathways that look like through paths but directly serve destinations.  So which is it--a destination or a path?  People should be able to recognize from the character of the area that it is a destination, not a through path, but when we engineers optimize roadway environments for the automobile, it becomes confusing.  If the land use is a destination, then people shouldn't be driving at 45 mph (or even 35mph) in front of it.  They shouldn't even want to drive that fast. 

We make believe that this isn't a big a problem if the only mode of travel is vehicular, but that really isn't ever the case.  People walk.  Stroads are the places where pedestrians get killed most often.  It may not be many people, but walking people are vulnerable and engineers are ethically bound to protect vulnerable users, either by restricting them from the environment entirely (like with limited access highways) or by taking care to make sure they are adequately protected within the environment.  As engineers, we have protected the automobile users and encouraged the optimization of vehicular travel to the detriment of all other users.  It's not just us engineers--land use patterns are just as important and we land use planners need to be more rigorous about making a distinction between destinations and open spaces fit for paths.

That is going to need some rethinking or even some un-engineering. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sometimes details matter

I came across this wonderful blog post this morning about lovely details that support dynamic placemaking.  He included simple things like window boxes, art, decorative doors, little gardens, fountains, seating, courtyards, pocket parks and historic preservation.
Withers-Maguire House, Ocoee, FL

I will take issue with his argument that only authentic historic architecture is valuable--For us here in Central Florida, we don't really have anything substantially authentic other than the beautiful cracker houses and white victorian homes that are so well suited to our climate.  What we do have is people from all over the world who bring their architectural traditions here--and I love that.

From a community standpoint, I would add Farmer's markets and local festivals as time oriented placemaking.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Park Libraries in Columbia

I absolutely love this idea.  When I first saw this, I thought it was a bus stop.  It's not, but it probably should be. 

It's a portable park based library in Columbia.  They have about 100 around the country to encourage literacy.  Each are staffed with a worker who receives a small stipend.  It wouldn't be hard to redo these as library vending machines in urban locations.  It would make waiting for the bus much more relaxing and attractive. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Creative Placemaking of a Different Kind


The New Ideal?
I'm not sure urban designers really can create what most planners think of as a "creative place," or whether we even should.  It is the people that gather that provide the creative energy, not the place.  The best urban designers can do is create physical enviornments that are supportive and pleasant for the invisible community of relationships that already exists.  When you go about trying to create a "creative place," I have a feeling that you're just as likely to get bums off the street as you are creative geniuses--and I'm not always sure you can tell the difference.  Is that not why La Boheme is so enraptured with lightly employed, starving young people?

Frankly, I'm somewhat skeptical about the whole Richard Florida "Creative Class" concept anyway.  Bohemians may bring a certain amount of heat, but are not likely to have the kind of wisdom and experience that brings light.  If you really want to see economic development and benefits that span across wide levels of society, it is the entrepreneurs, engineers, medical researchers and non-profits that you want to support, and they often like suburbs.  Teaching them to enjoy walkable enviornments will help them synergize and cooperate, but there's a limit to how many relationships they can support and remain productive.  That's why they tend to prefer lower densities. 

Winter Garden Farmer's Market
I have to say I feel uncomfortable in environments that are dense enough to require that I intentionally ignore huge swaths of the people around me.  The farmer's market in Winter Garden's walkable downtown is great because I recognize so many of the people there.  Around 11:00am when the crowds are at their thickest, I don't enjoy it nearly as much.  Our little farmers market is, to me, placemaking at its best.  It is a third place where the entire community gathers at the same time and place.  We have events in the downtown about every other month too.  The relationships that are built and supported there are  joined by loose cultural institutions, like church, school, club and community fitness classes.  We know each other.  We work together.  When life happens, we do fund raisers for each other.  Is the strength of the community based on the streetscaping we did 7 years ago or the farmer's market pavilion we built last year?  No, but they provide a supporting framework for us to grow and strengthen the relationships we already have.  They also provide a place for newcomers to begin to integrate into the existing cultural fabric.  We had a community before we had a streetscape.  The streetscape just allows a larger group of people within the city to join us. 

RR Depot, Circa 1915
Many of the elders in our community have been quoted to say, "The good old days never looked this good."  That's true.  A century ago, our downtown was a thriving industrial marketplace focused on the rail service that got the agricultural products of our community to the marketplace.  It was messy.  It was coal powered steam engines, migrant workers and citrus barons.  It was city-wide fires and rebuilding in brick.  It was big bass fishing, hotels and a trailer city for snow-bird fishermen.  The times inbetween have not always been comfortable.  Pollution from the industrial scale agriculture killed the fish in the lake.  It became more profitable to plant Yankees than oranges when the cost of kerosine became too high to protect the groves from the few freeze days that inevitably come each year. 

Scoops Ice Cream Shop
Industrial citrus production has changed to information industries, hydroponics and telecommunications.  Our community is no longer the center of activity but a tertiary piece of a larger region but we do not make relationships on a regional scale, and our community is good at knitting lives together locally.  We don't have a single driving industry--we support industries all over the region.  We do have significant talent brought to the area through Disney and several of these talented chefs have chosen our downtown to open their own private places, like the French Pastry chef from Paris whose kids go to school with my own or the former executive that runs the ice cream shop and knows my daughter by name.   The downtown revitalization provided a venue for these valuable members of our community to use their substantial talents for local benefit and we love to support them.  We have a higher than average number of advertising and graphic arts firms, so I guess we are "creative" after all. 

Winter Garden has become a "place" in a creative and encouraging way.  That to me is creative placemaking...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Pedestrian Scale Land Use Mix

If you want pedestrian interaction, your land use mix has to balance at the scale of the pedestrian. 
Obvious?  Yes. 
Ignored?  Absolutely. 

This does not bode well for the suburbs I love.

Areas that have succeeded in their bicycle and pedestrian systems (i.e. people use them) have land uses that are mixed within 1/4 to 1/2 mile scale, because that is all the casual user will casually walk.  Add in a bag or two of groceries and a stroller or a toddler and even 1/4 mile seems like a long way.  Employment mixing might stretch a bit farther but not much.  Recreation walks have been known to stretch to as much as a mile, but you're pushing it.  And, by the way, this means walk distance, not crow's fly distance--which can be a problem in the land of  subdivision walls and gates. 

Many communities prescribe land use mix in their LDR's and Comp Plans and then wonder why people don't walk.  Good land use mix can substantially reduce the length of your vehicle trip (not bad), but you won't get people out of their cars without draconian parking limitations combined with genuine proximity. 


As I was mulling this over, what came to mind is that although I live within 2/3 of a mile of a thriving downtown area that is connected to me through a true, traditional neighborhood, I almost never bike to it, much less walk to it.  Occasionally, on a warm spring day I might pull out the bike for a fun trip with the kids to the ice cream shop, but that's really only once or twice a year despite the fact that my area has some of the nicest bikable streets, paths and sidewalks anywhere.

How about you?  Do you walk any farther?  When?  How do you design for this?  I'd love to get some insights...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Pedestrian detail to love!!

One of the most difficult issues with suburban walking is the dreaded subdivision wall.  It makes any walking task a real chore.  The answer is to add pedestrian walkways through the wall at a walkable scale, but that means setting up walkways between houses--which is not likely to go over well for buyer or owner.  As I was driving around the other day, I saw one such walkway and I love the way the homeowners handled it. Here's the view from the residential side:

From the community side it's just as cool--inviting, yet subtle:


The trees add some shade and point the way to the walkway.  I might have preferred the trees on both sides of the sidewalk, but it's hard to be picky when someone finally gets it right. 

I don't know the history of this connection, but it appears that both fences were constructed by the homeowners for their individual lot, though at first I wasn't sure whether those were private fences or communty fences.  That brings up an important point:  This is easy to do for a developer.  All he would need to do is extend the community fence along both sides of the walkway.  This is an area that is close to a walkable downtown area and within the local school's walk-zone.  I'm sure this pathway gets used regularly by more than just school children walking to school. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Great Blog Post on Wise Growth--grow natives...

I just came across this great blog post on economic development.  In it, Delia Rucker talks about attempting to grow and nurture businesses like growing plants that are native to your area and climate. 

I would add that the transportation systems that we put in place should have the same mind-set.  There are areas that are conducive to growing high-density, high intensity land uses, along with all of the alternate mode support that is feasible there.  Some places just aren't made for that.  Here in Central Florida, it's wet, windy and often sandy.  Building a second story on most buildings is prohibitively expensive--One retail developer recently told me that he can't build the second story for a price he can reasonably expect to get back in the lease. He can do facade's, but the wind load ratings on a second story make the building far more expensive.  Basements and extensive foundations are rare because the sand will collapse on you as you build it.  There are lakes in the way everywhere--street continuity is an adventure.  Water retention requirements add space to each project, also impeding density.  Cost-effective transit will always be a challenge except in the tourist areas where single destinations and clustered origins make highway style transit ideal. 

We've made mistakes, but they can be improved with solutions that follow the "right plant, right place" principle.  Euclidian residential zoning can be augmented with complementary commercial or institutional uses within walking distance.  For the most part we have fairly flat land so there's no excuse for not having a sidewalk or bike path everywhere.  There are few hills to get in the way of a digital environment.  We have a history of welcoming people into our communities that makes front porch relationships a natural thing--we need to build more porches and encourage people to add them to existing homes.  We may not be New York or Long Island, but we can be who we are and that will be good enough.