Tag Archives: Place

The patterns of place

(This article originally appeared in Get Ahead Magazine, for the Get Ahead Festival of independent short films in Brooklyn.)

When we speak of the identity of a place, we express a recognition of the patterns formed around us. We may not be conscious of them to the point of being able to draw them back with precision like Stephen Wiltshire, but we can remember them in the abstract, and in this way, identify different places from the abstractions we recall of their patterns. This is how one street can look sufficiently alike another that we can identify a neighborhood, and it is also why a landscape like Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto can feel like New York City, despite the fact that every object has been reconfigured to create a parody environment.

A city’s identity is made by the patterns selected by the people who built them. We can also say that these patterns are the fossil record of the people who inhabited a place. We can read the history, the culture and the sustainability of a place by the combination of its patterns. A building is a hierarchical computation of different processes nested within each other, and these processes can be substituted for others depending on what conditions are encountered.

Echoes of Holland

At the largest scale of patterns there is the building program, whether a house, a church, an office, easily recognizable in any cultural setting. These programs are realized using construction techniques that are conditioned on economic constraints. The Dutch who settled New York City brought with them their basic house program, but these had to adapt to the resources available by, for example, building in brownstone, an economic pattern. Despite this difference they kept features of their homes like stoops, patterns that were at first environmental but then became cultural.

As each successive culture either migrates to or emerges in the city, it needs to adapt the patterns of its buildings to fit its own practices. Fractals like these become habitual:

This is Chinatown in Brooklyn. We can tell it is Brooklyn because the basic patterns, program and materials, are Americanized Dutch. We can tell it is Chinatown because of the use of vertical commercial signs which are characteristic of oriental cultures (their writing being read top-to-bottom instead of left-to-right). The large-scale patterns are extended by smaller-scale patterns to form a full building fractal that is Dutch, American, New York and Chinese. This combination of pattern is the identity of Brooklyn, the people who have lived there and continue to live there.

One particular culture that has often been denounced as an anti-culture is the global corporation. Their aesthetic program has been to impose their corporate identity uniformly on communities, regardless of any consideration for local economic, environmental, or cultural factors. But there have been exceptions, such as the following case, where the corporation decided to extend the patterns of the neighborhood instead of imposing its own.

This Dunkin’ Donuts nested itself seamlessly in an old Dutch building next to a Chinese restaurant, and even improved upon it a bit with orange awnings that preserve the structure of the windows while announcing the presence of this corporate neighbor to everyone on the street. As well as being a demonstration of Dunkin’s neighborliness, it is also a demonstration of the sustainability of the neighborhood. The buildings are resilient, and despite the Dutch builders never anticipating that there could ever exist such a thing as a Dunkin’ Donuts, their patterns have been slightly adapted to fit today’s needs. Some day Dunkin’ Donuts will also be history. In its place will be some other culture which may or may not preserve traces of Dunkin’s presence, but the building itself will remain and serve a new purpose.

So far I haven’t said a word about architecture, which is simply because architecture does not enter the picture unless one has a lot of money for sculptural elements. It is possible to build a good neighborhood without architects, but a great one needs art, and that means getting some architects involved. The best architecture starts with utilitarian patterns, the same functional, economic and cultural patterns we see above, and then expands it by nesting sculptural elements, thus it is still possible to recognize identity of place behind the architecture. This architecture, sculpting the utilitarian shape of the building, becomes the final expression of identity, the artistic currents and fashions that propagate across cultures and then vanish, only to make periodic comebacks.

This is what Brooklyn architects did with these residential towers overlooking prospect park. What is in essence a stack of identical apartments made with the usual economic patterns was extended with sculptural ornament, most impressively around the otherwise obnoxious elevator shafts.

Looking at Brooklyn’s tallest landmark, the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, we see patterns that are Gothic, Romanesque, Italian renaissance, Art Deco, all nested within each other and wrapped around a stack of floors that can fulfill any purpose whatsoever. The final product is a building that is worth preserving from a bank, to dentist’s offices, to residences, because the patterns cooperate with each other instead of clashing, and answer our need to feel connected to any of these identities. This is another form of sustainability.

The tragedy of architecture in the 20th century, and the great confusion that came from it, is that modernist architects first banned sculptural elements in favor of purely standardized, globally uniform, utilitarian industrial patterns, then post-modernist architects declared that a building was only a sculpture for living, that the utilitarian should be subordinated to the architect’s artistic expression. The outcome has been a building culture that has no identity when it is not completely incomprehensible, and more than likely has no resilience and no future.

This “Dance Center” is a sad example of this confusion. Were it not spelled out in letters, would we be able to understand anything about this building’s identity? The people who occupy it? What any of its parts do, or if they do nothing at all and are simply there for visual effect? I can’t imagine a future for it. But there is worse.

This building makes no attempt at being anything other than mass human storage, the modernist tower block revived for the bubble epoch. It will likely be a financial failure for being too ambitious while being too redundant. If I were to take an apartment there, it would be impossible for me to tell which window is mine from the outside. What does this say about the people who built it? That they took the easiest path to financial income. What does this say about the people who will live there? That they have nowhere else to go. It is and will remain an alien in the neighborhood, a product that removes identity instead of contributing to it.

Today’s planning establishment attempts to reform the shape of our cities with “form-based codes” that dictate with precision the shape of every pattern. This comes at the cost of outlawing certain unforeseeable patterns that may make a net contribution to the identity of place. It also drives away people that need these patterns, and drains life that is needed to renew the neighborhoods. Last of all, it will not stop a monster like the example above. If instead of dictating shapes, we made it clear how to expand and preserve the neighborhood’s identity, we would all be much freer to live and express ourselves, adding to the history of our environment.

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Modeling the processes of urban emergence

Placelife

The growth process of an emergent city actually consists of five growth processes. These processes are hierarchically related, that is to say the morphology decided by processes at higher levels of complexity depends on decisions taken at lower levels of complexity. They are not constrained by one another, as modern planners claim when they clear slums in order to build their architectural vision, but expand upon one another, creating a landscape that is tied to a history of adaptation and transformation in order to meet the needs of the present at every point in time.

Each transformation is the decision of an individual, acting within the context he perceives and the ends that are identified. These ends may be within his own sphere of life, by expanding his home, or subdividing his property to build a home for his grown children, but more likely they are the consequences of identifying a potential created by the individual actions of others. For example, if a sufficient number of neighbors have settled, opening a bakery. In this way networks are built upon the potentials created by the last network extension, (in one such instance by capturing residual movement in the grid as Bill Hillier describes) and the city increases in complexity.

The foundation process of a city, before anyone can even imagine a city being there, I call the place. A place is nothing more than a free surface available to be settled. Newcomers build their home wherever they want in the place, and that implies that they will locate their homes to take maximum advantage of natural features, and space themselves away from their neighbors in order to avoid conflicts over the use of common lands. A place settlement process is how shantytowns are created, except that because there does not exist any functional land ownership in a shantytown there is no limit to how many buildings can be created. Thus the shantytown never reaches the second process of urban emergence, creating a crisis. A place may be created deliberately, by transforming a farm or other types of land use to that purpose, by building fortifications within which land is protected from harm, or a place may be given by nature simply by being available and strategically located.

Place

A place is an open space where people may settle and build randomly

As places become increasingly dense, the use of space by neighbors will create conflicts of proximity. Land will no longer be superabundant. In order to resolve these conflicts a process of land enclosure delimits the boundaries between neighbors’ households by negotiating the boundaries of land that is in private and common use. Streets and blocks thus appear, and those spaces where common use is particularly intensive, because of highly valuable natural features or central locations, become recognized as public squares and greens.

Enclosure

Enclosures delimit private and public spaces, and the pattern of streets, blocks and squares emerges.

With available land to settle either enclosed or occupied by public activities, it becomes more difficult for new growth to take place. New buildings built on remaining place must be justified before a community increasingly protective of the remaining open space. In most cases it is much simpler to ask one of the members of the community to give up a part of his property in order to grow the new part of the town, introducing the process of subdivision. These subdivisions are negotiated case-by-case and thus adopt random sizes and shapes, creating a fractal distribution of lot sizes over a long timeline. Some subdivisions split the land into shared courtyards and cul-de-sacs that are administered under a co-property agreement (they never need to involve the community as a whole).

Subdivision

Properties are subdivided to make room for new growth and new network relationships now that open land is in short supply.

Eventually crowding becomes problematic at the same time as the scale of network growth is increasing due to higher population densities. This creates the opportunity not only to open new places to settlement, but also to connect the central city to these new places by a place functioning at a greater scale, near a road or highway, and that provides an encircling bypass around smaller-scale neighborhoods. This is the grid process. This new construction opens up land to construct large market and industrial businesses that are simultaneously a buffer between smaller-scale places and roads but also an integrator of these places into larger-scale networks.

Grid

The grid integrates mature places into a larger network of places, and creates new spontaneous development opportunities.

The last process takes place when a large city with many places integrated by many scales of grids develops a mass transit system that becomes more reliable than private transportation systems. When that occurs the need for private transportation falls radically and it becomes possible to live at the centers of this mass transit system without any private transportation, thus radically reducing demand for space. Parking lots can be built over and turned into undifferentiated buildings providing standardized living spaces that can find their match in the very large population. This radically higher population in turn creates a very wide potential for new differentiated networks, and the construction of large buildings is accompanied by many new, differentiated small buildings. This is what enables a place to achieve high density complexity, and we can call it the metropolitan process.

Metropolitan

A small number of larger new buildings accompanies a large number of small new buildings resulting from the reduction in space needed for transportation.

A model such as this one is not meant to be a design to be implemented in reality. It serves only as an illustration of the processes, the means through which decisions are achieved, that generate the structure of cities. If we want to do the morphology of an existing city, it is these processes that will help us explain what decisions led to the city’s present form. These processes also help us predict the future of the model of urban development we choose to adopt. As an example I have become highly critical of measures that seek to increase the density of subdivision developments by smart growth zoning regulations. They tend to leave the structure of neighborhoods in such a state that further subdivision processes within its tissue are impossible, and the neighborhood becomes unable to adapt itself as its population changes. Instead we should be building low density subdivision developments that can grow naturally into metropolitan neighborhoods, and this growth will be controlled by its community as its members make the decision to give up a part of their property to accomodate the changes the community is undergoing.

A conversation about the geometry of nowhere

In response to my last article, Bruce Liedstrand of Community Design Strategies in Paris writes,

I read with interest your essay on The Geometry of Nowhere because I divide my time between Paris and Silicon Valley (the site of your Cupertino Target store example). After re-reading the essay, I am puzzled. I hear your frustration with narrow sidewalks, but I am lost in understanding your concept of “place”.

My experience has been that a “place” is created by spatial enclosure, the use of adjacent buildings to enclose and shape the space into a comfortable “place”.  Paris is strong on spatial enclosure. To me it seems almost as if Paris started as a solid mass and that the boulevards were carved out of the mass by broad blades and the narrower streets (“rues”) by finer blades. Wherever I am in Paris I feel comfortably inside a good place.

Your essay seems to indicate that “place” exists without any enclosure by buildings. That, indeed, it can exist on the outside edge of buildings rather than inside a group of buildings. Is that what you intend?

I am puzzled also by your discussion of the Cupertino Target store, which I have personally visited. (Ed note: What are the odds?) When I look at your illustration of your changes, I don’t see any “place”. What I see new is open spaces outside buildings from which cars have apparently been excluded. Do you intend to say that exclusion of cars is the key to converting undifferentiated open space into a good “place”? What is it about these new open spaces around the store that would make them comfortable for people to linger in?

Perhaps I am reading your essay wrong? Can you please point me in the right direction?

Thanks.

Enclosure creates a room, but it’s not sufficient to create a place. You can see this in Paris, where some of the best places in the city are not enclosed, for example along the Seine, or the Luxembourg garden. And the most enclosed places, like Place Vendôme, are not very interesting.

To get a good understanding of the relative impact of enclosure and open space on place, all we have to do is take a long walk along the axe historique. Start at Place de la Concorde, which was about 50% sidewalk 50% free space when it was created and is not enclosed. All the free space was converted to road and now it is perilous to get across, but still a place. Walk down to Rond-Point de l’Élysée through a wood with substantial open space to walk across. I don’t know if that counts as enclosure, but it’s a good place. Then you have the model of place, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées with its straight-aligned buildings, that is also a place with 50% sidewalk and 50% road. And it is a major road, 10 lanes of traffic, but that doesn’t really interfere with it as a place because there is little reason to cross the road, and it can be done in two steps thanks to traffic islands.

Once you’re up the hill and you go across the monster Place de l’Étoile (horrible place, all cars driving maniacally so that pedestrians have to cross in underground passages), you end up on Avenue de la Grande Armée, which is morphologically identical to the previous avenue except that some of its space is taken by parking lots. That means the ratio of sidewalk to road is much less than 50/50. It’s also much less crowded and much less attractive than the previous avenue, but it still works.

After you get across Porte Maillot to Avenue Charles de Gaulle in Neuilly, then you find the same buildings with the same alignments and the same enclosure as the two previous avenues, except this time the space has been traffic-engineered to hell, combined with speed cameras to dissuade speeding. What space there was on Grande Armée has been cut even further, and the result is a dead street on what is a major business center of the city.

Finally cross the bridge and climb your way up to the Parvis de La Défense, where you will find that the buildings are modern and completely random, but the space is fully open to people and always full of people. (Even on Sundays!) I interviewed the master planner for the northern expansion, and he said the developer of La Défense did not agree to build the 25m wide pedestrian bridge he had designed to connect the site to the main place. After their small “passerelle” failed they backed down and built the full bridge, and it works, always full of people.

So there you have it, the closest thing to a controlled experiment on place and enclosure. Enclosure turns out to be irrelevant.

Have a nice walk.

Do you really find La Defense a pleasant place?  For me, it is utterly placeless – one of the worst locations in Paris?

If you have extra time on a pleasant afternoon, would you really rather spend it sitting in the open space of La Defense than in my neighborhood park?

p1010675_4

La Défense is a business place, and it works at what it is. But compared to Avenue Charles de Gaulle, which is another business place, and which has the same architecture and alignments as the rest of Paris, it is a much better place.

Can you say this is not a good place?

Look at all the people. They’re not locked up in their offices. The neighborhood is set up so you can go straight to your office to the metro using tunnels, but when I was there I always preferred taking a detour on the surface. Take my word for it, people even go there on the weekends to teach their kids how to ride bikes and roller-skate. They don’t care that the buildings aren’t aligned.

What I am asking with my article is how can we reduce and remove sprawl without going through an expensive process of total demolition for which we won’t have the money anymore? We don’t have the choice of your small neighborhood park. A place and a park are very different things anyway. Cities existed for centuries without parks, but never without place. If we reintroduce place in sprawl cities, that means shops that rely on place to survive don’t have to open up in the mall anymore, they can do business anywhere because the entire city is a mall (one of the first things I realized about Paris). Then your city starts to grow around place instead of around roads, and people have a reason to linger.

Yes, for me it is not at all a good place in the photo or in personal experience.  People are dwarfed by the size of the space (in the photo, the space is almost empty) and it is not comfortable.  One can look at the buildings as perhaps interesting objects, depending on one’s taste, but it certainly is not a place I would linger in or return to regularly if I didn’t work there.Let’s accept that we disagree, vigorously, about whether La Defense is a good place.  But what, in your view, makes a good place.  So far I hear you favor an absence of cars and openness?  Is that right?  Is that all, or can you tell me more?

And what would be good about your redesigned Target store?

I didn’t redesign the Target store, I left it there as a necessity of the context, and the people at La Défense aren’t looking at the buildings. They’re a necessary part of the décor, but they’re not the reason people use the place, or any place.La Défense became a success, despite everyone’s intent, because economic conditions forced the developers to break the master plan and allow any random building to be built. Had they not done so it would be exactly like Empire State Plaza in Albany. The difference between the two is not architectural, it is socio-economic.

You do not need to remove cars to make a good place, you only need to remove the exclusivity for cars. What makes a good place is total freedom of movement for everyone, including the freedom to stop and linger. You can’t do that in traffic engineered space because you are confined between very narrow limits. They tell you how fast to go, when to stop, where to turn, it’s a nightmare, but one that we put up with to go fast.

Is an empty space out in the desert a good place because everyone can move freely?  Or are you talking about places within cities?  Is it just traffic engineered spaces that you reject?  Are you advocating a Hans Monderman approach to streets?  Are you rebelling against “confinement”, or is some broader principle involved?

I agree that the Empire State Plaza in Albany is a terrible place.  Are you saying that the only problem with it is that, unlike La Defense, the buildings are not place at random?  What do you mean by saying that the difference is “social-economic”?

Could you please write in one paragraph what you believe are the key factors in creating a good place within a city so I can understand where we might agree or disagree?

Deserts can make a good place, although there is not much desert urbanization. (Desert driving is a lot of fun nevertheless.) Open space alone does not make a place, you also need people there, and the reason that people go through any place is to participate in and generate social and economic networks. This was not done at Empire State Plaza but was done at La Défense.

The issue is at core about freedom. How much freedom of movement do I enjoy, how much freedom to grow and build do I enjoy? In a place you can walk anywhere and build anything anywhere, or just occupy the space to conduct some activity like playing hockey or learning to ride a bike. That creates networks and attracts people. In sprawl the entire space is traffic engineered. To move around you are practically on a conveyor belt, offered only a linear path, delimited speed and a select few choices. You can’t build anything because of the zoning. The choices available to you have been selected by the traffic engineers and the planners, and they only fit  their model of what they want you to do. There is no creativity possible to invent your own journey. A famous game designer once said “a game is a series of interesting choices.” What kind of choices does sprawl offer?

The one place in sprawl where people are given a shred of creativity is the mall, and that’s how people who live in sprawl spend their free time. You can go there and just hang out, inventing an activity from nothing. It’s all the place they have left.

The geometry of nowhere

I hate sidewalks.

When I arrived in Paris the first shock I felt was how much space there was for people to move around. Even on boulevards with little pedestrian traffic, such as Boulevard Port-Royal, space is divided equally between pedestrian standing room, in other words place, and roads for vehicles. How many modern cities offer this kind of abundance? While, like all tourists, I loved the boulevards in Paris, I also became familiar enough with the city to find out that I disliked the little streets that branched off them. At first I thought that it was their boring, ordinary architecture and emptiness, but there were some exceptions. The pedestrian streets of the Marais and Latin Quarter were full of people and shops, which I assumed was exceptional due to their historic value. (Google Street View of a typical ordinary street of Paris.)

Late last fall I returned to Montreal sufficiently alienated from it to be once again shocked by the contrast in street design. All I felt upon stepping out on the street was terrified and exposed. The snow and ice of winter only made the experience more dangerous. Despite the streets being wider than those of Paris, I am required to walk on narrow strips of concrete, where any slip or missed step would cause me to tumble into a road where a passing car would undoubtedly decapitate me. (In fact a few Montreal pedestrians were horrifically killed this winter.) Any contact with another pedestrian involves invading their personal space and requires that someone yield to the other. This means you cannot walk side-by-side with another person, taking away all the pleasure of walking. And out in the suburbs, there isn’t even the luxury of a concrete strip to stand on. Little wonder that no one wants to walk anywhere. Thinking back, I realized why I hated Paris’ little streets: they forced me onto the sidewalk to make space for a road and car parking lane. There was no perspective from which to appreciate them because there was not even standing room in them.

sidewalks-and-streets sidewalks-and-streets-ii sidewalks-and-streets-iii

A picture of an early 19th century street scene shows that sidewalks were just a setback between the building and the street, a boundary to create a transition space between place and building. No one was expected to actually walk on them. The entire surface of the street belonged to pedestrians and vehicles equally. As a poor inhabitant of the late modern city, the street widenings and enormous open places of the 19th century appear to be unbelievable public luxury. There was an abundance of place even in the narrow medieval streets compared to what we enjoy in the modern city. Freedom of movement between one building to another was total. There were no obstacles, street furniture, traffic control devices of any kind. The final effect, in the pictures above, is of an enormous place with randomly configured boundaries, even bigger than those in our modern suburban sprawl. Why is this not a cause of anxiety the way that modern sprawl is? Why does it appear so orderly despite the randomness?

There is no clear explanation in either the historical literature or classical design treatises as to what makes a place. The reason for that I suspect is that place was simply the default state of things. Maps of fortified towns during the renaissance show that many of them were just a completely open surface with a few randomly placed buildings. Towns started out as open land upon which you could do just about anything you wanted, including constructing buildings. Over a long time, with the building density increasing, it became necessary to keep streets open by imposing limits on how close new buildings could be from others, in effect defining a lower bound on the width of the street. But the street was not really something created, it was something that was preserved, the way blood vessels are voids between cell tissues. It was the combination of building randomness and circulation feedback that created the organic pattern of streets. In a traditional city then the problem was never about creating place, but about preventing too much of it from being consumed that the system became unworkable. When circulation problems arose anyway in the early 19th century, the solution was to remove buildings in congested areas and create more place. And so this is how Paris got its fractal pattern of streets: randomness, constraints, and feedback.

sidewalks-and-streets-v1

The pictures change around the turn of the 20th century, when mechanized vehicles start to take over the street. At this point pedestrians are being crowded out of their place and forced onto the sidewalks. The process may have been so gradual that hardly anyone noticed, but this seems to be what happened. The urbanists and architects of the early 20th century were right to denounce the congestion of the modern city. But what we see from the picture above is that the place occupied by vehicles is far less crowded than the space used by pedestrians. The crowding was purely artificial, the result of a process that no one may have been aware of.

The introduction of the automobile then made things even more unbearable, but at this point European and American cities took two opposite turns. While the streetcar moved at the leisurely pace of the horse-drawn coach, the automobile’s purpose was to go fast and cover distances that were beforehand too far. This could not be done in the congestion of the traditional street and required the production of an entirely new system of circulation, what later came to be called traffic engineering. American cities gleefully ripped up the streetcar tracks to make way for the new road system, literally driving place to the margins and choking main streets into economic starvation. In Europe the old tradition of place-preservation was applied and the new roads were only subtracted from place at a bare minimum, leaving about half of it left. That is how Boulevard Port-Royal remains so roomy for pedestrians, because there was no need to remove any more of it. And it is also why the design of Piccadilly Circus in London is so complex, balancing both traffic engineering and existing place improvements such as subway exits and fountains. By default, anything that doesn’t need to be traffic engineered is left to place.

london18

Even the problem of providing parking space can beautifully be solved by grouping parking into blocks surrounded by place. Here is a parking block in old Montreal. The dogma in parking planning has been that either the parking lot must be between the building and the road, such that customers and visitors will easily see how to park and won’t keep on driving right home, or the new dogma that parking lots must be hidden behind buildings because they are ugly and destroy urban space. Here however the parking is neither between the building and the street or behind the building, but across the street from the building. And it turns out to be unobtrusive, leaves plenty of open space to provide light and fresh air, and lets anyone walk right up to any building without having to cross a no man’s land of vehicle storage.

parking-block

In modern cities the process of place subtraction has been completely abolished. A modern urban development begins from a road and the road is extended through a parking lot to the entrance of the building. This was not the original modernist plan. Although the free-form street was supposed to be segregated into different pedestrian and automobile paths that would never intersect, the space set aside for pedestrians was gradually abandoned and removed entirely for various reasons, notably poor design and safety issues (as documented by Jane Jacobs). Place removed, all that remained of the modernist process of urbanization was the road hierarchy. Sprawl was born out of this mutation. Any available land that is not a building footprint is filled out with parking space or ornamental landscaping of fake nature. There is no land left over to place, although there is a sidewalk along the road.

Various movements to “reclaim the street” have sprung up in both Europe and America, sometimes going to zealous excesses (blocking Paris’ périphérique beltway). They have mostly focused their efforts in traditional urban centers, with the latest victories being the proposal to close off part of Times Square to yellow taxicabs and other vehicles. Top traffic engineers like the late Hans Monderman have figured out that traffic flow is best when it’s de-engineered, recreating place for better traffic flow at intersections. But what if we tried to reclaim place in suburban sprawl? What would it look like? Although buildings are huge, randomly situated and separated by wide gulfs of space, that really did not appear to be a problem in the pictures above of 19th century cities. Let’s try an experiment and assume that suburban sprawl has the same structure as a place-based city, then reintroduce road and parking lots within place, as was done in Europe.

The example I will use is the area of the Target store in Cupertino, California, just down the road from the headquarters of Apple Computers within the world’s richest sprawlopolis, Silicon Valley. I selected this site because the good people of Apple deserve to have a nice place to call home, and the biggest concentration of wealth in North America should have some kind of place to identify with.

target-sprawl

This is our starting point. I bet you think it’s hopeless. If I didn’t come in equipped with a process to create a place I would have walked away (driven away more likely). But from what we know of how place was formed in traditional cities it turns out to be really simple to build a place there. First we have to remove everything that isn’t a building and leave it as open space, the foundation for a place. Second, we draw a boundary around the buildings. Third, we reconnect the roads. Fourth, we add the parking blocks that the stores need to attract customers. And finally we spruce the place up with trees and other street furniture. The result doesn’t look that bad.

target-place

Without having to demolish any of the buildings we have made a place out of what was a tragic cluster of sprawl. At this point people are going to say that there probably isn’t enough parking, or the roads might not be sufficient to accommodate the traffic, but the great thing about a place subtraction process is that you always have some space in reserve to fix unforeseen problems. So instead of building parking spaces in strangulating numbers, you can just convert place to parking lots as they become necessary. If it turns out that the parking is just right, you can build more buildings there and turn it into a little downtown. Of course as you do so density increases and open space disappears. It’s a trade-off, but it’s one that we have deprived ourselves of by insisting in our planning codes that everything be done right at the start, which means that we have too much of everything and nothing left over for people. The biggest myth about sprawl is that it is low-density. In fact it is much too dense, every bit of space used for cars or buildings, which is why people are always complaining about wanting more open space.

French author Marc Augé launched the study of the non-place, ultimately describing it as a space where meeting others is impossible. Place, an emergent product of traditional urbanization, was always simply taken for granted. It has taken enormous intellectual effort, after a complete elimination of place, to understand what exactly was lost and how. It will take a reconstruction of cities just as massive and a paradigm shift in the practice of traffic engineering to restore it. Until then whenever I am in a modern city I will stay in the car. As much as I love walking in town, I am not going to lose my life for it.

Reference

The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler, always a classic.

A video series of Hans Monderman showing his work creating places in “engineered, technocratic” new towns of Holland. And here is an introduction to shared space.

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Planning for nomads

Almost half of Americans want to live somewhere else. Even for a nation known for its exceptional mobility, the fact that people are not only moving in pursuit of employment opportunities but are looking to move simply because they hate the place they live in reveals a much deeper problem. Economic opportunity is no longer what keeps people moving, it is what keeps them immobilized. Given the same opportunity they would relocate to the kind of place where life is good. Once the economic value of a region has been fully used up, people move on. That is the lifestyle of nomads.

Americans’ feelings of nomadism express the lack of control they have over the shape of their environment. This control was long taken away (with good intentions) to a higher level, planning. Planning by governments, planning by commissions, planning by land developers and Homeowners’ Associations. Planning works, ironically, by preserving the status quo and preventing anyone unauthorized from restoring a built equilibrium. It defines what form a city is to take and locks it up under the control of boards and committees. Because they cannot make their neighborhoods their home and move the fabric of their environment, extending their roots into it, households opt for the next best choice: moving themselves somewhere that fits them more.

When people are no longer responsible for producing their community, they no longer feel any attachment to it. There is no longer any pride of ownership the way that homesteaders who built upon the land were proud of their estate. All that remains are consumers of planning who move from one product to the next as they search for a place that feels like a community. Often that means the countryside, which by grace of having small economies has never been able to support much planning.

Participatory processes, whether they are called “participatory democracy” or “charrettes”, have been the main focus of planning theory for the past decades. The idea was that if people could be involved in the decision process to define the planning of a town this would make such a place their own, but it is no less of a surrender of control, a collective plan. Once the plan has been set, there is no repealing it. Better hope that they got it perfectly right. The inverse process is much more likely to tie people to their community. A town design that is conceived in a studio somewhere far away with zero public input, but that deliberately empowers the local citizens to transform their environment upon its realization, will realize the community’s aspirations and the individual’s dream. This fact ultimately makes the notion of bottom-up versus top-down design meaningless. Who knows whether the lone inventor of an emergent design, who gathers the input of an entire community in order to build it, is running a top-down or bottom-up process?

There is a commonly accepted idea that a good growth policy is giving free reign to land speculators. Although that creates many economic opportunities for people to find work, it doesn’t create the opportunity to build a good life. It will lay the foundation for a city of nomads who pass through to consume as much as they can of the place until they have the chance to move on somewhere else. This may be a growth policy but it will never be a community development policy, unless what is being served is the community of land speculators. A good growth process makes it equally simple for any member of the community, big or small, to transform its fabric. The best growth process will make this simple while creating a beautiful place from all of these individual changes. A city that adopts such a process will not only attract economic growth but also community growth. This balance in growth is the fundamental meaning of sustainable development.

What it will take to start this process is not gymnasiums full of shouting people, but visionary leadership. Only when the top-down drives the bottom-up is a balance achieved.

The emergence of a sense of place

Modern urbanism has given us a landscape that many consider to be soulless. Everything looks the same. Nothing creates a sense of place. New Urbanism has attempted to reverse this by returning to traditional architecture and town planning forms. This was done in European new towns, under the advice of well-meaning men like the Krier brothers, in the late 1970’s, and did not succeed. While there are blocks and squares and on-street parking, the general configuration of traditional towns, the new towns did not develop the identity and personal relationships with their inhabitants that was intended with the return to traditional forms. They still experience the same population mobility that the other suburbs of the periphery experience.

The reason this happened is the same reason that New Urbanism has not caught on, despite the fact that everyone agrees with it. The New Urbanists have been focusing on outcome instead of process.

Complexity is an emergent phenomenon. This means that its outcome cannot be determined, that only the process of emergence can be determined, and the outcome must be what results from this process unexpectedly. The sense of place that we seek is not traditional town plans, although those have merits of their own, but the realization of our personalities in buildings.

Home renovation has become the cultural expression of the landed middle classes, and the propagation of the home renovation big box chains is a testament to this culture. I cannot have a single conversation with any middle aged home-owning couple without some renovation project of theirs being mentioned, and I shudder to think how conversations go when they are amongst themselves. I believe that, more than a form of consumer culture or cocooning, this trend is a reaction against the placelessness of suburban environments. As the standardized, tract homes are transformed at small scales by their residents, they come to reflect the choices and personalities of the individuals that inhabit them. This is what had been missing from the speculative, mass-produced housing that colonized the periphery and eventually exploded across the entire landscape. Once buildings have been transformed by someone, the presence of this person is felt in the building’s form. It becomes a unique historical event, and thus forms a place.

How does repetition of identical buildings come to be? The answers are in the building processes. Repetition was never seen prior to the industrial age, and even through the industrial age not all cities actually saw mass-produced housing. American cities laid out on grid patterns all have their share of row buildings, as does London. But in London the trend started with terrace housing for the aristocracy, and other centers of industrial revolution in Europe, such as Paris and Berlin, have no trace of repetition at the scale of working-class neighborhoods in industrial America. The simple fact of industrialization cannot explain this kind of urban morphology. Even today, while the construction of repetitive housing subdivisions continues in the post-industrial world, the industrializing countries such as China are constructing wildly individualized buildings inside the existing urban fabric. And in the informally economic shantycities of Africa and favelas of America, personalized building is the only rule. The latter feel more alive, although less comfortable. That living quality, the result of millions of individual acts of transformation to create fitness, is what gives a place its placeness. But in order for this quality to emerge, there must be a personally-enabling urban process at work.

Christopher Alexander theorized such processes in his Oregon Experiment, where he also wrote a scathing criticism of city plans. He described how the directors of urbanism for the University of Oregon could act to enable the creativity of the inhabitants of the university in the elaboration of new buildings that would solve their personal, individualized problems. This would be the opposite of designing a plan for the university’s expansion that would then be imposed on the inhabitants in perpetuity

The traditionalist New Towns I mentioned do have such plans, and they do forbid personal transformation on the urban fabric. This is why they remain only a product and have not grown into a place. The same fate awaits suburban subdivisions where strict HOA rules forbid changes.

Beyond those two cases, a larger problem still has to be challenged. Why is it that the processes of urbanization in our countries limit or destroy complexity, while enabling it in foreign countries? We must take a critical look at our processes, which are unfortunately often enshrined by government legislation, and replace them with those processes that enable the emergence of complexity. Only then can a new urbanism be achieved.

Placeless:

Regular, oppresive tract homes.

Placefull:

Reference

Alexander, Christopher and others. The Oregon Experiment.