Tag Archives: random growth

Defining a new traditional urbanism

Sometime last year this website attracted the attention of several members of the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism, an organization sponsored by the Prince of Wales Foundation in order to support and renew traditions of construction. While this organization does great work to preserve the techniques of traditional building cultures, they have yet to define what the traditional urbanism of their name really implies. The importance of such a definition I believe to be primordial. If modern planning measures continue to be adopted from one country to the next, any traditional technique of construction will become irrelevant, as they have in western industrialized (and post-industrialized) countries.

This all became obvious when a miniature controversy erupted and swept through the various internet discussion groups and blogs of the community over a proposed redevelopment of the Chelsea Barracks in London’s Chelsea borough. An old modernist military installation was to be torn down and replaced by its new owner, the Emir of Qatar, with a new modernist megahousing development designed by Lord Rogers. There was nothing particularly interesting about this Rogers design, but Lord Rogers having written the plan of London, a plan that specifically calls for better design, it made sense that a Rogers design would be swiftly approved by the planning authorities. Hiring Rogers was the most risk-free option available for a multi-million pound development project.

Getting wind of this, and noticing that the Rogers design was an unremarkable piece of rehashed modern housing, the Prince of Wales hired his preferred architect Quinlan Terry to sketch up a counter-proposal that was more in harmony with the architecture of the landmark Royal Chelsea Hospital across the street from the barracks, which he then proposed to the Emir of Qatar through his personal relationship with him. The Emir, alien to the local culture and uncertain of what London considers to be “good design”, then decided to dump Rogers and re-think the development.

The Prince Charles and Quinlan Terry counter-proposal

The Prince of Wales and Quinlan Terry counter-proposal

Lord Rogers' Chelsea Barracks redevelopment proposal

Lord Rogers' Chelsea Barracks redevelopment proposal

I am not going to analyze the controversy from all of its fascinating angles, such as the design quality of the architecture, Lord Rogers (of the House of Lords) teaming up with British Republicans to denounce the monarchy’s interference with civilian life, or the absence of affordable housing in Chelsea. I am interested in only one question: is this traditional urbanism?

At first sight, the Terry design is reminiscent of the 18th/19th century style of palatial construction in Europe. (In fact one of the “blocks” features echoes of Buckingham Palace.) In terms of authenticity, the proposal is flawless. The Rogers proposal is also a palace, although one with much fewer attractive qualities. But does Chelsea really need a palace?

Providing a response to that inquiry is precisely what a system of urbanism is supposed to achieve. The system in place for London unfortunately requires that one have enormous financial means in order to participate in any kind of development, and inevitably that implies that only large speculative development will be so much as imaginable. The Chelsea Barracks proposal is entirely a product of modern urbanism, and by intervening into that system, the Prince of Wales and other traditionalists are sanctioning the very thing they claim to be opposed to.

As luck would have it, I wrote about the different processes of urban development using London neighborhoods such as Chelsea last year. Combining this with our models of the processes of urban emergence, we can develop the idea even further and try to conceive of a proposal for a traditional urbanism that develops the Chelsea Barracks site.

When I last covered Chelsea, I used its housing typology as an example of a linear, non-complex model of housing development. While linear housing is characteristic of the neighborhood, it is not the entire tissue of it. If we analyze the morphology of the neighborhood we find many clusters of housing rows, but these clusters do not necessarily repeat from one block to the next, and they are intermingled with other, uniquely programmed buildings of varying scale, the most prominent of which being the Royal Hospital. This means that, despite the neighborhood’s texture being only semi-random and not completely emergent, it performs at a remarkable level of complexity.

Chelsea

This kind of fabric is very common of British-American subdivision development during the 19th century. Here it is in a pure grid form in one of Montreal’s inner core “Plateau” neighborhoods.

Montreal

We can observe that the middle of blocks is populated very differently from the major streets, despite the fact that they are not very different from a design standpoint. We don’t need to propose anything more complicated than self-optimization to explain this pattern. During development, housing builders would work from the center of blocks outwards, where there was the least perceptible traffic, and shops, churches and other activities located where there was the most traffic. The outcome is a complex tissue with perceptible characteristics, not only random noise.

In comparison, here is the texture of a new neighborhood in Las Vegas (Henderson), Nevada.

henderson

It is the same housing model repeated a thousand times, some lots facing backwards from the main roads. This new neighborhood might as well define linear development processes. The only feature of this neighborhood is the house, and so it can only function at any level of complexity by ejecting its residents out into town for any activity.

Of course some might say this is not a fair comparison. Those old neighborhoods are old, and therefore have had a long time to achieve maturity. But a neighborhood maturing implies that the neighborhood is planned to have a life cycle taking place in time, of which the early stage of growth is critical to its final morphology. What did a young, new neighborhood look like in 19th century British-American urbanism? It consisted mostly of very large lots of gardens and other large events (such as, for example, a Royal Hospital). These new neighborhoods were advertised as a pastoral refuge from the city. Look at this engraving of Milwaukee’s outskirts in 1858.

Milwaukee_1858

Its overall density is much lesser than that of Las Vegas new neighborhoods, and it has a distinctively pastoral quality. Yet what happened to those traditional neighborhoods was often that, very rapidly (the span of 2-3 decades) they became very dense urban neighborhoods, at which point the rate of new growth plunged and the fabric remained stable.

See for example this comparison of the urban fabric (1897-1915) of the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, from the book Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs.

MorningsideHeights18971915

In less than two decades the neighborhood was populated from a pastoral grid dominated by the campus of Columbia University to the dense, New York-style neighborhood it remains today. In these examples, growing a mature neighborhood was intrinsic to the development process adopted, and once this process wound down there was very little left to change to it. The neighborhood was mature because it had reached its equilibrium with the socio-economic context. Correcting deficiencies is what is meant by a neighborhood maturing, and developing a mature city implies that one is avoiding mistakes during its development. If we are employing a development model that is set in advance, no mistake can be either corrected or avoided during production.

Notice then that in traditional neighborhoods, the construction of mass-produced housing came last, after the neighborhood had established itself as a socio-economic system at the fringe of an existing city. Because of this, the mass-produced housing is a complement to that tissue, and contributes to the established complexity of the neighborhood, even super-charging it with population density. This not only ensured that there was no environmental alienation for the new residents, but also that there was a limit to how much repetition there could be from housing builders.

In modern urbanism we require all new developments to be programmed for a certain type of use, whether we are building a housing subdivision, an office or industrial zone, or a “mixed-used” development. If this is not know and debated in public, no development project can be approved. Only when a proposal has gone through this ordeal can anything be built, and making changes involves going through the process again, so the developers just subsidize the mistakes, or leave certain parts of the plan unrealized and a gaping hole.

In traditional urbanism this is never necessary. In fact it is possible for entire blocks to be left as pasture or gardens, creating an ultra-low density urban tissue. Only as further development becomes truly needed are these blocks transformed into housing and other programs. A critical difference is that no planning permit or approval is necessary to further develop a neighborhood. Instead the residents have an envelope of building rights set in building codes, and everything within that space is considered to be automatically approved. Because of this the development of a neighborhood can be undertaken in a large number of successive decisions, where the next building to be added is not only determined by the citywide market but also by the current state of the neighborhood. This in turn allows a local community and economy to grow, which is absent from modern developments.

This is all very interesting for new neighborhoods, but how would that apply to a small urban redevelopment site in the middle of a centuries-old neighborhood? Clearly we aren’t going to be building up from pastures. This is where a “new” traditional urbanism becomes relevant, as we need to invent a new process that restores the features of traditional urbanism, but can also function in the context of mature cities and modern structural requirements.

Although the redevelopment of a large urban block is usually undertaken as a large real-estate project, it can also be considered as a nested process of urbanism (urbanism within urbanism). Much like the city-wide process of urbanism is characterized by regulations intended to achieve equilibrium, the redevelopment of a block of the city should also be designed as to achieve its equilibrium with the city as a whole but (and here is the defining characteristic of a traditional urbanism) also within itself. This is what does not happen in linear development processes such as housing subdivisions, or 19th century housing terraces. They provide equilibrium with the larger scale, but amongst themselves they provide no complement. For this reason, although you’re likely to see a lot of some housing model repeated in one place, you’ll rarely ever see it used again elsewhere. Mass-production does not work for buildings the way it does in automobiles.

Time and interaction are the critical factors. The reason large-scale development like the Rogers and Terry proposals get approved and built is that everything must be conceived and approved in one step. The architectural design is rushed in order to make proposals as soon as possible. The form can’t evolve over the course of development. This process is justified by the need to control the architectural character of the city, but it is not necessarily so. It only follows from controlling architectural character because we rely on static information systems and processes to conduct building. In fact, many of the traditional building techniques that preservationists are attempting to preserve do not translate into modern information systems (building plans). If instead of drawing the full plans, the proposals simply supplied the component patterns and a parameter space for them, then there could be an infinite variety of different instances of these patterns populating the new space, all fitting a particular need and applying a specific method of returning to equilibrium. If we wanted to release control even more, we could define some buildings from the neighborhood as models and whatever patterns they featured as automatically approved. And seeing as this is the 21st century, we could define these patterns inside software that could randomly generate any possible permutation, such as the City Engine.

With the architecture out of the way, there would only need to be a fixed design for the frame of spaces around which the urbanization will take place. Grids are flat and unspecific, and so a good project will have a place structure that creates inequalities of movement. (Even New York’s grid has subtle inequalities in the short-blocked avenues and long-blocked streets, creating vastly different spaces in character.) Crescents, squares and alleys on a completely open surface should be the extent of planning a new neighborhood, and it will be important that this design have value all of its own. It is quite possible, for whatever economic reasons, that only part of the surface will be built, or even that nothing will be built. A good urban design must work in all states, including with nothing on it. Remove the buildings from the Terry proposal and there is still a rather interesting landscape. The Rogers proposal, without its buildings, has nothing. Terry is therefore much closer to the goal.

Negative space in modern plots

Negative space in modern plots

In the final step, how does the developer make money? Sustainable development, after all, has to be profitable in order to be sustainable. In a traditional city, plots were subdivided over time as the need arose. In a modern city lots are defined as a standard shape, and then later sold off for some standard price. This approach has the unfortunate side effect of creating a lot of negative space. The developer of the Chelsea Barracks could instead sell or auction off space as an elastic product. The first buyer would choose the first spot on the open surface, in relation to the hierarchy of the urban grid. The second buyer would place himself in relation to the urban grid and the first buyer. These buyers at first would come from long-time residents of the neigborhood aware of some particular way of extending the neighborhood, but unable to find a lot a space at the right size before this project became open to the public. This process would continue until all the space had been consumed, and the end result would be that all buildings would be related to one another through the sales process. If the space was priced high enough, the later projects would only be initiated after the initial ones had been completed, and the impact of time would generate the demand for building programs complementing the initial projects.

In such a way the urbanism within urbanism would create its own socio-economic subsystem, would feature a randomly adapted but uniform architectural signature, and would complement and extend the external urban tissue.

While I’ve detailed a process for developing a small block within a city, this process is just as applicable for doing development of new cities, or new suburbs of cities. There are fewer constraints and difficulties involved in these other cases, which is why I wanted to use the example of the Chelsea Barracks site. Urbanisation is a universal phenomenon, and although the patterns change, the underlying principles are everywhere the same.

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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.

Don’t demolish Detroit

The following story about a presidential program to demolish whole neighborhoods of inner city fabric in the United States and turn them back into wilderness has been making the rounds around news blogs.

Having outlined his strategy to Barack Obama during the election campaign, Mr Kildee has now been approached by the US government and a group of charities who want him to apply what he has learnt to the rest of the country.

Mr Kildee said he will concentrate on 50 cities, identified in a recent study by the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington think-tank, as potentially needing to shrink substantially to cope with their declining fortunes.

Most are former industrial cities in the “rust belt” of America’s Mid-West and North East. They include Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Memphis.

In Detroit, shattered by the woes of the US car industry, there are already plans to split it into a collection of small urban centres separated from each other by countryside.

“The real question is not whether these cities shrink – we’re all shrinking – but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way,” said Mr Kildee. “Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity.”

This is the type of neighborhood that the government wants to disurbanize. It is located in central Detroit.

Detroit Demolished

To someone trapped in the mindset of development and control that we have practiced in the 20th century, a place like this is a nightmare. It is not possible to consolidate properties in order to bring in a large developer and a large bank that will finance “re-development” of the place. Worse yet, properties have been abandoned randomly, turning what were neat row houses with identical lots into a pockmarked landscape of randomly-sized public land chaos. Better to demolish everything and start over.

There is another mindset through which to interpret such a neighborhood, that of complexity. If we embrace complexity, then the randomly sized pockets of open land are an exceptional opportunity to renew the city of Detroit. They form a fractal solution set to new construction that many different people can participate in and contribute to. It can accomodate small, medium-size and eventually large-size businesses in close proximity with diverse housing and convenient transportation structures.

But why has this not worked for Detroit? Because its process of growth has not been focused on fractal scales but only on big projects and big businesses. Now that the big businesses are dying the city is threatened with disappearing and has to beg even bigger governments to prevent their death. That cannot go on forever. Death is a normal, natural process, and big businesses disappearing should never be a threat to a large city. The economic fabric of a city must always be renewed by new businesses. It is this renewal that creates a sustainable business ecology. At some point Detroit stopped the process of new business creation, and from then on its decline was assured.

Instead of demolishing its remaining neighborhoods and surrendering to the decline and death that will surely follow in its reduced form, Detroit should instead adopt the process of a special economic zone in those neighborhoods it wants to return to “nature”. Tolerate people build as they wish and let a slum happen, and from the slum will emerge the businesses that will renew Detroit’s economy. It can’t be worse than the bulldozer.

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 Marketplace City

Christmas break brought me back to Montreal visiting family, and family took me out to the post-holiday sales in the constellation of big-box stores along Montreal’s southern beltway, highway 30. Having all but grown up in the area, I’ve been witness to the transformations that the commercial space along the highway has experienced. There are some hard lessons to learn from the silly congestion of Christmas shopping and the impact of random growth in the context of the severely zoned outer suburbs.

It all started, as these things do, with a shopping mall. Les Promenades St-Bruno was built, most probably before I was born, in an empty forest at a highway cloverleaf. It has had the most interesting history, largely due to the fact that it has existed in the longest time frame. It was originally conceived as a monolithic, all-purpose two-story cross pedestrian mall, but has had to adapt to the chaos of economic life in highly contrasted patterns. On the inside, at least two of its branded anchor stores, the supermarket Steinberg and the department store Eaton, have outright shut down without warning due to bankruptcy. This would have likely killed off any other mall, but they survived by going as far as removing anchors entirely on one wing. It is noteworthy that the pedestrian environment on the inside is top-notch, crowded by the proliferation of kiosks and coffee shops in the center aisle, but not so crowded that it felt crowded even in the madness of Christmas sales, and lit in such a way that one does not feel pressured to consume. I like to think that this is the kind of quality Austrian émigré Victor Gruen was looking for when he built the first mall in Minnesota.

On the outside, the mall has become the black hole around which a galaxy of random big box stores orbits. It seemed innocent enough when the first of them, a Toys ‘R’ Us, opened when I was still a child (the memories!). That store is well beyond the main parking lot of the mall, so you must inevitably drive out from the mall to get there. This is exactly the kind of junk Gruen wanted to be rid of with his shopping mall. Over the years the growth in boxes, big and small, has been accelerating. Brands like Wal-Mart and Best Buy, which were nowhere on the economic horizon at the mall’s inauguration, now have stores there, and so does the usual supply of home renovation megasurfaces, home decoration, electronics, furniture, and so on. Gruen’s idea of recreating a European shopping street in an air-conditioned environment had merit, but it’s obvious at this mall that it ran into the problem with all monolithic constructions; the future is unpredictable, and the unpredictable has to be built somewhere. One could have argued that big box stores could not be connected to the pedestrian space in the mall due to their size and the necessity of having giant parking lots. On the other hand, a lot of the new buildings, standing alone in the middle of their individualized parking spaces, are outrageously small and disconnected. Their affectations, a fast-food, a coffee shop, a bank, an electronics shop, would be much better served if directly accessible by foot from the mall. That is not the case. Instead, a mess of traffic strangles the area a little bit more each year.

In the face of such competition, the discount outlet stores a few kilometres east, anchored by the astonishingly popular IKEA store, decided not to bother with a mall at all. The commercial spaces on both sides of highway 20 going into Montreal island are awful in every conceivable way. It appears that their very cheapness in design may be part of the design intent. In terms of connectivity it is a disaster. It is simply not possible to go from a store to a coffee shop without walking across a huge parking lot. You must drive from shop to shop even while inside the property. Snowy conditions push the inhospitality to intolerable heights. Somehow, the presence of a hotel in a dreary, industrial-wasteland environment makes this “urban”. I did find some great deals there, however.

There may be some hope to reconcile suburban shopping with chaos if the new commercial project a few kilometres west of the mall takes off upon being completed. Following the trend of building lifestyle centers that has swept the U.S., the Quartier Dix30 (it sits at the cloverleaf of highways 10 and 30) has managed to integrate boutique shopping, regular-sized stores and big box shopping in the same space, adding the lifestyle center essentials of high-end restaurants and a theatre for entertainment (a real theatre, not a movie theatre, although it also has one of those). It has its own magazine.

The plan is as simple as you could imagine it. In the center there is the “main street” along which all of the high-end boutiques, restaurants and activities are accessible, with token parallel parking spaces that must supply roughly 1% of the actual parking needs of the center. (Underground parking garage available in order to service high-end theatre and restaurant patrons, although there is no shortage of parking anywhere.) Behind those buildings (all stand-alone) is a medium-sized parking ring and medium-sized stores. Beyond those are the huge parking lots and the huge stores. The plan does have an advantage over a regular mall, in that the street can easily be extended outwards as the invention of new businesses necessitates it. In that sense it does fit the criteria for being urbanism, which a mall does not. The stores for now are low-rise, low-cost boxes but since they are all individual buildings they can easily be swapped for something else when their lifespan runs out.

The biggest shock to my perception of the place was the overwhelmingly positive reaction of my family, all suburban or exurban dwellers, to the quality of the design. They feel that they finally have a “town” in their corner of the metropolis. Given that a subdivision simply cannot be defined as urban by its disconnected nature, this lifestyle center does qualify as being the only thing that can act as a town in a 5 km radius. I think it, unlike a mall or a discount outlet zone, has the potential to grow into something over the coming years. It challenges the suburban myth that people somehow desire to live in a disconnected, auto-dependent environment. Affordable housing is what motivated their residential choices. They did not want the suburban model beyond having their own house.

This brings us to an important question, which is to ask how a purely commercial space can be a town. Historically it was not unusual for merchants to set up markets outside cities that were mostly temporary in nature, and the short-term construction quality of outer-beltway markets expresses a similarly nomadic future. These places simply do it at a bigger scale, in large part because people buy a lot more stuff today than they did historically. The outcome is that the marketplace has grown to such a size that it has become a city in itself. The other important factor is the existence of a large amount of diverse activities in closely-connected proximity. I know you’re thinking that shopping and shopping is not diversity, but the fact that there is so much that is unexpected is what draws people to these commercial cities for the simple pleasure of it. People do not go to hypermarkets to hang out, so the malls and lifestyle centers must be doing something more than commercialism. Regular trips to marketplace cities have become the suburban equivalent of a trip to town, and the only remaining difference between the two is that people live in the towns.

This difference may not exist for much longer.

Upscale Central AvenueSunset over TD Bank

Reference: Les boîtes, les grandes surfaces dans la ville, René Péron