Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Alternative Mobility - On the Move!

Check out the new site @ http://www.alternativemobility.us/

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Philadelphia's Bike Progress - Top Gear to Coasting?

In their latest report, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia found that of the U.S. ten largest cities, Philadelphia ranked #1 for bicycle mode share (nearly two times higher than Chicago in 2nd place). According to the Coalition, "Bicycle commuting increased 151 percent from 2000 to 2009." Although the shift to cycling seems high, the mode share for bicycle commuting in Philadelphia only amounts to 2.16% of total commutes. Other cities are grossly outperforming the major cities, like Davis, California for instance with a bicycle modeshare of 17%, and 25% throughout the mid 1990's.

Needless to say, there is room for improvement everywhere. In the Coalition's report, they determined "streets with bike lanes have more bike traffic." Statements like these may seem straightforward, but it is important to have studies that support policy actions for better multimodal infrastructure.

Yet, amidst Philadelphia's success, City Councilman Greenlee wants to impose "legislation that would require City Council approval for installation of any bike lane in Philadelphia." The Coalition flatly opposes the legislation as it would stifle progress throughout the city and "delay making our streets safer." Alex Doty, Executive Director of The Coalition touts "We're #1 in big city bicycle commuting," but "do we really want to be #1 in bike lane bureaucracy?"

Image courtesy Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia | bicyclecoalition.org

D.C. Councilman proposes raising Parking Fees

Like many cities, D.C. is confronted with growing car ownership and limited parking spaces. Studies have shown "some households park five, six, seven and even more cars on residential streets" - which causes people to shape their lives around parking, in hopes to find a space close to home or their destination. D.C. Councilman, Tommy Wells, proposes an increase for parking permits; "fees would allow households that legitimately need several cars to continue using street parking, but it would also encourage them to seek alternatives." Right now, D.C. resident's are issued parking permits by house - the permit costs around $15 a year. Wells proposed an incremental increase per vehicle, "$35 for a first sticker and, because many households have two adult drivers, charge an only slightly higher fee of $50 for the second. Only after the second car would the cost of a permit double to $100." Wells argues that parking is undervalued especially when comparing the price paid for public uses - the annual fees for placing a dumpster ($1,676), moving container ($3,650) or moving truck ($18,250) is far higher. He also mentions the selling of alley parking spaces on craiglist at $250 a month.

The city could also use the revenue. Wells proposal will raise an additional $1.1 million for transit projects in D.C. Without the parking fees, D.C. will be faced with transit cuts - "That means the 37 percent of D.C. households that do not own a car and probably depend on Metro for their basic transportation would lose a city service, while those who own cars would continue receiving a tangible city benefit for only a nominal fee." As Wells puts it, sounds like a "win-win" to me.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Unique New York" - Walking where it Counts

Most are aware of the benefits of moderate daily exercise. The New York City's Department of Health released the results of a recent survey announcing that most of the City's residents meet their exercise requirements just by commuting - to work, for errands, etc. For those who walk or bike to work, they were active for 68 minutes per day and they also walked an additional 14 minutes for recreation (on average). Even those that rely on private cars or taxi still have moderate activity levels of around 28 minutes per day. The DOH notes "just 30 minutes of walking or biking each weekday reduces your risk of premature death by 20 percent."

With New York City's unique infrastructure and culture, Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City’s innovative transportation commissioner, demands new measures to assess modeshare within the city. Sadik-Khan wants to shy away from the method provided by the U.S. Census, because it does not count non-commute trips or provide ways to chose different modes for commuting. For example, when the census asks, ‘How do you get around?,’ if you take the train three days a week, or bike three times a week, that’s not counted.” With more accurate reporting of modeshare, Sadik-Khan hopes to obtain more transportation support from the state.

Image courtesy New York City's Department of Health via Streetsblog.org | streetsblog.org

ReDesign: Downtown LA in 2030

Grab your dancing shoes and prepare for this inspiring video forecast, "Downtown Los Angeles: What was, what is, what is to come" in 2030 by Gensler LA and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Downtown Los Angeles from tam thien tran on Vimeo.

Schematic - Vertical Bike Storage

Manifesto Architecture proposes a new vertical structure for bicycle storage for underutilized facades. "The bike hanger" will be made of recycled materials - metal, plastic and carbon frames. Each hanger can hold 20-36 bikes. The mechanics are powered by the cyclist at the base of the installation. "The human generator" helps turn the wheels within the structure, rotating the bikes until the owner's bike is released. Installations are schedules for Seoul and London.

Image courtesy Manifesto Architecture | mfarch.com

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

World's Busiest Pedestrian Crossing

Welcome to Tokyo's Shibuya district, where ten roads meet with five crosswalks and 2,500 pedestrians cross during rush hour. Known as "the scramble," the crossing actually seems far more organized and "reflects the pulse of Tokyo." The scramble developed over time, first originating in the Ginza district during the mid 1970s.

Kidical Mass - Atlanta!

Kidical mass is a family oriented bike event to promote cycling for children. Kidical Mass was created in 2008 during a "brainstorm was a combination of wanting to get more kids and families excited about riding." Events occur across the U.S. and Canada. The Atlanta event occured May 21st, check out the 2.5 mile route through Decatur and photos. Looks like a success!

Photos courtesy Jon Woodroof | twotoneatl.com

Friday, May 20, 2011

NPR - "When Bikes and Cars Collide, Who's More Likely To Be At Fault?"

NPR presents an interesting collection of studies trying to determine who's more at fault in automobile and bicycling collisions. Numbers vary, as well as documentation methods. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety found "that in 2009, cyclists were at fault in 49 percent of crashes, while drivers were at fault in 51 percent." The most frequent cause for collisions, "failing to yield to right of way." Having motorists and cyclists share the burden may put some at ease, however, a study by the Transportation Research Board examining collisions in Hawaii between 1986 and 1991 found that "motorists are at fault in approximately 83.5% of incidents, bicyclists are at fault in only 16.5% of incidents," yet "bicyclists... are much more likely than motorists to disregard traffic controls."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

50 Ideas for a New City - My Favorites

Urban Omnibus collected responses over the last two years and published this fantastic list of 50 Ideas for a New City. Although, primarily focused on New York City - here are a few of my favorites, what are yours?

#4 Make a small difference in a community you know

#11 Enliven schools to engage children

#13 Let the city tell you it's stories

#31 Consider public transit options beyond rail and road

#38 Ask citizens how they want to improve their cities

#46 Celebrate the urban beauty of the overlooked

Monday, May 2, 2011

Challenging the Quarter Mile Rule for Pedestrians in D.C.

According to planning literature, pedestrian trips rarely exceed 10 minutes or ¼ mile in distance. Yet, according to the 2009 National Household Transportation Survey (when performing simple linear regression analysis on TRVL_MIN and TRPMILES variables for trips under sixty minutes), the average pedestrian travel time in the District of Columbia is 12.4 minutes and the average trip in more than twice the expected travel distance – 0.58 miles. On average, pedestrians are traveling 2.16 miles per hour. For every extra minute of travel, the average person walks between .031 and .041 miles (with 95% confidence). Therefore, the average person completes roughly one mile in 27 minutes!

Note, there are a few outliers skewing the data. These respondents cover more than two miles in a short period of time, which may be due to athletic activities or collection errors. However, with several respondents, I am 95% confident that for every 10-minute trip, the average distance covered will be between 0.446 and 0.534 miles - well above the quarter mile cut-off. Upon conducting a hypothesis test to confirm a linear relationship between travel distance and time, I reject the null hypothesis at .01 level, however there is a 1% chance that the travel time and distance does not have a linear relationship. The coefficient of determination (R2) is 0.6589, therefore 65.89% of the variation in derived trip time (X) is explained by the regression of travel distance (Y) – trip duration and distance are highly correlated.

The average pedestrian trip in the District is more than double the expected distance proposed by classic planning literature. Pedestrians are moving swiftly, where the average person completes roughly one mile in 27 minutes. Also, the mode share for pedestrian trips is abnormally high – 27% for trips captured in the 2009 National Household Travel Survey. The increase in distance and frequency of walking trips may be, in part, due to the District’s urban nature where it is difficult to own a vehicle and where property values are high – forcing people to live farther from the places they need to visit.

Creative Reuse - Mountain Bike Course beneath the I-5 Overpass

Volunteers constructed the Colonnade Mountain Bike Park beneath I-5 in Seattle. The two acre site has a variety of features for all types of off-road cyclists. The eclectic design allows bikers to ride the circuit "hundreds of times in hundreds of different ways." The post-apocalyptic site is uniquely carved into various trails and chutes adorned with ramps and planks galore.

Grant Proposal Submitted - Walking in Washington

In collaboration with Stephen Wheeler, Ph.D. AICP, we laid the foundation for my (unofficial) dissertation proposal this week by submitting an application for a faculty grant with the University of California, Davis' Sustainable Transportation Center for the following project. We are very excited and look forward to hearing the results!


Although the character of built environments is widely acknowledged as an important factor in promoting walking and other forms of physical activity, knowledge of specific environmental determinants of pedestrian travel is still evolving. The recent spread of transit-oriented development in major U.S. cities, often influenced by movements such as the New Urbanism, offers an opportunity to study the effect of detailed urban design strategies on pedestrian activity. This study will analyze pedestrian behavior in correlation with built environments of three neighborhoods around recently built stations of Metrorails’s Green and Yellow Lines in Washington, D.C. These neighborhoods share many characteristics of historical built form and socioeconomic diversity, but have experienced differing amounts and types of redevelopment. Following methods pioneered by Whyte (1980), Moudon et al. (1997), Neckerman et al. (2009) and others, the research includes detailed analysis of urban design characteristics at a block scale, systematic observation of pedestrian activity, and (in a later phase) interviews with pedestrians. The overall intent is to shed light on the following question: What factors, including recent urban design and built form innovations, affect the quality of the pedestrian environment and individual decisions to walk or take transit?

Moudon, Anne Vernez, Paul M. Hess, Catherine Snyder, and Kiril Stanilov. 1997. Effects of Site Design on Pedestrian Travel in Mixed-Use, Medium-Density Environments. Transportation Research Record: The Journal of the Transportation Research Board 1578: 48-55.

Neckerman, Kathryn M., Gina S. Lovasi, Stephen Davies, Marnie Purciel, James Quinn, Eric Feder, Nakita Raghunath, Benjamin Wasserman, and Andrew Rundle. 2009. Disparities
in Urban Neighborhood Conditions: Evidence from GIS Measures and Field Observation in New York City. Journal of Public Health Policy 30: 264-285.

Whyte, William H. 1980. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Washington D.C.: The Conservation Foundation.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Altmob joins Twitter

Exciting news, Altmob joins Twitter! Feel free to follow me at @altmob.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Belated Earth Day Tribute

"Bicycles are one of the most democratic inventions that man has ever come up with!"

Monday, April 18, 2011

Fellow Blogger Releases Manual – How to have your very own crosswalk

Pedestrian elements are often missing from our roadways. What should citizens do? This morning, Where the Sidewalk Starts, proposed the last steps for obtaining your very own crosswalk. The step-by-step manual guides citizens through the civic process – encouraging calm, polite action. Aside from establishing the who, what, where, and when, the manual assists with organization and provides guidance on how to avoid red tape, apply political pressure and lastly – how to enjoy your new crosswalk.

The USGBC Launches new LEED for Healthcare

Last week, the USGBC debuted the new LEED for Healthcare rating system at the CleanMed conference in Pheonix, Arizona. The new rating system focuses on the specific needs for 24 hour medical facilities, their equipment and most importantly - the patients. LEED for Healthcare makes the direct connection between public health and sustainability. “Research has shown that when we are treated and heal in a green healthcare facility – one that has a healthy indoor environmental quality and connects us to the outdoors – we heal faster, have shorter hospital stays and fewer return visits,” said Scot Horst, Senior Vice President of LEED, USGBC.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Re-Imagining - The Pedestrian Right of Way

by Dhiru Thadani

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Without Highways? People Move On

MBA: Highway Removal from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Dissecting the “War on Cars”

Apparently in this world, you have to pick a side. Bikes or Cars? Cars or Bikes? The Washington's Post Ezra Klein asks “Can’t I just be pro-transportation?” The recent hype in Brooklyn’s “Battle for Bike Lanes” makes me ask, “What are we fighting for?” Why does proposing bike lanes in cities across the globe result in what is deemed as a “War on Cars?” Wars inherently mean fighting, and in the communities in Brooklyn, where these infamous bike lanes were installed, the citizens were surved AND they wanted bike lanes. Propose a “War on Voting?”

Once more unto the breach, dear friends…

It is bad enough that road rage is an accepted behavior these days. Now rage a war between two parties that, by law, must share the road. Here are a few reasons why motorists call this a war.

They don't want to acknowledge that diversifying our transportation system and the design of our communities can simply be a sensible response to a world in which fuel prices are volatile, space is limited, and the drumroll of natural disaster and war makes the need for resilient systems ever more apparent.

Yet wars end, and change is continuous. "Does charging admission at movie theatres constitute a "war on film viewers"? Does charging for bread constitute a "war on eaters?" Where do we draw the line?

May I add, it was only a month ago where a motorist sped through a critical mass in Brazil injuring several. If this is truly a “War” the motorists are considered armed… and dangerous.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Distracted Driving – Is Technology Helping or Hurting Us?

A few years ago, I attended a transportation panel discussion held by Island Press in Washington D.C. The panel was discussing walk-to-school programs and the increased need for safe pathways to schools. A fellow attendee immediately jabbed at the panel demanding the reasoning for such advocacy, stating “Did you know that three children were abducted off D.C. streets last year?” Geoff Anderson, representing Transportation for America, quickly replied, “Do you know how many died in automobile accidents?”

In American roughly 40,000 people die in automobile accidents every year. Technological advances have increased automobile safety with airbags and better designs to minimize harm during impact. So, people take more chances. Aside from the advances, technology has also increased the amount of distraction while behind the wheel. Cellphones, texting, navigation systems all impact driver performance. This year, one of the automobile manufacturers will offer a dashboard infotainment system that allows the driver to flag songs, book a table at a restaurant and link five laptops to its wireless internet hub. Alarming? Yes.

Also alarming are Volvo’s vehicles designed to notify the motorist of pedestrians crossing near the vehicle. It is meant to spot all pedestrians in front of the car as well as off to the sides in a 60 degree angle. The technology will warn the driver with a red flashing light on the windshield if the car is on a collision course with a pedestrian. Do tell? If a motorist is unable to see a pedestrian within 60 degree line of sight from the front of the vehicle, why are automakers assuming that they will see the blinking red light on the dash? And, might I ask, will there be enough time to slow the vehicle and avoid a collision?

One of the comments from SF.StreetsBlog states “I feel that drivers in general are spending about 0% of their time looking for peds & bikes.” If the concern for pedestrians is completely removed from motorists, the new device may wipe all worries away allowing motorists to rely solely on technology to veer away from pedestrians in harm’s way. Maybe someone should invent a portable device for pedestrians that tests whether motorists are actually paying attention at the wheel?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Neuroscience, Transportation and Zeisel's Inquiry by Design

Zeisel’s Inquiry by Design proposes research methods from a process-oriented design perspective. The book provides well-organized research methods and case studies as examples. Zeisel’s methods focus on the intended users of the space. He examines the operations of the inhabitants, and how they are impacted socially, physically and neurologically within space.

Zeisel acknowledges the barriers when trying to design for the real users. Often architects deal with the client at a high-level, not necessarily those that use the space day-to-day. The architect must walk a fine line providing the best services to the client yet designing a space that is functional and user-friendly for the actual inhabitants. This concept can be seen easily in the transportation realm, where pedestrians and cyclists are often not consulted or considered in the design of streets. Therefore, in the final design, the roadway is built for a single-user i.e. the motorist.

An Inquiry by Design is a rare book that blends design with cognitive studies, specifically examining how we impacted by our built environment. A new wave of designers and scientists are blending neuroscience and architecture; however, few seem interested in applying these techniques to the transportation realm. If the design of our environment links to our subconscious, a new area of research could examine how to entice people to walk and bike from a neurological perspective. We have the potential to monitor brain activity in conjunction with changes in the urban environment and therefore could examine the direct impacts on humans – while eliminating the biases from observation or survey methods.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Critiquing Rudofsky's Streets for People

Rudofsky published Streets for People a Primer for Americans in 1969. Until that time, the Library of Congress lacked an official book about streets and Rudofsky aimed to fill the void. However, the book mainly compares Italian and American architecture and planning, and assaults the American form while holding the Italian superior. Not once does Rudofsky attempt to consider why the landscapes differ. Instead Rudofsky lambastes American’s apparent ignorance for urban design in comparison to the Italian’s theaters, plazas, porticos, frescos etc.

Streets for People exemplifies the notion that it is easier to chastise but far more difficult to provide valid solutions for an ailing urban form. Rudofsky does not teach, he berates. Granted, the highly articulated Italian style deserves praise; however these landscapes were developed with a different vision and purpose. Some may argue that when comparing the United States versus the Roman Empire there are many differences. The development, history and age of our establishments are distinct. Our governments are different as well as our cultures, and therefore our needs.

While reading Streets for People, I hoped to gain greater insights about how to in fact make streets for people. Rudofsky’s flagrant diatribe even lacks constructive criticism. His one-size fits all approach, Italian design, is not applicable for places that do not aim for such a level of opulence. Rudofsky’s Streets for People leaves me asking one question; “do places and streets for people have to be extravagant?”

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Hidden Dimension by Edward T. Hall

In Hall’s A Hidden Dimension, he examines how humans interact with each other and perceive things at different distances – a field he calls proxemics. Different cultures establish different distances for personal contact. For example, Americans are comfortable at close distances, six to eighteen inches, only if they intimately know one another. Americans often feel uncomfortable when someone is in their face or inside their personally established boundary. However, when Hall studied individuals from the Arab community, the personal boundary dissolves. They are far more comfortable at closer distances.

One of the memorable concepts from the book is when Hall distinguishes between painters and sculptors. The sculptor works at a much closer distance to the subject, within a few feet whereas the painter works within four to eight feet. The painter wants to capture the whole visual field yet the sculptor is concerned with replicating tactile qualities. Likewise, Hall notes that features are accentuated at close distances which enhance the characteristics in sculpture but distort images in paintings.

The distinction between the two disciplines makes me wonder if we are designing places from the wrong distance or scale. If designing cities were seen as truly an artful endeavor, what distance would we use to capture our subjects? With the invention of computers, internet, geographic information systems, auto-cad, etc. – are we properly addressing landscapes from afar? Yet, examining space from six to eighteen inches is not desirable either. How do we feel spaces, and design for human’s needs when technology may distance us?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time

A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time is a rich collection of short essays written by J.B. Jackson between 1984 and 1994. The compilation is broken into three sections that cover the southwest, human interactions with the environment and modern towns with their cars and roads. Jackson’s writing is distinct, full of details. He examines diverse topics from automobile engine maintenance to the unique features of New Mexico’s landscapes.

Jackson proposes that our sense of place is not necessarily physical, but temporal. He dares us to “ask the average American of the older generation what he or she most clearly remembers and cherishes about the home town… what comes to mind are… nonarchitectural places and events such as … a traditional football rivalry game, a country fair, and certain family celebrations” (p.158-159). Yet in all his pieces, he seems to explore the connection between humans and something – whether an adobe-clad home, or one’s first view from an airplane window. These instances do not have to be memorable – like how one quietly tinkers with the wires in an automobile’s engine. Essentially, Jackson writes about human’s shared experiences.

Jackson has the ability to weave intricate tapestries within his writing. However, in the last chapter, Towns, Cars and Roads, the style loosens and the fabric unravels to a point where the reader wanders between odology and the early years at Landscape magazine. In A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time, each chapter stands as a singular piece yet the overall collection seems to lack cohesion and flow. An updated collection could further develop the context between readings or provide section introductions for the series of pieces.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Great Streets by Allan Jacobs

Great Streets is a collection of essays that truly depict the poetic nature of streets. Jacobs’ examples of great streets span many continents and time periods. For example he explores the Roman via, medieval street, and grand boulevard. He identifies characteristics through a fluid dialogue, translating between the street and the reader. The literature is accompanied by many graphical representations of the street including figure ground, maps, small sketches, and large gray scale drawings. Also, he uses architectural plan and section drawings to display dimensions and qualities.

Jacobs really encompasses many different qualities of the street. As if telling a story about a place, he lets the details unravel naturally and the characteristics unfold. The details evolve organically as if one is walking or sitting along the street. How at first, one might notice the detail in a cobblestone, or when one witnesses the delicate design of a lamppost. Then, one might see the balconies and then the details in the building’s façade.

His writing captures the essence of streets, exemplifying their truly memorable qualities. Not only does he tell the story of street, he also shows how one can have a relationship with the street. For example, while examining cobblestones on Paseo de Gracia, he notes “the color is a soft blue-gray that shines and sparkles and looks blue-green when wet.” He welcomes the reader to the street, and offers them his vision. When reading Great Streets, the large format book opens into a portal where one can easily close their eyes, escape, and instantly walk or sit along that particular boulevard.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Death and Life of the Great American City by Jane Jacobs

Many pertinent concepts are covered in The Death and Life of the Great American City by Jane Jacobs. Although published in 1961, Death and Life is still an incredibly relevant manuscript detailing critical elements for successful urban form. Her book is divided into four parts, or studies, each analyzing a different aspect of cities. In the first two parts Death and Life, Jacobs instills the importance of sidewalk safety, children and the pedestrian environment, park design, diversity, and small block size.

The first major concept addresses sidewalk safety, calling for wide sidewalks surrounded by diverse land uses. Surrounding uses must be a mix of residential, small businesses and few larger facilities in order to populate the streets. The street should support an atmosphere for play, business and life. The design is critical, streets are important meeting places and should be treated as public space. Street design should invite people out of their homes and businesses adding to vibrancy but also to dispel fears from crime due to isolation. The design and mixture of uses should give people reasons to use and traverse the street.

Low buildings enhance street environments. People in the buildings tend to feel closer to the street, peer out more often and tend to generate a stronger sense of community. Proper density is also desired in order to effectively populate sidewalks and allow businesses to flourish. Continuity and permeability throughout the neighborhood brings others to the area and links the community to other nearby uses. Jacobs states that people are not necessarily attracted to quiet deserted places and naturally long for the companionship of community. She details the activity in her neighborhood, comparing it to an intricate natural ballet, both night and day.

She examines how children interact with the sidewalk. Wide sidewalks allow for urban play. Accompanied by diverse land uses, the places are safe and contained. She notes how planned playgrounds and park spaces are actually more dangerous for children because there are less eyes on the street. Children wander and get into trouble. She also notes how children from the projects play differently- they often have no boundaries and adults do not scold then because they do not know these kids. Similarly, the children from the projects do not want to leave the day care – they are so unfulfilled at home – lacking necessary play spaces.

The next chapter discusses park design. The surrounding uses are critical. There should be a variety of users throughout the day. The park cannot be surrounded by residential uses only, because then “only mothers” use the park. She explains how segregated land uses make men absent in many parts of the city – which likely still holds true as men commute farther and women still tend to stay local for child rearing. That aside, park activity should be intricate and yet simple. She provides an excellent example of Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, which is still an amazing park.

Jacobs reinforces the importance of diversity – and not in the typical sense. Diversity of people and diversity within the urban fabric are essential to the urban fabric. But in this sense, Jacobs discusses the importance of diversity in the timing of uses. The timing of uses helps maintain vitality. Her key example takes place on Wall St. in Manhattan. During the day in the late 1950s to early 1960s, roughly 400,000 report to work in this business district, but by night fall – no one remains. Small businesses that once supported the district could not stay open as they were only busy during the lunch hour.

Allowing for a variety of building ages also enhances the community for many reasons. Older buildings provide historical context and enriching architectural style. Mixing aged buildings provides different spaces for a variety of lifestyles or business needs. Aged buildings may also have lower rents, which would cater to certain businesses as well.

Small block size is another influential factor. Jacobs provides an example in Manhattan’s Upper West Side where avenues create long blocks among the horizontal streets. Residents may live on these streets for years and may never venture over to the neighboring block. Small block size allows for permeability and increased the variety of ways to travel within a neighborhood. Say the long street was divided in two, now the resident could simply walk over one block and up one, versus having to travel to the end of two blocks, up one and back to another use – which is not a terrible detour but less efficient. Smaller blocks also shape the urban form by creating smaller building footprints, variety of architectural features and more intriguing pedestrian environment.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Human Scale – Summarizing Jan Gehl’s Works

Jan Gehl’s legacy has spanned many decades, from the release of Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space in 1987 to last year’s Cities for People. Gehl has published limitless articles, made numerous public speeches and featured in countless editorial pieces. He is most noted for successfully integrating pedestrian and bicycle access within the auto-dominated urban environment.

In his presentation to Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Gehl discusses the concepts in his book, Cities for People. He also examines the history of modern city planning, starting in the 1960s when the field became more professionalized and more problematic. Gehl initially studied during the same period as Le Corbusier; they were trained to be modernists. Due to the wars, it was not until the 1960s when these concepts came into play. Planners started to work at a coarse scale and arrange objects from an aerial perspective, not from a historical context. The automobile invaded cities and traffic planning became more sophisticated and dominated the urban form.

There are three scales for development: city plan, site plan and at the people level. However, most of our modern architecture is best seen from the sky or highway, not at eye level. Gehl calls this the “Brasilia Syndrome” where buildings are dropped from the sky with no relation to the existing urban fabric. These designs occur at a grand scale but are devoid of pedestrian life and utterly hideous when viewed from the human scale.

During this period, architecture is seen as art but Gehl believes good architecture falls between life and form. He describes Dubai’s skyline as a row of perfume bottles designed individually and lacking interaction. Like many skylines, Dubai’s is striking – but at ground level, a pedestrian’s nightmare. Yet, traffic is over represented in the planning process, “all cities have Traffic Departments and perfect statistics concerning traffic and parking.... the cars are very visible and ever present in the planning process.” But, what about the people?

It’s as if, planning and design are done from airplanes, not from the ground up, and the free space just hangs. Gehl imitates architects and how schematics are always heavily populated with sketches of people sitting on crowded benches, those lingering in porticos, and people floating en masse down the boulevards adjacent to their project. Gehl refutes the notion that “if it looks good, it will be good,” because often, after construction, the designs lead to sterility and are devoid of people. People are very sensitive to the quality of their urban environment.

Gehl acknowledges that we are entering another paradigm shift where lively, safe, sustainable, healthy cities are demanded – a movement he helped inspire. Among the many crises we face today, Gehl mentions the growing health concerns related to the design of the built environment and that healthy cities create healthy people. Designs are beginning to consider the human scale for the pedestrian and bicyclist. Focus is placed on sustainability and livability – putting people first. Gehl quotes a 1,000-year-old Eddic poem by Hávamál, “man is man’s greatest joy,” which exemplifies our greatest desire for each other. “We know more about the panda bears in China…” than we know about our own urban environment and its effects on human behavior and health. We must focus and work from the ground up in order to truly create "cities for people".

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Quality without a Name – Going Deeper II

Interesting places have an organic feel, and not in the earthen way. Like the Cinque Terre example, provided a few posts back, these places grow incrementally, in a unpredictable manner and are full of feeling. New modern buildings and places clearly lack this concept - Jan Gehl described this notion best blaming “bird-shit-architects” for lack of cohesiveness and collaboration within the existing urban fabric. He feels buildings are designed and then fall from the sky with no link to the pedestrian, street-level environment. However, architects alone are not to blame, but also designers, city planners and transportation engineers.

Continuing with literature from Christopher Alexander, in A New Theory of Urban Design he declares, “what happens in the city, happens to us” and “we must therefore learn to understand the laws which produce wholeness in the city.” You may ask, “what laws are needed?” Alexander proposes one rule, that “every increment of construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city.” He then summarizes The Nature of Order, still unpublished at the time of printing, which demands:

1. Wholeness or coherence
2. Structure specific to its circumstances
3. Wholeness produce by the same well-defined process
4. Incremental creation of centers.

The first part of A New Theory of Urban Design proposes the following intermediate rules to establish The Nature of Order. The intermediate rules are versions of the one rule and include piecemeal growth, the development of larger wholes, visions, the basic rule of positive urban space, layout of large buildings, construction and the formation of centers.

Piecemeal growth occurs organically with a mixture of uses, scales, and quantities. The growth of larger wholes “defines the content and character.”

Every project must first be experienced, and then expressed, as a vision which can be seen in the inner eye (literally). It must have this quality so strongly that it can also be communicated to others, and felt by others, as a vision.

The vision continues with incremental growth, “pedestrian space first, buildings second, and roads third” with “parking space (as) the last element in the hierarchy.” Finally, all forms are designed to form centers, buildings must be a center within themselves.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Quality without a Name – Going Deeper Part I

Continuing with the theme established in the last article, What speaks to you? Sustainability beyond Buildings, we’ll further examine Alexander’s quality without a name. These qualities are inherently timeless because they are applicable throughout the ages. Alexander dedicates his book, The Timeless Way of Building “to you, mind of no mind, in whom the timeless way was born.”

The book establishes a method for creating places using natural patterns that evolve from an egoless state of mind. The natural patterns already occur, giving “…every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep on happening there.” Alexander asks us to tune into the delicate network of energy inherent in places. He compares this process to an embryo’s development, each cell divides in orchestrating growth. Further illustrating that “those of us who are concerned with buildings tend to forget too easily that all the life and soul of a place... depend... on patterns.”

The quality without a name emerges when patterns are able to develop on many scales from rooms to regions. He provides an image of a warm peach tree, “flattened against the wall, and facing south. At this state, the whole town will have this quality, simmering and baking in the sun of its own processes.” The quality can be seen in an oak tree, each unique in its creation like a “town which is whole… must be unpredictable also.”

The Pattern Language is the companion book to The Timeless Way of Building. In a Pattern Language, Alexander details numerous qualities that can be used in conjunction to create the places detailed in the Timeless Way of Building.

…by using languages which I call pattern languages. A pattern language gives each person who uses it, the power to create an infinite variety of new and unique buildings, just as his ordinary language gives him the power to create an infinite variety of sentences.

The language does not really consist of words or letters, but metaphorically represents the intense complexity that makes our elements and world. As letters are combined into words and then strung together to make sentences or speeches, A Pattern Language is the synthesis of intimate connections within our world. Alexander’s pieces call for a vision and mental state to view existing spaces as they truly exist in order to develop new unique enriching places.

Monday, January 3, 2011

What speaks to you? Sustainability beyond Buildings

Chuck Wolfe’s “gift-wrapping the essence of urbanism,” highlights the vividness of urban form and briefly notes its decay. Wolfe provides one exquisite example of compact, sustainable form, the historic Italian town – Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre consists of “five towns, all self-contained, but symbiotic, micro-economies also connected by footpath, rail and water.” The town’s vivid color palate takes one’s breath away. Benfield at NRDC also reviews the article, examining the use of “fabulously scenic Italian villages … to illustrate the principles of walkability, connectedness, and grounding that make a community's built environment especially hospitable to the human spirit.”

But what is really so special about places like Cinque Terre? Is it their walkability, color palate, or ocean adjacent location? What about the history or clustering of development? Why do places like Cinque Terre speak to us on a completely different level then, say, a strip mall on the corner of Post Modern America and the American Dream? Why do these places evoke a sense of “human spirit” within us?

Je ne sais quoi or more specifically “the quality without a name,” is a concept coined by Christopher Alexander in the Timeless Way of Building. Alexander describes the quality as “… the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.” These places exist all around us, with something lying within them that attract us.

These places exhibit a sustainability that encompasses the age of building stock, requiring historic preservation. They foster communities to enhance diversity, not just among residents, but also among land uses and the timing of activities throughout the day. These places entice us to walk and exist within their realm, to slow down in wonderment. They elicit a feeling of “being alive.” The places can be “as ordinary as a simple act of slicing strawberries” and yet “we shall feel as much at peace in them, as we do today walking by the ocean, or stretched out in the long grass of a meadow.” These auspicious qualities attract us, because like us, these places are entirely human.

Introduction to Urban Design Series

The next series of five pieces examine the urban form from a different perspective. These pieces reference historic literature from notable figures in the urban design field including Christopher Alexander, Jan Gehl and Jane Jacobs. The literature spans a period from the early1960s to 2010, mainly written before green was “green.” The pieces signify a calling to go beyond sustainability and design with the intention to integrate and acknowledge the true nature of human behavior into the existing built environment – a concept that is difficult to put into words.