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.