Archive for February, 2011

Where Data Meets Urban Form

“The streets are now alive with data, invisible but all pervasive.” —Dan Hill

Meaningful community input in urban development is a common rallying cry, but is rarely achieved.  Power, and more importantly, information, remains tightly controlled by cities and there agencies. It is usually only shared in controlled public meetings and charrettes. Recent advances in technology and social networks offer an opportunity to change this.

Open source urbanism works to develop intersections where a cities urban form connects with information to directly inform and shape our urban environment. In doing so it is changing the way we think of our communities and city life in general. It is rooted in the idea of open source, most commonly associated with free computer programs that can be shared, adapted, and further developed by anyone with the ability to contribute.

Cities are a logical extension of the open source movement. The city is both a product and a generator of immense amounts of data. Much of this information—including temperature, light rail delays, population density, accident locations and stock prices—can be mapped, recorded and shared in real-time through the Internet.

Some early success in open source urbanism are Portland’s TriMet transit system map and the closing of Times Square to traffic. Based in part on these early successes, cities such as PortlandVancouver, B.C.; and San Francisco passed sweeping policies requiring departments to use open source software and open data. In addition, the White House has set a high standard for federal agencies to adopt. As more cities and civic agencies see the benefit of sharing their data, such successes will multiply.

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!


The New Orthodoxy?

New Urbanism is an urban design movement, which promotes walkable neighborhoods that contain a range of housing and job types. It arose in the United States in the early 1980s and continues to reform many aspects of real estate development and urban planning.

While new urbanism covers issues such as historic preservation, safe streets, green building, and redeveloping brownfield land.  If the movement were to be boiled down to a single concept, it would be creating walkable neighborhoods. New urbanist developments are more walkable, offer a more diverse range of housing options, encourage a richer mix of uses and provide more welcoming public spaces than traditional suburban developments.

Although many well-known new urbanist projects are “master planned communities” its ideas are also incorporated into existing city cores and even in suburban and exurban neighborhoods. These neighborhoods can include measures such as traffic calming, pedestrian improvements, parking management, and commercial and residential infill.

New urbanism has also inspired a new approach to building codes, called form-based codes. These codes are an important tool for implementing urban enhancements. Rather than dictating  the uses of land parcels, form based codes provide guidelines that define the types of development desired in a particular area. This provides greater design flexibility and coordination than conventional, land use based codes.

While once on the fringe of the urban planning field, new urbanism has risen in prominence in recent years, with new urbanist related initiatives like LEED and Smart Growth becoming common staples in the arsenals of urban planners and developers alike. This has led Andres Duany—one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism—to label it a ‘new orthodoxy’ and calling for a ‘jolt’ to renew the movement to face the challenges of the next century.

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!

Diversity in Disorder

Often architects, developers and city planners try to sell their redevelopment’s with glossy brochures and vibrant mock ups. However, more often than not, these place turn out to either be dead, or sterile places. The problem isn’t always a lack of uses or diversity; rather it is that these places are often planned to the last window awning or flower bed. They lack the ‘messiness’ that make a city livable.

The most vibrant cities I’ve lived in or visited share one thing in common. They are messy. This is a difficult concept to accept—most people’s idea of a beautiful city that looks something like Paris or some other city with a continuous urban form. But these types of cities are rare. Most memorable places have a less-than-manicured quality to them.

Part of the appeal of messy urbanism is that it leaves room for future improvements in other words, it leave creates space for people to contribute to their neighborhood. In great urban cities, you’ll find deteriorating buildings sitting next to sleek modern 20-story condos. small businesses at home next door to luxury boutiques. Tree-lined streets of stately houses (some restored, many not) running into bustling commercial boulevards. Streets packed with busses, bicyclists, cars and food trucks. Coupled with a diverse population such messy cities ends up feeling kinetic and exciting, but in a practical and walkable way.

In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs points out that the most economically vibrant cities are usually inefficient and impractical. It’s this messiness that enables a community to adapt quickly to change. Rather than seeing messiness, disorder or clutter, urban leaders should instead see the social and commercial interactions of a lively city. Indeed trying to clean up and remove the ‘clutter’ of the city is to throw away the lifeblood of the city itself.

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!

L is for Landscape Urbanism

Posted: February 22, 2011 in ABC's
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Recognizing Nature in the City

Landscape Urbanism is an evolving field of study and practice that views landscape rather than architecture as the basis of contemporary urbanism. For landscape urbanists, a city’s landscape is both the lens through which the contemporary city is viewed and the method through which it is created.

Harvard’s Graduate School of Design has become the epicenter of the landscape urbanism movement, with three of the four ‘founders’ of the concept, Charles Waldheim (who coined the term), Alex Krieger, and Mohsen Mostafavi working there. The fourth, James Corner, teaches at UPenn, and principle of Field Operations, the notable for the design of High Line Park in Manhattan.

Instead of taking built volume as the determining characteristic of the city, landscape urbanists looks at cities as dynamic process characterized by fluidity, spontaneity and randomness. By doing so, they are breaking down the traditional disciplinary and cultural opposition between natural and city spaces. They recognize that nature exists in densely built-up environments and affects not only the current well being of inhabitants, but also the long term prospects of the built form of the city itself.

By restoring nature’s restorative cycles in urban areas, landscape urbanists hope that society will be better able to deal with the exploding urban growth around the world. Some also see promise for helping shrinking rustbelt cities like Cleveland and Detroit.

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!

Activity over Architecture

Closely related to informal urbanism, kinetic urbanism views the urban condition as flexible; less a grand vision than a series of small adjustments occurring over time. Often times, the frenetic quality of city life does not allow most formal planning or political systems to keep pace. Kinetic urbanism bridges the resulting gap by focusing on activity, not architecture. It views events and changes in time as more important than buildings and places in space.

Rahul Mehrotra, Associate Professor of Architectural Design at the MIT School of Architecture + Planningdeveloped the idea of the kinetic city. According to Mehrtra, the static city is “the buildings and structures that architecture deals with.” On the other hand, the kinetic city is the part that is “making and remaking” urban spaces and is “in opposition to the static city.” He also states that in a kinetic city, “events and changes in time are more important than monuments and places in space.” While Mehotra was specially focusing on the informal urbanism taking shape in Mumbai, the concept are applicable to almost an urban area.

When urban leaders look at activities such as busking or street vendors on their city streets, they should not automatically seek to control it through zoning or permits. This activity is often times not evidence of lack of regulation but rather an unmet need being fulfilled in a innovative way. Indeed it is what makes urban living so vibrant and exciting. Rather than seek to remove or regulate these activities, Urban leaders can embrace this entrepreneurism by looking, not at what ‘should work’, but at what is actually occurring day to day and season to season. They should include these patterns of activities in their plans so they can thrive in greater comfort and safety for all residents.

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!