Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Ideal City: Laws of the Indies - Asunción Mita, Guatemala [video]

The Laws of the Indies, or Las Leyes de los Indios, dictated the Spanish colonies of the Hispanic Americas.  These laws directives provided guideance as to how to construct new societies. In a paradoxical way the conquestedors, were to build cities in a way that would reflect human rights. You can see these in places from Savannah, GA, to Santa Fe, NM and Jackson Hole, WY.

They all had common themes, which *should* and *do* apply today:
  • Find a suitable place of land
  • Construct the plaza first
  • Display a governmental building on the plaza
  • Build a church 
  • Two sides for shops with a covered arcade and continued four blocks on two main streets for the "convience of the shop owners", i.e. just in case in rains or snows 
  • Repeat and connect schools, districts and systems  

Asucion Mita, Guatemala

On a recent trip to El Salvador, I randomly stopped in a small town along the highway to buy bricks for my mothers garden.  This lead me to the center of the City in search of an ATM, where I found the best living example I have ever seen of one of these cities in effect.

I was so excited taking the video that I forgot to mention the significance of the government near the park: democracy. It gives the people a direct place to demonstrate their grievances with the government.  But in some cases, the government had other ideas ... :/

Environmental Determinism 

There lies the great debate amongst the urbanists with the public and among ourselves. Does our built environmental reflect how we live our lives? Would it add significance to the idea of democracy if government was physically surrounded by the public [out of their cars]? 

Do you think where you lives determines how you live your life? 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Before cars mothers would let their children outside to play in the city. I saw this painting for sale and it reminded me that my great-grandparents used to say, "you kids don't play kick the can anymore." They probably did not know, but the playground had replaced the streets

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Walkable Neighborhoods: Street block vs. Cul-de-Sac

In a world full of cul-de-sacs, collectors and massive highways it seems we've forgotten one basic premise: people, not cars, need to get where they want to go.  And people don't think in terms of turning radii, average daily traffic and conflict zones.  

People think, "this is where I am and that's where I need to go."  We always have and, likely, always will.  Hash-tag biology. 

Nothing makes it easier for people to get where they want to go than a high-density of highly connected streets. Urban planning academics refer to these as the Link-Node Ratio and Connected Node Ratio.

Cul-de-sac sprawl vs. traditional street grid
Urban history
We habitually connected our streets until the automobile entered the scene.  We see this is older and more walkable parts of American cities. As detailed in recent books including Fighting Traffic: Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Walkable City and The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving - to name a few - once the automobile came into cities we collectively threw 5,000 years worth of urban wisdom out the window.


You're stuck driving further to where you want to be and spending more time traveling, unless you live in Portland, OR. Demographics are changing and more and more young people are opting out of car culture. Many in the old guard of the transportation world still want to design streets to move automobiles as far and quickly (they'll use the phrase "safely and efficiently"as possible.  Their answer is "tributary" streets. If you want to walk or ride a bicycle, it's almost like being on a battlefield.

The good news is that cities have begun to add more and more bike lanes, trails, bicycle boulevards, bike boxes, bike signals and cycle tracks.  The only thing is a dense street grid is the best thing a city can add to enable bicycling - besides a large, traditional university.  Transportation data is often collected on the municipal level, but time-and-time again people who live in the older and more traditionally designed neighborhoods ride their bicycles to work more than those in the suburbs.

Perhaps this is because of personality difference, but scientific correlations show something else: it's the street block structure! 

"Cycle Analysis Zones" results for an unnamed Western U.S. urban area

If it seems obvious ... it's because it is 

The map to the left shows an image from an adopted bikeways plan for a city in the Inner-Mountain western part of the United States by one of the nation's most recognized bicycle planning firms

Can you tell me where the center of the city is at?

The highly sophisticated analysis of this map shows areas of town that are "best suited for capturing large numbers of cycling trips." This intuitively makes sense considering the higher roadway densities and commercial mix of uses closer to the core.  The traditional neighborhood with a high density of four-way intersections makes it more conductive to usefully riding a bicycle or walking.  Of course the barrier between zones 11, 6 and 4 are high-velocity, four-lanes roads that act like fences in a cow pasture.

Looking back as we move forward 

It's difficult to retrofit existing areas because it's expensive and you don't want your home demolished. However, it's a relatively simple technical exercise to think about these principles when designing new sections of town. But it's going to take public support.  Most land developments are driving by the private market and many developers still live by the Federal Housing Commission's 1938 Bulletin stating the grid layout is "monotonous with little character, uneconomical and unsafe."  

We have lived by the words of that Bulletin for almost 80 years and look where it's got us.  Can we continue down this path? If you want to walk or ride a bicycle for a useful trip, you either need to live near the center of town or take your life into your hands while crossing a busy four-lane street.  We used to know how to build cities for people because [nearly] everybody walked. It's time we use some of our old knowledge on how to build cities and connect our streets! Let's make sure we have at least 70 percent four-way intersections.   

And now for some maps ... 

Houston, Texas, was laid out on a grid pattern.
More than 90 percent four-way intersections. 

Topeka, Kansas, has a similar pattern. Over 90 percent four-way intersections.

This little town in Kentucky has a grid, too.  

Austin, Texas,  has a nice grid pattern from the start.  
More than 90 percent four-way intersections.

Portland, Oregon.  Nice small and consistent block structure: 200ft x 200ft.

Buenos Aires, Argentina.  All the way back in the 1700s.  

Vancouver, BC.  They, also, founded their city with a grid pattern.

Melbourne, Australia.  Circa late 1800s. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Balconies bring quality to urban life

 A plant adorned balcony provides outdoor place, access to food and improves the ambiance of a dense urban environment.

The gardening time of year has arrived once again and I'm missing out because, living in a 80 unit mixed-use and transit accessible unit, I don't have private outdoor space for plants. This has me thinking about solutions for a high-density urban lifestyle.  And in walkable urban neighborhoods details matter. I am sure you like the taste of fresh, local foods and appreciate other people living in apartments and condos (because it preserves the sub/ex-urban settings). If you're like me, you enjoy the pleasure of a walkable urban environment and enjoy private, outdoor space ... with life.  
Density with taste 
Even if an urban lifestyle isn't for you, quality urban places can become destinations and add to the economic structure of a city. Plus, we already build high density dwellings and if we are going to invest and construct these types of developments they may as well not be shit. 

Balconies adorn the façade of buildings facing La Rambla in  Barcelona, Spain. 
Steve Jobs said in a 1995 TV interview, "It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then try to bring those things in to what you are doing." Picasso had a saying, "Good artists copy; great artists steal. I have always been shameless about stealing great ideas."

One place worth stealing from is Spain. One of the most memorable streets I have visited in my life is La Rambla in Barcelona, Spain - a city with a population count around that of Portland, OR. Spain also wrote the Laws of the Indies, which dictated urban form when building new cities in the Americas that centered around the public sphere.

Thinking back to my time at La Rambla - I remember the liveliness,  artisan commerce, feeling of security, connection with the culture ... and the balconies. Specifically, I remember looking up to a woman  tending her bird on her third floor balcony and placing myself up there in my mind. Balconies play a notable role on La Rambla and are one (of many) aspects of that celebrated street - and throughout Spain.

Through observation, it's evident that balconies can provide an extra element of fulfillment.  If windows are the "eyes" of a building, then balconies can serve the purpose of the eyelashes. Just as eyelashes help keep the dust out of our eyes, balconies help keep the dust off public spaces. They are useful along with mixed-use to serve areas with high levels of pedestrian traffic, including plazas, sidewalks and other urban places to help create a feeling of walkability.

Growing food out your window (or door)
Local food is all the craze and gardening is hip again, including an Michelle Obama's organic garden at the White House. Some have enjoyed it their entire lives.

Balcony garden on what looks like a fire escape.
Those living in urban apartments, find it hard to find places to garden. Sure, there are community gardens, but it's just not the same. This is especially true for those who moved to urban areas, who habitually had a yard in the past.

Yardless gardening requires a place to grow and some likely modifications to your style. You'll probably have to switch to container gardening and worm vermiculture instead of composting, but having the space of a balcony can facilitate the innate nature one can feel to grow their own food. 

Balconies serve multiple purposes
You don't really appreciate six square feet of outdoor space until you have none.  At this in my life, during this time of year - living in a pre-WWII and mixed-use downtown development - I would greatly appreciate even two square feet of space outside my window. I'm sure others would as well - for plants, standing, sitting.  It'd be a great place for a little garden with some space to stand tend the plants while providing "eyes on the street."

Adding just a small amount of square footage outside my 320 square foot apartment would greatly add to utilitarian and monetary value of the apartment, but just as importantly it would add to the complexity and transparency of the pedestrian experience and urban design quality.  In English, that means it would make a place more interesting and understandable.

Creating quality urban habitat 
In land-use code implementation, zoning can dictate the use.  Other metheds, like Form Based Codes, minimum setback requirements and parking minimums, prescribe the form or look of the building and neighborhood. These regulatory structures provide an implementation tool for turning a vision into reality.  On possible tool for adding what I think of as "eye lashes" on the windows could potentially be a Balcony Overlay Zone (BOZ).

Think of a public square with outdoor restaurant seating.  Think Europe.  Adorned along the human- scale buildings are balconies.  BOZs can be used with other tools, perhaps Transit-Oriented Development,  for activating private outdoor space that adds interest to the urban environment and provides a place for sitting, watching and growing food.

For those who can not wait 
Some people are going so far, craving the balconies as a place for getting in touch with nature, they have created their own solutions. If you do not want to wait for a change in codes and market forces before you start using the space outside your window, here are some videos of some creative solutions for growing food out your window.  

After watching these videos, I was so inspired that I came up with a design similar to the top video from France, the Volet végétal.  But, alas, I live in a historic building with outdoor seating below and the management company did not think it was as good of an idea as me.  So, to carry you forth in utilizing space outside your window, here are some inspiring videos:

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The four types of homeless

I don't remember the first time I saw a homeless person.  But I do remember the first time I saw a community solution that really worked.  It was in a town called Geel, Belgium.  They had a program that involved a networked solution that included a multi-party approach that included a psychiatric center, home owners and patients.  It was designed, primarily, for those suffer from mental illness and would likely fall homeless without structure and care.

Families would rent out a room or spare part of their house to an individual who needed the space.  The families, patients and psychiatric center all worked together to form an agreement that included education, consultation, habitation and an ability for any one party to end the contract at any time, for any reason.  The ritual of families taking in mentally ill people dates back to a time when a mentally ill princess ran away to the town and families brought her in.  It worked then.  And it works now.

Moving to Portland, and living downtown, I see at least seven homeless people every day.  When it's cold, we sometimes get "bums" sleeping inside the vestibul to the back door of the building. It's certainly annoying to bump into someone as you're walking out the door, but it's also sad to see people in such conditions - for the most part. It has many reasons, including financial exploit.  It sucks for us and it sucks for them. 

This got me thinking a lot about homelessness in Portland, the U.S. and around the globe.  As an urbanist, I began to think about how the cities could potentially adopt an elegant solution.  I thought about FARs, square footage, building materials, community ... and I realized that there are different needs for different types of homeless citizens.  I broke it down into three categories and later added a fourth.

1. Long term / Chronic (50%) - often suffer from mental illness.  Have experienced homelessness for longer than 2 years. In need of structure and perhaps mental evaluation.

2. Short term / families (9%) - used to have a job, car, house ... still have debt. The head provider(s) lose their jobs - or some other misfortune - and they are suddenly living out of their car or a tent.

3. Adventurous (40%) - young and looking for adventure.  Usually "homeless" from 6 weeks to 2 years. They'll hop trains, hitch-hike ... nearly anything except shower.  They tend to bring dogs with them and smoke pot.

4. Criminals (>1%) - on the run and probably quite dangerous.  This would be the fugitive-type person who has the police hot on their trail.  They haven't built a new life and are desperate, trying to stay under the radar.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Learning from fire to create public space

People are social creatures.  We inherently know this through our own experience and its self-evidence.  I like to think this trait extends back to our pre-historic times - back when we all lived in gatherer / hunter tribes. We needed protection and connection from each other and the community always had a social spot. Fire is, perhaps, one of our strongest connections to the past. You feel it while sitting around a camp fire with friends or at a bonfire.

Anybody who has gone camping, or spent time outdoors, knows the value of a great camp fire. It's where all of the action is ..., especially after dark.  We eat food around the campfire, [if you're in Montana] drink beer, converse and enjoy the bond of pure "being". Raw enjoyment without technological distractions.

In an urban setting of today's modern society, people still crave that social place. Public space. If a public space doesn't have people, it can become foreboding.  I like to think of public space as the fire of society. Quality public space can make a city great! And we can learn from the campfire on how to design great public space.

Characteristics of a quality fire and public space

Fire draws groups of people. Public space works best with people. If fire draws people to it and we want public space to attract people, what can we learn from fire to help create quality place? What characteristics does fire have that attracts people to it (from a social standpoint)? I will outline some of the characteristic of a campire, below, and draw parallels through the lens of wanting to create quality public space. 

1. Security - Fires create both a sense of securing and true safety. We should keep this in mind and strive for the same when creating public spaces.  

2. Democracy / Equality - A campfire is something that is equal to everybody.  Whether someone is rich or poor a campire is equal.  A rich person doesn't want a bigger campfire no more than a soon-to-be rich person does. All of the money in the world can't buy a good fire.  It takes friend, family and acquaintances. [Most] all are welcome around the campfire. 

3. Inviting - A good campfire, as with quality urban space, is inviting. 

4. Romantic lighting - While I'm sure lighting is thought about to every detail (at least I'd hope so), romantic lighting often goes aside for security lighting.  Campfires create a low, flickering light. Walking around parts of Paris, a person senses the value of romantic lighting.  Perhaps, more attention should be paid to ambiance of the light while providing security.  Maybe gas lights would provide a more attractive light than electric.  This could be something to think about, especially when food is served nearby. 

5. Food connection - Sitting around a good fire often involves, at some point, either fresh food or cold drinks.  Quality public space should include food.  You'd want it to be sensitive to the different needs of parks, plazas, sidewalks or transit - but food brings people together.  There is not doubt about that.  Plazas work best when surround by permeable edges.  Little is more permeable than a restaurant.  Portland uses transit at Pioneer Courthouse Square for permeability.  And it works.  But it'd be better with more food around the edges.  Busy bus stops and nearly every train stop could use a small food stand.  Parks could use small concession stands, vending machines, and/ or drinking water. Sidewalks are perfect for food carts.   

Restaurants surround one of my favorite public spaces in the world at the Vrijthof in the Dutch city of Maastricht.   

6. Stimulates multiple senses - Fire stimulates all sense.  It provides light, crackles, warms and provides opportunities to taste delicious food. Parks, plazas, sidewalks and transit can stimulate the senses in some of the same ways - though probably without the crackle.   

7. Smoke - Not usually the best part of a fire and you, generally, want to get away from it.  However, it does provide an aspect of the fire which is true of all wonderful things: they must have a yang for their yin. We could do something similar, though less offensive, in public place. It could be simulated with shade or squirrels.   Perhaps even actual smoke from cooking (w/o meat as to not offend vegetarians and others with the smell).  Maybe have a FOLF course in a shared park.  That'd provide "smoke" for other users.  This is the case in the best park in my hometown of Billings, MT and it, mostly, works (though they could use more signage because it doesn't work so well when people have wedding photos taken in the middle of the fairway to the 2nd hole. The point is to consider smoke when examining fire. 

8. Sitting options - It frequently amazes me how few options people have for sitting in vast portions of the public spaces throughout the city - especially along sidewalks. As William Whyte told about in his documentary, seating is crucial.  He particularly liked moveable seats.  Fires most often offer moveable seating.  A place to rest your bones is crucial within a quality urban habitat for homo sapiens. This is especially true for the elderly and disabled and, especially, at transit stops. Have places to sit invites people "to be" and people watch. Be out in the community.  Sitting. Watching. 

9. Needs maintenance - A quality fire needs upkeep or it will burn out.  It's the same with public space. 

10. Extinguishable - I have a theory that roads are like rivers (especially high velocity, high speed auto-dominated streets).  As water puts out a fire, urban highways make a place much less pleasant a place to stroll with your lover and kiss. High velocity roads put out the fire of public space (as can other things).  

11. Activities -  Us planners call it "programming".  Many great fires have no programmed activities or activities, at all.  And, I'd argue, the best fires (and public spaces) are the ones that need no programs at all.  But many great fires have ghost stories, smores or drinking games.  Many wonderful public spaces, also, have programmed activities like concerns, festivals or carnivals.  These can work very well, but the best public space does not need programmed activities to fill it up.  However, in both the case of fire and urban place, it can provide ritual which pulls the community together. 

Programming provides activities at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, OR. 

12. Can burn a person - With the good comes that bad.  Always.  When fire is not handled with care it can burn you.  It's the same with public space.  If left deteriorating and neglected, public space can turn into a place of crime and disorder. If attention to detail within the urban context is ignored, these places can become "blank horrors".  Handle with care.

13. Purposefully built - Fires serve many purposes. Sometimes they're for cooking.  Other times for heating or providing light.  At times you just want to hang out by a campfire with friends.  Public space works best when there are multiple reasons for people to visit it. If you wanted and activated urban place, we should try to cover as many reasons as possible for people to visit the space as a destination. 

14. Permeabile / Interactive - This relationship depends on an ongoing relationship with your surroundings in which information is constantly received from the environment in a way that reveals more signals to a levels of security and connectedness.  Fires illuminate and people can poke them with sticks (or kegs of beer). Public space should illuminate the community by connecting people with people and the cities that past generations built. Permeability can be a simple as seeing a tree on the other side of a wall or as complex as a public market in El Salvador.  

15. Has a "zone" - The closer you get to a fire, the brighter and warmer it becomes. Fires radiate and create a zone of light and heat.  You can feel it when you get closer.  Quality public spaces should do the same.  Some of the greatest open squares in the world build as you get closer to them, others seem to come out of nowhere and create a rapid shift to a new zone.  The point is that the public space is only as good as everything around it.  

Moving forward to activate public places 

Now that we've drawn the parallels and seen how we can learn from fire to create quality public places, the next logical step is to compare with something you know and see what aspects of a great campfire can be added to activate and improve the space.

This is something that can be championed by a citizen, professional or politicians and at any scale.  A person who lives in the neighborhood can decide to put out a bench for pedestrians to sit on.  If you have a hotdog stand, maybe you can sell some veggie dogs at the park (though you'll probably need a permit).  Professionals can consider campfires in every planned detail of a city - including sidewalks, transit / TODs (transit-oriented developments), public buildings, plazas, parks and other decisions about urban growth.  As one prominent politician from Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa, said, "You can judge the quality of a project by asking if it makes it a better place to walk, to talk, to do business, to play ... to kiss." 

If we are going to create cities and public space that will engage citizens and create pride in the community, it will take all of us and should engage people from diverse backgrounds.  This falls directly in line with the democratic characteristic of quality campfires.  I learned in a class in Europe that one word repeatedly comes up with the word democracy: pluralism. This can include multiple dimensions of public place from planning to practice.

You can have an entire community gather wood or just a small team, but someone needs to create the spark to get it going. The real campfire happens when people are around it.  

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Tiny homes are an elegant solution

Image from

The world is urbanizing. The U.S. is mostly urbanized (around 80 percent in cities) and many of the modernist ideals have had unintended consequences: spreading uses out has lead to long commute times, traffic congestion and diminished urban settings. The tall towers are just as much to blame as the low-density "sprawl".

There seems to be a consensus amongst the urban quality profession that densification is necessary for cities to grow in an economically sound way.  But how do we densify without creating crap?  Many of the newer apartments are garbage, in my opinion, especially around the fringe. That's not what higher density needs to look like. Amongst the multiple options for creating an interesting - connected - urban environment, tiny houses can play an important role.

Diversity is critical to quality urbanism

Over the decades, we've learned that creating urban environments with blank facades and cookie-cutter houses is boring and lacks something. That something, as Jane Jacobs wrote about, is diversity! It's interesting.  When people walk, they prefer places with other people and interesting things to look at. Not a highway.

A walk is much more pleasant in an area with sidewalks, trees, birds, squirrels, buildings, architectural features, vendors, street performance and human beings than one with highways and exchanges. Diversity is the difference.  A highway exchange could be very interesting with more diversity.  Imagine a European style village built around an exchange - houses, shops, cobble-stone. I think the second would be more interesting. Diversity is a crucial ingredient to quality urbanism.

Tiny houses multiply diversity

One thing about tiny houses is that they increase diversity.  It's interesting to look at a tiny house.  Imagine you're walking down the street and you see a tiny house. You'd look at it. I know I would.  They're interesting.  They're often built at a much higher quality than larger homes. They're pleasant. They add to diversity.

This diversity effect, also, multiplies.  Suddenly, the proud owners of these tiny homes have extra cash. They are no longer tied down with a mortgage, maintenance and insurance. They now have money to spend on a diversity of goods and lifestyle opportunities (like travel). This multiplies the diversity effect beyond just the built, interesting, urban form. It allows for a diversity of activities. 

Simple, practical solution (except legally) 

As a Masters candidate, I fully understand the burden of debt.  It's really something to know that you'll have to make loan payments equal to half the price of a mortgage for 10 years.  Plus, I'm told that urban planners should stay "open to experience" and traveling for, at least, the first part of his/her career. I'm sure many other professions offer the same opportunities.  With a tiny house, a person could live in a very high quality place without the burden of high monthly payments.  Freedom!!!!

Tiny homes make sense for many, many reasons and Cities' Codes often require minimum sizes - inside and out. It's told as a case of insurance companies and home-builders pushing large sizes.  And, as a consequence, it's often challenging to find a legal home for your home. Most of them are built on trailers or in rural areas to get around the codes, but imagine a world - for a moment - where you decrease size, increase diversity, increase density, increase quality, increase sustainability and increase savings without sacrifice on location.  Tiny homes are, simply, a part of the solution.

 A Tour of Jay Shafer's Tiny House

Texas Tiny Houses