Category Archives: Design

Christchurch, NZ and Jan Gehl

I was lucky enough to go to the Hackney Empire last week, a fantastic 1901 theatre slightly off the beaten path (we had to take the Overground to get there – well outside my usual stomping grounds).  We were there for a screening of the film ‘The Human Scale,’ a documentary about the work of Jan Gehl and the way he has worked to make cities all over the world more geared toward people and less geared toward cars and high rises.  His most famous book is called ‘Cities for People’ and he is to urban planning what David Attenborough is to nature documentaries, so I was super, super psyched to get to see the film and to hear the Q&A with him afterward, and the whole evening totally lived up to my expectations.

One of the major tenets of Gehl’s work is borrowed directly from traffic engineering: it is a truism in urban planning that more roads does not ease congestion; it only encourages more driving.  But, it turns out, it holds for public space as well: creating more public space creates more use of public space.  This has been most recently demonstrated by the changes that Jeanette Sadik-Khan has made to the New York City street grid (pedestrianizing Times Square in 2009 being the platonic example). Man, do I wish I’d thought of that.

The film (which is 90 minutes, but we saw an abbreviated 60 minute version) focuses on 5 tenets of Gehl’s work, and chooses a case study (or in some cases 2) to illustrate the ways in which Gehl’s work has been applied and to what effect.  For the most part I thought it was amazing; there was a section on high-rise suburbs in China; on traffic engineering in New York City, on pedestrianization in Copenhagen; in urban interventions in Melbourne; and a final section on the rebuilding of Christchurch, New Zealand.  Gehl gave a short presentation on London, as well.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in New York but none in China, Copenhagen or Melbourne.  However, I did spend two very full days exploring Christchurch about a year ago.  The city was devastated by a series of earthquakes in 2011-2012 that hit the downtown area especially hard – so much so that as of a year ago, a huge section of the city was still completely fenced off, completely inaccessible unless you were part of the demolition crew.  In the initial rebuilding, the city moved to minimise parking and to restrict buildings to 6 stories, which a feasibility study suggested was most appropriate to Christchurch conditions – above 6 stories, buildings need stronger foundations  and reinforcements that render extra stories less lucrative than is commonly imagined. Gehl Architects were called in to help the city envision its future and to create a redevelopment plan that respected the human scale and restored the city’s quality of life, though responsibility for the plan was subsequently taken away from the city government.  And when I was there in March 2013, there were giant boards advertising the city’s bold plan of action.

It did not live up to my hopes and dreams.

The film made it clear that the outcome of the planning process was not everything Gehl Architects (not to mention Christchurch city planners) had hoped. And the scale of the disaster is something that’s hard to comprehend from a documentary film.  Christchurch faces an uphill battle, even with Gehl Architects’ advice: New Zealand, as much as many parts of the US, is a car-dominated city (712 cars per 1000 people, vs. 828 in the US).  A map of Christchurch is almost funny – even the most novice mapreader will be able to tell where the master-planned portion of the city ends:

What were the original boundaries?

What were the original boundaries?

Like many colonial cities, Christchurch was founded on the site of a Maori settlement in the mid-19th century.  The streets reflect the city’s origin and subsequent expansion, which is to say: they are really, really wide. In the US, midwestern cities (the same vintage as Christchurch) were built wide to accommodate streetcars and today are being retrofitted with bike lanes (and, in my hometown’s case, they’re resurrecting the streetcars. Woot!).  I’m sure this is something that Gehl & Co. took into account when they actually made their recommendations to the city. But a few things struck me as I walked around, none of which were addressed by the masterplan the city ultimately ended up with or in ‘The Human Scale:’

1. The city is car-dominated. There are some lovely, quiet residential streets and a big park and some reasonably pleasant stuff, but the routes between them are dominated by wide avenues full of fast-moving traffic. While some early recovery projects have sought to address this, there was not a city-wide effort to address the ratio of pedestrian to car space.

2. The pace of rebuilding is frenetic, even with a big chunk of the city centre fenced off and still being demolished.  Everywhere you go, you see billboards advertising new construction. The use, heights, scale and design quality of the buildings varied considerably.

3. The city masterplan is published and hanging on big boards outside the cathedral (which is fenced off, but as a major tourist attraction, has a special access point that allows yahoos like me to get a good view). The masterplan focuses on a series of mega-projects, like a new healthcare centre and a new conference facility, at the expense of the parts of the city people actually live in.  I thought the future city outlined outside the cathedral represented a huge missed opportunity, and I will be detailing my logic in successive posts.

In the meantime, please note that my experience of the city is already outdated, as is ‘The Human Scale,’ both of which are from 2013.  If there have been developments that I have missed, please let me know.

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Point-Counterpoint #2: Wichelstowe

This is the second in a series about planning observations of the town of Swindon.  Native daughter/My Friend Lauren spent a day looking at the city through a planner’s eyes with me, and then wrote about her impressions of The Triangle, an affordable housing scheme in a kind of a rough neighbourhood.  From there the pendulum swung, and we went to visit Wichelstowe, a new town on the periphery of Swindon.  Wichelstowe will ultimately comprise 4000 housing units, ranging from affordable flats to six bed houses.  Lauren wanted to show it to me because its built on a floodplain, and because its a really large-scale development (obviously) that has really changed the edge of the town. As with The Triangle, Lauren and I disagreed about Wichelstowe.  Not all of it, but some fairly fundamental stuff.

First: my perspective. I think Lauren and I agree that, on balance, Wichelstowe doesn’t have that much to recommend it.  Neither of us are going to be investing in it anytime soon.  But our opinion is clearly that of the minority, since we spoke to a couple sales officials and they said that most units had already sold – so other people are clearly taken with the place. While Lauren and I disagreed about the architectural merits of the building facades, I think we agreed that it seemed like a bleak and depressing place to live.  There is a huge about of space given over to tarmac and very little space given over to anything green (at least relative to the size).  There’s no children’s play parks or sports fields or open space interwoven into the development, although the constructed wetland (presumably constructed to mitigate the destruction of the floodplain) is very nice; we saw a bunch of ducks and a couple herons, which says to me that it is fulfilling its purpose in shoring up ecological diversity. Lauren and I also agreed about the only commerce we saw – a pub on the edge of the development where we had lunch.  It felt like a restaurant franchise called “The British Pub” accessed from exit 67 on the Pennsylvania turnpike.  There was a sign outside encouraging women to send their husbands to the “husband creche” (to watch sports on the weekend).  Everything that wasn’t offensive was bland.

Sidenote: I am The Hotness.

The houses at Wichelstowe were not of high design quality; they were a pastiche of neo-Victorian crap designed to look cutesy and appeal to the lowest common denominator.  The fact that I was impressed by them suggests that I’m more stuck in the development patterns of the US than I realised. But I was going to speak in defense of Wichelstowe and let Lauren trash it, so I’ll get on with it.  The thing that I liked about Wichelstowe is that the architecture was so much better than The Triangle, and so much better than it could have been.  And while many of the developers in cahoots on this development have done a lot of horrible things to the English landscape, you can see that they at least ticked a few boxes when they designed Wichelstowe.  For example, the houses are all different bricks, and have different facade detailing.  Affordable housing is worked in through the development and not obvious from the outside. There is a mix of sizes, widths, heights and window placement. And its dense! There is really a lot of housing crammed into a pretty small area (in part because there’s no commerce or industry or office space, but still).  So at least all this offensiveness is occupying a relatively small footprint, and people will drive less than they would in a more suburban settlement.

Each individual house is a pretty standard British style, and all the houses look….new, but not in a good way.  But I can see a world in which the development ages well.  When the bricks get a little stained and weathered, and the trees have grown in and maybe (fingers crossed!) someone’s installed some playground equipment somewhere, I can see how Wichelstowe could be a nice place to live. Minus the “British Pub” and its giant car park. And now its counterpoint time! My friend Lauren says:

In my last post I mentioned that sweet nostalgia I have for my home town. It’s where I did my growing up. And it’s where I still come with my thoughts and ideas and I realise that I am still growing up. You’ll see; here’s a mini-existential crisis for your enjoyment or embarrassment:

I spent a lot of my toddler-time tiddling about with my grampy. He would hold my hand on our adventures in the woods, down alleys and along the railway track. Today, we’re on the railway track. The sunshine is glistening on the rain-wet leaves, birdies are tweeting, that little stream is crying out
for me to jump in. We go exploring up the embankment, ‘come on Lauren, have look at this!’ and grampy helps me up the slip-slippy slope through the bushes. There’s a fence, and on the other side is open countryside; and in the nearest field, a donkey.

‘Hey, donkey, why’re you called Eeyore?’

‘I dunno, Heorways calls me that. ‘

Right. You can see where this is going. But I’ll spell it out anyway.

Wichelstowe was built on Eeyore’s field. Now that is the emotional base for all my reasoning, but there are plenty of rational reasons to hate Wichelstowe too. There’s the insultingly naff design, the sheer density of the place, the legally-obliged buses that run empty. And the fact that it’s built in the catchment of the river Ray flood plain. There’s also the ethos behind it, which Franny and I glimpsed when we posed as lesbian-potential-house-buyers …

‘Wow, the development is really coming along, how many have you sold now?’

‘Oh nearly all of them. We’ve made so much money here, I just don’t understand why there’s so much restriction on building on land like this; it’s a goldmine for everyone!’ [blog editor sidenote: that’s a pretty ungenerous paraphrase]

‘uh huh. So how many are social housing?’

‘Don’t you worry about ‘horrible housing’, there’s none of them in this area. It’s allocated per development and one of the other companies took on the quota so we’re all owner-occupied.’ [blog editor sidenote: that’s a direct quote]

I hate it because I’m a ponce. Because I don’t live in a world where I think about profit or the income-source of my neighbours. Because I have an aversion to schemes like this: where the benefit to the stake-holders is dubious, and the motivation of the developer is purely bottom-line. Now, I can see that we need housing; yes, the developers are meeting a real need, but they’re hashing it up. These people really do live in risk of flood: the wetland area we saw had already flooded, and
one of the houses facing it had a ‘baby boy’ banner over the door. How old will he be when the water reaches his door?

I hate Wichelstowe because those houses represent something else to me, something malevolent that I can’t quite put my finger on. When the plans for Wichelstowe were announced, I grew up a little bit. I learnt that ‘donkeys’ years’ isn’t actually forever. All that is solid melts away…

Final blog editor note: Lauren did some research and found a Swindon planning doc about the site.  For more info, click here.

 

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Impressions of Tibby’s Triangle, Southwold

Last month, my friend Jaime visited from Israel and I had five days to give her a peek into my exciting (not so exciting) UK life.  Jaime and I met in planning school, so I particularly wanted to take her to see a really cute, quintessential British seaside town.  We settled on Southwold for 2 main reasons: 1, there is a new Ash Sakula housing development there that I wanted to see and 2, Adnam’s Brewery is there.  Holler!

The scheme, as you’ll see from the movie, is a small development – 26 houses – just off the main drag in Southwold, near a cemetery, a playground, the beach, and a whole bunch of super cute seaside-y houses.  It was built on some land owned by Adnam’s, and the architects also designed an adjacent pavilion, cafe, and shop owned by Adnam’s.

For the most part, I really liked the development.  In the video, the architects talk about trying to mimic Suffolk vernacular (which is something I’ve heard a lot about, in design reviews in Suffolk).  They tried to do that by using referential materials, incorporating lots of small-scale cut-throughs, and including small-scale green spaces into the development.  All the houses have access to some outdoor space, which is nice, and (as promised in the video) none of the building heights are the same.  There’s also a flatiron building in the middle of the development that I think is particularly cute.

The  image above shows some of the pros and cons of the scheme.  The pros I think I’ve already established: its cute, it clearly takes Suffolk as its inspiration, its visually interesting, its porous.  All good stuff.   The pros outweigh the cons, but there were two things that I really, really noticed that I would have done differently: first, as you can see from the image above, the space to the left of the flatiron building is devoted to cars.  Every house has its own space, which I understand it necessary from a real-estate perspective.  The amount of asphalt may have been a requirement for fire truck turning radii or something – but the edges of the development have a fine-grain, intimate feel; its weird that the middle of the thing is basically a parking lot.

The other complaint I have is with one of the housing styles (despite the variety, there were three or four house themes and palettes that were repeated throughout the development):

 

This is where I think the commitment to vernacular references broke down.  But I don’t object to this house (there were several of them) because they’re modern; I object to them because they’re ugly. I think the windows are awkwardly set into a boring facade.  The thing that I really hate, though, are these semi-enclosed parking spaces. I think they are the worst sort of faux-modernism; I think they destroy the intimate pedestrian feel that the architects worked so hard to cultivate in the rest of the project, and I think they aren’t even that useful – there’s no storage; there’s no extra living space; the half-garage has a larger surface area than two surface parking spots – its just stupid.  It made me angry.

I think at heart my biggest objection to the scheme – which I did find quite lovely – is that the architects smushed together the car space and pedestrian space without really reconciling the two.  The alleys through the little neighborhood are dominated by pedestrians, but (especially around the flatiron building), people on foot feel like interlopers – a feeling reinforced by the architecture, planning and landscaping across the site.

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I’d Work There: Urban Splash

I was cruising the annual Housing Design Awards website recently, where they have beautiful high-def videos of the recent nominees.  I was so impressed that I went through all the archives, and I was amazed by how many of the winning entries were in Manchester, and in the North in general.  The Accordia housing development in Cambridge won a Stirling Prize a few years ago, and as far as I can tell, no one in Cambridge has stopped talking about it since, but in Manchester they’ve been racking them up for years. I’m hopefully taking a tour of the Accordia development this week, and I’m pretty excited about it, but that’s one in a sea of distinctly average housing developments around Cambridge (it is also worth noting that the CBG is one of the only cities in the UK not officially in recession, and there are at least 4 major, prize-free real estate projects underway at the moment, plus a huge volume of smaller-scale development).   Anyway.  I kept noticing all these amazing projects, particularly in Manchester, and I was particularly excited to realise that Urban Splash developed Chimney Pot Park, a project I’d salivated over from the states.  Finally, I realised that the common thread is that most of the projects I liked were the work of a single developer, Urban Splash.  In the intervening weeks, I’ve developed a massive crush on this company: I think all their work is amazing, and I’ve been monitoring their website for jobs even though their offices are all in places I can’t possibly commute to.  You can see a full gallery of their work here, but I’ve included some highlights below.

 

I have to say, I was a little disappointed to realise that many of their projects were former industrial buildings.  I mean, I find a loft space as sexy as the next girl, but lofts have high ceilings and big windows – its kind of low-hanging fruit.  Chimney Pot Park was a neighborhood of derelict tenement terrace houses before it was built, with a whole bunch of attendant challenges.  Terrace houses often have low ceilings, cramped rooms, and a constrained footprint.  Furthermore, terraces compose a third of the UK’s housing supply, and Chimney Pot Park provided a complete re-imagining of this incredibly common vernacular.  I think its a revolutionary project.

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So what’s your job, exactly?

A future development site and the site of a Shape East design review

I have a master’s in urban planning from an American university, but relocated to the UK a few months after graduating. The planning system is very different here, so it was a challenge trying to find a niche. Ultimately, I ended up at Shape East, the centre for the built environment in the east of England.  I started working for Shape East as their Design Support Manager in February, a job with a description that continues to evolve as I learn to think more and more expansively about what Design Support can entail.

“Design support” is broken down into two broad categories – design support and design review.  Design review is a particular process of peer review, wherein we provide a panel of built environment professionals (architects, planners, engineers, landscape architects) to offer their commentary on a scheme that is about to be submitted for planning permission.  Usually, the planners at the relevant office will suggest to the architects or developer that some peer review would be beneficial, or a controversial project will undertake it voluntarily with the understanding that it will help quell opposition. Design review is a formal meeting with a particular protocol, and Shape East is part of a national network of design review providers, each with their own discrete reservoir of panel members.  Many of the architects on the panel are Kind of a Big Deal; others have a particular specialty.  The idea of design review is that a higher level of scrutiny will result in a higher degree of design quality, a premise I believe in.  My role is to organise all the design review meetings, take notes, and then summarise the recommendations for the local authority and the design team – the finished product is a letter, usually about 1000 words long, that is an official record of the 2-ish hour meeting (including a site visit) and the suggestions made by the panel of architects Shape East provides.

Design support is less specific.  It can happen at any time during a project’s development, up to the point where it receives planning permission.  Recently, we held a meeting with some important people in a small seaside town to help them develop a brief for a new public square.  We also helped a design firm work with a local town council to redesign the facade of an economic regeneration project.

The best part of my job is that I’m a believer in the value of our product.  Design review isn’t always helpful, but in many cases it makes a huge difference in the finished product and almost always results in positive changes to the design.  And design support is even more important, because it typically involves getting people outside the design and planning community involved in the process.

Design support, which typically focuses on a single development, is one half of what Shape does. The other half is more general education – we offer walking tours, public lectures, and other resources (many of them web-based) to help people learn about architecture and design.  Historically, Shape had done lots of outreach in schools and with young people, and at present we’re collaborating with Kettle’s Yard, a local art gallery, on outreach related to the construction of a new gallery space.

To my mind, the opportunity to get constructive criticism is one of the few pros of a planning system that is painfully vague and subject to personal opinion.  The UK is fairly unique, I think, in having providing so many opportunities for designers to get input from a “critical friend,” often from big-name design professionals and, at the very least, from designers that have been vetted and selected for their suitability for the project.  At Shape, about one in four applicants to the panel were ultimately chosen, and the competition for the position of chair and vice chair was stiffer.  My job is to try to convince people to avail themselves of this expertise.

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Cabin Porn: You’re Welcome

I just found out about a website called Cabin Porn, a website of user-submitted photos of – you guessed it – cabins. I’ve included a sample below, but there are forty pages, which is enough to waste a lot of time at work and start planning your next trip to Washington state/New Zealand/Switzerland/Norway.  The one below is a hut in the mountains of Chogoria, Kenya

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An Interview with Jan Gehl

Jan Gehl is a Dutch urbanist and the author of Cities for People, a really wonderful book.  A few weeks ago, The Urbanophile posted a 30 minute interview with Gehl that is well worth watching (and is embedded below).  The Urbanophile is a wonderful blog written by Aaron Renn, concerned primarily with American cities and with Chicago and Indianapolis (his hometown) in particular.

Renn got the Gehl post from Economics of Place, a blog I hadn’t previously been aware of but probably should have been.  Both are well worth taking a look at; and if you’re a fan of Gehl or interested in place-making (or Copenhagen), this video is really great.

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Typographic Maps

Ever since typography became trendy, more and more typographic maps have been hitting the scene (scene? is there a map scene?).  Everyone appears to be so thrilled at the intersection of typography and geography, that sometimes we seem not to stop and look at these maps critically.

An example of this, for me, comes from Ork Posters (find your city here)- who provide an intersection of neighbourhoods and typography.  Most of their prints are really cool:  good design, and fun and informative neighborhood layout.

Despite their popularity, however, I don’t think Ork maps reach their full potential.  All that empty space leaves me wanting.  And where’s the lake? And where are the suburbs?  In those cities that I am less familiar with, I’m left wanting something else.

And so, I went on a search to find typographic maps that really do it for me.  Maps that can integrate typography, but that also give a sense of the city, and a sense of the geography of the urban place.  And here are some new finds, and some old favourites.

1.  Axis Maps

I love the typographic maps from Axis maps .  They focus on street names and transit routes instead of neighbourhoods and it provides a really neat graphic experience.  Perhaps sticking to the gird leaves the map a bit sterile, but I think graphically it is much more appealing.

2.   Andy Proehl

I discovered Proehl’s set of typographic maps on flickr a while back, and his map of the Mississippi really caught my attention.  I love the idea of using typography to map the natural world, rivers, lakes, mountains.  I would love to explore this idea more.

3. Seagull’s Hut

I love the use of color in these city maps coming from Seagull’s Hut.  The inclusion of a background water color really gives a good sense of the underlying geography.   I particularly like this one of Zurich. Color choice leaves a bit to be desired, though.

More Soon.

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