Category Archives: Urban Design

Walking: Punishable by a fine of $197.

Image courtesy New York Times.

Image courtesy New York Times.

The planning world is (moderately) abuzz lately with news that LA and New York have been ticketing pedestrians for unsafe walking in an attempt to cut down on car-walker conflicts.

While this has generated at least three news articles that I have seen, it has not generated the response that I feel the whole thing deserves.  I don’t think there should be outrage or hysteria or even sadness, but mockery: ticketing pedestrians for walking are ludicrous, and has not been treated with the derision it deserves. It is also reminiscent of a recent traffic safety campaign in London where cyclists and motorists – but really, mostly cyclists – were lectured by police stations around the city (and in some cases fined) for unsafe behavior.  This isn’t because walkers or bikers are inherently behaving more dangerously, but because they move more slowly and can hear more clearly when police yell at them.

The most depressing thing is that it seems like, in both cities, ticketing pedestrians stems from a sincere effort to reduce injuries. In doing so, however, it assumes that pedestrians are to blame for car-on-walker conflicts, and it also assumes that people crossing the streets cannot be trusted to act responsibly and with an iota of common sense.  In fact, most pedestrian traffic injuries occur at intersections when cars are trying to turn into pedestrians’ right-of-way.

My father (who recently called me a proto-fascist for my views on smoking), taught me that there is a clear hierarchy in terms of street priority: people before machines. Practically, this means that pedestrians come first, then cyclists, then I suppose buses.  The easiest take-away is this: cars come last. Cars always come last. While this was a credo that he embraced much more firmly after he started cycling, it is also an easy, simple mantra that guided my notion of good placemaking.  In big cities, the large numbers of pedestrians – who, let’s not forget, also constitute traffic – should be welcomed; they are a sign that the city is a good place to be. Instead, they are cited as obstructions to auto traffic and confined to narrow sidewalks.

Its a truism in planing that people will follow the shortest route between two places. They don’t like long, scenic walks between crosswalks; if jaywalking is the easiest way to get from point A to point B, that is what they will be inclined to do. And that’s a good thing.  Because a lot of what pedestrians do in cities is spend money: when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, I lived on State Street, the city’s most famous commercial (and largely pedestrianised) thoroughfare.  And thank goodness I had a bike.  Because on the rare occasion that I walked, I spent money: I would rent a movie (because this was in the heady early days of streaming video, back when video rentals existed), or buy an ice cream cone or a bubble tea or some other ridiculous thing that I absolutely did not need.  And then I’d walk down the street in the evening summer sun, thinking about how great State Street was and wishing I was old enough to get into bars (not necessarily in that order). WalkBoston, an advocacy group in Massachusetts, have crafted their whole mission around that idea: people on foot are better for the economy that people traveling by any other means, because of their tendency to spontaneously spend money

Cities have an obligation to make their streets as safe as possible for as many people as possible – I think most people agree that public safety is one of the functions of municipal government. And there are all sorts of ways to do that without tickets, for anyone.  As many others have pointed out, the best way to reduce rule-breaking is to make rules that work better for people.  That could mean installing mid-block crosswalks, making traffic crossing times longer, or installing more ‘all green scrambles’ where all car traffic is held at a corner and walkers can cross diagonally, all of which are compromise options (I haven’t even mentioned woonerfs yet!). People have a right to use their own streets, the same way cyclists and cars do. The notion that cars have some god-given priority is laughable, or would be if it didn’t seem to govern city policy all over the world.  When that happens, the whole thing just becomes depressing.

 

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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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Image

A friend recently told me that, with the birth of their second child looming, they’re looking at minivans.  Thankfully, she told me via email so she couldn’t see the look that flashed across my face. Upon reflection, I can see why a minivan makes sense for her lifestyle.  But I have also spent the last few days feeling more smug than ever that a minivan isn’t in my future.

Obviously, this has meant exchanges: less house for more neighbourhood, fewer comforts (like a clothes dryer…) for more ‘character’; and less car for more bikes.  In our case, my husband and I have let our grace period lapse and are now no longer eligible for UK insurance, so we’ve settled into an entirely car-free lifestyle without even intending to.  We live in a walking neighbourhood in a biking city, near a commercial street that caters to most of our needs (fruit, chocolate, and sushi) and near local retail that caters to the rest (pastries, pubs, dumplings).

We’ve spent our first two+ years here cycling, but our mobility is going to be seriously curtailed with the birth of our first child this spring.  Newborns don’t ride bikes, and typically, neither do their mums.  When I was in Denmark earlier this year, I saw an amazing cargo bike with bassinet and OH DANG DID I WANT ONE.  In fact, I’ve always assumed that when the time came, I’d buy a cargo bike – obviously.

So why am I telling you this, rather than raving about my sweet new cargo bike?

How much do you think they cost?

No, seriously. Think of a specific number.

The bikes I have seen – via Google – tend to run about £2500, or $4000; the cheapest model I’ve seen is £1710.  There is also a bizarrely anaemic resale market (though if you’re looking, Ebay seems to be your best bet). I’ve had my current road bike for a decade, but I can’t imagine that I’ll want a cargo bike after my children are old enough to cycle on their own steam – say, when they turn five or six.  And these bikes are really the most useful when you have two children – when you have one, there are simpler, easier methods; when you have an older one, why would you ferry them around when they can power themselves? So the window of time in which cargo bikes are truly useful is very small – higher if you have twins, but five or six years at the outside.

I do not understand why these things are so expensive. Over the course of their lifetimes, they are more cost-effective than a car, of course, but the up-front cost is nearly the same (or at least, for $4000 you can buy a car. A car with a roof and a trunk and a gas pedal that requires no physical exertion to use). I am one of the most enthusiastic and committed cyclists I know, and if I’m balking…who are the people buying these things?

There are, of course, cheaper alternatives for those interested in cycling with kids.  The Guardian Bike Blog did a lovely feature last summer about the various options for carting children around via bicycle, from age 9 months to 9 years (I tried to figure out how to embed the video and failed). Plenty of parents have carried children around on standard rear-mounted bike seats or in those pull-behind trailers, which are much more affordable alternatives.  But it seems to me that the economics of cargo bikes are completely misaligned.  If I could find a cheaper bike – especially new – I would snap it up tomorrow, and I suspect many of the people I know in my position would, as well. Obviously cargo bikes are a commodity, so this isn’t something that can be fixed by government policy.  And there is a chicken-and-egg issue: without more demand, carriers are unlikely to diversify their supply.  But I do wonder why the market, even in places where cycling is an established way of life, has been so slow to address the need for family-friendly cycling.  And given that there is so little to do except wait for the market to catch up, what can cycling advocates and government-provided infrastructure do to help bridge the gap?

Cambridge has a unique policy where parents of young children can exchange their bicycle for a stroller/buggy at a city-run cycle parking facility, though its not well-publicised (and people are crazy snobby about strollers). Maybe providing cargo-bike specific parking would help; so would wider, or – better yet – segregated bike lanes, though Cambridge already has quite a few off-road cycle paths.  The general wisdom in the cycling world is that if you make everything about cycling better, you will attract more women and parents of young children, which is undoubtedly true.  But there’s been a major uptick in cycling in the last several years without a commensurate increase in cargo bike use, so I’m inclined to think that someone is missing a trick.

Bikes, Children, Parents: Navigating the City with Babies

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Pruitt Igoe Miscellany

Image courtesy google maps.

Image courtesy google maps.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time.  2012 was the 40th anniversary of the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St Louis, Missouri – one of the most iconic public housing ventures of all time; March 2013 marks the 41st anniversary.  The land where the buildings stood is still vacant, with a fence around it; 57 acres of urban wilderness in the most literal sense.

In recent years, the site has received a lot of attention – most notably, in the form of Pruitt Igoe Now, a documentary released in 2011.  A design competition, soliciting suggestions for what to do with the site, was conducted in 2012 – the winning submissions are viewable on the website; predictably, many focused on urban ag or forestry, though the diversity achieved within the theme is pretty impressive. And the mostly-excellent design podcast 99% Invisible did a piece on Pruitt Igoe for their 44th episode, though most of their content was derived from the film.

Image courtesy Pruitt Igoe Now design competition - from 'Connections,' a finalist in the competition

Image courtesy Pruitt Igoe Now design competition – from ‘Connections,’ a finalist in the competition

There are obviously all sorts of reasons why the housing project failed, and architecture is part of it – similar towers have failed elsewhere; Pruitt Igoe is simply the most iconic. But the film works hard to couch the development’s demise in the larger context of post-war St. Louis, and if you look at the image above, you can get a sense of the devastation experienced by adjacent areas that weren’t leveled. By my count, the twenty blocks north of the development have twenty houses on them.  It is easy to fetishize Pruitt Igoe, but doing so completely ignores the huge swathes of adjacent land that are almost as devastated – and they didn’t have a huge, iconic explosion to help them get that way.

What is to be done with cities like St. Louis, where large chunks of the urban area are essentially ghost towns? Suggestions that the area be allowed to return to nature, that the remaining citizens be relocated, is typically not politically achievable.  On the other hand, neither is it economically feasible to provide urban services to places that have one home per city block, usually with diminishing tax revenue. In New Orleans, the post-Katrina ‘green dot’ map of unviable neighbourhoods provoked a shitstorm of protest from local residents, who in many cases rebuilt with a vengeance in places that should never have been built on in the first place – but that’s a rant for another time.  I’ve written before about neighbourhoods on the cusp, like the Near North Side of Pittsburgh, and I won’t rehash that post anymore here.  Whatever solutions we do come up with for shrinking cities, the testing grounds shouldn’t be limited to the Pruitt Igoe site; while it is absolutely a good idea to invest in the large scale ecological regeneration of  St. Louis, and there is symbolic value to starting with the Pruitt Igoe site, it’s now a 40 year old urban forest and it has value unto itself.  Its not like there’s no other land to work with; maybe just leave well enough alone until such time, if ever, when there’s a reason to redevelop.

And in the meantime, check out the film, podcast, Economist article, MIT studio, and book chapter on St Louis in particular and shrinking cities in general. If you have resources or thoughts on Pruitt Igoe, St. Louis or shrinking cities, please let me know.

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Traffic in Amsterdam

This is a post from my other blog, Snacks and Adventure, about my experience as a cyclist in Amsterdam. Enjoy!

snacks & adventure

I was in Amsterdam for the first time a few weeks ago, and I was seriously blown away by the city.  In addition to the brown cafes, which were everywhere and were so brimming with local character, and the food, which was delicious, the city had all sorts of distinctive characteristics that made it feel unique (when I was in Strasbourg, everything apart from the cathedral felt like “Generic European City.” Amsterdam felt like Amsterdam.)

As an urban planner, the first thing I noticed was the cycling infrastructure, and the people using it. It was on a scale I’d never seen before.  A friend who went to Amsterdam earlier this year complained that, actually, there were so many bikes that people on feet suffered – and I’m inclined to agree.  It was not a walker’s paradise.

The space reserved for cycles was unlike anything I’d ever seen.  There were cycle…

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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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Tour de Swindon, Part I: Point-Counterpoint

During August bank holiday, I went on a tour of Swindon, population ~200,000. Its a town (not a city – cities in the UK have cathedrals) in between London and Oxford in the southwest of the UK.  A friend of mine grew up there, and when she organized a birthday-weekend camping trip outside her hometown, I made the trek and was rewarded not just with a weekend of hiking but also with a tour of Swindon’s architectural highlights.  It was great to tour the city with a native, who showed me the best (and worst) of the new and the old. Not only did she ferry me around Swindon all day, she agreed to do a point-counterpoint on some of the schemes we saw.

We decided to start with The Triangle, a development I first encountered on the internet.  I was really excited to see the project, which was built into a triangle of land that had been a truck parking lot:

Point: The parking lot was replaced by 43 social/affordable units with low environmental impact and some beautifully considered details.  As you can see from the aerial above, the houses are jammed in to the existing neighborhood, and its amazing to realise how constrained the site actually is – because when you’re there, the corners feel awkward but the whole development feels spacious and open.  In addition, the Triangle has kind a shtick – there are allotment gardens at the points of the triangle and every resident gets a recipe book when they move in.

The site has a central plaza with drainage and play space artfully worked in; there is a large community garden at one of the points of the triangle, and wooden details in front of every door add visual interest to the houses.

There are definitely some redeeming features of the development, which makes use of what was formerly overlooked land; has visible and beautiful drainage features; and the housing is all eco-sensitive and low-carbon.

So what’s the problem? Simple: U-G-L-Y.  The open space, at least the central open space, is beautiful.  But the houses are boring and awful.  The whole place is painted slightly variable shades of beige in a repeating pattern, and the facades are totally unbroken except for a dull gray panel below each window that I think is intended for air-conditioning units (in the UK?).

So boring.

The other issue I have with the site is also a challenge to the whole ethos of the project.  I have nothing against gardens; they’re great.  but the gardens at the points of the triangle are jammed into overlooked space.  One corner has a bank of raised beds with no indication what belongs to whom; there were tons of delicious-looking vegetables but it wasn’t clear who owned them, if anyone.  The other corner had a couple of awkwardly arranged, mostly-empty greenhouses without any overlooking windows or lighting: 

The area was also gated and locked. I was not impressed.

IN SUMMARY: I appreciate that the architect, Kevin McCloud, did what he could with a constrained site, and I fully endorse the garden and environmental components of the project.  I just wish the houses weren’t so boring.

Counterpoint:

Dear readers of this wonderful blog, so far you’ve seen my face and my gingerbread  biscuits and now, you lucky things, you’re about to get some of my words too. Unlike Franny’s educated and considered entries, mine will be mostly opinion with a slight tinge of conjecture. Please enjoy:

Swindon is my hometown, so of course I have strong feelings about it. Having not lived there since 2004, my nostalgia is now greater than the desperate frustration I felt when I decided to leave. I still love it even when I return home to find the Old Town Corn Exchange has been set fire again and the Town Gardens Bandstand lead roof has been stolen by gypsies. Swindon occupies so much of my mental map that it comes up a surprising amount in conversation with Franny. It seemed that for every traffic-calming scheme she’d studied or drainage system she’d designed I had an example in Swindon. After a few months it was clear I had to show her this maelstrom of town planning initiatives. A rainy bank holiday Monday was the perfect day for us to do our Grand Town Planning Tour of Swindon!

First stop on the tour bus was the Triangle.

“You two better watch out wearing those anoraks in Pinehurst; someone’ll do you in!” Thanks, mum, for those words of wisdom. Childhood memories flashed through my mind:  driving through ‘tin town’ with my dad and he central-locks the car doors; my postcode-challenged schoolfriend complaining that no-one would visit him because he lived in Pinehurst… Hey, mum, the Triangle’s not even in Pinehurst!

Walking off the main road into the Triangle was like walking into a different country. No more double -fronted semis with pebble dashing: there are balconies on the flats and wood on the houses; we can’t be in the UK! I like the Triangle. Unashamedly. It was quiet. It was pleasant. There were children’s bicycles. We saw a few people talking to each other. There were trees and greenery in the central common. It wasn’t dominated by cars. There was no litter or graffiti or broken things. Then we poked our noses into the corners and there were greenhouses, with things growing in them; and allotments, with things growing in them; and an unused space with nothing growing in it (I was expecting needles and nappies). It was nice.

I consider Franny’s criticisms a bit unfounded. As they say in Swindon ‘you’re not from round ‘ere are you?’ She says the houses’ repetitive pattern is boring. All terraced housing in the UK is like this. I’m used to it. I even said that I liked the different shades of grey! (Ahem…) And it didn’t occur to me that the window-panels might be for air-con because we don’t do air-con in the UK.  She then complained that the gardens are not overlooked by anyone. I think this relates to the fact that the end terraced houses do not have windows on the outer walls. But not many end terraces do; it wouldn’t be fair to those in the middle! And as for the point that there is no indication of who gardens which plot of the allotment: so what if it wasn’t clear to us whose are the massive pumpkins and who’s pruning those apple trees;  the residents clearly know because it’s in order. I was just amazed that the allotments were being used at all.

In fact, that sums up my feelings about this site. I’m amazed that Swindon is the site of an award-winning eco-development and I’m even more amazed that people are using it as it is intended.

To balance these unsubstantiated observational comments, I must include some tenuous anecdotal evidence. A friend of a friend actually lives in one of the houses (that means she probably saw Franny and I playing on the decorative log-and-water-pump sculpture). She says they are nice houses (it’s not just me!), despite a few simple design no outside handles on the patio doors so you get locked out easily and the eco paint comes off when you clean marks off the walls. My favourite oversight is that the lovely cork floor insulates so well that the underfloor heating system has to be cranked up to 11 to work! Her heating bills are huge!

Despite these small teething problems (which are being sorted out) I think this housing project was a success. Perhaps this is an indication of my low standards, but I thought it had a good atmosphere. In my opinion, the buildings didn’t look boring or ugly or fashionable enough to date quickly (however Franny thinks they are already dated). The communal use of the allotments impressed me. I wish more building projects were built to these environmental standards (obviously not with insulated flooring and underfloor heating).  And at least it’s not Pinehurst.

Thanks so much to Lauren, both for the day and for the thoughts.  If I can prevail on her to keep this up, this will be the first in a three-part series, since we also visited Wichelstowe, a new town on the edge of Swindon, and the old railroad works (now a shopping mall and a low-income neighborhood, because it covers a huge area).

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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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Making use of Highway Dead Space

In  many cities, highways cut the city up, acting as barriers between neighbourhoods.  They block off parkland and waterfront from easy pedestrian access.  Urban highways aren’t going away any time soon, but cities are making strides to work around overpasses (or below, in this case).

Toronto just opened Underpass Park as part of an overall revitalization of Toronto’s Waterfront, and in preparation for Toronto’s hosting of the 2015 PanAm games.  It includes a playground for children, basketball courts, and (I think best of all) a skate park.  Development has yet to be completed around the park, leaving it sort of isolated for now.  But it’s great to see the city taking innovative steps forward, and thinking about what will get people into this park – what will get people using this park.  And I think the skate park is a great way to do that – and it’s a great sign we’ve stopped be so scared of skateboards in the city.

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Accordia

Since moving to Cambridge, I’ve heard and read about the award-winning Accordia development in Cambridge, 300-some units of housing built in 2004 and designed by architecture heavyweights Feilden Clegg Bradley (plus some others).  I was lucky enough to tag along on a tour led by Peter Carter, who worked for the Cambridge planning office as one of the point people when the development was given planning permission.

I was really blown away by some of the development (which is large enough to constitute its own neighborhood), and really disappointed by other parts.  There are three green corridors running through the neighbourhood, which pre-date the development; the houses are snuggled in between the trees and on a beautiful sunny day are dappled with sunlight and shot through with green open space and greenery.  Toward the back of the development, the trees peter out, and there are some big open spaces mixed in with higher-rise development, but the relationship of building and open space is vastly different.  At one end of Accordia, the scale is perfect – three-story buildings along narrow streets with greenery and balconies at all three levels (on the ground, first-floor terraces and second-story balconies, all of which have dense planting).

At the other end, the buildings are larger, and the design quality is equally high, but there’s a serious drop-off in the quality of the landscape architecture.  The space opens up – but too much; the slight step-up in density doesn’t correspond to the large increase in circulation space, and the lack of green space means that the space just looks unfinished.

I have some quibbles with the layout but the architecture is, for the most part, amazing.  The UK requires that 30% of all new developments be affordable units, and a good chunk of them are seamlessly incorporated into the fabric.  Another chunk of them are included in larger apartment buildings, the tallest of which is 8 stories.  There is a row of houses at the back that look a little worse for the wear, and many have wood doors that have weathered differently and shabbily. On the other hand, the houses at the front are amazing and there are two taller buildings that I would love to live in, if they didn’t front onto an awkwardly-scaled public square.

A couple of caveats: the Accordia development is still in development; the last few houses are just being complete now.  There was evidence of construction in some corners of the space that will be removed in the next couple of months.  The atmosphere in one corner was seriously affected by a “historic” bunker that still stands, disused and surrounded by seriously ugly fencing – obviously through no fault of the developers. And finally, we were there on a Wednesday afternoon in August, which is not historically the busiest time of year in a residential development in the UK, when everyone and their mother is on vacation.

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