All posts by fanis.grammenos

Fanis is the founder and director of Urban Pattern Associates, a planning consultancy and research firm credited with the conception of the Fused Grid model. Fanis has a strong track record of focusing on user needs and the application of practical, innovative ideas to serve these needs. His focus grew stronger through his involvement in land development for several years. He conceived and co-authored a best-selling guide for passive solar design and a home owner’s manual. His research interests cover city and community planning, municipal planning regulations, land development policies, affordable housing, environmental planning and energy-conserving building techniques. He is a regular columnist for the Canadian Homebuilder magazine, a contributor to books and to planning journals, periodicals and web sites. He is a visiting lecturer at McGill University; has presented widely at national and international conferences; and has consulted with several Canadian municipal governments. He lives in Ottawa, Canada with his wife and children.

European Urbanism: Lessons from a City without Suburbs

Introduction

Planners despise, deride and deplore the suburbs. Suburbs are portrayed as the pariahs of urban evolution, an aberrant, ill-adapted species and the main cause of problems that beset cities and people today such as traffic congestion, poor air quality, environmental degradation, ugliness and even obesity. Their critics recommend a halt to new ones, a retrofit of the existing and putting an end to the idea of the “suburban project” once and for all. Discomfortingly, new ones are nonetheless approved daily.

Urbanizing the suburbs, it is argued, would enable city residents to enjoy a better, healthier more fulfilling life in a continuous city that spans an entire urban region. Moreover, the environment will also benefit from reduced travel emissions. What would a city that spans a region be like? Can it be planned for?

While searching for policies and levers to stem new or to retrofit existing suburbs, it might also be instructive to look for precedents, real examples of a city as it would be on arrival at the “end of the suburban project”. Precedents not only would lure planners and people by the power of their images but could also become practical guides. A contemporary precedent, were it to be found, would have great convincing power since it would have dealt with the modern issues of mobility, accessibility and commerce.

Reassuringly, at least one such city does exist: one that has reformed its suburbs to the point where they are indistinguishable from the mother “city” – Athens, Greece. This article looks at this example, attempts to draw lessons and raises disquieting questions.

Before looking at Athens, let’s make a parenthetical agreement.

Agreeing on “city

Of all the attributes that characterize a city, there can be little doubt that proximity is the most crucial because of its generative power: building and population density,  compactness of built form,  concentration of people,  nearness and choice of desired destinations and the constant buzz of transaction and interaction are all expressions of proximity and its outcomes.  Its iconic expression is found in the agglutinated forms of earlier cities where city blocks had complete, solid perimeters, and in their crowded markets.

Agglutination and compactness appeared early on in “organic” and planned settlements from Mohenjo-Daro (2000 BC), to El-Lahun, Egypt (1885 BC) to Miletus, Greece (500 BC) and Pompeii, Rome (100 BC). Population density in the Greek and Roman towns was 200 and 170 persons per hectare (ppha) respectively, while the Italian City State and the medieval cathedral city posted 75 and 110 ppha respectively. By contrast and for context, the city of Toronto in 2001, posts much lower average at 40 ppha, but reaches 90 ppha around the core. Toronto is a young, mainly 20th century city; a new urban species.

FishMarket

The 20th century brought separation and dispersal of buildings to an extent unparalleled in city history.  Aerial photos and ground observation confirm this unambiguously – the sharp contrast of built form between the old “city” and its newer additions is inescapable.  However, the 20th century also ushered a new form of agglutinated settlement, the vertical, elevator block, which can equal several earlier horizontal blocks in habitable space and thus dramatically increase the potential for people concentration.  Athens employs all the elements of propinquity and can boast being a contemporary pioneering example of “a city without suburbs”.

The density story of Athens

Being a typical old city, Athens started as a small dense settlement which remained the focal point of a radial expansion and the locus of gradual increases in density over its subsequent evolution.  Since becoming the capital and a main industrial and commercial hub (1836), its trajectory as an urbanized region followed that of other major European and American cities. It traces the continual intensification of land use at the centre and of adjacent land parcels in ever widening circles. This gradual expansion also saw the creation of suburbs that incorporated a preponderance of detached private homes, not unlike other European and North American cities. Occasionally it subsumed pre-existing villages that had small populations, dispersed buildings and an agricultural economic base.  Two other events also shaped the growth of the city: Illegal, usually dense, settlements of massive scale that were later brought within the regional plan and large population in migrations due to political instability.

Central city density

Athens’ population growth to its current 3.1 million follows an exponential curve similar to metro areas elsewhere that saw their populations swell in the 20th century. But the average density of Athens increased proportionately in step with its population growth while, by contrast, in other metropolises average densities either rose only slightly or remained stable. In 2001 it stood at 76 ppha as compared to the average 40 ppha and 30 ppha of Toronto and Philadelphia (1991) respectively, two prime examples of compact cities in North America.

Indicatively, the CBDs of these two cities post densities of about 75 and 79 ppha surprisingly similar to the average built-up area density of Athens. Other CBD densities in North America range from 17 ppha in Atlanta to 55 ppha in Vancouver. Evidently, in the case of Athens, the large increase in population was accommodated by compaction and an upward expansion.

The eradication of suburbs    

Average city densities hide the potential for sharp differences between centre and peripheral districts, which could still post low enough densities to qualify as suburbs or “sprawl”.Statistics show that in 2001 just four of about 30 boundary municipal districts, about 6 to 13 km from the centre, had densities between 25 – 50 residents per hectare,  higher than the CBD density of Denver, Detroit, Washington, Seattle, Atlanta and Houston.

Seven other districts, also at the edge, record densities of 50 to 100 people per ha and the remainding 37 of the total 48 districts surrounding the central area, from 100 to 250.  These peripheral, euphemistically “suburban” densities equal or are multiples of CBD densities of many metros in the US and Canada. Clearly, this 40-year long transformation of what used to be first and second ring low density settlements has eclipsed any semblance of “suburb”. Aerial and site photos confirm this compactness of the built environment.

 Detached single family houses are a statistical rarity; mostly aged holdouts or derelict sites awaiting development. Compactness, a key element of urbanism, has reached appreciably high levels and Athens is now in essence 412 square kilometres of “city” by any measure.

Land use propinquity

As might be expected, with contiguous high concentrations of people, city services and amenities proliferate: transit, small or large retail, and a range of outlets that cover the entire gamut of daily and longer-cycle needs. Most collector and arterial roads boast a continuous line of shops and work places on the ground floor. This alternate use of the ground floor is so extensive and liberal that even in the outer ring districts one finds shops and workshops as unusual as a car repair shop and an ironworks on residential streets.

Ironworks shop on suburban street – sidewalk overtaken

Transit service has traditionally been good and it was recently enhanced with the addition of a new Metro (subway) and complementary light rail lines. Accessibility is high and distances to services are within the five to ten minute radiuses that render each neighbourhood eminently walkable.  Walkability is further enhanced by the narrowness of most streets and the scarcity of wide arterials.

Design and diversity

The gradual but continual redevelopment of urban lots brought to the same street vogues of architectural styles that increase building diversity and interest. This diversity is enhanced by the dominance of lot by lot development that prevents the monotony and discomforting scale of large structures, which are rare. The street facade, mostly contiguous, is a sequence of 60 to 100 feet tableaus of fashionable or individual tastes from period eclectic to Bauhaus and to post-modern. Housing type diversity, however, is absent as the choice is limited to apartment size and price; other types are few and scarce.  As for social diversity, the mix is much less extensive. The map of residential districts is to a large extent also a map of social classes. Planners and policies have been virtually powerless in controlling social self-selection and exclusion. (Interestingly, Hippodamus (450 BC), often called the father of planning, advocated the idea of segmenting a city area into social class districts.)

All the elements of urbanism for good living are present: Density, Diversity, Destinations, Distance (to transit) and Design; the same ingredients that are theoretically essential for reducing the environmental impact of development, primarily by reducing personal car use. Moreover, suburban sprawl has been expunged. Is Athens, then, a European poster child of advanced urbanism? a coveted future of all urban regions?

How this level of urbanism was achieved, how the city measures up with the current environmental priorities and how living in this environment enhances the lives of its inhabitants are all subjects for what follows.

The drivers of change – density

The trend towards eradicating the suburbs started in the 70s. There was no “ideal city” image or planning theory that drove the transformation (TND or New Urbanism had not been invented yet). Most planning efforts were focused on maintaining the strict height limit, preserving and enhancing open space and, more intently, on designing and implementing a transportation network that would solve the persistent gridlock that emerged early at comparatively low car ownership ratios. The densification trend sped up in the 80s, and currently continues at the periphery.

The trend toward intensification may be attributed to a) a geographically confined land supply (mountain and sea boundaries), b) a political lesser-faire ideology, c) a powerful, well-connected developer lobby and d) enormous population pressures due to constant in migration. The most critical factor, however, was the legislation passed by a dictatorial junta at a pivotal point (1968). The decree raised the FSI by 30% uniformly overnight. This increase in turn triggered a lucrative construction boom of apartments to satisfy the latent demand and the constant in flow of workers. It also meant increased unit and population density as the scarcity of habitable space and its cost forced traditionally large households into small apartments .  The comparison of the GDP in conjunction with density (Fig 7) hints at a potential correlation between income and density that is worth noting in this case even though it may not apply universally.

Elements of urbanism and performance

Transportation

A key driver in pursuing urbanist policies and  guidelines is to reduce personal car travel and, possibly, car ownership rates. It has been estimated that both the number of trips and total VKTs will be lower among people who live in cities or neighbourhoods that have the Athenian characteristics of density, street connectivity and mixed use. Speculatively, doubling the densities of urban regions (in the US for example) and complementing it with mix of uses will reduce personal VKTs by 10% in  20 years. What do Athenian statistics tell us about these relationships?

Car and Powered Two Wheeler (PTW) ownership

 Between 1990 and 1999, the number of private cars increased by an average of 60,000 per year from 800,000 to 1,400,000 units, for a total of 75% increase. However, Athens still has the second lowest rate among the EU cities at 339 per thousand people above Madrid at 322. By contrast, ownership of PTW is the second highest after Rome and, at 58 per 1000 people, is 3 times that of Paris and twice that of Madrid’s rate. The high PTW rate may be the effect of income and also choice. PTW cost half to one third the price of cars and, therefore, could be popular among less affluent would-be car drivers. The choice of  PTWs is also clear on the grounds of their flexibility as means of personal transport in a congested city; they hardly ever need to wait in line and, occasionally, not even for the traffic lights and can park practically anywhere.  A further reason could be their use as a second vehicle since cars can enter the central city cordon only on alternate days based on their licence plate number.

Figure 9 shows respective ownership figures of EU cities and confirms a well established relationship between wealth and car ownership. The low car ownership rate among Athenians mirrors their GDP. But the city’s compactness, mix of uses, and walkability which have been rising steadily since the 1970s, appears to have had no stabilizing effect on the increase in car ownership or the car modal share. Athens’ motorized transport (cars and PTW) mode share is the second highest after Rome and stands at 52%. The proportion of trips made by car increased in all seven European cities in an interval of ten years but saw its largest increase in Athens at 7% . Athens has the second highest rank of km per person, when adjusted to reflect purchasing power parity (PPP), and the lowest km per person in transit use. This combination results in the highest ratio of car driven kilometres to total motorized trip kilometres.

But if the rising urbanism did not affect car ownership or car trip share, it could, according to earlier research findings, have had a positive influence on the mode shares of walking, cycling and transit.

Transit use, Walking and cycling

The Public Transit share of all trips in Athens is the highest among the European group. Figure 8 indicates a potential correlation between income and public transit use. The fact that Madrid and Barcelona have higher densities, a positive pull on transit, reinforces the link to income. If density were the stronger pull and other things being equal, transit use in these two cities ought to have been at least equal or higher than Athens’.

Transit use has been historically high in Athens all through the 70s and 80s when car and PTW ownership was very low.  The most recent indication of a trend is toward a smaller share. In the 10 years between 1990 and 2000 the share of public transit fell by 7% while private transport increased by an equal percentage. A related statistic indicates that approximately 9,000 bus users shift to private cars every year.This is counterintuitive given the increase in density and mixed use. Moreover, the growing congestion in the centre ought to have acted as a countervailing force to shift car trips to transit. None of these factors seem to have produced the anticipated result of an increased transit and reduced car modal share.

Theoretical analyses and partial empirical evidence link good street connectivity to more cycling and walking in the presence of density and a mix of land uses. Intersection density per km2(a reliable measure of connectivity) of two random Athenian districts of first and second tier rings stands at 130 and 145 higher than good NA grids such as Houston at 90 and Sacramento at 43. Barcelona’s grid sits at 84 intersections per km2. .

Athens’ share of trips made by walking and biking combined is the lowest among the seven Europeancities and is mostly comprised of walking. Cycling, which used to attract large numbers of blue and white collar workers in the 60s and 70s, has become statistically insignificant. Unlike car and transit use that show a potential correlation to wealth, biking and walking appear unrelated. Density also appears unrelated as the three densest cities Barcelona, Madrid and Athens have vastly different percentages of bike/walk shares. These differences suggest that other factors are at play.

It would seem from the above trends that the level of urbanism achieved in Athens did not translate into the expected results in transit, walking and biking activity.

High street connectivity associated with grid-like layouts, such as the layout of Athens’ districts is also said to reduce congestion on collectors and arterials, as cars have a choice of multiple routes to a given destination.  Is this the case with Athens?

Congestion

The Athenian street network is a collection of grid-like configurations with a variety of frequencies and block sizes lacking the familiar N American suburban hierarchy of local, collector and arterial road. In addition, cul-de-sacs are a statistical rarity. Moreover, Athens has the highest length of roads per 1000 population of all seven cities at 4.500 km, implying a very dense grid and small blocks, a recommended practice for walkable urbanism, as is the high proportion of narrow streets.

With these anti-congestion, walkable, network design features, Athens reports the worst congestion in the sample, with lower than expected speeds for given levels of road utilisation among the set.

Interestingly, the city with the lowest congestion level, Barcelona, is also a grid. By comparison to Athens it has the lowest length of roads of the set at almost one quarter of the Athenian rate.  It also falls below Athens in the number of motorways. The difference becomes more intriguing when Barcelona’s higher number of cars is taken into account.

In contrast to the Athenian urbanism, Barcelona’s gridiron has three unusual characteristics: a) block sizes are the largest (113 x 113 m) of all seven cities b) streets are wide (20 m) and the main arterials very wide (50 m) c) all blocks have truncated corners and d) wide diagonal arterials that cut through the entire city toward the centre. These design attributes, hierarchy by size; width of ROW; the large truncated blocks; the directness of the wide diagonals may play a role in lowering congestion. If they can be shown to have a positive influence, then the Athenian version of urbanism of narrow streets, high street density, small block size and non-hierarchical structure, should be re-examined. In fact, support for the need for re-examination comes, surprisingly, from the City of Barcelona itself. Current proposals suggest an increase of the effective size of its city blocks, the largest among the sample, by transforming every second grid street into mainly pedestrian and access only.

Parking 

Athens is effectively an immense parking lot form edge to edge. Three quarters of its streets offer free parking while the rest are frequently used for parking illegally. (Picture of missing tooth)

This is also true of sidewalks, where cars or PTW in particular, find expedient temporary parking. The demand is so high that cars are often parked up to or into the street corner.  It would seem that the available parking in structures is not used to capacity, presumably due to cost. A large percentage of parking (80%) occurs on the street. Of all street parking 45% is illegal.

Parking at this intensity uses up vital road network space that is already constrained due to the narrow width of pavements. A 1998 survey revealed that the daily demand within the city centre during the peak hours is for 66,000 parking stalls and the available supply is 58,000 stalls. It is logical to conjecture a potential link between the parking intrusion into circulation space and the high congestion that Athens experiences, notwithstanding that other factors can also be at play.

By comparison, Barcelona with the lowest congestion level among the seven provides twice as much parking as Athens and holds the top place of parking availability. Constraining parking as a strategy to reduce car use, an often recommended urbanist policy, may lead to unpalatable traffic conditions and their side effects, as the case of Athens would suggest.

Traffic Accidents 

Athens holds the top place in the set of EU countries for traffic deaths.  In Athens, 8,200 accidents occur every year of which 300 are fatal. Interestingly, the three densest cities of the seven also have the high traffic accident incidence even though they have lower car ownership rates compared to the other four suggesting a potential correlation.  Further increase in car ownership, which, evidently, is occurring, may exacerbate the conditions and increase the toll, if it is not matched with proactive measures to improve parking and traffic conditions. The densely packed vibrant streets may hide unpleasant consequences.

Air Pollution 

Perhaps linked with the high congestion but not exclusively, Athens also holds the unenviable top place in pollutant emissions. By comparison, the least congested city, Barcelona, even though denser than Athens and with more cars on the road, shows the lowest pollutant production, less than one quarter of Athens and half or less than London, Paris and Rome.  The Athens figures represent measurements after the extensive catalytic conversion drive, which occurred in the 90s.

Clearly, the Athenian version of a compact, dense, vibrant city may conceal unpleasant negative health and safety consequences apart from potential dissatisfaction with the living environment.

Quality of life  

Urbanism aims at an improvement in the overall quality of urban life from the current state of suburb-centric living, while also pursuing environmental objectives. Measuring quality of life is complex and risky but also necessary, if we are to assert that progress is being made. Several urban criteria are generally used including walkability, sociability, noise, clean air, views, green spaces, and collisions among others.

Noise Pollution 

Driven by the known detrimental health effects of noise, several EU Cities, including London and Paris have begun to map noise levels in their districts. There is general agreement that at 60 decibels noise becomes a nuisance and above 70 decibels it starts to affect the health of residents experiencing it.

A survey in the year 2000 showed that more than 60% of Athenians are exposed to high levels of noise which, on the most congested roads, has been measured to range between 80 and 100 dB during the day but also intermittently during night hours.  Affluent residents find temporary, year round respite from the noise pollution on weekends at their cottages in the coastal areas, a trend that exacerbates congestion and air pollution for the city as a whole.

Open Space and Views 

Athenians climb the coastal mountains to enjoy views and fresh air

A large proportion of Athenians live in 4 to 6 storey apartment buildings and many others in 8 -storey. Due to the narrowness of most streets, the high permissible site coverage and the contiguity of buildings (that in many cases form an uninterrupted “urban wall”) the views for most dwellers are limited to the fronts or the backs of other apartments.  Inhabitants of lower floors of such buildings often miss even a view of the sky. This lack of contact with nature is further aggravated for a large proportion of residents by the absence of urban parks or vegetation on the street. Most buildings have no front yard, and, when they do, many assign it to parking. In addition most sidewalks are too narrow to accommodate substantial vegetation and the dusty, polluted air stresses the plants; they rarely survive to maturity. An additional stressor is low annual rainfall exacerbated by the very high percentage of impermeable surfaces that flush rainwater. In all, the general urban ambiance is devoid of natural features and the residents are deprived casual contact with nature and the pleasure it evokes.

Family life and identity 

Sociologists often point to the unsuitability of apartment living for raising children, particularly in the absence of nearby open space. They also point out the importance of the house as an artefact that supports a person’s identity and sense of self worth. These aspects of psychological reinforcement and satisfaction are by necessity absent in compact apartment living such as in Athens.

Overall Quality of life  

Comparisons between Athens and other cities are unfavourable when quality of life is measured. A casual assessment by a well known urbanist echoes this: “….. as an Athenian I love Athens. But

if you have to live there, the noise, traffic and pollution [would] drive you crazy!” Comparative rankings by established agencies, though inevitably non-scientific, are less casual and at least indicative of the potential quality of a city’s living environment.

The 2008 Mercer evaluation for the top 50 cities for the best quality of living ranks Athens as #77, the lowest ranking of all Western European cities for several years in a row. Barcelona and Madrid scrape in at # 42 and #43 respectively while Paris and London each score 32 and 38 respectively. None of these scores are truly complimentary for the respective cities all with a long tradition of admired urbanism to which NA cities aspire. Better models perhaps may be found elsewhere.

A 2009 review by the Economist of 140 international cities, using other criteria, ranked Athens #64 while Paris was ranked #17, Rome #52  and Helsinki   #7 . Interviewed on the occasion of these ratings a university planning professor said: “…. the urban environment of Athens, although relatively new, is characterized by low quality, and high densities not only of residential building but also of offices, schools and hospitals. There is a big disproportion in the provision of public space and open green space between West European metropolitan areas and Athens”

These rankings and the previous statistics raise questions about urban progress with unforeseen consequences, and about the elements of good urbanism that satisfies the needs of the city’s residents for health, safety and delight.

Conclusions  

It appears that every single urbanist approach, which Athens exemplifies, fails to deliver anticipated results.  This challenges current theoretical assumptions and design directives. Clearly, there are elements in the Athenian version of natural urbanism that produce unwelcome outcomes; they should be clearly identified as warning signs to planners.

The above statistics and descriptions paint a grim picture of Athens as a city far from satisfactory, let alone enjoyable, for its inhabitants. It is also unfavourable to the environment. It would seem that the pinnacle of urbanism that achieved the eradication of suburbs came at a substantial quality of life and environmental costs. 

Dysfunctional cases in any discipline usually trigger deep insights by demanding explanation. In that vein, Athens, a case of dysfunctional urbanism, offers a true laboratory for testing assumptions, principles and theories toward a more robust model of an urbane city.

We can begin unravelling the intrigue, with a set of radical, disquieting questions that might set a valid research agenda:

  • Is the urban malaise attributed to the suburbs misplaced and their eradication the wrong prescription?
  • If Athens’ problems are not attributable to its high level of urbanism, what lies behind them?
  • If urbanism did not fix Athens’ suburban symptoms, what will fix its current urban malaise of congestion, noise, lack of green, sunlight,  declining transit share, little walking and no bicycling?
  • Do urbanist prescriptions have thresholds beyond which they may have negative repercussions?
  • If the Athenian version of urbanism is unworkable, what is a “good” model to emulate? what would its characteristics be?
  • Is there a prospect of recuperation from this advanced dysfunctional stage and in what direction?

These and other questions, arising from a contemporary example of a city without suburbs, could open up a quest for an urbanism free of undesirable consequences. If not the Athenian urbanism, what kind?

Fanis Grammenos, Urban Pattern Associates  

NOTE: This article first appeared in www.planetizen.com in February 2011.

References 

  1. WS Atkins Transport Planning: European Best Practice in the Delivery of Integrated Transport, November 2001
  2. Yorgos K. VOUKAS, 2001, Personal Transportation in Athens. Master’s Thesis, Lund University, Sweden
  3. http://livingingreece.gr/2008/06/20/athens-greece-quality-of-living/   
  4. Pierre Filion  et Al : Canada-US Metropolitan Density Patterns: Zonal Convergence and Divergence
  5. Georgios Sarigiannis , 2000, Athens 1830 – 2000 :  Evolution -Planning – Transportation ( in Greek)

Learning from the Laureates

Read any magazine, report, newspaper or municipal pamphlet and you are likely to run multiple times into a word pair that almost lost its meaning because of frequent and careless repetition – “sustainable development”.  Just as frequently another brand label is used, often to stand for the same idea –“smart growth”.

While principles, policies and guidelines proliferate, examples that put them in practice are rare. In fact, there are fewer than it seems from the press coverage because numerous developments claim the brand but lack the essential attributes to deserve it. And then there is the issue of extent – “one swallow does not make a summer…” Some projects simply stop at one good idea.  With an overflow of claims and labels, it becomes next to impossible to decipher which the “must have” elements are that can put a project in the advanced rank. That’s when you turn to the laureates.

Children are the most frequent occupants of streets followe by adults. Cars are rare and transient.

Few projects have been recognized internationally multiple times for the bold, decisive steps they took, even against prevailing wisdom, as this one: Vauban, a suburb of Freiburg, Germany, one of the most renown and acclaimed recent developments. Let’s make a virtual pilgrimage.

Vauban’s creators recognize that reducing consumption of all dwindling resources is the cornerstone of environmental sustainability: doing more with less. Energy use is the obvious place to start and driving dominates the consumption pie chart; normally, driving uses as much or more as all other household energy needs combined, incredible as it may seem.

Bold step one: reduce driving within or from and to Vauban. Only about fifty percent of residents own cars, by choice. Some don’t want or need them at all, others only sporadically and, when they do, borrow one of the shared cars for a fee. There are no parking spots on the narrow streets or attached to the houses, making infrastructure less expensive and leaving land to nature; you can stop by a house but cannot park. Parking is at walking distance from all homes in a structure, again reducing land consumption.

A fused grid street network disallows cut-through traffic and give priority to pedestrians and bikes

Getting around Vauban is easy on foot and bike. The layout of the streets, paths and parks ensures that it is faster and more enjoyable to walk and bike than to drive. In a u-turn from prevalent rulebooks, the plan uses connected loops and cul-de-sacs for its residential streets, supplemented by a dense network of paths. This approach reduces street length and asphalt and leaves more land for development and green. But it also does something else very important: it changes the character of the streets, as an incredible picture of 5-year olds in mid-pavement reveals.

Rarely, if ever, kids would be so care-free and posessive on a regular street

Bold step two: Rail for getting to and from town. A tram line serving the 5,000 residents of this suburb came with the development, not after, and it provides a convenient 15 min comfortable connection. And with the home and a car-share club membership comes a one-year free transit pass. Tram or bike, the town centre is truly accessible.

Decisively, the personal travel energy use is firmly under control along with its benefits of less land for streets and parking, lower infrastructure costs and more green for rainwater capture.

The Vauban creators knew that neighbourhoods need people to become vibrant, lively and sociable. Hence,

Bold step three: Urban density, the familiar density of the old town, about 15 units per acre. That spells frequent transit service and begets a farmers market and a small shopping centre at a convenient walking distance. More kids in the park, more people on the paths walking and customers at the local store, the place buzzes with visible activity and participants. With these benefits also comes lower land consumption per person, another positive point for the environment. Add 600 jobs to the recipe, almost one for every two households, and a healthy mix emerges that infuses more activity within the neighbourhood.

Reducing consumption continues at the house level.

Bold step four: Passive and active solar and a district co-generation plant. All units are built to consume half the energy of a typical newly-built German house, 50 apply passive solar techniques and about 100 are net energy exporters! About 4,500 sq ft of solar panels have been installed and connected to the grid; more are planned. The co-generation plant burns wood-chip waste and is plugged into the district electrical grid, an example of waste-to-resource conversion.

Bold step five: Rain infiltration. Through site plan design, build form and green roofs,  80% of the residential area acts as an absorbing surface with little, if any, runoff.

What do these bold innovations mean? It amounts to removing about 2,000 cars from the roads, not counting side benefits. Now “environmentally sustainable” makes sense.

Note: This post first appeared in the Canadian Home Builder magazine

Closer for coziness, fun, safety and profit.

 Coming back from a cottage vacation, visions of places with the alluring attributes of a cottage emerge: A large lot, fronting a quiet, densely planted street and backing on to a lake, river or woods. Real estate price comparisons between locations of contrasting attributes confirm this craving. Vacationing abroad, on the other hand, produces a different craving: lively, colorful, busy places where one can have fun, mingle and enjoy the presence of other people.

 People bond to both kinds of places and want both. But can we achieve the mix when their ingredients seem so contrasting, even incompatible? Looking around for clues, we find that the key to the blend is “moderate closeness”.

 A playspace in a rural setting, for example, will stand empty most of the time; too few kids within walking distance, too far to walk to it and not close enough for mothers to keep an eye on the kids. The same would be true of the streets; mostly empty. Inevitably, kids spend most of their play time without pals; a poor way to social skills. Parents too live secluded lives in that milieu. Clearly, the houses are too far apart to create the “critical social mass”. 

A play space as a focal point in a compact neighbourhood

                          A similar situation, but for different reasons, arises at the other end of closeness – apartment living; too few kids, much isolation and very little interaction. The view from the balcony may be stunning but from the keyhole viewer it is precautionary.

Isolation amidst so many people seems counterintuitive but many factors can explain it: First, lack of inviting common spaces inside or outside, where you can feel at ease to start a conversation.  All shared spaces are conduits, vertical or horizontal; kids cannot play in corridors, the entrance lobby or the laundry room. Then it is people statistics. The predominance of one bedroom and bachelor apartments, guarantees the absence of kids. Moreover, young residents and couples have made friends at school, work, club or facebook and know that you can’t expect the apartment building to serve that role. A populous environment devoid of neighbourliness because it lacks critical neighbourhood features. It need not be so.

 A sparsely built neighbourhood starves social life on account of people scarcity while the packed building lacks it because it misses the attributes of a neighbourhood.

 What environment would strike the perfect balance? What is the “critical mass” of a flourishing neighbourhood?

 And then the risk of antisocial trespassers and intruders pertains.  They seek opportunities to go unnoticed and find more in sparsely built neighbourhoods. Closeness reduces these opportunities.  Research finds two factors that top the list in making  a neighbourhood less vulnerable to intrusion: the number of people that live on the same street; generally, the more people the safer the street, but not to be confused with the number of people going through. The latter may increase the risk as the number goes up. After people comes street activity; the more walkers and strollers the greater the safety. 

A cul-de-sac permeable for pedestrians only can be a play and social space

Researchers agree that the magic number for a friendly neighbourhood is in the range of 45 to 60 people per hectare.  Translated into homes, at 2.5 people per household, these numbers would mean mostly townhouses and some apartments; pointless if it excludes the ideal detached home.  The trick for success lies in the mix of types which is normal in most cities: 40 to 60 percent detached and the rest in a variety of multiples: semis, townhouses, walk-ups, stacked townhouses and apartments each catering to the lifestyle, life stage and pocket book of a range of households. Even singles can up the people count by including accessory apartments for relatives. This mix is also a profitable proposition: The development widens its client base (faster sales), increases the total number of units (higher yield) and raises the level of customer satisfaction (free, credible promotion). What’s more, it saves home and travel energy.

 Reaching the critical people mass, however, is only half of the job. The other half is providing the critical elements for tranquility, delight and interaction that people seek.

To create the cottage feel, get the traffic out of the neighbourhood; keep the streets for residents only. Hide away as many cars as possible. Enhance the site’s natural features and make them work for everyone. Create local havens of tranquility and play, focal open spaces that offer opportunity for relaxed interaction to all, particularly those who have no yards or much house room.  Plant the streets heavily, enough to make trees visually more important than the buildings. Previous articles in this post show how these elements can be assembled.

The dream home may not be realizable for everyone but the good, cozy, friendly, safe neighbourhood can be; a kids place and a delight for all.  And the developer delights in their pleasure.

 This article first appeared in the “Home Builder” magazine, September 2010 issue

New Urban Epicurean Enterprise

Nested in the woods, L’ Ore du Bois sits  at the  edge of a  village, a 20 minute drive from the nearest Metro urban centre of a million people. A coveted place for epicurean eating, it serves three sittings per evening to about 60 tables. The natural surroundings are charming with the changing seasons and the interior ambiance recreates the nostalgic warmth of a 19th century country house.

An Epicurian Restaurant Nested in the Woods

There is ample parking for all the guests, mostly from the affluent city, hidden behind trees , invisible from the road and with a gravel pad and natural drainage.  The owners even cultivate  spices and vegetables for the meals.

Outstanding  fresh food,  in a perfect setting, sensitive to nature, with exemplar design sensibility this seems a model for a successful, small, independent enterprise, that produces valued diversity and unique experiences , except ……………..

This eclectic, epicurean living is possible only in our New Urban world. No entrepreneur would have conceived of a restaurant in the woods 30 km from town in the urban, horse-dependent 19th century.   The increased and distributed wealth and its wheels of our culture make it possible; copies of this business model abound.

Exclusive traffic magnets like this range in scale from a restaurant to an amusement park, to a zoo, to a casino and to Disney World. They attract people from either a metro region,  a regional district of cities and towns or continental regions of states and provinces.

Large enterprises are considered job and wealth generating ventures benefiting the economy in general and increase local revenues and therefore not only above criticism but commendable. Small enterprises are characterized as  anti-urban.  They are simply New Urban because they thrive in the contemporay urban environment of afluence and mobility.

At home with the car

 

The old mews, now converted to coveted, quiet residential courts was one of planners’ answers to accommodating horse and carriage; what are our solutions for the “horseless carriage”?

Space for the car has been an irritation on the developers and planner’s minds for good reasons. It uses up valuable land; it adds to the house price; it affects the street appeal and can affect the environment. It is not an easy puzzle to solve; luckily, others have been there before.

Let’s try and trace previous solutions and their logic and adapt them to suit a new neighbourhood plan. Start by accepting that cars are vital, valuable possessions and it costs to own them, keep them and to use them. Many tradesmen earn their livelihood by being on the move. Controlling the costs of its home and its impacts is the true task.

Garage within house envelope and unobtrusive

                                 Control starts with optimizing the land it takes to house the car.  Building compact pays off because more can be done with the same land parcel. This means building up not out to accommodate the car and sticking with regular house shapes. Tuck the garage below habitable space; there are plenty of examples of how this can be done well.  Putting the car under living space has other advantages also. It reduces excavation and foundation costs and, importantly, it squeezes the footprint of the house. Lower footprint means more space for rainwater absorption, a “green” advantage that can be a selling point.

A back lane turns into a greenway path

                                As the price of land goes up, lot sizes come down and housing for the car becomes harder. When the lot frontage reaches 33, 30, 25 and 20 feet and, sometimes, 16feet for townhouses it seems almost next to impossible to come up with an effective, good-looking solution.

A seemingly easy solution is to use back lanes but it comes with heavy penalties: more infrastructure to build and maintain; the garage requires a separate structure with its own foundation;   and the lane may add a maintenance cost, as some cities refuse to clear snow in lanes. It also adds to the total house footprint. From a buyer perspective, it takes away precious yard flower-and-spices space and may add discomfort, particularly in the winter, in reaching the house door.  Finally, the unsupervised lane could turn into a hiding place and also an untidy spot. Disputes may arise about cleanliness.

More effective, advantageous solutions do exist. One, by manipulating the lot size, we can increase its width and reduce its depth keeping the same lot area but now having the advantage of the critical extra feet at the front of the house which permit a proper entrance and a garage door in balanced sizes. For example, a 16-foot townhouse bay would become 20 but the lot only 80 feet long. The increase in frontage width makes the house plan more efficient: fewer corridors and wider rooms.

The same logic works for narrow semis and even singles; a better front and a better floor plan. In all these cases and when there is sufficient frontage, keep the garage from protruding in the front yard. For every foot of protrusion an equal amount of usable, precious backyard is lost.

The next solution for narrow frontage lots is to park the car in the basement. No front or rear garages no driveways by the house entrance no asphalted lanes; only a bit of extra foundation work that comes with an advantage – a large deck overlooking the back yard. Units in this solution share a covered driveway and each has a private lockable garage under it. And because it hides all signs of the car, driveways, garage doors and garages, it gives a greener look to the street and increases the permeability of the site. (see Bois Franc). A variation on this theme is individual access to the half-sunk basement from the front; a common solution in renovated townhouses and sometimes in new. To get a spot for a tree, combine two driveways at the sidewalk.

Invisible individual parking under a deck

                                 A newcomer to the range solutions, suits wide, large houses that sit on a constrained lot. The “entry court” option uses the garage to create the “court” and makes it part of the front fence and gate. Set astride the property line each of two  garages face one side and take only ten feet from the lot space leaving about thirty or so for the  paved and landscaped court.

A natural complement to all solutions is the range of new materials for driveways and walkways that allow water infiltration and in some cases even grass to grow through them.

With this range of solutions, you can be at home with the car.

Note: This article first appeared in the Canadian Home Builder Magazine.

Supermodel Sirens on “Sanctuary” Island

  

In a recent  article “Can you see a pattern?”, Witold Rybczynski  praised the genius of C. Alexander and deplored the fact his great work is absent from  architecture and planning schools curricula.  Instead, he grieved, schools are busy with obscure academic wanderings e.g. deconstructivism or other mind-numbing –isms. The rigour and depth of research, such as Alexander’s and a preoccupation to translate it into applicable advice are given up in preference for abstruse esoteric theorizing or preaching. Though he created a large following, he fathered no –ism, simply a seminal book. Neither did he profess that the “Patterns” would be essential in solving the energy crunch, social disparities, alienation, ugliness, crime and other man-made city problems.

While absent in academia, Alexander still exerts influence in these two fields. Many practitioners admit to having his Pattern Language “handy on the desk as a constant reference”. On the research side, his disciples, collaborators and many followers, among whom I humbly place myself, continue the exploration. A major contribution is the latest paper by a team of four (Michael Mehaffy, Sergio Porta, Yodan Rofe and Nikos Salingaros) which advances Alexander’s work to its logical next stage:  a general circulation network model that subsumes and integrates many preceding detailed patterns; a super-model, an Alexandrian SimCity one might say.

 

Figure 1. Organic networks obey fractal laws of organization and appear simultaneously orderly and irregular

                                                                                                                                      The paper touches on many current topical and contested issues and settles a few. As I understood it, the paper:

  • Pronounces the social/spatial doctrine of the “Neighbourhood Unit” dead by research and declares “neighbourhood” and “community” terra non-grata for determinism. It posits that one cannot “design” a neighbourhood or a community; each emerges where and when conditions are conducive and they take shape within or in spite and across “preordained” boundaries. This finding may surprise some who write about “architecture of community” or others who circumscribe fictional “villages”, “towns” and neighbourhoods in the flux of the urban archipelago.
  • Restores the primacy of traffic in creating wealth and “society”.  The surprise here is “society”. Planners have reckoned traffic as the Jekyll and Hyde of contemporary cities. Welcomed and sought after for the goods it bestows, despised and incriminated for its savage hunger for space and speed.  But while it can erode city space and increase risk, it can also irrigate social growth by means connecting goods, ideas and people. Interestingly, an old Greek term for a wide street is “leophoros”, a people-bringer, a social super-collider.
  • Reinforces and adopts the “sanctuary” cell as an organizing unit. It finds that a cellular structure evolves just as naturally in city districts as in organisms. The new cells are selectively permeable and averse to through traffic and thus become sanctuaries for home-based activities. Were possible, their tranquility and delight are enhanced by a focal green space.
  • Accepts “hierarchy” as an underlying structuring principle that is common to fractal natural systems such as veins, brains, and trees, among many. Hierarchy of lengths and widths of connectors influences which will become Main Street, side street, footpath or dead-end.
  • Reiterates and strengthens the 400 m rule, persistent in foot-based settlements and surfacing in most planning documents. This time it becomes the inviolable measure of a well-functioning network. It sets up the scale of human comfort that is intended to permeate neigbourhoods and districts.
  • Repositions firmly the public uses (nuclei) where they have spontaneously emerged throughout history: at the crossroads of main roads and their extensions, not in fictional “centres”. The “Emergent Neighbourhood” model reconstructs a sound foundation for their location.

Why bother with a supermodel?  The same unassailable rationale that stood behind creating the master-compendium of 260 “patterns” applies equally well to creating one that summarizes many. One step up in the organization ladder: from genomes to organs and to a full organism. 

Another good reason is that it might help refocus the planning discourse where Alexander placed it in the 70s: on the rational analysis of conflicts and their physical resolution.

A third ground is the common aspiration of all disciplines for a unified theory that explains the whole gamut of observable phenomena; a fundamental belief that order underlies the apparent chaos.

 

Fig. 2. Two earlier circulation network models (at different scales) both denigrated but not replaced.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Finally, one very practical ground. Ever since the denigration of the transportation network models set out by NCUT (1958) and ITE (1984), an intellectual vacuum was created that was soon filled with vague notions of the “organic” network, the “village” image and the “small town” perfection or simply “the grid”. Organic networks are fascinating to look at but hardly applicable to cities directly. The same applies to images of villages and towns. The growth and ultimate form of each of these networks emerges from a codified set of relationships conducive to survival. A model that draws on and expresses contemporary relationships is needed to fill the void.

With this newcomer, there are now three contemporary alluring supermodels that have more similarities than differences: The “Urban Network”, the “Fused Grid” and now the “Emergent Neighbourhood”; “contemporary”, because they are all born of the dynamics and tensions of a young and unprecedented era – ours. They all arrive at similar organizing principles even though each starts from a distinct mix of premises. 

The paper promises more research to supplement the logic of its propositions. In addition the authors may look at how to reintegrate explicitly Alexander’s previous neighbourhood and district related patterns. Moreover, no large scale pattern would be complete without incorporating the intercity connectors and their relationship to the local network, a challenge that has yet to be taken up. The authors seem set to do hard-nosed analyses of traffic, accessibility, mobility and economic efficiency to strengthen the model so that it can supplant current –isms and be applied.  

With three “patterns” on the table there is little excuse to handcraft picturesque solutions for a problem that has deep organizing dynamics. Centered on these models a new research focus may even give birth to a discipline – URBANOMICS – that deals with “laws” that drive and shape urban development.

 The continuing absence of fundamental laws has left the field dependent on images that inevitably generate endless and tiresome imitation. The proposed model fills a gap and may rekindle not only elemental thinking but also diversity.

Descriptions of the latest and previous models can be found here:

http://www.palgrave-journals.com/udi/journal/v15/n1/abs/udi200926a.html

http://www.calthorpe.com/publications/urban-network-new-framework-growth

This article was first published in Planetizen  www.planetizen.com

A Fused Grid Neighbourhood in Construction

A new Calgary neighbourhood shows the features of a good, Fused Grid  neighbourhood  

In Calgary, Alberta work has begun on a new 64 hectare subdivision that will put leading edge urban planning walkability principles into practice.  Named Saddlestone, the new community uses the Fused Grid model.  

http://www.genesisland.com/land/saddlestone/community-map.html 

The Fused Grid model is a new way of arranging streets and open spaces to allow for a high level of pedestrian connectivity, while limiting the amount of automobile through-traffic within residential areas. It blends the best features of the gridiron system common in traditional urban areas and the looping streets and cul-de-sacs of more conventionally designed suburban areas. It does this by shifting most of the traffic to continuous through-traffic roads around the perimeter of the neighbourhood, while making streets discontinuous within the neighbourhoods.   

land use concept
Land Use Concept of the 160 acre neighbourhood

The key in making this arrangement highly walkable is the use of strategically placed footpaths, linear parks and open spaces to ensure a continuous pedestrian network within the neighbourhood. This results in slowing traffic around residential areas while leaving pedestrian flow uninterrupted, with direct, efficient and pleasant walking routes to parks, transit and amenities.  

The integration of the Fused Grid model into plans for Saddleton began in 2004, when the developer, Genesis Land Developments, began collaborating with the CMHC on the creation of a site plan that incorporated the model’s key principles. Municipal approval for the plan was given in 2008, at the conclusion of a process that included meetings with city officials and revisions to the initial plan, submission of a full development application, a public open house, a presentation to the Calgary Planning Commission and a public hearing of City Council.  

Saddleton’s application of the Fused Grid model is a significant step forward for this planning approach. It will demonstrate the model and its benefits in a concrete fashion and will be of great interest to municipalities, developers, home buyers, active living/transportation advocates and others as the new community takes shape.  

Walking didtance to parks

Increasing pedestrian connectivity while limiting vehicle connectivity within neighbourhoods, as the Fused Grid does, has been shown to improve rates of walking and physical activity for residents. A research study compared rates of walking in neighbourhoods with different levels of pedestrian and vehicle connectivity, including neighbourhoods with and without traffic calming measures, such as “diagonal diverters” and streets closed to cars but not to pedestrians and cyclists.  

The research found the highest rates of trips by foot (18 per cent) in areas where pedestrian connectivity was higher than vehicle connectivity. This compared with 14 per cent for areas with high levels of both pedestrian and vehicle connectivity and 10 per cent for areas with low pedestrian connectivity.   

Extesnsive network of paths add to the street connectivity

  The Fused Grid’s positive impact on walking is not at the expense of efficient traffic flow— a traffic simulation study showed that the Fused Grid model would allow an efficient flow of traffic and is superior to several other street layouts. Both pedestrian comfort and car movement are accommodated with sizeable reductions in the risk of collisions. Most street intersections on the site are 3-way which according to recent  research studies are the safest. 

In summary, neighbourhoods like Saddleton could enhance active living, reduce accidents and lower harmful car emissions. Moreover, they would create a milieu that blends nature, a restorative feature, in an urban setting.  

FUSED GRID: Open spaces with a triple function: recreation, pathway node and rainwater filtration are  part of the site plan:   


Three research highlights provide a quick tour of the ideas behind this new neighbourhood and the Fused Grid planning model:  

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.  Breaking Ground: A Fused Grid Neighbourhood in Calgary. Research Highlight: Socio-economic Series 08-020. December 2008. Available at: www.cmhc.ca  

[ii] Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Giving Pedestrians An Edge — Using Street Layout to Influence Transportation Choice. Research Highlight: Socio-economic Series 08-013. July 2008. Available at: www.cmhc.ca  

[iii] Canadia Mortgage and Housing Commission. Taming the Flow — Better Traffic and Safer Neighbourhoods. Research Highlight: Socio-economic Series 08-012. July 2008. Available at: www.cmhc.ca

Neighbourhood fit up for retrofit

Change is constant. Neighbourhoods, stable as they look at first, go through natural cycles of change that may be triggered by family makeup, income changes, ageing, technology, regulations or planning decisions at City Hall.

As a family evolves it may need more rooms for children, a home office for a working parent or a suite for a grandparent who cherishes the company of kin. With time, the children move out, often incomes decline upon retirement and the house feels empty; a large investment that returns only more housekeeping work. Taxes may suddenly go up as the neighbourhood matures and property values increase; sometimes too much of a burden on a household purse, a trigger to move elsewhere.

Higher up the causative ladder, City Hall might decide that a district is ripe for intensification and introduce new density zoning or permit other than residential uses. Similarly, a quiet road that houses faced onto turns into a collector or arterial, a strong incentive to relocate for some. Over time, all these triggers change the nature of the neighbourhood, its physical appearance and can affect its desirability.

For these reasons and more, a residential neighbourhood would have to be shaped to either accommodate change or avoid it, at least in the short term. Accommodating change is easier for houses than for whole neighbourhoods. It all depends on their design features.

Let’s take a look at the house first, the basic building block of a neighbourhood. It can be a small house at the beginning that matches the purse of a young couple and designed to grow as their family and incomes grow. And, later, as one of their parents is widowed, more space may be needed for an accessory apartment.  With a job change and flexible work arrangements comes the  need for a quiet room to work in. Later, stairs may be hard to negotiate and the second floor may be of no use; the ground floor might have to grow. Can a house accommodate all these adaptations? Yes, and easily if the design sticks to some basic rules; with difficulty and greater expense if it doesn’t. Any house can expand toward the back, up into the attic and down into a liveable basement. To do these changes economically and with pleasing results the house design must anticipate them.

Over time houses in this neighbvourhood changed in size and style

Advice on how to design with this flexibility in mind and examples of how it can be done are plentiful. Documents such as “the Grow Home”, ‘Liveable Attics”, “the Sprout House”, “Flex Housing” and “Renovating Distinctive Homes” contain a treasure chest of experience. Give your set of house plans a good second look from the perspective of adaptability; buyers will be delighted to know that the house they choose is flexible enough to accommodate whatever changes happen to their family. They can look forward to staying in a neighbourhood they love no matter how their personal circumstances change. When they see the flexibility in the design and the savings that it can produce, they will look no further.

When it comes to the neighbourhood fit up, the balance between stability and change is very delicate. Many elements of a neighbourhood are fixed and rarely, if ever, change; its street pattern and open spaces, for example. They are set in the approved development plan and are likely to stay the same for generations, just as in the old town where little has changed. What changes inevitably and frequently is traffic and the makeup of main thruways. As the city grows and expands so do its arteries and its traffic. And with traffic, naturally sprouts commerce and retail. The result: what used to be a relatively quiet, harmonious residential street becomes a busy road and the houses flanking it are gradually converted or displaced by commercial uses, office buildings, gas stations and convenience retail; a welcome advantage for the neighbourhood but not for those living on the same road. As rush hour traffic stalls, drivers will try shortcuts to optimize their trip; adjacent quiet streets are now affected and parents are concerned about safety. Retrofitting a neighbourhood to restore its original qualities can be a lengthy and acrimonious process with no guaranteed outcome; though some retrofits have succeeded in the long run.

Traffic on these exclusive foot and bike paths does not change with increases in car ownership

To ensure that stability and change are accommodated in a neighbourhood plan, it must follow the rule of “filtered permeability”. It means laying out a street network that differentiates between modes of transport such as foot, bike and motor and treats each differently. Some parts of the network give priority to pedestrians and bikes and “filter out” the motorcar; a connected bikepath network would be an example of that. The reverse “filtering” happens on highways where it is possible but prohibited to bike on. A network model that applies this principle consistently is the Fused Grid described in FCM’s “Alternative Development Standards” downloadable publication and on CMHC’s web site.  There are also plenty of stable, cherished Canadian and US communities old and new that have followed this idea among them, Wildwood Park in Winnipeg (1950s), Saddleton, Calagry, AB (2008), and Village Homes in Davis, CA (1980s).

A looped road combined with a fully connected pedestrian path system follows the principle of "filtered permeability" and becomes a fused grid.

To anticipate the inevitable change of a neighbourhood, plan the houses with the needed flexibility to accommodate a family’s stages and also lay out its street pattern to channel growth away from purely residential streets. This way, the neighbourhood will maintain its desirability, its houses their value and its residents their satisfaction.

This article was first published in the Candian Home Builder magazine

The Importance of Being Urban

City planning has yet to achieve the status of a theory, most likely because “the criterionfor the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability or testability.” (Popper, 1969 ). Large scale experiments are neither feasible nor possible, due to the involvement of humans and extended time periods. Accepting this limitation, we must content with insightful observations (e,g. Jane Jacobs), conjectures (e.g. Corbu) and refutations. But this is hardly sufficient for most practitioners. For example, Constantinos Doxiadislaboured on Ekistics, his treatise on the science of human settlements, only to remain at the margins of planning discourse, which currently overflows with the certainty and finality of a complete “theory”.

The makings of an ideology

The process of ideology formation has a discernible pattern. It rests on three pillars: an antagonist (and implicitly a battle), an ideal end-state and authoritative language. The enemy could be imaginary or real and so could be the end state (heaven or utopia). The declamatory language, a critical, formative component, appears as a “message” from a de facto higher authority (known or unknowable). To these three intellectual foundations, antagonist, end-state and authority, a fourth tactical element must be added that is critical to an ideology’s survival – summoning a following. Interestingly, the suffixes –ism and –ist trigger the brain’s synapses for comradeship and common purpose; the final seal. Most –isms current or defunct share this attribute of common and implicit higher purpose. The latest, peculiar example is “Vancouverism.”

One can recognize this pattern in the current planning discourse. The meaning of “urban” has drifted substantially. It no longer means simply a type of human settlement but mostly a quality of it. “Urban” now carries a strong connotation of an ideal end state, “Suburban” of the unmentionable enemy (a.k.a. “sprawl”) and the authoritative, declamatory language rests on “our 19th century ancestors who knew best”. Simplified, but not exaggerated, this triptych can be restated as: Old urban places were best (true communities), suburban places are bad (anonymous “nowheres”) and new places must be urban again (paradise regained). These statements, irrespective of their validity, now stand as unassailable truths and, gradually, acquired moral force, the life-blood of all ideology – hence the importance of being “urban.” They also form a complete and impenetrable logical ring, the hallmark of all beliefs.

Having gained prominence, this triptych induced a strong existential angst in the planning disciplines both at the personal and the professional level; no one wishes to be associated with the sinister and insalubrious “enemy”. At the professional level, firms rapidly adopted “urban”, “urbanist” or “urbanism” in their logos and vocabulary, oblivious to the irony that planning always dealt with issues of neighbourhoods and districts, which are found only in urban settlements.

At the personal level the angst centres on living a life that supports urbanist goals; implicit peer pressure to align ideology with personal lifestyle. Planners in casual discussions will offer uninvited explanations about their choice of a place to live or the car they drive. On occasion, the topic would be politely dropped so as to not offend company.

Living in a virtual suburban street type downtown

Figure 1. Living on a virtual suburban loop downtown.

Experiencing this strong moral undertow, I am compelled to retrace my own dwelling trajectory hoping that the telling might shed anxiety; a combined public apology and a group therapy session of sorts.

Dwellers in a trance at large

We began completely unaware of the planning implications of our family’s actions.In the 30s, my maternal family lived in a Small Agricultural Town, an icon of urban living. Everybody walked everywhere, the only option, with the exception of a few coaches for a small enviable set. It was a typical Main Street, packed with agglutinated houses, its few stores, churches and many cafés (the only means of information propagation) served as the commercial, social and moral centre of our universe. We lived in what was to become later the model of “urbanism” – the Small Town.

Next, under strenuous circumstances, the family moved to the biggest city, the capital, and to a house with a spare suite at the city’s foothill periphery. The “city” meant jobs, education, health care and keeping away from the oppressive, parochial discrimination; advantages that only a big city can provide. We were thus urbanizing the big city, a pro-urban act and, simultaneously, depopulating a small town, an anti-urban tendency. We were stretching an already big city, perhaps suburbanizing it, an anti-urban act, but intensifying the use of a property, a pro-urban action.

Soon we moved again in pursuit of land and house ownership to avoid unaffordable rents and the humbling experience of eviction. The lot within our means was a 15 min walk from the final bus stop in a soon-to-be-developed subdivision on land reclaimed from burned foothills (10 km from the centre), a recurring development sequence. Dirt roads, septic tanks, water and electricity were all the “urban amenities” we got. Ours was one of five perpetually “completed” houses in a one-mile circle. Our suburban move was a dream come true and no implications were visible to us; we were naively sleepwalking our shelter destiny. Overcrowded busses and persistent walking were the only means to work, school, groceries, doctors and all other necessities; both very urban modes of transport.

Tallying up this early family phase of the shelter odyssey, we were urban, dis-urban, urbanizing and suburbanizing, pro-urban and anti-urban, but always driven by self-interest in pursing a decent shelter. We were victims, villains and volunteers of the urban condition as we found it.

In the next phase, I sought more opportunities in a new country. Here, in a big city, I was urban again, a tenant in a house with rooms for rent, the only option for my income. Bus, subway and tram plus a lot of walking took me to all places I needed to be; all urban forms of transport; no other choice. Car ownership was not in the cards for many years. Then it happened under stress; I could not keep my first real job without one; I had to be mobile. Ironically, though living in a downtown duplex, I was commuting to work and for work, a typical suburban life-style.

Then house, mortgage and kids started to affect our urban attitudes. We bought a resale (i.e. affordable) single near the downtown, an early rail suburb; too close to drive (5 min) and too far to walk (25 min), so drive we did. The house was conveniently subdivided, and we took tenants to pay the mortgage for the first while, an urban phenomenon. I needed a car for my new job and so did my wife; the penultimate urbanist  transgression – a two car family living downtown. To my next job I could get by bus which took 50 min as compared to 15 by car and 30 by bicycle. I never took the bus, an anti-urban, elitist conduct but rode the bike on occasion, an urbanist choice. Shopping, the once-a-week-10-bags and kids affair, took us on a 6 km radius ride; an Epicurean urbane family sought the best choice in food at an affordable price because a multiethnic city offers it. The corner stores were nearby and many, initially (and, later, fewer); we hardly ever patronized them – quality and price mattered. We inadvertently assisted the demise of corner stores, an anti-urbanist trait, but supported a multiethnic economy a very urban even urbane attitude. This phase, in retrospect, shows our most repugnant anti-urban behaviour. We were close to everything yet we drove everywhere with our two cars. Add to this the frequent 2-hour trips to an inherited cottage facing a river, and our profligacy reaches a pinnacle.

Recently, I realized that I lived on a classic urban grid that offers ease of access, and multiple choices in getting places, attributes absent in other street patterns. But when friends got lost in trying to reach me (Fig. 1) I realized that from the driver’s seat the grid was different from the map’s, choices were limited to just one that resembled most strikingly a suburban loop, even worse– a one-way loop.  I was, in fact, a full suburbanite in the city centre; a double embarrassment. But for my walks I was free to move in any direction. In essence, I was experiencing an evolution, an adaptation of the pre-existing network – the fusion of an inconvenient car grid with an accommodating pedestrian grid; two overlapping grids that were functionally distinct.

Absolution from evolution

Surprising, curative realizations came from visiting the suburb I grew up in. In a mere 40 years it had evolved into a 3- to 5-storey uninterrupted urban cake (Fig. 2), with an uncommon mix of uses and excellent, but still crowded, bus service augmented by a subway line at its doorstep, all the requisite “urbanist” attributes. Urbanism had arrived naturally, if unintended and disorderly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig 2. An Athenian foothills 50’s suburb (10km from downtown) with a “city beautiful” layout. Forty years on, it has become “urban”.

Retrospectively, I realize that it had a “city beautiful” inspired grid layout presaging many New Urbanist projects or simply drawing from the same wellhead. This was no more suburban sprawl.  Disappointingly, it acquired a new suburban feature with fierce intensity.

The residential streets were packed with cars mounting the sidewalks; no other place to park (Fig. 3). The “suburb” was designed to have narrow “urban” streets (no parking lane) at a time when car ownership was no more than 10% among its residents. Units were not required to include parking either. The once public realm had become a car realm. Now, at close to 50%, everyone drove (or rode a motorbike) to the main square, a mere 15 min walk. A less serious urbanist transgression, obvious to me only now, was the relationship of the buildings to the street: not only were they set back from the building line, there was also a stone-and-iron fence plus planting ensuring that there were no “eyes on the street” looking in.

 

ParkingonSidewalkFig. 3  A suburban one-way street with cars parked on the sidewalk.

In retrospect, we did the right thing by moving to the suburban edge, though we had little choice. It evolved to a state of classic urbanism, though the city had also become dysfunctional, a death trap: Smog warnings were frequent and car accidents had risen substantially.

Recovery and redemption

The last phase started when we sold our house to a developer. The project proposal was for an “urban living lifestyle”, 4-storey apartment on a consolidated lot; an intensification project. The offer was too good to refuse, and helping to raise the core density would fulfill an urbanist City policy; a positive act. With cash in hand, we now had choice as never before. We chose an acclaimed “New Urbanist” community 24 km (30 min) from downtown. Of the many shelter choices, this one had many redeeming features: It looked good; situated within the urban boundary;  had a good mix of country and urban house types (all energy efficient); and featured a Main Street with small, tidy stores and a Starbucks coffee shop near the bus stop. Above all, it was close to a river and surrounded by abundant natural spaces and a golf course. It had a gratifying urban feel. It reminded me a bit of my childhood place, only less messy; a neat, borderless “town” in a meadow without governance or economy to define it as the original one.

We kept our two cars and drove everywhere as before. The bus service could not be relied upon for the work trip (infrequent, two changes and a total of 70 min trip one way), let alone for errands. A better service was not in the cards for a long while and one of us still needed the car for work. Soon after we settled, doubts started to surface about our urban-ness.

Did we do the right thing by choosing an ex-urban place to live?

Judging from the results of the first suburban move in the 50s, perhaps, yes, we did. But then looking at the downtown neighbourhood we left behind, no different than its early 20th century make up, the city had a long way to go before it matched the 24-7 vibrancy of a true urban place; it needed a lot more people and our absence did not help.

For lack of a better term, we call our new neighbourhood “urbanesque”, being neither urban in location, as the one we moved out of, nor suburban in style, as the ones we rejected.

I now realize that my shelter trajectory has lead to contradictory outcomes, if judged from an orthodox perspective, none of which were intended. Thus I learned that, to prevent ideology from clouding my understanding of cities and my work, I will peel off the affinitive prefixes and suffixes from “urban” and see only evolving settlements in their variety and complexity. I also learned that pejorative and affective words limit my understanding of the urban condition.

————————————————————————————————–

This article first appeared on Planetizen at www.planetizen.com

How to Please Nature and Delight Residents

Building a new neighbourhood always brings change to the natural landscape that it replaces. And the biggest change that goes unnoticed is what happens to the rainwater that falls on the neighbourhood site; unnoticed, that is, until it’s in the news, when a road gets washed out, for example. Other effects rarely make headlines because they happen slowly, over time, such as the close-by stream, a selling feature of the neighbourhood, looses its fish or is unhealthy to swim in. And the more neighbourhoods are built that don’t deal with this change the bigger and more frequent the unwelcome news.   

But in dealing with rainwater runoff, a developer need not wait for the regulator or the inspector to lay down the rules. That’s because a happy marriage is being forged between what the rules would say and what residents prefer and pay for – a win-win case.

 

Fig 1.Street trees increase property values while helping with water absorption.

The change

A natural site absorbs about 20% of the rainwater in its top soil and gives off about 80% of it through plant transpiration and evaporation. Everything on the site gets soaked temporarily and later dries up. Occasionally, some of the water trickles away to the nearest low point or stream. In most cases though, 90 to 100 percent of the water stays on site quenches the plants and recharges the aquifer. Then, in comes the subdivision, the new neighbourhood. Once completed, some 60% of the rain runs off. The cause for this is straightforward: buildings and roads cover 30 to 40% of the site and the plants of the covered portion go missing (plus a few more); fewer chances to absorb water, more flows out. The more compact the development the bigger the proportion of cover and the larger the water volume that escapes. Were it simply water that left the site, the outcomes would not be so worrisome. But runoff water carries with it a load of invisible, insidious contaminants. Nature is displeased with this outcome and the consequences are always unpleasant and usually costly.

 NO Runoff

To please nature and avoid costly consequences, the built out neighbourhood should produce no runoff, mimicking the original site or only a tolerable 5% of the rainfall. Can it be done? Not only it can, it has been done by pioneer developers. (see www.waterbucket.com)

The logic is simple and the techniques far from complicated.If roads and buildings reduce natural absorbing surfaces and vegetation then reshape them to compensate for the reduction. 

Asphalt tops the list. Reduce street length and width and eliminate back lanes.Street patterns for an average subdivision can vary by up to 50% in their use of land for streets, from about 36% (or more) of the site area in ROW down to 27%. Cities do not specify the percentage of land to be dedicated to streets; it is entirely a matter of design, giving the developer latitude for innovation. Find and apply street patterns that optimize both land use and accessibility, the Fused Grid for example. Reduce the pavement width to the lowest permissible (8 m for two or 6.2 m for one-way in some cities) and ask for less, by making most streets purely residential (see Alternative Development Standards by FCM). Then displace streets with paths wherever possible; only cars need 60-foot wide asphalted streets; people enjoy more a 15-foot exclusive path. No resident takes pride or pays a premium for living on a wide, asphalted road.

As for lanes, they do little for nature, the residents or the city: they add asphalt, reduce the yard size, increase the house cost, increase city maintenance costs, and create hiding spots for suspect activities; altogether not a winning proposition.

  Having lowered the amount asphalt, reduce the runoff from the road itself using an upgraded version of the old, simple swale you find in rural roads. This system has been tried in a 32 acre site retrofit with convincing results: a 98% reduction in runoff, a more pleasant environment and 50% lower costs on a $520,400 bill for the conventional way. (See pictures and evaluations at www.seattle.gov/util/naturalsystems)

 Streets provide an opportunity to make up for the displaced vegetation. Plant them heavily with trees. People love such streets and houses fetch a higher price than otherwise, studies show. They also transpire large amounts of water (a large oak tree can give off 151,000 liters per year.) Where the streets still produce runoff that must be piped away, there is yet another means to reduce it – the in-street infiltration trench.

 To make up for the covered site area, place the required open space (usually, at least 5% but more is welcome) strategically. Design it to perform multiple functions such as recreation, path hub/connector and raingarden. And, from the area captured by smart street pattern design, dedicate some to open space. Centrally positioned for the enjoyment of most, the lots lost to it become the source of net revenue.

 Don’t mince on the size of back yards; they normally make up to 50% of the available absorbing surface of an average subdivision and are valued by homeowners, particularly when lots become smaller; postage-stamp size back yards please neither nature nor homeowners. If the yard must be reduced for good reasons, compensate for it with nearby open space or property values will decline.

 Figure 2. Homebuyers pay a premium to live next to a park which can be a play space, a path connector and a rainwater absorbing point

 

The house design can also play a role. A small footprint does it. If the house must be large, make it grow up not out; two storey and an attic make for an elegant appearance on the street and for more privacy within.  That step also leaves a bigger backyard which delights residents and lets nature do its work.

Alongside these measures, all open space in the neighbourhood can be made more absorbing by adding layers of top soil. How thick will depend on how far all the combined measures have taken the development in reaching its zero outflow goal.

After all these measures and techniques, there may still be room for improvement. It is hard to tell without calculations. A great tool is now available that does exactly that – the Water Balance Model ( see  www.waterbalance.ca   ). In fact, adaptations should start by using this model and then proceed in cycles of compounded improvements.

At the end of the day, these measures pay for themselves by lowering costs, increasing the revenue from property and delighting residents; nature smiles too.

This post was first published in Canadian Home Builder mag in Feb 2010.