Tag Archives: evolution

Renovating Cities – one block at a time

Just like buildings, cities need a good makeover once in a while. And the reasons are pretty much the same for both. Time has battered their infrastructure, which has either reached or surpassed its life expectancy. Also, during this life-cycle new systems have emerged that do the job better and, sometimes, at lower cost;   

These two drivers, wear and tear and the new, efficient systems would be sufficient reasons to start the renewal phase. But there is an even more compelling reason – cultural change – and, with it, our own expectations and aspirations. Cultural change is not simply about shifting music styles and dress codes. It is predominantly about the way we do practically everything in the city. The way we shop, communicate, become informed, do business, make friends, meet mates, entertain and educate ourselves, and take care of children.  In the last sixty years cultural change that covers these activities has been momentous and it demands that the city accommodate it.

Take the typical downtown bock and its surrounding four streets, for example. It used to have buildings arrayed in sequence, soldier like, separating the private domain from the public realm; private life behind the perimeter “wall”, public life on the street side. That’s the model of the past – when streets were the spaces where people strolled, socialized, sold and bought wares and struck business deals. The same block is now a walled island surrounded by a moat of cars; the public realm has mutated to a domain, where streaming, belching by cars, buses and trucks  overwhelm the senses and induce stress; an unpleasant experience that calls for  renewal. This unwelcomed condition results mostly from our enjoyment of convenience; door to door commuting or errand running in the comfort, speed, flexibility and privacy of a car; a favourite cultural change.

The city block can and has responded to this new urban cultural condition by reclaiming one of the surrounding streets, or creating “streets” inside the block or both. In some cases, an inside or outside “square” is also part of the response, completing the gamut of the public realm functions that the contemporary street can no longer sustain. In other instances, the traditional hard corner of the building recedes to become a street-side court, an added bonus for pedestrians.

This set of responses sync with our new-found quest for quiet and concentration, hopefully in the presence of greenery, where conversation can extend beyond a hurried yelling of codified phrases and OKs.  Tranquility and green are in gross undersupply in most city centres.

Examples of these approaches to renewing the block and street are increasing. Typically, residential, office or hotel towers jut up from a common base of lower buildings that include longitudinal or transverse “streets” or both. Usually, the structures occupy most of the block but no longer opaque to through movement; people can traverse it in one or both directions, peacefully, safely at their own pace. This block permeability lessens the need for a four-side car access to it; three or even only two-side access would suffice; a fact that opens up the possibility for reclaiming at least one street for pedestrians, a double gain.

A reclaimed street becomes a stage
A reclaimed street becomes a stage















Land economics demand maximization of the building footprint. An outdoor space within the bounds of site requires creative thinking and a City willing to make bold decisions for its citizens’ benefit. An uncommon example shows that an imaginative deal was necessary in order to create a most cherished outdoor space in the heart of a city. To turn part of the site to an open, green space, the developer was given two road lanes, one at each end of the block, for access and egress from the underground parking. Being on a hill slope, this 200’ by 125’ open space provided a natural setting for stepped, amphitheatric seating. Traffic suffered little from the change, access to parking was made non-disruptive and the citizens got an unprecedented gift. Imagine the attraction of a downtown where many of its blocks are treated in a similar way; a delight for the residents and an irresistible lure for visitors. The recipe is simple: make city blocks permeable to people and selected streets impermeable to cars.

Modern-day Paris owes much of its functionality and charm to a powerful bureaucrat – Baron Haussmann – who renovated the city in the 1860s by slicing avenues, grand boulevards, squares and parks through the old, rundown, labyrinthine city fabric; a task contemporary municipalities would not even dare contemplate.

In today’s cities renewal can happen in less ambitious and disruptive ways, one or two blocks and streets at a time. When driven by the new cultural realities, such renewal can gradually transform dull urban spaces into charming places.

Unplanned Best Urbanism, Adaptive Mix of Uses

Unplanned Urbanism - adaptive mixed use






Postponed, adaptive mixed use and walkable neighbourhoods.

At the perimeter of this early 20th century city stood proud, simple or embelished houses on a quiet street; no stores or traffic in sight. Most people walked to destinations as transport  options were limited to foot, carriage (for the elite) and the tram, at some distance.
Fifty years on, as the city expanded beyond this edge, the street became a main artery, traffic increased and rendered its environment less desirable for living.  The houses transformed to a variety of uses: Low rent or rooming units upstairs and transient commercial uses on the ground floor. Inadvertantly, what emerged, sometimes following painful fights with City Hall, is a walkable mixed-use that now city planners promote as the ideal way to build neighbourhoods under the banner of New Urbanism.  What took fifty years of natural progression and friction to develop in the middle of the city’s area, planners now want instantly in every new neighbourhood at the periphery, because, they argue, it is “good urbanism”! Something is amiss in this picture.

Though fevereshly advocated, this image would still be repugnant to many planners – too messy. Instant mixed-use, and Main Street  built to high standards of harmony is the preferred alternative. And, importantly, no rooming units for transients above the store. Transients are seen as an anathema to a good city image.

It would be a good idea to reconcile  expectations, history and reality in the City planning books

Goodbee Square:The Quest for a Contemporary Urban Pattern

Goodbee Square, a recent project by Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company constitutes a fertile departure from previous DPZ plans, integrating novel elements of traffic flow, pedestrian movement, traffic safety, park allocation and distribution and storm water management into the regularity of a simple grid. As a change in direction, and because street patterns are the most enduring physical element of any layout, it could potentially contribute to systematic site planning and, consequently, deserves a closer look.                                                                                   

The street pattern
Unlike the classic street grid of Portland (Fig. 1, left), the Goodbee Square street layout (Fig. 1, center) impedes north-south vehicular and pedestrian movement, although pedestrians are given another option (Fig. 2). Though the network is entirely interconnected, north-south movement becomes circuitous, indirect, and inconvenient, making driving an unlikely choice and vividly illustrating that interconnectedness by itself is insufficient to facilitate movement. The 3-way intersections limit through traffic, a lesson incorporated in TND (Traditional Neighborhood Development) and reminded of recently at Seaside.

Fig. 1 Three layouts and three patterns (all plans same scale based on GOODBEE SQUARE)

Were we to apply this street pattern to a town center in nearby Covington or New Orleans, it would be entirely unworkable. Drivers would have serious difficulty reaching local destinations, and pedestrians would find their walks to be disorienting and unnecessarily long. But its very unsuitability for an urban center justifies its current usage as a suburban or ex-urban pattern.

As a principle of organizing circulation, it constricts traffic and confines expansion, unlike earlier simple street grids like Portland’s regular grid or Savannah’s cellular grid which, can be expanded in both directions without loss of functionality. If expanded to a large urban or suburban area, the Goodbee Square plan, with the discontinuous north-south roads, would severely limit traffic dispersal, a base for advocating regular grids. The Savannah and Portland grids both allow traffic to disperse in both directions, a feature that makes them equally applicable to city centres and to suburban locations.

The Goodbee Square street pattern eliminates unsafe four-way intersections within the neighborhood. The frequency of intersections with the main artery contradicts current traffic engineering practice, which subscribes to the notion that longer blocks reduce stop-and-go inefficiency and driver frustration; provide more uninterrupted movement space for pedestrians; opportunities for commercial façade size and treatment and increase on-street parking spaces which facilitate drivers becoming pedestrians and then shoppers. Longer blocks move cars more efficiently through Main Street, accentuating its role as a busy, vibrant thoroughfare. Perry’s Neighbourhood Unit, a recurrent urbanist prototype, includes such blocks.

The north-south movement constraint, the lack of traffic dispersal and the frequency of intersections on Main Street contradict the usual practice, and require a fresh look at the Goodbee Square street network as an urban pattern.

The pedestrian network
A welcome attribute of the Goodbee Square plan is its pedestrian network which rejects the notion that streets are sufficient and suitable carriers for both car and pedestrian traffic. The plan has an independent north-south path network, which compensates for the inconvenience of the street network and favors pedestrians over motorists (Fig. 2). The footpaths are almost straight and cross parks frequently. Recent research confirms that directness and pleasure, as well as path independence from roads, are important attributes for enticing and enabling pedestrian movement.

Fig. 2 Exclusive pedestrian paths in three plans as they would function currently

The principle of providing separate pedestrian paths could transform current site layout practice, which uses streets almost exclusively as the connectors for all mobility modes.

With respect to pedestrian movement, the Goodbee Square plan improves on that of Savannah and is a dramatic departure from the Portland plan, implemented in the18th and 19th centuries respectively, when the entire street and space network was a pedestrian domain and no other modes were dominant.

The Goodbee Square plan differs from previous DPZ plans in the number and location of its many charm-infusing parks which are regularly arrayed along streets with no attempt at civic monumentality or visual significance, unlike Savannah’s plan, which locates parks within an 8-block cell as a focal point for each neighborhood. Both Savannah and Goodbee Square use parks as a means to enhance the pedestrian experience by placing them along pathways. The Portland plan has no obvious park strategy.

Fig. 3 Parks and their distribution. (the Portland parks are indicative only) 
Both the Goodbee Square and Savannah plans create a delightful environment with most residents near a park or with park views. Savannah, however, does it with greater economy of means; four parks compared to nine in Goodbee Square within a similar area (Fig 3). While parks are generally welcome, land value, urban density, unit yield, unit price and municipal maintenance cost considerations would normally lead to reducing their number.
The quest beyond Goodbee Square
Can the advantages of the Goodbee Square plan be retained while alleviating its limitations? We believe that a plan combining the main characteristics of the Portland, Goodbee Square and Savannah could do just that. If feasible, such a pattern can then be applied to many 21st century site plans, much like the simple grid pattern found in hundreds of North American plans over the centuries.
The Goodbee Square plan, an offset grid closely resembling the Flemish Bond brickwork pattern, would be the starting point for a new template, meeting the following objectives through proven planning strategies:
  • Keep vehicular traffic safe with a high proportion of 3-way intersections
  • Reduce cut-through traffic by similar or other means
  • Improve traffic flow in both directions using Savannah’s cellular structure
  • Improve traffic dispersal by a car-sized grid
  • Improve pedestrian mobility utilizing Goodbee Square’s path separation
  • Make parks a focus as in the Savannah cell
  • Improve land use efficiency and unit density

As an experiment, we combined the Flemish bond pattern (Fig 3), with the cellular organization of the Savannah plan by imagining a two-directional Flemish Bond. This new stencil emerges as a re-invented Savannah cell with a geometry that satisfies all the requirements for vehicular circulation and pedestrian movement; Jefferson, Oglethorpe and Hippodamus meet at the square.



Fig. 4 From a unidirectional Flemish Bond towards a contemporary network pattern  

As in the Goodbee Square and Savannah plans, all intersections within the neighbourhood are 3-way, satisfying the first two objectives. (Fig 4). The cellular structure creates a car-scaled grid that moves and disperses traffic, meeting the third goal.

Every block faces a park, generating a delightful milieu. Separate, strategic through-the-block paths achieve high pedestrian connectivity in every direction, and short streets provide easy access to nearby through-routes for drivers.

Efficiency of land use is achieved by subtracting half the Goodbee Square through-the-block path segments; reducing parks from eight to four, and reducing street length in equivalent areas.

Figure 5. Recombination of Savannah and Goodbee Square site plan elements (red lines: pedestrian paths; blue dotted lines: car lanes or greenways)  

The interface with Main Street now includes two long block faces for every short face, improving traffic flow, parking and pedestrian safety and enjoyment.

The Goodbee Square plan lays the foundation for the next step in the search for a contemporary pattern which might be called a “fused grid,” as it combines car dominant and pedestrian dominant paths to form a complete, amalgamated network.  


This article first appeared in Planetizen.com August 24, 09. Doug Pollard, Barry Craig and Ray Tomalty contributed to this article .

A Good House Is Better in a Good Neighbourhood


Developers and builders generally display a handful of house models for prospective customers to choose from. They are flipped right and left, and adjusted slightly to evolve into a street of various building facades and shapes; variety with rules – like Jazz.
Generally the house models are created by drawing upon a set of previous designs and customer feedback. Customers, who use the house daily, know its strengths, quirks and limitations, and let the attentive developer know what they like and what they don’t like. The successful builder listens and creates an improved model, often repeating a best-seller in several projects – the good house almost everyone wants.
But to fetch its best price, the good house must sit on a good lot and be in a good neighbourhood. Fortunately, there are models for a good neighbourhood as there are for houses.

Fused Grid Neighbourhood -3 parks


A fused Grid Neighbourhood







 What Makes a Neighbourhood?
House elements are easy to list: living room, dining room, kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, storage, decks, balconies, etc. Every house must have these in order to be a comfortable place to live. The key to making life enjoyable, not just comfortable, is getting the balance and relationships between these elements just right. You know the better place not by its looks, but by living in it.
Initially, it seems easy to list the elements of a neighbourhood: streets, lots, blocks, parks, and in bigger ones, schools and shops. Here too, the elements that make up a neighbourhood are not created equal, and how they relate to each other is critical in determining how well the neighbourhood works. You can only tell how neighbourhoods function by living in them, and well-functioning ones command higher prices.
Lot size does matter, but it’s the surroundings that really drive prices. When lots face water, ravines, parks, large easements or a golf course, their prices rise. Research and surveys repeatedly show that people will pay premiums for views of nature or open space and for the experience of tranquility and delight that come from that view. Michael Bond’s 2002 study analyzed lake-facing lots and found an almost 100 per cent increase in property value. Andrew Miller’s 2007 examination of small neighbourhood parks found a 14 per cent increase in values within 800 feet of parks.
The street type matters as well. No family likes to live on through streets; most people are annoyed by the noise, the unpleasant exhausts and risks to children. The street types that avoid these stressors are the loop (or crescent), the mews and the cul-de-sac. Research and surveys have shown that lower-risk streets mean more child’s play and more socializing occurs. As a result, price listings there show higher values. Home buyer line-ups in advance of sale confirm this preference, as do statements by prominent urban thinkers.
“I am not embarrassed to say, ‘if I could afford this [cul-de-sac neighbourhood] I would happily raise a family in this environment’,” says Jeff Speck, a prominent planner and critic of the cul-de-sac.
Residents of some through streets have erected bollards to achieve a similar no-through-traffic effect.

Fused Grid Offers New Approach
Some planners argue that these street types are unfriendly to pedestrians because they are disconnected. Also, they can slow traffic to a crawl. This need not be the case, though. At the neighbourhood scale, Village Homes, of Davis, California, and at the city scale, Milton Keynes, UK, show how pedestrian paths and regular traffic can coexist.
Research by Dr. Larry Frank and Chris Hawkins at UBC (2007) showed that people will walk more when pedestrians are favoured by the layout of streets and paths. Meanwhile, an IBI group study in 2007 showed that traffic can move faster if cars are given a grid that suits them.
But how do you combine the two? A newcomer in the evolution of neighbourhood layouts, the Fused Grid model produces a system that embodies delight, walkability and traffic flow management.
It was shaped by home buyers’ expressed preferences in neighbourhood form, quality and amenities, what they pay for and what pleases them. In addition, it considers what has not worked in recent and older neighbourhoods, and what measures were taken to fix it — street closures and traffic calming for example. In other words, it blends and fuses familiar and proven elements into a new model, just as a new house model does.
It’s evident that we need to put as much thought into the neighbourhoods we build as the homes we build. Today’s customers expect models that are practical, meet their aspirations, reduce costs, help the environment and deliver a well-functioning neighbourhood.

Fanis wishes to thank Doug Pollard for his valuable edits.

This article was first published in the Canadian Home Builder magazine

Old Urbanism to Fused Grid – Montpellier

Old Urbanism to Fused Grid - Montpellier


Network Transformation

Montpellier in 2004 took a bold and unprecedented step to turn the entire 800-year old fortified city into a pedestrian realm. It  adapted its inherited organic grid to the car and light rail by applying the Fused Grid model.

 A perimeter road (red) frames an area about 1000 m by 1200 m. Only two feeder roads (blue) serve the distinct district but none goes through.  Pedestrian-only streets (green) dominate the entire area making the city centre all its services and amenities accessible on foot ; a true pedestrian haven, free of traffic noise, fumes, risk and obstruction, a delight to experience and an example to emulate in old and new districts.

Old street networks  accommodated the transport means of the time – foot, hoof and cart. The car, train, tram and truck, because of their need for space and speed, usurped most or all of the street space from the pedestrians over time. The public realm became mostly a car realm. Returning a district to its original state of exclusively pedetrian traffic,  recognizes the nature of the network and its incompatibility with contemporary transport modes.  Learning from this transformation, new districts in cities can combine pedestrian-only streets and paths with streets that serve the car in a network that balances the needs and enjoyment of both – the Fused Grid

Montpellier - Fused GridMontpellier - Fused Grid

Main Street, Main Stage

 Main Street, Main Stage

Same day, time and Small Town. Two public realms centuries and realities appart.

Main Street beautified and “fixed”, displaying history, small retail and street  parking; it stands empty. All the attributes of good urbanism but no activity.
Main Stage, at the end of the same street, is an enclosed 2-level shopping mall boasting affordable groceries, large stores (or chains) and four level parking garage serving the entire street and Square. Messy urban design, no attempt at harmony but full of activity.
Like its predecessors, the Milan Galleria (1870s)and the Toronto Eaton’s Center (1970, it is in town, in time and of its time; a perfect adaptation.

Arrested Evolution – A living urban past

Arrested Urban Evolution

It didn’t happen and won’t happen.
People walking these streets will not experience the clutter of evolution that accommodates the car, ever. Car-free means no clutter, no noise, no fumes; a peaceful walk that includes only faces and voices.
These qualities can only be recreated in a Fused Grid neighbourhood (see Wikipedia) where portions of the network is solely for pedestrians.

While many old cities have forcefully adapted to the car, hill and island villages in the meditarean have escaped the need for adaptation because of the chosen site topography. They stand as reminders of what a pedetrian world was like, arduous but peaceful, free of any of the nuissances of motorized transportation.

The two pictures below show steep and stepped streets in wchic not even donkeys can be used for accessing houses; wheeled implement motorized or not are out of the question (and the picture). All movement and transport of goods hapens on foot.

DSCN6224Kea, Greece

Strasbourg – Old urbanism to FusedGrid

Strasbourg - Old urbanism to FusedGrid

Strasbourg, France turned much of the old fortified city into a pedestrian priority realm.
It adapted its inherited organic street network to the car and light rail by applying the Fused Grid model. A perimeter road (red) frames the central district, which is about 800 m wide by 900 m long, the dimensions of a walkable area.  Feeder roads (blue) serve the distinct but do not go through directly, particularly in the North-South direction.  Pedestrian-only streets (green) dominate the area making the city centre all its services and amenities accessible on foot ; a true pedestrian haven, free of traffic noise, fumes, risk and obstruction, a delight to experience and an example to emulate in old and new districts. Photos by Michael Afar

Strasbourg - Old Urbanism to Fused GridStrasbourg - Old Urbanism to Fused Grid

Strasbourg - Old Urbanism to Fused GridStrasbourg - Old Urbanism to Fused Grid

“Urbanesque”: Town Square, Street, Place …. But No Town

Urbanesque: Town Square, No Town

 “Urbanesque” – the perfect urban mix:
19th century urbanism with 20th century technology and commerce.

The Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley, 10 km south of Allentown (pop 100k), display  the design features of the cherished Small American Town, an icon of urbanism.
It has a Main Street, a town place and a town square in the midst of bucolic farmers fields.
The Main Street is a mixed realm of cars and pedestrians who arrive from the historic , classic but unkempt Main Street of Allentown. There is ample parking for peak shopping periods behind the stores.
A wide variety of stores, including  a Starbucks in the Square’s cetre are all part of chains.

An ideal urban world for upscale, contemporary living adaptet to the car culture, truck trnasport that has adopted the aesthetic of the small town. “Urbanesque” = style without the culture that supports it.

Urbanesque: Town Place, No Town  Town Place, No Town

Urbanesque: Main Street, No Town  Main Street, No town

“Eyes on Street” – Un-coded

In Pompeii, Italy and Mani, Greece, two streets more than a thousand years apart follow the same dis-urban code.

These two streets are good examples of urbanism: they are narrow; chiefly or only pedestrian;  have proportions and continuous wall for enclosure, and use natural, local materials for all surfaces that add strong texture and detail.

Both disobey a cardinal urbanist rule- eyes on the street. Not only the flanking hoouses have no porches, the ground floor is almost entirely opaque to the street; few, if any, very small windows set above the eye level to prevent eyes on the street LOOKING IN.
A coded, vernacular dis-urban practice(see articles by Besim Hakim). Mani photo by Doug Pollard.