CAN TRANSPORTATION STRUCTURES BE BEAUTIFUL?

https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-journey-to-beauty

By John Hayes, Minister of State for Transport (UK)

INTRODUCTION

Politicians speak a lot and sometimes they speak sense.Too rarely they challenge orthodox assumptions and more rarely still take action to turn back tides.

This evening I will challenge an orthodoxy, and give notice to the determinist doubters and defenders of the indefensible that, during my time as Minister of State for Transport, in respect of the built environment, I will turn the tide.

My case is bold, controversial, and, to some, provocative.Yet the view I will articulate here is widely shared; sometimes falteringly, even guiltily.But shared nonetheless.

For me the core of my case is startlingly obvious. Yet it is rarely put and, when put, often derided.

The rarity with which the case for beauty is articulated is explained partly by timidity, and partly by unwillingness to challenge modernist determinism; by the surrender of many decent people to the Whiggish notion that the future is bound to be better than now and, in any case, there isn’t much we can do about altering it.

The aesthetics of our built environment – including our transport architecture – has suffered from what Sir Roger Scruton has called the Cult of Ugliness.

Yet there are signs that we’re on the cusp of a popular revolt against this soulless cult, and we must do everything in our power to fuel the revolt.

Now, because of the government’s colossal investment in new transport, we have a unique opportunity to be the vanguard of a renaissance.

The Cult of Ugliness

My first point ought to be beyond doubt.Yet, it must be made more starkly and more bluntly.

It is this: the overwhelming majority of public architecture built during my lifetime is aesthetically worthless, simply because it is ugly.

This assertion is not so much challenged by defenders of contemporary architecture as dismissed out of hand.

They say that yes, I might find it ugly (or sometimes, more politely, ‘some people’ might), but that’s nothing more than my subjective personal judgement – and as such, of no significance.

Or, alternatively, they defend much of what is built, because it is functional. Most argue that it is utility that counts; practicality and convenience trumps all.

As His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales says in his wonderful book, Harmony - ‘Modernism deliberately abstracted Nature and glamourised convenience.’

This detachment from the past, with its reverence for all inspired by the natural order means, in the Prince’s words, that:

We have become semi-detached bystanders, empirically correct spectators rather than what the ancients understood us to ‘be’, which is participants in creation.

Some modernists seem to suggest that we’ve grown out of a need for beauty, that a love of beauty is the sign of an immature or unsophisticated outlook.

And some of our enemies say and - still more sadly - believe that to pursue the purely functional is intrinsically efficacious. Others cling to a tired desire to shock; a sad addiction to the newness of things.

They echo Reynar Banham, who said (in his 1955 Architectural Overview): ‘in the last resort what characterises the New Brutalism in architecture […] is precisely its brutality, its bloody-mindedness.’

The most stupid of all those we face and fight claim that our industrial and public buildings are bound to be bland, or even ugly, that they need be nothing more.

It may be that there are even those who still cling to what must have driven some of the post-war planners: that to strive for the beautiful after the horrors of the twentieth century would be to pursue mere triviality or sentimentality.

Perhaps they think it better for our architecture, like all our arts, to revel in the suffering and brutality of the human experience. Well, yes, life is sometimes ugly.

Which is precisely why we must create all of the sublimity of which we are capable – to enthral and inspire; to counter the disappointment and harm which are bound to be part of human frailty.

Be warned! The descendants of the brutalists still each day design and build new horrors from huge concrete slabs to out of scale; rough-hewn buildings, and massive sculptural shaped structures which bear little or no relationship to their older neighbours. Consider swathes of the worst of our towns and cities; then say that I am wrong.

The people want better

To respond in detail to these objections, we might draw on the great philosophers.Plato, through Aristotle, Hume, Hegel and Burke; and as the battle I intend to wage may become bloody, I probably will. For they have all affirmed beauty as a thing of universal human value.

But for all the intellectual paucity of the brutal, modernising so-called ‘progressives’ - the case for ugliness in architecture falls on one straightforward fact: people don’t like it. They crave harmony.

The Prince of Wales foundation for Building Community has found that 84% of those asked want new buildings to reflect historic form, style and materials.

Take a walk through a typical British town or city. Most of our urban areas are an ill-considered patchwork of buildings old and new. But which buildings, I ask you, will invariably be the shabbiest and neglected, the most disfigured by vandalism or scarred by graffiti?

It is usually the relatively modern buildings – those built within my lifetime – including the transport infrastructure such as roads, bridges, post-war bus and train stations, and car parks.

The rare exceptions are normally those modern buildings which have not yet had time to sink into the neglect for which they are surely destined. And which of our buildings are typically the most-obviously treasured?

Older buildings, shaped by vernacular style, where architects and craftsmen have taken care that what they imagined and constructed fitted what was there before, and are not just useful to their inhabitants but, through form and detail, lift their spirits, nurturing individual and communal.

What’s happened in our built environment is mirrored in much else. I deeply regret brutality and disharmony whenever it’s found.

But it is less pernicious in what can be avoided. By contrast, transport architecture, however, is used by everyone; it is ever present.And there is something profoundly elitist about the way ugliness has been imposed upon it.

In so many areas of design, ugliness and destruction remain rampant, unchallenged by those with the power to prevent it. It is rewarded by critics and investors, eager to associate themselves with the momentary shock of brash novelty, or greedily building what is cheap and easy.

Convenience! A by-word for the credo of those that can’t see what is wrong or don’t want to. Few of the culprits would choose to live or spend their own working lives in the structures they make.

Transport offers a new way

We have had enough of the desecration of our towns and cities. And I believe that it is transport that offers a way forward. The government has begun a once-in-a-lifetime programme of investment in our transport infrastructure. Building new roads, new railways and new stations, as well as overhauling those already here.We’re spending billions on Crossrail, HS2, Crossrail 2, new roads and bridges, hundreds of new trains.

Throughout it all, we have a precious opportunity to do more and do better.And transport is the perfect medium for leading the way to the public realm of the beautiful, for these reasons.

Transport: link to the past

First, because so much transport design already gives us a direct link to the past, to a more aesthetically demanding age.And in this, we’re fortunate that so much of our Kingdom’s transport was built before the twentieth century, in an age of a different orthodoxy, when beauty in design was expected.Kings Cross, St Pancras, Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads, yes. But also the classical portico of Huddersfield station. The ecclesiasticism of CarlisleThe gentle gothic of Great Malvern. And hundreds of other stations, all distinctive, and all welcoming and refreshing to the tired traveller.

It’s telling, too, that unlike the 1970s office blocks which litter our city centres, much attractive transport architecture is attentively preserved, even after it has outlived its original purpose.

That includes much rail architecture, such as Monkwearmouth Station, north of Sunderland city centre, now a museum; Camden Roundhouse, built in 1846 as an engine shed for the London and Birmingham Railway and now one of our best concert halls.

And there are examples from other transport modes too: the Wolseley car showroom on Piccadilly, now the famous restaurant.

These structures testify that transport design can be beautiful, and that beauty – far from fading – grows and endures.

Transport: architecture of the people

The second reason that new transport design matters so much is that it is an architecture of the people. Our busiest stations are used by millions every day. Their design has a profound effect on the well-being of those who pass through.

The critic Richard Morrison is right about Euston station. He said:

Euston is one of the nastiest concrete boxes in London: devoid of any decorative merit; seemingly concocted to induce maximum angst among passengers; The design […] gives the impression of having been scribbled on the back of a soiled paper bag by a thuggish android with a grudge against humanity and a vampiric loathing of sunlight”.

For better or worse, transport hubs like Euston frame our working days, and punctuate our working lives. When transport design is done well, it raises expectations.

As Roger Scruton has written about the “old stations such as Paddington and St Pancras…”:

The architecture is noble, serene, upright. The spaces open before you. Everything is picked out with ornamental details. You are at home here, and you have no difficulty finding the ticket office, the platform or the way through the crowds.

Many of us will recognise these contrasting experiences. They prompt us to ask - why can’t all buildings be designed with concern for form and detail?

If we learn from this experience, and seek to replicate the best in our new infrastructure, we have great power to satisfy the people’s will for structures that enhance our sense of worth by affirming our sense of place.

Ours can be – must be – an age in which aesthetic quality of the public realm soars.

Transport: already winning beauty wars

The final reason why I believe transport presents a remarkable opportunity for beauty is that, in a number of cases, transport is already beginning to counter the blind orthodoxy of ugliness.

There is St Pancras, and Kings Cross, where – dare I say – the original station is enhanced by its extension, its glory revealed, its new addition is like a child, unique, but recognisably spawned from its parent.

There’s also Blackfriars, transformed from a subterranean nightmare into a station with the world’s best platform views.

We might even claim the Boris Bus, which, at very least beautiful, certainly has style.

Further afield there’s the British-designed Millau Bridge in France, a striking, graceful structure which, like the best Victorian viaducts, complements and enhances its environment. Let no-one say it can’t be done. It has been, and by our generation.

The way forward

Now we have an opportunity to build on these all-too-rare successes, to make aesthetics a matter of public policy. And that’s exactly what I have a mandate to do. But more than that. It is my mission. For our roads, I have established a design panel and had its role written into the Highways England’s operating licence.

Its membership includes the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, the Design Council, the Campaign to Protect Rural EnglandNatural England, and many others.

On HS2, we have established a design panel almost 50-strong. I will be looking closely at its remit, role and appropriateness. I expect to do more and do it better. No more soulless ubiquity. No more demolition of our railway heritage. No more sub-standard, conceptually flawed buildings. No more excuses, in the guise of ergonomics, for an ignorance of aesthetics.

Conclusion: Euston Arch

May one place be our totem; our guide to the future, our chance to signal the renaissance. We will make good the terrible damage that was done to Euston, by resurrecting the Euston Arch.

Recently, I have seen its stones, pulled from the River Lea, where they were ignobly dumped in 1962. I support the Euston Arch Trust’s great ambition to see those stones stand in Euston once again as part of the rebuilt arch. And we will want to plan our work in the coming weeks.

What a statement it will be of the revolt against the Cult of Ugliness, of our new orthodoxy. We can and will turn back the tide. My certain conviction is unwavering.

We will beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly to new elegance, style and beauty.

So be warmed - or warned - when I speak next I will set out when and how. How we will change what is built and what is saved – roads, rail and beyond. Some who did the damage to our country were crass and careless.

But some wrought monstrous havoc knowingly, wilfully. All of them Philistines. Well now the Philistines have met their David.

 

Creating Human-Scaled Places - Continuing Tradition But Building New

A beautifully written article about how current development practices do not build the kind of places people are attracted to - the foremost topic in architectural circles today. It talks about the power of a mayor to direct a vision, and the power of people who stick up for places they love and want protected. By Simon Jenkins, author & former editor of The Evening Standard.

http://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/simon-jenkins-after-prince-charles-s-speech-will-sadiq-khan-now-take-on-the-developers-a3343956.html

I don’t care who fights for a less ugly London, so long as someone does. Thirty-two years ago the Prince of Wales made a speech attacking a new wing to the National Gallery as “a monstrous  carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. He was savaged by architects as being an arrogant, unelected nobody. But his outburst did the trick. Everyone got cold feet and we were spared a miniature cooling tower in Trafalgar Square. Instead we have Robert Venturi’s witty but discrete pavilion. 

Last week, the prince made another speech, which deserves to be as influential. Receiving an award from the Evening Standard he reflected on how often his views, on everything from food to penology, had been dismissed as “bonkers” yet turned out to be right. He again turned his gaze on London’s appearance and asked why the authorities refused to listen to what kind of city Londoners wanted, rather than let developers and architects impose their own version of profitable greed. 

The prince pleaded for buildings “that people would prefer to live amongst, caring as much about public spaces as private ones, creating human-scale places where there are no ‘zones’”. He added: “The most successful communities mix the private with affordable housing; enclose green spaces within squares and communal gardens; have walkable mixed-use neighbourhoods and an identity that fosters pride and a sense of belonging.” His foundation for “building community” is seeking to promote “mid-rise mansion blocks and rediscover the timeless value of squares and terraces”. 

This is hardly new. In 1961 Jane Jacobs said it in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a masterpiece of urban understanding which planners love to read and choose to ignore. If it was not for bitter battles to save Georgian and Victorian streets and squares London would look like a cross between the Barbican and East Germany, where streets are either banned from gated citadels or planned as free-fire zones against civil unrest. The integration of houses and flats, old buildings with new, shops, markets and informal spaces, is entirely foreign to most modern architecture. 

It is never too late to revise a city because it is always changing. But the gulf between Jacobs and today has never seemed wider. Walking recently across the Soviet-style wilderness that is the Stratford Olympics site I was reduced to screaming out Jacobs’s message like someone from the Book of Mormon. 

Boris Johnson’s dream of a new London is a zoo for lumpy mastodons, a builder’s yard of giant structures in scattered zones. It is a denial of everything that has made London the messy and diverting city most of it still is. 

This has nothing to do with “needing more houses”. Hong Kong can cram in thousands of people to an acre but the densest housing in London remains that of the Victorian terrace. Westminster’s abortive attempt at a Paddington Pole would have had fewer homes than street terraces on the same site. Johnson’s rejection of a new street layout for Clerkenwell’s Mount Pleasant in favour of some isolated slabs was for fewer homes not more.

A new survey by the think-tank Create Streets comes to a clear conclusion. A recent Ipsos MORI poll found that 60 per cent of Londoners thought the city’s tower-fixation “has gone too far”. High-rise building was not popular with most people. It was associated with “high levels of stress and mental depression… inimical to effective child-rearing and hostile to social capital”. 

Create Streets, a champion of “high-density, low-rise”, points to the lack of communal cohesion around towers, and to their “social atomisation”. Compared with streets they are inherently unfriendly places, as Jacobs maintained. They also “hit the ground dead”, as can be vividly seen around the More London icebergs on the South Bank or along Euston Road. Look for a lively street or square in London and nine times out of 10 it will be pre-20th century. 

I once lived in a tower. It was non-existent as a “neighbourhood”. Towers tend to be most popular with males (twice as much as with females) and with “the prosperous, the childless and second-home owners”.

Why do architects and planners so hate what people claim to want and ignore the evidence of what has made London so popular and habitable? Why can they not create the neighbourhoods in which they themselves mostly live?  Is it that they are no longer taught how to make that living, breathing dynamic space called a London street? It is as if they were artists never taught to draw.

The answer can only be that architects are victims of a cult, an ideology of Corbusian orthodoxy in which they “know best” what is right for other people, even if not for them. Whenever Prince Charles talks on this subject architects protest that he is abusing his position, imposing his private views on the planning process. But that is precisely what architects do every day as they rip apart the street pattern of London. 

The prince has no role in the planning process and offers no “planning gain”, code for inducements that so corrupt London’s planning system. He cannot offer “money for a school” or “access to a swimming pool”. The prince has no influence beyond persuasion — any more than I do in writing this article. 

True power lies where it should lie, in the mayor who is elected to decide on London’s overall appearance. The first two London Mayors, Johnson and Ken Livingstone,  created a London skyline that is a visual car crash. 

Their decisions have, mostly, been environmental disasters. Standing next to the prince last week was a certain Sadiq Khan, the new Mayor. He was applauding enthusiastically. We wait to see if he meant it.

If people prefer traditional buildings - why won't developers build them?

For those of you unfamiliar with development in London over the past 10 years, there have been dozens of glass, peculiarly-shaped skyscrapers built, and well over 140 more proposed. It has changed the face of the city and is causing concern among residents, as these buildings are in stark comparison to their existing context, and these buildings do not even serve the residents of London- they are largely speculative housing towers, high-priced 2nd homes for visitors. Prince Charles has been a leader in forwarding traditional, sustainable building since the 1980's. He speaks here about the kind of things people yearn for, and that are largely not being built in that city. It is a lesson for even the smallest development here in the US, about what makes a place livable. 

A speech by HRH The Prince of Wales at The Evening Standard's Progress 1000 Awards  Published Sept 7, 2016

http://www.princeofwales.gov.uk/media/speeches/speech-hrh-the-prince-of-wales-the-evening-standards-progress-1000-awards

Ladies and gentlemen, I am most touched and, indeed, surprised, that the Evening Standard should have decided to give me the award of Londoner of the Decade.  I have to confess I am not entirely sure whether to be pleased or alarmed.  Perhaps I am losing my touch when such eminent newspapers start giving me achievement awards!  So I set to wondering what this achievement might have been?

As I suppose I have spent most of my life trying to propose and initiate things that very few people could see the point of or, frankly, thought were plain bonkers at the time, perhaps some of them are now beginning to recognize a spot of pioneering in all this apparent madness?  All forms of pioneering have moments that make you hold your breath and cross your fingers.  There is a good chance it could all go horribly wrong and there’s a fine line between the success of a good, original idea and a complete disaster.  If it fails, it fails, but at least you had a go – and I could always say one of my plants told me to do it!  Starting my Duchy Originals food company twenty-five years ago was a case in point.   When we launched the first organic oat biscuit there were tabloid headlines saying “A shop-soiled Royal.”  People now tend to understand the point of, and enjoy, the organic food they once thought of as bonkers twenty-five years ago – and, through Duchy Originals, I have so far given away more than £14 million to charitable causes.

In 1976, I set up The Prince’s Trust amidst social unrest and high levels of youth unemployment, and in 1983 we launched a business start-up plan.  Again, people thought I’d gone mad – more mad! – to try and give grants to ex-offenders and other disadvantaged young people.  But, since then, The Prince’s Trust has supported over 825,000 of those vulnerable and disadvantaged young people to overcome their challenges, move into education or work or their own enterprises – thereby saving the public purse £1.4 billion in the process.  In London itself, I am incredibly proud of the team which, last year alone, helped some 5,000 young people to defeat unimaginable personal odds by offering them training or helping them start their own businesses or learn new skills. 

These are all characters who other people had for some reason simply written off as unlikely to amount to anything.  Well, I remain absolutely adamant that everyone can amount to something provided they are given help building vital personal traits such as self-confidence and self-esteem. 

When it comes to pioneering, I would very much like to thank the Standard for recognizing the work of my Foundation for Building Community.  I am afraid the headlines of some publications have not always reflected what I actually think – and what I actually say – about the way we plan and design urban environments.  In fact, what I think is pretty straightforward.  The point is simply this, that I believe it pays enormous social and environmental dividends if you go to the trouble of involving local people, with the right professional facilitators, in the design of the places where they live.  

This is precisely what my Foundation has been doing, so far involving around 8,000 people in the design of over one hundred projects.  It has also trained a generation of architects, master-planners and “placemakers” and worked on a huge array of projects that range in scale from new towns and university campuses to individual buildings like the recently opened Alder Hey Children’s Hospital – many of these projects, by the way, create hundreds if not thousands of jobs in the process. 

Understanding what people would prefer to live amongst; caring as much about the public spaces as the private ones; creating human-scale places where there are no “zones” is a critical component in a very urgent issue.  By 2050, London’s population is set to balloon from 8.5 million to as many as 11 million, but we do have to think now about how best we manage that growth – not only how we house many more people, but how we design urban environments that enable communities to thrive.  Hence, my Foundation’s emphasis on building mid-rise mansion blocks – and on rediscovering the timeless value of squares and terraces.

The most successful Communities mix the private with affordable housing; enclose green spaces within squares and communal gardens; provide good quality housing integrated with walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods; good public transport and an identity that fosters pride and a sense of belonging.  It is these qualities, ladies and gentlemen, which attract so many people to London and, time and again, this is the sort of development that various surveys reveal is what many people would prefer to see. A recent Ipsos MORI poll revealed that around sixty per cent of Londoners surveyed think that the trend towards skyscrapers has gone too far.  

Ladies and gentlemen, on that note, I am enormously grateful to Sarah Sands and her team at the Evening Standard, for your kindness - perhaps rashness - in recognizing some of my seemingly rather rash, pioneering efforts from all those years ago.  

Small parcels work better than large parcels for development

Well-written article by a Providence architect Joel VanderWeele about how to develop the new land created after the I-195 highway was relocated. Explains how it's better to subdivide the land into several small parcels rather than a single very large parcel - this maximizes development potential. It increases the opportunity for local development, offers wider variety on a street, follows the successful pattern of Westminster St, Providence's main street, and raises the quality of facades.

https://architecturehereandthere.com/2016/09/14/i-195-development-providence

GRANULARITY

This phenomenal article was written by blogger Andrew Price  talking about the importance about having many, many doors per street block rather than a single building. The text is here, but go to the link to read the article with images.  Published October 21, 2015 on Strong Towns. Andrew's website is AndrewAlexanderPrice.com.

http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2015/10/21/granularity
 

ANDREW PRICE:
Granularity is a hard word to explain. The word 'granular' is used to describe something that is made up of smaller elements, and 'granularity' is small or large those elements are. If the elements are small, we call it 'fine-grained', and if the elements are large we call it 'coarse-grained'. It is a term we use in economics, computer science, geology, and likely many other fields. For example, in computer science, an algorithm is fine-grained if it is divided into many small steps, and coarse-grained if it is divided into few large steps. 

The pattern in the rocks are described as coarse-grained on the left, and fine-grained on the right.



When talking about cities, I use to term granularity to talk about how the ownership of a city is divided up, particularly in the size of the lots that city blocks are divided into. Here are some examples; 

Fine-grained blocks in Hoboken, NJ, averaging around 40 lots per block.

 

Coarse-grained blocks recently developed in another side of town, averaging around 1 lot per block.



We can also talk about the granularity of an economy - an economy can be fine-grained if it is made up of many small businesses, coarse-grained if it is made up of few large businesses, and anywhere in between. Having a fine-grained economy made up of many small businesses is generally preferable over a coarse-grained economy made up of fewer businesses because it implies a more resilient economy (if one of the businesses fail, less is the effect on the overall economy) and more distributed wealth (the profit and ownership of the businesses are divided among many, rather than in the hands of a few.) 

Cities are the physical manifestation of the economy, and our built environment speaks volumes about our economy. It is easier to see this in smaller towns where the economic model is simplified - you can easily spot the difference between a small town dominated by a few large stores and a small town dominated by many smaller stores. There is often a correlation between our built environment that we physically see and interact with, and the underlying economics that built it. 

When I talk about cities in this article, I am specifically talking about urban areas. Urban areas - our downtowns and our neighbourhoods dominated by townhomes and apartments - the areas where you navigate on foot, are fundamentally different in the way they are experienced to auto-oriented suburban areas. Although much of what I write about could be applied in suburban areas, I am specifically talking about urban areas. The reason it is different is because our sense of scale and place changes when we are walking (where there is only so far you can reasonable walk, and you are exposed to your environment) compared to when we are driving (where we can drive for miles with little effort, and we have little interest in how the realm outside of our car feels as we confined in the comforts of our own cars.) 

I feel that this is an important topic, because very few people talk about granularity (often ignoring it completely as we are get excited over flashy megaproject), but I was really happy to see it mentioned last week on Strong Towns

Older urban areas in the United States are typically very fine-grained: 

A block in Hoboken, NJ built out in the early 1900s with around 40 blocks per lot.



While newer urban areas in the United States tend to typically be very coarse-grained: 

A new medium-rise apartment building in Hoboken taking up an entire block.

 

Benefits

Fine-grained urbanism is preferable because it implies;

  1. Diverse ownership. Each individual lot typically has a different owner.
  2. Lower cost of entry. If we ignore the underlying price of land (small lots in general should be cheaper because you are buying less land), it takes less money to build a shop or a home on a small narrow lot, than building an entire apartment complex.
  3. More destinations within walking distance. An important part of good urbanism is fitting as much as possible within walking distance, so naturally fitting more in gives you greater ownership.
  4. Greater resilence to bad buildings. Bad buildings can make less of an impact when they are limited in size.

I am going to cover each of these points in detail. 

Diverse ownership and lower cost of entry go hand in hand. It takes a lot of money to build a huge building. Ignoring land costs, this building could easily cost $30 million; 



$30 million is a significant amount. It is more than the typical middle-class person could afford. In contrast, any of these townhomes (also ignoring the land costs) could probably be built for less than $200,000. Basic brick cubes with doors and windows; 



It should really cost no more than a suburban house, minus the yard. Here is a slightly denser urban street, that should still be reasonably affordable to build; 



Urban development should not be expensive by itself. I worry about the high cost of entry brought on by coarse-grained urbanism leading to economic polarization - a situation where only those already with money can invest and create more wealth, while everyone else are mere consumers. On a personal level, I would love to one day purchase an empty lot in an urban area and build my dream townhome. 

An empty lot in Hoboken for sale. This should be the size of a typical development in a healthy urban area.



If we consider each building a destination, fine-grained urban areas naturally more walkable because we have more destinations within walking distance, than coarse-grained urban areas in general. When your lots are only 20 feet wide, you are naturally going to have a destination (a building, an office, a shop, etc.) entrance every 20 feet along the street; 

Fine-grained buildings along Washington Street, Hoboken. The American Planning Association called this one of America's 10 greatest streets for 2010.



In contrast we have coarse-grained urbanism, where you have very few destinations taking up entire blocks; 

A supermarket in Hoboken taking up around 200 feet.



If our destinations are only 20 feet wide rather than 200 feet wide, we can fit 10 times more destinations along the same length of street. One of the goals of good city planning is being able to accomplish as much on foot as possible, lowering the need to get around in a car, bicycle, or transit and create traffic. 

There is also faux-granularity, which is when a large building is divided into many separate destinations at street level to get the impression of fine-grained urbanism; 

A large building in Manhattan divided into multiple destinations at ground level.



This can solve the walkability issue with coarse-grained urbanism - but this is up to the discretion of the property owner. True fine-grained urbanism, however, forces this because each grain along the street is a destination; a building with no entrance is useless. 

I do not think that all large buildings are bad. Some things, such as convention centres, sports stadiums, movie cinemas, and department stores naturally take up a lot of room and require large buildings. Like many things, coarse-grained development is acceptable when done in moderation; it is when it becomes the default way of building that it becomes problematic. When we do need to do build coarse-grained buildings though, it is important that we utilize faux-urbanism to keep the area from becoming dull and barren. 

Javits Center in Manhattan. They could have done some faux-granularity here, instead we have a blank wall that takes up the entire length of a block. The result is a dead street, despite being within a short walk from Times Square - one (if not the) most crowded places in the United States.

 

A building around Union Square using faux-granularity to keep the area highly walkable. It keeps the street alive, and it is much better than the blank wall of an apartment building against the street.



Fine-grained development also limits the impact of bad buildings. A property owner that builds a dull or hideous building, allows their building to become run down, or abandons it, negatively affects the streetscape. However, we can minimize the overall impact to the streetscape if the ugly or derelict building is just one of many along the block. 

An ugly building taking up the length of the street, setting the tone of the street as you walk past it. Really, what can you do?

 

A vacant lot just sitting there, taking up an entire block.

 

Off-street parking is typically considered "bad urbanism", but in this case it is limited to a single lot. When ugly buildings, undeveloped lots, etc. are limited to the occasional lot, they do not make much of an impact on the overall environment.

 

Faux-Granularity

Faux-granularity is when we imitate the feel of a fine-grained place. There are places where fine-grained development is impractical, such as high-rise central business districts where the economics of the place make really tall buildings feasible, and really tall buildings require large bases.. 

Actually, modern engineering allows you to have fine-grained high-rise buildings, like this "toothpick" building. I do not think many people find toothpick buildings very appealing.



..or when there are engineering constraints that require a large base. 

The Hudson Yards development in Manhattan is building over a rail yard, and requires a lot of engineering work to build a base over. It seems impractical from both an engineering and finance perspective to divide up into individual lots, and so we have a situation where one large developer taking control of the entire site makes sense.



Some things naturally require a lot of space - sports stadiums, warehouses, movie cinemas, schools, museums, factories, supermarkets, high-rises that require a large base. Large buildings are not bad, when we use them in moderation. While it would be preferable to have a true fine-grained environment, we can do our best to imitate it. 

We can imagine the worst-case scenario, which is a single building taking up an entire block, with a single entrance; 

The only door along this entire side of the block! Granted, it is a side entrance, but you get the picture.



When we remove the destinations along the street, we kill it. We end up with a dead street - unslightly, unsafe, uninteresting. Even if you have nice architecture, the lack of the number of destinations to attract people really affects how interesting and alive the street feels. 

There is a huge difference between the southern side of Hoboken that is fine-grained; 

Something interesting generating pedestrian traffic every few dozen of feet.



And the newer stuff along the northern side of Hoboken that is coarse-grained; 

There are only 2 destinations along this side of the block.



We can easily imitate a fine-grained urban environment this with faux-granularity; 

Faux-granularity imitating a Main Street. Tanger Outlets in Atlantic City, NJ.



Sometimes we need to build large buildings. Some buildings, like convention centres, are naturally large scale and there is little we can do to avoid that. However, we should resist blank walls, which can lead to dead streets; 

The side entrance to the Javits Center in Manhattan. I am using the Javits Center again, because it disturbs me how prime of a location this is in Midtown Manhattan, but there is no need to walk here, so it is a dead street.



Dead streets are dangerous. They are the sorts of gray zones that Jane Jacobs talks about in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Like the parks surroundingtowers in the park, dark alleys and underpasses, dead streets lack any sort of attraction to draw people. Not only are they unsightly, but the lack of people going about their businesses (eyes on the street) often encourages crime. 

Here is an example of a large building that uses faux-granularity to add a reasonable number of destinations that keep the street alive; 

A very large building in Manhattan, but feels indistinguishable to walking past 8 separate buildings at street level.



Why can't the convention centre easily do the same? 

This is pretty much inexcusable; 

A parking structure of an apartment building creating a dead street. You do not have to be creative to think of a better design.



When it is so easy to decorate the ground level of a parking structure with faux-granularity, and earn a little bit of extra rent for the building owner; 

A large multi-story parking structure in Adelaide, Australia (I am using an example from the otherside of the world here, but it was the quickest example that came to mind.) There is no excuse why you should have blank walls and dead streets.



Ideally we would have true granularity (individual buildings that are individually owned), short of that, we should aim for faux-granularity. Dead streets and blank walls are inexcusable. 

Faux-grained urbanism gives the feel of a fine-grained urbanism, and for all practical purposes, functions the same of fine-grained urbanism as far as being interesting, attracting foot traffic, and being highly walkable. However, it does have some shortcomings that we should be aware of; 

  1. It still consolidates a lot of the land into the hands of a single owner.
  2. It is still a high-cost of entry environment that requires a lot of money to enter.
  3. It is up to the discretion of the property owner if they decide to be faux-grained or if they build a blank wall.
  4. There is no resilence against a bad building. If the building is abandoned or has to be closed down, the entire block closes down. If the building is cheap and ugly, the entire block is cheap and ugly.

We could certainly regulate faux-granularity, but I am against piling on yet another regulation to burdern developers with. This would add yet another permit or approval process to go through, which adds to the overhead of development (extra permits and approval processes to go through), and with every regulation, it is often possible to come up with a counter-example of something good but not permitted. This is an example of treating the symptoms of disease (coarse-grained urbanism) than addressing the cause (which we could fix by building finer-grained buildings.) In any case, perhaps we can regulate faux-granularity, but only allow those rules to apply to large-scale buildings without burdening small-scale development. 

Coarse-Grained Tendency

There is a tendency for newer urban areas to be coarse-grained. Why? 

An attempt in Carmel, IN to urbanize. They ended up with a large buildings taking up entire city blocks, with the city going broke in the process to subsidise it all. Urban development, because of its compact nature relative to suburban development, should be cheap.



I had a friend once tell me that size of the development generally describes the size of the capital; $1 billion in capital does not want to do 500 $2 million projects. This just raises more questions - where are those with $2 million to spend? What about $200,000? Do a few at the top really own all of the wealth of the community? Perhaps we overburden developers that it is only feasible to go through the development process in your town when you do a large project? 

Should the lack of fine-grained urbanism be a sign of corruption - that property development in your community is only a game that the already wealthy can play? 

I think a large part of the problem also lies how we go about selling undeveloped land. Back in Let's Build A Traditional City (And Make A Profit), I talked about how Conway, AR was selling its old airport; 



The asking price of the 151 acre site was $9 million. They were selling it whole to the player with the best proposal that could afford it. It is actually pretty cheap for that amount of land, but rather than dividing it into 10 parcels of land for $900,000 each, 100 parcels for $90,000 each, or possible 1,000 parcels for $9,000 each, they sell it off whole. I am not picking on this one site specifically - I have noticed this is a trend around the country. Today, when a city finds itself in the hands of a parcel of land they want to sell, they will open it for people to bid on it. They will sell it to the highest bidder or the bidder with the best plan. 

A century ago, when a city found itself with land to sell off for development, they would plat the land and sell off the individual blocks; 

Land subdivided and platted down to individual lots. City of Bismarck, Dakota Territory, 1883.



It is easy to imagine that if they found themselves with 151 acres of land to sell and develop, the commisioners would have surveyed the area and drawn out a plat, subdividing the parcel of land into streets, blocks, and lots, and if possible, connecting the streets with any surrounding street grid. Most of the lots would have been purchased and developed individually - and only those that really needed more space would have purchased more than they needed. 

There is also a cultural problem amongst New Urbanists. When you see an image of a New Urbanist plan, often it is some master planned top-down faux-grained vision; 



Rather than something truely fine-grained; 



Why are not more planners dreaming and sketching of redeveloping blocks like this instead? 

Building Fine-Grained Urbanism

The most obvious solution for building fine-grained urbanism seems to be simply to plat out the land into smaller lots. 

The plat for Ballard, now part of Seattle, WA.



When a city finds itself in the possession of undeveloped land, it should take its best effort to divide it up and sell it in the smallest lot sizes as possible. 

An alternative would be for a private developer to subdivide the land and sell of individual lots. This is similar to how suburban development works. 

A suburban subdivision. We can build urban neighbourhoods in a similar fashion.



We could use a similar approach, both to build entirely new urban neighbourhoods, similar to how the railroad companies of the 19th century would found new railroad towns by subdividing and selling off land in the middle of nowhere, and also at a much smaller scale to subdivide already existing blocks. For example, a developer could buy a large lot, build multiple buildings, then sell off each building individually for more than what they could from building and selling a single building. 

You can tell that most likely a single developer built these, but sold them off individually.



I saw this happening on a small scale when I was back in Australia. My aunt and uncle demolished their suburban home and subdivided their lot into 3. They plan on building 3 townhomes, selling 2 and living in the third. 

These are not the only ways we can build fine-grained urbanism. I would love to hear everyone elses thoughts on how we can accomplish this. 

Conclusion

A fine-grained environment is a sign of a healthy environment, from an economic and an urbanist perspective. Large buildings are not bad, and the best cities I have visited have a diverse mixture. We should do our best to make our urban environment fine-grain  with development using as little land as possible. However, on the occasion when we do need to build large, we should do our best to make the result faux-grained. 

The principle behind walkability and urbanism - and why I talk about granularity, non-placesnarrow streets, etc. is because walkability and urbanism is about fitting as much as you can within walking distance. Treat land is if it is the most precious resource your city has. Never waste land or street space. Build real parks over  green space. Create a place that is enjoyable, interesting, that encourages entrepreneurship, where you can mostly depend on your own two feet for daily errands. That is how you create a successful city. 


 

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NARROW STREETS DO MORE WITH LESS

DANIEL HERRIGES    JUN. 8, 2016  A CNU Journal article

This is good news for Strong Towns advocates concerned about the fiscal sustainability of our cities too, because simple design means less money that must be spent to build and maintain our public realm.

Yet this is a point that's often not embraced by much of the urbanist community—people who are the Strong Towns movement's natural allies in terms of many of our principles and goals. In particular, I would point to the Complete Streets movement that has made such inroads in urban street engineering in the last couple decades, including its adoption as policy in many local public works departments.

Complete Streets is the principle that urban streets should accommodate all users comfortably and safely, not just automobile drivers. In practice, it tends to be understood and applied as the universal provision of sidewalks and bicycle infrastructure alongside motor vehicle lanes. I would argue that Complete Streets advocates often fail to appreciate the ways in which a simple design can not only accomplish the same goals as a complicated one, but can actually outperform the complicated option.

 

 

Strong Towns contributor Andrew Price has argued this kind of overengineering is better called a "fat street."

 

 

Now, let me be clear that I'm not attacking the idea of Complete Streets, an idea that is well-intentioned and has done a lot of good. There's no question that pedestrians and cyclists are getting a level of much-needed policy attention lately that they were deprived of in mid-20th-century American cities. For example, four-lane death roads used to be standard design practice. (Thanks to Bill Lindeke of Streets.mn for the evocative term.) Now they're pretty universally deplored, and most cities are working to phase them out when the time comes to reconstruct or restripe arterial streets. This is a good thing.

Yet the ways we have begun to retrofit auto-oriented streets for a wider range of users tend to still be a case of using the master's tools to demolish the master's house. The mindset of the engineer, not the artist or the chef, predominates to an unhealthy extent in the way we approach streets. We rewrite standards and rule books. We apply the new standards in every bit as formulaic and context-insensitive a fashion as we used to apply the old standards (those old standards being, basically, "maximize vehicle Level of Service above all else").

A Google image search for "complete streets" confirms this. At a glance, we see a slew of examples of overengineered and overdesigned places that, while they may be improvement over what passed for state-of-the-art street engineering 50 years, are costing us money we don't have and money we don't need to spend. By applying a uniform rule book, we tend to fix things that aren't broken. In the worst cases, we get completely ludicrous results.

Old Bradenton Road through my neighborhood in Sarasota, Florida used to be an utterly typical 2-lane collector street. It has a 30 mile per hour speed limit, pretty low traffic volumes, and narrow, mediocre but functional, sidewalks.

Now we've got state-of-the-art green bike lanes:

 

 

Roundabouts with pedestrian islands:

 

 

Planted medians with low curbs over which you can make a left turn:

 

 

All of this looks nice. It's well-executed. It feels safe and comfortable and pretty. But it's just... a lot. I have to wonder how much they spent to fix something that, at least in my view, wasn't really that broken to begin with. I walked and biked on this street before it was reconstructed. I never felt in any danger. The traffic volumes were low enough, and speeds reasonable enough, that it was fine.

Meanwhile, in the state with the highest pedestrian death rates in the country, I can think of literally dozens more collector and arterial roads nearby that are far more in need of a retrofit than this one was. Places in which you are genuinely taking your life in your hands by deigning to walk.

 

 

Arterial in Bradenton. Source: Google.

 

 

I know many, many factors—logistical, economic, and political—go into the decision of which streets get redesigned when. The point is not to armchair-quarterback those decisions. Rather, I am arguing for frugality and simplicity as higher principles when those redesigns do occur. This is important because there's so, so much work to be done to reclaim our cities for human beings, and so little money available with which to do it.

Let's talk about sidewalks for a minute. You will find, among engineers and many urbanist advocates, near-universal agreement that sidewalks are an essential component to pedestrian safety and walkability.

In a lot of environments, sure. They are. I would never argue against retrofitting a busy arterial with sidewalks, for example. But for neighborhood streets, some of the most pleasant residential areas I know don't have any.

 

 

These are all from older neighborhoods of Sarasota, which to the best of my knowledge have never had sidewalks. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers share these streets comfortably. None of them carry a lot of through traffic, and crucially, none of them carry fast traffic.

The defining feature of all of the streets pictured above is that they are very narrow. Narrow enough that it's uncomfortable to drive any faster than about 20 miles per hour on them, especially when parked cars are present on both sides, requiring a certain amount of weaving around them.

 

 

A one-lane bridge does wonders.

 

 

So does a tree smack-dab in the middle of the street:

 

 

Narrow streets confer aesthetic benefits too, not just safety benefits. You can have a canopy of trees overhanging the entire street. In Florida in June, let me tell you, that "jungle" feeling in older neighborhoods like mine is a godsend.

With narrow streets and generous foliage, you can pack in quite a bit of population density, too, in a way that doesn't feel "dense" and "urban" to people, and is thus perhaps less objectionable to aesthetic sensibilities.

And these streets are just... fun. My favorite places have a certain amount of chaos and irregularity to them. It makes for visual and tactile interest. I think a lot of urbanists feel that way. The novelty and variety is what we like about cities and dislike about master-planned subdivisions. But that chaos can also serve practical functions that are worth analyzing and appreciating.

This is not a new argument, and I'm not trying to pretend there's anything novel about it. Urban designers and transportation planners far more experienced than I have analyzed woonerfs and shared space to death. The idea that a certain amount of unpredictability in the driving experience calms traffic by making motorists pay more attention has also been the subject of a lot of study.

Yet that study is often focused on the results of the kind of standardized treatments we apply, often at lavish expense, when we do a road diet. Less attention gets paid in professional circles to the natural experiments in traffic-calming that are right under our noses. In the worst case scenario, we view these places that work perfectly well as-is as "outdated" streets that ought to be "upgraded" to "meet the standard."

Even where the "standard" has come a long way from four-lane death roads, this is the wrong mindset—it's still the master's tools. Too much theorizing, not enough observation.

We do need best practices for the new stuff we build, of course. One "best practice" I would advocate for is that we simply make new residential streets as narrow as possible whenever possible. If two cars going in opposite directions can pass each other at more than 10 mph, on a residential street that doesn't serve any significant through traffic, the street is too wide. I think we should celebrate older neighborhoods that are built this way, and emulate the model going forward. It's cheap, it's effective, and it's simple—very few ingredients required.

I think these places offer a nice counterpoint to the engineering mindset of standards, standards, standards. They make a case for a different sort of professional best practice, one that Jeff Speck eloquently made the case for in the Atlantic's CityLab last month: pay attention to what already exists and works. Then do more of it.

(All photos by Daniel Herriges unless otherwise noted)

 

Daniel Herriges has been a regular contributor to Strong Towns since 2015. He is a Master's student in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Minnesota. This article first appeared on strongtowns.org. 

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