Rethinking The Transect As A Living System

We make no distinction between urban, suburban and rural environments. We view a city as one living system with many different working parts pushing to fill a complex set of needs.

Currently the city, as a living system, is not filling the needs of the user in a way that is sustainable. We are seeing parts of the system associated with a number of negative environmental and public health outcomes. We see increased pollution and reliance on fossil fuel, increase traffic related fatalities, increased obesity, decrease in social capital, lack of connectivity, decrease in land and water quantity and quality and so on.

This is a call to action. Designers are now faced with the challenge to develop healthier systems while providing an exponential amount of choices for living. Our personal mission to design the missing layers that will improve livability, sustainability and productivity across the board. This requires a great deal of transformative planning; a sort of micro-surgery of the built environment allowing designers to inject or integrate healthier systems that will strengthen the existing city fabric, providing more choices for living while addressing negative impacts from conventional patterns of development. This could come in the form of suburban retrofit, urban infill development, rural integration, etc.
Although there is a trend for people to move back into the central city, we cannot say for sure that urban growth has reached its zenith. Arguments opposing urban sprawl run the gamut but we are also seeing many who prefer the suburban lifestyle. Regardless, our challenge is to transform the whole metropolitan areas into a livable and sustainable system made up of all the parts needed to fulfill all societies needs.

Uncovering The Value of Natural Systems

Meeting the environmental conservation and biodiversity objectives for any project starts with the understanding of natural environmental characteristics and flows of the site. Let’s not confuse this ‘understanding’ as merely a site analysis; we’re talking McHarg kind of thinking here, a deeper understanding of the hidden environmental layers of a site. These environmental clues will not only inform the organization and patterns of development, they increase the value and experience of place, illustrating the possibilities in creating positive, healthy and interactive relationships between the natural environment and human settlement.

By adopting the concept of ecological planning using natural systems, our assessment of the natural systems of a place – its landforms, hydrology, vegetation, climate and energy flows – designers can synthesize their understanding of building and energy systems with these natural flows of sun, wind, water and vegetation to uncover an appropriate pattern(s) for development. Laying the groundwork with a deeper understanding of the site systems is not only a process by which we learn about the site, it is also the process of developing the compelling story of our design intentions.




Dune Ecology


“Walkability” and the real estate market

Chris Leinberger, speaking at this week’s Future of the City conference in Washington DC had some encouraging observations about real estate market trends. Leinberger, currently a Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and formerly a partner at the real estate consulting firm Robert Charles Loesser Assoc, notes that there continues to be pent-up demand for housing in walkable neighborhoods.

The reason, Leinberger notes, is the paucity of choice in urban environments. There continues to be an oversupply of housing in conventional suburban neighborhoods, while market trends increasingly favor housing in mixed-use neighborhoods that support walking to schools, work and stores. These trends reflect a market more attuned to urban amenities, and a continuing preference for alternatives to the drive-to-work lifestyle.

Good news on two fronts: first, in spite of the downturn, there continues to be opportunities in the real estate sector, and secondly, the continuing shift towards walkable, mixed-use neighborhood can help drive the urban revitalization and suburban transformation needed for healthier, more sustainable cities.


Parametrics in Planning

CityCAD by Holistic City Software

Parametric modeling is becoming one of the most useful and dynamic design tools being used by planners and urban designer and a huge step forward in determining whether proposed planning scenarios are viable. As design planners we will not only be able to measure design implications ‘real time’ but easily make changes to development strategies quicker and more accurately. This type of modeling is often compared to BIM modeling (building information modeling). Models are built from a set of data points or mathematical equations; in the planning world these equations usually relate to the proposed development program, including anticipated yield, ‘floor-area-ratio’, land use square footage, housing units, parking spaces and so on. The model retains these data points and allows a designer to physically change the model while retaining the proportions of the data.

CityCAD by Holistic City Software is a great example of parametric modeling, one of our favorite innovation in parametric modeling!  CityCAD was the first CAD application created specifically for the city design and planning community. CityCAD will enable designers and planners to quickly sketch 3D models of large scale master plans and easily test many different development strategies . You can also import your own information, such as existing drawings, maps, aerial photos or concept sketches. As you create your model, CityCAD automatically generates a schedule of all blocks and streets in your model, and estimates floor areas, densities and much more. The most useful tool is the urban design resource library where designers can import real-world examples of the same scale or type of project.

The beauty of CityCAD is that it allows urban designers and planners to measure a proposed development strategies in relation to an established benchmark criteria; for example, CityCAD can assist in compliance with local building and planning codes, environmental regulations, health criteria and even LEED Neighborhood Development standards.

“Neighborhood” v. neighborhood

Local planning departments often define neighborhoods for the purposes of obtaining citizen input: rectangles that look good on paper, but sometimes stretch the boundaries of what can realistically be called a neighborhood. The official rectangle defining my neighborhood is pretty big: more than a mile from north to south, almost as big east to west. Other “Neighborhoods” in my city are almost twice as big.

Urban planners use a different measure – you’ll see it on just about any neighborhood plan these days: the 1/4-mile radius, the extent of a five minute walk. This kind of neighborhood is identified more by its  center (a place where people congregate) than its boundaries. While it sometimes may have real boundaries, it tends to blend into adjacent 1/4-mile circles.

My 1/4 mile-neighborhood does in fact seem neighborly: this is the area where I know people by sight if not always by name, the sub-area where we seem to share concerns and gossip on a regular basis. The square-mile “Neighborhood” is not the same: I don’t know a lot of the folks, and see them rarely. Similar political / local governance issues perhaps, but not really “neighbors” in the day-to-day sense.

I’ve been looking around my city lately, and other cities when I travel. Where are the neighborly 1/4-mile neighborhoods? Where are their centers? How do we (and city governments) identify them?

Good data to have if we’re going to do “neighborhood” planning…

Is Data the new Black?

Photo Credit: Pedro Vera

The debate over who controls, and has access to, city data, comes to the forefront in this week’s Open Cities Column from Next American City. While the article focuses mainly on access to data from the transit system in Washington DC and it’s uses to third party developers and vendors, the same questions can be asked about all data from the intricate workings of a city.

If the data, real time bus ridership, road traffic usage, street circulation, even electrical usage and maintenance forecasting, were available to urban designer, how would that effect how we make decisions for the growth of our cities. What are the possibilities for using data collection from smart phones to expose how cities are really being used, and who should have access to this kind of information?

Ordinary Places

Urban growth dilemmas aren’t just an American problem. The question of how we grow responsibly and sustainably, both economically and environmentally, is a problem in all first world nations and many third world ones. The difference, of course, is how we approach these dilemmas. Different countries assign different sets of rules and guidelines to monitor the growth of their cities. And how each of these different approaches works is something that we, as designers, as people interested in the health of our cities, should examine, both for the good and the bad. And so we want to introduce you to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE). CABE is based in London and is the government’s adviser on architecture, urban design and public space. Did you catch that–they are the government’s adviser. Amazing. Basically their job is to provide expert independent design advice to improve the quality of what gets built in England.

CABE has an extensive and very much up-to-date research on everything from school design and design for health and well being to housing and public spaces. We occasionally look to CABE for research and case studies because they are faced with similar design and planning challenges, including climate change, suburban sprawl and public policy. CABE recently issued an interesting publication this week about ‘ordinary places’, which is directly related to suburban sprawl, among other things. This publication talks about creating the culture and the right conditions to help ordinary places become valued and valuable. It explains how people can directly influence the quality of their places and questions why communities need to learn about design, to help make sense of the places around them. The paper also discusses why it is important for architects to be trained in public engagement, so that they can respond directly to local needs and planning initiatives.

These points are important to understand because one of the first steps of transformative planning is to help people make sense of where they are living, push them to identify their neighborhood and encourage them to re-invest in that neighborhood and community.

What do you think of CABE’s approaches. Is it important for the community at large to fully understand the spaces they live in or should it be left to the “professionals”?

The end of sprawl?

There may be a silver lining to the current economic downturn: the last gasp for large-scale greenfield development that is the heart of sprawl. While perhaps not the end per se, it might just be the tipping point towards a much-needed wholesale change in focus in the development industry.

There are a dozens of reasons why sprawl needs to stop – energy and transportation inefficiency, habitat destruction and the hidden public costs of new infrastructure among them. Now the downturn has taken away the financial incentives that encouraged sprawl in spite of its obvious drawbacks: the development community and the financial industry have become very cautious, and are especially reluctant to take on new, large-scale projects. Municipalities, burdened with the ongoing costs, can no longer count on the revenue from the next project to pay for the costs of the last one.

Which is not to say real estate development is dead. Many of the developers we work with have put off plans to start new projects, and are looking instead at opportunities to increase revenue from existing properties. That search will inevitably lead to infill, expansion and renovation of successful properties – smaller, more difficult projects, for sure, but key components of urban revitalization and suburban retrofit.

Which makes this a good time for communities to start thinking about the future: where would infill and revitalization be beneficial? What opportunities are being missed? What can be done w. codes, regulations and infrastructure spending to encourage development in the right places?

Laying the groundwork

Welcome to Laying The Groundwork. This blog is our outlet to the world. Our mission is to lay the groundwork for community transformation through research, planning, design and now discussion. As you can see we focus our efforts on many fronts; the groundwork for community transformation requires much more than design innovation. We believe in an integrated design approach – we study economics, ecology, social equity, sustainability, health, public policy, history and more as a way to better understand the culture of place. Much of what we practice requires behavioral change, whether it is promoting physical activity or introducing locally grown foods; acquiring better understanding of people and of place ensures an appropriate design for growth and transformation. As architects, our approach bridges the gap between policy and design; we want to treat this weblog as a place where we can educate our audiences and ourselves about the spatial implications of policy and regulation. What does a 100% healthy place look like? What does a truly sustainable environment sound like?

Starting today we will be discussing ideas on retrofitting suburbia, community health, principles of downtown revitalization, the notion of evidence-based planning, characteristics of a resilient city and more. If you have ideas, links or opinions, we’d love to hear them. Join in on the conversation. Let’s make this world a better place.