A Brief History of Skyscrapers

A while ago I was reading this post about optimal building height by Elliott Ruzicka, and I thought I’d riff on it a little bit.



Wharton Real Estate Review: Two Decades of Design and Development

Vancouver: a model for future urban development. From realestate.wharton.upenn.edu.

Witold Rybczynski, one of the leading theorists today in architecture and urban design, recently wrote this post for Penn’s Warton School, discussing the trends he has seen in development in the past twenty years. He argues that New Urbanism has gone a long way to bringing about the idea of denser suburbs and has eventually penetrated the city, although as the design competition for the new World Trace Center in New York showed, some cities are more committed to the idea of novelty in design than a return to neo-traditional techniques.

However, the ensuing chaos that has kept and will continue to keep the project from completion for years to come illustrates another point: the fact that developers nowadays have more say in the shape of a project than planners. This is both good and bad; developers are more in-tune with people’s demands via the market, but they are not concerned with creating connections to neighboring areas or with public goods such as transit. This was something I found particularly frustrating in Utah, where as a city we had very little we could do about the extremely low quality of development in our city. At least in urban developments such as the Atlantic Yards and Stapleton, developers know they can’t get away with designing crap, like they can in Utah.

Rybczynski also points to new trends in retailing. Malls, with the exception of some of the highest end ones, are largely gone, replaced by two opposite extremes: the low-end, no-nonsense, parking-friendly power center, which can be seen on any highway strip; and the mixed-use, walkable lifestyle center, such as Salt Lake City’s new City Creek Center, and Reston, Virginia. Though some developers have embraced mixed use development, they have to be aware of the issues involved: a higher standard of design; being careful about what uses you mix; and having development partners who both understand the value of mixed use and have the deep pockets to finance it.

Despite these challenges, Rybczynski argues that our greatest challenge will be increasing housing density, brought on by new energy markets and regulations as well as increased demand for urban living. Cities will have to build new, affordable, and family-oriented units, unlike the expensive units marketed at young singles and retirees that we see today. Though there are many urban models for how to accomplish this density increase, the trouble will come with how we densify the suburbs. He points to failed malls and other large suburban parcels as redevelopment opportunities, but worries about when we have to actually talk about changing zoning and redeveloping existing residential areas in suburbs. I’m a little less worried about this, because I think that communities that succeed in changing their density will simply be more economically desirable, and more intractable cities will either see themselves shrink into nothing or simply adopt changes later on. Again, I worry that my former workplace of Spanish Fork City is less prepared for this future than neighboring Springville, Utah, which has worked to create an attractive and walkable main street and increase densities in neighboring communities. Hopefully these and other communities will be prepared to address these issues when they arise.

Fake, or So Real it’s Blowing Your Mind? | PlaceMakers

The commercial corridor at Rosemary Beach. From oldurbanist.blogspot.com.

Scott Doyon shares this post on criticisms of New Urbanism. He points out how strange it is that people, principally architects, criticize New Urbanism for being fake, while they don’t even discuss the horribleness of strip retail centers or other junk that isn’t even trying. He dismisses common criticisms—that it is built too fast and that it is historicist—and says that we are asking the wrong questions. He uses Rosemary Beach in Florida as an example, saying that its apparent historicism is drawn from lessons learned over the history of building in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. He says that, yes, it was built in 15 years, but that was less time than the Upper West Side, and who calls that inauthentic? Both were laid out in a master plan and filled in by individual builders. These developments should not be immune to criticism, but they should get over the focus on modern forms and look at the urban function (Doyon cites a critique from the Old Urbanist where he criticises Rosemary Beach’s walkway/alley system and overly wide, still car-oriented streets; and I would like to add that, as with many of these developments, there is little true mixing of uses in the form of smaller corner stores). I’ve been looking for an article like this and hope it comes up every time New Urbanism is critiqued as “fake.”

City living will feel like a blast from the past – USATODAY.com

Andres Duany. And a dog. From usatoday.com.

Andres Duany is the granddaddy of New Urbanism. His design of Seaside, along with his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, changed the course of greenfield development in this country. Rick Hampson of USA Today sat with him to ask him about what will happen to cities and suburbs in the next 30 years. He brought up five main points:

  1. Urban retrofit for suburbia – Suburbs will be rebuilt to serve alternative transit modes. Homes will be smaller and there will be more connected units.
  2. Gardener on the roof – People will practice “agrarian urbanism,” where they grow more of their own food on rooftops, in yards, or in window boxes.
  3. Government goes hyper-local – land use conflicts between developers trying to densify the city and make it more mixed use will push up against NIMBYs and certain environmental groups, and local government will have a large hand in mediating these issues.
  4. Buildings that look cool and safe – Duany gives the example of Alys Beach, a community he designed, where the houses are designed to be cooler and resistant to hurricanes and other extreme conditions. He argues that this sort of sustainable, durable design will be more common.
  5. Mormon settlers as models – As a Mormon, I found this particularly interesting (in fact, this is why a friend sent me the article), but Duany points out that, in the first 50 years of settlement in Utah and other parts of the west, Mormons built 537 towns, most of them located where they are after studying things like access to water and soil quality. This “precision planning” will be more important in the future.

Latest trend in house design: “A home within a home” : TreeHugger

New floorplan from suburban builder Lennar Homes featuring a secondary unit. From treehugger.com.

Lloyd Alter of Treehugger posted this earlier this afternoon and Twitter exploded. He shows a number of floorplans, including the one above, from Lennar Homes which include secondary units for “homeowners with adult children or elderly parents who want to live in the same household as their relatives without sacrificing privacy or convenience.” This is an interesting adaptation to changing conditions; this caters to the fact that a lot of college graduates are having trouble finding jobs and are moving home, but also to the fact that the multi-generational family, once common but not so much today, is coming back, partially through immigrants who are used to living that way and partially through financial necessity. This is exactly something that Christopher Alexander advocated in A Pattern Language. He encouraged homes to develop different units, or “cottages,” for both teenagers and the elderly within a family, with the express idea that they could be rented out when not in use by a needy family member. These sort of “mother-in-law apartments” are fairly rare in many suburban areas, but have been a part of New Urbanist developments since their inception. Alter questions whether cities will regulate these sort of houses to make sure that only family members live in the second unit, but it is a step in densifying the suburbs, and potentially bringing them towards urbanity.

Weapons of Mass Urban Destruction – By Peter Calthorpe | Foreign Policy


Calthorpe criticizes China’s growth. From foreignpolicy.com.

I’ve had a number of people tell me that my posts have a habit of running a bit long, and that means I can’t always post often, or even regularly. I want to fix that. Starting now, posts will be shorter, and hopefully, more regular, with occasional long-format posts mixed in. We’ll start with this article from Peter Calthorpe, one of the founding fathers of New Urbanism.

China is a fast-growing nation with an ever-expanding economy, which allows it’s people access to new services, including cars. Calthorpe argues that China is on the path to repeating the mistakes of the United States in designing cities for cars rather than for people. The US spent years making Le Corbusier’s modernist dream of towers in the park connected by highways a reality. Only in recent decades have many Americans decided that this was the wrong direction to go, and cities are beginning to return to walkable, mixed-use centers where people are put before cars. China, on the other hand, is not learning from our mistakes, and is putting the car before people. This has already lead to massive congestion and environmental degradation, as Calthorpe points out the measures Beijing went to to try and make itself presentable for the Olympics four years ago, despite the constant smog. It certainly isn’t too late, but if China doesn’t change course now, it could lead to disaster for them and the world at large.

Walk Score revisited: Walk Appeal

Walk Score heat map of Philadelphia. From walkscore.com.

I love the Walk Score tool. I walk nearly everywhere I go, and especially when I travel I like to know what I’m going to be up against when I hit the sidewalk. I admit that I frequently judge a neighborhood or city by it’s Walk Score before I’ve even been there. For the uninitiated, this is what Walk Score is, according to their website:

Walk Score uses a patent-pending system to measure the walkability of an address. The Walk Score algorithm awards points based on the distance to amenities in each category. Amenities within .25 miles receive maximum points and no points are awarded for amenities further than one mile.

For example, my apartment in Center City Philadelphia, where I walk anywhere that the subway won’t take me, has a Walk Score of 95, while my parent’s home in suburban Pittsburgh has a Walk Score of 11. My parents couldn’t walk to anything if they wanted to.

But, as Sarah Goodyear recently pointed out in The Atlantic, walk-ability and walk-desirability are not necessarily the same thing. For one, Walk Score doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of services within walking distance, i.e., a bodega and a Super Wal-Mart are both classified under “Grocery Stores.” Second, Walk Score doesn’t say anything about the quality of the environment one is walking through. According to their website, “Walk Score measures how easy it is to live a car-lite lifestyle—not how pretty the area is for walking.” They even have a list of factors that they can’t measure that impact how comfortable an environment is to walk in: crime, topography, weather, and many others.

With these shortcomings in mind, Steve Mouzon of The Original Green proposes a new metric to measure how walkable a place is: Walk Appeal. He starts with the idea, doctrine among New Urbanists, that most people will only walk a quarter of a mile before they decide they would rather drive. Mouzon claims that this distance changes based on the environment: people will easily walk two miles in Rome or London, while they would rather drive across the parking lot than walk from Best Buy to Target. While Walk Score measures density of services, Walk Appeal measures the quality of the built environment. Mouzon’s system has seven “standards” for how far people will walk in a given environment:

  • The London Standard (2 miles): These are streets “so good you’ll happily walk for miles.” Though Mouzon focuses on the streets of London, Rome, Paris, and Florence, such streets can be found in Boston, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro and other cities that developed in a pre-automobile era.
  • The Main Street Standard (3/4 mile): These are traditional mixed-use streets found in older American towns. They have narrow storefronts, consistent frontage, and come right up to the sidewalk.
  • The Neighborhood Street Standard (1/4 mile): This is the old New Urbanist standard, which Mouzon seems to apply principally to residential areas of smaller single-family homes with porches and small front yards that come fairly close to the street.
  • The Suburban Neighborhood Standard (1/10 mile): These are the sort of streets that you find in older suburbs. The lots are larger and the buildings further set back than in traditional neighborhoods, and elements such as picket fences and hedgerows are less common.
  • The Subdivision Standard (250 feet): These are the streets of more recent suburbs. They are devoid of fences and hedges, sometimes even sidewalks altogether, and the streets are wide enough to see the curvature of the earth.
  • The Power Center Standard (100 feet): These are basically the parking fields of large big box stores. They are ugly, they are hot and uncomfortable in summer, and no one likes to be there.
  • The Parking-Backed Standard (25 feet): This is the sad little strip of sidewalk between the big box parking lot and the high-speed, high-capacity arterial road. This is the sort of street where, if you are walking along it, people will stop and ask you if your car broke down and if you need a lift to a repair shop.

Mouzon lists a number of criteria—View Changes, Street Enclosure, Window of View (glazing), Shelter, Goals in the Middle Distance, and Turning the Corner—that could be used to measure this quality, but doesn’t currently offer, for example, exactly how many storefronts her hundred linear feet are required to bump up a street from a Main Street Standard to a London Standard.

There are a number of holes in Mouzon’s theory at this point, some of he discusses himself and some of which are brought up by Kaid Benfield on his blog. I had some additional questions which, I hope, will help to develop the idea. For instance, there are a lot of gaps in his standards. For instance, where does a large-scale office district fall? What about row houses or dense twins like in much of West Philadelphia? What about urban alleys, which are entirely walk-able, but not walk-desirable? What about when one side of a street is a great mixed use street, and the other is the backside of a building? How do you deal with parks and trails? Do they get their own ranking system? These are the sort of questions I think need to be answered before this can be implemented at a larger scale.

A Walk Appeal analysis like what Mouzon describes could not be implemented the same way that Walk Score is. Walk Score is able to gather data from other websites and combine it in such a way as to find its score. No website I am aware of keeps track of how many stores there are per block, or what percentage of the storefronts is glazed. This would make a Walk Appeal analysis a more individual and hands-on effort, maybe one that planners, architects or designers would implement while doing research for or presenting a new plan.

Walk Appeal of St. Charles. From originalgreen.org.

Mouzon actually creates an example of how Walk Appeal can be used. He does an analysis of the Walk Appeal for a single store in St. Charles, Missouri. He first shows the current state of events, and explains how if the city were to implement various streetscaping upgrades, it could increase the Walk Appeal of the store and give it access to more people than would currently walk there.

St. Charles after street upgrades improve it’s Walk Appeal. From originalgreen.org.

I wanted to do a quick analysis for some place that I knew well, so I picked the apartment we just moved out of in University City. Since many of the holes in Mouzon’s standards are on the more urban end of things, I sort of had to approximate. I looked at St. Charles and tried to find comparable streets to those in my old neighborhood. I basically took streets that I thought were really good, and called that the Main Street Standard. Okay streets got the Neighborhood Street Standard, streets that were not nice but functional got the Suburban Neighborhood Standard, and since there are no subdivisions or overwhelming arterial strips in University City, flat-out bad streets ended up with the Power Center Standard.

Walk Appeal for an apartment at 35th and Lancaster, University City, Philadelphia.

What I saw was very interesting. The district as a whole is very walkable (Walk Score lists it as three neighborhoods, University City, Powelton and Mantua, with Walk Scores of 93, 77, and 70 respectively), but there is a wide variety in Walk Appeal. The areas around the universities are really quite nice, while the area around 30th Street Station and the Science Center are a bit weaker. University City High School is a sort of no-man’s land between the universities and Powelton Village, and as part of neither neighborhood, it really gets left behind. Powelton Village itself, with its smaller blocks, is a lovely place to walk, with the exception of the areas along the rail yard. Things get dicier in Mantua and West Powelton, where widespread vacancy brings down the Walk Appeal.

I think that if this tool is fully developed, it can be another great tool in the designer’s toolbox. I hope that Mouzon continues to develop it and turn it into a more quantifiable system. What else currently missing from the Walk Appeal analysis?

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