The Mid-Autumn Festival in Philadelphia’s Chinatown


Saturday was the Mid-Autmn Festival in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. The event included singing, dancing, and a parade of lion and dragon dancers. It was a really fun experience, and I think part of what made it work was the design of the Chinatown neighborhood.

First of all, the main part of Chinatown does not have any major streets going through it, which allowed them to essentially shut down the entire neighborhood to cars. This allowed them to set up a stage at the intersection of Arch and 10th and seats set up in front of it further north on 10th. The parade, which started literally right on front of our building (pictured above), made a sort of figure 8, going up 11th, across Race to 9th, up to Winter, back to 10th, and down to 10th and Cherry. It was interesting to walk through these streets with no cars but plenty of people. It was amazing how, when the streets were full of people, it still seemed fairly full and busy:but felt very different when they were mostly empty:I felt like it really hits home how much of our streets are devoted to cars. When you’re just walking on the sidewalk, you feel like streets are very narrow, but when you stand in the middle of them with no cars, even the narrow ones in Chinatown feel very large.The parade finished with a dance number at the intersection of 10th and Arch. Although this is a very central location to the Chinatown neighborhood, I wonder what it would be like if Chinatown actually had a public plaza or park, which it lacks entirely. These sort of public spaces are important for a neighborhood, especially with these sort of public festivals. In a neighborhood like Chinatown, with a very active market stall culture, this space might function as a sort of farmer’s market the rest of the year, and be cleared for special events. These sort of spaces are important for a neighborhood, and can help festivals like the Mid-Autumn Festival in their effort to pass culture and history on to the next generation.

Can city life be exported to the suburbs? – The Washington Post


Jonathan O’Connell wrote an article in the Washington Post over the weekend asking the above question. He compared suburban developments, including the Village at Leesburg and Reston Town Center, to some of the more vibrant parts of Washington, DC. O’Connell is a very good writer, in that his article could be read to support either side of the argument. For me, it comes down to semantics: what do you mean by “city life,” and what do you mean by “suburbs”? I feel that, based on your definition of these, you very well can “export” city life to the suburbs; I’m just not sure the examples O’Connell cited have actually done so. Let’s take a look.

City Life

In his article, O’Connell cites two neighborhoods in the District as examples of “city life;” those are Georgetown, and U Street.

These streets are classical examples of city life. They are built on gridded street systems, and although some streets are definitely wider than others, none are overwhelmingly wide (for instance, Wisconsin Avenue, the widest street in Georgetown, is only 80 feet from building front to building front). They are decidedly mixed use, with shops, offices and housing all bunched together. I think it’s important to point out that, although shopping and vibrancy are concentrated on a few streets, the majority of these neighborhoods is still housing, i.e. people actually live here rather than just coming here to shop. There is a fine grain of buildings, most of which have a fairly small footprint, but there are a lot of them, and it has the population density necessary to make it vibrant. While cars are certainly present, these areas are very pedestrian friendly and transit accessible.

You can find all these qualities in Alexandria, Virginia, as well. Alexandria is an old city which, as DC has grown, has sort of been sucked into its sphere of influence, and could be called a suburb. It has multiple stops on the DC Metro, is very pedestrian friendly, has a fine grain, mixed uses, high density, and the streets aren’t too wide. If Alexandria counts as a suburb, then you could say that city life was “exported” there; however, with Alexandria being as old as it is, it’s almost more appropriate to say that it co-evolved rather than that it was brought over from Washington. Other cities that came into their own later in history fit easier into the suburban definition, and will be covered in the next section.

Modern Suburbs/Emerging Cities

When I say Modern, I mean that they hit their growth spurt during the Modernist period in the mid-20th century. They sport the trappings of Modernism, including lots of towers and some roads that are wider than they should be. However, many of them are working to address the less desirable aspects of their modern development and are evolving into true cities as they mature. In Washington, cities that match this description include Arlington, Virginia; Bethesda, Maryland; and Silver Spring, Maryland.

These cities, as opposed to the ones in the first section, often have wider roads at their centers; however, they have taken efforts recently to make them more pedestrian friendly by including planted medians, bulb-outs, and other elements to shorten pedestrian crossing time. These large roads are also framed by large towers, so they have a nice height to width ratio. The towers help create density, although a lot of these cities have a fairly sharp drop off from towers to single-family homes. They are increasingly mixed-use, with the ground floor of these towers being shops and more of the towers becoming residential in addition to office space. Although the building grain isn’t as fine, shops still have fairly narrow frontages that change frequently and from the ground it feels similar in grain to the above examples. Each of these examples has a Metro stop and is otherwise well served by transit. These places also show how the element of time is important to creating city life; while these places may have been mostly office centers at their inception, as the cities have grown, they have become more mixed-use, more fine-grained, and more pedestrian-friendly. They also are more affordable than the District and have better schools, and if DC can’t fix that, these cities will continue to house the families that want city life, but can’t get everything they need in Washington.

Better Suburbs

These are the areas that O’Connell seemed to focus on in his article. These areas are relatively new, and although they are more urban than the single-family and strip mall suburbs around them, they still lack city life. However, these places are in a better state to develop it as time goes on than their traditional suburban neighbors. O’Connell discusses the Village at Leesburg and Reston Town Center, and I would like to add Kentlands to the mix.

Like most suburbs, in these places, the car is still king. The roads in the Village and at Reston, despite nods to pedestrians on their “main streets,” are overwhelmingly wide; even the village’s main street is 110 feet wide, and the roads ringing Reston are over 160 feet from building front to building front in some areas. Kentlands is better with the exception of Kentlands Boulevard, but it too falls prey to the other major demand of the car; parking. Kentlands has large surface parking lots all around its shopping and office areas. Reston and the Village feature much more structured parking, which takes up huge percentages of their development. Reston has three blocks devoted exclusively to parking, and three more where towers are built on parking podiums. At the Village, I would guess from aerials that nearly half of their buildings are parking garages, including one that is 1,000 feet long, and even the median of their main street is devoted to parking. Much of this parking isn’t lined by other uses, creating a poor streetscape.

This amount of parking makes sense, oddly enough, because they aren’t dense enough or have enough mixed uses. There is essentially one apartment complex at the Village, and it’s in the middle of nowhere surrounded by highways, so driving is about the only option for most of its users. Reston is in a better case, mostly because it is older and is surrounded by residential development, but its ring of massive roads discourages walking and I would bet that even people who live close by would rather drive. And while Kentlands almost has enough residential to support its large commercial area, they are in no way mixed. There is pretty much a line where, on one side, it is residential, and on the other it is commercial, so anyone more than a quarter mile or so form that line will probably drive. These places don’t have corner stores or diners mixed in, they have designated living and shopping areas, and for the most part, the best way to get between them is by car. With the possible exception of Reston, they don’t have city-like densities, and none of them are served by rail transit, with limited bus connections, if at all. The buildings and the blocks are large (with the exception of Kentlands), which discourages walking. They are also relatively new, and haven’t had a chance to really go through a change of generation and tastes, and I think it would be interesting to watch these areas and see where they are at in 20 or 50 years.

Can you export city life to the suburbs? Yes, but you can’t go halfway, you need to use all the elements that make city life worth living. Alexandra has all of those, the modern suburbs/emerging cities have most and are developing the rest, and the better suburbs have a few. We’ll have to check back on all of them in a generation or two and see if it has actually come to pass.

3BLOCK1BLOCK


Density bonuses in the 3BLOCK1BLOCK program. From 3ada1ada.org.

3BLOCK1BLOCK is a proposed program in Istanbul which came about due to concerns about earthquake readiness. it proposes encouraging the private sector to redevelop blocks full of non-earthquake-proof buildings by offering density bonuses for doing certain things while redeveloping. Some of these make sense to me, while others don’t so much.

Merging bonus: This proposes taking as many as three blocks and merging them into one superblock. Now, especially in areas with informal developments, you can merge small blocks and still have something walkable. What I’m hoping is that there is some sort of guideline saying that “merged blocks shall be no longer than 200 meters on a side” or something like that, because otherwise, superblocks become unwalkable real fast. Many of the proposed projects on the website feature secondary pedestrian circulation within the blocks, but unless there are shops or really nice parks there, people won’t be encouraged to go there, and they could develop neglect or crime problems. Also, this sort of large-scale demolition threatens historically significant structures. There should be options for retrofit rather than demolition only.

Street widening bonus: Certain streets probably do need to be widened, both for emergency vehicle access and for evacuation routes, but I think the project, if it doesn’t have one, needs a master plan outlining which streets should be widened and not having a blanket bonus for wide streets. This is the best way to kill an area’s walkability. You need access roads every 400 feet or so that are wide enough for emergency vehicles, and then the evacuation routes should be highway capacity, and that’s it. If a small road is serving its community, leave it small.

Public space bonus: This is great. Many cities lack sufficient public space, and open spaces can help mitigate stormwater and pollution. Just make sure that there is some sort of revue mechanism to make sure that they are good public spaces, and not just grass.

Parking bonus: The website says that this is for both underground parking and surface parking. Leave it for underground or even structured parking, but take away the bonus for surface parking. Surface parking kills walkability and in a city as dense as Istanbul is and wants to be, it isn’t worth the land it takes up. Don’t make concessions for cars, unless they are going to help people.

This idea has a lot of merit, but it is walking a fine line. It needs to consider historic structures, short blocks, narrow roads, good public space, and limited parking. Otherwise, it could cause some real problems for the city.

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