10 Techniques for Making Cities More Walkable – Design – The Atlantic Cities

From theatlanticcities.com.

Kaid Benfield, one of my favorites, recently posted this list of walkability ideas from Jeff Speck’s recent book, Walkable City. This list includes:

  1. Put cars in their place. Streets are public spaces for people, not conveyors for cars.
  2. Mix the uses. In particular create more affordable housing in growing neighborhoods prone to gentrification.
  3. Get the parking right. Consolidate it and make people pay for it.
  4. Let transit work. Plan transit in tandem with urban investment, make housing dense enough to support it, and make it an enjoyable experience (I’m looking at you, SEPTA).
  5. Protect the pedestrian. Cars go slower, and thus pedestrians are safer, when drivers are afraid of crashing into things. Speck, and some others, encourage getting rid of signage and road striping all together and forcing drivers to concentrate.
  6. Welcome bikes. Cycling allows people to have another choice beyond the car.
  7. Shape the spaces. Create outdoor rooms and a sense of enclosure.
  8. Plant trees. Trees improve auto safety, naturally cool cities, and contribute to stormwater retention.
  9. Make friendly and unique [building] faces. Interesting architecture will keep people entertained and encourage them to walk.
  10. Pick your winners. Focus initially on downtowns and transit corridors.

Benfield also has a few critiques for Speck. He criticizes the “cars suck” idea that he and many designers (I will admit, often myself included) have a habit of exhibiting. He also criticizes Speck’s dismissal of green space as important to the city, although Benfield does agree that it is important to make sure green spaces contribute to the urban nature of a place rather than making it feel more suburban or rural. He also agrees with John Norquist’s statement that there is good and bad congestion, and that small cities such as Pittsburgh shouldn’t try congestion pricing because it will give people just another reason to stay out of the city.


Spotlight on Casa Grande, Arizona

My recent travels have taken me to Casa Grande, Arizona. It’s a small town between Phoenix and Tucson. It started as a mining town on a railroad line and only recently exploded as a place for snowbirds, like my grandma, to spend the winter. While there is a lot of new suburban-style development, there is still a traditional core that has some interesting strengths, and a few weaknesses to develop.

The first thing I noticed was that there are some great bulb-outs in the core of Casa Grande, but what stood out about them is that they are now at sidewalk level, but at street level. I’m not sure why this is. My best guess is that by doing this is might have been cheaper than to build it up to sidewalk level, or that it might have been better for drainage reasons. Although Casa Grande is in the middle of the desert, it is subject to Arizona’s regular monsoons which cause a lot of quick, heavy rain. There were a variety of these bulb-outs, from mid-block trees to full pocket parks. There were also a few more traditional bulb-outs with benches and trash cans.

There was an area called “The Alley” that was painted up in an interesting way. It seemed that it was an area that could be used for art events, although it was pretty dead while I was there.

Something I noticed after a while was that all of the stores had large awnings covering the entire sidewalk. This is important, especially considering the low density of trees, to create shade and cool down the desert. With summer temperatures as high as 120 degrees, unless there is shade you will never get pedestrians.

Another thing I thought was interesting was that some of the street trees were actually fruit-bearing lime trees. I wondered why the city chose to use these trees when they would come with the additional cleanup duty. I also wondered how they did such a good job, because the sidewalk below the trees seemed spotless.

One issue with Casa Grande’s traditional core is that it is virtually all retail. The residents of Casa Grande could drive there and then walk, but they can drive to the suburban strip locations as well. It would be good for them to create some small, affordable units, aimed at artists or even some more active empty nesters. There’s even a grocery store downtown already, so it would be pretty easy to live there.

Where the traditional town center meets the suburban arterial lies Peart Park. This is a pretty nice traditional town park. It has a number of both active and passive uses, as well as the all-important shade. I think it’s especially important to have parks in desert climates because you need an oasis from the heat, and if you’re going to be blowing a lot of water on something, better it be a public park than a whole bunch of private lawns. That being said, there were some issues. For instance, there was a path on the south side of the park that was exposed to the sun. If they planted a row of trees on the south side of the park, it would make it a more comfortable place to be.

Casa Grande is home to some interesting civic buildings. The city hall terminates a vista and has a nice, green plaza in the front of it. If anything, it could be improved by a lot more trees. The main approach has only a few, and if they were replaced with two rows of palms and a bunch more around the edges, a la the Nevada Statehouse, it would have a much more stately approach and the shade it would need to make it a desirable place to spend time. Heritage Hall is a great example of early Spanish colonial architecture, and it is flanked by a plaza made up of native plants, which shows that you don’t necessarily have to have grass to make a comfortable place.

Casa Grande is a booming little town with some good retail, parks, and public buildings. The recent development has not been going in the same direction, unfortunately, but hopefully some future development can be brought back to its more urban roots.

William H. Whyte: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces – The Street Corner on Vimeo

I was actually very happy to find this video online. I think it is a resource that every designer should take a look at, and is as true today as when it was made. This video was produced by William H. Whyte, one of the greats in urban design, for New York City. In it, he takes an empirical look at which public spaces in the city are used and how. He found some commonalities. Good plazas have lots of places to sit, and they are located in places where people actually want to sit. They are connected to the street and the activity thereon. They have some access to natural light, although not always direct; Whyte makes a point of the light that is reflected off the glass facades of towers. Many have access to food, including formal cafes as well as food vendors and trucks. Many have access to water, and more importantly, the water can actually be used. Trees provide seasonal shade and a sort of covering or enclosure. The final element is what Whyte calls “triangulation,” or something that attracts people to the plaza. It could be public art, street performances, or something else entirely. These principles, even today, would make a great public space.

Hey, when do we get to build something?

Students of the GDBS with their work. From http://www.uh.edu/gdbs/site_installation.html.

Students at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture at the University of Houston have a unique opportunity: the Graduate Design-Build Studio program, where students get the opportunity to create a structure from design through fabrication and all the way to construction. These structures, mostly pavilions or other shade structures, while usually fairly simple, provide the students with an invaluable experience.

These projects start as a fairly basic design studio, where students do research and design schemes to try to solve certain problems of a site.

Students in design studio. From http://www.uh.edu/gdbs/spring_design.html.

The more ambitious designs that architects often create are generally pared down to a more workable design, which is appropriate considering most of the students have little to no construction experience. This is important because it helps designers to understand what building is like beyond the design phase. Architects often have trouble picturing how their designs will work for anyone else. While they try to envision how it will be for users (although there are many that aren’t even willing to let that distract them from their artistic statement), few are terribly concerned about the work of welders, carpenters and masons that go into making the building a reality.

Students, after settling on a design, move on to the fabrication phase.

Student working on the metal parts of the pavilion. From http://www.uh.edu/gdbs/shop_fabrication.html.

Students are given arc welders and circular saws and produce the components of their project themselves. This is where the class moves beyond design and into real-world building. This is honestly something that I wish were more widely available for design students. As the kid whose favorite toys were Legos growing up, I wish that we had more opportunities to actually pick up some tools and get our hand dirty. The students assemble the parts in the warehouse to make sure everything fits, and then it is taken apart again and moved to the site.

Professionals do assist the students in using larger tools such as augers and cement mixers, but the students still survey the area, put up forms, work the concrete, and install the fabricated elements.

Students insalling a concrete bench. From http://www.uh.edu/gdbs/site_installation.html.

This project in particular included more specialized work, as solar panels were installed on the roof and wiring had to run from the structure. In the end, the students get a project that they can look at and know that they were a part of from start to finish.

This is a great experience for the students, and also for the users of the new facility, who are often schools and other institutions in need. I don’t at all question the importance and efficacy of the program, and wish that I personally could participate in something so hands-on. However, I do question whether some of the designs are the most appropriate.

Shade is an important element of the public realm in hot places such as Houston. However, there is more than one way to create shade. In many ways, I think that trees or some other sort of landscape installation may be more appropriate for the Houston climate. These structures, while they provide shade, also create added stormwater runoff, which can be an issue when a large storm or hurricane hits Houston. Such a structure may be more appropriate in nearby San Antonio, which gets much less rain. Trees may not work well in San Antonio, where their water requirements might be burdensome, but in much wetter Houston, they might be a better option than permanent structures. While trees could not work as a site for solar panels, there are plenty of existing structures with flat roofs that would work just as well, and may require less copper, an increasingly expensive construction material.

This is a great program, one that should be considered at other graduate design programs, and leads me to ask, when do we students at Penn get to build something?

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