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Posts tagged ‘urban design’

Peripheral Vision

September 13, 2016



I’ve started publishing a monthly digest of good writing on suburbia via tinyletter. It’s called Peripheral Vision, and I promise to keep it concise, fun, and surprising. You should sign up!

In Defense of Drive-to Urbanism

August 8, 2016



Yesterday, I was scrolling through Twitter when my eye snagged on a tweet by Alex Steffen, an environmentalist, futurist, and popular thinker in urbanist circles.

Steffen’s tweet points to a post on the website of the nonprofit Strong Towns—a project of the traditional-cities evangelist Chuck Marohn—titled Drive-to Urbanism. Its author, Kevin Posey, takes aim at today’s developments built on New Urbanist principles but in isolated or disconnected places. He cites a project called Old Town Columbus in Georgia, which is not only 100 miles from the closest big city (Atlanta) but nine miles outside of the town of Columbus itself.

This creates a paradox: a development carefully planned to be navigable without a car once you’re inside it, but that you have to drive to get to in the first place.

Posey finds little to appreciate in such developments, whether in terms of their environmental impact or residents’ quality of life. “True, residents will likely walk to shops and restaurants once they get home in the evening, but before that, they will be part of the hordes of single-occupant car commuters jamming the highways and polluting the air,” he writes. He blames developers, politicians, and planners for making it hard or unpleasant for people to get to the train station even when it’s right on their doorstep, like at Northern Virginia’s Mosaic District, separated from the nearby Metro station by nine lanes of whizzing traffic.

It’s true that many examples of “drive-to urbanism” fall short of urbanist ideals—but talk about making the perfect the enemy of the good! Places like the Mosaic District, Pike & Rose in Rockville, Md., and my own local downtown of Silver Spring, Md., represent a vast improvement on the usual chaotic strip-and-box sprawl.

Yes, people drive and park in the garages on the periphery of these developments. But then they get out and walk. If they can do three errands while they’re in the walkable zone, that’s three car trips reduced to one. More than that, the experience plants a seed that grows in people’s minds. Suburban weekends don’t have to be spent breathing in traffic fumes between each activity stop. A coffee break compares pretty well to getting back on the road. What if this were the norm rather than the exception?

My friend Dan Reed has another name for this kind of gateway environment—“Green Day urbanism,” i.e., a slightly cheesy, populist version of something (punk music, in his analogy) that can hook people on the whole genre.

The developments that Posey and Steffen object to (the latter going so far as to call them “toxic”) are crucial stepping-stones to a general attitude shift. When people have the choice to go to a town center—even an ersatz one—over a “power center,” the sheer waste of time and enjoyment caused by bad land use becomes glaringly obvious, and they tend to reject it. Today, we are already voting with our checkbooks, choosing walkable suburbs over sprawling ones and pushing up property values and economic development in the denser parts of metro areas. The biggest problem with drive-to urbanism isn’t that it looks fake or is ringed by stroads. It’s that there’s nowhere near enough of it.

Posey is right when he complains that suburban transportation planners often make wrong-headed decisions and developers and officials don’t prioritize urbanity. Retrofitting suburbs isn’t easy. After 60 years of auto-based planning, everyone is still climbing a learning curve. It will take a while to change the culture inside local governments, just as it has taken a while for early experiments like Seaside and the Kentlands (and the New Towns that came before them, such as Reston, Va.) to percolate in the public consciousness. Give it some time.

I’m thinking about drive-to urbanism this week as I ferry my son back and forth to his tennis camp. Our route passes through a great, organic example of the type. The Kemp Mill neighborhood in Wheaton, Md., is characterized by Sixties-era split-levels and ranch houses. It has a dendritic street pattern and you can’t walk there from the Metro. It has a strip mall with a big parking lot. So far, so bad, according to the usual urbanist math. (Its Walk Score: a so-so 56.)

Joe Schlesinger

Kemp Mill Shopping Center (Joe Schlesinger)

Yet the neighborhood has other ingredients for walking. Very large apartment buildings stand next to the strip mall, leased by everyday businesses like a grocery store, a bank, a bakery, and a dentist. Houses of worship dot Arcola Avenue, the main drag. Montgomery County’s biggest park, with sports facilities and an adventure playground, is close by. It’s a cliché that no one walks in suburbia, but on a typical weekend, families are out strolling Arcola in force.

Kemp Mill has a large Orthodox Jewish population, and Orthodox Jews don’t drive on the Sabbath. Walkability isn’t just desirable for this community—it’s essential. Kemp Mill grew up around its first synagogue, established in 1961, and has evolved to serve residents’ needs. It shows that a walkable and “complete” neighborhood—graced with a mix of housing types, businesses, religious centers, schools, and green space—does not need a street grid or overall high density to thrive over a long period of time.

This all reminds me of research by Nico Larco, an architect in the Pacific Northwest. Larco’s recent book (with co-authors Kristin Kelsey and Amanda West) has a how-to format and the dry title Site Design for Multifamily Housing, but couched in it is a convincing argument for the inherent urbanity of suburban apartment complexes. Such buildings have been blotted out of the popular conception of suburbia, yet millions of Americans live in them (Larco counts nine million units) and they offer, he writes, “great potential for increasing livability and promoting smart growth goals.”

Fairly small tweaks to street and landscape design, like lowering fencing and extending sidewalks, can have a major impact. A study that Larco did in 2010 found that residents of well-connected suburban multifamily developments walked to their local commercial area 60 percent more than those who lived in less connected developments.

Larco’s research makes clear that there are already plenty of islands of urbanism in suburbia. Connecting them is difficult, but possible. The more of them there are, and the higher the proportion of Americans who live in them, the sooner that cautious politicians and developers will bow to public pressure and make it happen. Then they’ll be “drive-to” no longer.

Columbia and the idea of the civic mall

August 27, 2014



The American City Building once housed the American City Corporation, a Rouse Company subsidiary devoted to improving life in cities.

After snooping around the Frank Gehry-designed Whole Foods last week, I couldn’t resist a walk through Columbia’s small downtown area. In the heart of his new town, which broke ground in 1967, founder James Rouse put a manmade lake, Lake Kittamaqundi, where residents might listen to concerts or stroll on a warm day. So far, so town center-ish.

Columbia lakefrontBut Rouse had another idea for the commercial hub of his community, and that was an enclosed shopping mall. (If Wikipedia is to be trusted, not only did Rouse build the first enclosed mall east of the Mississippi, he also popularized the term “mall” to describe such structures.)

Columbia MallToday, we dismiss malls as junk spaces, byproducts of an era of auto-oriented sprawl that we’re desperately trying to reverse. We assume they’re hostile to walkers and anti-civic by definition. Not so Rouse. It’s fascinating that Rouse viewed both the mall and the lakefront area as essential civic spaces, and complementary ones.

I suspect he took a similar view of walking and driving–that cars and people could happily coexist in a low-density suburban town. What struck me most on my brief walk was this massive concrete stair, rising from a parking lot to a pedestrian walkway over Little Patuxent Parkway that links to the mall area. No one was using it.


image-2It is serious infrastructure. It would not look out of place in Boston’s City Hall Plaza or a London council estate. Yet here it still is, in the land of the Cheesecake Factory and Clyde’s sports bar.

Today, Columbia doesn’t look any different from other auto suburbs in Maryland–until you look harder. What’s left from the original town-building era is sometimes a little hokey (foreshadowing New Urbanism?) but also self-consciously modernist. Perhaps the self-consciousness is what makes it seem hokey, almost 50 years later.


The Dealings: a sculpture of James Rouse (R) in conversation with his brother Willard

It’s easy to write off Rouse’s vision as naive. Car suburbs were still new; the experience of walking amid lanes of 50-mile-per-hour traffic had not yet proved miserable. But with his mall, Rouse was on to something. It was, and is, Columbia’s center of gravity. Just a few years ago, locals howled in protest when the mall’s management tried to end the tradition of a holiday “poinsettia tree.” (They prevailed.) The mall remains busy and profitable, which is worth remembering as developers prepare to demolish it piece by piece.

From the parking lot, I admired a JC Penney store with a striated concrete facade–not long for this world–and looked over to the new development massing on the horizon. Columbia is getting a suburban retrofit du jour. A mixed-use, walkable town center will gradually replace the mall. If that means more affordable housing in a growing metropolitan area, then I’m all for it (especially if transit improvements follow).

But let’s not call this a cure for a “dying mall.” Malls are the suburban commons. Some have failed, but others are thriving, and of course developers want to maximize their profit by creating more square feet to lease. The current generation of developers in Columbia is building on Rouse’s success, not correcting his failure.

Columbia redevelopment

Architects, it’s time for an intervention

August 20, 2014


Ken Seeley

A professional interventionist.

If you’ve ever watched the A&E show Intervention, you know the formula: We meet an addict, someone struggling with drug abuse, alcoholism, gambling, or self-harm. We meet members of the addict’s family, desperate with worry and exhausted from years of trying to help their loved one. We see photos from better days, when the addict was a smiling Girl Scout or Little League player.

The family gathers at a hotel for an intervention. They rehearse their speeches, look nervously toward the door. It opens. The addict walks in, and a man in the group stands up to introduce himself.

He’s Ken. He’s an architect.

No, that last part isn’t true. He’s not an architect–why would he be? He’s a trained addiction specialist. But to hear many architects talk, you’d be forgiven for the confusion. Architects “intervene” in things all the time.

Spruce up a park or plaza? Why, that’s a public-space intervention. Create a cool rendering of buildings that’ll never be built? It’s a graphic intervention, a challenge to the visual status quo.


After intervention, relaxation. Photo of PARK(ing) Day in Washington, DC, by Aimee Custis on Flickr.

Suburban interventions

Suburban interventions? Photo by hope and megan on Flickr.

Maybe your last project was a backyard patio, which sounds kind of lame and bourgeois. But call it a “suburban intervention“–now that’s exciting.

Architects: Stop overusing this word. It makes you sound pretentious. Worse, it undercuts the value of projects that do have a political or social agenda, that take real risks, that make a substantial contribution to public health and welfare.

The word “intervene” derives from the Latin inter (between) + venire (to come). An intervention is a coming-between, a deliberate insertion–of oneself, usually–into a place or situation. It’s a strong word. Police officers intervene in cases of child abuse or domestic violence. Foreign conflicts may prompt a military intervention, right or wrong, by the United States; the United Nations intervenes in humanitarian crises.

In education and the social sciences, intervention is a treatment tool to change behaviors for better outcomes. Obesity intervention may prevent a person from developing diabetes. Literacy intervention helps at-risk children read at the same level as their peers.

Likely because these fields latched onto it, “intervention” appears far more frequently in English now than it did a few decades ago. Google Ngram shows a steep rise in usage in English books from about 1960 onward, with an even more dramatic spike when the terms “design” or “architectural” are used in combination. To be fair, architects aren’t the only ones who have embraced the term; it’s gained lexical ground across our culture.

Intervention Ngram

Design Intervention Ngram

For the most part, interventions try to stave off critical human problems such as disease, violence, alcohol and drug dependency, and low educational attainment. Thanks to the social design movement, we know that design can serve as a positive health or welfare intervention–but that knowledge comes with the risk of linguistic overreach.

Trust me, I understand the appeal of the term. (And am not immune to it, as a quick trip through my back catalog reveals.) You can only write “project” or “building” so many times, and “intervention” sounds bolder, more provocative. Many architects are steeped in architectural history and critical theory, so to them, the term may evoke the excitement of Gordon Matta-Clark splitting a house in two,* or Guy Debord leaflet-bombing a conference of art critics.

The problem is, most people don’t think of Gordon Matta-Clark or Guy Debord when they hear “intervention.” They think of the TV series, or a military operation, or a problem that needs the attention of social services. The geographer Javier Arbona recently argued that you can’t have gentrification without gentrifiers; likewise, the agents of intervention become interventionists, with all the mixed associations that label implies.

It’s easier to say which projects seem to merit the term than which ones don’t. A new, innovative medical clinic that fights disease in an underserved area? Sure. The remediation of urban land that’s blighted–or toxic–so that it becomes a vital community resource? Yes.

Guerrilla grafting of branches onto city trees so that passersby might pluck local fruit? Hmm. I need there to be more at stake to call a project an intervention, or at least for the payoff to be greater.

But there’s a wide range of opinion about the predominant meaning of “intervention” in architectural circles, as I found out when I took the question to Twitter earlier this summer. (See the Storify recap below.) Some designers use it in a more surgical sense, of rehabilitating or adding onto a historic building. One person said it was the catch-all term applied to everything he did in design school, which is worrying.

I’m not asking the architectural community to abandon the word–just to think more carefully before using it. If someone who lives across the street from your project heard you call it an intervention, would they agree with you? Laugh at you? Take offense?

English is a rich language, with many ways around the i-word (although no one in my Twitter exercise could thing of a perfect substitute). What’s wrong with another i-word, improvement? Or–call me old-fashioned–beautification.

Special thanks to everyone who took part in the Twitter discussion, especially Mallory Baches, Trevor Dykstra, Kian Goh, Alexandra Lange, John Massengale, Karen Robichaud, Fred Scharmen, and Mimi Zeiger.

*Mimi Zeiger, who knows a lot about this, says the more relevant Matta-Clark projects are FOOD and Fake Estates.

**Apologies for not embedding the Ngrams and Storify–WordPress won’t allow it, grrr.

Storify: Architects and “intervention”

Sticking up for the suburbs

February 29, 2012


Now that more avant-garde architects are paying attention to the suburbs, I don’t know whether to be pleased or intensely irritated. Part of me thinks: Finally! They’ve come to realize that suburbanites aren’t all cultureless, environment-hating yahoos, guzzling resources with abandon.

The rest of me thinks: Here we go again. And I’m afraid the cynical side won out when I reviewed (admittedly online) the proposals included in the Museum of Modern Art’s Foreclosed exhibition.

Don’t get me wrong–there are great architecture firms represented in the show, firms like Chicago’s Studio Gang and New York’s Work AC. But as Diana Lind, editor of The Next American City, noted in a sharp review of Foreclosed, none of the architects involved actually lives in a suburb. Accordingly, some of the proposals suggest an intolerance for any mode of living except what might be called the hyperurban.

So Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample of MOS would fill in the streets of Orange, N.J., with ribbons of new mixed-use development, bringing the density (and aesthetic) of Chelsea or SoHo to a place that already has more building stock than it can handle. For sprawling Temple Terrace, Fla., as it considers creating its first-ever downtown, Visible Weather dreamed up a superstructure reminiscent of Archigram’s Plug-In City.

Would a place to get ice cream or kick a ball around have been too prosaic? Given the competition’s starting-point–an academic screenplay in which Socrates muses about the housing bubble–I think we can answer yes.

Annual Fourth of July parade in Takoma Park, Md.

Foreclosed has merits (it does not treat “suburbia” as a monolith, for one), but it brought up bad memories of last year’s misbegotten exercise in suburban fantasy: Open House, organized by Droog and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. In this high-design caper, architects from Manhattan and Brooklyn (sample firm name: Fake Industries Architectural Agonism) went to Levittown, the ur-suburb on Long Island, to organize conceptual happenings in houses there.

One house became a makeshift casino; another was transformed into a “Domesticity Museum.” The homeowners were, ostensibly, collaborators, although in a critique of the project as spot-on as Lind’s of Foreclosed, Allison Arieff put paid to the notion that the householders discovered their own “solutions” to suburban “problems.” The ideas were generated for them, by the designers.

Arieff was on the jury of Build a Better Burb, another design competition last year that focused on suburban Long Island. The proposals awarded by Better Burb couldn’t have been more different from the conceptual-art events of Open House: accessory dwelling units, transit networks, ecological regionalism. In other words, pragmatic strategies for sustainable suburban redevelopment.

The Flower Avenue Holiday Market reanimates a little-used parking lot in Silver Spring, Md.

Likewise, the book Retrofitting Suburbia, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, proves that the discipline of urban design has a lot to offer American suburbs as they evolve to become less auto-dependent and more diverse. That’s the one crucial thing about the suburbs that some urbanites don’t seem to grasp: They’re evolving.

Yes, there are houses in foreclosure and malls that have seen better days. No, car dependence and diffuse development are not sustainable. But increasingly, suburbs are the American places that welcome new immigrants, offer the lion’s share of the jobs, and allow for a degree of social equity that’s become impossible in class-stratified city centers.

Lind speculates that maybe the pendulum has swung back to the suburbs again after the urban renaissance of the 1990s and 2000s. I am sure that it has. And if fixing the suburbs is the problem of our generation–as Dunham-Jones claims–we’d better get started. Tactically, and without prejudice.