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Thread: "Grit" in the built environment: what is it?

  1. #1
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    "Grit" in the built environment: what is it?

    In a post about the most "Michiganish" city in Michigan, btrage writes:

    Quote Originally posted by btrage View post
    I'm curious what you mean by "grit". As in just dirty, or do you mean socio-economic conditions, religious leanings, etc.
    The dictionary definition of "grit" is:

    grit (grt)
    n.
    1. Minute rough granules, as of sand or stone.
    2. The texture or fineness of sand or stone used in grinding.
    3. A coarse hard sandstone used for making grindstones and millstones.
    4. Informal Indomitable spirit; pluck.
    Grit seems like one of those qualities that's difficult to describe; you know it when you see it. Whenever I visit Pittsburgh, the place strikes me as being "gritty", even though it's not really what I could consider a dirty city, much less one covered with minute rough granules.

    I often hear urbanists and "armchair planners" describe certain cities or urban neighborhoods as "gritty", usually with a positive context for the word. For example; "Buffalo is a grittier city than Rochester, and it just seems more authentic and real."

    Here's a couple of images from a thread on an urbanist forum, with what is described as an example of "grit" in a city in the Northeastern United States.





    None of these images depict trash-strewn streets, or buildings covered in soot or grime, but yet they're "gritty". Why?

    So, what are some of the elements that comprise grit in the built environment and urban landscape? Is grit a trait that is positive or negative, and why?
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  2. #2
    Cyburbian ursus's avatar
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    I think you're right, it's sort of an urban authenticity. The kind you can't really get from new urbanism, necessarily. I think you hope that NU prinicples will allow for some future "organic" (to introduce another un-definable urban term) grit.
    "...I would never try to tick Hink off. He kinda intimidates me. He's quite butch, you know." - Maister

  3. #3
    OH....IO Hink's avatar
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    To me, grit insinuates that it has been used. In your photo nothing looks new. It looks as though it was built to last, and it has lasted.

    Nothing is fancy or detailed, it is just simple, average areas. If someone asked me about the gritty urban fabric I would have a picture in my mind of what that meant.

    Simple, worn, used, lasted. That's my vision of grit.
    A common mistake people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools. -Douglas Adams

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    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    This is a great thread topic.

    Here's the "grit" in the photos as I see it:

    Photo #1:

    - The demolished lot on the opposite side of the street with the featureless elevation of the adjacent rowhouse in full view

    - The rough patching job on certain portions of the street

    - The bad repointing job on the facade of the building on the far left of the screen

    - The ugly building with the fire escape on the far right of the screen. The problem with this structure is the stuccoed first floor below what looks like a vinyl sided second floor. Gross.

    - Inconsistent streetscaping - looks like some of the sidewalk blocks are concrete pavers while others are chip seal. Gives it a patchwork look. The street could also use some additional street trees.

    Photo #2:

    - A number of the window openings on the brick facade in the center of the photo are missing their sills, which have been replaced with off-color brick below the window. The entablature has been removed from the cornice of the right half of the brick facade. The white, vinyl clad facades flanking it have clearly seen better days. I'd guess that these structures are also brick underneath the vinyl. The facade to the right of the center brick structure is clearly blighted.

    -Overhead power lines. This goes for Photo #1 as well. Where were these photos taken? These type of lines have usually been undergrounded within larger cities, while inner-ring urban suburbs are notorious for the overhead lines cluttering up the streetscape.



    These photos are great examples of a place that has good urban "bones", so to speak, but just needs some TLC. I'm sure it was beautiful back in its prime.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    The word "grit" has several different connotations to many people. To me when I see the pictures and think "grit" the first think that comes to mind is harsh but had there been greenery (trees with leaves) and the appearance of a warmer environment/climate I would not have associated the pictures with being "gritty."

    Dan's definition of "grit" is regional as in the south a "grit" or more commonly known as grits, is side dish of corn that is ground (not whipped like cream of wheat) to a minute particule and served. Grits are a delicious dish better served hot as when they get cold they become lumpy and ask as a paste. GRITS is also referred to as Girls Raised In The South

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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post

    These photos are great examples of a place that has good urban "bones", so to speak, but just needs some TLC. I'm sure it was beautiful back in its prime.
    Agreed. It needs a bit more greenery too.

  7. #7
    Mod Gedunker's avatar
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    I'm reminded of Jane Jacobs:

    "Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation -- although these make fine ingredients -- but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some run-down old buildings."
    The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)

    Grit to me is a patina that only comes with age and use, sometimes hard use. As Dan notes, its easier to see it and say "There!" than to describe.

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    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    I like the use of the word 'patina' in connection with urban grit - it's a way of saying an urban evironment has layers. And layers in this context refers to how things change and/or develop over time. "Grit" suggests to me a relatively high degree re-use or even perhaps a certain constancy in neighborhood over time. Multiple generations of tenants or home owners occupy buildings in succession. The lack of architectural congruity/theme proves it developed organically over time. Too much 'new' and that elusive gritty quality dissipates.

    Looking at the photos, we can see the buildings are not particularly new, but there is evidence of repairs and maintenance over time as noted by MJ. You can tell the neighborhood in the first photo has bones that go back perhaps to the Civil War or possibly even earlier.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    I think "grit" is based mostly on age, honestly. Buildings and streets can show their age without being dirty.

    Also, I agree overhead powerlines have a huge visual impact.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    I’ve found that buildings go through a life cycle in North American communities.

    • Buildings are generally considered new for the first forty or so year of their life – any building built since 1970 would still be considered contemporary today, and probably wouldn’t be replaced in the near future. People want them because they are new.

    • Buildings between 40 and 80 years old are generally seen as replaceable. These buildings often need to be repaired or torn down, and as they don’t have any historical significance at this stage more often than not they get replaced. People don’t want them because they are old.

    • If buildings survive more than 80 years they start to take on a historical character which means they are more likely to be kept and repaired. People want them because they are historical.

    In a typical community lifecycle the demand for redevelopment in a particular area comes in waves every 50 or 60 years which coincides with buildings in the 40 to 80 year range which means communities often almost completely replace their stock of buildings every 50 years. If however economic circumstances mean buildings don’t get replaced and they reach their 80 year mark there is a good chance they will survive.

    These gritty areas are areas where due to hard economic circumstances a lot of buildings have survived past the 80 year mark. They missed their 50 year redevelopment wave. They are starting to get a historical character and charm but it is not the clean polished charm that comes with gentrification. It’s the charm of a well-used built-form that bears scars of all the past dramas that have unfolded there.

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    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    I think of grit as being similar to "patina" - that veneer of age that can be experienced. Patches in stucco, visible modifications of buildings over time, etc. Maybe another way to look at it is that the built landscape has a history and that history is (at least partially) legible by simply experiencing the environment. Looking at some of those images, you can kind of piece together some plausible stages of development as brick was repointed by some and covered with siding by others. The quality of the materials used also says something about the people who lived there. Are these do-it-yourself jobs? Is the siding vinyl versus real clapboard? Stuff like that.

    There is a lot of good literature about the value in the history of a place being legible in its built environment. I think of Kevin Lynch and Dolores Hayden, among others. They both say that residents are more invested in places where they can view and "participate" in the history of the area, even if they are a newcomer. This is done by making the "grit" visible and legible.

    I would say also that "gritty" cities may refer to both the state of the built form and the nature of the people who live there. Hardscrabble working class folks who engage in industrial, heavy manufacturing or other very physical jobs strike me as "gritty" people because, well, its a very hard life. That's a bit different from a place's buildings being gritty, but it does seem that these two go together often. Pittsburgh, for example, is gritty on both fronts. Maybe its that the legibility of grit tells the story of the people who live(d) there. Its a different story than a well-maintained suburban setting with restored mid-century modern homes and manicured lawns, for example. So, I think grit might also have a connotation of lower-income and less-educated parts of town.
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

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    Cyburbian
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    I will only say this: the Dallas division of the DFW Metro has got to be the least-gritty place in the US. The place is almost sterile, and where it's not sterile it's just run down, not gritty. (No offense, Dallasites...)

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    Cyburbian Mud Princess's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by wahday View post
    I would say also that "gritty" cities may refer to both the state of the built form and the nature of the people who live there. Hardscrabble working class folks who engage in industrial, heavy manufacturing or other very physical jobs strike me as "gritty" people because, well, its a very hard life. That's a bit different from a places buildings being gritty, but it does seem that these two go together often. Pittsburgh, for example, is gritty on both fronts. Maybe its that the legibility of grit tells the story of the people who live(d) there. Its a different story than a well-maintained suburban setting with restored mid-century modern homes and manicured lawns, for example. So, I think grit might also have a connotation of lower-income and less-educated parts of town.
    I agree. When I went to Scotland 10+ years ago, people described Glasgow as being "gritty" relative to Edinburgh, which has a lot more tourism. I suspect they meant that Glasgow was more working-class. It didn't seem dilapidated... it had character... nothing too fancy (though I was awestruck by the rail station there!).

  14. #14
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Gedunker View post
    I'm reminded of Jane Jacobs:

    "Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation -- although these make fine ingredients -- but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some run-down old buildings."
    The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)

    Grit to me is a patina that only comes with age and use, sometimes hard use. As Dan notes, its easier to see it and say "There!" than to describe.
    It's important to remember that she was specifically referring to the need for independent establishments and for a mix of incomes, as well as for cheap workspace that can incubate entrepreneurs and freelancers..

  15. #15
         
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    Can I throw 'urban grain' in to the mix too?

    Do 'gritty' cities have more 'grain'?

    By grain, I mean that the older street layouts are still in use, activities and commerce appear to occur on a more liquid basis (i.e. the impression of fewer regulations), smaller floorplates than modern day behemoth stores, making the place a far more varied prospect to walk along.

    I found a book at work the other day called Industrial Sheffield, and I was amazed at how many old works buildings and complexes had been demolished. Don't get me wrong, I understand that Sheffield (UK) was always an industrial city, but the sheer volume of 'industry' was quite a sight. I imagine that if they had retained many of these works, Sheffield would be a very different place with a good dose of grit, grain and character. I'm not saying it would be any better or worse, just very different.

    If anyone is interested in looking up some of the old works, have a gander at Google Streetview for Portland Works on the junction of Randall Street and Hill Street (still occupied by independent workshops), Butcher Works on Arundel Street (now converted in apartments) and some works on the western side of Snow Lane. These types of works used to be stretched out across the city.

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