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Thread: The "right way" of doing urban design

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    One thing I've noticed in the urban design "field" is that while there are different opinions amongst designers and planner, many continue to to espouse that their preferred way is the "right" or "urban" way and assert others are misguided, poorly designed, serving developers interest, "suburban," etc. with little or no evidence.

    I encountered this recently with main-street parking. To regulators in my city, it was obvious that angled parking on a new "main street" was a suburban form and that businesses are better supported by parallel parking. Yet I studied urban design with a nationally known urbanist and big-city planning director who swears by angled parking as supporting business and yielding more parking than parallel would, without resorting to surface lots - essentially thatit may be a bit messy and urban and it serves its purpose. I also lived in a city that historically had wide streets and thus makes good use of angled parking, in a downtown that is nationally respected for revitalization ...

    Likewise I've encountered this argument with tree lawns (regulators say every street needs them on both sides, no excpetions!; yet my surveys of historic areas show smaller side streets often don't have them, some streets have them only on one side, etc.) Another one: "anchoring" corner buildings by habvign two fronts (again, some designers swear by it, but I seldom see an urban townhome or storefront building that has two fronts - windows on the side wall or a little wrap-around storefront, yes, but seldom two fronts ...).

    I even worked with a designer who didn't realize main street stores in smaller cities perform better when there is on street parking or that on-street parking buffered pedestrians from moving cars - when staff and merchants critiqued the design, said designer seemed to dismiss that concern as an auto-oriented suburban idea. I admit this is unusual, but we paid the designer!

    Basically, I think I come down on the side that urban areas need to be vibrant but this is more about decent design and performance of the design rather than just following by rote a single stylebook.

    My bigger question is, why are some urban designers I encounter so confident that their way is "right" and "urban" and don't even bother to support their assertions with historic background, pecedents, evidence of its effectiveness, or research?

    And, up front, appologies to those designers who may point out I am lumping together my experience with regulatory planners (sometimes trained in design), urban designers (by title), and landscape architects doing urban design, who will obviously have different breadth and depth of background. I guess part of the reason urban design is so hard to define!

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    Urban Designers, like Planners, can become intellectually lazy and start following the one-size-fits-all method. This is one of the worst things a planner or urban designer can do. It's fine to look at and understand how things are done elsewhere, and it's fine to suggest a similar approach be taken as was taken in another community if a thorough investigation of your community results in similar base conditions and a similar vision for the future. But it’s not fine to subjectively pick a set of ‘rules’ and apply them globally expecting everything to work out in the end. Every community is different and every community deserves to find unique solutions that fit its requirements if that’s what it takes to solve the problem or implement the vision.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    I think one of the most important and often overlooked components of 'urban design' is context. There are number of contexts to consider (local, global, market & reguatory) and they underpin the use or need for the design. In several of the examples you mentioned above its obvious the designer forgot to look at the context of their design before put the individual dimensions in place.

    I am always hesitant to use a 'best practices' idea for a project because really the best design is one that works for the area you are designing for. I am not an 'urban designer' but have some training in and and do alot of design review for my fair city. I also work exclusively in our redevelopment/downtown area which is the most urban part about the bedroom community I work for.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by docwatson View post
    My bigger question is, why are some urban designers I encounter so confident that their way is "right" and "urban" and don't even bother to support their assertions with historic background, pecedents, evidence of its effectiveness, or research?
    This is the human condition. Across all disciplines and practices.

    Quote Originally posted by docwatson View post
    Likewise I've encountered this argument with tree lawns (regulators say every street needs them on both sides, no excpetions!; yet my surveys of historic areas show smaller side streets often don't have them, some streets have them only on one side, etc.)
    Just because you've encountered something doesn't mean it is a good idea just because it got built. Trees perform many services for us, for free. They should be given room to grow.


    Quote Originally posted by Howl View post
    Every community is different and every community deserves to find unique solutions that fit its requirements if thatís what it takes to solve the problem or implement the vision.
    To play devil's advocate, this is the other end of the 'one size fits all' spectrum and has the danger of reinventing the wheel over and over.

    Quote Originally posted by beach_bum View post
    I think one of the most important and often overlooked components of 'urban design' is context.

    I am always hesitant to use a 'best practices' idea for a project because really the best design is one that works for the area you are designing for.
    Mee three.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    I gave a presentation at APA a few years ago, on breaking the rules when it comes to downtown design. I think there are really two issues. One is designer ego. The other is a whole set of informal rules, not only from the designer, but also the engineers and others who influence design. Functionality, in most cases, should be the first consideration. After that I think the options should be unlimited.
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  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    I prefer the main entrances of corner buildings to be placed on a diagonal and oriented to the intersection, regardless of transect zone or building type. Intersections are excellent opportunities to create landmarks and gathering places. And, chamfered setbacks or R.O.W.'s at these corners may be even better, especially where the blocks are bigger and where pedestrians need more relief.

    Parallel parking may seem more urban than angled parking since the latter fits more cars, which, conceivably, are out of scale for a highly-urban environment; however, parallel parking is much more common in sub-urban low-density residential neighborhoods. So, neither type can be used to clearly communicate transect zone.

    Tree lawns are certainly less urban than sidewalks with only tree wells. And, this type is less urban, still, than sidewalks with no trees at all. The great benefits that come with street trees usually outweigh the use of a lack of said trees to communicate transect zone, so most people calibrate transects to always include the planting of trees. However, in a dense area with tall buildings, narrow streets, and/or little sunlight, trees may not work well at all.

    The importance of transect regulation is that it forces everyone, from architects and planners to traffic engineers and landscape architects, to develop a series of modes that ensure context-sensitive outcomes. One should always be able to argue his or her standardized "preferences", though, if they are based on sound logic and reasoning.
    Last edited by Pragmatic Idealist; 23 Jan 2011 at 11:45 AM.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    I think Pragmatic Idealist is illustrating the kind of Urban Designer Confidence, or over-confidence as the case may be, that the original post is describing. Are we sure that the transects work the same in every city?

    A middle ground of context sensitivity, balanced with a good dose of reality and a sense of possibility that comparing the subject city with other known cities brings, should lead to some good results.

    This is why urban design is an art, not a science. Thankfully, it's one that where every single best practice does not have to be followed in order for a place to manifest its unique sense of place. Our human senses filter out plenty of noise when the overall impression is favorable. If there's plenty of eye candy and ambiance, we will discount the importance of the overhead power lines.

    So I think urban design is all about taking the most effective steps possible, factoring in cost-effectiveness, politics, property owner attitudes, and logistics, and then persuading the public or private sector to add bold punches of complementary brilliance whenever there's new development, significant redevelopment, or infrastructure changes.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by urban2rural View post
    I think Pragmatic Idealist is illustrating the kind of Urban Designer Confidence, or over-confidence as the case may be, that the original post is describing. Are we sure that the transects work the same in every city?
    I agree there is no cookbook solutions to these issues. Thats why Michigan has passed a Complete Streets law which forces all parties involved in planning the road to agree on what shape any future development should be that is in the ROW. I have no idea what a transect is or a chamfered set-back, no one uses these terms on the transportation side. We use terms that people understand such as bike-lane, bus pull-out, or streetscape. Granted it is hard to get folks to think about access management until we show them how it works and benefits the environment, reduces crashes, in increases mobility.

    My persepctive is not one of a designer, but one of a planner.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Streck's avatar
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    IMHO streets should be used for moving traffic not parking. Businesses and housing should provide off-street parking as required for their own use per zoning requirements.

    Weren't there some urban renewal concepts where this worked out to the advantage of everyone?

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    I was hired a few years ago to replace an urban designer who had originally been hired to prepare a master plan for a small village. Apparently he was a typical architect/urban designer with a huge ego who came into the first meeting with the village residents with an almost complete plan and told them why they should support it. The villagers rebelled and threw up so many road blocks (they basically rejected any idea other than more of what they already had) that eventually the first urban designer quit.

    My initial meeting with the local villagers went surprisingly well because my firms approach is to listen to what people were saying as the first step – e.g. never go into a first meeting with pre-conceived ideas. We had practically the whole village in the auditorium (many may have came to see the new urban design cut down) and when we started to discuss what the villagers wanted their village to be like a surprisingly large number of people said they wanted higher densities and a wider variety of built-form. It turned out that the ‘rebels’ were only a small, but vocal, portion of the population. At that point it was no longer the rebels vs. the designer, but the rebel minority vs. the local majority. We didn’t end up with the ‘perfect’ Disneyesque village the original designer wanted, but we did end up with a realistic plan that laid the foundation for the villagers taking their community in any number of directions in the future.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by docwatson View post
    To regulators in my city, it was obvious that angled parking on a new "main street" was a suburban form and that businesses are better supported by parallel parking. Yet I studied urban design with a nationally known urbanist and big-city planning director who swears by angled parking as supporting business and yielding more parking than parallel would, without resorting to surface lots - essentially thatit may be a bit messy and urban and it serves its purpose. I also lived in a city that historically had wide streets and thus makes good use of angled parking, in a downtown that is nationally respected for revitalization ...
    It sounds like the use of parallel vs. angled was a decision based solely on the merits of opinion urban form and design. I personally don't disagree that in many cases angled parking is more beneficial in supporting businesses for the reasons noted above.

    What I would be interested in seeing however is some sort of analysis that the apparent positive incremental difference angled parking might provide for businesses results in enough sales tax revenue increase to offset the additional maintenance responsibility left to the municipality. Two 8' wide parallel parking spaces now become upwards of two 20' deep angled parking spots. 24 feet of additional road width that needs municipality maintenance and upkeep (road repair, overlays, street sweeping, snow plowing) not to mention additional impervious surface to account for, which in turn could mean larger pipe sizing to convey drainage, larger drainage facilities, etc.

    The additional 20+ feet of pavement also means additional time for peds to cross the street, absent of neckdowns at intersections. Does the pedestrian experience of needing to navigate wider streets play into the equation, much less signal timing and traffic flow considerations.

    Just wondering if the public works side looking at function, costs and maintenance gets to weigh in?

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Streck View post
    IMHO streets should be used for moving traffic not parking. Businesses and housing should provide off-street parking as required for their own use per zoning requirements.
    On-street parking generally can slow down traffic if done right and the street is not 700 feet wide. Slowing traffic is usually a good thing.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Streck View post
    IMHO streets should be used for moving traffic not parking. Businesses and housing should provide off-street parking as required for their own use per zoning requirements
    Hmmm.. streets, to move traffic. So Where does pedestrian safety fit in this whole "street should be used for moving traffic" thing or did we forget in urban design 101 that parking buffers cars from pedestrians using the sidewalk. The next thing out of your mouth probably is that we don't need sidewalks either huh?

    BTW...
    There is no "right way" of urban design. The "right way" is what is best for each community and their own set of issues. There are applications to get to the "right way" such as workshops, charretts, etc but the same solution will not work from Town A to Town B. When planners figure this out, then they are going on the right track.
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  14. #14
    Cyburbian
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    Urban design and urban planning tend to be ego driven industries. Many of the best urban designers have become the best because they are driven by the belief that their idea is the only reasonable solution and that any opposing idea is from the mind of lesser people. A slight over exaggeration but not that far from the truth.

    In my work as an urban designer, I have always tried to work under the assumption that I may have good ideas most of the time and excellent ideas some of the time. There are a lot of different solutions to the same problem and either getting other designers opinions or looking at examples how other designers have approached the same problem has always helped me to broaden my perspective and improve my own thoughts.

    Urban design is not a one size fits all field. Every situation is different and the process of coming up with solutions is a creative, dynamic one. Designers who tell you that there is only one solution to a problem limit their own ability to build upon their design capabilities by letting their ego narrow their creative side. They focus more on what makes them feel important than what will work best for the situation.

  15. #15
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by urban2rural View post
    I think Pragmatic Idealist is illustrating the kind of Urban Designer Confidence, or over-confidence as the case may be, that the original post is describing. Are we sure that the transects work the same in every city?
    Urban-to-rural transects can be observed across cultures. Cars, oil, and freeways, along with Euclidean zoning, are the factors that changed the way these development patterns devolved into the homogeneous suburban sprawl with which no one can be satisfied.

    Understanding models and establishing certain rules are important for preventing such failed experiments, like Towers in the Park. Landscape Urbanism, which has gained some currency in recent years, is potentially advocating the same monstrous disregard for transects and walkability, so these issues need to be addressed with something more than just the passing whims of urban planners and designers who are apt to substitute personal preferences, disguised by the public process, for a systematized and thoughtful approach.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Pragmatic Idealist View post
    Urban-to-rural transects can be observed across cultures. Cars, oil, and freeways, along with Euclidean zoning, are the factors that changed the way these development patterns devolved into the homogeneous suburban sprawl with which no one can be satisfied.
    Are not cars, oils, and freeways simply derrivatives of the same thing? If we moved to battery powered Jetson-mobiles would we not have many of the same issues?

    Whats wrong with towers in a park? This can achieve a beautiful landscape that is very pedestrian orientated. Just ask those who live in the Towers along Chicago's park system or the folks who live in Detroit's Lafayette Park
    I think that the original intent of saying a street moves traffic was just that. Traffic does not need to be a car going down a lane. Traffic comes in the form of pedestrians, bicycles, buses, baby carriges....
    Last edited by DetroitPlanner; 24 Jan 2011 at 5:20 PM.

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