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Features

One Lot at a Time

Ten tools for redesigning communities.
By Sallie Hood and Ron Sakal

In the heart of Chicago, IL, big-box stores fronted by huge parking lots are taking over the fashionable area along Clybourn, near the south end of the Kennedy Expressway. Meanwhile, out in suburban Lake County, a new subdivision (sometimes described as a "critically-acclaimed conservation community") has front porches, protected open land, a small community-supported farm, and access to two commuter trains.

These very different places are not problem and solution; they are two faces of the same problem, and it's happening everywhere. On the edge, greenfield development continues to eat up land, sometimes in an ecologically conscious or "traditional urbanist" way. In the city, old neighborhoods are being rebuilt as if they were suburbs reachable only by car – a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one.

Neither of these developments contributes to preservation. Neither does anything to rebuild the character of the city and inner suburbs as urban places where all kinds of people live together, walk to many destinations, drive to few, and meet and mingle in the public realm. We don't need any more suburbs. We need to fix the ones we have, and we need to fix our eroding, suburbanizing cities, one parking lot at a time.

First, a confession: we've always believed that intermingling with a diversity of people in public and semi-public places encourages our finest democratic instincts. Since the mid-1970s, we've always designed in ways that would support public life, but until we read the late Michael Brill's article, "Problems With Mistaking Community Life for Public Life," in the Fall 2001 issue of Places magazine, we lacked the right label for what we were doing. He distinguishes between "community life" (sociability with people you know somewhat) and "public life" (sociability with a diversity of strangers). This distinction enabled us to think more clearly about just how far architecture and urban design can take us toward our goals: fixing the suburbs and stemming their advance into urban and rural territory.

Of course we can preserve, repair and restore existing buildings, and fill former parking lots and vacant lots with new buildings compatible with their older neighbors – as we proposed in our award-winning 1998 design, "Solana Neighborhood Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2038: A Model for Growth Without Sprawl." But in doing so, can we expect to restore traditional forms of community life? We doubt it, because traditional sociability with casual acquaintances is in direct competition with air conditioning, TV, private cars and the internet. Public life in public places is also in competition with these forces, but we think good design can promote public life more successfully than it can promote community life. Bad design can certainly kill public life: we saw that in Santa Fe's Plaza Entrada, a barren, uninviting space created without an understanding of how and why Santa Fe's historic downtown plaza works as a vibrant public space.

So we don't want to over-promise or under-promise. We think good site-specific design can help combat the loss of social capital described by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. But it would be nostalgic, sentimental and unrealistic to expect any intervention – design or otherwise – to make urban life work in all the same ways it once did.

In 2005, when we took 14 Notre Dame architecture students to St. Augustine, FL, for a studio project, we found a town whose historic urban charms are separated and diminished by surface parking lots, much as in Santa Fe. Parking is a necessity when you have 12,000 full-time residents and up to six million tourists a year; the studio found ways to put it into structures "wrapped" with small shops and other activity generators. Underground parking was severely limited by the high local water table. In our Solana Neighborhood Center project, by contrast, low building heights were a design constraint, and so nearly all parking was put underground.

Streets built for cars only – a ubiquitous American condition – were another problem in St. Augustine. Public works officials, as they do throughout the country, had over the years acted as de facto urban designers to make Avenida Menendez into a wide highway. This potentially beautiful road runs along the waterfront, far from long-distance transportation needs, so our studio proposed a redesign involving a roundabout and median plantings and a seaside walkway, making the area friendly to pedestrians.

In both our private practice in 2002 and in a 2007 studio in Conway, AR, – not a tourist destination but home to three colleges – the situation and the needs were different. Harkrider Street was extremely wide and daunting for pedestrians to cross (as in St. Augustine) and was slated to become an arterial interstate "reliever" (unlike St. Augustine). So, with a differently configured roundabout, first we and then our studio found ways to make it cross-able and beautiful while increasing its traffic-carrying capacity.

Clearly the parking and street sections in these, and virtually all American towns, need redesign. But why even try to impose the same design template on such different places? Boilerplate designs-in-a-box are always trouble. Of course, the original boilerplate was Euclidean zoning (named not for the Father of Geometry but for Euclid, OH, defendant in the landmark 1926 Supreme Court case, "Village of Euclid vs. Amber Realty Co."). This kind of zoning, now pervasive, requires that homes, apartments, businesses, factories and schools each occupy their own separate areas. The doctrine of "separation of land uses" forces people into cars and eats away at public life. It needs to be relaxed, if not abolished.

Meanwhile, it's tempting to replace Euclidean zoning with an equally rigid but different set of boilerplate solutions. Resist that temptation. Just because the problem is huge doesn't mean the solutions have to be. In fact it's the opposite. Design solutions must be tailored to particular places. Otherwise they'll just become the next generation's problems. So there is no boilerplate in our toolbox when we work in our own private practice, or when we work with students in the Center for Building Communities (CBC) at the University of Notre Dame. Mostly our toolbox is full of things we've learned bit by bit, over three decades of working with existing conditions. For instance:

(1) Mixing land uses helps, with stores, homes, churches, workplaces and schools within easy walking distance of one another. A mix of daytime-only and all-hours uses helps, even if a few buffers may be required. This was key to our 1988 Daley Plaza project, commissioned by the Chicago Historical Society to show how the then-desolate plaza and its surroundings might be revitalized by 2028. Likewise in our 2007 studio in the 90-block Los Angeles Fashion District, a thriving marketplace in need of residential and evening street activity. (Of course, we need to be ready to add to our toolbox as conditions change: mixing residential and commercial uses may not be as simple now that national retail chains are cutting back. Designers can no longer take for granted that any number of proposed retail spaces will actually be occupied; ingenuity will be required.)

(2) Since not all uses can be close to all others, having a well-run mass transit system helps. Public life is about equity for those who can't or won't use a car – a group that is growing as gas prices rise. Alternative transportation forms such as jitneys, cabs-on-demand, shared cars, and bicycle lanes also promote public life, and may be more suitable in lower-density communities. Designers as such can't establish these things, but good design is more likely to bear fruit in places that have good transit options. Meanwhile we can work with that quintessential public space, the bus stop, making it more beautiful and habitable, as in our 1997 proposal for Santa Fe's Sheridan Transit Center, and in our 2003 studio in the Archer-Ashland area of Chicago.

(3) Convenient parking doesn't help. For a 2002 presentation in Chicago, we set out to photograph the street life that we supposed had been generated by new dense mixed-use development in the West Loop of Chicago. Day after day, at different times and places, we set out, but the only public life we could find to photograph were the smokers outside their workplaces! We'd had great expectations for this development, yet the streets were dead. One reason, we concluded, was that these mid-rise and high-rise mixed-use buildings had structured parking right inside (mandated by the zoning ordinance). Result: as in the suburbs, a resident can find her car indoors, drive to a destination, park in its parking lot or deck, go inside, and shop or visit the doctor, all without ever entering the public realm. Public life is more likely to develop when those who choose to use cars must still spend some part of their trip in the public way. Chicago's Lake View East neighborhood has a vibrant street life, in part because you're lucky to be able to find street parking within two blocks of your destination. (Many residents don't even bother to own a car.) In our 1998 Solana project, and in our 2008 studio in downtown Benton Harbor, MI, this insight was designed into proposed new residential buildings, whose parking was placed underground a short distance away.

(4) Surface parking lots don't help, for a number of mutually reinforcing reasons. Their size forces pedestrians to walk farther than before; their blankness makes the walk seem even longer than it is; and their mere availability makes driving seem easier than walking, creating a demand for still more surface parking. Tucking cars away underground or in wrapped structures (preferably automated) does help, because it begins to break this vicious circle. How this is done varies according to local conditions, but it's a constant in our projects. Yes, we realize structured parking costs more than on-grade; so does disposing of waste in underground pipes – an extra cost similarly resisted by developers until the connection between cholera and open sewage was irrefutable.

With less space-consuming ways to park, surface parking lots become available for profitable new design. They can be compared to the Dutch "polders" recaptured from the sea. The worst can become the best, and there are more bad places than you might expect. Even downtown Santa Fe, a nationally known destination for the aesthetically deprived, is more than one-quarter surface parking lots. Designers who crave to build anew should design here rather than in greenfields. (Eco-sprawl is still sprawl.) In 1998 we diagrammed potential walkable neighborhood centers in the Santa Fe of 2038, highlighting the surface parking then present in each. Filling these gaps in the city would simultaneously serve both people, by making Santa Fe more walkable and urban, and nature, by allowing Santa Fe's surroundings to remain more rural.

(5) A variety of housing sizes and types in every neighborhood helps. Big houses and little houses side by side are more likely to draw wealthy and non-wealthy people together over the long term than is a well-intentioned attempt to make everybody's housing look about the same. In Española, NM, in 2000, we proposed a mixed-income neighborhood including many modest 1,000 to 1,600-sq.ft. houses and even some trailers, on and around the site of an abandoned middle school. Our 2003 studio in the Archer-Ashland area of Chicago designed a similarly varied neighborhood in the yard of a former cement plant. This tool deserves special attention. Not only is neighborhood diversity a good thing in itself, but it can help promote equity by expressing social reality in physical terms: we may have different incomes, skin colors and ethnic origins, but we're all in the same boat.

(6) Permeability helps. That is, being able to cut through the center of long blocks, or enter and traverse a space in a variety of ways. One essential element of public life is having somewhere to go; another is having a variety of ways to get there; another is having each of those various ways lined with places that can generate unique and memorable experiences. Our 1998 design for Solana Neighborhood Center connected two previously isolated neighborhoods on opposite sides of the Santa Fe River. Walks across the area – to catch a bus, meet a friend, or visit Santa Fe's public athletic facilities or health clinic – could then be numerous, varied and memorable. Our studio work in the Los Angeles Fashion District (2007) proposed a variety of cut-throughs in what would otherwise be oppressively long blocks.

(7) Malls are in the business of purveying faux public life, with limited diversity and no politics. But lay off the wrecking ball – unless they are structurally deficient, these structures can be salvaged. Wrapping existing malls or parking structures with small shops, or even housing, helps generate public life. It's all the better if the space out front is deeded to the city, creating genuinely public spaces that allow peddling and leafleting and demonstrating and celebrating. This was the heart of our 1999 Cerrillos Road project in Santa Fe, and in both our Sheridan Transit Center and Española designs, streets are revitalized by sheathing blank walls of commercial structures with public and commercial activities.

(8) Increasing density may or may not help. Adding more people living in the same area may bring walking destinations closer together than before, but by itself it is no guarantee of public life. Our Chicago experience with dead streets in a dense new area taught us that. And our encounter with the Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg, VA, taught us that density isn't even a necessary condition of public life.

This street, known to residents as the D.O.G., wasn't densely populated in the 1750s, but it enjoyed a lively public life because it was part of a T-shaped configuration of streets, anchored and lined with a variety of public, semi-public and live/work destinations: the Capitol to the east, the College of William and Mary to the west, the Governor's Palace (the ultimate live/work building) up north on Palace Street, and Bruton Parish Church at the T intersection itself. In other words, higher densities can't guarantee public life and lower densities don't have to preclude it. It's not just the mix of activities, or the types of activities included, or their density, but also their arrangement that makes for public life. Successful malls, with their anchor stores at the ends and smaller places in between, follow the D.O.G. pattern. Our 2000 design for Española required that the new convention hotel serve only breakfast, so that visitors would emerge and walk a block or two for lunch and dinner at locally-owned restaurants and have the opportunity to share public life with citizens of Española.

(9) Scripted, pre-planned public meetings don't help. In our experience, simply asking citizens what's right and not so right about their neighborhoods will elicit intelligent answers and suggestions. Most people don't need to be prompted by generic visual preference surveys to tell what kind of places they enjoy; if possible, they vacation in them, and love to wax poetic about the experience in public meetings! And, of course, in many ways they understand the places they live in better than do visiting experts. As a rule, we find that a plan can be approved more quickly and easily if we simply listen to what people say and come back with a plan that responds to what they said, and that draws on our experience to add to it as well. That's how it worked for us in Conway, AR, in 2002.

(10) Elitist attitudes toward technologies long associated with mass-produced ugliness don't help. Like on-grade parking lots in a way, factory-built modular construction has hidden potential, as we thought and designed back in 1985. Well-designed modular construction offers consumers ample variety and greater durability, and guarantees developers faster construction times. Since fall 2006, in CBC studios in Elkhart, IN, Conway, AR, Los Angeles, and Benton Harbor, MI, our studios have made extensive use of modular construction methods in compatible residential designs for historic neighborhoods, as well as in mid-rise mixed-use downtown buildings.

Of course the process of moving toward public life in public spaces is a matter of degree, not black and white. In the worst case, streets without sidewalks are life, threatening for pedestrians. Sidewalks with blank walls along busy arterial streets are at least pedestrian accessible. Sidewalks with small shops and benches and curbside parking are pedestrian-friendly. But none of these are yet places that will generate public life. That takes the right tools from the right toolbox in the right place.

And what is the right place? We contend that the ugliest and least appealing spots need our attention the most; it's just a bonus that they often also offer great design and redevelopment opportunities. As long as beauty is a scarce commodity, beautiful places will be in demand, and they'll become gentrified almost as fast as they're built. That's what happened a century ago to Irving Gill's Lewis Courts (Bella Vista Terrace) in Sierra Madre, CA. It broke his heart then, and it's still happening now. Until beauty in the public realm is no longer scarce, we propose to fix the worst places first.  

 

 

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