It’s that time of year here in central New Mexico when I start eating lunch in my courtyard so I can watch the tomatoes turn red. I’m reminded while sitting here of a visit from Steve Mouzon of the Original Green who was lecturing at the University of New Mexico.
In not learning from the past we are destined to repeat it. So, in this lab, I’ll examine some of the trends currently dominating planning and begin examining the quirks and pitfalls that can occur when a solution for one city is transplanted somewhere else.
In my last Next Urbanism Lab post, I detailed how my city of San Diego has been built over time through a layering of national planning and development trends — silver bullets, so to speak — in order to chase economic prosperity. Our new convention center, downtown baseball park, mall, and freeway were squished into our traditional urban fabric in order to save our city from some economic malaise at the time.
In our last post in this series, we covered the three steps of placemaking. The first of these steps, crafting a meaningful vision, is the most straightforward, yet it is also the most underleveraged.
It is underleveraged because communities do not understand its political implications. As a result they do not adequately invest in getting it right.
Mistake #3: Refusing to do the heavy lifting that is required in order to create a meaningful vision.
My city’s downtown is built on decades of layers. Planning trends layered upon planning trends. Over its history, through a long list of award-winning vision plans, San Diego has earnestly followed what every other city has done.
Not to discount the quality of the plans, mind you. After all, John Nolen did two. Kevin Lynch prepared one. Mike Stepner, FAIA, FAICP, gave us several. Incoming APA President Bill Anderson, FAICP, did our latest city plan, and John Fregonese is preparing a new one this year.
The point instead is to illustrate a legacy of following rather than one of leading. Consider, for example, the history that led us to where we are today.
As soon as the destructive path of Hurricane Sandy became evident, I got emails and calls from colleagues who, like me, worked in disaster recovery situations on the Gulf Coast. When the clean-up gets underway, could this be an opportunity for the Eastern Seaboard states to apply some of the rebuilding lessons of the Gulf after Katrina? Is there a role for Katrina Cottages?
Well, sure. If there’s one upside in the succession of devastating weather events over the last decade, it’s the opportunity to build on lessons learned. Time between disasters dulls response capacities; shorter gaps refine best practices. And for my money, no lessons are worth more than those connected with the evolution of sustainable neighborhood design.
Today we begin a PlaceShakers experiment. Through a series of periodic posts, Nathan Norris will explore how cities hinder their own placemaking efforts, wasting time and money by investing in tools, policies and programs that deliver lousy results. In the process, we’ll be looking to you to help flesh out the content through examples, personal experiences and links to additional resources. The goal? A one-stop, crowdsourced primer for cities and towns seeking advantage in an ever-competitive world.
Mistake #1: Judging urban development projects on their quantity of budget/unit count as opposed to the quality of their functional design details or return on investment.
The latest design trend appears to be designing a place to be realized in very gradual stages. Not in terms of planning for phases of development pods, built-out in a predetermined sequence, but about individual lots changing — evolving — over time. Very rarely now are we designing to build immediately for a project’s absolute highest and best use or, as Nathan Norris calls it, its “climax condition.” This new incrementalism focuses on how lots change — how they’re built upon and reconfigured over time before, ahem, reaching their climax.
“You [..] have the distinct privilege of proactively participating in shaping the world your children will inherit.” — Joel Salatin, author and renegade farmer
Anyone who’s paid even modest attention to what’s been happening on the food scene over the past five or six years has surely heard of Joel Salatin. Featured prominently in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and in the movie Food, Inc., author of numerous books of his own, and celebrated by chefs, locavores and organic activists alike, Salatin has become a sort of patron saint for the progressive ag movement. Half traditionalist, half innovator, he’s not so much wedded to the ways of the past as he is unwilling to ignore the wisdom they have to offer.
As we increasingly urbanize, relearning the craft of creating human-scaled places, I often — too often — hear that “if we just get the ground floor right” then all will be fine. While obviously a good start, and one that addresses the most immediate of pedestrian interests, I find that this line of thinking ultimately allows, even incentivizes, buildings poorly designed above the first floor, thereby marginalizing the complete urban experience.