Ever had one of those doctor’s visits in which your physician questions you in great detail about your family medical history? Trying to tease out the nebulous connections within your DNA to explain certain strengths, weaknesses, and anomalies. And then he uses that connecting thread to help solve something that’s been bothering you? Charles Montgomery does just that in his new book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.
The flurry of social media discussions sparked by my recent series on lessons from great cities has made it apparent that a few things aren’t clear. When I write about a particular square in some inspiring place, I’m hoping you won’t take away from it that we should stamp 5-story buildings on 50-yard wide squares all across the landscape. But rather I’m reaffirming that a sense of enclosure can indeed provide a feeling of comfort and satisfaction. You’ll know, if you’re a frequent PlaceShakers reader, that this sense of enclosure is illegal across much of North America because of auto-centric land use laws that require wide, fast roads.
We talk often here on PlaceShakers about cottage living, as well as drilling down into how to make that happen at home, with conversations like Small Y’all: A Cottage Solution to the Housing Problem and “Pocket Neighborhoods”: Scale Matters.
This weekend, strolling through Victoria Beach — an insightful cottage community in Manitoba, Canada — I was struck by many of the lessons learned through all the conversations we’ve had together here. And one of the biggest is to keep it simple. And in many cases, that means inexpensive. Victoria Beach does it with a dirt street grid and very simple architecture on the town square, which is really more of an oversized town ramble. Most of the lots on these dirt streets are not cleared keeping the costs lower and privacy higher.
I’m big on local. Not because I hate Walmart and 3,000 mile Caesar salads but because, as I see it, communities built on human-scaled, interdependent systems are better suited to taking on the challenges and opportunities presented by time.
That’s why, when it comes to the decisions that most directly impact day-to-day quality of life, I tend to advocate for smaller, more local, more responsive increments of control. Things like neighborhoods, NPUs, districts, and towns.
The world around us, whatever form it takes, comes to reflect the priorities of the people setting policy, making rules, and allocating funds. The more those people understand the nuances of context and maintain a shared stake in the outcome, the better things tend to be.
Git ‘Er Done | Hazel Borys
This year’s CNU was all about doing again, unlike the past few years where we’ve focused on stop-gap measures to redirect our investment choices to more resilient patterns. Looks like they might be starting to pay off. Still, we have plenty of hard work ahead to remove both legal and financial hurdles.
Taking shots at the suburbs is like playing bass in a garage band: Easy to do, but hard to do well. After all, their original intent — an idyllic melding of town and country, with all the advantages of both — implied a tranquil, family-friendly promise that, over time, has proven notoriously unfulfilled.
Surely that’s a subject worthy of more than just another McMansion joke.
I’m a freak magnet.
For reasons unknown, the more, err, colorful characters of the public realm seem to find my personal space especially attractive.
If I go to a midday matinée and another patron — let’s say an agitated mumbler in a trench coat with shoes crudely fashioned out of car wash sponges — joins me in an otherwise empty theater, that person will sit in the seat directly behind mine. Which he’ll then begin kicking.
A few months ago, we talked about how a great city can be like a great running buddy, calling us to venture outdoors into more active, satisfying lifestyles. The photo-essay accompanying that conversation was on the urbanity of Wilmington, North Carolina. Last week, we were in another North Carolina town, Fuquay-Varina, working to create just those sorts of tightly-gridded, walkable streets connecting convivial, complete neighborhoods. Then perhaps the temptation to walk, bike, and run can overcome the lethargy of our modern lifestyle.
It wasn’t intentional but a look back at the past few weeks of PlaceShakers reveals that we’ve been working a bit of a theme. It began when I wrote about the failure of planners to ask meaningful questions, and how that not only sets the stage for unmet community expectations, but devalues the art and craft of urban design at the same time. I then followed it up with a look at the other side of the coin — corrosive elements lurking within communities that undermine collaborative progress.
On my last trip to see my aging parents, I was struck again by the loneliness that comes from diminished connections. They are both inspiring people, and in their younger years were notably adept at making connections with and for others. And at helping people see the good in each other, in themselves, and in the communities they call home.
However, over time those connections are slowly dissolving. While there’s little to be done at this stage, this experience reaffirms the expediency of staying connected as long as we can to all the networks – internal and external – that make for wellness.
The process of saying “what if” does little good. However, I can’t help myself.