Next Urbanism Lab 03: Redevelopment as a tool for urban (re)investment

Yesterday, I had the great fortune of sitting on a panel to discuss the possibilities of Redevelopment 2.0 in California. The other panelists included CNU Board member Scott Polikov, APA President-elect Bill Anderson, affordable housing advocates, planning professionals and professors, as well as my lovely wife (discussing the California Environmental Quality Act).

Sadly, I blew it.

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Res Civitas non-Gratis: 21st century public realm

Having worked in communities big and small across the continent, we’ve had ample opportunity to test ideas and find approaches that work best. Urban design details. Outreach tactics. Implementation tricks. Many of these lessons are transferable, which is why we’ve created “Back of the Envelope,” a weekly feature where we jot ‘em down for your consideration.

The rise of 21st century social technology, in combination with the loss of our 20th century economy, has contributed to the closing of many neighborhood civic buildings — libraries and post offices — and to the private development that inevitably replaces them.

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This Just In from CNU20: World not yet saved

The Congress for the New Urbanism’s annual convergence of giganto ideas and fine-grained pragmatism wrapped Saturday night with a party in a bar. The four days in West Palm Beach, Florida, marked the 20th anniversary of such gatherings, most of which also involved spill-over debates in venues with liquor licenses.

As usual, the CNU20 agenda was packed with passion and ambition, with a smidgeon of apocalyptic visioning to dampen out-of-control hopefulness. So what’s on the minds of the NU designers, planners and fellow travelers these days?

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Eisenhower Memorial Controversy Puts Focus on Urban Design

Having worked in communities big and small across the continent, we’ve had ample opportunity to test ideas and find approaches that work best. Urban design details. Outreach tactics. Implementation tricks. Many of these lessons are transferable, which is why we’ve created “Back of the Envelope,” a weekly feature where we jot ‘em down for your consideration.

How do we honor our heroes?

The current dust-up over Frank Gehry’s proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower memorial has brought the issue, and the conversation, to the forefront. Within it has been some well-articulated opposition from prominent urbanists, including this from Léon Krier, this from Dhiru Thadani and this from Christine Franck.

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(Public) Space: The final frontier

Having worked in communities big and small across the continent, we’ve had ample opportunity to test ideas and find approaches that work best. Urban design details. Outreach tactics. Implementation tricks. Many of these lessons are transferable, which is why we’ve created “Back of the Envelope,” a weekly feature where we jot ‘em down for your consideration.

Today I offer a quick study relating cities of the US West to Leon Krier’s decidedly European Public Space Quantity Ratio.

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Do We (Still) Need Vancouver?

A few years ago Urban Guru Leon Krier asked this question — “Do we still need Vancouver?” — at CNU XVII Denver. In response, the Next Generation of New Urbanists invited then-new Vancouver planning director Brent Toderian to speak in favor of Vancouver, which is easy to do. For, since the fall of Hong Kong, Vancouver has been reinvented to become one of the world’s most livable cities, and a model for urbanization.

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St. Patrick, Charles Dickens and the Role of Beer in Community

This morning I took a moment to reflect upon the challenges and tragedy of the past year — BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well, Aussie wildfires, the Christchurch and Haiti earthquakes — until, as a Californian, my mind inevitably drifted back to current events in Japan and their nuclear radiation currently floating its way stateside over the Texas-sized plastic trash flotilla/vortex in the northern Pacific.

And did I mention last week’s news on democratic revolution in the Middle East/North Africa? It’s enough to drive a guy to drink.

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Redevelop this, California!

How California will redevelop its existing communities in the future is up for debate. And, it’s about time.

The role of redevelopment in shaping our built environment came to its crescendo in the halcyon days of 2005 over Kelo vs. New London. Today, Susette Kelo’s home sits as a vacant scar on business-as-usual redevelopment practices.

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Learning from Leon

My colleagues have quickly grown tired of my repeated references to the week I recently spent with Leon Krier while he toured Southern California to promote his new book, The Architecture of Community. The book, published by Island Press and co-edited by Dhiru Thadani and Peter Hetzel, is an updated compendium of Leon Krier’s most significant work to date. The book was included in Planetizen’s Top 10 Books published in 2009.

Leon me, when you're not strong..

Before this publication, Geoff Dyer, one of my business partners, and I had been engaged in a silly professional competition to acquire Leon’s books because it was difficult to find his many brilliant books and projects for sale in United States book stores. My rare French copy of Architecture Rationnelle put me in the lead until Leon autographed Geoff’s copy of Architecture: Choice or Fate, led with “To the very talented…”

With a stroke of Leon’s pen, Geoff now sits comfortably in the lead.

Leon came to San Diego to give a lecture on architecture and urbanism to 250 interested people in a beautiful Balboa Park theater and then to 200 excitable students and faculty at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design. Local reporters, planning directors, and political leaders heard, met and learned from Leon throughout the week. San Diego Union-Tribune and San Diego City Beat wrote about his time in the city.

After San Diego, Leon then spoke to a class at Arizona State University with Emily Talen and Nan Ellin. He then joined Stefanos Polyzoides in Pasadena to discuss architecture and urbanism at the invitation of the Mayor of Pasadena. Pasadena Star News and Pasadena blogs Inside Socal and Media Bistro covered the visit.

The lessons learned from Leon while touring the Southwest were varied, complex and meaningful. The more general themes surprised me most. For example, upon picking him up from the airport, I immediately drove Leon to the latest modernist infill project in my turn-of-the-century streetcar neighborhood. The villa savoye copy had been in Architecture Record as the local architect is well known.

Upon passing by the building slowly, I was expecting an affirmation of my disgust when Leon says–disappointingly– “It’s good.” My eyes widened and my hands gestured wildly as I explained that the fenestration was backwards, the building completely out of context, and the urbanism only existent in materials and scale. Leon agreed that all were true, but that for a modernist building it was a very good example.

The lesson being, “If you do modernism (or anything for that matter)… then do it well.” He is correct. I forget how difficult it is to get buildings and places built. He said that to build anything in today’s toxic environment (naturally and politically) was laudable and then to build it well was meaningful. So, I relaxed a little about a building I had previously wished acts of God upon and drove Leon downtown.

Driving past the single core of the city, townhouse-wrapped, Vancouver-model towers proliferate San Diego’s downtown cityscape. I explained the ugly politics that gave additional entitlement to buildings that had green roofs rather than civic spaces. I was expecting a classic Leon Krier diatribe on the lack of value Vancouver brings to the New Urbanist dialog and both the ecological and social failure of high-rise towers as a building type. Instead, he thought San Diego’s towers were somewhat playful and fun. He explained that while towers are regretful, these had an element of lightness and amusement that made them easier to live with than those being stamped across Vancouver and the east coast.

Finally, he quickly surmised that our monotonous grid must become more complex. As he had pointed out years ago in Houses, Palaces, and Cities, the grid is rural in structure with its visual terminus toward infinity. A simple ‘center’ was needed in key locations to ‘urbanize’ the neighborhoods within the monotonous grid. Due to the width of San Diego’s typical streets, 80’, a majority of the infill retrofit could occur within city right-of-way and include civic buildings.

Therefore, mostly what I learned from Leon (besides the fact that driving around was much less informative than walking) was to approach places and projects with a positive, optimistic attitude in order to work towards a better future. Why is this simple lesson meaningful? To see this man remain positive after 35 years of being vilified in our modern design world is very inspirational. While his professional lectures are polemic and absolute, his professional perspective is equally optimistic and conclusive.

The following are Leon Krier’s recent drawings of how to create more urban centers in our more rural grid:

Existing US Condition

           


           

–Howard Blackson