Ignorance was Bliss: How my urban learnin’ almost ruined everyday places

It strikes me that in the time since I originally wrote this piece a whole new slew of young urbanists have come of age, many now having similar experiences. It’s my hope that they too will find a comfortable balance between the ideal and the workable — not to excuse incompetence but to encourage and develop excellence. Urbanism is, after all, a long game.

For more than 15 years I’ve been hanging around with a pretty interesting collection of traditional architects, planners and urban designers. That’s my job. Taking their inherent disciplinary wonkdom and simplifying it for wider appreciation. Doing so means I’m frequently on the sidelines as they work, and a consistent witness to their application of accumulated wisdom to all manner of challenges currently ill served by modern solutions.

That’s put me on the receiving end of something of great professional value. And equally great personal annoyance:

An understanding of what makes great places great.

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Placemaking: Geek niche or the root of pretty much everything?

When I first developed my interest in placemaking twenty years ago it was driven by design. I was a brand advertising person which, by necessity, involves the study of behavior. Not just of people but of their context.

Where and how people choose to live, I learned, provided a lot of insight into the kinds of things advertisers care about. Circumstances. Values. Aspirations. The things people choose to buy to get through their everyday lives.

It doesn’t tell you everything, of course, and for every broad stroke there’s no shortage of individuals who defy the generalization. But still, when you’re observing people in the aggregate, there’s a lot of content there.

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The Trifecta: Urbanism, architecture, and nature

We often blog on the benefits of nature integrated into urbanism and wellbeing outcomes of walkability. The real trifecta is when walkable urbanism, human-scale architecture, and nature come together via placemaking. A recent study from the University of Warwick points out that a scenic view delivers equal health benefits to access to nature: “Cohesion of architecture and design boosts people’s health and happiness, not just the number of parks and trees.”

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Top 10 Techniques for Educating Community Leaders about Placemaking

Extraordinary strides have been made in the advancement of placemaking over the past twenty-five years.

Think about it. In the years prior, the term “placemaking” wasn’t even in common use by developers, designers and planners. Nor were terms such as form-based code, new urbanism, smart growth, transect, charrette, visual preference survey, traditional neighborhood development, transit-oriented development, sprawl repair/suburban retrofit, return on infrastructure investment analysis, tactical urbanism, WalkScore, complete streets, context sensitive thoroughfare design, LEED-ND, light imprint infrastructure, WalkUP, the original green, lean urbanism, the high cost of free parking, etc.

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A Comprehensive Accounting of Economic and Environmental Performance: Who’s in?

For the last several decades, North American cities have used growth as a primary economic engine. Increasingly less dense new growth is subsidized by the more dense core, but requires a growth rate that is not supportable by the market cycle in most places today. As growth rates stalled, decreased, or went negative, city budget deficits have escalated despite cutting key city services.

Particularly in Sunburnt Cities and Rust Belt Cities, Smart Decline is replacing Smart Growth. Cities face a new imperative of behaving more like businesses, and less like ponzi schemes.

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Why Placemaking Matters: The ROI of Cities

Thanks to all of you who made last week’s Why Placemaking Matters: What’s in it for me? conversation so interesting. Robert Steuteville, editor of Better! Cities & Towns, jumped in with his own elevator pitch that beautifully connects much of the wonk-speak that I listed last week. Kaid Benfield from Washington D.C. and Brent Bellamy from Winnipeg both started interesting Twitter conversations, which also sparked a rumination on minimum densities from Winnipeg developer, Ranjjan Developments. Continue Reading

Informing Excellence (Not Imitation)

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.

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Crowdsourcing = Data = Better Places

You know what the payment is for crowdsourcing? By asking other people to step up and think through solutions to some collective problem, I must commit to making a difference myself.

Every time I’ve asked you to share information with me, you have. Then I feel the need to compile it, analyze it, and organize it into a useful tool. I often get behind in answering all of your individual emails – thanks for all you send – but the power of your collective comments comes through loud and clear.

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