Elevate Your Thinking: Light, air and connectivity beyond the street

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.

The crescendo of urbanism? Nope, there is more to it!

Vancouver-maven and UCLA PhD candidate, Neal LaMontagne, has consistently critiqued the full-block mid-rise buildings in Southern California as being bland, monotonous, and in opposition to the more visually alluring Vancouver model tower. A quick scroll through recent downtown San Diego projects on San Diego Urbdezine reveals a kernel of truth to Neal’s expert analysis. In short, Houston, we have a problem… (because our city is starting to look too much like Houston… or Denver, or Los Angeles, or anywhere else for that matter).

Nice enough… (Photo credit: Urbdezine.com)

But after a while… a little monotonous. (Photo credit: Urbdezine.com)

Case-in-point: San Diego architect Ted Smith is attempting to change downtown San Diego’s regulatory requirement for zero foot setbacks on all property lines, even those interior to the block. Our narrow 200’ x 300’, sans-alley blocks were originally laid out to produce the greatest number of higher-renting corner lots possible throughout downtown. The downtown Community Plan, updated in 2005, emphasized zero foot setbacks along the streetwall in order to “get the street right.” However, as our city continues to incrementally fill up with mid-rise buildings that maximize the zero-setback on all sides of the building envelope, the upper floors are not being built with the basic need for proper light and air access, something necessary to ‘humanize’ the block.

In focussing on getting the street right, we’ve lost sight of the 3-dimensional ramifications of building 6-story, 85-foot tall, Type III construction buildings on 10 – 15,000 sq. ft. lots with large, expensive, tightly stacked units. The maximization of profit potential within our legal building envelopes is causing the latest neighbor-to-neighbor conflicts over proper light, air and the need for private space within the block itself.

Maxing out the block in San Diego.

Making it impossible to cross-ventilate, let alone enjoy. (Photo credit: Ted Smith)

The interior of the block is not throw-away space. It’s another vital realm where urbanism occurs and, traditionally, has contained spaces where people live, play, work and relax. While we may never achieve a New Orleans’ mid-block courtyard pattern, our regulations should foster a greater diversity of building types — not just towers and full-block buildings, but also the more organic perimeter or liner block buildings with courts and stepbacks interior to the block.

Livable, functional space, at both the public and private level.

Perimeter block buildings, creating livable interior space.

Another important design element, beyond getting the ground floor right, is designing the upper floors to be connected with the block, street and other buildings. A few very good San Diego’ architects are beginning to experiment with the opportunity to connect people and deftly share common spaces and views. See my previous posts on the Next Urbanism here and here regarding this urban design condition.

Exploring connectivity beyond street level. A perimeter block building in San Diego’s East Village.

Over time, we can increasingly consider light, air, and connectivity at all levels, creating a more civilized and humane urbanism.

Connectivity, beyond the ground floor, is important to building the City 2.0. Our cities are not simply a connection of ground floor streetscapes, but a series of complex connections filled with people, places, and fun. Healthy cities need to balance the ground, upper and lower floors to avoid conflicts and create places that people enjoy. Ultimately, moving beyond the ground floor is about how we’re able to physically connect with others that will ensure our ability to not only endure but thrive in the 21st century.

Civilized blocks add up to… you guessed it: civilization. (Photo credit: Steve Mouzon)

–Howard Blackson

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  1. The thing is, there are different basic settings for interior side lot line and rear lot line setbacks. If you’re in a downtown (T6) location, it’s reasonable to assume that people will build to the lot line, and that lots will have courtyards for light and air. Of course, this is one reason that two means of egress becomes a problem. In Paris, you can wrap side and back wings around a courtyard without having to wrap a corridor around as well. You just need one stair for every two stacks of apartments, or for a certain amount of office space.

  2. Howard – nicely said. I’d love for you to expand on this more. And, I’ll share with you a fun example from China where the mid-block area is used for agriculture.

    BTW – love that Barcelona grid…


  3. Neal LaMontagne says

    First of all… a true honour to be mentioned in a post by one of my favourite urbanists (‘new’ or otherwise). Its true, I am critical of many contemporary full-block midrise buildings in LA and San Diego. With our desire to find a form of development that meets our desire for a urbane mid-rise density, too often cities pay attention to type and not the details of design. Howard is spot-on that urbanists must pay attention to the horizontal, the vertical, and the interior – and the full range of dynamics in-between all three. Too many mid-rise buildings fill the block, isolate a token ‘open space’ inside, and, when not carefully designed along its horizontal streetwall can be as damaging to the urban environment as a poorly designed tower.
    One great solution is exactly what is detailed here: break up the block. Enable movement through the site (San Diego has exemplary precedents of this).. At the very least, keep the laneway public (and urbane itself). I don’t claim that the point-and-podium tower form of development well-known in central Vancouver is necessarily more visually alluring (that would be unfair to so many great mid-rise buildings up and down the west coast) but what I think is underrated in the tower vs. midrise debate is that the Vancouver tower is typically small in footprint and Vancouver almost always retains that the lane remain public. Indeed, that is one of the elements that drove the evolution of the point-and-podium… a small footprint dictated by open lanes and parcel patterns. And the benefit of allowing some height enables the kinds of density typically dictated by the economics of high-value central city sites (and the need for a more sustainable urbanism) to be sculpted better (plus the kinds of design review often triggered by a taller building, but thats an argument for another day).

    In other words, bravo Howard… great post!


  1. […] This post from Howard Blackson addresses issues of building envelopes in San Diego. He feels that we may be putting to much focus on getting the ground floor of buildings right. This is important, and may be the most important thing for creating good street life; but it certainly isn’t the only thing to discuss, and Blackson thinks it de-emphasizes getting the rest of the building right. He mentions the versatility of the Vancouver podium, which ensures a strong street wall and allow for towers, while making provisions for light and air. Lots in San Diego (and many other places for that matter) are such that if a landowner wants to maximize the area of their lot, it will almost definitely bring them into conflict with their neighbors over these issues. He also advocates liner buildings to create small public spaces on interior lots. He also points out that upper stories need to be connected to the street and other buildings, which can be done via elements such as balconies and open stairs. A good example of what Blackson advocates. From placemakers.com. […]

  2. […] New York's famous grid, made corporate. Remember Logorama, that Academy Award-winning animated short that imagined Los Angeles as a city of logos, brand identities and corporate spokescreatures? If you ever wished there was a way you see New York the same way but without the entertainingly foul-mouthed mascots you'll be happy to know that your dreams have become reality. Yay? Let's all say hello to City Maps, the latest attempt to make our bustling metropolis easier to manage. Unfortunately, while it is doing that the site-and-iPhone-app also turns New York City's gorgeous grid into the kind of thing that would make even make a die-hard logo-lover give pause. Still—beyond freaking out those who fear corporate colonization (too late!) If only using City Maps didn't make us want to never see a logo ever again for as long as we live… Ah, yes. Elevate Your Thinking: Light, air and connectivity beyond the street. […]

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