Thursday, February 28, 2013

Balconies, Patios, and Porches

Balconies are a great amenity for urban apartments. They allow the residents to get immediate fresh air without having to go down to the courtyard or the street. They also give a building legibility; balconies say "people live here!" A bay of balconies can also break up a long facade and give it some rhythm and visual interest.

However, at the ground floor this amenity is sometimes treated as a fenced-in private patio. While this is fine within a courtyard, I strongly recommend against this adjacent to a street. The patios, which sometimes have high fences right at the back of the sidewalk, create a tunnel effect which makes the street feel very unfriendly. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

An Oldie but a Goodie: Don't Pick on Portland

Back in 2002 I wrote an op-ed for the great urban planning website Planetizen about planning innovations undertaken in Portland, Oregon, and some of the unfair criticisms that had been hurled at them. I hope you like it. 

[Note: this was published eleven years ago, and unfortunately many of the links don't work. I will try to track down the intended targets and will provide new links if/when I find them.]

Don't Pick on Portland

We should not dismiss the bold planning experiment in Oregon just because it runs counter to current orthodoxies.

In the world of urban and regional planning, Portland, Oregon is a unique place. In the early 1970s the state of Oregon set out on a bold experiment in an attempt to preserve and enhance their environmental, agricultural, and urban assets in the presence of mounting growth pressures and sprawl. Along the way they made some mistakes, and they made some great decisions, and they have developed a legacy that we can all learn from. However, a small number of sprawl apologists have began to attack Portland, and it is important to set the record straight.

One of the common assaults on Portland says that their urban growth boundary (UGB) on making housing unaffordable by artificially constraining the supply of land. Any serious academic study of this subject either outright rejects this claim or says that an absolute correlation cannot be determined. In a recent study on the subject, Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution concluded that UGBs can’t be proven to increase home prices. Recent studies by Lewis and Clark College and the Journal of the American Planning Association came to similar conclusions.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Long Live On-Street Parking!

(Photo by Alex MacLean)
Far too much space in our cities is devoted to cars. However, in our quest to to achieve some balance by changing excess car space into much-needed people space, one of the first targets is often on-street parking. It is an easy target, because there is often little resistance to removing it. Many traffic specialists are happy to get rid of it, because capacity for traffic flow isn't reduced with such actions (in fact, you're improving it, because on-street parking interferes with traffic as cars pull in and out). Bike advocates will also like the change, becuase cyclists won't have to worry about doors suddenly swinging opening into their path.

If you are trying to improve downtowns and other walkable neighborhoods, though, this urge to take the easy way out must be resisted. On-street parking is an extremely valuable resource, and it should be removed only in rare circumstances. There are many reasons for this, and I find the following to be the most compelling:

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Dark Art of Small Lot Development

Recently I wrote a post which extolled the virtues of small lot development. While small lot development creates great urbanism and has many benefits, it can also be challenging to get built. Large projects have greater economies of scale, have an easier time living up to parking requirements and other city codes, and are more familiar to lenders. 

It is possible, though. In the video below, the great John Anderson of Chico, California shares some of the "dark arts" of developing small projects. I highly recommend that you check it out. Even if you have no plans to go into development, this is a great video for planners and other urbanists to watch in order to gain an understanding of how development works and what motivates developers, who are our indispensable partners in creating great places.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Loch Ness Parking Space

Pictured above on the right is the Loch Ness Parking Space. I call it that because many people believe it is out there, and are searching for it... but it is a myth. Look at it though, isn't it great? It is in a beautiful downtown area, right in front of a great shop, and it is free! And no time limit! And it is empty, waiting for you to pull right in!

In reality, though, the parking space probably looks more like this...

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Thoughts on the Pedestrian Mall

Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena

My favorite mode of transportation is walking. It is how I prefer to get around. It is no surprise then that my favorite parts of cities are downtowns, which are typically the most walkable areas. Pedestrians are the lifeblood downtowns, and without them they fail. If you don’t make the area comfortable, convenient, and interesting for pedestrians then nothing else you do will matter; walkers are that elemental to the success of any downtown.

It should be no surprise then that too much automobile traffic—and the danger, noise, parking lots, and fumes that go along with it—is one of the things that caused so many downtowns to become unpleasant places by the mid-20th century.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Design Duds: High Waters

(Photo from
The fellow above looks pretty silly, doesn't he? Well, this doesn't look any better on buildings than it does on people.

Sometimes, builders do not take the cladding material all the way down to the ground. Instead, they terminate it a couple of inches early, creating a gap. I hereby dub this condition high waters.

This is a common practice these days, and it is really unfortunate. It can make an otherwise elegant building look crude. It is true that materials like stucco and wood shouldn't make contact with soil, but in an urban environment with concrete sidewalks and no setbacks, there is no justification for this. This is especially true when you consider that the ground floor of most downtown-style buildings are clad in brick, stone, precast panels, or ceramic tiles, which are all very tough materials.

Pilaster A
Pilaster B

The two photos above are from the same building. Pilaster A is done the proper way, with the cladding running all the way to the ground. Pilaster B has high waters. Oddly enough, both are from the same facade, and are about 25 feet apart. If it can be done properly in location A, it should be done properly in location B, too. This is a good building by a good developer, but high waters keep the building from looking complete.

Why is this done? I'm sure there are a variety of reasons. Perhaps there was a slight slope to the site, they they didn't want to cut the panels at an angle to accommodate the grade. In other cases, perhaps they started tiling at the top, and when they got to the bottom the gap was less than the width one full tile, so they decided to leave it. Whatever the reason for this practice, it should be strongly discouraged.

I understand that this sounds like a trivial thing to focus on, but the devil is in the details, especially in parts of the building that pedestrians come into close contact with. It gives a cheap, flimsy look to the building. It looks as if the builder didn't care enough to finish the job. It makes the whole facade look like a phony appliqué. I recommend never doing it anyplace where the base of the building will be visible, especially in a downtown. Run the cladding material all the way down, and if you can't for some reason, at least backfill the gap with concrete. Don't give your building high waters.

High Waters

No High Waters here!