When the last parking lot disappears, will the world end?

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Once upon a time, open spaces in cities will be used for people.

This is perhaps the most beautiful residential square in Exeter.  The buildings are varied yet harmonious.   They are dignified.  The scale is just right to create a contained space.  There is a fine texture here, along with a grand conception.

And right in the middle of all this artistic achievement is a parking lot.

Seriously.  A large parking lot.

This is proof that nothing real matters at all in this world.   Not our dead-end dependence on depleting carbon.  Or the fact that our world is destructively warming.  Not the honor of generations of our ancestors.  Nor the pleasure of enjoying human made cityscapes.

Nothing matters but parking our fucking cars. Nothing.  The world will end if we can’t find a place to put them once we enter them at the last place we put them.

One day this will be a productive place:  it will at least sprout plants which will help suck some carbon; perhaps one day it will grow food.  At the very least it will be, even if still covered in petroleum pavement, a space where people will go to meet one another and enjoy the sun.

We may not live to see it, but it will happen.

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Economic development, medieval style

You know…sometimes it is just that simple.  If we want to nurture economic activity, then we should provide habitats for that to take place.  Ebay will never replace face to face transactions.  Shouldn’t cities provide basic spaces for sellers and buyers to come together?  This is Old Market in Dartmouth.  Can’t get much more basic.  Yet, the market is open only on Tuesdays and Fridays.  I never understand why markets can’t be utilized at least 6 days a week.   Why not?  Why let any potentially productive space in a city go un-utilized?

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And when providing such a space, it is vital to also include permanent spaces for the businesses that grow a little.  Nothing too large or fancy.  Below, there are 5 small spaces- each about 150 square feet plus a larger one on the right that is the kitchen area for a community center.

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Love the human powered transport above.  And when building such spaces, don’t forget the urban artisan – lovely pavement pattern.

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A good street, analyzed

This is Walnut Road in Torquay, England.  This is a small commercial area, set away from the larger commercial and tourist area around the ocean.   It still retains a local butcher and pharmacy, but also at least 4 storefronts are dedicated to real estate offices and another to a mortgage finance office.  This tells me that the area is undergoing gentrification.  It may be inevitable.  This place has good weather, great scenery and an attractive townscape.

The top pic below is a visual analysis of the area’s main street.   This street has a good DNA, which should be replicated in new developments.  It is low energy in that land uses are mixed vertically as well as integrated horizontally, which makes it walkable.  The thermal mass of the attached buildings makes this area more energy efficient.  And it is fairly attractive, meaning that people can make an attachment to the place.  All in all, this is a nice prototype of a neighborhood commercial for an area serving somewhere around 2,000-3,000 people.

(I get that figure from an educated estimate that that this commercial street has about a combined 20,000 square feet of ground floor space and that within a 1/4 mile walking distance (approximately 125 acres), given the type of housing in the area that appears to be around 12 units to the acre and at a density of 2 people per household, that there may be perhaps 2,000-3,000 people within that radius.)

There is a COOP grocery (pic below) that appears to meet most of the day to day food needs of the neighborhood.

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The picture below shows the grocery for this area.   Despite the “co-op” branding, which would imply local producers and foods, this store sells little that isn’t processed and mass produced.  And in a pitiful effort at catering to at least a few of their customers that will drive, the building is set back from the street , destroying the harmonious townscape effect, while not really providing any amount of real parking space.  The building is also one story, which is alien to the DNA of the rest of the street.  It also looks like a bunker. This is how good places begin their decline.

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

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scenes from my walk to Dartington Shops for a meeting this morning – a very peaceful commute….

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The buildings of Totnes

Below are contact sheets of a series of photos I’ve taken documenting every building  on Totnes’ commercial street.  This represents about half of the buildings in the commercial core of town.

The variety within an overall regularity is what is most striking to me.  The buildings range from 1.5 stories to 3.5 stories – with one exception of a four story building (5th row, second from left.)  Most are two to three bays in width.  Rooflines for the most part are horizontal, but with just enough peaks to make it interesting.  Materials are varied from stone to shingle to brick to stucco and wood.  All have an active ground floor, with much visibility into the shops; doors are open directly onto the sidewalk.  Projecting overhangs, reminiscent of Elizabethan architecture, appear on a few buildings, most notably in the building that houses the Totnes museum (5th row down, far right.) That building was built approximately 1575.

The one other building I’ve seen with a date on it is on the 7th row, third from left:  the date says 1604.   For the most part it appears that these buildings were built between then and the early 20th century.  Even if the late 19th century buildings do stand out some, the overall harmony is remarkable over such a long time.

Permanent signs are restrained for the most part.  There are many a-frame signs on sidewalks and window posters.  Lots of fine textured announcement posters in windows as well.  Colors are muted and harmonious – is this recent or from the deeper past?

During business hours, there are lots of pedestrians.  Note too the amount of cars on the street.  After business hours – 5pm – the street really empties out.  A drawback to an active urban space that may never be overcome; a century or more of tradition of shop closing times will be hard to change.

All in all,  these buildings show the importance of having and respecting an established architectural ecosystem.  These buildings have been used and reused for scores of decades and centuries, demonstrating a remarkable adaptability and resilience.  They will be our companions as we enter the low energy, low capital, local future.  In a sense, they will have witnessed the world come full circle to from intensely local to global and back again, serving us well the whole time.  Will the architectural creations of the mid to late 20th century serve us as well?

Other posts will look at the urban design aspects of the street itself; things such as width to height rations, sidewalk to street widths, finish floor elevations relative to street grade, etc.

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Roman Obelisks

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Rome has more obelisks than any city in the world – 13.  The ancient Romans, anxious to represent themselves as the greatest empire the world had ever seen, “liberated”  at least eight Egyptian obelisks during their conquest of that land.  These obelisks represented the power of Egypt, and thus they would now represent the even greater power of Rome.  Who but the most powerful could take these stones from a great kingdom, transport them across the ocean, and then resurrect them in their own city? This is in the same vein as the Romans appropriate Greek architecture.  Later, the Romans made their own obelisks as well, five of which still stand.

The history of the obelisks shows their adaptability and great power over the minds of humans.  Built originally for supplication of Egyptian gods, the Romans used them as evidence of their greatness – essentially trophies in many cases.  But they also told stories.  To the lower classes, they represented the surety of grain. Egypt supplied much of Rome’s grain, and if the government was able to ship these stones across the water, then food could be counted on.  Some of the obelisks were seen as allegories to upper class Romans, who understood the classical illusions of their use at the seats of power.

Later they were made Christian symbols by the additions of Crosses at the top – to me a humorous attempt at appropriating what is so clearly a pagan object.

Finally they were used by various shapers of Rome’s urban character – primarily the Popes – to punctuate piazzas as well as to become landmark points in space in an otherwise cluttered city.  It helped too that the obelisks were handy in conjuring the grandeur of ancient Rome in order to reinforce the notion that Rome was still the seat of temporal and spiritual power.

All this was done with stones whose actual physical properties never changed over thousands of years.

These obelisks are technical marvels.  They were transported, hoisted into upright position and leveled so that they haven’t fallen in recent centuries (although all but one have fallen at least once – the one now in St. Peter’s Square never fell, although it was moved.  It is shown at top).  All this without “modern” technology.  As an aside, this shows what can be done in a low carbon world.  But we should never use slaves as a cheap energy source, as did the ancient Romans, nor impoverished peasants, as did the Popes.

For me the most interesting aspect of the obelisks is their use in tying the city together.  Pope Sixtus V was instrumental in envisioning a more orderly city arising from the tangle  of medieval Rome. While for me, medieval Rome is Rome at its most charming, for the leader of the Christian world it was a disaster.  Order had to be imposed so that the city could make sense to the largest number of people, and in the shortest time, possible. In doing so, Sixtus V influenced the design of every great world city over the last 500 years.

To achieve his vision, he widened and created new roads and at the focal points of these roads he placed obelisks. These obelisks are dynamic in their ability to draw one’s eye toward them.  By doing so, they impel one to move toward them was well.  The Quirnal Obelisk, for example, is offset in its plaza, which means it can be seen from a long distance down the Via del Quirnale. Its placement draws one toward it and therefore into the heart of the city.

Some obelisks were placed such that from one point a person can see another in the distance.  This is evident from the obelisk at Trinità dei Monti above the Spanish Steps, where one can see the obelisk at S. Maria Maggiore, for example. In this way the obelisks functioned to connect the various regions of Rome into an intelligible whole; essentially wayfinding for the masses who might not speak the local language.  Thus, a confused pilgrim would be able to find his way to a particular church of pilgrimage if he could only spot an obelisk.

The image below illustrates both concepts.  From the area labeled “4 Fountains”  one can see three obelisks.  The four fountains were commissioned by Sixtus V as an inducement to draw urban development out of the core of the old city toward the Church of S. Maria Maggiore.

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Popes also often used obelisks to adorn locations in Rome that were important to their family. Innocent X erected the Piazza Navona obelisk in its current location because the square had long been important to his family, the Pamphili. By using the obelisks the popes were able to highlight certain locations that asserted both the church’s and their own personal power.

From a strictly urban design point of view, these obelisks perfectly punctuate the spaces where they reside.  They create a gathering spot, add texture and interest, and offer something of the poetry which makes parts of Rome so irresistible.

Below are four of my favorite examples of obelisks in Roman urban design.  They are listed from oldest to youngest.

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Above is the obelisk Macuteo in Piazza della Rotunda, in front of the Pantheon.   This is a perfect urban space:  human scale, active, varied yet harmonious, well contained, with the obelisk at the center.  The obelisk was created around 3,200 years ago in Egypt during the reign of Ramses II and brought to Rome sometime before the year 100.  This obelisk was placed in its present spot in 1711 atop a fountain by Barigioni.

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Above is the obelisk Solare, located in the Piazza di Montecitorio. It was created in Egypt sometime between 595 BC – 589 BC and brought to Rome in 10BC.   It was erected in its current location in 1792. (The year Kentucky became a state in the U.S.)

Compare the lack of life in this place with the one above. This square fronts the chamber of deputies and thus is much more reserved.

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Above is the obelisk Agonalis in the Piazza Novona.  This was a Roman copy of an Egyptian work, created sometime between the years 81-96.  It stood in the Circus of Maxentius until it was removed and stored for hundreds of years.  It was placed in the piazza above Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in 1651.

Piazza Navona is a beautiful and evocative place, but it feels too regularized for me.  There is not the variety in roofline  or façade articulation, nor the fine-grained mix of building uses use that makes Piazza della Rotunda so appealing.  That square is a crossroads in the heart of the city, too, which gives it a charming bustle.  Piazza Navona, on the other hand, is a destination, which lends itself more to sedate strolling.

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Above is the obelisk Sallustiano, located above the Spanish Steps.  It was created between the years 270 to 275 and moved to its present location in 1789.  As the backdrop for the Spanish Steps, it may be the most photographed obelisk in Rome, and thus the most well known.

A great overview of the obelisks in Rome can be found here.

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Neighborhood markets

The two pictures below illustrate the vast difference between urban and suburban commercial shops.  The small, locally owned grocery below is human scaled and inviting.  The suburban corporate shop is isolated and unwelcoming.  Even though it is likely that many users of the suburban store arrive via foot or bike, the design is geared totally to those who arrive in a car:  the building is set back a far distance from the street and the front door faces the parking lot, not the sidewalk.

Both stores probably serve similar sized populations, but the suburban area spreads out over a much larger area, making walking unpleasant.  No walking equals no need for storefront displays and open doors.   This becomes self reinforcing:  since no one walks anyway, there is little that is done to make walking more pleasant.  Cars then become the default transport mode, which contributes more to the unpleasantness of walking.

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Terraced housing

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Totnes.  This could be the ideal of English terraced housing. (In the English usage, “terrace” simply means connected housing.)  Lots of green space.  Topography gives relief to the architecture.  Small town, almost rural feeling, even if in an urban area.

This type of dwelling was developed formally in Europe during the 17th century. In the earliest times, it was generally reserved for the wealthiest members of society – think Royal Crescent in Bath or Place des Vosges in Paris.  These were works of art, combining architecture, urbanism and landscape.

With the explosion of urban populations in the early 1800s, English urbanists determined that the best, most humane form of housing people was through terraced structures.  And it seems to have been a benefit.  In terraced housing areas, people were able to enjoy light, fresh air, greenery.  Sure beat the shit out of living in dark, skanky housing in an urban center.

And yet…..The problem with these places is the lack of density.  Yes, they are considered dense by suburban standards, but they are not dense enough to support the kind of urban life that makes many European cities wonderful – and sustainable.   The amount of greenspace and land use separation ensures that there are great distances between housing and commercial areas.  Efficient urban transport is more difficult too, as this level of density does not reward walking, nor does it adequately support mass transit. Biking could work as a transport mode, but in hilly England, use of bikes is very limited for most people.

This type of housing does benefit,however, from the private car.  But parking, traffic, noise, safety anxiety, and pollution that they bring means it has become the antithesis of ideal suburban habitat.

So what to do?  In an energy, environmentally and economically constrained world, how do these places fit in?  Can these areas be retrofitted to increase density to make transport and mixed land uses more viable?  Should these areas instead become outposts, communities on their own?    Should they be abandoned and the materials salvaged and the land used to produce food and energy?  Or should we just ignore these areas and hope for the best?

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