Not all lanes are this wide, of course, but they are normally this mixed-use. (Photo by author)

Travel Blog: East Coast Public Spaces

I recently had the pleasure of traveling back to the East Coast and exploring a few major cities I had not visited since becoming an urban enthusiast. Being a public space aficionado, I of course made it a point to investigate as many public spaces as possible. Starting in Pittsburgh, I made my way by train to New York City and Philadelphia, before embarking on a cross-country train ride back to Portland (with a quick stop in Chicago). I visited some spaces new and old, and was delighted to see such infamous improvements for myself.

Pittsburgh, PA

I recently wrote about Pittsburgh and its comparison to Portland, but admittedly had not visited it in recent memory. It certainly has been in the urban-related news lately and I was happy to visit and observe the changes taking place for myself.

The campus public space, downtown Pittsburgh. Note the sun line and location of seaters! (Photo by author)

The campus public space, downtown Pittsburgh. Note the sun line and location of people! (Photo by author)

The city is organized around a river and nestled in a valley, similar to Portland, but in a more intimate way. Trees still line the river and small islands and it’s easy to find yourself suddenly on a twisting road in the middle of a forest despite clearly being within the city. One of the biggest differences, of course, is the abundance of brick homes all in a row throughout the various neighborhoods. Alleys abound with pre-WWII garages placed in the back – some in surprisingly good condition. Corner stores occasionally exist in these predominantly residential neighborhoods, and two-lane twisty streets bordered with parked cars eventually lead to miniature downtowns filled with restaurants and small shops.

A typical street in a Pittsburgh neighborhood. (Photo by author)

A typical street in a Pittsburgh neighborhood. (Photo by author)

Unfortunately, there are still some hangups. Busses go from the neighborhoods to universities and the center city, but train lines are not as expansive as they could be. By and large the city is still dominated by the automobile. It’s the quickest way to get around, even with navigation issues caused by turning radii and loose grid patterns. The downtown district is also similar in some ways to Portland – the business district is seemingly devoid of housing and activity past a certain time creating a cold “modern” feeling where the rivers meet. Pittsburgh is rough around the edges, but its brick exterior still shines, and I’m excited to see where the city is at in five years, especially in terms of public transportation and separated bicycle facilities.

New York City, NY

After Pittsburgh I made my way to New York for the first time in ten years. With urbanist eyes I was eager to explore the recent improvements in public space and alternative transportation. If I had a public space bucket list I could cross off one of the items as I walked the length of the High Line, ending on the perfect note – sunset in the city.

The High Line Park - Ingenious and gorgeous. (Photo by author)

The High Line Park – Ingenious and gorgeous. (Photo by author)

Paralleling this trip, I also made it a point to walk the length of Broadway and experience the newly reclaimed public spaces made by none other than Jan Gehl himself. I caught the original Marimekko umbrellas in a food cart area, but Times Square was under construction in some places as it transitioned to the permanent version of these “temporary” improvements. While it will be nice to not have a grade change from the sidewalk to the original road, I’ll have to wait and see what the end result will look like. As of now, I appreciated the brightly colored pavement in contrast with the gothic architecture. It would be a shame to see such (dare I say) European improvements dulled down to just another cold surface in the city.

The future Times Square Plaza: permanent, but not nearly as peppy. (Photo by author)

The future Times Square Plaza: permanent, but not nearly as peppy. (Photo by author)

Though I am ashamed to admit it, I did not get a chance to ride a Citibike through said improvements, but I did walk through a few areas with the green-painted buffered bike lanes. Admittedly, my observations were short, but happily I did not witness the gross occupation of the lanes by vehicles – mostly due to the massive buffers. At least where the small plazas are present, the lanes are completely bordered by pedestrian space (though the edges did tend to attract a bit of debris).

Not all lanes are this wide, of course, but they are normally this mixed-use. (Photo by author)

Not all lanes are this wide, of course, but they are normally this mixed-use. (Photo by author)

Overall, one of my favorite features of these areas was actually the planters. Coming in various sizes, the formula was simple – a defining buffer hearty enough not to get tipped over or moved, a barrier for a possible stray automobile, and a pleasant addition to the pedestrian experience. New York is not devoid of trees of course, but along the major roads the most canopy-like environment you experience tends to be the scaffolding. While it doesn’t replace a tree, the additional greenery is a welcome piece of the public space whole. In areas with seating, the umbrellas also help create more of a “room” in what is technicaly (formerly) the middle of the street.

This is NYC? Awesome! (Photo by author)

This is NYC? Awesome! (Photo by author)

Another public space I had the privilege of visiting was Bryant Park. This of course holds special meaning to me as most of my work has been based on the research done by William H. Whyte – including the famous alterations done to this very park. What once was a derelict, overgrown space more often frequented by drug dealers than sun bathers, now is a thriving public space in the heart of Manhattan complete with attendant, permanent ping-pong tables, chess corners, and green space galore.

Bryant Park - a pleasant place to pause. (Photo by author)

Bryant Park – a pleasant place to pause. (Photo by author)

I was delighted to find the kind of activity that movable chairs are so apt to attract, though I was saddened by my untimely arrival as the center green was being transitioned to the winter ice rink. The holiday market (something which I have never witnessed!) was also still in transition. All things considered, however, I was still (inwardly) very impressed with what I saw and ended the self-guided tour in what was perhaps the best public restroom I’ve ever been in.

In true Whyte fashion, I even caught two men in the midst of a traveling conversation and "long goodbye"! #nerd (Photo by author)

In true Whyte fashion, I even caught two men in the midst of a traveling conversation and “long goodbye”! #nerd (Photo by author)

Philadelphia, PA

While my stop in Philadelphia was brief, I deliberately wanted to investigate that which was so thoroughly recently investigated by the University City District: The Porch in front of the 30th Street Station. The space was impressive in person – a full 33 parking spaces had been removed to create a vibrant space to eat lunch, wait for the train, or just relax in a thoroughly sit-friendly public space. And if you wanted to really relax, there are even reclined chairs as well! I was sadly not there long enough to observe the behavior, but I can say the research seems to do it justice and the space looks like an excellent addition to the University District.

The Porch - so much better than 33 parking spaces! (Photo by author)

The Porch – so much better than 33 parking spaces! (Photo by author)

I didn’t make it to all of the spaces I intended to, but the highlights (the High Line?) were all in all fantastic, and I look forward to visiting again soon. Stay tuned for more detailed examinations of the High Line park and results from my PARK(ing) Day research!

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Park Portrait: PARK(ing) Day PDX

Welcome to Parking Day

This is the third in a series originally published on Parksify of brief spatial ethnographies intended to provide a snapshot of one public space, for one day, in Portland, Oregon. Armed with a camera and a watchful eye, I observe the social behavior in relation to the built environment. The profiles are based on research methods used in my masters thesis in Urban Studies and are inspired by the works of William H. Whyte, Setha Low, and Jan Gehl. 

This Park Portrait is admittedly not about a permanent park, but a parklett that I helped create for a single day in downtown Portland. On September 20th, we took part in the PARK(ing) Day event with hundreds of other public space enthusiasts around the world. On an entire block of Southwest Stark Street we converted ten parking spaces into a greyspace plaza for a day.

Our goal was to supplement the existing spaces and give the city a truly public space

The location was, we thought, an extremely ideal place for this kind of activity. A good public space needs the right kind of activity to fill those moving chairs and tables, and this stretch of Stark has an ideal mix of restaurants, coffee shops, a hotel, nearby food carts, and a recently opened pedestrian alleyway. Believe it or not, despite the many food cart pods scattered throughout Portland, very few come with respective seating areas. Even more than this, Portland as a city is lacking this kind of public space — a stretch of street devoted to the public, rather than parked cars. While one pedestrian street exists, it consists entirely of picnic tables for nearby businesses, and the Street Seats program is spread thin. Our goal was to supplement the existing spaces and give the city a truly public space aimed towards what is lacking generally but also to add to this neighborhood even if just for the day.

The PARK(ing) Day Park itself consisted of about two former parking spaces of bicycle racks and about eight parking spaces of public seating. One space was more akin to a living room, a parking bench added a buffer to the nearby lane of traffic and complimented casual seating around a coffee table. About another five spaces had umbrellas and cafe tables and chairs scattered throughout for the public to use as they thought was best. Near the living room space a hammock also provided another option for relaxing on the street. The furniture was light and movable, and the scattered umbrellas presented the option of more, or less, shade. As an added component of programming, there were also two ping pong tables available for public play.

Ping Pong at Stark Plaza

Stark Plaza

Ping Pong at Stark Plaza (top). Visitors at Stark Plaza (bottom). Images by PARKing Day, Flickr.

 

After the set up at 10 AM, the street was slightly quiet, possibly due to the shock of chairs suddenly appearing in the street. Once things were settled, however, people started trickling in, whether for the ping pong or just for a place to sit outside and work. A coffee shop (without any outdoor seating) is very close by, and some found it convenient to simply bring their tea pots and coffee mugs across the street to sit outside for a bit.

Before too long, the lunch crowd started moving in. While the ping pong tables were in constant rotation, the tables were filled to capacity. At one point, a man with a container from the nearby food carts came over and eagerly looked for a seat. When none was to be found he inquired as to if he had to take a number or if there was a system in place — thankfully a  table immediately opened up and the man quickly filled the space. The rest of the afternoon was filled with children playing, strangers meeting over a friendly game, and quite a few passersby intrigued by the sudden activity on the street. The hammock was in constant use all day. The socializing, a complete success. Even passing cars slowed their speed due to the activity.

Stark Plaza

Stark Plaza. Image by PARKing Day, Flickr.

 

As people moved in to restaurants for the dinner hour, the seats emptied out and the temporary parklett was brought to a close.

Though not a permanent park, it was clear that one like this could work without issue. Movable chairs and tables are inexpensive and it wouldn’t take much to convert a few lanes into a plaza (Philadelphia did it with The Porch a year ago, to great success). Portland has plazas, but only one major (popular) space downtown anywhere near food carts. Maybe it’s time for a permanent PARK(ing) Day parklett? As public spaces go (and my biased opinion aside), this was definitely one of the liveliest I’ve seen in a while.

Tower Envy - Scale Juxtaposition (Image courtesty Michael Mehaffy)

Livable Portland? A New Plan

There’s something brewing in Portland, and it’s probably not what you’d expect. As we speak, planners and stakeholders are currently working on arguably the most important planning document since 1988: the Central City Plan 2035. Technically open to the public, the planning process has been comparatively quiet. After the charrette process, it has now transitioned into monthly meetings with primarily stakeholder involvement. The process itself is fairly standard: the floor is open to public comment (limited to two minutes), there is a summary of the progress thus far, presentations for the topic at hand, followed by stakeholder debate. At the moment, there’s also voting on several nearly finalized “layers” of the plan, specifically for the West Quadrant (Downtown, Southwest, Old Town, the Pearl, and the uber-cool West End, where we recently held our PARK(ing) Day event).

Lately, though, there has been one issue getting a bit more press: Height limits. Raising them, to be more exact, and in more neighborhoods than one.

So what’s the problem? Portland is known for its progressiveness as most people know. Wikipedia even says “Because of its public transportation networks and efficient land-use planning, Portland has been referred to as one of the most environmentally friendly, or “green”, cities in the world.” We know this. It’s the reason why planning professionals flock to see the closest thing to Europe in the US with their own eyes. For that matter, it’s the reason I moved here. But I think the culture of this place would change dramatically with higher buildings. For starters, living in tall buildings has been discouraged for decades – the lack of connection to the ground floor can cause isolation and the height alters the pedestrian experience on the street as well due to shade, wind, and the sheer lack of human scale. The best cities in the world are low-rise – we know this, too.

Central City Plan Layers

Central City Plan Layers – The darkest areas in the upper right indicate proposed raised heights

So why does Portland need to change? One of the best qualities of the city is the smaller feel and Portlanders cite that frequently. We don’t want to be LA or Seattle. We want the Jane Jacobs street-as-room (as does everyone else). Less Manhattan, more Brooklyn, if you prefer. The stakeholders, however, think otherwise, with a vote on the issue getting an overwhelming majority vote for the added height.

The reason this is such an important thing to pay attention to is the impact the new city plan will have on the future of the city. From the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability website: “Central City 2035 (CC2035) will update the plan and policies for downtown and central areas of Portland, Oregon. CC2035 will address challenges and opportunities in the Central City to ensure this unique economic, transportation, cultural and educational hub will be a vibrant resource for all Portlanders over the next 25 years.”

Tower Envy - Scale Juxtaposition (Image courtesty Michael Mehaffy)

Tower Envy – Scale Juxtaposition (Image courtesty Michael Mehaffy)

It’s not hard to put two and two together, and I’m certainly not the first to do so. A letter was recently submitted to the Oregonian by Michael Mehaffy, Executive Director of the Sustasis Foundation, and Dr. Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Co-founder and Director of International Making Cities Livable (both here in Portland). The letter has attracted numerous comments, and it’s clear that people feel passionately about the issue either one way or the other. As the authors put it:

“In our work we have seen, over and over again, city boosters who made horrible mistakes in a misguided attempt to be trendy and “modern.” What’s worse, they destroyed the urban treasures they already had — traded away for a few shiny baubles that quickly became tarnished. Today, many of those leaders come to Portland to learn our lessons. How ironic it would be if we, of all people, destroyed our own livable heritage in the dubious pursuit of an illusion of modernity.”

And I couldn’t have said it better myself.

I’ll be following this issue closely, and adding my public opinion as much as I can. Read the full article here, add your comment, and in the meantime, swoon over the truly progressive planning process courtesy of David Sim of Gehl Architects following the disaster in Christchurch.

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Poor Placemaking in Five Easy Steps

William H. Whyte said “It is difficult to design a place that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” Indeed, walking the streets one can find a myriad of terrible places simply because of the design itself. And make no mistake, they are designed, they’re just designed poorly. When discussing urban design, thankfully, the tone increasingly is that of good design – 20 Minute Neighborhoods, New Urbanism, True Urbanism, Placemaking, Walkability, 8 to 80, Transit Oriented Design, and on and on, each with their core concepts and design standards pushing for more livable cities. But with the myriad of options to choose from, it almost seems easier to instead highlight the other side of the spectrum – poor placemaking – summarized here for your convenience in five easy steps.

None of this! No observation allowed. (Image via pps.org)

None of this! No observation allowed. (Image via pps.org)

1. Don’t Plan for the Place

Heaven forbid you talk to the people who would actually be using and interacting with the place. What do you care? You’re the expert. Why would Joe on the corner understand the comings and goings of the street where he’s run a sandwich shop for fifteen years better than you? That’s just silly. And don’t even think about observing the place itself. If you want to be really ambitious, you could even do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. If they don’t want a highway through their neighborhood, build it anyway! If they think that building is too tall, make it taller! This is about the bottom line, not quality of life, after all.

2. Plan Like it’s 1960

Just let LeCorbusier be your guide. If you just plan like it’s still the 1960s, you’re in good shape! Don’t think about a time when cities were only made for people to walk in or before the era of auto-domination when streets were pubic spaces full of a myriad of transportation modes and spontaneous uses. The bicycle can never come back! Sprawl is your friend! Everyone wants a personal automobile and no one wants to wait for a bus. There’s no way that anyone wouldn’t want to drive or that licenses would decline as time goes on. People don’t want to sit at cafes, socialize in public spaces, or play in the streets, and they never will. Nevermind that it’s fifty years later and new generations have different ideas about urban design.

A 26-story condo planned for Portland: You're doing it right! (Image here)

A 26-story condo planned for Portland: You’re doing it right! (Original image here)

3. Make Your Walls Blank

The less windows, the better. If you can make your building so completely boring that no one wants to walk there, you’ve succeeded in making a terrible place. Avoid frequent ground-floor shops with attractive window displays, or cafes that spill out onto the sidewalk creating impromptu opportunities for lively discussion and chance meetings. In fact, you can basically just design your building to be a gigantic blank cube and your work here is done.

Terrible Placemaking 101: Add a poetry board to make the blank wall better.

Terrible Placemaking 101: Add a poetry board to make the blank wall better. (Photo by author)

4. Distractions, Distractions, Distractions

If you get some criticism – and you might – just add a bit of flair to ease the populous into a state of compliance. If you’ve got your heart set on that blank wall but the city wants more detail, you can add a window or two – small ones, that is. Or just put up a fancy architectural sign to distract from the fact that the building is just a big box. If it’s a road they’re after with street furniture, active streetscapes, and a pedestrian scale, just make it a stroad - six lanes is extremely necessary to ensure those never-changing car-lovers can get from point A to point B in the quickest way possible. Don’t forget the landscaping and planters. Everyone loves planters.

Fancy metal facades and landscaping cover up gigantic blank boxes quite nicely.

Fancy metal facades and landscaping cover up gigantic blank boxes quite nicely. (Photo by author)

5. Don’t Design for People

This one is perhaps the most important step. Pretend for a moment that the buildings and streets you’re designing are made for some alien life form other than a human being. Say you’re planning for ants, or I don’t know, lions. Your guess is as good as mine. The more the planning looks like a perfectly proportioned model, the better. Add people for scale, sure, but don’t plan for them. Make that plaza sunken, or add shortcuts between buildings high above the streets. Leave out the sidewalks or better yet, put things in the middle of them to block the way. As long as you don’t design for people, you’ll be on your way making a truly terrible place.

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Park Portrait: The Urban Center Plaza

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This is the first in a series originally published on Parksify of brief spatial ethnographies intended to provide a snapshot of one public space, for one day, in Portland, Oregon. Armed with a camera and a watchful eye, I observe the social behavior in relation to the built environment. The profiles are based on research methods used in my masters thesis in Urban Studies and are inspired by the works of William H. Whyte, Setha Low, and Jan Gehl. 

What better place to start than with my first real observational project: The Urban Center Plaza. Located on Portland State University’s urban campus, it is a combination of green and grey space that intersects major destinations for students and members of the neighborhood. It is technically a privately owned public space as it was made by the University. However, the goal of the space was to be a community space where the local residents could relax, eat lunch, and interact with the student population.

An urban space with a good mix of students, residents, and people working nearby

I’m happy to report that there is no sign of stated rules, so-called “permitted” behavior. The only stated rule is a small sign imbedded in the bricks “no skateboarding” (a common request). The seasonal differences of the space are obvious — without students, will the space hold up? With the good weather though, I just know that Portlanders won’t disappoint.

And I wasn’t wrong.

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Early mornings on the plaza feel like a true new day. Mornings in Portland can be chilly and the bricks and concrete reflect this coolness. Classes aren’t in session, but the campus isn’t dead. Students still taking advantage of summer courses make their way to the Student Rec Center as early morning dog walkers take advantage of the trees on the edges. Due to the grade change two ramps provide a convenient pass-through for cycling commuters heading to work.

Once the sunlight starts streaming into the plaza, the pace quickens and more people decide to stay a little longer on the stepped seating area on the eastern side. The light rail stop nearby starts spitting out passengers on a regular basis, complimenting the whir of the more gentle streetcar passing through the plaza. People pause, meet with others, grab a cup of coffee and head off to their destinations.

Of course lunch is where it’s at. The line to the bento shop is quickly out the door and the pizza place is packed. Outdoor seating spreads across the lower part of the plaza and is fully taken advantage of in the shady corners during the noon hour. It’s definitely the busiest time of the day when people have the time to take a decent break from course work (or course planning).

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This is where the space gets interesting. With people sitting on the terraced area, weaving through numerous sets of stairs, and various forms of wheeled transport passing through (including the occasional skateboard), the near misses become more frequent. The flow of people from the train through the plaza goes directly up the seating area, despite the height of the terrace. However, as is usually the case I never see an official collision and more often than not see people waiting patiently for the pathway to clear before taking their turn.

I think in all honesty the evening is my favorite time on the Urban Center Plaza. Once the people working nearby head home and the light becomes diffused, the neighborhood takes back their public space. Families enjoy time together outside and friends kick a ball back and forth in the wide upper area. I even saw some boys on skateboards learning the ins and outs of teenage social cues while practicing tricks on the steps.

Aside from a drunken group of college kids passing through on a Friday night, the plaza is deserted

With no bars or formal restaurants nearby the plaza sees very little activity after dark. Aside from a drunken group of college kids passing through on a Friday night, the plaza is deserted. The overhead lights cast long shadows near the street and the Rec Center windows warmly illuminate the southern side. Though, even with the lack of activity, nothing suspicious seems to happen in the space either. It could also be the specialized use that prevents it from being problematic. It always has activity during the day due to transit and enough sight lines so as to not create dark corners.

Overall, the design is great. There are places to sit, you feel sheltered enough to be comfortable, and the transit provides a steady stream of people to populate the plaza for people watching. Because of its location downtown and its proximity to the university, it actually has a good mix of students, residents, and people working nearby. If only there was a set of stairs to accommodate the desire lines and a bit wider ramps, the plaza would be in perfect harmony.

Pittsburgh's Repurposing. More of this everywhere, please. (Image via PPS, original from luiginter via Flickr)

Pittsburgh vs. Portland: May the Best City Win

There is a competition mentality that plagues our conversations about cities year after year, here and abroad, that can be both the source of joy or scourge for mayors and citizens alike. What is the best city to start a business in? Where should I move to for a great nightlife? Which one tops the list for raising a family? The list goes on and on. Find your preferred publication and pick your flavor of competition. But are these really so important? A lot of time and money goes into attempting to top these lists, not to mention gathering the data to create them. And some people seem obsessed by the notion that one city would be more popular than another when clearly, this underdog city deserves more attention (and new residents). So why the popularity contest? Or more specifically, why the recent emphasis on the battle between Pittsburgh and Portland?

I talk about Portland a lot and in turn talk about talking about Portland a lot because I feel as though I almost need to excuse the emphasis I place on this particular city. Yes, it has a TV show and a reputation for being that weird mid-sized city in the Pacific Northwest, and for this reason it has attracted a lot of attention. However, it has also been included in quite a few of these aforementioned lists detailing bicycle performance and quality of life. My family almost moved to Portland years ago when it was considered an up and coming city in livability standards, and I finally moved here in part because of this publicity, for good reason. In Monocle’s Quality of Life survey, Portland sits at 23 amongst the world’s livability greats – surely nothing to sneeze about. It’s Platinum bicycle rating and inclusion in other lists also indicate the reputation is at least statistically present in some way.

The Portland Skyline

The Portland Skyline (Image courtesy Razvan Oredovic)

Even when not included there is always the question of why. When Copenhagenize released their 2013 Index of Bicycle Friendly Cities, the only North American city was Montreal. Portland had lost it’s 2011 place among the top 20 cities and that was a significant change for a lot of people. And when Portland lost its #1 spot in Bicycling magazine’s top 50 bike-friendly cities list to Minneapolis, it was national news. The bicycle haven had lost! For those who are critical of Portland’s acclaim, it was an excellent example of the city’s slippery position on the bike-friendly pedestal. To the Portland proponents – a reminder that we need to keep progressing in order to keep up with the rest of the country if we even hope to become world-class.

In some cases this is valuable information. If you’re concerned with riding your bike to work in a particular city that kind of reputation must mean something, and you can be reasonably sure that you’ll find what you’re looking for in that place. For members of the community and professionals alike, if you look at a city that topped the charts, you can see what they did and maybe try to emulate it to improve life where you live. On the other hand a city slipping in rankings can provide insight into the issues that need to be more readily addressed. Maybe it even spurs a bit of competition that can push cities to improve. And of course there’s tourism as well. These lists can increase attention more generally and bring people to your city in order to experience the “greatness” or learn from that place and bring it back to their home country.

Pittsburgh's Skyline (Image via PPS and cory.cousins via Flickr)

Pittsburgh’s Skyline (Image via PPS, original from cory.cousins via Flickr)

But lately there seems to be some sort of fervor surrounding not livability per se, or an emphasis on the best at biking, but a popularity contest for the next best “cool” city (or hot, whatever you prefer). For some reason this is complete with a bullying mentality in an attempt to cast one out and raise up the other through the ashes. And Pittsburgh, the rust belt rising star, has become the poster child for Portland’s downfall by a few of these city bullies.

And not without reason.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that this competition is between Pittsburgh and Portland. Pittsburgh’s profile is strikingly similar to Portland’s – A mid-sized city, its temperate climate, dense downtown, and 95 distinct neighborhoods (compared to Portland’s 95) give it a sense of vibrance and new life after an industrial age. And Pittsburgh has also been on lists recently, touting livability, inexpensive housing, a multitude of major employers and the same young, quirky kind of creative population that also exemplifies Portland. A few years ago I heard of young crafty types buying fix-me-up townhomes in a sort of rust-belt homesteading trend. More recently, a story I’m very interested in illustrates the kind of creative enterprises going on there today. The design studio Deeplocal has set up a social club called Bayardstown, an homage to Pittsburgh’s historical inhabitants, in a now privately owned public space near their office. They’re coming up with creative uses for neglected spaces to build community and enjoy their city. In another recent article, Project for Public Spaces hails Pittsburgh’s newfound focus on walking and bicycling in advance of the Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place 2013 conference being held there in September (which I would love to attend). And the list goes on.

Pittsburgh's Repurposing. More of this everywhere, please. (Image via PPS, original from luiginter via Flickr)

Pittsburgh’s Repurposing. More of this everywhere, please. (Image via PPS, original from luiginter via Flickr)

So is Pittsburgh the next big thing? Quite possibly. But that’s not the point. What’s happening in Pittsburgh is great, that’s true. But the same sorts of things are happening in cities all over the country – young people changing their city to be more livable, making their way, riding bikes and making waves. Maybe Pittsburgh and other cities like it will continue their rise in the “best city” charts, and I applaud them. This is a paradigm shift, not a popularity contest. The more we can make cities better for bicycling, creative enterprises, and general all around livability, the better we’ll all be. There’s no need to fight about it. If these top city lists help spur better cities, then I support them. May the best city win? Sure. But if that’s the case, I hope we all win eventually.

Walkable and weird Portland, Oregon (Photo by Mike Davis)

The Normalization of Livable Cities

This article was originally published on International Making Cities Livable

The suburban history of the last century in the United States can actually be said to be relatively short. It wasn’t until after the second World War that automobiles were more widely available and the suburbs became the standard for the “American Dream”. Since then, several developments have appeared which have worked to shape this dominant paradigm on how we live and work; Whereas once a great exodus left city centers abandoned from otherwise urban corporate headquarters, there is now a return of companies and people alike to these more walkable, livable downtowns. Indeed, I would argue that there is a newfound desire towards this sense of diversity and multiculturalism that a city brings. As part of a generation that was criticized for potentially being stuck behind a smartphone, we still want to be face-to-face. More than ever before we want the European experience – an urban lifestyle filled with ground-floor shops, sidewalk cafes, public parks and plazas, compact living with excitement and variety – everything the most livable cities exemplify. As the trends stop being trends and begin showing serious signs of normalization, I can’t help but wonder if what we are beginning to experience now is a true paradigm shift. Much like the suburban dream of the 1950s and all it did for the landscape of the United States, I believe this is instead the real beginnings of a normalization of livable cities.

Copenhagen

Copenhagen, Monocle’s most livable city, 2013 (Photo by Olga Itenberg)

I currently live in Portland and by now I’m sure most people are at least familiar with the show Portlandia. Love it or hate it (most likely the latter if you’re a Portlander, it seems), you can at least recognize the types of people the show presents in this “weird” city. According to the stereotypes, there are groups of people who are very interested in urban farming and horticulture, pickling (everything), getting more information on the origins of food and eating healthier, riding bicycles as a form of transportation, and other quirky alternative lifestyle habits (tattoos, piercings, died hair, and so on). What I find interesting though, is not the poor timing of the show in relation to Portland’s hip-ness (a topic of debate by some people) but also it’s poor timing for the Portland-ness of these so-called weird behavior types. More and more it seems, you can find these types of people across the U.S. They are commonplace in major cities such as NYC, Chicago, and Philadelphia, but also in mid-sized cities rebuilding in the rust-belt like Pittsburgh and Detroit. Even in suburban cities like Missoula, MT and mid-sized cities like Indianapolis, where no one would have thought to ride a bicycle before, these alternative lifestyles are in demand. (I’ve even heard there are separated cycle tracks in Phoenix. Phoenix!)

I know what you’re thinking. This could just be a generational thing, you say. It’s the economy, you cry. But I disagree. If we take a look at related data on the subject we can see these trends in quantitative form. An excellent example of this is the consistent decline in VMT, or vehicle miles travelled, and the decrease in young people buying cars and getting their licenses. It’s being shown that this is clearly not just a product of the recession – we are driving less and desiring to drive less. I’ll admit outright that I don’t have a driver’s license. While I learned to drive a car and planned to eventually get one (still late compared to most), I quickly realized that it makes more economic sense to not have to deal with ownership of a car. With a license, I may fall back on it as a crutch, and especially once I became more experienced in livable cities and what automobiles did to the urban landscape I decided that I simply don’t want to be a part of that. I may still be an outlier but I’m not the only one, and apparently I’m part of a quickly growing part of the population. For those living in cities – most of us by this point – it just makes more sense to choose an alternative mode of transportation to get around (be it by foot, bicycle, streetcar, bus, train, or skateboard – unicycles, even!). It’s more social. It’s more healthy. It’s less costly. Whatever your reason, quite frankly it’s just nicer. And more importantly, it’s becoming more normal.

Walkable and weird Portland, Oregon (Photo by Mike Davis)

Walkable and weird Portland, Oregon (Photo by Mike Davis)

And it’s not just my generation that sees this kind of shift. In cities everywhere the push in development is towards mid-sized, mixed-use, small-sized apartments downtown. We don’t want single-family houses and our “piece of land” per se. We thrive in small spaces, shared spaces, and social spaces – many of which are public spaces. Despite the fears of technologically-induced isolation, we’re moving back towards wanting places of face-to-face interaction in all aspects of our lives. You can find this normalization in books touting the trend and advertisements that cater to bike-friendly twenty-somethings. A new book was just highlighted on The Colbert Report titled “Homeward Bound” by Emily Matcher and details the rise in stereotypically homemaking activities like canning and knitting. The 2014 Ikea catalogue features a video with a Park(ing) Day set up as the normalization of insurgent public space. This concept of being able to impact your environment and enjoy the city with friends in this way is just one example of how this is manifesting itself in portrayals of the “average” person in the media.

And in this way we are shaping the way cities are designed.

My neighborhood in Portland is currently home to a large redevelopment site which will eventually be transformed into a dense, walkable area with a public square and park. Part of the incentive for the site’s owners, Con-way, is to create an area where their employees would also like to live and work – in a downtown area rather than a suburban office park. This in and of itself is also a trend based on the culture of those they would like to attract. And more importantly – this is not just a class of creative people anymore – this is, I believe, quickly becoming the dominant ideology of current and incoming generations. I can speak for myself and say that I would be eager to move to a neighborhood which hosted a public square with outdoor cafes and plenty of social engagement. I want buildings short enough that they provide residents the opportunity to recognize people passing by on the sidewalk below. And I would also want to work for a company that was close to my home, one which allows and even encourages spending time in these livable spaces and commuting in a non-traditional way. I would base my location decisions upon these extremely important quality of life components.

And I think this is what people are coming to expect now. We don’t want to be in a windowless office with a forty-five minute lunch, nine to five, Monday through Friday. We want the ability to take a break, play some ping-pong, have a meeting on the park outside or at a cafe. Arrive by bike? No problem. My office would have showers and a culture where coming in to work with panniers and a helmet isn’t taboo (or close enough that I wouldn’t even need to shower). And on Friday, I think I’ll work from home – or maybe my home is my office, for that matter. Portland already has this kind of stereotypical “alternative” culture, and in some ways this was encouraged by a top-down approach (the Urban Growth Boundary, for instance) but also this incredibly strong bottom-up, neighborhood and community focused population of “weird” people. I’m happy that Portland has this kind of reputation and livability, but I’m even happier to see it becoming less weird. Wherever you are, I think it is clear that more and more people are going to live in cities like Portland and they are going to want and deserve, these kinds of walkable, livable city centers. And while I can’t say for sure that this is a paradigm shift in its true form, I think we can all say that the trends are clear. Walkable cities are the future. Alternative transportation is the future. We are the future, and the future is livable.

Remains of a Roman temple in Naples, Italy, remarkably still intact despite its constant contact with water (Photographed by Angela Sorrentino, original here)

Looking Beyond the “Western World”

We in the so-called Western World, and the U.S. especially, have a tendency to think of the (so-called) modern world as originating with the Roman Empire. After all, democracy was created within the great Greco-Roman society of old and their cities were modern wonders, still influencing the architecture we have today (you can check your local civic structure for those iconic columns, for example). This kind of thinking however, is misguided and completely inaccurate. Cities have existed around the globe for a lot longer than just the fabled Rome, and in many ways actually embodied the idea of “civilization” far earlier than Pax Romana. At the same time, by not looking back at the ways that even Rome did things, we miss a lot of extremely valuable information that can affect our cities today.

The extent of the Roman Empire in 117 AD (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

The extent of the Roman Empire in 117 AD (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

There is always something to be learned by looking comparatively at cities, and especially cities of the past. I think it is important to consider that someone, somewhere may have grappled with the same issues you do, hopefully in a way that can inform your own decisions. Today this manifests in scholarly journals for academics and conferences where knowledge can be shared by a multitude of professionals worldwide. But sometimes it is necessary to look back, not just across, which is where archaeology becomes crucial to the urban studies equation. (Even comparatively recent cities sometimes require a bit of digging to reveal their secrets.) Indeed, discounting the fact that billions of individuals have come before you and may have considered these very same urban issues, can even be detrimental to development, setting a culture back decades or even hundreds of years.

In more ways than one, Rome is an excellent example of this issue. When the Roman Empire spread across Europe to England in the first century AD, it brought with it the design of fortresses and city structures which fuel this emphasis on Western civilization. After this occupation it was England that brought about the Industrial Revolution which went on to spread urbanization to an unprecedented degree around the world. What’s fascinating to consider, however, is that during that time between the Roman intervention, the eventual retreat, and the famous revolution, the urbanization of England actually virtually disappeared. After the cities were abandoned by the fallen empire, residents for the most part went back to more rural ways of life. It wasn’t until centuries later that the region built back up again to something resembling its Roman days, and then beyond.

The Roman Forum - Not so unique afterall?  (Ward-Perkins 1974: 108)

The Roman Forum – not so unique afterall? (Ward-Perkins 1974: 108)

The modern city structure, generally speaking, is typically attributed to Roman engineering. When we think of cities we often think of an orthogonal grid-plan layout with wide thoroughfares and public plazas – this is the island of Manhattan, most downtowns, and newer auto-oriented American cities like Phoenix, Arizona. Hippodamus of Miletus, the famed father of urban planning, is known for supposedly inventing this orthogonal structure as well as the public agora, having developed numerous towns and cities in Ancient Greece. However, the focus is too narrowly attributed to this singular culture in this one part of the world. In fact, orthogonal city structures were independently invented in all corners of the globe by the simple fact that regulation of the urban environment is easier for the people in power (giving them a way to regulate buildings and to view their domain), and also because a squared shape placed in the urban environment is a fairly logical structure. Boards of wood (or logs or bricks and so on) fit together conveniently in right angles in a more compact grid-like pattern rather than positioning a bunch of cubes in a circular formation (see the earliest cities for examples of this from our first days as city-dwellers).

Chang'an, China in the Tang Period. You can't get much more orthogonal than that! (Kiang 1994: 46)

Chang’an, China in the Tang Period. You can’t get much more orthogonal than that! (Kiang 1994: 46)

Along with the contemporary understanding of urbanism that is so often attributed to the Roman Empire, other modern conventions have also been equally praised as Roman inventions. Take plumbing for example – something which is as famously “Roman” as concrete (I’ll get to that later). In actuality, plumbing has existed since the early civilizations of the Indus Valley to the east. Toilets, too, go hand-in-hand with these pipes, and amazingly flush toilets were even around thousands of years before the English occupation – unlike in Western society where defecation in very unsanitary conditions was commonplace until the mid-19th century. How was it that it took this long for conditions in cities to improve, to push us into the contemporary urbanized world? It’s incredible to think that this back and forth of life-changing inventions could have been prevented with better communication and consistency between civilizations.

Roman public toilets - something the Romans seemed to be ahead of Western culture on (Public Domain)

Roman public toilets – something the Romans seemed to be ahead of Western culture on (Public Domain)

On the other hand, there is something which is valuable to look at when examining the Western origins in Rome. Where they didn’t technically invent other modern conventions, they did have a hand in the invention of one of the most influential materials on earth: concrete. Without it, virtually our entire contemporary society would be dramatically different than it is today. And I don’t just mean a lack of brutalist architecture, I mean a lack of skyscrapers, sidewalks, and yes, even our modern plumbing systems. But here’s something even more astounding – much like our haste to praise the Roman Empire, we have overlooked the history of the urban development and most notably the context of the recipe, as it were, of something so perfected by this ancient civilization. A recent article in Business Week details the findings of the UCLA Roman concrete research team (an interesting elevator speech for those guys to be sure), which explains how the simple addition of volcanic ash to the mix is the secret to the long-lasting structures still standing today.

Remains of a Roman temple in Naples, Italy, remarkably still intact despite its constant contact with water (Photographed by Angela Sorrentino, original here)

Remains of a Roman temple in Naples, Italy, remarkably still intact despite its constant contact with water (Photographed by Angela Sorrentino, original here)

By taking a simplistic look at an idealized past, or by not looking at it at all, we overlook the longer view of human habitation as well as the finer details of ancient urban life. Neighborhood layouts in Mesoamerica famously arrange their buildings around a central public plaza – across an ocean from ancient Roman society and their famed forum. Chinese cities were extraordinarily orthogonal, massive complexes occupied for thousands of years with wide roads and designated markets. And we now know that Angkor Wat was much larger than we previously thought stretching an incredible 13 square miles with giant reservoirs and orthogonal streets and canals. All of these components of cities are far more complex and even common than we tend to believe. What else can ancient, and non-Western cities teach us about urbanism? Considering the thousands of years we have been building and rebuilding cities around the world, the information could be infinite. By looking back at what has come before us more often, by looking beyond our modern Western hubris, we could find that the solutions to our problems can be as simple as adding a bit of ancient volcanic ash to our modern mixture.

The urban nerd's version of a conference souvenir

Four Lessons from the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference

 

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference here in Portland, Oregon. This year’s theme was, “reshaping suburbia into healthy communities”, a rather hot topic these days and one which has finally become a focus for more places than I had previously expected. Many cities have up until recently famously emphasized the revitalization of their downtowns, a point of contention for those concerned with the exurban regions. Where once the urban core was the dangerous home of (so-called) ghettos and the suburbs were the epitome of the (again, so-called) American Dream, the reverse is quickly becoming reality. It’s a startling trend – housing prices are rising in downtown regions whereas suburbs are in the decline, increasingly occupied by the disadvantaged populations previously living in the now-popular urban apartment blocks.

A session at the first IMCL Conference in Venice, attended by William H. Whyte and Fred Kent, no less! (Image from livablecities.org)

A session at the first IMCL Conference in Venice, attended by William H. Whyte and Fred Kent, no less! (Image from livablecities.org)

This conference, started in 1985 by Dr. Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard and Dr. Henry L. Lennard, aims to bring together a host of multidisciplinary professionals worldwide in order to exchange ideas surrounding livability in the urban realm (and was one of the first to do so!). Fifty conferences later it is still a far-reaching influential event bringing together mayors, policy makers, planners, architects, social scientists, and even lawyers. Though my mind is still reeling from five days packed with inspirational speakers, informative presentations, and the buzz of a few hundred professionals from around the world, the following are my top four highlights from the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference.

1.) The Suburbs Can Change

I’m always skeptical of the suburbs (suburban skepticism?) in regards to them ever truly turning a new leaf towards walkability in a livable sense. Apparently, not only suburbs, but smaller sized towns and cities around the globe are putting an emphasis on revitalizing (or creating, for that matter) their downtown areas, in many cases emphasizing their historic heritage and creating local pride for their spot on the map. Where I live in Portland, Oregon, I’ll admit to having never ventured out to the suburban edge city of Hillsboro. It is accessible by train, but for a city-dweller like myself has never been an interesting destination. I was surprised then when Collin Cooper, the Assistant Planning Director of Hillsboro, illustrated what is possible when public space and a human scale is applied to an otherwise suburban city center. Another major speaker, Ellen Dunham-Jones (of New Urbanism fame), also presented a suite of examples of shopping mall retrofits in suburban neighborhoods, many of which are continuing to increase in density today. This and many other examples from small towns blew away my expectations of increasing density and creating urban cores where none existed before.

Hillsboro Civic Center and Plaza where many events are held (Public Domain via Wikipedia)

Hillsboro Civic Center and Plaza where many events are held (Public Domain via Wikipedia)

2.) Look at the Alternatives (transportation, that is)

One example of development in a small town did a great job of bouncing back after a natural disaster, but also integrated some unexpected elements into the space. After a major flood, the city of Yorkton, Canada, decided to turn what was once a street severely affected by the flooding into a mixed-use path with a retention basin and skatepark. That’s right – a skatepark! Gord Shaw explained that they took this opportunity to provide a safe, well-lit, and accessible place for youth to interact and get exercise. Rather than pushing skateboarders out of public spaces without a place for them to go to, they decided to take advantage of the new swath of land and encourage the healthy activity in a populated places. While some issues of cleanliness and drug use did arise early on, the community took ownership of this place and it is now a maintained destination for young families and the elderly community located nearby. I thought this was an excellent example of alternative transportation taken to its height – not only emphasizing the usual modes of bicycles and public transportation – but an all-inclusive alternative transportation policy.

The Greenville, South Carolina Swamp Rabbit Trail, another great example of a hugely successful suburban trail presented at the conference (From greenvillerec.com)

The Greenville, South Carolina Swamp Rabbit Trail, another great example of a hugely successful suburban trail presented at the conference (From greenvillerec.com)

5.) Even Portland has its Problems

The conference was in Portland, as is the main office for the IMCL Council, because it is known as exemplifying the livable cities concept in its walkability, public space, and urban life. The conference of course had many speakers from Portland and nearby, including the recently elected Mayor Hales, Metro President Tom Hughes, and the always enthusiastic Michael Mehaffy. But more important than what Hillsboro is doing or the tours around the parks in the Pearl District is what Susan Anderson, Director of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, had to say about our “dirty little secret”. Much like suburbs outside the reaches of the city, accessible only by car and filled with cul-de-sacs (and so on), there are regions within cities which also contain all the ills associated with what this conference was all about. Portland has a very small, accessible downtown region and even the areas across the river have their own economic corridors and concentrated centers – to a point. That point for us is east of 82nd Street. In a city famous for its walkability, as Susan stated in her presentation, this is literally the point in Portland where the sidewalk ends. And that’s not okay. Even as a city famous for exemplifying livability concepts, there is always more to do to reshape the city towards a more inclusive livability standard.

Image from Susan's talk on where the sidewalk literally ends at 136th Ave. (Image from www.friends.org)

Image from Susan’s talk on where the sidewalk literally ends at 136th Ave. (Image from http://www.friends.org)

4.) The Focus is our Future

Looking toward the future (as I am apt to do), there is another thread of livability which should be emphasized in the suburbs (and elsewhere) as perhaps the biggest issue we need to resolve – the health of our children. Dr. Crowhurst Lennard has put considerable time into this cause (via books and her website) and focused on children during her talks at the conference. Like the notably livable Scandinavian countries, we need to realize that an emphasis on children is an emphasis on everyone. Regardless of whether or not you have children yourself, we can all benefit from the impact that designing for children brings (slower streets for example). Another key speaker, Dr. Richard J. Jackson (author of Designing Healthy Communities and famous for the PBS series of the same name), also focuses heavily on children’s relationship to the built environment and the psychological issues that come with issues of suburban development and isolation. As a doctor, he links this to the rising obesity rates in children as well as the overprescription of antidepressants. The link between the built environment and health is stronger than once thought, and if we are to create a better future, we need to start by building better cities.

 

The urban nerd's version of a conference souvenir

The urban nerd’s version of a conference souvenir

 

Overall, the conference provided a bit of everything – some inspirational motivation, some harsh realities, and some real examples of what can be done when cities (and suburbs) really put their priorities on livability for all. As this was admittedly my first conference, I can safely say that I’m hooked. Give me interdisciplinary collaboration and communication anytime! I think I speak for everyone there when I say the experience was invaluable for education and connectivity, and I look forward to seeing the progress in the suburbs and continuing the conversation at the next one. 

The Human Scale

The Most Influential Architect You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

A documentary has been making the rounds recently in urban circles featuring perhaps the most influential architect you’ve (probably) never heard of: Jan Gehl. Aptly called The Human Scale, the documentary features numerous of Gehl Architects’ projects around the world, many of which are included in Gehl’s recent book, Cities for People. I recently had the opportunity to view said documentary and it did not disappoint (see trailer below).

The Human Scale

The Human Scale

I have a tendency to talk a lot about Jan Gehl and Gehl Architects more generally because of their closeness to my personal research but also because of the impact they are currently having globally. While technically an architecture firm by name, Gehl Architects is far from the typical firm one normally thinks of in a world full of “starchitects” – a word used to describe architects mostly creating massive buildings in their unique style that recall their name (I. M. Pei for example). I think the reason Gehl is so unknown in some circles is a lack of this emphasis on unique buildings (and name recognition) and a focus instead on the process behind the planning (though being based in Denmark probably doesn’t help either). At one point in the documentary, David Sim of Gehl Architects explains to the people of Christchurch following the devastating earthquake there that he is not there to tell them what to do. He is there to listen and to rebuild the city the way the people want it to be rebuilt.

Perhaps one of the least practical looking buildings (Guggenheim, Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Perhaps one of the least practical looking buildings (Guggenheim, Wikipedia Creative Commons)

My first encounter with Gehl’s work was in William H. Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center (1988), a summary of Whyte’s seminal research in New York City during the 1970s and a follow-up to The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980). I speak equally as frequently of Whyte, again basing my research off of his methods, but also because of his influence on urban design. I say Whyte’s research was seminal because it was the first instance in the United States of actual social observation of city streets in an effort to improve the lives of urban residents. Amazingly, Whyte was not an anthropologist, architect, or even city planner, but worked for Fortune magazine (where he eventually encountered and mentored Jane Jacobs). And yet, despite his lack of professional credentials, he incredibly received the first domestic expedition grant by the National Geographic Society to conduct this research. As Whyte puts it, “they had supported observational studies of far-off people and far-off places, so why not the natives of the city?” (1988, 3).

William "Holly" Whyte doing what he did best (Image pps.org)

William “Holly” Whyte doing what he did best (Image pps.org)

In City, Whyte references Gehl’s work in a few chapters specifically noting the similarity between his own research and Gehl’s observations of pedestrians in Copenhagen. Gehl’s conclusions regarding sidewalk width and pedestrian speed was amazingly consistent to Whyte’s but was actually researched as early as 1966! A professor of Architecture, he  looked into the social impact of the built environment and published his first book on the subject in 1971: Life Between Buildings. Copenhagen today is a direct result of Gehl’s research (including Strøget) just as NYC shows the impact of Whyte’s research (most notably Bryant Park).

The core of the design of these spaces by the likes of Gehl is not only the title of the documentary but also literally the human scale. While this seems like common sense, large alienating buildings or even entire cities with no consideration for the human condition have been created for decades. Sometimes this is done deliberately (in the case of security, or to discourage people from being there) but it is also done at times unknowingly (large blank walls, huge alienating plazas, a lack of seating, and so on). Whatever the motives might be, what we now know is if you create spaces based on the senses and scale of a human being (we the users, after all) then you create places where people want to be. Quality of life improves, people encounter other people, and the city thrives. The happiest places in the world and the most popular vacation destinations all exhibit this kind of quality, whether due to their medieval (read: non-auto) origins or because of a deliberate focus on people.

Helle Søholt and Jan Gehl, founders of Gehl Architects (Image source here)

Helle Søholt and Jan Gehl, founders of Gehl Architects (Image source here)

Anthropologically this is brilliantly simple. We are social animals (animals, I say!) and we also have limits based on our physical senses. Think about your vision for a moment – how far can you see into the distance and recognize a person as someone you know? Or determine their emotional state? How about hearing? What is your most comfortable but also audible distance from another human being? Travel is affected by this as well. Think about how quickly you walk when next to a blank wall with nothing to look at. Now compare that to walking by a vibrant street scene with frequent storefronts, open doors, and street vendors! Even stairs can be scaled in such a way that they are easier for people to climb. All of this is so amazingly simple to do when you just put the emphasis on making cities for people, but would not have necessarily been noticed as an issue if not for the likes of Gehl and Whyte. Too often it seems we are working our way backwards to find what was there all along, though thankfully this seems to be changing.

Gehl's recent influence on Times Square, NYC (Image wirednewyork.com)

Gehl’s recent influence on Times Square, NYC (Image wirednewyork.com)

The documentary allows us to see this process, but most notably presents to us a shocking view of cities around the world. Countries like China and India are building faster than we can keep track of in a race to become like the “western” cities of the 1960s (while making many of the same mistakes we did). The population of the entire world doubled in only a few decades and will continue to add to the now more than 50% of people globally living in cities. It is in these parts of the world that the future of human civilization will be made manifest. While Gehl is working to create human oriented places in these areas, the concept as a whole needs to be made standard if we are to solve current issues of poor quality of life.

The reality for many people in cities today (still from The Human Scale)

The reality for many people in cities today (still from The Human Scale)

So what does this mean for the future of cities? Aside from vivid images of cities affected by isolation and brutalist design, it also offers images of hope: the people-focused rebuilding of Christchurch after the devastating earthquake, alleyways in China devoid of cars, and social movements in India attempting to take back the streets as public spaces. After watching one is left with a general sense of hope, despite the sobering reality of the massive amount of growth happening worldwide. I highly recommend this to anyone, with or without urban experience, for the imagery, interviews with Gehl Architects and others, and for the thoughts it leaves you with about the future of people in cities.