Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Urban Density At A Human Scale


Queen Street
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
photograph by Julia Campbell
Hello Everyone:

Love is in the air for blogger but yours truly is not one to kiss and tell.  Instead, blogger prefers to share the love of architecture, historic preservation, urban planning and design with you.  Sorry to be such a tease.

Rather than blather on, blogger would like to spend some time and space on urban density. Kaid Benfield's article "Letting Love Rule: All urban density is not created equal," for Placemakers, will serve as our guide for looking at the challenges and opportunities that creating places for humans, in cities, present.  The article was originally featured on the NRDC Switchboard (switchboard.nrdc.org).  In keeping with our series of letting love rule, when it comes to place making, can we let love, not dogmatic adherence to ideology, rule?

Random city
To the left is a picture of a picturesque random city, somewhere in the universe.  The point of this image is to illustrate the idea that when people talk about "...walkable, 'smart growth' city neighborhoods often choose historic districts to illustrate" what they mean. This city, somewhere out there, was chosen by Smart Growth America (@SmartGrowthUSA) as an example of a recent tweet "Healthy, diverse smart growth neighborhoods attract talent, commerce, and investment."  When a neighborhood is attractive as the one on the left, it is only natural that businesses are drawn to them.  In May 2014, the National Trust for Historic Preservation  Preservation Green Lab (http://www.preservationnation.org/greenlab) released an excellent report titled, Older, Smaller, Better Measure how the character of buildings and blocks influence urban vitality. The report concluded that, "compared to districts dominated by larger, newer buildings, those with smaller and older buildings were found to score better on multiple measures of urban vitality."

Rochester, Michigan Main Street
posted by Hazel Borys
 Here is another lovely example of an older   neighborhood in Rochester, Michigan.  It is a classic example of a "Main Street" straight out Norman Rockwell.  It also appears on the organization's profile page.  Examples like this one and others are routinely used by preservation advocates because they represent all the qualities that "...newer suburban sprawl lacks but we would like to see in more urban and suburban neighborhoods:  walkability, density, and a diverse mix of uses..."

Rochester, Michigan
However, Mr. Benfield speculates, "...there's more going on than that.  We show these neighborhoods because we people will like them, and we believe, associate them favorably our cause, in effect thinking, 'this smart growth stuff is pretty attractive.'"  If you look carefully at the photograph on the left, you will notice that there is diverse grouping of building sizes, ranging from two to six stories high. What you should pay attention to is the fact that they are human scaled buildings, not imposing glass and steel boxes.

Once again, Kaid Benfield offers up his own speculation, "The great Danish architect and walkability guru Jan Gehl would likely conclude that the building heights shown in the two photos are about right to optimize the pedestrian experience."  After undertaking an thorough analysis of human behavior in different environments, Mr. Gehl concluded, "...the most comfortable building height for an urban setting is between 12.5 and 25 meters, or about three to six stories."  Mr. Benfield refers to Li Teng's Master's thesis, Human Scale Development.  (http://www.bth.se/fou/cuppsats.nsf...OpenDocument)  Is the humanness of building size the reason why people love historic districts?  There is nothing wrong with tall buildings, they serve a purpose in the urban landscape.  However, as a cure for low-density sprawl, civic officials and urban planners tend to overlook the benefits of human-scaled buildings in relatively high-density cities.

Fruitvale Village
Oakland, California
Density is a good thing, from an environmental perspective.  Density has been proven to mitigate "...runoff-causing impervious surfaces in watersheds...as well as reduce driving rates per capita, compared to sprawl."  Without getting too technical, research has shown that the above benefits are mostly found in low-density examples.  However, these benefits begin to diminish when density rises to "...about 20 homes (single family and multi-unit) per acre, and there is little addition benefit to these indicators as density increases beyond about 60 per acre."

You may ask, if our cities are growing, would it not be more logical to build vertically instead of horizontally? The answer is yes in respect to the fact that the 60 homes per acre number by building more high rises but we can also achieve this number by building according to the historic district proportions.  Boston urban planner Susan Henderson was able to successfully achieve a density level of 52.9 units per acre in Louisburg Square, Boston, Massachusetts. (http://www.placemakers.com/2012/05/31/the-dreaded-density-issue/)  Fruitvale Village in Oakland, California is an excellent example of recently built, smart growth developments at a human scale, similar to the lovely historic neighborhoods.  Fruitvale Village is a mixed-use transit-oriented development, near a BART station.  The buildings average about three to four stories in height, which give the pedestrians a nice variety of façades along a single sightline.  Another great example, is Bethesda Row in Bethesda, Maryland.  Like Fruitvale Village, Bethesda Row is a mixed-use, walkable, transit accessible development.  One bonus benefit; it is located on the Capital Crescent Trail, a popular walking and bicycling route.  The building heights are about two to six stories in height and filled with well visited shops and cafés.

Bethesda Row
Bethesda, Maryland
Bethesda Row is not universally loved by smart growth advocates, including one who told Mr. Benfield she found it "'an inefficient use of land', particularly objecting to its two-story proportions..."  Kaid Benfield describes Bethesda Row as "...average density that counts and, so long as lower-density portions are complemented by higher-density portions elsewhere in the development, they add interest, daylight, and a scale that humans find appealing."  Contemporary Bethesda has its share of high-rise buildings.  What would really enhance the city are "more mixed-use, highly walkable projects that serve as great ambassadors for human-scale urban density..." Bethesda Row has been cited by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as an "outstanding example of smart growth."  It also received awards from the Smart Growth Alliance, the Urban Land Institute, and the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Luxury high-rise apartments
Bethesda, Maryland
Unfortunately, what is being built, in the name of smart growth, is not human-scaled.  To wit, the picture on the left. This luxury high-rise residential development is less likely to be featured smart growth on leading advocacy websites.  Said organizations's communications directors understand that buildings like this one are precisely what the average person fears being built in their community.  While building tall does have a certain appeal and brings benefits to urban neighborhoods as well as tenants and developers.  However, blogger thinks that smaller and older can be far more efficient. Further, the human scale of older smaller buildings provides a sense of comfort and connection for people.  They provide a uniqueness of experience and place that a tall glass and steel box cannot provide.

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