Alec Smith, Architect with SHAPE Architecture writes an essay about urban literacy and reflects on the thoughts of Jan Gehl.
A good city is like a good party—people stay longer than really necessary, because the are enjoying themselves.*
We are living at an auspicious time. In response to the demand for housing, our cities are being remade, sometimes piecemeal in the form of rezonings or en masse in major zoning changes. Planning departments are authoring significant changes through Official Community Plans and Zoning Districts. This reality will shape the future of our neighbourhoods through building form constraints, density, parking requirements and land use. And yet a kind of poisonous conservatism seems to be permeating this grand opportunity. Housing typologies and building form constraints in the form of setbacks are eerily reminiscent of existing models.
The opportunities ahead of us run the risk of being ignored and we are in jeopardy of repeating the errors of the past. Key to accommodating an increase in population in our Cities is the reality that they will become more dense. This is an opportunity to create memorable places, streets with character, great parks and ecologically progressive infrastructure. However, it means radically transforming existing suburban neighbourhoods and the political challenges associated with doing so. The job of architects, planners and developers is to provide politicians with the ammunition to make the argument for sustainable density to the public at large.
Freed to some degree from the parking restrictions that inhibited previous generations, our new denser neighbourhoods have the potential to become a better and more humane forum for the life of the City. We need to overcome the mentality that doing the right thing (adding ecologically sensitive density) has to be painful. We need to see it as an opportunity to create evocative and humane urban places better suited to our modern lives, closer to transit, in proximity to parks and able to accommodate new ways of living in the City.
Challenging the Block and Tower Model of Density
Density has got a bad name. Typically, it is associated with large downtown cores and based on one of two models, the tower and the double loaded corridor block. Both these models tend to create places without semi-public shared spaces and as such limit significantly the potential to develop better housing. Town-housing, courtyard housing and chain-type housing offer much more humane and livable ways of accommodating density. These typologies provide a scale of housing in which you are more likely to meet your neighbours, more motivated to advocate for your common interests and more able to share costs of ecologically sensitive infrastructure.
For very high density developments in downtown cores, a hybrid model, whereby towers and blocks are combined with row-housing or other ground oriented typologies, can create a more vital and engaging street life. Clearly, the way in which larger denser buildings meet with and engage the ground plane is the critical issue. Understanding that the spaces between buildings are the spaces in which the life of the city occurs allows us to consider potential developments critically and not solely based on their appearance.
The Urban Void
The challenge facing us is not new. Humanity has been wrestling with housing and urbanism for centuries. Some great lessons were learned in the last century when industrially produced housing projects failed as neighbourhoods and created desperate lonely scale-less urban landscapes. The reasons for this are many and complex. However, one key lesson from this time is that urban building form is not autonomous. Urban buildings frame and create lanes, streets, squares and parks. These spaces, the forum for urban life, are the voids between buildings that engage with the life and activities that happen within buildings themselves. So in a sense, it is the creation of these spaces, the urban voids, that is the challenge of time. What kind of life will they provide for? What will be the grain and tenor of these places? Might this way of living make us more engaged citizens? Indeed, Jan Gehl recognized the primary role played by the spaces between buildings:
First life, then spaces, then buildings— the other way around never works. *
This change in mentality refocusing the discussion around housing is crucial at this current moment when cities are being reimagined. As a society we tend to take emotional stances in relation to development that reflects either our deep ideological convictions or our immediate personal interests. We recognize the impulse to conclude that: “All development is bad!” or “Not in my back yard!”. However, the shortage of long term rental housing and accessible free hold housing make it clear that clinging to the status quo excludes a large number of people. Our cities are going to become more dense and if we don’t become informed citizens, they will do so without our consent. In a sense we need to develop a kind of basic urban literacy that allows us to evaluate the proposals and development that will shape our future neighbourhoods.
Crucial to the development of a basic understanding of urbanism, (the creation of the buildings, streets, squares and parks that make up our cities) is an understanding that the solids (buildings) of our cities and the voids (streets, squares and parks) are engaged in a dialogue. We all recognize the energy of a restaurant that spills out on to a sidewalk. The reality, that the city’s voids are charged by the life and spectacle of the buildings adjacent to them, allows one to see, without falling into aesthetic judgement, the potentials or hazards of a proposed project. It is an integral component of urban literacy.
A brief interlude: We have been cultured to think about buildings and cities in aesthetic terms only and to express that preference before all other observations or judgements. A more systematic understanding of cities is vital. Major political discussions and decisions about taxation, infrastructure and how to deal with vulnerable coastlines will characterize the coming decades. Cities are a mad and beautiful dance between life, infrastructure, buildings, transportation and topography. Judging them based on aesthetics alone is a failure of imagination. Some of the great cities of the world are at times not that pretty. One thinks of Bloor Street West in Toronto, 17th Avenue in Calgary or Commercial Drive in Vancouver.
Perhaps most significantly, admitting to ourselves that urbanism, which is to say city making, is a practical and creative undertaking might be our best option. Too frequently we allow ourselves to fall prey to the idea that cities take form somewhat autonomously without authorship; that their form results from economic factors and abstract forces and not from complex decisions made by developers, planners, engineers and architects. We instinctively know that this is the case but somehow don’t let ourselves believe it.
As with all moments in history when much is at stake, we stand poised to proceed foolishly or to recognize the opportunity that has been presented to us. By aspiring to become literate in the language and grammar of cities, citizens can engage in the current and coming debate. The time is now, there is much at stake:
In a Society becoming steadily more privatized with private homes, cars, computers, offices and shopping centers, the public component of our lives is disappearing. It is more and more important to make the cities inviting, so we can meet our fellow citizens face to face and experience directly through our senses. Public life in good quality public spaces is an important part of a democratic life and a full life. *
*Quote by: Jan Gehl