Since antiquity, the philosophers, writers, architects, engineers and planners have thought about designing new towns and cities.
Imagining what a new city would look like was a concrete way of exploring utopia.
Two parts to the discussion:
First part: history of new town since the late 19th century, and focuses mainly on European new towns
Second part: focus on Americas, and Asia, where many of the new towns today are being built.
Although new towns are rooted in high ideals, most new towns have also been a very pragmatic way of dealing with the urban issues of the time.
Hence the idea of the new town idea during last decades of the 19th century was because the social reformers wanted a way to improve the desperate living conditions in industrialized cities.
New towns have also been created to make a political statement about a society, such as national capitals that have been built on new sites away from existing urban areas.
Industrialists were among the first to recognize the value of creating communities near their factories – massive enterprises had grown up to manufacture goods, each requiring thousands of workers to keep the machines of mass production.
Case studies of the city of Pullman, south of Chicago; and of the industrialist William Lever in England.
Ebenezer Howard became the leading advocate of what we
call garden cities at the end of the 19th century; hesawnewtownsasawayof reconnectingtownandcountry.
He believed that everyonewanted the jobsandsocialcontactthattownspromoted, buttheyalsowantedtobeconnectedtonature, and his book Tomorrow: ThePeacefulPathtoRealReform, became theclassictextforcreationofnewtowns.
His diagram of metropolitan structure is arguably the most influential drawing ever produced by a city designer: it showed how cities ought to be limited in size by creating a green belt, and further growth should be directed into new towns, surrounded by green, connected by railways to the center city.
These news towns would be slumless and smokeless towns too.
Case study of the first garden city, Letchworth in Herfordshire; and Greenbelt, Maryland; Washington DC in the USA.
However, the intrusion of World War Two and the loss of faith in government actions brought the Garden Cities movement to a halt.
After the war, the London government asked Patrick Abercrombie, a professor of civic design at Liverpool University, to make proposals for how the city – that now lay in ruins — would be reconstructed.
His proposals reached back to Ebenezer Howard, and his plan for London not only guided the development of that city for the next 40 years, but became the model for regional development of cities all over the world.
The American experience with building new towns is really quite different from Europe:
there’s less capacity in the United States to plan for regional growth in the aggressive way that large European cities can; and
no American city has managed to create a green belt (although several Canadian cities have).
Most of the towns in the United States have been privately developed (except for a brief moment, when the Federal government provided loans and grants for 11 new communities around the country) i.e. driven by the logic of the marketplace
Case study: Reston in Virginia, now one of the most attractive locations in the Washington region; interesting because it was building using traditional city building principles, mixed-used, cars do not dominate, round-the-clock activity, city center built only after three decades (to ensure there was enough demand from the neighbourhoods) etc.
Asian cities have urbanized far faster than cities in other parts of the world over the past several decades; new town examples include Seoul’s development strategy, Tokyo’s development strategy, and Shanghai (in the midst of constructing nine new towns).
Case study: Makuhari Messe in Chiba, which has mixed use, central park, a very successful convention centre, sustainable infrastructure etc.
Case study: Songjiang in Shanghai, which has a central park, mass transit, industry, mixed-use etc.
Challenges of building new towns:
requires massive capital (thus vulnerable to economic cycles);
difficult to create the institutions that form a community from scratch e.g. schools, religious organizations, social clubs etc), and people are often reluctant to move until these are available;
with a small population, the new town cannot support businesses (e.g. shops, restaurants, convenience stores etc) that will attract people to move there;
really difficult to ensure continuity of development and ideas in the rush to get things developed.
Despite all this, new towns have been an important proving ground for ideas about how to design cities.
Next module: how some of these pioneering new town ideas can be applied to even smaller developments.
One way to think about urban design is to think in the next larger context.
So when you design a house, you’re actually designing part of a street.
When you design a street you’re doing a part of a neighborhood.
When you design a neighborhood, you are producing a part of a unique district of the city and so on.
This way, we go beyond thinking that every new piece of the city needs to be self-contained and turned inward, and instead think about how projects relate to their natural surrounds.
Sea Ranch on the California coast which retains its essential terroir;
Prairie Crossing outside of Chicago, which follows the logic of the site;
Modi’in in Israel by Moshe Safdie, where the geometry of the site is shaped by the natural form of hills and valleys (it is also an example of the difference between urban design and architecture – Safdie created the plan but none of the buildings, which were done by many architects).
Many of the opportunities for city design however are not on open sites, but in the context of largely built-up cities, and understanding the built context of this city is as important as understanding the site’s special qualities.
Historically, good towns and cities were based on respect for one’s neighbors through natural processes of small additions to an area.
Since the technology of building was limited, building heights was limited, and by mutual consent, there was an agreement on colors in the forms of buildings.
In contemporary development however, rules
are necessary e.g. in Boston, where cornice lines and continuity of street lines are maintained and preserved, and where Copley Square fits in with the surrounding scale.
The result are betters street and fine buildings.
When is it appropriate to break the rules of the context? An example is Frank Gehry’s building in Prague, called the Fred and Ginger Building, where where the surrounding fabric is so consistent and complete, that it can afford a moment of lightness and humor.
Being sympathetic to context doesn’t mean slavishly imitating it e.g. apartment buildings in Miami beach.
In cities with historic fabric, the cues for how to relate to the context are easy to discover
e.g. Amsterdam, where the narrow frontage of houses along the canals, and the wonderful variety of houses, each designed by a different architect for a different client, are what gives the city its really special character;
also gives real choice for the residents about the kind of building they wish to live in;
this works for larger and smaller scales too.
High density case study: Vancouver, which wanted to mimic the older downtown residential areas slowly making the transition into higher densities.
What if a city wants to make a break with the past and add things that are interesting (without overdoing it e.g. like Las Vegas)?
One way is to focus attention on creating a wonderful public realm:
as you walk the streets of Paris, or parts of New York, or even downtown Portland, Oregon, many others, wonderful cities, the consistency of the public realm makes any variation in the buildings along the street seem less important;
what you experience is wonderful trees arching over the sidewalks, sidewalks that are walkable and generous and provide a place to rest for you when you’re weary, interesting shop fronts, all of these more important than the architecture above.
Next session: explore ideas for public realm design that also make cities great.
Explore further how spaces and places provide social glue.
It’s only when we see people in public that we have to confront our stereotypes.
Richard Sennett, the sociologist, has called this process de-stereotyping: he has observed that the disorder and lack of control over streets and public spaces is critical and important to our understanding of our society. And the rituals we observe in public spaces say a lot about what we share in common.
Urban designers can have their greatest impact on the public realm of cities.
But what’s included in the term “public realm”?
The public realm is:
not just the space owned by the public;
it also includes private spaces that the public is allowed to use, sometimes with restrictions;
even the public space can come with restrictions;
and parts of the public realm are in the stewardship of private individuals or corporations or groups like restaurants.
The uses that border the public realm also matter a great deal.
The urban designer Gordon Cullen added the dimension of time to our understanding of the public realm: we seldom stand still, often moving, and experience public spaces in serial way.
Spaces in the city can be ranked in terms of their publicness:
Public spaces – most open spaces and owned by the city (we can do pretty much as we please within the norms of a civilized society);
Semi-public spaces – e.g. arcades of buildings open to the public 24 hours a day, but the owners have the right to restrict access;
Semi-private spaces – e.g. exist in gated communities and are only accessible
to those who live there or are there as guests.
Purely private spaces – e.g. backyards, where we can exclude people at will.
Sometimes the distinctions between these spaces are quite subtle; in the space of just a few steps, we make a transition from a purely public space to a purely private space (e.g. off the pavement and up the steps of a residence).
Culture plays a big part of what types of spaces are usually found.
Three kinds of public realm: streets, squares and waterfronts.
Many American streets are the result of different people acting independently but the example of Paris suggests streets and buildings can be coordinated and designed as one.
In the U.S., the attempts to design them as one has become known as The Complete Streets Movement, where the central idea is that the public realm should serve all the users who come there in a balanced way:
encourage diverse ways – on foot, bicylces, public transit, cars – of traveling to and along the street;
priority given to those who are the most vulnerable, especially pedestrian;
streets serve the businesses and services located along the street at ground level and above.
Case studies of
streets and reclaiming traffic islands for pedestrians in New York City and Boston;
piers and waterfront (after the west side highway was torn down) of New York City, and how travel and recreation was balanced;
south bank of Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia, and how private developers were
obliged to open up their activities to the waterfront.
Most people enjoy being in public, and having a public realm that avoids conflicts and supports social interchange is critically important for cities.
It’s also the source of pride for most local residents and an important piece of a city’s economy.
It is well worth the design attention and financial investment.
Next session: virtues of walkable neighborhoods and business centers.
In newer suburbs, you’re forced to use your automobile to do almost anything; even if you wanted to walk, there often are no sidewalks and there are dangerous intersections to cross.
This is quite a contrast to the older areas of cities, the older neighborhoods, where people can walk almost anywhere.
Surveys suggest that more than half of Americans would like to live in a place where they could walk to the important places.
Studies have shown that people who routinely use their automobile rather than walking have higher obesity rates and diabetes rates than those who are more physically active.
So what can a city do, and what can a city designer do to promote walking and to provide alternatives to driving everywhere.
Case study of Upper West Side in Manhattan – subway stations, shops, density, walkability, safety, parks etc; a complete and walkable neighborhood where people of all ages enjoy the streets and go about their daily rounds on foot.
Walk score index computes how close the everyday necessities for living are to any location in the city.
Upper West Side scores 100 on the index; other case studies of varying walk scores include Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood (score of 85); Elmwood in Buffalo (72h); Levittown on Long Island, New York (49); Flower Mound in Texas (20) etc.
Street patterns matter almost as much as density in promoting walkability.
Most people will walk ten minutes to a desired destination:
a typical grid pattern of older American cities makes it easier to walk in all directions to reach shops or institutions;
same ten-minute walk will get you to far fewer places if the streets are winding and circuitous.
Well-designed sidewalks matter too (e.g. width, shade etc); examples of poor sidewalks such as those in Bogota, Bangkok, and Beijing.
But the most important determinant is having a walkable commercial center within easy range of the home
Case studies: Chestnut Hill in Philadephia, Wicker Park/Bucktown in Chicago, and Kentlands in suburban Washington DC.
Studies in the Washington, D.C. area show that comparable properties and walkable areas sell or rent for considerably more than those that rely only on the car.
Huge challenge to retrofit today’s suburbs but may be essential; at least ensure that all new developments offer a choice of walking, cycling, sharing vehicles, using transit, and driving.
Next week: what city design can do to improve the living conditions of the most disadvantaged people in cities.