Archive for the ‘urban’ Tag

Small Town Seeks Character

"The old Shurfine Market building will be demolished as the first step in Tyngsborough’s plans to redevelop its town center. (Photos By Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)" www.boston.com

"The old Shurfine Market building will be demolished as the first step in Tyngsborough’s plans to redevelop its town center. (Photos By Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)" http://www.boston.com

Towns all across America have started to realize they have very little character or sense of place. Suburbanization has left many different areas different feeling places- most notably, a few acre sized lots of suburban sprawling homes may collectively have enough land to create a neighborhood or cultural center, but instead take up lots of relatively unused land. Although towns and houses with a great expanse of land may adequately allow for some people to efficiently live on their property (i.e. farmers), it may ultimately hurt them in the long run by not having a nearby main street. Tourism does not exist to places that do not have cultural hubs, so any town without a main stopping point or center is missing out on tourism opportunities. Going for milk becomes a 20 minute drive instead of a 5 minute walk. Without a main street or economic area, many people will also be forced to drive between their several destinations of needs, and instead of having an option of several reasonable methods of transport (most importantly equitable and ecologically responsible methods like walking, cycling, and public transit).

Thankfully, towns like Tyngsborough, Massachusetts are realizing the disadvantages of having little of a town center.

Right now, points of interest in the center of town include the Littlefield Library, Winslow School, and Old Town Hall – all of which are vacant. Municipal business is conducted at the new town hall/library, located in a remote wooded area away from the center. In Tyngsborough, as some observers put it, there’s simply no “there’’ there.

“There is no ‘there’ ” is a great way to describe the decentralization of cities, boroughs, and small towns. In all likeliness, small towns like Tyngsborough were settled because of a specific reason, such as a stopping point for travelers in the days before cars, or because a train station was a drop point for supplies. Places like these have fallen into near ghost towns and have no cultural center as a result of the continuous disinvestment from the train infrastructure and the advancement of technology- namely cars, which virtually destroyed many of these stop over towns overnight.

The obstacle for urban planners is to retain the old historical features and characters of these towns while injecting new locally accepted life in and around. “‘We want to make sure we develop a town center that recognizes the history of the town, along with grasping the culture and the wants of the residents,’ Lemoine said[…] ‘We’ve never had a town center, an identity for a town.'” Community visioning is a tool that could be used to help translate the physical descriptions from the general public and place all those ideas into a master plan.

“It would be nice to have a place of social gathering, a coffee shop, a breakfast place, an eatery where people can congregate and support their local businesses,’’ said selectman Richard Lemoine. “A center of town, whether it’s just a few shops, a green space, a bandstand, something that recognizes the significance of a community, every community strives for one. That’s what we’re striving for.’’

Max Stember-Young, Rutgers University Student Intern, VERTICES LLC

Material drawn from Boston.com: http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2009/07/16/municipalities_seek_identity_in_town_centers/?page=1

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Video on New Urbanism Neighborhoods

Take a bit of time to watch this video made by the Congress for New Urbanism. It explains why America has become so suburbanized and car obsessed. Building codes generally forbid building mixed used development as a way to avoid “the hassles of city life.” Having building codes where only one type of zone (such as commercial or residential) separates these different types of areas from being integrated together. In my mind the stratification caused by consistent one-type zoning is similar to the Jim Crow laws- a regression and obstacle for integration and social equity.

This video puts a lot of emphasis on low carbon emission neighborhoods, and I believe they are targeting the wrong characteristics and benefits of New Urbanism. Yes, low carbon is good but it likely isn’t a primary deciding factor of most Americans. Americans would rather live in somewhere exciting- a place that is unique in its own right. Some people might like where they live because it’s a small town. Others might like where they live because they have little space to maintain, or a lot of space for a large house with a large backyard and pool. Economists have always said you cannot explain preferences of people, so urban planners need to account for the different living styles some prefer. This is the greatest challenge for planners. At the same time very few Americans have lived in a planned New Urbanist/ Old Urbanist/ Traditional Neighborhood style environment, and have yet to decide if it is good or not, only the connotation formed by their previous experiences. Hopefully some of these videos will change some minds.

Max Stember-Young, Rutgers University Student Intern, VERTICES LLC

For additional information on New Urbanism, check out www.newurbanism.org

History of Suburbanization

Ever since the 1950’s, America has been suburbanizing. As GI’s returned from service after WWII, they were given subsidized loans to buy new houses. Developers took advantage and bought cheap land outside main living areas and developed them into single family homes. It was “The American Dream” to have your family own a single family house with a front and back yard with a driveway and garage for your family car. Take a look at any advertisement for a car from those times and you will see they were sold as family items. It was all about family- moving to the suburbs kept your kids safe from all the crime, pollution, traffic, etc that American cities had been known for. Afterall, cities were the first places immigrants would come to (New York because of Ellis Island for example). Immigrants most often would have very little of anything if not nothing at all, fueling the benefits of theft and reputation. Cities grew to be known as unsafe because of the rampant crime and violence associated with it.

1948- A typical photo promoting the suburbs as family places. Derived from: www.urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com

1948- A typical photo promoting the suburbs as family places. Derived from: http://www.urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com

The saving grace from this was the car, which allowed for suburbanization. You could now live outside the city where it was safer, and commute to your work place in your car. Llewellyn Park, NJ, what many scholars call the first suburb, was designed by “a New York business man who practiced the religious doctrine of the Perfectionists, who believed that spiritual or moral perfection could be attained, and planned the development for fellow believers.”  Naturally, more developments sprung up along roads and highways (as well as train and trolley lines) into the city, as people needed to commute to their place of work. The suburbs were desirable, expensive, and dominantly white middle to upper class families. The problem now was that the stay at home parent (in the 50’s, the American Dream said the mother was to do this) needed to still run errands, so a second car was needed so the mother didn’t have to carry the groceries over a long distance over busy roadways; more space was needed to house the car at home, more space was needed to park it at the shops, and more roads were needed to deal with the capacity of all the cars driving different places. It was great for the economy- Americans needed more and it put millions if not billions to work on roads, new houses, real estate agents, bankers, insurance agents, car manufacturers, engineers, etc., etc.

Only now are more people starting to realize this is not a sustainable economy.

As a result of suburbia, architecture and social life as suffered. Many places are biased in terms of age. Children cannot go to downtown areas, visit their friends, or even play at the park without a parent driving them as it is unsafe to walk on the roads, or too far in distance, and there is no public transport because it is not economically sensible or sustainable. Architecture suffered because businesses that survived during that era moved their buildings back to allow for excessive parking in front. Architecture didn’t matter from the street if the building is separated by 100’s of feet of (often empty) parking pavement. Think Big Box Retail.

Severely underutilized space, a product of the 1950's culture of suburbanization

Severely underutilized space, a product of the 1950's culture of suburbanization

As new generations have replaced the old, the 1950’s dream has started to fade. It was successfully passed down to at least one generation (children of the 50’s and 60’s), but as the newest generation of young adults arises, hopefully the collective image of American cities can change.

Max Stember-Young, Rutgers University Student Intern, Vertices, LLC

Quoted material drawn from: http://www.sha.state.md.us/keepingcurrent/maintainRoadsBridges/bridges/oppe/suburbs/B-1.pdf

Picture from: http://farm1.static.flickr.com/43/108082998_12da719cd5_o.jpg

From the Office to the Built Environment

Today is going to be slightly different than past posts as I will talk about the transition from the office to the outside built environment. I was glancing about Yahoo! when I first came into work and one article I read got me thinking. It talked about several ways you can make your office space more pleasant, and I found that many of the tips they had given can be transformed to work as tips for making the built environment more pleasant.

The first tip mentioned is to reuse drinking cups because some materials take a long time to break down in landfills. Lots of materials buildings are made out of can be reworked to be recycled. One example comes from one of my earlier post about Cleveland where locals took bricks from a school that was to be demolished and placed the bricks as walkway inside a community garden near the heart of the city. Not only can bricks be reused, but many of the metallic materials can be smoldered down into new products as well.

The second tip they gave was to make your lunch and bring it to work. It is a simple way to save money, but if you were to make your own food in your backyard or community garden, think of the money you can save while at the same time avoiding chemically altered fruits and vegetables. It may be a hassle to do this for many people so this idea may be out of the question for many people, but at the same time imagine if it became the trendy thing to do.

Tip number three is to breathe fresh by livening your desk with a plant or two. Countless studies show that greenery increases happiness and that as humans, we love being around nature. When we step out to our streets, it should not be a jungle of cars and the infrastructure to support them, but rather a pleasant built landscape that is comfortable and exciting to walk through.

The final tip is to dress the part- come into work with clothes you bought second hand and advertise your ways. The advertising of this part is crucial, because too many people do not feel this part is feasible/ socially acceptable/ economically beneficial, etc. By being obvious about your ways shows your confidence in your beliefs, and may persuade others to jump on board with you, even if it is slightly.

There of course are implications with these tips, mainly the economic impact it would have if a large portion of people started to employ these ways. At the same time, we should not underestimate the ability of human personality to adapt to the conditions.

Max Stember-Young, Rutgers University Student Intern, Vertices LLC

The Yahoo! article can be found here: http://green.yahoo.com/blog/greenpicks/245/green-your-desk.html

Revisiting Community Visioning in Lexington, KY

A view of the rehabilitated area in Lexington, KY www.city-data.com

A view of the rehabilitated area in Lexington, KY http://www.city-data.com

Lexington, KY has been a city of earlier discussion on this site, so I thought it would be a good idea to revisit the city. One of the main sections of the city, the area surrounding Triangle Park, had been severely under utilized. Like a typical American city, disinvestment in the downtown areas in favor of suburban areas left this area of Lexington in need of a make over. But residents did not want to scrap the old architecture that had stood for many years and was part of the culture of the city. Instead, buildings in Victoria Square were allowed to stay even amongst new building codes thanks to the willingness of a few local preservation and revitalization advocates.

What had been a haven for rats, pigeons, graffiti, and the homeless, has now been transformed into an enjoyable square with restaurants and studio apartments overlooking Triangle Park.

The revitalization of this area of Lexington is a great example of how planning a community with the involvement of local residents can be a great tool for a successful rehabilitation project.

Take a moment to look at the picture (from http://www.city-data.com) above. Notice how nearly all the buildings are 3 stories, each building has a small relatively small building street fronts, and the buildings are real close together (in fact they are touching). This is typical of older style urban design and is very desirable for people. The streetscape of small banners, lights, and trees also contributes to this being a desirable area, and is an sample for good urban design.

Max Stember-Young, Rutgers University Student Inter, Vertices, LLC

Bringing Cities to life with Plant life

A prospering garden in the heart of Cleveland, Ohio

A prospering garden in the heart of Cleveland, Ohio

Cleveland has had its fair share of downtime in recent years, but now it seems small community efforts are helping to recreate the image of the city- and it doesn’t involve superstar LeBron James.

In the West Superior Hill section of the city, Burning River Gardens has been putting small community efforts to work. 15 garden plots were erected last year and now in its second year, 13 volunteers have been assigned garden plots to grow organic only vegetables. Rules strictly forbid any unnatural weed killers or fertilizers, making organic food each year and avoiding soil contamination and river contamination (when rain drains the chemicals into the water via runoff).

A community garden such as this one are good ways to bring local food into local homes and therefore create more productive people and communities. One instance pulled from this article I was reading from examiner.com says one of the gardeners who had a plot offered a nearby homeless man a few dollars a day to water her plant while she was out of town, but the homeless man said he had already been watering them for her.

Despite how little this community garden may be, it offers recreation activities for more community residents on a plot of land that might otherwise go unused. The site is also lined with brick that was left over after a local school had been torn down. A small image of a trickle down effect in the community can be seen from this by connecting different types of people with different activities. Many people being able to say they played a part in a local success, whether it be the person who donated the bricks, the homeless man watering the vegetables, or the person who finally eats a ripe product of the garden (they’re eating local).

Community gardens are just a small example of community interaction methods that can be employed in nearly every city, suburb or rural area. Small actions like these gardens reproduced many times will have an exponential effect on the livability, likeability, and overall quality of urban areas for future living. You can start by planting just one seed today.

Max Stember-Young, Rutgers University Student Intern, Vertices LLC

All resources drawn from: http://www.examiner.com/x-6824-Downtown-Cleveland-Examiner~y2009m6d17-Urban-gardens-help-make-downtown-Cleveland-more-green

Sustainable design

Today’s topic comes on more sustainable design and implementing it into everyday life. Probably the two biggest obstacles in incorporating sustainable design are cost and sacrifices in comfort. However, it appears that these two obstacles are just myths, and in fact building sustainable “green” buildings may actually be cheaper to both build and maintain, as well as maintain a high level of comfort.

Spacecoast Architects of Indialantic, Florida have set a good standard in building design that I will use as an example today.

Spacecoast’s president, Lawrence Maxwell’s “protype” school design is  The Odyssey Charter School. According to an article run by solveclimate.com, Odyssey uses only 30% of the energy required for “typical schools.”

The building scored a 95 out of 100 for the Energy Star evaluation. Buildings only need 70 points to qualify as an Energy Star. Such a high score is a tribute to Spacecoast’s dedication to sustainable design.

I want to quote directly from the solveclimate.com article because I think it describes perfectly the point I want to get across:

“The school demonstrates how to program high-energy performance into a building’s DNA using principles of building orientation, natural lighting, natural ventilation, advanced thermal envelope design, active and passive thermal storage, and demand management.”

Orientation and natural lighting are important to schools. School activities for the most part take place during the day, so it makes sense to use as much natural lighting as possible. But, in a climate like Florida’s, it’s important to not absorb too much heat into the building. It’s hot enough in Florida and making a school into a solar hot box would not be ideal. Instead, the building orientation had many windows facing the north end of the building, where light would still come through but it would be indirect as to avoid lots of the heating inside.

Again quoting directly from the site: “This aesthetically attractive, 47,000-square-foot school also cost half as much to build as a conventional school, $70 per square foot compared to $150 per square foot, without sacrificing comfort or facilities.”

Interesting, huh?

Max Stember-Young, Intern, Vertices LLC

The related article to this post can be found at: http://solveclimate.com/blog/20090616/building-sustainable-school-shoestring