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WHAT IS GOOD URBAN DESIGN?

In its most general sense, urban designers intend to improve the quality of people's lives through design. They accomplish this through the elimination of barriers as well as the creation of opportunities for people to move about the city in a free, safe, and pleasant way. For example, one should be able to walk through a reasonable portion of an urban area in inclement weather without major difficulty.

Minneapolis, with its long, cold, snowy winters, has accomplished this goal with a system that links the second stories of downtown buildings with climate-controlled skyways. The skyways plus the connecting corridors in commercial and public buildings form a five-mile system. People may travel several blocks from parking structures or apartments to offices or stores without having to go down to street level. Some residents "skywalk" for exercise and recreation.

Clearly, the Minneapolis skyway system has helped the downtown remain competitive with outlying developments, such as the Mall of America located to the south of the city. But skyway systems do have a downside. According to urban designer Wendy Jacobson,

Both skyways and underground pedestrian systems can drain city streets of the activity that makes them lively, interesting, and safe. With few exceptions, North American cities lack the density of pedestrian activity to fuel both an active street frontage and a competing above- or below-grade system. Something has to suffer and in most cases it is the street.

Privatization is also an important issue. Although they may appear to be public spaces, most skyways and underground walkways link privately owned development. Unlike public streets, access to these systems is normally restricted to certain times and may even be restricted to certain people—those appropriately dressed, for example.5

Note that the privatization issue raises questions similar to some of those raised in connection with private communities discussed in Chapter 7. When this writer raised the vitality-of-the-street question with a planner in Minneapolis, he was told that the department believed that the pros of the system substantially outweighed the cons. Thus the city continues to accept applications for additions to the skyway system.

Another cold-weather city with an extensive skyway system is Calgary in Alberta, Canada. Its system is named Plus 15 for the required clearance of the skyway over the street. Calgary officials are also aware of the problem of competition between the street and the skyway level. In fact, they note that comparable retail floor space at the skyway level rents for more than it does at the street level. But on balance they are sufficiently pleased with Plus 15 that for every square foot of skyway that a developer builds, the city allows the developer to build 20 more square feet of building floor space than the zoning would normally permit.

People like to see other people and to be seen. Many cities provide incentives for developers who will create public plazas in conjunction with new developments. Such spaces provide an opportunity for people to sit in the sun on lunch breaks and observe the general activity of the street. William Whyte, in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, reports a systematic study of the factors contributing to successful urban spaces.6 He concludes that some form of movable seating and the opportunity to purchase food and drink are key elements.

Another way to evaluate the success of urban space is the way in which it assists in orienting the user. For example, can users find their way from one place to the other without confusion or fear? Are the signs easily understood? Are major pedestrian areas well lit in the evenings so that users can make their way easily and safely? Jane Jacobs made this point forcefully in the early 1960s in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.7

Other functional criteria such as safety are also important. For example, separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic reduces accidents. Yet the spaces and circulation areas must be organized so that they can be readily accessible to emergency vehicles and delivery vehicles.

Good design achieves its intentions and often more. For example, the developer's intention in constructing a mixed-use project may simply be to achieve a profitable combination of commercial and residential structures. Yet if the project is well situated and aesthetically attractive, its benefits will spill over onto adjacent areas. The project might increase pedestrian traffic and hence enhance property values in adjacent retailing areas. Its presence might also enhance the value of adjacent neighborhoods by making the area more interesting and varied.

Above, skyways on Minneapolis's Nicollet Mall. The narrowed street is open to buses, taxis, police, and emergency vehicles but closed to passenger cars. Below, the view from Marquette Avenue. The skyways are planned, built, and maintained privately (current cost is over $1 million each), subject to the granting of an encroachment permit. Because they are designed by different architects for different builders, there is considerable variation in their appearance.

Myriad factors can affect the success of an urban design project. A list of a number of the more important criteria for judging urban design follows:

  • 1. Unity and coherence
  • 2. Minimum conflict between pedestrians and vehicles
  • 3. Protection from rain, noise, wind, and so on
  • 4. Easy orientation for users
  • 5. Compatibility of land uses
  • 6. Availability of places to rest, observe, and meet
  • 7. Creation of a sense of security and pleasantness.

But it must be admitted that urban design is not an exact science, since there is always the element of personal taste. One person's peace and tranquillity will be another person's boredom and sterility. One person's excitement will be another person's soul-destroying cacophony. The area that suits a single person in his or her twenties may seem quite unsuitable 10 years later when that same person has a spouse and two children.

 
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