Saturday, December 27, 2014

Prince Charles' 10 principles of urbanism: typical example of what's wrong with urbanists/architects

Recently, Prince Charles published an essay about 10 principles for sustainable cities, which has made some waves. Which can be summed up as follows:

1- Developments must respect the natural land they occupy and not be too intrusive.
2- There must be a building code to follow geometric rules for architecture.
3- Buildings must be built to the scale of humans and of the existing area.
4- Buildings must be harmonious and have a coherent image.
5- The built area must provide enclosure.
6- Buildings must be made of similar materials in a given area, preferably locally sourced material.
7- Street signs must be reduced as much as possible and utilities must be buried so that you can avoid having them intrude over the look of the area.
8- Pedestrians must be the focus of streets, not cars.
9- Density is important but must be done through low-rise buildings (townhouses and low-rise apartment buildings).
10- Flexibility rather than imposing exactly what goes where.

First of all, I do not share some people's dislike of Prince Charles. I do think his heart is in the right place. That being said, I think his approach, well-intentioned as it may be, is a good example of the main flaw common among many urbanists and architects. Namely, they care about urban areas that satisfy their own subjective aesthetic criteria almost to the exclusion of everything else.

In effect, they consider cities more as museums or art galleries than areas in which people live and work.

At the same time, they often like cities they can walk in, so that alone makes them better than the modernists of years past who preferred to experience cities through models, the windshields of cars traveling along expressways and the windows of high-rise offices. But there is still a bit of narcissism here, the idea that cities should be built to satisfy their tastes first and foremost, no matter the cost.

And here's the main issue here...

Urban policy is not just about architecture, it's also about economics

You'll note that there is a big absence in his 10 principles: the words affordable and affordability are nowhere to be found. Yet these are extremely important factors, though one I understand a royal heir is unlikely to have a personal acquaintance with. No matter how great the areas you build are, if most people can't afford to live in them, only a privileged few will get to experience them to the fullest.

Indeed, in his quest to get areas that conform to his aesthetic taste, he came up with quite a few principles that are going to make housing unaffordable. Namely, the principles 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 are likely to directly increase the cost of building new homes. Every restriction made upon new buildings increases the complexity of approval processes and therefore the cost of getting building permits, costs that will be reflected into the value of new buildings. His principle about the control of materials is also likely to create shortages of these materials, thus increasing their prices, and thus, the costs of construction.

His principles 1, 3 and 4, asking for harmony between buildings and limiting scale also directly contradict his principles 9 and 10. Indeed, it is easy to sum up these three principles as "protecting a neighborhood's character", a common euphemism of NIMBYs for: "no development allowed". Existing areas can thus not increase density without directly running into his principles for harmony and scale preservation. Any development that is higher density to existing buildings will ALWAYS represent a break in the existing "scale" of the built area. As a result, the only way to build new density and respect those principles is to build a dense greenfield development on the periphery of existing areas. Which is absolutely insane, because then these areas are disconnected from existing dense areas and likely to require cars to travel around. Rapid transit can help mitigate the terrible location, but only to some extent.

Forbidding density in existing areas also mean that you cannot increase housing supply in areas where there is a shortage. So the shortage is just going to get worse and worse, pushing all but the richest away to areas that have bad urban design.

Neo-traditionalism: outcome or process?

Prince Charles is clearly a traditionalist who likes the traditional cities of his native land. What he doesn't seem to understand, like a lot of urbanists and architects, is that these cities didn't spring in that current form in one day. They are the result of incremental development over the years, with denser buildings replacing earlier ones (often with a little help from our buddy fire). They were not planned this way, they spontaneously evolved to their current form.

Yet, if Charles likes the outcome of this traditional city, he clearly doesn't like the traditional process through which these cities came to be, he would like to plan things out ex nihilo rather than see them evolve over time. Considering the new materials and technology available to developers, turning our back on anything that was invented after the 19th century seems foolhardy at best. The traditional process that created traditional cities is not incompatible with new building forms and technologies, there is no reason to shun them.

In a way, the true descendants of traditional cities aren't the mummified European cities of Paris and London where all is done to maintain buildings and neighborhoods as they were in the early 20th century, but Japanese cities. Yes, Japanese cities are resolutely modern in terms of buildings, but the traditional process of city-building is still alive in Japan, while it has been replaced by planner fiat in Europe and North America. The people who built the cities people love would have likely been more than happy to have our modern technology to allow for taller buildings with more varied materials. Likewise, though the Japanese use modern materials and technologies, they still use them in a way that is more in line with the traditional process of incremental city-building. The opposite of Europeans who use traditional materials and technologies but have a strictly modern planning system to control their urban developments.

So, all in all, I would say that we need more pragmatism and less artistic "integrity" in urban development policies. Any regulation to satisfy subjective aesthetic criteria should be analyzed to see how they impact the economics of urban development, and they should only be applied if they have no impact or only minor impacts on affordability. Prince Charles' principles come from, if I may say, a radical perspective where aesthetics matter above all else, a flaw that is only too common in current urbanists and architects and result in cities that are supremely expensive to live in, with people of modest means forced to live ever farther from the central areas and to commute ever longer distances.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Reflecting on the concepts of streets

In urbanist circles, the modernist architect Le Corbusier has become sort of a boogeyman, whether or not that representation is fair or not is up to everyone to judge (I personally think it's rather fair). One of the most  One of the most damning quotes we hear from him is "death to the street". The street is generally seen as the defining place of cities, so that is completely heretical for most urban-minded people.

However, I have to correct the quote. The real quote is "Il faut tuer la rue-corridor", "we have to kill the street-corridor". Already, this adds a certain nuance to his comment. A corridor is a part of a house that only serves to connect different rooms, it is merely a place of transit, narrow and frequently without natural light.

Reading the real quote made me think about streets and about how different cultures at different times approached it differently. Again, disclaimer, this is me thinking out loud, if I take a seemingly authoritative tone sometimes, that is just my way of speaking neutrally and not a claim of authority. I am open to the idea of being wrong.

So let's start.

The street-corridor

So what was Le Corbusier talking about? Well, if you check out old European cities, you would notice that streets are indeed very narrow, only the strict minimum required to let people and vehicles through. When the street ends, the buildings begin, there is no space between building and the street (including the sidewalk here). As a result, there is no semi-private area, you have a pretty drastic contrast between public space and private space. As a consequence, unless you have stores on the first floor, you have very inward-looking buildings, where there is a distinct lack of windows facing the street on the ground floor, very rare balconies and often shuttered windows.

A street in Marseille, France

The area of the first picture seen from the air, notice the relatively large courtyards compared to the narrow street
Even some more recent developments have kept this attitude of putting a narrow street with homes with closed fronts, but huge backyards. Like this example in Amiens:

Amiens, France

Same area, seen from the air. I am not kidding.
Streets also seem quite narrow, to serve essentially as a way of getting from point A to point B. They could still become interesting places if buildings on either side house ground floor shops and restaurants, as these places are open to the public and form kind of an extension of the street.

I think in a way, what defines the street-corridor, more than width, is the clear limit between public and private space and the use of the street mainly for transit. In that way, the street is often made only as wide as it needs to be, because it is largely seen as a necessary evil to provide access and the narrower it is, the more space can be given over to private uses. Though buildings front the street, they are generally closed to it. Which actually means that streets like these...
6th avenue in Calgary
...have a lot in common with the previous streets, except the scale is different as it is built for car transportation rather than pedestrian traffic. But otherwise, both have buildings that are closed to the street, a clear delimitation between public and private space and a street serving through traffic rather than serving as a place.

The street as common space

This is something that is particularly common in North America. Nathan Lewis on his blog refers to North American streets as "hypertrophic" and notes how wide they were built even before cars came. Contemporary documents seem to reveal that the streets weren't completely unused, though they were much wider than necessary for transport, they seemed to have been used as a sort of communal front yard and playground for residents. Often, this came with a reduction of private space, through smaller back yards.
An older area of Pittsburgh

Houses are often more open to the street in these areas rather than closed on themselves, there are more windows at ground level and some buildings have small porches or balconies and other attributes that favor a smoother transition between the public space of the street and the private space inside the houses.
Rosemont in Montréal
In the last case, there is some small setback between the houses and the sidewalk, which protects the privacy of houses without requiring them to close down and provides for a private space that is nonetheless visually part of the public realm of the street. This provides a façade, a way for residents to display their personality to the community passively by how they maintain this private portion of the public realm.

Now, when motorization occurred, these wide expanses of common spaces vanished from cities, being taken over by cars, whether in movement or parked, depriving city residents of this public space and kids of their playground. It would be hard to conceive of wide streets used that way nowadays, as they would likely host parked cars or have traffic at high-speed unless there was particularly effective traffic-calming deployed.

It makes me wonder if, at least at first, suburbs with low density and off-street parking requirements were built to preserve this function of the street. For instance by allowing kids to play hockey in the street (or stickball in the US), thanks to low traffic and the absence of parked cars on the asphalt.

BTW, anecdotally, my mother has many French friends from when she taught a few years there. When she invited them to our sleepy suburb, her friends were amazed by how open the houses were to the street and that people on the streets could, if they wanted, look inside the house. So, ironically, though North American countries are considered more individualist than Europe, the built environment of North America is in a way more oriented towards the community, with private residence being more open to the neighborhood.

The street as a park/forest path

This is an anti-urban conception. In this concept, the street and private houses are separated by a large buffer with plenty of trees along the street, in order to really separate houses and street and preserve the feeling of being in a park or a forest even if you're in a developed area. The goal is largely that the street should not be seen from the building, nor the building from the street. The result is a disconnection between developments and their lots, with little or no urban fabric, even when the area is high density (the famous towers in parks). A trick that is sometimes used in these developments is to have buildings at an angle or perpendicular to the street.

A street to secondary houses in the Laurentides region
A collector street in an Houston suburb
The same street seen from the air, suburban cul-de-sac developments connect to it
Another street near the area

And now for the denser examples:
Would you believe this area of Stockholm is 200 meters from a metro station and is densely populated?
Well, it is.
Seeing Stockholm in Google Maps is quite interesting because it has a rather unique form of development. In a way, Stockholm's suburbs are a bit like a transit-oriented Texan suburb, with developments self-contained in semi-cul-de-sac, connected by streets that look like forest roads. The big difference is that most developments are much higher density and have access to transit, either buses, trains or trams. Each of these developments seem to have a specific building type, which seems to bear the mark of strong centralized planning. The street grid of Stockholm consequently completely breaks down outside the core urban area. If anything, it proves that this kind of development can result in transit-friendly cities, as Stockholm's transit mode share is extremely high, 35%, but walking is much lower at 17%. (Source)

Here is another example, Moscow, where the communist leadership liked the "tower in the park" concept.

The big failing of such a treatment to streets is a tearing of the urban fabric and the loss of "eyes on the street". Since the street is isolated from the developments, it becomes much less secure, especially at night.


Not really any conclusion here. This is a pure case of thinking aloud about how different cities and cultures build and conceive the street in relation to developments, whether developments front the street, whether these buildings are open or closed to it.