Now that Mayor Ed Murray has shifted Housing and Livability Agenda (HALA) priorities away from changes to single-family zones and back toward Seattle’s traditional focus on density and urban village or urban centers, it strikes me, based on 30 years of experience, that the real work has barely begun.
Writing now from a world of detached simplicity, while on vacation—far away from my hometown’s bombastic debate—I am benefiting from the gestalt of reflection. Suddenly, I remember simpler, yet similar times 25 years ago, and have some cautionary tales to tell about human nature amid the specter of change.
Click here for the rest of today’s essay in Seattle’s Crosscut.
For five years, myurbanist has focused on the organic, naturally occurring aspects of urban development and placemaking. Several myurbanist entries became the basis for last year’s Urbanism Without Effort (Island Press, 2013).
This year, based on introductions from friends and through social media, I’ve collaborated with the Urban Design Studies Unit at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow on common interests, including ideas about the latent length of main streets throughout history.
Later this month, the collaboration continues, with the Plot-Based Urbanism Summit in Glasgow, commencing October 27. The Summit will focus on strategies and examples emphasizing foundational, close-grain urban fabrics that were once the premise of urban development and associated street networks. In particular, the Summit will address the fundamental role of the individual “plot” in urban development.
My keynote will stress the “first principles of urbanism” discussed many times here and in Urbanism Without Effort, and suggest basic implementation strategies. I very much look forward to the range of related subjects covered in panels convened by leading United Kingdom proponents of the plot-based approach.
See the following programme for more, and look for updates here and on Twitter, under the hashtag #PBUrb14.
Last week, a colleague in my day job contacted me in search of an expert witness in a large American city. This ask for a recommendation—and its premise—was not unusual for a pending design review process. His client needed a credible opinion that proposed development, flanking a current urban open space, would be “incongruous” with the existing use.
For many, a dramatic contrast in height, bulk and density is the recipe for “incongruity”. But, in a larger sense, don’t today’s urban centerpieces by definition show the latent “incongruities” of city life?
Think of Chicago’s Millennium Park, and its multifaceted and controversial history of funding snafus, cost overruns and debates about building aesthetics, security practices and public access. Should default discussion about an urban project really be focused first on surrounding building height and modulated, architectural solutions (sometimes termed “density with grace“)?
Actually, urban blending and any associated quest for balance are much broader topics, and my response to my colleague above was both quizzical and consistent with my New Year’s, series-framing premise: Once a potential urban overlap, overlay, or “juxtaposition” emerges, the search for harmony and agreement should travel far beyond physical limits, in a comprehensive fashion not limited by ambiguous words.
Many “experts” opining on tall, “densifying” edges of public open space are actually more concerned with broader issues, such as funding mechanisms that pay for the open space and improvements, as well as other key, urban “go-to” disciplines, including transportation and housing. This breadth of focus can lead to a very different view that leverages “incongruity” as the inevitable urban solution.
In other words, the “incongruity” that some would malign as an uneven landscape of height and imbalance, becomes a treasure-trove of irregular, provocative architecture and investment. This investment generates aesthetic and monetary capital to enhance, and not detract from, the public realm nearby.
. . . .
As often happens, consideration of these issues reminded me of something more fundamental and traditional—a mix of human imprints on the natural environment that I have written about before, a world away. In Iceland, I characterized much of what I saw there as an unforgettable balance of human settlement and dramatic surroundings.
In Icelandic landscapes, in small towns, and in the resurgent capital city of Reykjavik, are scenes and stories that transcend nature, culture and the built environment. In the imagery of such places, we see scaled expressions of urban settlement and transport, both past and present, including dramatic examples of human interactions with the raw elements of nature.
In these photographs, the visual juxtaposition of fishing village and glacier, of small buildings and sky, is to me, nothing short of astounding. The harmony and agreement—the “congruity” that is the foil of this story—is clearly present where churches and outbuildings on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula honor natural surroundings with simplicity and scale.
In the city, can we, and should we, aspire to such purity?
How much should regulations, and battles of noble NIMBY and developer, dance around the prospect of such resplendent and ideal visions?
While under our regulatory system, the whims of subjective citizen commissioners may be kept honest by largely objective city staff, project proponents will almost always argue the real cost of materials and the balance of profit that complicate the limited aesthetic orientation proffered above. In a “densifying” urban core, the marketplace often varies from an implementable, smaller scale of development.
The point of showing a vision as clear as the Snæfellsnes Peninsula—supplanting for a moment Millennium Park’s big city dimensions—is not to dwell in a nostalgia of lesser scale overseas. Rather, by showing examples of authentic harmony and agreement—at least as I see them—we can distinguish the balance humans still carry out in the raw landscapes of simpler places from the vocabulary of balance we often seek downtown.
. . . .
When faced with a juxtaposition such as the problem presented—an “incongruous” urban development—I have learned both as practitioner and pundit not to dwell on the perfect extremes sought by proponents and detractors. Client permitting, I would rather spend time with the inherent compromises necessary when the discussion inevitably moves toward the merger of public and private realms.
If we remember these nuances in urban setting today, we will better understand that balance and “congruity” are not absolutes, but end-games with multiple meanings, dependent on context, and careful reflection.
Lately, there is no shortage of reporting about big urban ideas and visions of what will make places great.
For David Roberts, writing in Grist, the answers are conceptual, e.g. assurance of ecological sustainability and density, while Crosscut contributor Mark Hinshaw lauds great projects in the making through citation to the “verve, variety and vitality” of James Corner’s early rethinking of the Seattle waterfront—with a city-wide focal point in mind.
But where is the realism, and why does it matter?
In a recent Financial Times article, Edwin Heathcoate dissected the ever-popular lists of great cities and acknowledged that such rankings are often based on individual taste—in response to the qualities that the identified cities present. However, Heathcoate’s goal was not to organize a ‘liveable city” list based on successful implementation of a big urban idea.
For me, as a practitioner, I am anchored on the “how” to make big urban ideas happen. Once a big idea is vetted—whether in an authoritarian or democratic way—what assures its success? Most particularly, what if, from Day One, the vision pushes comfort zones of the achievable; politically, legally or monetarily?
I suggest reality-checks from the beginning, which includes careful and contextual due diligence—reflecting back and showing some immediate grounding of what detractors might argue as the pie-in the-sky. Call it “idea management” in the urban arena.
To return to the Seattle example, on the waterfront: Grand, “make no little plans” visions are afoot, in a purposeful, unconstrained exercise led by james corner field operations that contemplates a merger of natural systems and urbanity. With a considered framework (summarized nicely by Cristina Bump here) a presentation in Seattle by Corner and his team last Thursday night brought the potential of a new city orientation towards the city’s nascent Elliott Bay, with the potential of reclaimed beaches, green piers, terraced topography-sensitive runoff and new, waterside gathering places.
Hinshaw frames the successful rebirth of the Seattle waterfront by artful hint—now is not the time for curmudgeons—rather, it is the time for courtship in an urban Spring.
Regeneration of the waterfront in Seattle and other cities worldwide (see plans for Perth, Australia, here) is but one example of potential implementation of the big urban idea. But big ideas can fail without the idea management of due diligence—a catalog of what will, can and could happen.
Without a simultaneous catalog of due diligence checklists (even if they are kept under cover), visions risk repudiation and rancor. In reaching this conclusion, nothing has impressed me more than first-hand learning from the Jerusalem light rail project —off budget, off schedule, full of geopolitical questions and implementation snafus. Ironically, as I recounted in 2010, project implementers noted that:
BRT [bus rapid transit] is more viable in Jerusalem given far less need for excavation and utility relocation, and, echoing sentiments in other Israeli cities, probably should have been the mode of choice to begin with.
The project is almost done today, with opening scheduled for later this year—five years late.
So in conclusion, I suggest no moderation in the generation of big urban ideas, no doom-saying. But I hope amid all of the vision, the checklists are forming.
Even beyond the seemingly universal challenge of funding for vision, the pitfalls of process and delay remain—concerned neighbors, overlapping agency jurisdictions, related regulations and other stakeholder review will often come to light.
Through idea management, let’s use existing tools and invent new ones so that big urban ideas do not die before their time.
All photographs composed by the author. Seattle waterfront graphic courtesy of City of Seattle/james corner field operations.