using adaptive reuse to scale the urban future

How will the city of tomorrow reflect adaptive reuse of the city of today?

I don’t think we ask that question broadly enough, and our day-to-day, property-specific incrementalism can easily overshoot the greatest lessons from history for today’s city politics, regulation and economic constraints.

A hometown case in point, last week, transported me from Seattle to Croatia for inspiration about why we should think beyond limited geographies, time frames and lifetimes when we discuss urban redevelopment options.

Today’s post continues as an exclusive entry at The Atlantic Cities, “What the History of Diocletian’s Palace Can Teach Us About Adaptive Reuse”.  For the remainder, click here.

Image credits: Comparative aerial photos from Wikipedia under a Creative Commons license.

from the clippings drawer: the public plaza of old

From the clippings drawer, here is a memory of how downtown public plazas were described some thirty years ago in Seattle, contemporaneous with William H. Whyte’s classic study of the use, non-use and unintended behaviors characteristic of such legislated places.

Please see below an embedded image of Linda Sullivan’s Seattle Times article. Zoom in to read the text, in which she examines, as did Whyte, how human behavior and preferences related to, and, in some cases, modified the original plaza designs of this urban downtown of 1979.

urbanism chasing utopia

Generally speaking, the description of any Utopia that involves many details is apt to be an unconvincing way to present a principle which can be applied effectively in practice with immense flexibility as to details…
(Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to Henry James, July 10, 1924, Papers, Regional Plan Association, Cornell University).

There is little doubt that a cadre of government, activists, academics and popular media are moving forward with fine-tuning today’s effort to reinvent cities in new contexts, with specific lists of attributes and goals. Among the inevitable focal points of any prescription: walkable, mixed-use communities with live-work proximity, green and sustainable features.

But the age-old dance of human and machine provides considerable fodder and fascination from history, including the risks of indiscriminate cliché versus social and market implementation realities.

The Vision, Chasing Utopia

In the 1920’s, planners in the New York region wrestled with how to re-plan cities and suburbs — “community planning”– amid the ascent of the automobile. Like today’s urbanists, they sought to educate decision-makers and ordinary citizens about compact development practices.

They had good ideas, inherited from Garden City thought, planned, compact industrial towns and utopian communities, which by and large have withstood the test of time

Like today, planning activities of a century ago sought improved residential quality, including a scheme which correlated scaled streets according to use, local stores, the community school, parks, playgrounds, open space, and social interaction among neighbors.

Some even thought about how to sell the message, and the intended audience for the neighborhood focal point. For instance, Shelby Harrison characterized the then-nascent neighborhood unit studies of his colleague Clarence Perry at the Russell Sage Foundation:

We need to reach large numbers of citizens who are not thinking very much in social or planning terms—among them builders, real estate developers, and local civic leaders. It won’t be so familiar to them, and the line of thought will have to be presented in some detail if the idea is to be made clear.
(Shelby Harrison to Thomas Adams, December 1926, Papers, Regional Planning Association, Cornell University.)

Voices from History

These principles were later criticized for oversimplicity, “architectural determinism”, and what we would today call a lack of concern for social equity. The community planning tradition attempted to incorporate the social cohesion observed in successful organic communities into new areas, assuming that such cohesion came with the provision of successful communities’ physical facilities. With the provision of churches, local stores, and other structures at the community level, the thought leaders of the time assumed all else would follow.

British sociologist Maurice Broady said it best in 1966. Architectural determinism was given credence in the neighborhood unit, he explained, not because it could be shown to be valid, but because it was hoped it would be so.

Broady elaborated on the British case, where the cohesion observed in low income areas was attempted in planned communities:

Of course people do meet each other and chat in pubs and corner shops. But not all pubs and corner shops engender… neighborliness. It is true that neighborliness is induced by environmental factors. Of these, however, the most relevant are social and economic rather than physical.
(Maurice Broady, “Social Theory in Architectural Design,”Robert Gutman, ed., People and Buildings, (New York: Basic Books, 1972), p. 174.

In 1952, the especially perceptive Catherine Bauer summarized how early planners often failed to understand the broader forces at play in the urban development process, or innocently overlooked the consequences of their actions:

What we failed to see was that the powerful tools employed for civic development and home production also predetermine social structure to such an extent that there is little room left for free personal choice or flexible adjustment. The big social decisions are all made in advance, inherent in the planning and building process. And if these decisions are not made responsibly and democratically, then they are made irresponsibly by the accidents of technology, the myths of property interest, or the blindness and prejudice of a reactionary minority.
Catherine Bauer, Social Questions in Housing and Town Planning (London: University of London Press, 1952), p. 25.

Implementation Today

Do we risk overselling smart growth concepts today, without taking heed of social and market realities? Absent large swaths of single-entity ownership, redevelopment of our current urban landscape is not easy—with limited raw land available for straightforward development without sophisticated mitigation solutions.

Today’s urban redevelopment is often beset immediately with particular expectations or requirements to help solve urban and regional problems such as affordable housing and transportation. As these are elements of cost, a developer must find a way to contribute to resolution of these issues with the allowances of the project pro forma. Allocation of funds towards provision of transportation and affordable housing infrastructure and/or mitigation must be balanced against design and constructability decisions (constrained site construction and demolition challenges, quality of building materials, lighting, etc.), allocations of uses, parking and open/street spaces and vegetation.

The bottom line? Today’s prescriptive goals for sustainable communities–not so different from those of the last century–require reality checks against the challenges of design, regulation and financing, and must be addressed at an integrated, practical level.

After all, as Olmsted said long ago, beware of selling implementation with Utopia.

re-visioning neighborhood and the city, then and now

Today’s efforts to recreate elements of the city, of whatever prescription of urbanism (e.g. “new”, “landscape” or “ecological”) often turn on issues once considered in design competitions long forgotten.

Central to such efforts, new or old, is the relationship of a city segment to the surrounding urban area and the role of public streets in the integration process between neighborhood and city.

A sometimes overlooked legacy can be rediscovered in the Chicago of 100 years ago, where a still-relevant competition once summarized by Lewis Mumford centered on integrating neighborhood housing with “markets, schools, churches, and other institutions that serve the local area rather than the city as a whole”.

In December 1912, the City Club of Chicago staged a competition for the design of a quarter-section of the Chicago grid. The effort was later documented by Alfred B. Yeomans, a Chicago landscape architect who edited the competition’s publication in 1916. He acknowledged new attention to the planned development of the local area premised on the increasingly comprehensive role of the street. He noted that the “purely mechanical extension of existing street systems is giving way to scientific methods of development based on a careful study of the probable economic, social and aesthetic needs of prospective inhabitants”.

The various entries stressed the fundamental role of the street in integrating city and neighborhood.

Several of the entries emphasized the role of the local street system and public open spaces. The first prize entry, by Chicago architect Wilhelm Bernhard, contained a community center and stressed deterrence of through traffic from surrounding Chicago. Arthur C. Comey, the second-prize winner, employed the English allotment garden within blocks, with houses facing inward, an intermediate street system for local use, recreation spaces, and buildings grouped about small parks.

Other entries took up more directly the question of integration with the surrounding city, thereby starting a debate on the worth of isolated communities at variance with the surrounding grid. This debate has never fully resolved, especially as modes of transportation expand, while contemporary thinking increasingly emphasizes the relationship and proximity of home to work.

G.B. Cone's Chicago competition entry. (Source: Yeomans 1916: 34)

In particular, landscape architect G.B. Cone noted that the proposed neighborhood was not destined to exist independent of Chicago’s entirety. He argued for retention of the gridiron throughout, foreshadowing today’s defenders of continuity within the grid and implying that the imposition of a curvilinear scheme would negatively isolate the community from the prevailing pattern of development. Nonetheless, he emphasized the use of interior-block open space and the community center.

W. Drummond's Chicago competition entry shows a bird's-eye view and a typical city block. (Source: Yeomans 1916: 37,41)

Similarly, William Drummond, a Prairie School architect and disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, proposed grid-based “neighborhood units” (well prior to large-scale adoption of the concept by Clarence Perry and others) with allotment gardens and interior courts.

These designs were but a fraction of the Chicago competition’s entries. Yet they exhibited best the perceptive synthesis of reform ideals and site planning sensitive to the uses of the street within the new arena of the urban neighborhood.

In response to such efforts, the competition provided a “Sociological Review of the Plans” by Dr. Carol Aronovici, then director of the Bureau of Social Research of Philadelphia, and a lecturer on housing and town planning at the University of Pennsylvania. Aronovici cautioned that the new, local street plans within specific areas should not proceed without determination of “the relationship that this area is intended to bear to the whole”.

Aronovici, like many of today’s urbanists, saw virtue in the grid. He viewed the abandonment of the gridiron street system as a possible symptom of an “artificial and radical” attempt to set the planned community off from its surroundings. He urged the location of public and semi-public buildings on the
community’s periphery rather than grouped about local community centers, so as to preserve contacts with adjacent neighborhoods. Finally, he perceptively identified problems inherent in public regulation and ownership of inner block open spaces and saw the necessity of assuming community maintenance of public areas:

The whole question of “shut-in spaces,” whether they be parks, playgrounds or allotment gardens, is one that should be carefully weighed. The line of cleavage between public and private ownership, between public and private maintenance, should be sharply drawn. While I am heartily in favor of extending the bounds of public ownership, I am opposed to common ownership that is not coupled with common responsibility.

In the spirit of both deja vu and amnesia (concepts combined by American actor/writer Stephen Wright), the debates of the legacy Chicago competition continue, 100 years later, as the dialogue on streets and neighborhood-urban area integration lives on.


For more on the precedential Chicago Competion, see Yeomans, A.B., ed. 1916. City Residential Land Development. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This entry was adapted from Wolfe, C.R. “Streets Regulating Neighborhood Form”. Ch. 7. in Moudon, A.V., 1987,1991. Public Streets for Public Use. Columbia University Press. It was also republished in SustainableCitiesCollective on November 21, here.

“report card urbanism”: Benfield’s 2008 smart growth challenge

When I started contributing to local publications in 2009, one clear role model was Kaid Benfield, the Natural Resource Defense Council’s (NRDC) Director of Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth. His almost daily pieces from Washington DC provide a lexicon of best practices and useful imagery, and offer must-read perspective. (In addition, Kaid appears regularly in Huffington Post, DailyKos, Sustainable Cities Collective, Rooflines, and CNU Salons).

In the context of our September 8 and 9, 2010 inter-blog collaborations, Kaid kindly granted his consent to reproduce one of his signature pieces, an open letter and challenge to the smart growth community to address not just where growth will occur, but also green building and infrastructure, parks, and affordability, all in the same process.

The bottom line: Two years old, but prescient words, worthy of a report card. Even amid severe economic recession, there has been no shortage of attention to planning for sustainable communities, including the multi-agency collaborations and grant funding programs of the Obama administration.

Please take a moment to review Kaid’s observations from October, 2008, below. Have we listened and learned?
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An open letter to the smart growth community

(Kaid Benfield, October 22, 2008)

There is no way we should be settling for, or applauding, this . . .

transit-oriented in Virginia (by: Rob Goodspeed, creative commons license) above Metro in Arlington, VA (by: EPA Smart Growth)

When we should be advocating this:

Vancouver, BC (by: NNECAPA, creative commons license)green transit on the Atlanta Beltline (courtesy of Atlanta Beltline)

It is time to take smart growth advocacy beyond “smart growth” as we have been defining it.  In short, we should be doing more for the environment.  And we should be doing more for the social health of our neighborhoods, too.

I am proud to have been at the center of the national smart growth movement since its beginning.  But I believe it is time for advocates and practitioners to embrace a broader, more holistic vision of what smart, sustainable development should be in the 21st century.

This will mean retaining, but also being more ambitious than, the largely “infill, compact development, and transit” agenda for smart growth that has served us very well so far.  rendering of Via Verde in the Bronx (courtesy of RoseCompanies)It will also mean reforming the broader environmental community’s (yes, including my own group’s) advocacy for watersheds, green technology, and cities to place those issues in a context that more explicitly embraces growth and urbanism.  The environment demands this of us, and so does our aspiration to teach and to lead.

This may seem a bit remote to those of us who are focused intensely on an immediate legislative agenda (e.g., the upcoming federal transportation bill or the wonderful recent achievement of California’s SB375), a local community’s comprehensive plan, or the latest proposed highway (or even LEED-ND, a fine program over whose criteria I have shed more personal blood than I wish).  But I believe that we must think not just about the menu in front of us but where we want to – and where we can – take our communities over the next generation and beyond.

Sprawl as we have known it may not be dead but it is surely not well, and we are already seeing the beginning of its end.  The smart growth movement can take a lot of credit for developing and pressing the more compact and transit-oriented development that will replace it.  This is wonderful; but it is not enough.  We should now begin developing a vision and a program of advocacy that looks beyond fighting sprawl and focuses not just on where, how much, and by what mode of travel, but also on what, and how.

Smart, sustainable development for the 21st century should include not just infill, density, and better transportation choices but also the following:

  • Green building (there is simply no excuse for not doing it at this point)
  • Urban green infrastructure, including neighborhood parks (that can help heal ecosystems while also making the densities we need for transportation efficiency more hospitable)
  • Inclusive urban revitalization, with equity, affordability and historic preservation (most US central cities and older suburbs have so much capacity for growth, if we do it right)
  • 3rd St Cottages, Langley, WA (courtesy of The Cottage Company)Walkable neighborhoods that facilitate fitness and health
  • Livable, human-scaled, place-based neighborhoods that create good ambassadors for our movement and that NIMBYs want rather than fight

Most of us, if asked, will say that we already support these things, and we do.  But we almost never advocate them as a whole.

We’re all guilty of being too narrow.  Frankly, I think it is a disgrace that green building advocates have almost gleefully turned a blind eye to the locational consequences of building.  I was personally involved in an innovative housing partnership that has been remarkable in its accomplishment for green building and affordability, but that largely failed to embrace meaningful smart growth standards.  My very good friends in new urbanism can be inspirational and are the very best at placemaking, but can sometimes turn soft when it gets to location and green building.  Some of my colleagues in the environmental community still act parochially, as if growth and development will somehow disappear or become more benign if we chase it away from a place that occupies our attention, when in fact it is likely to find a place or a form that elicits less resistance but the prospect of even more environmental damage.

But we in the smart growth movement, too, are at fault.  Much of what is being constructed, for example, in the name of transit-oriented development — frequently with our applause — does little for the environment other than transportation efficiency and is just plain ugly.  I don’t blame NIMBYs for being resistant.  Yet we seldom push for models or incentives that ask for more.

We are all, nearly every one of us, being too limited in our vision.

planned downtown, Greensburg, KS (by: BNIM Architects)We know that compact development patterns can reduce carbon emissions from transportation by 20-40 percent or even more if ideally located.  But, if Greensburg, Kansas can set a more ambitious goal of reducing its total carbon footprint by half through walkability and green technology, no environmentalist should aspire to less.  If my favorite developer can build project after project after project that includes not only great density and location but also green infrastructure, green building, and affordability, we should not advocate less.  I am not suggesting that the smart growth movement abandon or replace our current sprawl- and transportation-based advocacy.  But I am increasingly convinced that we must make our agenda more robust.

What might this mean, you may legitimately ask?  To take the same examples of immediate advocacy I mentioned above, why shouldn’t there be a sustainable communities title in the new transportation bill?  The research makes clear that inner-city revitalization and transit-oriented suburban development dramatically reduce automobile use and the need for new roads.  inclusive redevelopment in Old North St. Louis (courtesy of Old North Restoration Group)It would make perfect sense to develop a dedicated program to invest a portion of federal transportation funds not on transportation facilities per se but on attracting more development to these areas, conditioned on making the neighborhoods affordable, green, and mixed-use.  We could focus the benefits especially where there are currently vacant or underutilized properties, and require or provide bonuses for parks, green infrastructure, and inclusive planning that will attract residents and businesses to these locations that have been proven to reduce driving.

For the kind of metropolitan land-use planning that will be undertaken to reduce carbon emissions under SB 375 in California, or pursuant to comprehensive plans in municipalities, why not address not just where growth will occur, but also green building and infrastructure, parks, and affordability, in the same process?  Let’s address a variety of issues at once, with the goal of reducing more emissions than would land planning alone while creating complete, cohesive, inclusive neighborhoods.  And, if you’re fighting a sprawl-inducing highway or subdivision, don’t just fight; propose the constructive alternative that meets the same needs without sprawl but in a greener, more appealing way.

These examples are just illustrative.  The key is to start advocating these elements together, in the same forums.  To close on a personal note, many of us who now work on smart growth were environmental advocates before we were smart growth advocates.  We must become that again.  And more.
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Please scroll over photos for credits. See original post for comments. This entry is also cross-posted in seattlepi.com, here.