urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

Division St development’s height and neighborhood “character”

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Last week I presented the villainous “density” and “parking”; today, I’m completing this unholy trifecta with “height.” Tall buildings, or really, any buildings perceived — fairly or not — as towering over their neighbors tend to inspire controversy at best, and legal vitriol at worst. Charlie Gardner at Old Urbanist recounts how a tall residential building in America’s largest unzoned city inspired a backlash and an ensuing setback ordinance. Closer to home in Chicago, another new development — while not nearly as tall — reflects similar issues.

Where a defunct single-story Miller Lumber building with a small front surface parking lot now stands, at 1815 W. Division (southeast corner of Division and Honore), Smith Partners is proposing a four-story, glass-paneled mixed-use building. Ground-level retail, presumably with storefronts facing to the street, will support 39 apartments, mostly one-bedrooms with a couple of studios and two-bedrooms sprinkled in. Thirty-five off-street parking spots will be built in a surface lot with egress to the alley.

This project has actually already been cut down from its initial height of five stories (and 42 parking spots), which was initially controversial because it allegedly did not fit in with the character of the neighborhood. On a scale writ large, this is the story of tall buildings in Washington, that city’s height limits and the current effort to loosen those limits. That height limit has been credited with creating an “exceptional” architectural character of the city and a supposed “European” character, although I’d call many of the ensuing ten-story office buildings built to conform exactly to the limits anything but exceptional or European. But I digress.

Miller Lumber’s stretch of Division is marked largely by three- and four-story buildings, residential buildings scattered amidst small commercial shops, restaurants and bars. Perhaps the most significant feature of this particular “pedestrian street” is its uncharacteristically wide sidewalks, which lend themselves to summer al fresco dining and plentiful urban greenery. Here, Smith’s original building would have risen above its lower-rise neighbors; the four-story will still be among the tallest buildings on the block.

But even if the old project had been built at five stories, though, I would have supported it. The lot is only a quarter-mile from rapid transit — the Washington region again offers an example of what we shouldn’t do with lots close to transit — and is located on a major, even chronicled, urban thoroughfare. The sidewalk currently is considerably narrowed for head-in parking spots; it looks in the plans like there will be planters instead, though I hope the planters won’t be as wide.

Maintaining the “character” of the neighborhood doesn’t mean running roughshod over neighbors’ concerns or indiscriminately permitting development. Poorly-designed buildings that don’t fit into the urban fabric, with seas of surface parking or blank street façades, for instance, should be carefully scrutinized. But when buildings are objected to solely on the basis of height, I think it’s important not to have a knee-jerk response of rejection. If a building taps into an urban neighborhood’s benefits (good transit access, wide pedestrian sidewalks and desirable geographical location) it makes a pretty strong case.

Some might argue that this would result in a fundamental change of neighborhood character: over the course of two or three decades, a formerly low-slung city neighborhood might rise vertically. But fundamentally, if there’s a market demand for it, then why is this a bad thing?

After all, to put it bluntly, if we don’t “sprawl” vertically, we’ll sprawl horizontally. A simplification, to be sure — but it’s something to keep in mind overall. Washington’s height limit may have created a beautiful low-slung cityscape, but it isn’t doing anything to keep the city affordable or encourage center-city density.

On a final note, I do find it interesting that the community worked for a taller building at the Ashland/Division site, while agitating for a shorter one here. In both cases, the original zoning is the same (B3-2 Community Shopping District); the former is a Planned Development while the latter is to be upzoned. I do wonder what prompted the difference — the former would have risen in an area surrounded by a number of empty lots, while this one is flanked by existing buildings and relatively less surface parking. Perhaps it’s a question of context, i.e. an eleven-story building at a street corner with lots of empty space around it feels less disruptive than a five-story building amid two- and three-flats?

Written by Andrew ACG

April 13, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Chicago, Land use

D&L 19 – Narrow streets and visual order

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Chapter 19. Visual order: its limitations and possibilities

I’ve obviously unfortunately fallen behind on Death and Life for quite some time, due in large part to my time away. While I’m now caught up on reading with the book club and have certainly enjoyed the discussion, I’ll just jump back in with this very quick post.

Given my time away in London, I was intrigued when Jacobs mentioned “European visitors” and their remarks “that the ugliness of our [American] cities is owing to our gridiron street systems.” She goes on to say the grid system is responsible for these endless vistas that break any sense of enclosure and visual coherence, suggesting that we can add additional streets or invoke topographical barriers and landmarks, natural or not, to create a sense of visual separation.

As I live in a metropolis that is simultaneously one of the most relentlessly gridded in the US and one of the flattest — when I worked out in Hoffman Estates, on a clear day I could see the Willis Tower, which was thirty-five miles away — I of course had to think about what this meant here. It is true that some of the streets, such as Clark St up in Andersonville/Edgewater, for example, that meander gently out of the grid are more interesting “on the ground.” And I certainly miss Los Angeles’ dramatic mountainous backdrop. But, alas, you can’t go adding new streets or certainly new mountains any time soon.

It seems to me that another way to introduce this sort of visual diversity is to have narrower streets; as the buildings cluster together closer and the horizon doesn’t seem as far away, reducing that negative “endless” feeling. Plus, a narrower street results in both sides of the street “cooperating” together more. Instead of feeling as if the buildings on one side are totally unrelated to the buildings on the other, they work together to form a coherent visual whole. If perhaps you can’t narrow a street — after all, some of our most beloved streets are grand boulevards à la Michigan Avenue — I think you either need to add some visual element to the middle like planters or medians, or ensure that the buildings on either side are tall to help overcome that separation.

This always strikes me when I walk down the significantly wider Ashland or Western compared to Damen down here in Wicker Park/Bucktown. There are many differences, particularly in commercial density, between the two streets, but it always seems to me that Damen has a stronger sense of visual cohesion precisely because it’s not as staggeringly wide as the other two thoroughfares.

Written by Andrew ACG

April 6, 2012 at 8:00 am

Parking: to build or not to build

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Sometimes I feel like density and parking are the seven-letter words, so to speak, of planning. Chuck Marohn has discussed how to avoid alienating non-urbanites — “density” conjures up “sardines,” and I can only think what “reducing parking” might bring — and Hollywood neighborhood associations are up in arms about upzoning of land close to LA Metro stations due to parking and traffic concerns.

Here in Chicago, downtown renters are staying away from renting parking spots, although apparently the trend is not as pronounced for owners, who are presumably worried about resale values: developers at Lakeshore East projected that 55% of renters would purchase a parking space, but only 40% of renters have done so, a pronounced trend in recent years.

The story notes that between 0.55 to 1 spots are required for downtown residential buildings, which prompted me to take a closer look at Chicago’s zoning code and off-street parking requirements. There are some fascinatingly specific requirements (do you know what a “mobility street” is? It doesn’t have to do with accessibility — I’ll save it for another post!) but for the purposes of now, a look at downtown land use and zoning requirements:

The zoning code divides downtown districts into four types, DC, DX, DR and DS; standing for “core,” “mixed-use”, “residential” and “service” respectively; These zones are combined with hyphenated density designations: -3, -5, -7, -10, -12 and -16. Broadly speaking, these refer to maximal floor-area ratio: -3 refers to a maximal FAR of 3.0, -5 to a maximal FAR of 5.0 and so on. A DR-3 building, therefore, would be a downtown building zoned for largely residential use with a maximal FAR of 3.0.

“Downtown” zones extend northward to Division, westward to Racine and southward to Cermak, although of course not all the land within this is zoned D; non-downtown zoning is separated into standard business, residential and commercial zones that have generally smaller density designations and more stringent minimum parking rules.

As far as I can tell, the only land use in the entire zoning code that has absolutely no parking minimums, regardless of lot size, are nonresidential downtown (D) districts with densities of -7, -12 and -16. (Many non-downtown land uses are exempted from parking for the first 1,000 square feet or so, but once large enough, they all have minimum parking requirements.)

All residential parking spots are required to have parking: 0.55 parking spaces/unit are required for residential downtown zoning at densities of -10, -12 and -16; 0.7 spaces/unit for -7; and 1 space per unit for -3 and for -5 for the first 100 units. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but after all, if your building has 150 units, that’s a minimum of 80 parking spots.

More importantly, if there’s anywhere in Chicagoland that shouldn’t be burdened with minimum parking regulations, it’s downtown Chicago. This isn’t to say that there should be no parking downtown or that none would be built without minimum requirements. I’m pretty certain the market would support a certain level of off-street parking, especially given the amounts of “reverse” commuting happening nowadays. Keeping in mind the significant externalities and cost of building downtown, though, it is eminently reasonable that we shouldn’t be artificially increasing the supply of parking there.

In a way, that’s what is happening with a non-downtown development closer to home, that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by.

A space that is currently a shuttered Pizza Hut at the southwest corner of Ashland and Division is slated to house an 11-story building with 8,000 square feet of first-floor retail — they’ve got PNC Bank and Intelligentsia coffee so far — with a floor of office space and nine floors of residential space with 99 residential units. The surprising part is that the developer is providing only 15 new off-street spots, in addition to 20 spots that will be co-shared with the Wendy’s next door, which is currently surrounded by a sea of surface parking that I don’t think I have ever seen even 20 percent full.

The idea is that the building is to take advantage of its location, which is right next to the Division Blue Line and of course the bus lines; Ashland runs 24 hours a day. They’re banking on residents not owning cars to the point where they won’t be eligible for residential parking permits on nearby residential streets, although since the building’s address is on Division I would think that residents aren’t be eligible for a permit anyway. The spots are supposed to be for visitors and for patrons of the retail; I am assuming that signs of some sort will be posted to that effect.

The plot of land is currently zoned B3-2 Community Shopping District, which means a maximum FAR of of 2.2 and 1 parking space/unit. Seeing as how the proposed building will significantly exceed this ratio and that 15 spots are by no means above, the development is a Planned Development. As far as I can tell, this means that the development theoretically has to undergo stringent review, but also seems to be exempt from minimum parking requirements.

I’m curious to see how the building will fare. It’s right on top of a transit stop and isn’t far at all from a major supermarket and Loop offices are within 30 minutes door-to-door by CTA. On the other hand, the Polish Triangle along the way is rather scruffy, though there are efforts to revitalize it, and really the general Ashland-Milwaukee-Division intersection has a rather run-down feeling throughout. I see the luxury building on the north side of Division and often wonder about the occupancy of the units there — is there enough pent-up demand to fill nine of floors of middle- to higher-end priced apartments?

Nevertheless, it’s a promising sign that the developers were receptive to community pressure for a larger, more-dense building at that site. (And that the community wanted a denser building in the first place!) Any sort of parking issue inevitably seems to inspire spontaneous paroxysms of outrage, so I’m cautiously hopeful here.

Written by Andrew ACG

April 3, 2012 at 8:30 am

Posted in Chicago, Land use, Parking

Want to live at the mall? A look at Bayshore

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Partially as a way to take a break from Jane Jacobs, I’ve been reading Witold Rybczynski‘s very readable City Life and Makeshift Metropolis. A chapter of the latter (one of Planetizen’s best ten planning books for 2009) and sections of the former discuss the American retail landscape’s shift from downtown department stores to shopping malls to open-day lifestyle centers.

I was thinking about this when I stopped at the Bayshore Town Center, in Milwaukee’s northern suburbs, and remembering my reaction the first time I was there.

From the interstate, it looks more or less like any other shopping center, though perhaps a little bit glitzier. But it’s a surprise when you turn into the center — I’ve driven and walked in shopping centers like the Grove in Los Angeles before, and when I initially turned in on Port Washington Rd, I was expecting to pull into a sea of surface parking.

Curb parking on the inner streets of the center

Instead, I was surprised to turn into streets with on-street curb parking and pedestrians crossing to and fro and even a fake . As it turns out, Bayshore Town Center, is actually a mixed-use town center, with apartments above the retail stores and all three forms of parking — curb parking, surface parking and parking structures.

(I should note that this is only new to me, by the way — people wrote about this development earlier.)

As a driver, it’s remarkably stressful to drive through the complex, at least during the Christmas holidays when there are people everywhere crisscrossing the streets of the complex. And as a pedestrian, while the nature of the curb parking does mean that you’re separated, the exclusively commercial nature of the buildings, the completely uniform architecture does make you feel like you’re walking in a shopping mall that has just turned inside out.

Want to live at the mall?

“Lifestyle centers” and open-air malls aren’t anything new, of course. But this one differs in that it is mixed-use: you can actually live at Bayshore, with condos on top of the buildings, in that traditional mixed-use form that urbanists are always so proud of.

On paper, Bayshore Town Center seems to check all the smart-growth requirements. It has commercial and residential streets in a mixed-use layout and a street grid, if a small one, with sidewalks for pedestrians. If I recall correctly, they even re-connected parts of the street grid

Yet it’s a fairly unsatisfying shopping experience overall. It doesn’t please you as a driver, but it doesn’t really please you as a pedestrian, either, in the way that successful city streets do. I think the fundamental thing it’s missing is that it’s a mixed-use center (good) with limited transit (bad). There is transit, for sure, but outside of the Town Center, the rest of the suburb is unmistakably auto-oriented; and within, there is a bus stop, but it’s on the side of the road, separated from the center by auto traffic on the way to the interstate. (I would have taken a picture, but I was one of the drivers in those cars.) You get the sense that transit is an afterthought.

I think fundamentally Bayshore’s just not a great shopping experience, and may even lend these mixed-use complexes a bad name, because of the lack of transit. Creating such a tight fundamentally auto-oriented form is disconcerting and dissatisfying for all, pedestrians and drivers alike, and I’m worried that it makes “mixed use” just seem synonymous with “poorly designed.”

Written by Andrew ACG

March 27, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Lost and (way)found in London

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Chicago and London are two very different cities, perhaps no more so than in their spatial organizations. The former lays out a neat grid, systematic addressing and numbered streets, while learning the Knowledge of the latter’s recklessly wandering streets will literally change your brain.

I knew this before I left Chicago, but it was really brought home to me during a recent weeklong stay in London. Particularly because I didn’t have a smartphone or mobile data, I paid special attention to the wayfinding mechanisms of the British capital. Here are some thoughts on two features, the Legible London placards and the spider maps.

Learning Legible London
These are certainly not new and I’d heard of them before. (I actually once encountered a similar placard in downtown Omaha last summer, although downtown Omaha certainly sees fewer pedestrians at any time of day than central London).

What I didn’t realize, though, until I arrived, was the sheer ubiquity of the signs. It got to the point where I would realize I’d passed a placard while lost on a busy thoroughfare but not bother to turn around, since I was confident I’d encounter another one soon. To make a transit analogy, it was similar to not worrying about missing a train since you’re confident enough that another one will be there shortly — frequency is reassuring. It was also a pleasant surprise to find these signs in not-so-touristy but well-frequented parts of the capital, such as Shepherd’s Bush, though the placards were a bit more scattered there.

Since I pride myself on having a good sense of direction, helped in the Midwest by a liberal helping of compass-oriented grids, I’m a little ashamed to admit my other favorite feature of the Legible London placards was their orientation. Instead of facing north, the direction in which you are looking is up. This helped when I often found myself with a good sense of where I was but completely unsure of which road was the one I actually wanted.

The exception to these ubiquitous blue placards were the black wayfinding pillars in the City of London, aka the Square Mile. I suspect they predate the Legible London efforts, as I would imagine . I prefer the look of the latter, especially since I think there’s value in maintaining a cohesive graphical look for navigation, though it should be noted that the City of London does maintain a cohesive internal typographical look — their street signs are in the same font throughout and match the font on their black wayfinding placards.

I do like the naming of the prominent destinations above with minutes spent to walk there. Though I think on balance the 5- and 15-minute circles within the Legible London maps communicate this information more succinctly for a wider range of destinations, it is nice to be able to snap to a particular destination above. (I was heading to Aldgate myself when I took this.)

If it’s off the Northern line, can I call it a “black widow map?” Eh…?
My last evening in London, I decided on a whim to head to Parliament Hill. As it turns out this is not in Regent’s Park, I realized I actually wanted Hampstead Heath instead. A quick look at a map revealed there wasn’t any Tube station (I for some reason completely overlooked the Hampstead Heath Overground, although this ended up being for the better since there was a highly irregular service pattern due to TfL’s favorite “signal failure” bugaboo that night.)

From Baker St, I figured I’d head to either Swiss Cottage or Finchley Rd on the Jubilee line, since it looked like those were relatively close to the Heath, and hoped that when I got there I’d be able to finish the “last mile” of the trip. (Apologies for the poor quality of the camera phone shot.) And when I got to Swiss Cottage, where I’d never been, and searched for a spider map, it told me very clearly that the green line on right, which turns out to be the 46 bus, will take you straight to Hampstead Heath South End Green.

I think the key reasons the spider lines worked well for this journey included:

– I was aiming to use them to solve the “last mile” problem, in particular a Tube-bus transfer. I think in London, many tourists and non-Londoners, including me, initially only feel comfortable with the Underground. The spider maps help you to bridge that gap to buses, which often suffer from a reputation of being confusing and illogical.

– The maps identify the exact location of the bus stops.  Finding a bus stop is generally easy in a place like Chicago where there are bus stops every eighth of a mile and nearly all lines outside downtown/River North are aligned to the grid. But in a place like London where the “major streets” aren’t often at all clear, buses don’t follow a strict cardinal direction and bus stops aren’t as close together, it’s effective to be able to identify where the bus actually picks up.

– They mimic the reassuring familiar style of the Tube map. When you look at Beck’s diagram, you generally aren’t trying to get a sense of what the city looks like: you want to know how to get from stop A to stop B without needing to understand the underlying geography. The spider maps offer you a similar experience without making the bus system seem like a wildly complicated network, with labeled stops and cleanly drawn lines.

This, of course, doesn’t describe all or even most of the transport journeys in London, and notes on frequency or last buses would certainly come in handy. On the whole, though, I think these maps accomplish what they set out to do: for those who have a particular destination in mind and are using the Tube as their main means of transport, the spider maps help you to bridge that gap to the final destination. Their style omits extraneous information and presents you with a clean picture of how to make that jump from rail to bus. If you’re looking for a complete bus map of the city or the neighborhood, this isn’t it — but I don’t think that’s what they set out to do.

Finally, though, what is with…
The lack of convention of which side of the sidewalk to walk?! (This is separate from what side of the road traffic keeps to. I have many a “LOOK LEFT” and “LOOK RIGHT” painting on the ground to credit with my life.)

To be sure, Londoners were pretty militant about standing on the right in escalators, and there are some pretty long escalators, especially with the deep-level tubes. But on the street, there’s this sort of anarchic rhythm that reigns. Walking down Piccadilly or Regents St or even Uxbridge Road, on the other hand, was, well, like playing Toad’s Turnpike in Mario Kart.

Bet you didn’t see that comparison coming, eh?

Written by Andrew ACG

March 16, 2012 at 12:49 pm

D&L 7: How cities (and suburbs) foster diversity

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Chapter 7. The generators of diversity

This is a fairly short chapter, and I am about to embark on a week-long trip, so I’ll keep this relatively brief. While the last several pages of the chapter reference the four generators of diversity, the bulk of the chapter discusses how “big cities are natural generators of diversity and prolific incubators of new enterprises and ideas of all kinds.”

This fundamental message — from an economic perspective, big cities are more than the sums of their parts — is strikingly on point; I’ve have seen it echoed in more recent publications. Ryan Avent’s Gated City, which I read several months ago, cites Vietnamese restaurants as an example of the kind of diversity that only big cities can support: small towns and cities can only support businesses with relatively mass-market appeal (and, unless you are in southeast Asia, this is probably not a Vietnamese restaurant); on the other hand, a large city can support multiple Vietnamese restaurant because of the collection of people together. Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City makes a similar, broader point that the value of cities in civilization is in the sheer concentration of human capital.

Other parts of this chapter are unfortunately less perceptive in hindsight, in particular Jacobs’ dismissal of “the much-heralded postwar exodus of big offices from cities” as “mostly talk.”. She touts how Connecticut General Life Insurance Company’s move to a headquarters “in the countryside beyond Hartford” — aka the CIGNA campus in Bloomfield, Conn. — required them to build “inherently inefficient” facilities, contrasting this negatively to the shared facilities available in the big city that companies therefore don’t have to build.

As we all well know, decentralization of office space into the suburbs has proceeded rapidly since Death & Life‘s publication year of 1961. Suburban office space* forms about 40 percent of total office space in metropolitan New York and about half in Chicagoland and greater Boston; about 70 percent in greater Atlanta and 85 percent in South Florida. As I mentioned earlier this week, I’ve been reading Rybczynski: one of his critiques of Jacobs is that she essentially ignores the postwar migration to the suburbs. Here, she may not have ignored it, but she was perhaps a little bit blind to upcoming trends.

Overall, though, this chapter’s role is as an opening salvo to the four arguably most important chapters of the book. In that respect, it sets the stage well. We’re convinced of cities’ roles in fostering diversity — even if, perhaps, their monopoly on generating this diversity has been ceded to the suburbs quite considerably since Jacobs’ time — and we eagerly anticipate the explanation of the factors that create this diversity.

*These exclude downtowns, secondary downtowns and “urban envelopes” in the report linked to. While some of the office spaces is located in edge cities such as Naperville, Ill., most of these Naperville-like edge cities would almost certainly not be perceived as a city by Jacobs, and much of the employment is located outside of walkable areas of these municipalities, if they have one. Most of Naperville’s office development, for example, rings I-88 and is not found in the central, pedestrian-friendly core of the city.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 23, 2012 at 8:00 am

D&L6: Chicago neighborhoods: sparking parties, secession and uproar since 1832

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Chapter 6. The use of city neighborhoods

While the preceding and following chapters — especially the following five  — are focused largely on design and sidewalk life, “The use of city neighborhoods” examines these building blocks” roles in self-government. Jacobs asserts that there are functionally only three types of city neighborhoods: the city as a whole, individual city streets and “districts,” which serve the role of mediating between the individual city street and the city government as a whole.

The word “neighborhood” must be one of the most-used words in urban planning, history and sociology. Whole books examine the subject; Chicago, along with many other cities, likes to call itself a “city of neighborhoods.” I’m not well-versed in analyzing political power of city districts, which this chapter really strays into, but I’ve been able to perceive a lot of the power that the idea of “neighborhood” has.

People are fascinated with knowing neighborhood boundaries. Chicago has 77 “community areas,” which have remained unchanged since the 1920s when they were drawn by University of Chicago researchers; they’re used to this day as a basis for comparisons and statistics. While some, like West Town, comprise what almost everyone would think of as several separate neighborhoods (Logan Square, Wicker Park, Bucktown), other community areas such as Edgewater clearly coincide with what most Chicagoans would think of as one neighborhood — this last community area in fact separated from the Uptown community area in a rare secession in the 1970s.

I always feel like I can perceive street neighborhoods the most clearly visualized during the summer when there are seemingly millions of street festivals — Chicago’s highly regular grid results in major streets every half-mile (with a number of exceptions), and there are often half-mile or three-quarter-mile long festivals all the time.

One of my favorite websites, Every Block, allows you to enter your address and you get local news, which is sorted by a variety of different designations; variously by ward, ZIP code, neighborhood, community area, address). While some of these, such as ZIP code, aren’t really functional mental decisions — do you think of yourself as a resident of your ZIP/postal code? with few exceptions à la 90210, you probably don’t — it does make you think about the groupings in which you see yourself.

Jacobs mentions that “the first relationships to form in city areas” are often among local civic organizations, such as civic leagues, PTAs, political clubs, etc. I do wonder if in our modern-day age, with higher rates of Internet usage and declines in traditional club membership, if this still holds true in our day.

Certainly, people still come together when they feel the neighborhood is being split. Chicago recently finished a contentious redistricting of its ward boundaries, and the Lincoln Park neighborhood — one of the most well-heeled in the city — rose up when it looked like it might be split between different wards of the city, when it had previously all been under one, in the 43rd ward.

Among all the concepts of the “city,” city neighborhoods seem to inspire a great deal of enthusiasm, energy, vitriol and criticism. And you can do endless research on getting people to find out what neighborhood city people live in. Jacobs’ appraisal on civic organizations may not entirely reflect current reality, but I think the fundamental importance of the city neighborhood still rings true.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 21, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

D&L 5: Sizing up Chicago’s Wicker and Lincoln parks

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Chapter 5. The uses of neighborhood parks

I’ve written about parks before — in fact, my last post before joining the book club was on an access park to the Bloomingdale Trail to be built at Milwaukee and Leavitt. But after reading chapter six of Death and Life, I felt like I’d like to take a fresh look at some other parks. So given the various design criteria that Jacobs uses to identify successful city parks, I thought I’d focus in on two fairly successful Chicago parks and their relation to these qualities.

Jacobs writes:

Intricacy that counts is mainly intricacy at eye level, change in the rise of ground, groupings of trees, openings leading to various focal points–in short, subtle expressions of difference.


Good small parks typically have a place somewhere within them commonly understood to be the center–at the very least a main crossroads and pausing point, a climax…People try hard to create centers and climaxes to a park, even against odds. Sometimes it is impossible. Long strip parks, like the dismally unsuccessful Sara Delano Roosevelt park in New York and many riverside parks, are frequently designed as if they were rolled out from a die stamper.

Wicker Park (roughly 600 x 650 x 850 ft)

I’ll start with my neighborhood park, Wicker Park. It’s fairly small at four acres, near the geographical center of the neighborhood it names. The triangular park boasts a playground, field-house and fountain in the western half, with a baseball field and a dog run in the southeast corner. In the summer and early fall, it hosts a farmer’s market.

I’ve found that usage of the park clusters near the western sidenear Damen Ave, even when the baseball diamond is not in use (and is thus free to other park users). It comes down to the intricacy criterion that Jacobs identifies: in the park’s western half, the playground, field house and fountain provide a sense of variety and diversity. And Chicago is known for being a resoundingly flat city (distressingly so to my Los Angeles-raised self), but the paths and stairs up to the fountain work to create a sense of elevation and difference.

As for centering, the fountain provides a fairly viable example — particularly on days with good weather, but even in the middle of winter, I see people reading, eating, chatting on the benches around the fountain and dozing or people-watching from the patches of grass within the circle encircling the fountain. Interestingly, in Jacobs’ discussion of Corlear Park, she notes that the ball field is among the “demand goods,” the most used part of that park. I’ve had the opposite experience in Wicker Park: aside from the days when I see a ball game being played, I usually see individuals clustering closer to the western edge.

Wicker Park is a good example of Jacobs’ neighborhood parks with good design: people instinctively surround the fountain as a centering element and cluster in those parts of the park that offer a varied and different landscape. It is also small enough and unique enough in the neighborhood that it is prized by the surrounding community as an area of green space.

Lincoln Park (about 5 1/4 mi long)

When I happened upon Jacobs’ mention of “long strip parks,” I immediately thought of Lincoln Park, the namesake of the affluent North Side neighborhood. Stretching from North Ave to Ardmore Ave — a distance of over five miles — the park is three hundred times larger than Wicker Park at 1,208 acres, stretched between Lake Michigan and a wall of buildings to the west.

On paper, Lincoln Park would seem to have some faults. It’s by definition a long strip park that doesn’t really have a center (about halfway up its length, the park is essentially bisected by Belmont Harbor). It’s separated from the lakefront by the quasi-expressway of Lake Shore Drive.

But Lincoln Park is indubitably one of the city’s most successful parks. It’s the second-most visited park (PDF: pg. 28) in the United States with 20 million visitors a year, which is particularly evident in the summer. The park certainly boasts many “demand goods” that Jacobs identifies at the end of the chapter — the zoo, marinas — but the park continues to see pretty heavy general use.

I think the key here is that the park isn’t just a long stretch of land along the lake but that in many ways it acts as a series of individual, smaller parks strung together. People certainly do use the Lakefront Trail (which stretches southward beyond this part of the city) from north to south; I’ve walked much of it myself.

But the park escapes the curse of those “long strip parks” that Jacobs mentions because it doesn’t feel like an endless unrolling identical pattern. While it’s difficult to identify a center for the whole park, different segments are delineated by elements such as the ponds, the zoo, the nature sanctuary and the marinas. And then within each o these sections, there’s a strong sense that it’s a coherent park.

The presence of the lake certainly helps, of course — but as we’ve seen in other lakefront and riverfront parks, the mere presence of water doesn’t guarantee a park’s success. I’ve certainly spent enough time on Manhattan forgetting that it’s an island, even when I’m very close to the water. At the same time, a large weakness of these types of lakeside parks is that by necessity they draw all traffic from one direction: in this case, largely from the park’s west (and from the north and south on either end), which could have doomed the foot traffic because there’s not really a compelling destination on the other side. Lincoln Park avoids this by not only being intricately designed, but by being “thin” enough that in most parts of the park one never feels too far and unsafe from the city and the lively sidewalk street life that helps sustain that feeling of safety.

Chicago’s motto is urbs in horto, or “city in a garden.” When those “gardens” are done right, as Jacobs points out, they can add much to the vitality of the place, as Wicker and Lincoln parks do. I hope that in its future plans, the city can continue to build on this legacy.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 16, 2012 at 8:00 am

D&L 4: City kids

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Chapter 4. The uses of sidewalks: assimilating children

The first semester of college, I could predict with almost certainty how the “where are you from” conversations would go:

A. Where are you from?
B. [City.]
A. Oh, where in [city]?
B. Well, I’m not actually from [city]*. I’m from {suburb name}, outside of [city].

And so forth. *New York being in general the largest exception as my alma mater, Yale, is less than two hours from Midtown Manhattan by train, and for various reasons New York boasts an extraordinarily large collection of very good (and very expensive) private schools.

Many of those individuals I met will have moved to big cities after graduation. Yet they all grew up in suburban America, probably far from any city sidewalk, and I bet that if you had asked their parents why they lived there, it was for the kids, the idea of “city children” being almost a contradiction in itself.

In chapter four of Death and Life, Jacobs looks at this very idea and more specifically at their play on the sidewalk. She argues that the knee-jerk reaction to shunting children off to playgrounds and off the sidewalks is misguided, amounting to a “deep contempt for ordinary people.” Playgrounds and play centers, she says, are often deserted and unsafe, in comparison to the lively sidewalk on which there are always eyes watching them.

It seems to me the essential point is that children are users of city sidewalks like everyone else. They appreciate the same virtues: vibrancy of action, diversity of uses and the central incubator of the fundamental lesson that “[p]eople must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.”

Of the three chapters on sidewalks, this is the one on which I have the least firsthand knowledge, having no children of my own. But I do wonder about the larger premise of this chapter: that children are users of city sidewalks just like everyone else (as mentioned in the previous paragraph), and by extension, city children, period.

I was born and raised in the suburbs as well (I fill in [Los Angeles] and {Cerritos} in the conversation above) and moved to the “big city” after graduation. Even temporarily putting aside the very large reason that many parents don’t move to the city — the American school system, which is the subject of its very own Death and Life book — it’s still hard for me to imagine growing up or raising children in the city: there’s no room to play! it’s not safe!

And this is exactly what Jacobs is addressing in this chapter. Children playing on city sidewalks will learn to socialize and relate to others like full members of society. Sending them off to isolated playgrounds may be the most dangerous act of all. And I have friends who grew up in big cities who did not turn out “pale and rickety…learning new forms of corruption” from day to day.

Nevertheless, raising children in the city still somehow seems like deviance from the “norm”. Ironically, this takes the form of either the child’s family being very poor (inner-city) or very rich (gentrified Manhattan). Part of it is probably cultural — there’s a very strong vein that the city is an unfit place to raise children. Part of it is that in many ways, it is perhaps easier to raise kids in the suburbs, in that it’s a very known lifestyle and is often carefully arranged to not have the delicate equilibrium that city sidewalks rely on. Part of it is certainly the environment in which I was brought up — familiarity is comforting.

And if we bring schools back into the equation, that takes out a whole lot of parents who would potentially like to stay in the city but are daunted by the educational prospects. There are success stories of urban schools, but not every parent is willing to or has the time and/or resources to improving their neighborhood school.

I know this has deviated, in some ways considerably, from what Jacobs is discussing in this chapter. But I can’t help reading it and thinking about the greater issues at hand, and wondering how it fits into the bigger picture.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 14, 2012 at 8:00 am

D&L 2-3: Sidewalks, gated communities and free speech

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Chapter 2 – The uses of sidewalks: safety
Chapter 3 – The uses of sidewalks: contact
I’m catching up to the book club this week, so I’m combining these two chapters in one post.

If there’s an overarching theme between chapters two and three of Death and Life, it’s the role of sidewalks in providing an incontrovertibly public space. Their very public nature of city sidewalks that both guarantees their safety and allows for a vibrant neighborhood life.

As Jacobs notes, there are three qualities that make a city sidewalk feel secure. There must be “eyes upon the street”; “users on it fairly continuously”; and “a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space,” with the spaces not “ooz[ing] into each other as they do typically in suburban settings.” This last characteristic made me pause for a bit, but a look as suburban settings in which public and private “ooze” (what a word!) into each other is illustrative.

Take the gated community, particularly prolific in the South and West. The sidewalks, if there are any, and streets of these communities are absolutely private spaces. Gates prevent other city or suburban denizens from walking, or more likely, driving in. And these these communities don’t do too well on the other criteria, either: there’s definitely no demarcation between public and private spaces; while buildings might superficially face the street, it’s really often the driveways facing the street; and there are rarely users on these sidewalks.

Yet these gated communities seem safe. (Whether they actually are safer is a matter of debate — the general conclusion seems to be that long-term crime rates are minimally affected, although violent personal crime may see a slight reduction.)

I think the key is that almost all of these communities are not city neighborhoods in the traditional sense — you almost certainly have to drive everywhere and there’s no commerce or any sort of vibrant street life by definition. One of Jacobs’ main points is that cities differ from towns and suburbs. While I don’t think this paradigm is completely true, this is one of the areas in which it is illuminated most strikingly. What works for ensuring safety in a gated community — heavy restrictions on access, an overwhelming dependence on vehicles, a lack of any sort of vibrant street life — doesn’t work on city streets and sidewalks.

I want to add that I’m not condemning those who choose to live in these communities. Among the faults of urbanists and planners, as Jacobs mentions in the Introduction, are a seemingly “top-down” approaches and moralistic judgments on where and how people choose to live. Rather, I think what’s important here is pointing out that in many ways, cities’ health is built on a specific equilibrium, and pulling in examples from other settings doesn’t always work.

As for chapter three’s discussion of sidewalks’ roles as places for public life and trust, I think Jacobs’ conclusions are drawn most illuminatingly again by contrast. Growing up in California, I often remember seeing signs in front of stores and shopping centers noting that solicitation was allowed by California case law — it was often explicitly stated the shopping area would certainly have prohibited it given the chance. The relevant case is Pruneyard Shopping Center v Robins (1980), in which the Supreme Court declared that citizens could exercise certain rights of free speech in private shopping centers, after the Pruneyard Shopping Center attempted to prohibit high school students from soliciting donations on private land.

While Pruneyard is centrally a free-speech issue, the motivations behind the case itself illustrate Jacobs’ conclusions.  She notes that city sidewalks play a crucial role in providing for an informal public life and for contact between individuals; they allow for public exchange to take place without encroaching on private life.

So how does this happen where there is very little sidewalk life, such as in many suburbs? One way is to try to take this public engagement to where the public has moved, and in many suburbs that is the Pruneyard-type shopping center. (The rights given in the case have been restricted in the past 30 years, and in general the court has seen more fit to restrict solicitation rights in front of individual stores instead of shopping centers.) People feel an instinctual need for the type of public-not-private life that they get in city sidewalks, and in many suburbs the shopping center is this place.

Looking forward, I’m excited to reread the chapters on children and parks — two topics in cities that so often inspire controversial discussion!

Written by Andrew ACG

February 10, 2012 at 10:46 am