Monthly Archives: January 2007

Connectivity Part 3: Latter Half of the 20th Century

This is part 3 of a series. See also IntroductionHistorical BackgroundNeighborhood WalkingNeighborhood CrimeVehicle Miles and TrafficCrash Safety

Disconnected street networks were the default, entrenched pattern of development in post-WWII America. However, by the early 1960s a backlash had arisen in opposition to the conventional planning wisdom. This countermovement snowballed through the 60s and 70s, and by the 1980s the issue had filtered into the architectural profession and scholarly research.

Part II of this series described how disconnected street patterns became ubiquitous in U.S., with the mandate in particular coming from the Federal Housing Administration. By 1941, over 200 cities had instituted subdivision regulations that encouraged disconnected street patterns.

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Style vs. Form

There are as many different opinions about architectural beauty as there are individuals. Compare any two buildings created with completely different philosophies of style. If you selected a group at random and asked which building’s appearance they preferred, you’d get a lively discussion ranging from indifference, to liking both, to passionately preferring one or the other, to hating both.

Many of the building elements that people relate to beauty are also the most transitory. Elements like facade color, cladding, window treatments, etc. are the easiest things to change. So when Wal-Mart, for instance, wants to show that it’s addressing community concerns about aesthetics and context, they’ll clad their big boxes in styles that reference local heritage in some vague way. Hill Country stone in Austin, rustic trusses in Colorado, Georgian brick in the Mid-Atlantic, etc. But the end result is still a tilt-up, single-story big box in a sea of parking.

In the opinion of many urban designers, the most important architectural factor that supports a pedestrian-friendly street is not the style, but rather the form of the building. That is, the way the building is sited on its lot, the way it meets the sidewalk, its frequency of doorways and windows, and its general shape and mass.

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Colonial-Era Zoning

Whether or not one calls it zoning, the U.S. has had geographic restrictions on polluters since colonial times. The article ‘Knowing’ Industrial Pollution: Nuisance Law and the Power of Tradition in a Time of Rapid Economic Change, 1840-1864 by Christine Meisner Rosen provides a revealing history:

… colonial governments passed ordinances requiring the owners of slaughterhouses and other nuisance business to clean their premises and forbidding them to toss their wastes into adjacent streets, street drains, and streams. They also used their police powers to separate the traditional nuisance industries from people living in densely settled parts of towns, villages, and cities by relegating those industries to peripheral locations. To institutionalize the principle of separation, several colonial governments enacted laws that authorized municipal governments to regulate the location of nuisance industries. Elsewhere, colonial and early national town and state governments protected communities against egregious industrial stenches through public nuisance actions, using their police powers to force businesses that violated the norm of separation to shut down and relocate to less densely populated areas.

That was the regulatory response to traditional nuisances like slaughterhouses and tanneries. But when industrial pollution began impacting the quality of urban life, the law could not adapt to rapid change. Judges and juries were blind to the harms caused by new technologies, a blindness that seems to have been rooted in cognitive psychology. Industrial pollution was too new and unfamiliar; judges could not conceive that the impacts were equal to — or worse than — traditional nuisances.

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Streetcars of Eugene

Bus rapid transit service begins in Eugene, Oregon on Sunday, January 14, 2007. The service is called EmX (short for Emerald Express) and it features custom-designed hybrid-electric vehicles, and stops with raised boarding platforms and real time route information. The route will run four miles from downtown Eugene to downtown Springfield with two and a half miles in exclusive bus-only lanes.

Photo by Lane Transit District

In honor of the EmX beginning service, here is a transit history poster I made some years ago, titled Streetcars of Eugene 1907-1927. The poster shows the system in 1912, a period when streetcars were used to boost real estate development. That’s why some of the lines ran through empty fields. These days, planners recommend “land use first”: The demand for development and codes that support transit oriented development should be in place before transit lines are built.

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TNDs With Agriculture

Back in the day — back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — the Garden City concept was actually about gardens. That is, working, productive gardens for every household. Garden City planners said that working gardens supported the health of residents and the environmental and economic sustainability of the town. Fresh produce and fresh flowers were signal images around which the Garden City movement rallied.

But after a few decades, the Garden City label had became more of a marketing term than a literal description. Green spaces were valued for recreation and scenic qualities rather than food production. That remained true of most U.S. suburbs through the next 50 years.

In 1975, Michael Corbett designed Village Homes in Davis, CA, as a model sustainable suburb. The design utilized many complementary strategies, but in particular, Village Homes incorporated gardens and orchards throughout. That was unprecedented for a development of its scale and density.

Today there is once again a rising interest in local food production. And several ambitious Traditional Neighborhood Developments (TND) are recalling the Village Homes model. They combine new urban design principles with a strong focus on, and involvement with, community agriculture.

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