Monday, April 18, 2011

Blaming the Leaves, Ignoring the Tree

A leaf is an emergent part and product of a tree. Duh. But this little parable should be kept in mind whenever we see some new projects come around. Developments similarly are products of and eventually part of the larger system of cities, which are defined by the operative (and in some cases predominant) transportation system.

Occasionally, projects come along that are large enough to affect the larger system and I'm often pretty harsh in my criticism when they fail to capitalize on this opportunity. But for the most part (and the foreseeable future) development projects will be much smaller (mostly due to capital markets) even though demand for urbanism, walkability, and in-town, affordable housing is enormous.

So when I see criticism coming from the city, or from the readers/commenters of various blogs excoriating a project, we have to understand the windmill tilting that is going on. Sure, I'd like every project to be as urban as possible. But, if the system works against both urbanism and walkability, that threshold of "possible" is very low. This is why we end up with so many projects that I've been known to call "Cargo Cult Urbanism," where they have all the trappings of something like "urban," (build-to lines, mixed-use, some token open space, live-work-play marketese) but are anything but. They don't fit within any larger system.

It is a bit like planting a deciduous tree and blaming it for not being an evergreen when it drops all of its leaves on the ground.

With that said, many of these debates typically revolve around grocery stores and how to urbanize them. Occasionally, you'll come across some truly awful ones where design guidelines don't change the form of the building (nor the context which is more at fault here), but make the developers add things like fake windows, awnings, faux historical detailing, or even a fake second floor to buildings. NOW IT'S URBAN!

Below is the New Seasons market in Portland, OR. It is just about as urban as we can do while still existing amongst and compatible with relatively low densities, contrasted say, with the grocery I occasionally went to in Rome which had zero parking because there was enough density to support it via pedestrian access.

The New Seasons Market still has surface parking, which occupies a different block than the actual grocery. This is significant in that the drive aisle that typically separates a grocery store from its parking is usually a private drive. It doesn't negatively effect the grocery because the road is designed for slow speeds either because the amount of activity (shoppers crossing) or raised crosswalks, i.e. physical impediments to travel speed. It also somewhat helps that the road doesn't connect straight thru and there is a bit of a chicane to it on the adjacent block.

Furthermore, the parking block is lined on two of the sides with other active uses, presumably sharing the same total quantity of parking spaces.

But, the underlying point I want to leave you with is that this New Seasons Market is a direct product of its neighborhood, the larger system it serves and exists within. It is not highway-oriented. If we want all of our little developments to be less car-oriented, we have to begin to address the larger system, which means the highways.