Living Urbanism

Living Urbanism Print Edition Now Available by russellpreston
November 23, 2009, 7:00 AM
Filed under: Volume 002 | Tags: , ,

We are happy to announce that the latest volume of Living Urbanism is now available in print. Click here to order your copy today! A big thanks to all our contributors who made this volume possible. We hope you enjoy all that this glossy, 80 page, full color edition has to offer.

Has Public Space, Great Streets and Camillo Sitte ever been more relevant? Do you know what the ‘long tail’ means in the quest to crowdsource unique urban development? Ever wonder why Washington D.C’s seemingly pristine Metro just doesn’t deliver as much urban appeal as the New York City’s grimy subway? What is the true meaning of Phillip Johnson’s “Glass House?” Are you also looking for better ways to cultivate the collective mind power of today’s best urban planners? These questions and many more are mused upon in this volume of Living Urbanism.

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The Transit Tipping Point by Ian Rasmussen by russellpreston
The Future is Transit

Image by Peter French


The Metro, in Washington D.C., is by all appearances a model urban transportation system. Its trains run smoothly, quietly, and quickly. Its stations are well designed, with excellent signage, a cool breeze, and even lights at the edge of the platform that blink when a train arrives. The metro has further appeal in its regional scale, converting from central business district circulator, to commuter rail system as it travels further from the urban core.

By comparison the New York City subway is awful. Its trains jerk passengers about at starts and stops. Loud screeching echoes through stations as trains turn a curve or come to a stop. The stations are fluorescently lit and tiled, making their overall appearance like that of a public bathroom (a function which they have also been known to take). Worse yet, in is the summertime heat of the asphalt above seeps into the crowded stations. Also, unlike the Washington Metro, New York’s subway never takes on the speed, the comfort, or the role of a regional commuter rail system.

According to the three central factors that should influence travel decisions, time, cost and comfort, Washington should have New York beat hands down. Its trains are fast, its rides generally cheaper (you can’t go one stop on the New York subway for less than $2.25), and its trains much more comfortable. Why is it, then, that just about everyone in New York takes the subway, yet the Metro captures only a fraction of Washington’s commuters?

According to planners, it’s all about density; and New York’ got it in spades. There is much truth to this point, and the transportation-land use connection (which basically says that people use transit where dense nodes of development surround transit stations) is now a nearly universally accepted concept. But doesn’t the Washington Metro have a reputation for encouraging dense mixed use development around its stations (i.e. the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor)? And while New York is certainly dense, its policies don’t directly encourage Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).

According to friends in Washington who are otherwise not inclined to own a car, the problem is “the Metro doesn’t go anywhere.” It’s true that there are large parts of Washington that are not well served by the Metro. But certainly the same can be said for New York, where the subway does not come close to extending to the city line, and avoids certain areas all together. As for the central business district, which is where it really counts, both cities’ cores are well served.

There has to be something more to it; how is this contradiction explained? The answer came to me on a random day, running out for a meeting about a mile uptown. It was 9:45 am, the meeting was at 10, and I was very late. I left my building at 9:46, 30 seconds away from a subway stop. I descended a single flight of stairs, swiped my card, and just when I hit the platform a train was arriving. Three stops later I exited, up just one more flight, and arrived at my destination a few minutes after that. Arrival time: 9:53 – 8 minutes after I left my desk in a panic.

That’s the kind of transit experience that makes you sell your car, or never hail a cab again—the kind of trip that the most successful transit systems are based on— because they show you any other way of getting there is plainly inferior. Then it occurred to me that a trip like that isn’t possible on the Washington Metro. To be sure, I don’t think there is an 8 minute door-to-door trip in the history of that system, or many others. While the metro shines over longer distances, and attracts a great deal of commuters as a result of it, despite having well-placed stations in its CBD, it simply can’t do 8 minute trips.

The Transit Tipping Point

Transit ridership is good for itself. Of course ridership is good and necessary for a system to exist at all. But, it’s not just that people using transit is good for the system, but that a sweet spot can be achieved where ridership begets more ridership. I call this the “transit tipping point.” It is the combination of factors which result in a pattern of increased transit ridership.

The transit tipping point occurs when a system is so attractive by comparison to its alternatives that it gains widespread use and thereafter gains the momentum to improve itself. More people are riding, therefore more service is provided, therefore more stations attract diverse uses, and – in turn – more people are riding, and so on. The best transit systems in the world share in this great success, where everyone who lives anywhere near the train is taking it or buses run every few minutes and stations or stops are surrounded by dense, mixed-use centers. Moreover, if you think about the small handful of places in this country where living car-free is a realistic option, their transit systems enjoy this type of success, too.

Originally, my purpose in exploring this subject was only to identify the factors that explain why some transit systems have failed to meet expectations, and others continue to succeed despite a lackluster experience. Only later, in further discussions of what “living urbanism” means, did the true motivation occur to me. Those who are fortunate enough to choose whether to own, or drive a car, enjoy a profound freedom that is as enjoyable as the best of public spaces, living in diverse communities, or any one of the goals to which new urbanists have dedicated themselves. Too often, though, transit has fallen short on its potential to improve our quality of life because it never reaches its tipping point – instead sliding in the opposite direction, disappointing its advocates, and fueling criticism. The point of this essay is to identify some ways in which that trend may be reversed.

The Well Known Factors Behind Transit Success

There are several well known factors that consistently lead to successful transit. Thus, before moving on to the subtleties that define the best systems, it is worthwhile to go through them. To be sure, all successful transit systems need to have these essentials in place.


The most critical component in successful transit systems is density. (Otherwise known as the “Transportation – Land Use connection”). It’s the great built in advantage of the world’s best systems, and has even been given a fashionable name: “transit-oriented development.” (Which many of us in older cities think is a fancy description for an obvious idea). But it is not the density alone that is so powerful, it is the effect of the density on the transportation economics equation.

Generally, people are willing to walk to and take transit within a pedestrian shed (5-minute walk) of where they reside. More detailed research indicates that (quite sensibly) the propensity to walk (and walk further) increases with the utility of the trip to be taken – i.e. you might walk 10 minutes to a commuter rail station, but only 5 minutes to a light-rail.

The problem with these figures, is that they are using a single metric to correlate the results of the complex equation that is occurring. What other transportation options are available? Is there parking at the station? How much faster is the train than driving? How much more expensive? Every one of these variables is placed in the melting pot of transportation decisions.

Density around stations should be a central goal in the planning of transit systems. To be sure, it is present in every successful one. But, do not believe that you can’t make transit something that people in detached single-family houses aren’t going to walk 15 minutes to. In wealthy suburbs, from Winnetka to White Plains, people leave BMW’s in the driveway every morning to walk 15 minutes to a train. The question is why?

The Difficulty of Driving

Planners have offered up density as their big answer to transit success – and I largely agree. But my choice for the number two spot, even more rarely implemented than density and TOD’s, is policies that make it more difficult (i.e. expensive) to drive.

Said plainly, people who take transit every day do so because it’s cheaper than driving (in the sense of time, comfort, and/or direct costs). It follows that to discourage driving,  by making it more expensive, would correspond with encouraging transit use. Every time gas or tolls become more expensive, someone takes the bus. If the bus route is changed to take five minutes longer, someone will opt to drive. These are the margins of transportation economics, and they are where the slightest changes have effect.

It’s an especially important point in light of the number of transit systems that flounder in spite of massive subsidies. After all, they have new trains, new stations; why aren’t people riding? The answer is likely that no policies to discourage driving were adopted when transit was introduced.

Note, I am not referring to policies that attract people to transit, such as tax-free fares or advertising. I am talking about making driving more expensive directly: tolls, congestion pricing, parking taxes, gas taxes, etc. Without these policies, it is nearly impossible to turn the auto-oriented masses into transit riders. The car is simply too good a deal as is.

In case you doubt the positive impact expensive driving could have on transit, just take a look at the few thriving commuter rail systems left in this country. Generally, they serve affluent communities where everyone own cars and shun public transportation. But how else can we explain that people in these communities are not only walking to the train, but they are walking further than we would ever expect. What really got them out of their cars? Traffic. Tolls. Parking. Gas. It has everything to do with driving being unattractive.

The Opposite – Transit is Simply Too Expensive Most of the Time

Using transit may prove faster a lot of the time and therefore be considered less costly than driving. In general, however, driving is almost always less expensive – in dollars and cents.

There are two points to be made here: First, transit is far too expensive (by comparison to driving) most of the time.[1]. This has a great deal to do with making driving comparatively more expensive of course, as discussed in the earlier section.

The second problem related to the cost of transit is the related cost of auto ownership. Unlike transit, where most of the travel costs are paid on a per trip basis, the automobile has the great advantage of sticking you with the costs up front, and making it a better deal to drive your car later. Given the large investment that is buying a car, in addition to mandated insurance and necessary repairs, it is estimated that car ownership costs Americans about $8,000 a year. So, when the cost of driving is being compared to using transit; well, you’ve already paid for most of the drive, so you’d better get your money’s worth.

The point is that the deck is stacked in favor of cars, before even discussing things like highway spending and subsidies for auto-makers. At the most basic level driving is, at present, a much less costly way to get around. Unless that equation can be altered, transit will not succeed.

The Hidden Factors Behind Transit Success

Now on to the hidden factors which allow a system to achieve the transit tipping point.

On review you will find that the consistent theme in all of these factors is that they capture short, spur of the moment trips. This is because in the same way some transit systems are successful in replacing the drive to work, they need to replace taking the kids to school, running to the store, etc. This strategy is contrary to much of transportation planning, which aims to get people to commute long-haul distances using transit. Not to downplay the importance of the commuter trips, but they only make up a fraction of the total. And, more importantly, it is the shorter unplanned transit rides that are at the heart of the transit tipping point – which will eventually lead to increased transit use by everyone from commuters to tourists. Plus, if the challenge is convincing new riders to try transit, it’s a lot easier to convince someone to take the train or bus for a one time trip than to alter their entire live-work arrangement.


Headways – how frequently transit runs – are an under-appreciated part of the transit experience. Imagine you arrive at a friend’s house to find they live right across from a train station. Trains run every 20 minutes, home run. Trains run twice a day, worthless. Granted those are the extremes; if you insert headways into the transportation economics equation, they have a serious effect. When you consider them in terms of the goal of hitting the transit tipping point, they make a world of difference.

Transit options tend to fall within one of two categories: systems where you look at a schedule, and systems where you don’t (i.e. subway, vs. commuter rail). My general rule is that if service runs less than once every 15 minutes, I check a schedule. . The critical difference between these two types of systems is the extent to which they can influence spur of the moment travel decisions – that is, those that are happening at the margins.

There is a minimal cost involved in checking a schedule, but it is something you must do before you leave.  For instance, if you are scrambling to get to a meeting you need to have checked the schedule before declining a taxi in favor of the train.  There are likely many such spur of the moment trips that might go to transit, but instead end up in the automobile. For this reason the transportation systems at the heart of a transit tipping point are more likely to be non-scheduled systems, for the simple reason that they capture spontaneous trips.

But, that’s not the end of the story. The problem in this case is that because users aren’t checking a schedule, the duration of their trip is inextricably linked to the average wait time for service. Said otherwise, if the train runs every 14 minutes you probably won’t check a schedule, and you will also probably wait 7 minutes for a train.

The effect of this average wait time cannot be overstated. It is a deal breaker for certain systems, and what makes others work. To compare, take the train running every 14 minutes versus that running every 4 minutes. The average wait times of the systems will be 7 and 2 minutes respectively. In the case of rides lasting 30 or 40 minutes (which the planners are typically keyed in on), it has a minimal impact. But in the case of shorter rides, it has a much greater proportional effect which makes them worth taking or not.

Furthermore, there is a psychological effect at play; it feels good to get going, even sometimes when it will take longer to get there. There is hardly anything as sweet as when the train arrives just when you get to the station, and almost nothing worse than just missing one. Shorter headways trend towards more transit use, on every level.

Access Time

You’ll almost never hear about how long it takes to get from the street to the platform when people are telling you how long a transit trip is going to take. But given the difference between systems, it’s very significant. For example, catching a bus at the curb takes (in theory) no time at all, while arriving at a central urban rail terminal, on the other hand, generally takes several minutes to descend to track level. (The disparity is also clear in the comparison offered in the introduction [between the NYC subway and DC Metro] where the difference in travel time to the street varies from 30 second to 4 minutes). Making matters worse, this secondary trip occurs at either end of a trip, doubling its effect.

Again, in the context of systems designed to attract longer trips (30, 40 minutes), it hardly matters. But in the case of shorter trips, such as those in the urban core where the system is intended to act as a circulator, the issue cripples the system – such as with the DC metro.

As in the prior discussion about headways, the pure economics of the situation greatly favor easily accessible transit. And the shorter the trip, the more magnified the effect. Here, though, psychology plays a role because time spent seemingly at your destination, but minutes from the street, can drive you mad. For example, if you know your train is leaving the station, but you can’t navigate your way to the platform in time, you are left with stinging disappointment. The opposite is true at your destination – just think of how you feel waiting to get off an airplane when you are about to miss your connecting flight.

Therefore, it is critical that transit systems incorporate into their design the ease with which users can reach the system from the street; or where different modes of transit come together, that transfers be made seamless by design.

The Flat Fare

One the of the unique features of the New York City Subway, to which a great deal of its early success is attributed, is its flat fare (which was originally ten cents). This feature, which remains in place to this day (now two dollars and twenty-five cents), puts the system in the minority. Most transit systems today charge a variable fare based upon how far you are traveling.

There is a sense of fairness in asking those traveling further to pay a higher fare, and in the case of long distance travel options like heavy rail or air travel, it’s a necessity. But in the case of transit, the flat fare holds a great deal of allure in its many benefits: 1) to simplify the experience of travel; 2) to use shorter trips within the central business district to subsidize longer trip to and from; 3) to favor less desirable places, in effect creating a progressive tax on travel.

While the flat fare may actually make shorter trips disproportionately expensive, it eliminates any confusion as to fares because it is always the same. The weighing of costs can be done instantly, rather than having to look up how much it costs for a ticket from A to B. Moreover it completely simplifies the system of purchasing and collecting fares. These benefits, though marginalized by the introduction of electronic metrocards and the like, are significant.

The greatest benefit of the flat fare system is that it uses the proceeds of shorter trips within the CBD to subsidize trips to and from it. For example, in New York thousands of tourists each year use the subway to go from Central Park to Times Square. They pay the same price, per ride, as people commuting to and from the outer neighborhoods.

Finally, a flat fare serves as a progressive tax on locating near the CBD. Under a typical fare system, where further means more expensive, the cost of living far from the city center is twofold; not only is the ticket more expensive, but it costs more in travel time. Given that places with higher transit accessibility are (at least in theory) more desirable places to live, those less fortunate frequently live at the final stop or beyond. Though the flat fare can’t make their commute any shorter, it can certainly level the playing field in direct cost. In fact, the history of New York’s subway proves that the flat fare served as a catalyst for transit oriented development at new further-out stops as the system developed. This is because just as one more exit on the freeway is the mental justification for the sprawling exurb, just one more stop on the subway (no additional cost) was the justification for continuous corridors of TOD.

Therefore, the flat fare is capable of simplifying transit, uses shorter trips to subsidize longer ones, and is essentially the opposite of the so-called “Lexus Lane.”

A Case Study in the Hidden Factors: Denver’s 16th Street Mall Buses

I struggled to find a case study appropriate for this essay because most systems thrive or fail based largely on the well-known factors — namely density. That is until the recent CNU Congress in Denver, where the free buses running along the 16th Street Mall were not only the talk of the event, but the primary mode of travel for most attendees. To be sure, judging by the seemingly universal ridership, and their omniscient presence downtown, the buses are nothing short of a success story. What is more, they possess all of the “hidden factors” to achieving the transit tipping point; which, judging by the effect on their City’s CBD they have achieved (and then some).

To dismiss the well-known factors quickly: Denver’s CBD is relatively dense, but it’s no Manhattan. Buildings along the 16th Street Mall are generally 5-10 stories in height. Though the skyline does have some taller buildings, there are many denser city centers in America. As for the relative costs of driving and transit, my informal observations were these: Driving looked to be exceedingly inexpensive in downtown Denver as there was little traffic, but parking costs were high. With respect to transit costs, the 16th Street buses are free – you can’t beat that.

The hidden factors area really where the 16th Street Mall buses shine, though. Not only does this systems possess these characteristics, but to the fullest extent.

Time – The buses run on a headway of somewhere between 90 and 120 seconds. This means that schedules are unnecessary, and the average wait time attached to any spur of the moment trip is negligible. More importantly, though, is the psychological sense that you never wait. Standing on 16th Street, the next bus is always in view. In fact, the buses run so frequently that you can’t even really feel as though you’ve missed one.

Access – Of course with a bus system, there is great advantage with respect to accessibility; it leaves you right at the curb. But the reality of this system is more telling. First, it is important to note that while many systems are very accessible, but far from the action (i.e. the Las Vegas Monorail), the 16th Street Mall is the central spine of activity in downtown Denver. Therefore, this transit system really does drop you “right there,” so to speak. This couldn’t have been more obvious than when I hopped off to get off the bus to buy a drink from a sidewalk vendor, and by the time I had paid him, just got back on the next bus.

Flat Fare – Ok, the 16th Street Mall are free. But there’s more to say. No ticket machines, ticket booths, stopping the bus so the driver can inspect tickets and collect fares. The fact that the buses are free leads to increased ridership not only because it’s cheap, but also because you just don’t have to think about it. It’s painfully obvious that they capture every spur of the moment trip.


While our pursuit of a transit-friendly future has been focused on broader well-known issues in transportation planning, whether or not you drive or take transit is fundamentally a basic decision. With this insight, it is possible to create circumstances where transit ridership is engendered, and will create more of the same – the transit tipping point. While the ongoing debate is focused on TOD and modern streetcars, don’t forget the devil is in the details. And most people don’t “prefer” anything other than getting there faster, cheaper and more comfortably. If you can make those goals a reality, ridership will follow.

[1] I recently compared the two options, and for a basic 30 mile trip, the difference was roughly 4:1 in driving’s favor; that’s two roundtrip commuter rail tickets at $29, versus a little less than two gallons of gas at about $5.


Ian Rasmussen is an attorney living in Forest Hills Gardens, New York. His practice focuses on land use, zoning and the legalization of good urbanism.

Civic Beauty by Russell Stanton Preston by russellpreston

Cafe Steps Madrid, Spain

Urbanists need to regain control. The traffic engineer and landscape architect have had their way with the civic realm of our cities and towns for too long. The public spaces of any master plan are in fact the most valuable aspect of the design. Care should be given toward their creation and they should not be turned over entirely to any one specialized discipline.

The conception of a great civic realm, anchored by wonderfully, local public spaces, should be the principle goal of any urban design. Beauty will last the ages. If we are to truly build resilient settlements their public spaces must endure for generations. We do not have the luxury to waste on failed endeavors. The founding, or renewal, of a public space is critical to the success of any urban place. The square gives a neighborhood its identity. With success in mind, Urbanists must utilize all the characteristics of a successful public space —particularly the required management and diverse funding that allow for them to endure. As the New Urbanists increasingly look to retrofit suburbia, a similar eye must be put upon the many lost, miss-used or forgotten spaces that exist within our built environment. All land must not be underutilized. Perhaps our society does not yet understand the benefits that non-traditional American public spaces provide? In other parts of the world, a “shared space” is a cultural foundation. They are the streets and plazas that allow city life to exist. Traffic engineers had no hand in the creation of Rome’s piazze. We must learn from these cultures, and as American’s understanding of public space evolves we should not be timid about introducing these ancient forms into our plans. Today no one is looking after the whole of the civic realm. Our professional culture has specialized out of existence the generalist. And it is the generalist that understands what is required to grow a beautiful public space. As Urbanists, we understand the whole system. As Urbanists, we can conduct the symphony required to produce authentic beauty throughout our civic realm.

“Today nobody is concerned with city planning as an art — only as a technical problem. When, as a result, the artistic effect in no way lives up to our expectations, we are left bewildered and helpless; nevertheless, in dealing with the next project it is again treated wholly from the technical point of view, as if it were the layout of a railroad in which artistic questions are not involved.” (Sitte, p.223) In 1889, Camillo Sitte published “City Planning According to Artistic Principles.” One hundred and twenty years later little has changed in the practice of city building. The value of artistically created space has still not found a voice in the modern world. Why?

Shaping the public spaces of our settlements to support an enduring way of life is essential to both the economic development of a place and its overall resiliency. For decades, the artistic expression of our public spaces has not been the driving force behind the projects that shape our built environments’ identities. Beauty, comfort and the higher ideals of a place must be resurrected as the organizing force for city builders. We are still trapped by the statistics of the engineer and dull line of the drafting ruler when it comes to how we create our built environment. A Living Urbanism requires a sophisticated civic realm.

Anatomy of our Civic Realm

The civic realm can actively be identified as our publicly celebrated structures. However, our libraries, churches and governmental building are only a small, but visible, piece of our civic realm. A mature civic realm can be conceived of as the entire system of public spaces both contained by these civic buildings and connecting them. Contrary to other classification systems, I would like to propose that the civic realm is made up of only two categories of public space. In the most complex of conditions Shared Space and Landscaped Space, supported by quality public and private buildings, can provide the full range of conditions required for a meaningful civic realm to exist.

A Shared Space can be characterized as a piazza, piazzetta, plaza and, most importantly, streets and thoroughfares. I find these spaces fall under the guideline that urbanism enjoys complexity. These are “mixed-use” spaces in true form. Surprising is that within the best urbanism these spaces make no special consideration for the car. Properly programmed, multi-modal and effectively scaled the street is the most abundant of all shared public spaces. Yet we dilute the street down to a traffic tool in all American conditions. Why? When there are so many precedents for how a street can support all modes of transport equally. Few, if any, engineers will stamp drawings for the construction of a true piazza, piazzetta or plaza effectively removing these timeless forms from the urbanist’s palette. Our struggles for reducing the width of streets has taken too long. The ability to develop a true piazza needs to be possible. We must resurrect Shared Space as a possible modern urban form.

Landscape Spaces exist to connect urban dwellers to nature and to support the emotional experience of the pedestrian. Landscape Spaces create the contemplative places within a village, town or city. They are formed by having a strong connection with nature. The quay running along the river Siene in Paris, the great lawn in New York’s Central Park and the tree lined promenades of Villa Borghese in Rome are all stunning examples of how a Landscape Space gives emotion and soul to a city. Care must be given toward balancing the scale, orientation and natural features of our greens, squares, gardens and parks to ensure they offer the urban dweller relief in any form they wish to find.

Physical Characteristics of Public Space

Is a boulevard really a successful public space if it does not provide a pleasing escape for the pedestrian? Is a small plaza really a successful public space if it does not allow for the cafe to swell in the evening filling ever available square foot with patrons? As we contort the forms of our civic realm to support the modern demands placed upon them by public process and the science of traffic “engineering” (Jacobs, p. 72) we lose the characteristic that allow these spaces to be the foundation for a vibrant and living urbanism.

“The design standards imposed by the highway engineering profession, for instance, are particularly damaging to community as they ensure the dominance of the motor vehicle over the pedestrian, even within the neighborhood. If I may say so, your profession [architects] could be of great help with this challenge of converting the planning and engineering professions, as surely you have noticed that the well-proportioned neighborhoods of the Georgian and Victorian era hold their value far better than the monocultural housing estates of the past 50 years.” (HRH Prince of Wales, 2009)

As Urbanists, we must take up the Prince’s challenge. By giving modern meaning to the characteristics of a quality public space we can allow a boulevard to be a boulevard and plaza to be a plaza. We should no longer support the hybrid, or false, forms being forced upon our citizens.

Balancing the form of a public space is essential. It is most successful when all three dimensions of the space, as well as the surface treatments and sculpture, are considered in concert. It is understood that the containment of a public space is critical. Establishing the constraints of the outdoor room is also linked to the width and length of a public space. As mentioned earlier, we struggle to create narrow streets. I would also like to propose that our squares, and if we could build them, plazas and piazze are much too large.

“In former times all the arrangements and building forms we have enumerated were joined naturally in a unified arrangement that enclosed that plaza. In contrast to this, one tries in modern times to lay the plaza open. What this implies should be clear form what has been said above. It is equivalent to destroying the old plazas. Wherever such a disastrous undertaking has been carried out, the spatial effect is lost forever.” (Sitte, p. 176)

Christopher Alexander has also developed several patterns which I find often over-looked in contemporary practice.

“Pattern 61 – Make a public square much smaller then you would at first imagine; usually no more than 45 to 60 feet across, never more than 70 feet across. This applies only to its width in the short direction. In the long direction it can certainly be longer.” (Alexander, p. 313)

“Pattern 123 – For public squares, courts, pedestrian streets, any place where crowds are drawn together, estimate the mean number of people in the place at any given moment (P), and make the area of the place between 150P and 300P square feet.” (Alexander, p. 598)

Do modern planners or landscape architects consider the population of a public space when considering its most effective size? It is time to reexamine the size and proportions of the public spaces we design and ensure that they are appropriate to the activities, surrounding architecture and number of users. Size does matter.

Layers exist within all great public spaces. Picture the Piazza del Campo. The image of Siene’s Palazzo Pubblico, with its great tower, might come to mind, or the comfortable slope of its fan shaped form. But, with further scrutiny one can begin to see the layers of this space more clearly. The cafés, with their deep sienna brown awnings, situated on the ground floors of the surrounding buildings establish the outside layer and give the piazza its essential active edge. Just as important as engaging uses at the ground level is the composition, slightly varying fenestration and harmonious cornice line of the surrounding buildings. The tower pierces the perceived ceiling of the piazza completing the required characteristic that a public space be engaging in all dimensions. The tower can quickly be established as this spaces center, but with more investigation one will find that the square in fact has many centers. The portico of the Palazzo, opposite the portico is the Fonte Gaia, typically the square as several vendors dotted along its inner edge, the ring road between the cafés for strolling the circumference of the space and the sloping red brick floor with its many groups of seated onlookers all provide a difference experience. The addition of each of these layers enriches the composition giving the public space more significance.

Significance for public space can mean many things. Great spaces possess significant gravity. Several blocks away one should be able to sense, as if it is pulling you in, the nearing public space. This energy emitted from a significant public space attracts more than just pedestrians. At times this can create a gradient of taller builds, more intense ground floor users and increase in the number of intersections and streets. This gravity can also give a neighborhood its identity. “I live just off Washington Square Park” not only uses the significance of the square to orient location, but demonstrates how the gravity of the public space imposes identity on the surrounding blocks as well. The gravity created between the constellations of public spaces present throughout a civic realm give additional vibrancy to the traffic that flows throughout the city. This pulse of mobility gives life to not only the centers of activity but the various arms connecting them.

There are additional spaces that surround and lead into the primary place. They are the foyers for publics space during large events, the quieter plaza filled with cafés just outside the busy market square or the commercial nodes just outside the gates of the public garden providing refreshments to the scene. A healthy civic realm has a constellation of iconic public spaces. Each of these individual spaces possesses a constellation of supporting space. They might provide relief during extreme conditions or give space for services to support the active edge of the square. A single public space is better when it is part of a series of spaces. This fractal relationship gives vibrancy and depth to a living urbanism.

Public spaces are living. They breathe, sleep, require maintenance and enjoy company. As urbanism ages it continues to grow, change and adapt to the conditions of the time. This is true of the public spaces within that urbanism as well. Over designed and ridged alignment to uses significantly hinder the successful aging of a public space. These spaces must possess a certain amount of flexibility. This is even true within the span of one year. The best public space can support its citizens throughout the year. There is no “session.” The life of the city should not halt in winter. Prague does not close its squares due to cold weather. The many groups, clubs and organizations that a loved public space establishes will further extend the life of these places. These groups will give guidance to the space and provide resources as it ages. Quality public spaces are living infrastructure.

Beauty is Essential

A timeless public space is beautiful. This perhaps is the essential characteristic. Beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder. However, on average the dull, rigid and sterile places that mid-century planners conceived of as beautiful public space have failed. Beauty to the masses, not to a small group of intellectual designers, is essential for a public space to be successful. This beauty ensures the long term enjoyment of a space is certain. Fashion changes too frequently. To let it guide the creation of public space is a mistake. Beautiful squares, plazas, parks and gardens are multigenerational investments. Their form must be timeless for the required investment to be worth its value to a society. Beauty is more likely to be loved, and loved public spaces are more likely to spawn the groups required to maintain and care for it as the life of urbanism surrounding it unfolds. A loved public space endures.

Cycle of Involvement

What does the civic realm really mean to the city? Inevitably cultures and societies evolve. The civic realm provides the platform for this evolution. The civic realm is both the glue that holds a society together and a mirror that allows it to see its failures. This question is not correct; the civic realm means different things to different people. The meanings are not important, but the fact that the civic realm is present in one’s life is. We are just now becoming aware of what the lack of a civic realm can do to a culture and a society.

The civic realm engages the memory. It provides a physical history of a place either through the preservation of its best historic structures or through the generational interaction and story telling that gives rise to the myths of a place. The public spaces of living urbanism should persist within one’s memory. The mind should hold on to their image long since created. The most literal representation of the civic realms memory is those monuments and memorials erected to celebrate our past and the people who made life possible. Either in the squares of Savannah or under Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe the physical memory is real. It is these memories, provide in large part through the civic realm, that serve to give a place its soul.

One comes to respect both one’s place and oneself more in the presence of the past’s greatest accomplishments. This respect, carried by the citizens’ sense of a place, resists filth, counteracts vandalism and elevates the spirit of said place. Given respect, by way of the connections to previous accomplishments, a successful civic realm’s public spaces will be cherished.

The cycle of a person’s involvement with the public spaces of their civic realm will come to teach them how to care. It will give them pride for their locale and its continued success. Pride will lead to ownership. The city will become one’s own and in time this ownership brings one further comfort in its spaces – a comfort that makes the city a home. Through a populations life cycle of experience within a civic realm, many stories will be crafted which, over time, will enrich the memories of a living urbanism.


A market square is more then just the physical space of the market square. Public space is a platform for the life of a city to unfold. However, a play needs its actors, script and time of performance to bring an audience. Successful public spaces require users. The best of these places provide activities for their users. The smallest parking court can be elevated to a public space when planted with a fruit tree. The cycle of caring for the tree, picking its fruit, smelling its flowers and enjoying its shade can create public space out of the simplest of utility areas. The activities in larger public spaces are produced. There are stewards of the space that initiate the production of the activities required to seed the cycle of involvement that leads to the long term enjoyment of a vibrant civic realm.

Just as important as the physical characteristics of a space are the activities carried out within, surrounding or through it. We have discussed the importance of the edge activities. But, often these need to be support and enticed by the activities available in the space proper. Just as the civic realm is divided into shared and landscaped space, activities can be passive and active. There is a strong correlation between landscaped spaces and passive activities. However, a quiet piazzette, with several café tables can be the loveliest of places to rest. Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces, states that the best of public spaces are programmed by “zealous nuts.” It is these groups of nuts that knit together a square or park to improve its gravity, give opportunity for the creation of memories, and fundamentally provide for the enjoyment of future generations in the space.

At the center of a large publics space’s groups must be a “Friends of Great Kennedy Plaza” or a “Central Park Conservancy.” These organizations manage, fund and govern the ongoing operations of the space. They ensure its characteristics remain in place or improve. It is unfortunate, but modern urbanism requires successful large public spaces to be run like businesses.

Did Rome require Friends of the Forum? What kept the “geomorphic” spaces of unplanned cities running? (Kostof, p.43) We currently have no living tradition for the stewardship of our public space. During the last century, Americans learned that the stewardship of our native landscapes was worth the effort. During this century, we will learn that the stewardship of our village, town and city public spaces will be worth the effort as well. We must learn from Olmsted’s dual understanding for both the natural importance of Yellowstone’s preservation for the country and the complex details that would lead to Central Park’s success for New York. Both are of equal importance. Both required stewardship.

Local Economy

It is yet to be seen what type of global economy will be left, but being the optimist it is likely that global markets will still exist. The interesting thing about being competitive in a global market has a lot to do with the strength of your local market. For cities to be competitive globally they will need to differentiate themselves locally. Leveraging the advantages of the local arts, culture, landscape and vernacular building tradition is the foundation for cultivating a unique place in a global market. And we learned that a beautiful civic realm supports all of these items.

A resilient civic realm sets up so many factors that encourage innovation. In time of recession, people take to the streets with market stalls and push carts. These local economies would not be possible without established public space. Random encounters can lead to innovative interaction. The streets, square, plazas and parks are the places for locals to interact and improve their craft or practice.

What significant arts movement has been cultivated and supported by a suburban location? Movements, the type that inspire generations, begin in the cafés and piazze of our cities. The physical space of a city should be painted. Its beauty should be sketched, photographed and act as a well spring of creativity for future movements. A resilient civic realm captures the creativity of the group. The arts are perhaps the most radical of economies, but their practice is essential to pollinating the garden of innovation required for local economies to be successful. Fundamentally, a movement, either business or cultural, needs to be inspired. A living urbanism’s civic realm must provide this inspiration.

Civic and cultural institutions further enhance a local economy. Good public space gives visibility to these institutions and provides the essential link between the “Res publica” and “res privata”. These institutions are not only captured in the physical form of a museum or cathedral. Conservation can begin with a discussion in the square. Romance can ignite with a stroll through the garden. Just as a public space can give identity to a neighborhood, a resilient civic realm can help establish an attractive local culture. The institution of a romantic city can be a powerful enabler of the local economy.

Local economies are even more fine grain. The arrangement of public space gives identity to a district. The power of a good space provides the name to a neighborhood. These names can endure long past the time of their original conception. The economic power of a great civic realm can be demonstrated in the suburban shopping center habit of adorning placeless destinations with names traditionally assigned to the best public spaces.

A healthy social interaction, one that supports local economies, takes place in the public spaces of a living urbanism — commerce, or trade, originated in public space. That tradition is still present. I witnessed a chance encounter between two businessmen aboard a San Francisco trolley. One man hopped on, struck up a conversation with the man seated next to him and the next thing I knew they were getting off at the next stop heading toward the coffee shop to discuss a possible new venture. This is just one example of how a comfortable civic realm, not to mention public transit surrounding such areas, can support economic innovation. And if you believe Jane Jacobs, it is this type of innovation that keeps places alive.

Foundation for a Resilient Place

As Urbanists, we are responsible for helping to craft the foundations for a resilient place. A living urbanism is the best example of such a place. As we’ve discussed the creation, stewardship and enjoyment of a beautiful civic realm can have a profound effect on the successful passing of time. Celebrations and ceremonies are conducted within their enclosure, demonstrations are held in times of unease and direction given in times of crisis. The public spaces of our settlements are critical to their long term sustainability. These spaces are the constant throughout the lives of the citizens. Great care must be given to their creation and renewal. A beautiful public space can offer both a joyful reminder of the past and inspiring insight to the future.

As urbanists, we must realize that complexity is resilient. Natural ecosystems enjoy complexity as an essential piece of their endurance. Can a complex collections of public space help a local economy support itself during recession? Will these same public spaces improve themselves during booms? Many options are always more enjoyable than fewer and it seems as if contemporary planners, and even new Urbanists, are limiting the complexity possible in our built environment. A city or town should have a diverse selection of public spaces, each giving different types of citizens enjoyment. The stimulation of an elegantly complex civic realm keeps a culture renewed.

A living urbanism begins with community and space. It is the act of shaping this space that gives life to a place. Pleasing public space is the insurance that greater things are possible in a place. The quality of the civic realm is completely related to the comfortable level of density that the private spaces of a village, town or city can support.

A sophisticated civic realm allows for a compact population to exist. This population in turn improves the entire civic realm. It is essential for our projects to push this correlation. Achieving greater density is a significant piece of the puzzle that allows for transit, cultural institutions, local economies and an active street life to exist. It is this interdependence that makes the understanding and implementation of great public spaces so essential to our mission. As urbanists, we possess the skills necessary to lead the coming age of urban stewardship. It is time Urbanists regained control of our civic realm.

Works Cited

“Camillo Sitte: The Birth of Modern City Planning: With a translation of the 1889 Austrian edition of his City Planning According to Artistic Principles”

“The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History”

“Dark Age Ahead”

“A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction

To Build a Living Urbanism, Build Livable Streets by Mike Lydon by russellpreston

Image by City of MiamiThis essay is about communication, and making cities better—at least temporarily.

If you have friends who don’t readily self-identify as urbanists, but who inhabit cities, please ask them the following question:

What makes a livable street?

Depending on one’s life experience, expect this simple question to be met with consternation, indifference, an educated guess, and the occasional well-informed opinion. At least that is what I found when searching for answers within my peer group of city dwelling friends.

Admittedly, a sample of five well-educated, twenty-somethings is not statistically significant, but the answers I received may indicate how well we are connecting with a demographic that is generally worth reaching, if not highly sought after. For brevity I have chosen to share but the response of one.

Catching up with Jane

My friend Jane works as a production assistant on Hollywood movies and TV shows filmed in the northeast. A few years ago we compared job notes. Among other tales, she told me about driving Richard Gere to and from the airport between filming sessions.  I jokingly countered with a story about driving Andrés Duany to and from the hotel and charrette studio. Before I could finish she said, “Andrés who?”

Anyways, Jane lives in Boston’s North End where she is surrounded by much of what can go right in an urban neighborhood. She walks, takes transit, and lives in a 600 square foot apartment where she can smell fresh pasta being made from her window. Earlier this year she even lived on a small house boat docked in the Boston Harbor, because…why not? By all accounts, Jane is exactly what Richard Florida has been yapping about all these years—young, educated, cool job, loves bars. However, Jane would never call herself an urbanist, let alone know what that entails. Yet, when I asked her to define ‘livable streets,’ her specificity impressed me:

“A livable street would have two lanes of slow-moving traffic and streetlamps that are small and make use of LED technology, and not those tall, ugly orange lights. It would also feature free parking, because paying for that sucks. Oh, all the houses would have nice front lawns, too.”

Essentially, she described her own childhood home in a leafy Rhode Island suburb, only she adorned the place with better lighting. Clearly she doesn’t understand the high cost of free parking.  Nor does she seem to care that her livable street scenario is nowhere to be found in her North End neighborhood, which she claims to love. I figure that is par for the course, as the other city-loving friends that I interviewed also cooked up what we New Urbanists would call a strange brew of urban-rural dichotomies. Clearly there is a large disconnect, and I am wondering if it has been embedded generationally.

Living where she does, Jane may not be a typical American, but she is a typical Gen Y’er. Her parents were raised in the suburbs, and in turn, she was too. She is well-traveled and educated, and like so many of us she migrated to the city after graduating from college. However, she is still swayed by the allure of her childhood home. As such, her idea of a livable street is still keyed to a place more like the one she described than the one in which she presently lives. To be fair, that’s okay, and I know her boredom increases exponentially when at home. But how do we help those at least temporarily captivated by the city to see not only the benefits of living there as a young adult, but also the potential, and perhaps the necessity of living there long into the future?

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Most people are active learners. That is to say that in the age of the iphone, many Americans must interact with a given concept in real-time before they grasp that which is not immediately obvious. Thus, we as planners need to help citizens engage their built environment and each other to help them, help us make our streets, and by extension, our cities more enjoyable and sustainable.

One way to do this is by building cutting edge 21st century infrastructure that sets a pattern for other cities to emulate. 2008 was a good year for such projects: a bicycle sharing system launched successfully in Washington DC, auto-oriented Charlotte and Phoenix witnessed ridership on their new light rail systems greatly exceed projections, and New York City and Portland continued to reclaim space for pedestrians and bicyclists—witnessing 35% and 25% growth respectively in bicycle mode share. These examples show a trend towards more livable and sustainable policy choices, which help many Americans to change their daily behavior—whether they knew they needed to or not. Indeed, just as expanding roadways induces more traffic, creating better streets and public space induces more people to use them. Monkey see, monkey do.

There is just one problem. Many of the aforementioned improvements cost millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, to implement. They also occur in large, mostly progressive cities, and can take many years to plan and build. While they don’t have to be, such projects are generally more difficult to downstream to places like Paducah, Kentucky or Cheyenne, Wyoming.  So what can cities and towns of all sizes do on the cheap to keep national momentum moving forward; to increase local livable streets awareness, activity, and activism; to revitalize or advocate for a new urban center; and to increase the bonds of community that are so important in networking change?

Take It To The Streets!

Bike Days Miami

Without the funds or political will to implement large physical change, cities and towns should consider temporary events that seed future policy change which can lead to widespread physical transformation. Indeed, in less dynamic communities, it is first necessary to capture the public’s imagination in real-time, build awareness about livable communities and climate change, and allow citizens to connect to each other and their community leaders within the auspices of a livable streets event. As it turns out 2008, was a good year for that, too.

Embracing Bogota, Colombia’s renowned ciclovia — a transformative event that closes 70km of the city’s streets to automobiles so that pedestrians and bicyclists may exercise and socialize freely — New York City, Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, and Miami successfully implemented their own versions. These same players underscore the upper echelon of America’s pattern cities. Yet, due to scale and cost,  such events may actually be easier to implement in smaller cities, which bodes well for livable streets advocates outside of major metropolitan centers.

Miami’s adaptation was called Bike Miami Days. It kicked off in November of 2008 with such success that Mayor Manny Diaz decided that the experimental event would be take place monthly, making it the first city in America to do so. Running through the month of May ( the summer hiatus due to unpredictable rain and heat), Bike Miami Days was nothing short of transformative for the city, which was named by Bicycling Magazine as one of the three worst in which to pedal.

With the rise of the event came a rise in awareness for the most glaring problems in Miami’s urban structure. Quite simply, closing downtown streets to motor vehicle traffic and spreading the word virally through blogs, facebook and the like, brought formerly fringe issues to the public in a very direct and meaningful way. Indeed, Bike Miami Days instantly gained traction with a wide demographic, as exercise, socializing and people watching know no class, creed, party line, race or age.

While livable streets events such as Bike Miami Days have been shown to reduce crime, and increase business, their real strength is in building community and awareness around the urban environment. They also prove the demand for the creation of better public space and livable streets. Learning this quickly, the City soon began to brand the event not as a bicycling-centric event,as it did out of the starting gate,  but as a community-centric celebration where bicycling is but one of the many healthy urban activities taking place.

For a city that is as fragmented physically as it is socially, the seven Bike Miami Days event provided a marvelous opportunity to educate residents about a myriad of city initiatives, but more importantly to build further community support for increased bicycling, walking, and public space facilities. And with the streets of downtown Miami and Coconut Grove becoming elongated public squares—a physical urban element sorely missing in the city—residents and visitors were instantly clued into what that might look like in Miami.

The dense network of social relationships to be derived from these type of events also combine with the economic benefits to create what author Bill McKibben calls the ‘deep economy.’ That is to say, the bonds of community may be overlooked in conventional economic analysis, but livable streets events can help form the foundation for good urban blocks, neighborhoods, and cities. Given the early success of American ciclovias, its readily apparent that there is still plenty of social capital to be found in our city streets—no matter the size.

Using the success of 2008 as a catalyst for more livable streets initiatives in 2009, America’s best cities show no signs of slowing.  New York City has boldly pedestrianized Times Square as part of their ongoing “Broadway Boulevard” project. Boston has announced plans for its own bicycle sharing system (are you paying attention, Jane?) and Mayor Gavin Newsom announced this spring that San Francisco’s Sunday Streets program will not only return, but will follow Miami’s monthly model between April and September.

In order to build livable streets, smart cities and towns without the immediate means to do so might consider starting first with a single livable streets event. Small cities may now learn the ropes from their larger brethren, and should be able to adopt their own version, as such events are a relatively inexpensive way to re-imagine the city and repurpose the streets, at least temporarily.

Moving Forward

I can say two things with confidence: One, livable streets remain a somewhat enigmatic concept for most. Two, our city streets clearly aren’t as livable as they should be. Otherwise, more of my friends might have mentioned the streets on which they currently live. Thus, continuing to educate more urban dwellers about the good they are doing just by living where they are is important. And what better way to communicate the myriad of possibilities already available in the built environment to the average citizen than to physically demonstrate that streets and cities should first be about people.


Mike Lydon is the founding Principal of The Street Plans Collaborative. He Encourages you to trade four wheels for two.

A Living Urbanism by Steve Mouzon by russellpreston

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“Living Urbanism” seems at first glance to be an oxymoron. Urbanism is composed primarily of things that are not alive, like bricks and stone. Other than trees lining the streets, what aspect of urbanism is alive? But if “life” includes things without flesh, bone, fur, or feather that can nonetheless take on a life of their own, independent of that which created them, then the term “Living Urbanism” has meaning. Several things are required in order that something might be considered to be alive.

Characteristics of Life


No form of life is completely self-serving. Rather, each species is useful in some way to some of the other species of its ecosystem.


Every species has a recognizable physical form. There is great variety amongst individual organisms of the species, but only within a very narrow range. This combination of great variety within a narrow range is a characteristic of all life.


The entire creature is alive, other than certain protective structures such as nails and shells.


Each creature carries a genetic code that describes the design of the species.


Through a process of cell sub-division, creatures grow by making more cells. At each stage of growth, the specimen is whole and complete.


Every form of life has the ability to replicate without the involvement of any ancestral specimens that are replicating. Ancestors may die and be forgotten, but still, the current specimens can replicate, spreading the genetic material of the species.


Disease can come, in general, from two sources: It can originate from outside the creature: in this case, a foreign life form which works against the purpose of the organism enters the organism and reproduces. Or it can originate from within: in this case, the cells within begin to work against the purpose of the organism. Often, they reproduce wildly as cancerous growths, spreading across the organism, eventually killing it.


Death occurs at three levels: Cells of a creature live for a short period of time and then die, giving place to new cells during the life of the creature. The death of the cells is a natural and healthy part of the life of the creature because it allows the creature to renew itself, lengthening its life. Individual specimens within a species live for an intermediate period of time and then die, giving place to their descendants. The death of individual specimens is a natural and healthy part of the life of the species because it allows the species to strengthen itself. Species exist for a long period of time, but eventually go extinct. The extinction of species can also be a natural and healthy process when it is due to naturally-occurring reasons, because the extinction of one species might make room in an ecosystem for the ascent of a more advanced species.
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Characteristics of a Living Urbanism

Urbanism is analogous to life in many ways. That is to say, a city is not a living creature, a city is like a living creature in useful ways. Types of settlements are similar to distinct species. A farming hamlet, for example, is far different from a metropolitan borough on many counts. They have far different habitats, food sources, life cycles, metabolic rates, waste materials, and appearances. So if types of settlements are like distinct species, then a particular city, town, village, or hamlet is like a single creature, and individual buildings within the city, town, village, or hamlet is like individual cells within the creature.

The idea that settlement types are like species was first proposed by Christina Miller; many characteristics of her model are incorporated here. A living urbanism exhibits all of the characteristics of biological life listed below:


Each type of settlement has its purpose. The purpose is often communicated explicitly: Farming Hamlet, Fishing Village, Market Town, etc.

Each individual settlement must also have a purpose if it is to be considered living urbanism. That purpose must include all of the functions of daily life if the settlement is to be considered a living thing. If people can’t live in a settlement without leaving for the necessities of life, it’s not a living place. Suburbia is comprised primarily of warehouses for sleeping humans and cannot be considered a living thing because you can’t live there; you can only sleep (and do a few other related activities) there. A liver or a spleen cannot live on its own, nor can suburbia.

Individual buildings also have their purposes, and therefore their types. But just as most cells in a body have multiple functions, the best buildings are those which have many possible uses. There are very few cells in a healthy body that have only a single function. An entire body composed of single-purpose cells could not remain alive for very long, if it could live at all. And a city composed only of single-purpose buildings is not living urbanism, nor is it sustainable.


Every type of settlement has a particular form. A River Port City, for example, snakes along both sides of a river, with one side built more intensely than the other. A Market Town has its heart at an intersection where two or more roads meet. The form of each settlement type begins with the thing that feeds it (the river, the ocean, the roads, the mines, etc.) But settlements are species that can undergo metamorphosis. Hamlets and villages usually have a single initial purpose, as do towns. But as they metamorphosize into cities and metropolises, they take on more and more purposes until they no longer reflect their primary purpose. For example, New York began as a Port Town, but that purpose is now only one of many, and so its form is now more complex than before the city’s most recent metamorphosis.


A living urbanism is produced by a culture at large, not just by a few specialists. If the citizens are not participating in the building of their town to a significant degree, then the settlement that is being created is not alive. Urbanism may be created either through a living process or through a mechanical process. The mechanical process for creating urbanism focuses on the specialties of the specialists that make the system. The New Urbanism admires and aspires to the old places, of living urbanism, but nearly all New Urbanist developments are still built by a mechanism comprised primarily of specialists. We cannot yet claim, therefore, that New Urbanism contains the pervasiveness of life found in a truly living urbanism.


Each type of settlement, each type of Transect zone, and each type of building in a living urbanism springs from a genetic code that contains the essential character of the settlement type, Transect zone, or building. But today, our codes are not helping to create living urbanism because they are based on the mechanical model rather than the model of life. For evidence, consider this: today, there are only a handful of planners alive that can plan a medieval (organic) town to a competent level. Yet in the medieval era, the townspeople built their towns.

Often, these townspeople were illiterate, and they certainly did not draw. So how were they able to build places so great that even the best planners alive today cannot exceed them and seldom even match them? How were they able to transmit the wisdom to the next generation? This transmission device remained a mystery for many years. Some assumed that is was some sort of mystical force that post-industrial people could not understand. Now, however, some believe that the transmission device has been rediscovered, and that it is something very simple, based on the purpose of each pattern: “We do this because…”

Because there is a purpose and a form for each type, and because the culture at large must be part of the process of creating a living urbanism, the code must be simple so that it is easily communicated and easily understood. Each pattern in the code of a settlement type, Transect zone type, or building type should be framed as “We do this because…” “We” signifies that this is a place “we” are building, not a place “they” are building. “Do” signifies that the code is not just theoretical, but that it requires action. “This” signifies the particularity; the code is not just some vague collection of good intentions. “Because” signifies that each pattern has a purpose. If every pattern of every code is framed in this manner, with the plain-spoken rule of thumb of the pattern connected to the reason for the pattern with “We do this because…” then this activates everyone in the culture, and everyone is allowed to think again. Until very recently, this aspect has been missing from nearly all codes, or has been only tenuously attached by a separate commentary document.


A living urbanism grows through a natural process that approximates cell division. Low-Transect-Zone lots are subdivided to make Higher-Transect-Zone lots. This method of growth drove human settlements until about a century ago, having entirely disappeared in new developments. One of the many benefits of the former method is that a settlement is complete at all times, just as an organism is complete at all stages of growth. You don’t see children walking around with one arm until a certain age, nor are they missing fingers or toes as infants. Living urbanism begins with a community of farmsteads. Each farmstead is complete, as is the sub-urban neighborhood block that it is divided into, as are the general urban lots that are further subdivided from the sub-urban lots, as are the Main Street lots that those are further subdivided and densified. This is a quick description of the Sky Method, which has only recently been proposed to approximate the old methods of growth of a living urbanism. This may sound like an entirely foreign concept to anyone steeped in modern development methods, but look back at a series of maps about a century apart showing the growth of an old city. You will see that this was the normal method of growth of living urbanism. So it is our recent system of development that is the foreign interloper instead.

The way we build today attempts to jump straight to final completion of a town by anticipating its climax condition, including that work of new urbanist firms. Until an entire town is complete, it looks like a stage-set. The corollary of a development in its early stages would be a creature missing most of its limbs, muscles, and organs. The only thing it would have in full supply is its bones, because the municipalities insist that the entire infrastructure for a phase be complete before lots can be sold. A skeleton with only a few pieces of tissue attached obviously could not be alive. Nor would you make it alive by continuing to add tissue here and there.

Lest there be any doubt about this poor creature’s inability to live, we have devised the Homeowner’s Association, which is Urbanism’s Chloroform. Because we are terrified of uncertainty, we want to make sure that the climax condition the planners tried to create at the beginning is perpetuated forever, so we immerse the entire place in Urbanism’s Chloroform, ensuring that it never has any chance of taking on life by unknown means in the future. By making change impractical, we make growth impossible. With no chance of growth, there can be no life. So the best that the New Urbanism can do under these conditions is to create portraits of living places, but these portraits are no more alive than any canvas on the wall.


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Our system of higher education is the best structure that exists today for spreading wisdom. This structure requires students to spend years in classes, working through countless problems, showing their work and eventually earning a degree. But it is a terribly inefficient structure, as can easily be determined by looking at the proportion of PhDs in a particular population to the total population.

Nature has a better way. Consider humans: each one contains the most complicated code ever contemplated, the human genome. Yet this incredibly complicated genetic material is replicated hundreds of thousands of times every single day, and almost always by humans with no formal training and nothing more than experience learned through observation. Human replication begins when two humans consider each other to be attractive. If the attraction is strong enough, they mate, they breed (not necessarily in that order,) and the genetic material is passed on.

Living urbanism was once built by a very similar process that has now been lost: the Living Tradition. Every tradition begins as a great idea by a single person about how to build something better. If the pattern efficiently achieves its purpose and resonates with their neighbors, it is replicated, and therefore becomes a local pattern. Later, when the local pattern has existed long enough that other people in the region have seen it, they may say “We love this pattern; we want to adopt it into our family of regional traditions.” Most architects today equate tradition to history, but a living tradition bears about as much resemblance to an historical tradition as a living creature does to a fossil; they may both have a similar shape, but one is alive while the other is dead.

So living traditions work because people resonate with, or find beauty in, a particular pattern. Just as nature’s system works because one person resonates with, or finds beauty in, another. But just as people breeding have no need of any detailed knowledge of genetics, people who are replicating a beloved detail have no need of the detailed calculations of the person who first designed the detail. A living tradition embeds wisdom in beauty, just as nature does. So the people only need to know the general “we do this because…”, not the specific details the originator had to work out.

Disease & Death

Disease occurs in a living urbanism just as it does in living creatures. Patterns designed by specialists rather than generalists should be considered highly suspect as potential disease agents. Thoroughfares designed by traffic engineers are a classic example of a specialist’s solution with a single purpose: getting as many cars as quickly as possible from point A to point B. But in doing so, they make no contribution to the overall health of the urbanism. So almost everywhere such patterns are inflicted by the specialists — beginning in the teens, 1920s, and 1930s — they cause disease in the living urbanism.

The rapid, cancerous growth of the very fabric of urbanism is sprawl. Bloated, super-sized cells replicate rapidly, sucking up the resources of the living urbanism until the life of the place is sucked out and the living urbanism dies.

Today, our world is in crisis. We have a pandemic of global proportions of not just one disease agent, but of every sort of specialist-driven virus imaginable. And cities all over the world are eaten up with the cancer of sprawl, so much so that few places remain with any signs of true living urbanism. Many places are preserved in Urbanism’s Cryogenic State: the Historic District. They may appear alive under casual inspection, but will they ever actually live again? And all around them, we can usually find nothing except the sickening, bloated carcass of what might once have started out as living urbanism, but now is just cancerous sprawl. And so the living urbanism died in hideous fashion, and we watched it happen. And as the urbanism died, sustainability died with it.

What can be done? If we are to have any hope of living sustainably again, we must realize that sustainability goes hand-in-hand with a living urbanism. As a matter of fact, so long as it is understood that buildings are as much a part of urbanism as cells are of a body, it’s not too great a stretch to say that sustainability is a living urbanism. The two are inextricably linked; you cannot have sustainability without a living urbanism.

And so, we must revive living traditions, because they are the operating systems of living urbanism. Today, millions of people are working furiously all around the world to try to figure out how to live sustainably. Once we figure it out, (and I’m optimistic that we will,) we simply do not have the luxury of time to spread that wisdom using only the higher education system because it is far too inefficient and slow.

But there is an even worse way to fail. Modernism has at its core the precept that if you are to be significant, your work must be unique. So each significant architect is expected to reconstitute architecture into a personal style like nothing quite seen before. The problem is obvious: millions of the best minds are working today to figure out sustainability. Once it is figured out, if we then require each architect who would be significant to re-invent sustainability in their own personal style, then we can expect nothing other than catastrophic failure. So the requirement of uniqueness goes far beyond the ludicrous to the globally treasonous. It must not be tolerated any longer. We must be allowed to share wisdom! The most effective way of sharing wisdom ever devised and proven is nature’s way: it is a living tradition. And it is the operating system of a living urbanism. We must re-awaken them now!

Image Contest Submissions – July 2009 by russellpreston
July 2, 2009, 12:39 AM
Filed under: Living Urbanism Images | Tags: , ,

A big thank you to everyone who made an image submission for the up coming print edition of Living Urbanism. Articles from this edition will be posted online soon and details about where to get your copy of the printed edition will be available in a few days. There are some real gems in this group of images!

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