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Picturing 10 urban qualities central to every city

Water features, wooden storefronts, drinking buddies are among the urban "bookmarks" that represent modern expressions of traditional city life.

In recent months, architect friends have explained how several post-Recesssion projects have focused their sustainability efforts on the end-user experience, rather than simply pursuing flagship "green" designations. It seems to indicate a renewed and commendable emphasis on the particular needs of building use, and, significantly, on the relationship of the building's user to the surrounding urban area.

I see this as a tilt towards the qualitative aspects of the urban experience — an approach that I believe should remain a lynchpin of evolving urbanism.

When I'm writing outside the confines of my day job as a lawyer, I usually pursue these qualitative aspects. I like to emphasize the impressionistic and more emotional "bookmark" experiences in cities around the world. By and large, these bookmarks recall modern expressions of traditional urban life. Together, they are a useful summary of the evolving experience of humans in cities.

As background for my forthcoming book, I itemized and illustrated several of these more qualitative bookmarks while traveling last year. Here are the results:

Spontaneous competition in simple places

Aspects of the city that avoid rigid regularity are among the most interesting and memorable. Here, an empty storefront in Sydney, Australia provides an impromptu stage where competing glass businesses advertise. Commercial needs drive unpredictable results in even the simplest of situations.

Signage with a direct message

Commercial signage also provides a prime venue for commentary. For these Sydney business owners, animals prevail, without question.

Wood-framed storefronts and proud displays

Natural building materials in urban settings give an organic sense of invitation to an otherwise cold world of metal and cement. Wood-framed shops, while impractical in some climates, and always high maintenance, add warmth and charm to their surroundings. Passersby are often drawn to exteriors — like this hat store facade in Barcelona — as well as to the variety, color and well-presented merchandise within.

Water features that emulate nature, in context

While not always allowable for health and safety reasons, water features in the public domain evoke the spontaneous puddles, pools and streams of urban times gone by. Just as sidewalk tables and benches give this street in Melbourne, Australia a human scale, the central water feature complements the greenery and surprises passersby with the unexpected. There are lessons to be learned from these kinds of small-scale improvements. Not only does this coupling mimic a natural ecosystem, it also fulfills a dual aesthetic and drainage function.

Classy blokes in front of classy places

"Third places" with character, such as this local bar in Sydney, are nothing new. Outdoor customers provide ambiance and color as they interact with daily street life. Such urban interfaces, where business meets the street, need not be uncivil and in this case, resound with local character.

Commercial porches, with color and views of the street

In some parts of the world, traditional architectural styles mix commercial and residential uses, and offer "eyes on the street" from open verandas like these along a street in Sydney. This is a logical, and not artificially segregated approach to neighborhood. Rich color often enhances such traditional building forms.

Spectacular examples of shopping as urban spectacle

Debates about density often lack a rich visual record of active, close-knit community. Here in Valletta, Malta, a shopping day crowd jams the city spaces in a comfortable, communal way that is consistent with local culture. This wouldn't work in all cities, not without some permanent or scheduled pedestrian uses of rights-of-way. But this example shows density's dynamic potential.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 8:03 a.m. Inappropriate

You notice the lack of trees in the photos? I love trees and have always thought Mayor Uhlman was a hero for populating downtown Seattle with so many trees. BUT the trees selected grow to a height that obscures the signage of countless storefronts leading to retail failure. When retail fails repeatedly at a specific location the storefront sits empty, the homeless move in, soon after the crack addicts. A clear open view of storefronts is necessary for them to prosper and by stages the community to prosper and be liveable. In Seattle I would like to see more sidewalk shrubs or a type of tree that has a tight leaf pattern so that the signage of the storefronts can be seen.

chapala21

Posted Fri, Mar 1, 1:42 a.m. Inappropriate

I have a really hard time believing that urban trees lead to crack addicts and other ne'er do wells.

Posted Fri, Mar 1, 3:39 p.m. Inappropriate

I see plenty of trees. There are trees in the reflection on the first picture. In the second picture, there are some big trees in the background. Likewise with the fourth picture.

RossB

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 10:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Pretty pictures. I never knew that Sidney looked like the back streets of Singapore.

woofer

Posted Fri, Mar 1, 8:13 p.m. Inappropriate

This is a very interesting piece. I'm now looking forward to more in this series.

dbreneman

Posted Sat, Mar 2, 11:32 a.m. Inappropriate

This is an interesting piece worthy of another sequel or two. A few other attributes come to mind:
1. Tall Street Trees
2. Wide Sidewalks with Random Benches
3. Building Wall Murals of Local Landscapes and Historic Locals.
4. Creeks and Streams in the City
Thanks for encouraging our suggestions.

Posted Sun, Mar 3, 9:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Classy blokes in front of classy places.

Those two men in the picture do not appear particularly classy and would likely be considered loiterers at many local establishments.
I am all for outdoor seating, but wonder what defines classy.

Would this still be an effective urban quality if those were younger men hanging out, say in their twenties? Or would that me a symbol of the less civil interface we are trying to avoid.

Also, I think it is simplistic to suggest that natural materials and water features automatically equate to good design. The water feature shown, in fact, looks somewhat useless and takes away from valuable sidewalk space. Sometimes they work, but not always.

The best urban spaces grow organically and can not be designed as such.

jeffro

Posted Sun, Mar 3, 9:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Your last point is a really important one and in fact is the subject of the book that is the backdrop for this article. I found interesting a Minn Post writer's response on some of your points and other issues in her application of this article's original version to the Twin Cities:

http://www.minnpost.com/cityscape/2013/01/qualities-every-city-should-have-grading-twin-cities

Posted Sun, Mar 3, 3:04 p.m. Inappropriate

"signage with a direct message"... not uncommon is it? I think most urban signs are pretty direct, maybe I am missing something or maybe the author just likes the sponsor of the sign shown. Then " wood framed storefronts" .... the street scene is charming but, while the wooden glass casing may add a bit, the chief appeal of the photo is the narrow, fairly empty street with extravagant paving. Not to mention the store's wares spectacularly displayed. Does a single child in a largely empty plaza really advance your case? again, a charming photo but about as helpful to child-minding adults as a Balenciaga outlet. I think some happy accidents in urban experience are not due to any (or very much) forethought. We should cherish those but not necessarily try to emulate them.

kieth

Posted Wed, Mar 6, 3:18 p.m. Inappropriate

There ARE charming photos extremely helpful to child-minding adults, e.g., Emma Marris' young son illustrating the "naturalist squat" Everyday Nature, Nov 30, 2012: http://emmamarris.tumblr.com/page/5

Emma, of Rambunctious Garden fame, thinks the pose essential for seeing and understanding the "small nature" we nurture unaware or otherwise in our yards. Planners, in contrast, who think it essential to junket the world on planes in search of "organic" places overlook the reason we'd be idiotic to go along with assigning our "mega-city" yards to the dust bin!

afreeman

Posted Mon, Mar 4, 9:31 p.m. Inappropriate

How are these signs important?

Posted Mon, Mar 4, 9:33 p.m. Inappropriate

@jeffro, I agree.

"The best urban spaces grow organically and can not be designed as such"

Planners nor politicians will never create or design anythign that remotely functions as a best urban space/spaces.

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