Sunday, February 6, 2011

Blog Post No. 2011-2: Flexible outdoor space (is it a parking lot? a courtyard? a mid-block passage? YES!!!)...

...and the Globe discusses some seriously "inside urban design" stuff




Item 1: One space, well designed for many purposes -- These are images from "Across-the-River" from God's Acre (Roslindale, to the unitiated) over in Cambridge, in this case a passageway between Mt. Auburn Street and Arrow Street near Harvard Square. This particular passageway runs between St. Paul's church (on the left in photo 1, background in photo 2, and on the right in photo 4) and the Harvard Catholic Student Center/Boston Archdiocesan Choir School (on the right in photo 1, background in photo 3, and on the left in photo 4). The archway connects the student center/school and the church and provides handicapped access via an elevator as well as an excellent architectural feature. Now, you may ask me: "Say, RTUF Guy, what were you doing in Cambridge? Don't you live in God's Acre (aka Roslindale), on the other side of the Charles River?" To which I would answer, if the question were posed, "Yes, I know, but my son now goes to school at St. Paul's and we are spending A LOT OF TIME to the north of the river, and I'm finding it not so bad over there." Truly, Harvard Square has a lot to offer, with many new buildings having been added over the last couple of decades that may be worth a post or two in the coming months. Of course, some really, really bad buildings were allowed to creep in over the course of the immediate post-war decades (including, but by no means limited to, the Holyoke Center). But overall, the area remains one of the region's great urban places and one that -- the recession having knocked out more than a couple of the national chains that had flooded the square in the last decade -- seems to be returning to its roots.

But to return to the passageway between Mount Auburn and Arrow, it's all of the things described in the title to this post -- a parking lot, a courtyard, a mid-block passageway -- and it's an aesthetically pleasing thing as well. Not an easy effect to achieve. Of course, use of shade trees to mark the spaces helps and the opportunity to be located next to as dignified a building as St. Paul's church doesn't hurt either. In a city where off-street parking is at an absolute premium, it might have been possible to gain an extra parking space on each side without the trees. But the overall space would be much less than it is. A small place that performs remarkably well.

Item 2: It's out in the open now. So, at last year's CNU in Atlanta, Andres Duany's "big idea" presentation focused on the threat posed by "Landscape Urbanism." I'll stipulate right now that I haven't read the Landscape Urbanism literature and so am NOT up on the substantive arguments at stake and whether Landscape Urbanism is as much of a wolf in green sheep's clothing as Duany seems to believe. But I will say that I am impressed that the donnybrook between "LU" and "NU" made it into the general circulation press with an article in last Sunday's Boston Globe: "Green building. Are cities the best place to live?Are suburbs OK? A fight grows in urban planning, with Harvard at the center." It appears that, for what it's worth, the LUers have taken over the Harvard Graduate School of Design and MIT and are, in the views of New Urbanists, coopting the use of the word "urbanism" in a way that is, shall we say, not helpful (to grossly simplify). Again, leaving aside the substantive dispute between Landscape Urbanism and New Urbanism, the piece, penned by Leon Neyfakh, has one factual whopper and one ironic twist, as follows:

Factual Whopper: The very first paragraph of the piece declares that New Urbanism "originated in the 1970s and has enjoyed decades as the dominant force in American city planning..." Now, I've been paying attention to these issues since the mid-1980s, actually went through a city planning masters program in the early 1990s, and have stayed in the field since then. I must assure you, dear RTUF readers, that I am not entirely sure that New Urbanism is even today the "dominant force" in planning circles, let alone enjoying "decades" of dominance. Rather, New Urbanism has been principally a movement of practitioners, largely shut out of the academy and only very recently enjoying a modicum of grudging acceptance at places like the Harvard GSD and MIT. To declare otherwise is a misreading of the record, though perhaps one that allows Landscape Urbanism to be presented to unsuspecting readers as the real upstart rebels against the powers that be. Totally inaccurate. If anything, Landscape Urbanism appears to be the established academy's response to the perceived threat of New Urbanism, not the other way around.

Ironic Twist: That New Urbanism, a movement that undeniably began with greenfield development at suburban densities, should now be presented as exemplary champions of the central city and high urban density qualifies as an ironic twist in this observer's book. Especially so when those who are attacking that supposed "city-first" orientation are the ones who for a long, long time claimed that New Urbanism had nothing to do with or say to urban conditions and was merely the "New Suburbanism." Ultimately, claiming that one group favors the city over the suburb or vice-versa is of only limited utility. New Urbanism is not about getting rid of all suburbs or buidling high and dense in all locations. Rather, for New Urbanists the ultimate question is whether development occurring at various densities and in various contexts in a region is promoting "the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy." In short, whether we're building sprawl or something better. Apologizing for sprawl is not, my friends, going to cut it, no matter how you couch it.

The running dispute, as described by the Globe article, is now in the process of being virally spread through the vast echo-chamber of the intertubes (including here, of course). So, one of the Globe's own blogs "The Angle" has picked it up, along with, among others, Joe Urban on the website, where it's been announced that Charles Waldheim, champion of Landscape Urbanism, will debate Duany on the topic at CNU 19 in Madison in early June. A fellow blogspot poster at "Landscape+Urbanism" posted on Friday about the article and urges those involved on both sides of the debate to get to know what the other is talking about before racing to a conclusion. Good advice, that, and worth doing regardless of what's being discussed. Having stipulated at the start that I haven't dug into the material sufficiently to really take part, I'll be trying to remedy that going forward, especially since GSD and MIT are right here in Boston, though they are, you know, north of the Charles and all.


  1. In defense of Holyoke Center
    I am a little shocked to hear myself thinking this, but I would argue that Holyoke Center is actually fairly successful. (Or maybe I really just think that, while not perfect, it is not “really, really bad.”) By going up rather than filling the entire site footprint Sert pulled the building back from the street and created a forecourt of activity (Forces Plaza) that can’t be found anywhere else on Mass. Ave. If you think of busy nodes of activity on a warm summer night, that area is certainly one of them.
    The spine of retail inside the building also creates a well-used mid-block passage between Harvard Yard and Mt. Auburn Street. Granted, it took quite a while, decades really, for that spine to be a success. (You may not have been around before they put doors on either end.)
    Even the I-shape of the upper stories successfully keeps the street wall at a reasonable height.
    The HVAC system, on the other hand, is really really bad …

  2. RTUF Person here: Will raises a good point, and I can say from personal experience that the plaza that pulls the Holyoke Center back from Massachusetts Avenue is well-used and the corridor he describes has been the scene of more than one recent, enjoyable lunchtime pizza-fest. I will accordingly withdraw the "really, really bad" comment about that particular building.