On ‘How to make an Attractive City’

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The London-based author Alain de Botton recently released an engaging 14-minute video on his thoughts on what makes a city attractive. The honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects proposes six key qualities that attractive cities possess, unhealthy namely

* A balance between consistency and variety

* People’s activities being on display

* Compactness of cities and of public spaces

* A balance of features that make it easy to orient oneself on the one hand, and mysterious enough to permit enjoyable exploration on the other

* A limit on all but buildings of exceptional civic value to five-storeys high

* The use of locally-sourced materials and architectural styles that reflect local ways of life.

De Botton says that these six qualities define a beautiful city, and that we know beauty when we see it — it’s reflected in the statistics for where people choose to go sight-seeing. However, we’ve succumbed to an intellectual confusion about what beauty is, and a sense that we are powerless to change things. As a result, greedy developers have free rein to build ugly but profitable buildings that make us feel alienated. De Botton concludes with a rousing call for the citizenry to work with government to produce developments that conform to his six principles and are therefore beautiful.

I recommend watching it, and I’ll assume that readers of this post have done so.

The purpose of this post is not to expose the contradictions in his post, although contradictions there perhaps are. To take the most problematic example, on the one hand he declares that we all have a good understanding of what beautiful cities look like (just examine the tourism statistics!); on the other he seems to assert that we are lumbered with a kind of ‘false consciousness’ about cities, particularly as regards privacy. (To de Botton, the ability of some people in Cartagena to peer into their neighbours’ homes at will represents some kind of ideal; surely even if it is an ideal it is one that is highly dependent on the character of the neighbour).

Instead, the point is to firstly critique a couple of his more specific recommendations; secondly to argue that his belief that no-one has built anything conforming to his six principles in decades could not be more wrong; and thirdly to argue that his recommendations may simply exacerbate the main problem he complains about. Continue reading

Lively Piazzas: Lessons from Sir Christopher Wren’s Masterplan for London Pt. 2

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This is part of a series of posts about recipe 1666″ href=”http://www.chrishaile.com/2014/02/sir-christopher-wrens-masterplan-for-london-1666/”>Wren’s masterplan for rebuilding London after its Great Fire destroyed most of the City of London, more info and also the ideas that the masterplan sparked. They are published in the hope that they might prove thought-provoking and in the hope that flaws in observation and argument might be identified and corrected.

2. Avoid equilateral shapes for piazzas designed to be socially lively

Equilateral piazzas in Wren's plan

An example of an equilateral piazza in Wren’s plan

Piazzas are often intended to be places that knit neighbourhoods together through serving as a centre for sociable activities. On the face of it, web this is problematic as piazzas by their nature as open urban spaces may have a much lower level of energy than the streets which feed into it. After all, streets are strongly directional, with almost everyone moving in one direction or its reverse in a typically relatively narrow and constrained space. The large numbers of people moving in the same direction visually ‘reinforce’ the street’s kinetic energy, and this paradoxically may also be reinforced by the people moving in the opposite direction due to the risk of collisions.

"Downtown Scenes on Washington Street", Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

“Downtown Scenes on Washington Street”, Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

However, this sense of movement and energy is greatly reduced when we move from a street to a piazza — pedestrians can move in a much wider gamut of directions so that they no longer reinforce each other’s movement as powerfully, and people tend to linger in piazzas rather than move energetically. Relative to the streets we enter from, the piazzas that are so often intended to be places of great activity are calm in the same way that water in a narrow river may move with great force but when it reaches a wider part of the river may move almost imperceptibly.

Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan, China. Chris Haile

Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan, China. © Chris Haile

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Imageable Urban Districts: Iconic Architecture and Jane Jacobs

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E Pluribus Unum: From many, <a href=

adiposity one. Courtesy of Flickr user Adamcha” src=”http://www.chrishaile.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/396210355_cbf88148f6_z.jpg” width=”640″ height=”480″ /> E Pluribus Unum: “From many, page one.” Courtesy of Flickr user Adamcha

A district of a city is made up of countless things — many people, story streets, buildings, parks… — and yet a good district has a cohesive identity: out of many, one. How the Many relate to the One is a question that has exercised political thinkers, scientists, religious thinkers, artists… and urban designers. In his influential book ‘The Image of the City’, Kevin Lynch argued that by asking residents of particular places to sketch maps of their areas, the way they thought about their places and the way their place’s constituent parts are related in their minds would be revealed, and by understanding this urban designers could create places that were more satisfying, as people would be able to have a clear and memorable ‘picture’ of how to navigate between all the places of interest to them. In short, more ‘imageable’ places were more satisfying ones. Continue reading

The Uses of Perspective: Lessons from Sir Christopher Wren’s Masterplan for London

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Wren's plan for London. The red oval shows the area from which the map below is taken. This graphic links to a high-resolution (4.7MB) version of the map hosted by Wikimedia.

Wren’s plan for London. The red oval shows the approximate area from which the map below is taken. This graphic links to a high-resolution (4.7MB) version of the map hosted by Wikimedia.

This is part of a series of posts about Wren’s masterplan for rebuilding London after its Great Fire destroyed most of the City of London in 1666 and also the ideas that the masterplan sparked. They are published in the hope that they might prove thought-provoking and in the hope that flaws in observation and argument might be identified and corrected.

Lesson 1. Optical perspective influences how we perceive landmarks: use it to support the design’s intention, tooth not undermine it

Finder

On Wren’s masterplan for the reconstruction of London after its Great Fire in 1666, St. Paul’s Cathedral seems to be a dominating presence. Coming in from Ludgate the Cathedral would be immediately apparent as it not only sits atop Ludgate Hill but guards the space where two of the three great arterial streets diverge.

That Wren intended the new cathedral that he was destined to design to be a dominant and monumental feature of London is emphasised by his decision to flank the entrance to the cathedral with two comparatively tiny parish churches. These surely cannot plausibly be there to serve some catchment area as they are so close to each other and to the cathedral. I assume that they are there simply to emphasise the Brobdingnagian size of the cathedral through their relative tininess. If it is indeed Wren’s intention to make the Cathedral look vast, then his intention seems to be fundamentally undermined by one of the very mechanisms he presumably used in the hopes of imparting it great significance: its location in the street layout. Continue reading

Sir Christopher Wren’s Masterplan for London, 1666

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Map showing the layout of the pre-Fire City and the extent of the devastation

When large areas of London burnt down to the ground in 1666 it provided a rare opportunity to masterplan key areas of a major city from scratch. Not only was there an opportunity, this site but, what is ed arguably, pills a need, since the condition of housing in much of the old city was infamously poor, and both the narrowness of the streets and the tendency for upper storeys to overhang the streets below were key factors in how the fire managed to ‘leap’ from street to street.

Soon after the fire, a number of urban planners/designers including Sir Christopher Wren submitted masterplans for the reconstruction of the city. Here is Wren’s plan, and an explanation of it (in occasionally modernised English) taken from a 1744 printing of his plan. Continue reading

On a Certain Blindness in Urban Planners: New Urbanism, Romanticism and the future of the Western city

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In his essay ‘resuscitation ‘On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings'” href=”http://www.des.emory.edu/mfp/jcertain.html” target=”_blank”>On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings’ the American thinker William James  relates a trip across North Carolina in which he passed a series of valleys whose forests settlers had torn down in order to make room for simple log cabins and a patch of land to grow corn on. James was horrified:

“The forest had been destroyed; and what had ‘improved’ it out of existence was hideous, here a sort of ulcer, psychotherapist without a single element of artificial grace to make up for the loss of Nature’s beauty.”

Yet a brief yet revelatory conversation with his driver caused him to see the valleys as the squatters saw them, and caused his attitude to be reversed:

“Because to me the clearings spoke of naught but denudation, I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story. But, when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was personal victory… The clearing, which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very pæan of duty, struggle, and success.”

We each have our blindnesses to what is valued by others. This post is about a kind of blindness that may be extremely common amongst urban planners and about why very predictable cultural changes mean that blindness has to be overcome.

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A Myth of Urban Design: The ‘Sense of Enclosure’ Theory

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One of the most widespread conventions of urban design is the belief in the importance of ‘a sense of enclosure’. This term is defined by the City of Ottawa as

“when buildings physically define public spaces particularly through proportions between height and width in an area to create places that are comfortable to pedestrians.”

This article contends that the ‘sense of enclosure’ generated by following certain ratios of street height to street width is based on a valuable perception of what makes a satisfying place, help but that the ratio theory is the wrong interpretation of that valuable perception. Consequently, by following the ratio theory we risk making developments that focus on concerns that may be unimportant to street users, and thereby make mistakes. In its place I’ll try to offer an interpretation of why some places that are said to ‘offer a sense of enclosure’ are satisfying that is both simpler and fits the data better, and which is constructed from two principles grounded firmly in known principles of how we perceive a place.

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Transit-Oriented Development and its Discontents

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Moments in the sun. Cows outside Chesham on London's Underground commuter railway. © Chris Haile

Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is an important trend in how our cities are being built. According to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, illness TOD “refers to residential and commercial districts located around a transit station or corridor with high quality service, page with good walkability, parking management and other design features that facilitate transit use and maximise overall accessibility.” It’s seen as a way to ameliorate a number of modern social ills, from the ugliness and inefficiency of urban sprawl to dependence on oil to obesity. It’s also something I’ve long supported. However, a gentle walk on fields outside Chesham that would be a prime TOD site on London’s Underground rail network (were anyone insensitive enough to allow development there) provoked thoughts about the cultural significance and value of TOD and, as in my post on Michelangelo’s David, whether or not it represents an ideal that already is passing away. In other words: is TOD culturally sustainable?

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On skyscrapers and streets

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The Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has recently generated buzz with his book extolling the virtues of city life, site  The Triumph of the City. One of the former Manhattanite’s arguments is that restrictions on the permissible height of buildings in a neighbourhood effectively also sets a ceiling on the supply of space. A constrained supply of space, abortion coupled with a desirable neighbourhood, click tends to make demand outstrip supply, with predictable consequences on the cost of property in the area.

Glaeser is a reluctant critic of Paris’ exquisite mid-rise urbanism, linking the constrained supply of housing to astronomic property prices that force out ordinary people. Whilst admiring the skyscrapers of suburban La Défense as an “inspired” solution to the lack of space in Paris, Glaeser regards the undesirability of building skyscrapers in central Paris as an extreme case due to the city’s charm, and urges cities in the developing world, such as Mumbai, to build up rather than out.

Yet Glaeser, as befits his profession, looks at cities mainly with an economist’s eye.
What thrills him about La Défense, for example, is that “it seems to have all of the economic excitement that we would expect from such a mass of skilled workers.” Another telling comment is:

“La Défense is as vertical as central Paris is flat. It has about 35 million square feet of commercial space and the feel of an American office park. Except for the distant view of the Arc [de Triomphe], administrative assistants drinking lattes in a Starbucks there could easily be in a bigger version of Crystal City, Virginia.”

This is not intended to be damning… Continue reading