A New Urbanist Lexicon: Part 1

BY RICHARD MCLAUGHLIN

COMMENT

Gary Shallcross’ discussion of the seminar with Andres Duany (Prinicples & Practices of New Urbanism) was one of many articles about New Urbanism we hope to see in forthcoming issues of Planning Minnesota. There are two points worth reinforcing in Gary’s article.

First, New Urbanism is more about building typology than it is about zoning, and its paradigm is the structuring of human-scaled.
Second, multi-disciplinary discussion is a valuable part of the educational process necessary to deliver this new paradigm in built form.
That is why Town Planning Collaborative invited Andres Duany to address the Twin Cities planning and development community.

LEXICON
Through a variety of media, there is a lot of discussion around the Twin Cities these days about future development and redevelopment of our region. As can be expected, particular attitudes are being expressed by our regional planning authorities, local builder associations, municipalities within the core and on the urban fringe, planning professionals, environmental preservation advocates, and concerned citizens.

However, the discussion has a peculiar tone not tending toward authentic community building. For example, the question appears to be one of whether to permit development, rather than what urban pattern that development might take. We seem to have forgotten the patterns that have historically sustained communities before our automobile dependence. Yet at the same time there is increasing awareness that THE development market is not a sacred monolith, but rather a diverse population driven primarily by diverse stylistic and value preferences. Finally, there is a real yearning for more pro-active rather than re-active participation in local level planning activities, and for ownership in their results, especially in redeveloping areas.

If this discussion indicates a cultural hunger for that proverbial, “sense of community” and for an economic market to drive it, how do we get there? How do we get there at a local level? To the average citizen, big-scheme regional growth scenarios are a bit confusing, or seem unrelated to everyday life. Most people cannot visualize the lifestyles these scenarios perpetuate, and are therefore hesitant to endorse any of them. On the other hand, they do “know; it when they see it,” and they are not hesitant to comment on what they know.

How can we as professional designers and planners promote place-making techniques attractive, valuable and understandable to builders, consumers, and citizens alike? There are many obstacles, not the least of which is our inability to communicate in a consistent language. Zoning as the basis of our planning nomenclature doesn’t provide a true vocabulary of place-making. Zoning terms are difficult for most people to imagine in built form. The language we need to deliver “sense; of community” as well as economic value requires a set of familiar, multi-dimensional, historically-based terms that describe urban form to a diverse audience.

In an effort to clarify a language appropriate to a new urban form and pattern, a nomenclature is being established by the Congress for the New Urbanism. It is not a new language, but rather one that extracts words of historical merit and essential axioms of traditional planning. Many of these terms may sound familiar, but their meanings have been diluted or misused over the years for various reasons. With the pendulum of American taste swinging back to tradition, and a renewed interest in what characterizes so many beloved urban places and spaces, revisiting this lexicon is highly valuable. It offers authenticity to our understanding of traditional urban pattern. It also offers the tools for both speaking about and realizing place-making choices.

This lexicon will be presented in a series of future newsletter articles, to stimulate conversation about urban pattern and the choices those patterns offer. The framework for fine-grained, incremental development will become more apparent as the language becomes better understood, more widely used, and implemented in built form.

WALKING DISTANCE –
A distance comfortable for most people to walk, as an attractive alternative to driving. This distance is best represented as one quarter mile, 1,320 feet, or a five-minute walk.

Walking distance is a historic axiom of urban pattern, delimiting the French Quartier and the Neighborhood Unit described in the 1929 New York City Regional Plan. Current adaptations such as Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) and Transit Oriented Development (TOD) also use a five-minute walking distance as a primary design determinant. A limited land mass, then, allows a complete neighborhood to be an incremental unit for urban evolution, as well as the sum of its constituent parts.

A complete neighborhood, in which the activities of daily living, including transit access, are within walking distance of a person’s home, reduces the number of automobile miles traveled by its citizens. Were the same population to live in a conventional suburban development (CSD) pattern, where daily activities are separated beyond a comfortable walking distance, increased miles would be traveled, and therefore more thoroughfares and parking spaces would be needed. Traditional urban patterns integrate human activities through a rich mixture of landscape and building, allowing the walk from one destination to another to be a pleasant alternative to driving.

PEDESTRIAN CONTINUITY –
An experiential quality created by a safe, comfortable and attractive network of pathways connecting frequently-visited destinations. The essential characteristics of pedestrian continuity are:

Each pathway’s trajectory has a desirable or useful destination.

Frequent destinations are located in places that create a succession of five-minute walks.

The pathway network offer choices of route, and is logical, uninterrupted, and inclusive of shortcuts wherever possible.

The pathway’s trajectory is spatially defined by interesting building architecture and landscape, and tempered by the local climate, providing shade when the air is hot and sun when the air is cool.

Pathways are protected from automobile traffic wherever possible.

Pathways are visually monitored by people in surrounding buildings, and therefore offer pedestrians a sense of safety.
TYPOLOGY – A body of knowledge from which physical models can be evaluated and compared based on attributes of function, disposition, and configuration. Typology also refers to creation, evolution, and transformation of physical models to account for their usefulness over time. With regard to urban form, typological attributes include characteristics of public and private building, and the spaces that construction defines. Typology of urban form includes the following:

Type – a physical form having defined attributes that could be emulated for other applications.
Prototype – a first model, having attributes worth emulation and transformation in other applications.
Archetype – the best known physical expression for a given set of typological attributes.
Stereotype – the exaggeration, misuse or misunderstanding of typological attributes.
FUNCTION, DISPOSITION, AND CONFIGURATION – Three primary attributes associated with building typology and performance coding. In conventional suburban development, land and buildings are designated for a singular use or activity. In contrast, traditional neighborhood development integrates a range of activities, and is therefore can be better described by its building typology than by land use. For planning, TND controls prescribe architectural and urban forms according to the attributes of authentic building typology. Fundamentally, these controls are intended to maximize continuity and beauty within the public realm, and minimize influence on individual building use or interior design.

TND Codes prescribe — in written and graphic format — performance criteria in terms of function, disposition, and configuration.
Function – Existing or permitted uses for the building and its lot.
Disposition – Existing or permitted horizontal placement of structures on building lots.
Configuration – Three dimensional building form.
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BOOK REVIEW

The Minneapolis Riverfront — Vision and Implementation
The Cunningham Group, Minneapolis, 1996. $27.

Minneapolis riverbank architects, Cuningham Group, along with their Ad Hoc Design Group of metro and national planners, designers and architects, recently published a gorgeous book of narrative and riverfront plan entries from their ongoing riverfront “visionquest;” — a charette that dates back to February 1995. The Minneapolis Riverfront — Vision and Implementation, while rather heavy on the vision side, does deliver a well-researched historical overview of the river and its shifting fate, and includes the Cuningham Group’s preliminary development program that U.S. and European firms utilized for their entries. Fourteen submissions came back and all are worthy of study. Since the charette ended and the book came out last spring, many articles have appeared that detail the charette process and the visions it produced. The critical question is whether Cuningham Group’s private funding and riverfront promotion can find a niche in the public/private partner”ship;” that is so critical to bringing about any real changes.

Cuningham Group has certainly tried to stir things up among local planning bodies, but a broad-based riverfront action plan has yet to emerge. Both the MCDA and the Minneapolis Planning Department have longstanding master planning documents for the riverfront. Minneapolis Planning Director Paul Farmer is busy with the City’s comprehensive plan update and the political ebbs and flows of the municipal budget.

The Minneapolis Riverfront includes a discussion by John Cuningham of three river planning developments in Amsterdam, but it’s a tough translation on this shore. Europeans are known for their love of civic places, but here parking lots dominate the urban view. Tom Schaap, urban designer from Amsterdam, was quoted recently in the Minnesota Real Estate Journal: “Everybody; in your city is in the skyways or in their cars; it’s like a ghost town. You need people on the streets for a city to be alive.” Sounds familiar. What is the real value of the Mississippi River to our citizens? To the private sector? A river runs through us?

Cunningham Group’s urban designers, Victor Caliandro and Mark Malaby, write about the project’s end results in the chapter entitled “Values; and Goals,” editing and grouping the Ad Hoc Committee’s best quotations. By cross-referencing the 14 schemes with this feedback, the book finishes on a strong, interconnected pulse. But in spite of the fleeting references to implementation, there remain many issues and concerns to iron out and few mechanisms for producing consensus on new development. Points to consider include:

Will river-watch groups like The Friends of the Mississippi River be included in the next round of meetings?

What are the visions and plans that neighborhood organizations are promoting for this area through the Neighborhood Revitalization Program? With just one neighborhood representative on the Ad Hoc Committee at present, will more be invited to join the professional elite next time?

How can tourism and historic preservation be better joined in a future redesign? With such little broad-based support for reworking the riverfront, how can we expect private capital — and public/private partnerships — to take root?

With so many plans and visions on the waterfront — and equally as many organizations — seeking a voice in riverfront planning, who really represents the public sector?

Will Cuningham Group’s project and book result in a new educational push to gain the public’s support? What additional educational/public service efforts are needed?

As a small step, what land use “reclassifications;” would be required for a new riverfront? The Kondirator, for example, is a wonderful lightening rod and case study for educating the public.
We all have a stake in the great river’s health and a rich historical template. It would be a shame if the visions from this collection go the way of Rip Rapson and Gretchen Nicholls’ underutilized report, Defining Community: A Neighborhood Perspective. Time to pick up a paddle, people.

William Paul, the reviewer is a graduate student at the Urban & Regional Studies Institute, Mankato State University. To contact the Cuningham Group’s communications department, call R. Brent Gunsbury at 612/379-6853. .Go Back to Previous Newsletter Contents List