Sprawl Repair

20 04 2011

Last night I attended a lecture hosted by AIA Cleveland at which Galina Tachieva, partner and director of town planning for Duany Plater-Zyberk and author of Sprawl Repair Manual discussed her book, her thoughts on urban design, and the city of Cleveland.  While I will be the first to admit that I have never truly believed in New Urbanism, I feel that the ideas and principles behind the movement have validity and are important to the planning, especially when looking at the regional scope.  One of my issues with New Urbanism is in the actual execution of the product.  I agree and think that it’s important to differentiate various areas based on their density and design appropriately, you’d be hard pressed to find any urban designer who would argue that point (it might not be so hard to find a developer who would argue that point however).

My personal feelings aside, the lecture was certainly what I would have expected from Ms. Tachieva, discussing the advantages of New Urbanism theories, form based code, and similar principles.  She began by discussing the way that our urban centers gave way to suburbs, starting with first ring suburbs (streetcar suburbs such as Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, or Lakewood) and then extended further to secondary and tertiary suburbs, most of which were based off of some sort of transportation, be it streetcars (pre WWII), or major roads for cars (post WWII).  I would extend that one step further and include highways (post 1956).  However her focus was on the first and second ring suburbs and how those lands and spaces could be re-utilized as shopping malls become defunct.  Interestingly enough, I had a classmate who looked at the exact same idea for his thesis project.  I understand that our suburbs have a massive amount of land being taken up with the seas of parking lots, buildings with enormous footprints, and other monstrosities, just as I understand that not everyone will move from the suburbs into the city (although it is a growing trend as USA Today has pointed out)  and therefore there is validity to planning for the future of these spaces.  However with the increasing prices of our resources, the shift in desire to live downtown, and the incredible amount of land in our urban core, shouldn’t we focus our efforts where the most can be done to help the community?  As she even pointed out during her lecture, there is a convergence in both wants and needs of the babyboomer generation and the millenials, such as the freedom from the automobile, the sense of community, and a focus on sustainability (both economic and environmental).

Through her discussion and the questions asked after the lecture, I have started to get some great ideas for diagrams, research, and some studies that I am planning to do based downtown with a focus on the number of spaces in parking lots and garages compared to walkability and event locations.  I also would like to take some time to study various alley conditions in the city, both in scale and use.  I’d like to see if I can locate some residential neighborhoods where alleys are utilized in a similar way to that of the student housing area in Columbus just off of High Street near 17th, or in University city in St. Louis.  The final research and diagrams I’m interested in producing have to do with the idea of “highway suburbs” being the grandchild of the streetcar suburbs, studying the walkability of a first generation suburb compared to the drivability of the third generation suburb.  My hypothesis would be that in a given time (5 minutes), you can walk to the same types of stores and amenities in the streetcar suburbs that you can drive to in the third ring suburbs, or at least you could have.  More on these to come over the next few weeks I hope!

One of the interesting parts of the lecture were the pieces of advice that she had for the city of Cleveland and it’s designers.  She pointed out that we have some great natural amenities that we aren’t taking advantage of.  I happen to agree, as the city is situated two incredible bodies of water and not only don’t we capture that opportunity, but we go so far as to turn our back on the lake, using a freeway to separate our city from its shores AND we see the river as an uncrossable chasm that must separate eastsiders from westsiders.  We have the towpath that will connect the Lake Erie Shoreline to New Philadelphia.  If we create a waterfront district that allows for this path to continue along the lake shore, it would be possible to jog or bike from East 55th to Edgewater along the lake, or once down at the Flats, follow the Towpath down to Akron for a day trip.  It’s this type of planning and amenities that we must strive for.  I understand that it won’t be easy, nor will it be quick, but it’s something that can be done, look at how the revitalization of the Highline in Manhatten transformed a dilapidated elevated rail line into a mile and a half linear park that has brought BILLIONS of dollars to the area ($21 B if I recall correctly).  We certainly have challenges, economic, regulatory, and politically, however if we don’t take the time to do the right thing now, the impact may have consequences that last 50 or 100 years.  As Galina pointed out, young people are changing the world through technology, corporate leadership, and grassroots movements.  It may be time that we allow young designers the same power and responsibility.  The passion and naivety of youth may in deed be what it takes to overcome the nay sayers that our city has been so accustomed to listening to.

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