Monday, June 22, 2009

Density and Pedestrianism Go Hand-In-Hand

The Overhead Wire has already written about this article, and it is indeed worth a read. Short and to the point, author Matt Fikse lays out several reasons why a lot of new development fails, and makes a strong implicit connection between the ambiguous measure of "success" and active pedestrian activity.

To paraphrase, the list of traits Fikse finds contribute to the "livability" of a neighborhood includes:
  • High density
  • Low-rise
  • Smaller linear scale of buildings, blocks, streets
  • More and smaller units in those buildings
  • High vertical ground level spaces
  • Mixture of uses in close proximity
Some of these ideas, notably mixed-use buildings and high density, have been fashionable in urban planning circles for a long time. But others, like small units and low-rise buildings, have still only been embraced by a tiny minority of policy makers. And most new development suffers for lack of those qualities

Some local examples after the jump.

Third Street in Mission Bay

King Street

These are the street scenes I pictured when I read the following quote from the Crosscut post:
Stand in the shadow of any giant residential megablock in Seattle and you can't help but wonder: Isn't there a better way to do this? The reality of massive buildings now being auctioned off at fire-sale prices seems proof that bigness alone is neither necessary nor sufficient a condition for successful development in Seattle.
Granted, these buildings are new and as yet un- or under-occupied. But that's a symptom of the problem. These buildings both happen to be on very expensive rail lines, which should be a draw to the people who politicians, developers, and planners would love to see renting them out and milling about them. Knowing, as many Muni and Caltrain riders do, that it would be easy for them to get to these buildings, why aren't they going?

Let's look at some examples of San Francisco's most active and pleasant spaces:

Grant Street, Union Square shopping district

2nd Street and Natoma

t's somewhat difficult to directly compare the scale in the 'bad' and 'good' examples, but I hope the distinctions are clear. First, there are people in the street. The streets shown in the latter two photos are not directly served by transit at all, and they're absolute nightmares to drive or bike along, yet people make their way there.

I submit that one reason for the number of people in each picture is the number of things you see for them to do. There is one thing to do in the only building pictured in the first photo; two or three in the second. I'd guess there are a dozen or so stores and offices in the foreground buildings shown in each of the third and fourth photos, despite being several stories shorter.

The number of things to do seems to be proportional to the number of buildings on a given block, not the size of the block itself or even the height of the building. The shorter distances that people need to walk between narrower buildings seem to be just as enticing as the perceived safety and ease of the shorter time needed to cross narrower streets.

The rich public spaces around2nd and Howard Streets and Union Square are left over from when cities were built on the pedestrian scale by accident. But they can teach us lessons about what kind of spaces people really prefer to spend time in - lessons that policy makers can learn in order to make good cities by design.
Using more of the land for living instead of driving, and finding ways to realize pleasant smaller-scale ideas are essential. While the megablocks languish for tenants and buyers, a bit of something like Amsterdam's Jordaan built in the heart of Seattle could find a payoff in livability, quality of life, and the desirability of the neighborhood. -Matt Fikse
And in San Francisco as well.


Dave said...

I don't think the height of those buildings is exactly the problem. The megablock, not enough retail, and the roads they are on play a big role as well.

Pedestrianist said...

Very good point, and along the lines of what I'm saying.

Often when density and sustainable/infill development is proposed we hear a chorus of height = density = walkability. I don't think that's true.

Height may be important to a developer's bottom line, but it has very little impact on the resulting mixture of uses or walkability and ultimate success of the area.

FWIW building footprint size is also important to a developer's bottom line, but because it has a large impact on the success of the space I'd argue that it's in cities' best interests to regulate them.

Tom said...

Fortunately, Fiske's traits for livable neighborhoods have made it into recent amendments to the planning code for several San Francisco neighborhoods:
* High density. Recently adopted zoning districts, including the Residential Transit-Oriented (RTO), Neighborhood Commercial - Transit (NCT), Downtown Residential (DTR) the Eastern Neighborhoods mixed-use districts get rid of strict density limits. Instead of limiting density, the code relies on existing controls on building height, bulk, setbacks, open space, and dwelling unit exposure to maintain livability.
* Low-rise. With some notable exceptions (Van Ness and Market), allowable building heights were increased only modestly in most of the Mission, SoMa, Hayes Valley, and Upper Market, and chiefly on commercial streets. Heights in residential zones were mostly left unchanged. Alleyway height controls were added to scale buildings appropriately to street widths on the narrowest streets.
* Smaller linear scale of buildings, blocks, streets: design guidelines in the new zoning districts call for ground floor spaces in large buildings to be divided into smaller storefronts. Parking entrances are restricted in size, and parking must be hidden from view behind storefronts or housing. In parts of Rincon Hill, large residential buildings are to be broken up into townhouse-style units where they front residential streets. San Francisco's planning code lack rules for subdividing larger lots and blocks into smaller ones. I advocated for a change, but no upper limits were set on the dimensions of city blocks.
* More and smaller units in those buildings: eliminating density controls allows more and smaller units, although most new zoning districts also require that 40% of units be of two or more bedrooms to create a mix of unit sizes.
* High vertical ground level spaces: NCT, DTR, and Eastern Neighborhoods mixed use districts require ground floor spaces be at least 12-15 feet. Lots of ground-floor transparency is required on commercial streets, and parking must be hidden from view. In the Downtown, ground floor parking must have 15' floor-to-ceiling height, be wrapped in active uses on all public frontages, and designed to allow straightforward conversion to other uses in the future.
* Mixture of uses in close proximity: With a few exceptions, the new zoning districts generally allow a greater mix of uses than the ones they replaced. For example, RTO, while chiefly residential, allows small corner stores like one sees in older residential neighborhoods across the city.
Some planners and advocacy groups are quite enamored with modernist high rises and blingy 'starchitecture', but the good news is that the simple, perennial patterns which make great buildings and urban neighborhoods in San Francisco and other cities have made their way into San Francisco's planning code.
The goal of Livable City is to extend these sensible controls more widely; they currently apply only in parts of SoMa, the Mission, Upper Market, and Balboa Park.

Pedestrianist said...

Thanks for the comment and the clarification! I certainly support Livable City's work on this issue, toward extending "these sensible controls more widely."

My own personal aim is to point out that much of the dialogue - at least on the blogosphere - is dominated by people who are just as "enamored with modernist high rises and blingy 'starchitecture'" as those unnamed planners and advocacy groups.

The planning code is indeed moving in the right direction, but that could change if support for further progress is weakened by constant repetition of tall = dense (what I've heard called "Metcalfe's Fallacy.")

Tom Radulovich said...

I think that Metcalfe's Fallacy, as Marc Salomon typically frames it, refers to the notion that by building enough high-rise condominiums in Downtown San Francisco, we can prevent starter tract-home developments in Tracy.

Perhaps the dense = high rise fallacy deserves its own moniker.

Tom Radulovich said...

All that said, I visited Vancouver last year, which is often touted as an exemplar of the green high rise city. The high rise neighborhoods are thoughtfully designed, with pedestrian-scaled street-fronting retail storefronts and townhouses, and well-designed streets and public spaces.

Low-rise to mid-rise and moderate- to high-density is the city form I prefer, and I don't want to see Vancouver-style high rises everywhere, but we have a lot to learn from Vancouver about how to create better high-rise residential neighborhoods, should we choose to build more of them.

Pedestrianist said...

Maybe "Macris' Fallacy?"

To be clear, I'm not down on high-rise buildings in and of themselves. But building height has much less to do with the walkability (and therefore its livability, ability to attract residents and realize density, and green gred) of a neighborhood or city than the factors mentioned above.

So arguments that we all hear so often that new development needs to be tall to be dense to be green should be reexamined.

I particularly resent dismissals of various objections to high rises as NIMBYism when they're really honest appeals to consider the factors above.