Category Archives: planning

Lighting: A Balance Between Safety and Human-Centric Design

Street lights are changing the cities we live in. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Smart cities are implementing more minimalist LED street lamps, meaning greater cost-efficiency and brighter lights. However, some planners question what a brighter city will mean for humans and the ecosystem. While the Smart City movement is arriving with an arsenal of LED lamps, Florida’s Sanibel Island shuts off lights to protect the environment.

The Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge—located in the city of Sanibel—has been praised for its eco-friendly planning. Because nearly all of the island’s artificial light shuts off at sundown, the wildlife refuge fades into the darkness of the Gulf Coast each night, accentuating the starry skies, protecting turtles from bioluminescent sand, and making it easy for residents to hit their REM-cycle stride. Now, some planners are asking: instead of adding lights, should other cities be following Sanibel’s example?

Smart city technology is drastically changing the way cities are illuminated. LED street lamps are beacons of blue light, the same kind of light that comes from our computer screens and can affect the quality of our sleep. Light pollution can also cause harm to several species of birds, turtles, and insects, and researchers are pointing out the additional qualitative loss that comes with the loss of true darkness—an inability to experience the night sky. The Guardian reported that in 1994, an earthquake in Los Angeles led to a power outage and, subsequently, numerous phone calls to the Griffith Observatory regarding the “strange sky.” The callers were viewing the stars.

While some are pointing to the negative ecological effects of light pollution and calling for a more “natural” way of lighting streets, not everyone is on board with creating cityscapes that coordinate with our circadian rhythms. One study of residents in Spain found that white LED lights make residents feel safer at night, meaning removing the feeling of safety—whether connected to actual safety or not—could be politically contentious. Additionally, studies conducted on the correlation between safety and lighting have resulted in different conclusions in different cities. Removal of night-time lighting in cities such as Atlanta, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Fort Worth could be detrimental to the safety of residents, according to the study.

Planners could debate for years on how to best implement street lighting, but the technological curve is moving faster than they are. Before we know it, LED lights will be covering our streets in the name of “Smart Cities”; places like Los Angeles, New York, and Houston have already implemented blue-light LEDs. Planners and residents must deal with the consequences, and perhaps consider adding melatonin supplements to their grocery list.

Sources: The Washington PostCityLabThe GuardianPlanetizenInstitute for Local Self-RelianceSleep ResolutionsMetropolis Magazine


Documenting the Rise of Toronto

Image Credit: CityLab

Arthur Goss’s career began at age 11, working for the city government to support his family after his father died. It was the 1890s and Toronto, Ontario was beginning to expand and enter the period that saw government public works projects bringing urban areas out of the Industrial era and into more sanitary, livable conditions.

Around this same time, city officials began to understand the documenting prowess that photography yielded. Thus Goss, whose skill with a camera was awarded when he was as young as 15, came to be the first official photographer for the city in 1911. He recorded new roads, sewers, transit lines and bridges as Toronto swelled.

His career ended with his death in 1940, at which point he had produced 35,000 images for the city, each negative of which was labelled and filed away for future reference. Today, they are housed at the City of Toronto Archives.

Read the full article chronicling Goss’s prolific career at CityLab/Life.

Source: CityLab

An Untold Story of American Public Housing

In 2011, Ben Austen—a journalist working for Harper’s Magazine—found himself watching the demolition of one of Cabrini-Green’s towering buildings. Beyond the building’s physical mass, he viewed the complex as a looming monolith that represented the story of public housing and its occupants not just in Chicago but elsewhere.

In an interview with CityLab, Austen points out that many of the arguments for the destruction of public housing projects like Cabrini-Green, and the infamous Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, echoed the arguments made in favor of their construction in the first place: to create safer, better accommodations. He argues that the failings of these projects gets disproportionally blamed on the architecture when in fact these large public housing complexes were an improvement over what they replaced. Since these public housing complexes have been demolished, poverty is less centralized and, Austen suggests, less visible but no less urgent. Read more about lessons learned and stories told in his book High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing.

Source: Citylab and Chicago Tribune.

Considering an Accessible Urban Landscape

Image credit: Caleb Pritchard

Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) marked the beginning of a new era for property owners and public works entities. The ADA outlines the minimum standards projects  must meet in order to be safe and accessible, though many cities have chosen to adopt stricter policies. Cities like New York, where a large portion of the population uses public transit, and Portland, where steep grades and weather present challenges, have spent years studying and developing pedestrian strategies.

Currently, Austin’s Public Works Department is responsible for more than 2400 miles of sidewalk. According to the department, as of 2016, 80% of those sidewalks were in poor condition. They also estimate an additional 2500 miles of sidewalks still need to be constructed, with much of North Central and East Austin having an ‘Absent Sidewalk Score’ of more than 59 points. The updated Sidewalk Master Plan for Austin calls for 390 miles of those needed sidewalks in the next 10 years, prioritizing the areas around bus stops, schools and parks. Austin’s climate presents another challenge, and many areas with or without sidewalks lack tree cover and the micro-climate that makes traveling by foot possible on hotter days

Sidewalk-related issues came to the fore this week when the Austin Monitor published a photo of a newly constructed sidewalk taking several 90 degree turns in quick succession. According to the article, it appears that the unorthodox  shape of the sidewalk was the result of the contractor attempting to keep the sidewalk’s grade, or rate of decent, at no more than 5%. City engineer Bill Hadley confirmed that the sidewalk appeared to adhere to the law as it is written. However, the National Center for Bicycling and Walking recommends a wider sidewalk on grades, allowing those in wheelchairs to travel in a zig-zag pattern. In addition, a wider sidewalk as opposed to a zig-zag shaped sidewalk, would ensure that visually impaired pedestrians would not be faced with navigating an unpredictable path.

It’s time for a frank conversation about pedestrian design as Austin is experiencing rapid expansion and is expected to spend $250 million on sidewalks over the next decade.

Sources: Austin Monitor and the National Center for Bicycling and Walking.

Vacant Lots to Garden Plots: Restoring Urban Biodiversity

Many homes in Baltimore are being demolished due to high vacancy rates. Ecologist Chris Swann uses the empty lots to plant wildflowers. Photo Credit: Patrick Semansky, Associated Press.

As urbanism pervades the world, open spaces and the biodiversity they provide are beginning to dwindle. Curtailing sprawl is often touted as an answer to protecting biodiversity outside the city, but Chris Swann wants to also protect the biodiversity within the existing urban context.

Swann—an ecologist and professor from the University of Maryland—studies what plant species work best for ecosystems in urban spaces and, in a recent experiment, he sprinkled wildflower seeds across vacant lots. He is specifically looking for plants that can survive in the soil of recently demolished homes in Baltimore, where vacancies are on the rise. Though the lots are only “temporary prairies” because they will likely be redeveloped soon, Swann hopes the boost in plant life will reduce runoff and attract other organisms. Swann’s project is uniquely scientific; not many have studied what works to restore balance to a city’s ecosystem. Other cities have begun utilizing small plots of land for gardens or mini parks, despite the lack of research surrounding what they should be planting.

Yet, all green spaces are not created equal. Providing more green space in an urban landscape can not only pose an ecological challenge but also economic and equity challenges. Property values increase near parks and open spaces, oftentimes inducing a development surge that brings a risk of gentrification. Laying the groundwork for a fully furnished park is a costly endeavor for the city; the City of Minneapolis cited the cost of a park as $481,333. In contrast, one of the cheapest types of wildflower seeds costs just $231 per acre.

Swann’s experiment to seed wildflowers in vacant lots will not only help answer the question, “what do we plant” but also “can we afford it?” If wildflowers grow well in infertile soil, they could become a means for urban biodiversity that is more economical and thus, more equitable. Creating prairies in vacant lots could prove a small step towards creating a better habitat for all creatures residing in urban contexts.

Sources: CityLab, City of Minneapolis, Holland Wildflower Farm, University of California at Berkeley

Building Inter-generational Communities: The Tiny House for Older Adults

Keeping up with the needs of a large home can be difficult for seniors. In fact, providing smaller, more manageable spaces for older adults could be the difference between entering a care facility or maintaining independence. Bill Thomas, a renowned geriatrician, created a tiny home for older adults that he says prolongs independence and counters ageism.

The first Minka-style tiny home for older adults stands on the University of Southern Indiana’s campus in Evansville, IN, where 67 percent of the population are under 50 years old. Although the house was built for older people, the structure appears very modern. The modular design provides residents with both affordability and accessibility; because of the compact and interchangeable parts, the home can adapt to people with different needs or disabilities. The home costs just $75,000 to build.

No one lives in the first tiny home currently; it serves as a prototype. Thomas hopes that the homes inspired by the prototype will one day will serve to keep elders integrated in society, instead of segregating them in nursing homes. It’s no secret that Baby Boomers and Millennials have wildly different worldviews, and both can be quick to blame the other for social problems. In a time of increasing political polarization, mixing of different generations may be exactly what our cities need; a tiny home village for older adults on a college campus could be a great start to humanizing the people often seen as the other’s enemy.

Sources: American Fact Finder, NPR, Changing Aging, Minka

The Olympic Challenge

Image credit: Pawel Kopczynski

Countries worldwide vie for the honor of hosting the Olympic games, seeking the international spectacle and the economic incentives. This year’s host, South Korea, has invested heavily in upgrading their transportation network and resort architecture in Pyeongchang. With the opening ceremony taking place on February 9, 2018, the conversation now turns to how the province will utilize the new infrastructure moving forward.

Even in densely populated former Olympic cities like Atlanta and London, deciding how to deal with multiple large venues following the close of the games is a challenge. These structures require constant maintenance, and if left unused are quick to deteriorate. The Olympic Complex in Athens—constructed for the 2004 Summer Olympics—is now best known for being essentially a ghost town. Pyeongchang province has a population of only about 45,000 people and bases its economy heavily on tourism. As of now, the arenas for speed skating, hockey and curling lack a specific use after the Olympics and Paralympics conclude. As for the 35,000 seat pentagonal arena that houses the Olympic torch, the plan is to demolish it after the closing ceremony after having been used a total of four times.

Source: Quartz and Reuters.

Japan’s Reusable Housing Revolution


Photo Credit: Nate Berg

Japan’s population is aging, and is expected to reduce dramatically in the next 50 years as younger generations have fewer children. The population is also concentrating itself more than ever in urban areas, leaving many smaller communities with a growing vacancy problem. The tradition of replacing homes with new construction every thirty to forty years is only amplifying the growing problem.

Companies like Sekisui House and Daiwa House have succeeded in a market that demanded prefabricated housing on a near constant basis. Now, they must learn to adapt and are for the first time beginning to offer renovated or “refurbished” homes. New companies are also entering the market, specializing in the modernization of existing structures. Younger people are looking for simple, affordable homes close to work and family.

Younger families, who may not have the money to purchase a new prefabricated house, are becoming more and more likely to select a refurbished home instead. A 39 year old father of two noted that “the renovated home located close to my parents’ home has much higher value than a newly built home that is far away.” This is a clear reversal from the Japanese attitude towards housing that saw homes completely losing their value within thirty years.

As the population of Japan continues to decline and shift to urban centers, communities are going to have to get creative about reusing structures. One looming challenge will be in addressing failing structures, considering how many prefabricated buildings were never intended to live longer than 40 years.

Source: The Guardian

Bicycle Super Highways

Image credit: BMW Group

As Austin cyclists know, bike commuting has its hazards, and the Texas heat is only one of them. Cycling is also an inexpensive and green way to get around a city that is struggling with traffic congestion—as is the case with Austin.

In China, BMW and Tongji University have unveiled a plan to construct a bicycle superhighway that addresses exactly that problem. In order to address a rapidly growing urban population and a need to reduce emissions, the team proposes to construct a massive system of climate controlled roadways specifically for two-wheeled transportation.

The Vision E3 Way—the three Es standing for elevated, electric and efficient—would connect commuters to transit centers, shopping hubs, and underground stations. Solar panels and water collection systems would help keep the highways cool and clean. If the climate control, ease, and convenience aren’t incentive enough, BMW also proposed a number of bike-share stations throughout the loop.

BMW has invested heavily in e-bike and electric scooters, and they clearly see smaller, emissions-free vehicles as providing the path forward in modern urban transportation. Berlin, BMW’s home country, approved a system of 13 bike “highways” in February of 2017.

Source: BMW Group

What to do with Parking Garages in the 2030 City

Image Credit: LMN Architects

Designers and planners now stand on a perplexing edge. While the modern understanding of transportation is changing, and more and more people move towards ride-sharing and public transportation, most city planning codes still call for new construction to include a certain amount of parking. Competitive car manufacturers intend to have autonomous vehicles on the road by 2025. By 2030, parking needs will be vastly different.

Cities like Seattle are already planning for this future. Seattle has begun to waive some parking requirements, allowing developers to build with no allotted parking spots in neighborhoods convenient to public transit. Other projects, like the 4/C by LMN architects, are being designed specifically to allow parking to be retrofitted for new uses.

By building parking with level floor plates, higher ceilings and space for utilities, LMN architects hopes to create an adaptable building that will continue to function into the next century. It may also be the tallest building on the American West Coast.

Source: Wired 

Free Architecture Courses from MIT

Photo Credit: Peter Wenger

Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides 4 free architecture courses online. The courses cover landscape, urbanism, photography, and the production of space. These courses are easily accessible and available to all. The courses are offered for undergraduate and graduate students and they are in many languages including English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Source: Archdaily

Sidewalk Ballet

Photo Credit: David Reed

Although some might imagine that leaving a dense urban core for clean air and a green backyard is associated with better health, research shows people are healthier and happier in densely populated urban cities. Researchers from the University of Hong Kong and Oxford University studied the impact of density on 400,000 people in 22 British cities. The study found that the main reason residents in dense urban cores tend to be happier and healthier is that they have the opportunity to walk. In areas where suburban sprawl dominates, it is often the best solution to drive, leading to lower rates of exercise and higher rates of obesity. A more compact city is more walkable. The study supports Jane Jacob’s idea of a “sidewalk ballet” with safe streets and socially engaged citizens.

Source: Next City