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How urban design is making our cities more verdant, walkable, and sociable. – By Witold Rybczynski – Slate Magazine

November 4, 2010

The Cities We Want

Part II: How urban design is making our cities more verdant, walkable, and sociable.


Part I of this essay asked what kinds of cities Americans want to live in. Part II investigates how urban design is making these ­­­­cities not only denser and more vibrant, but also more verdant, walkable, and sociable. Both articles are adapted from Witold Rybczynski’s new book Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities.


Slide Show: The Cities We Want. Click image to launch.

The first American colonists cared a lot about urban design and produced beautiful examples such as New Haven, Conn.; Williamsburg, Va.; Charleston, S.C.; and the sublime Savannah, Ga., (right), which was laid out in 1733 according to a repetitive arrangement of squares and streets that guided the growth of the city for well over a century. Then we got lazy. During the 19thcentury, as urban growth accelerated, cities were planned with utilitarian street grids to create easily and quickly developable real estate. The City Beautiful movement of the first half of the 20th century was an attempt to reverse this course and produced many handsome civic monuments in the form of public libraries, museums, state houses, and railroad terminals. The record of postwar city planning is less illustrious, leaving a dispiriting trail of cross-town expressways, public-housing projects, and downtown shopping malls. But things are looking up. The last few decades have seen a revival of urban design that is a combination of lessons learned and innovation, building on the past and planning for the future.

This image is in the public domain.



As the citizens of London and Paris have known for a long time, nothing is as pleasant in the center of a city as a riverside promenade. Much like parkland, an urban waterway provides a spatial release from the density of the surrounding buildings. The 1.2-mile Esplanade alongside the Hudson River at Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan, N.Y., is a good modern example. The design, by Robert Hanna and Laurie Olin, includes all the necessary ingredients: comfortable benches, wide walkways, and shade trees. Although the river view is the main attraction, the details of lamps, balustrades, and paving enhance the experience.

This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


Say “large urban parks,” and most of us think of Frederick Law Olmsted‘s creations in New York, Brooklyn, Chicago, Montreal, Buffalo, Louisville, Atlanta, and many smaller cities. That was in the second half of the 19thcentury, and in subsequent years city parks, with their Victorian bandstands and wrought-iron benches, were considered a quaint throwback to the past. No longer. There has been a renaissance in large urban parks, with new parks built or planned in Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles. One of the most unusual examples is Brooklyn Bridge park (right), currently under construction. The park, which stretches over a mile beside the East River, is built on six disused piers that will be transformed into meadowland, picnic areas, and playing fields.

Image courtesy Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.



Modern urban parks are more active than their Victorian counterparts, and Brooklyn Bridge Park, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, will contain jogging trails, bicycle paths, and courts for handball, tennis, and basketball, as well as tidal pools for wading and a still-water basin for kayaking. The juxtaposition of urban density with nature has been a feature of American urban parks since Olmsted and Calvert Vaux laid out Central Park, but Brooklyn Bridge Park’s 85 acres will also include nonrecreational uses such as apartment buildings and a hotel, whose development will generate revenue that will be used to maintain the park. This combination of public and private development is an important feature of contemporary urban design.

Image courtesy Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.



The Yards in Washington, D.C., is another example of a public-private partnership. The client is the General Services Administration, the agency responsible for managing the federal government’s buildings and real estate; the developer is Forest City Washington, which specializes in large urban projects. The site is in a part of the city known as Near Southeast, beside the Anacostia River, on what was once a Navy yard. The Yards demonstrates what we have learned about urban redevelopment in the last three decades: Density promotes urban vitality (the residential density is about 200 persons per acre, much denser than most residential neighborhoods outside Manhattan); mixing residences and offices creates diversity; recycling historic buildings, in this case old industrial buildings from the Navy yard, helps to make an authenic sense of place; it’s better to place urban amenities such as shopping, a marina, and a waterside park in close proximity; and it’s fine to mix different functions—the Yards sits between a working Naval facility and Nationals Park, a major league baseball stadium.

Renderings by Chrystal Graphics. Image courtesy Forest City Washington.



The 40-acre master plan, by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, Shalom Baranes Associates, and SMWM, reintroduces the streets and sidewalks that were there before the Navy yard was created; individual buildings are designed by different architects. The new buildings, in an architectural style that could be called industrial chic, will be roughly 10 stories high, in accordance with Washington’s height restriction. Most of the blocks, whether they contain offices or apartments—or a mix of both—will have retail uses at sidewalk level, like a traditional main street. At the same time, the river’s edge is distinguished by a six-acre park (which opened this month), a boardwalk, a boat dock, a large lawn for public events, as well as restaurants and a marketplace. Not visible in this projected view are the 700 units of affordable housing(indiscriminately mixed with 900 units of market housing) that form an adjacent project, financed by a federal housing assistance program (HOPE VI) and built by private developers.

Renderings by Chrystal Graphics. Image courtesy Forest City Washington.



The rediscovery of the Main Street model owes a debt to a pioneering real estate project,Reston Town Center, located in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C. Started in 1978, this development is almost complete today and will have a daytime population of 80,000 workers and shoppers, as well as 6,000 residents. Reston combines 20-story office towers and tall apartment buildings with lower retail buildings, a large hotel, and a central square. There are no pedestrian malls; all the shops open directly onto the sidewalk. It is all still new, of course, but the mixture of building sizes and styles—this is not a themed development—creates the impression of a busy downtown. Not exactly what Jane Jacobs had in mind, perhaps, but close.

Photograph by Witold Rybczynski.



Smaller-scale versions of Reston Town Center, sometimes referred to as lifestyle centers, have sprung up around the country. Some are in built-up areas such as Los Angeles, Dallas, and West Palm Beach, Fla.; others, like this example in Denver (right), are part of entirely new communities.Stapleton is a 7-and-a-half-square-mile development on the site of what had been Denver’s main airport. This neighborhood center recognizes that, under the right circumstances, cars and people do mix. Some lifestyle centers look like Hollywood film sets from It’s a Wonderful Life; the architecture here has a fresh modernity that could be in Holland or Scandinavia.

Photograph by Witold Rybczynski.



Densification is the next great challenge for American cities, not only densification of downtowns, but also of residential neighborhoods. Densification promotes walkability, allows more use of mass transit, supports a greater variety of amenities, and produces more active cities. But most newer American cities in the South and West have been built to suburban densities (three-five persons per acre). Denser residential neighborhoods—50 persons per acre would be the upper range—will have to include low-rise apartment buildings and town houses, as well as detached single-family houses, still the first choice of most Americans. Detached houses don’t have to be built on sprawling lots, however. In this arrangement in Baldwin Park (right), in Orlando, Fla., houses face pedestrian walks and a common green court, rather than a street, which increases density, at the same time reducing the surface of street paving.

Photograph by Witold Rybczynski.



Although most people associate acity with big places like New York or Chicago, considerably more Americans today live in much smaller cities, and it is these cities that show the most growth. In small cities in the Seattle region, the Cottage Company has pioneered developments consisting of clusters of cottagelike houses. In the Greenwood Avenue project (right) in Shoreline (population 53,000), eight houses sit on a 0.8-acre lot. The small (less than 1,000 square feet) houses are grouped around a common green space that gets rid of streets entirely—cars are parked in common lots or garages. According to developer Jim Soules, it is the sense of community as much as anything else that attracts buyers to his developments. And fostering community is what urban design is ultimately about. Cottage clusters, green courts, lifestyle centers, walkable downtowns, urban redevelopment projects, and city parks are all strategies with that end in mind

Greenwood Avenue Cottages—Shoreline, Wash. Developed by the Cottage Company. Designed by Ross Chapin AIA.


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