Planning, The Magazine of the American Planning Association, features a regular “media” review column alongside book reviews and reader letters. The May issue included the Designing Better Places website created by Virginia Faust, Senior Planner with North Carolina’s Community & Rural Development Western Division. The site houses a series of short videos that introduce basic planning concepts to the public and stakeholders.
The first video explains Jay Appleton’s Prospect and Refuge Theory using contrasting pictures of quaint pedestrian-oriented streets with small shops, cafés, trees, bike lanes, alcoves, benches, etc. with big box and strip mall parking lots and windowless office buildings towering over treeless sidewalks. The narrator asks the viewers to think about why they would feel comfortable in in the former areas as opposed to the latter. The former provides better prospect and a feeling of refuge and in doing so articulates a unique character and sense of specific place rather than the could-be-anywhere anti-pedestrian quality of big box, strip mall, chain store America. The former are places you can walk to and want to spend time in, the latter you can only reach by car and you want to get right back in your car and get hell away from.
The pictures in this video also reminded me of Robert Freedman’s recent Planetizen article “Mid-rise: Density at Human Scale” in which he praises Manhattan neighborhoods like Greenwich Village that have preserved old school walk up apartment buildings, neighborhoods where “the heights of the buildings are in harmony with the width of the street.” He studied mid-rise neighborhoods across the globe as part of his work on Toronto’s efforts to create more “European-style” urban streets, and discovered a 1:1 ration of street width to building height. He advocates using a mix of setbacks and step-backs (setbacks on upper floors) in addition to inviting materials to create the signature “outdoor room” feel of cosy mid-rise streets. This is the kind of neighborhood I would love to live in and what the new urbanist efforts here in Austin have not quite achieved, mostly due to existing car-centric transportation infrastructure.