building “blocks” of urban life

What do you notice when you experience a city? Is it the architecture of the building faces, the traffic moving alongside you, the open space around you, or the shops and restaurants that compose the streets? The urban fabric consists of fundamental building blocks, each of which offers an opportunity for design to create a pleasant place.

façade

Simply put, it’s the face of a building.

Like the wall of a room, the facade should be decorated, interesting, and aesthetically pleasing with attention to detail.

Human-scale architecture can attract people into the life of the street with friendly facades that demonstrate things like:

  • an intriguing mix of storefronts
  • windows, because we all like to peek inside
  • a variety of textured material like stone and brickwork
  • landscaping
  • awnings to protect pedestrians from shade

On the other hand, parking garages, huge civic buildings, and other monotonous structures can discourage people from walking if they have only a cold, bare wall to stare at for an entire block.

Freiburg, Germany: Streets in Old Town attract walkers and bikers with interesting storefronts, a variety of architecture, and textured street materials.

Freiburg, Germany: Streets in Old Town attract walkers and bikers with interesting storefronts, a variety of architecture, and textured street materials.

Harrisonburg, Virginia: A monotonous brick facade leads to an utter lack of pedestrian activity!

plat

A plan diagram of a plot of land that shows:

  • legal boundaries
  • orientation
  • dimensions of parcels
  • block and lot numbers
  • streets that access the plot
  • existing structures
  • location of structures relative to property lines
A plat of my neighborhood in utterly curvilinear suburbia.

A plat of my neighborhood in utterly curvilinear suburbia.

setback

the distance between the lot line and the public thoroughfare that’s kept clear of permanent structures

Sometimes setback requirements can contribute to exclusionary zoning, whether intentional or unintentional, by requiring plots of land so large in size they prove cost-prohibitive for some people.

A street section from Kate Burgener Creative shows a wide setback in a suburban setting.

right of way

A strip of land used for public facilities and infrastructure, like roads or utilities.

The term often refers to transportation thoroughfares like roads, alleys, bike paths, and sidewalks. An urban right of way can include things like parking, signage, lighting, street trees and other vegetation, sewers and drains, utility poles, trash cans and recycling bins, and benches.

Ideally, the right of way of the pedestrian street environment will create a space that serves not only as path but also as place, with vendors, shade from trees, street furniture, and other places for people to gather and meet serendipitously.

Proposed redesign of a right of way in Salem, Oregon, which includes sidewalks shaded by street trees and buffered from moving traffic by on-street parking but lacks bicycle facilities.

Proposed redesign of a right of way in Salem, Oregon, which includes sidewalks shaded by street trees and buffered from moving traffic by on-street parking but lacks bicycle facilities.

block

An agglomeration of lots circumscribed by thoroughfares.

Blocks delineate the separation between public and private space.

Smaller block sizes prove more friendly to pedestrians because it provides better network connectivity. People can walk to the same destination more than one way, making daily walks variable and interesting in a way that a monotonous route would not. Block size therefore proves an integral component of a successful city fabric – often, cities with small block sizes are populated with more pedestrians, while cities with huge blocks create a more car-friendly environment.

This poster from Greater Greater Washington shows the variety of grid sizes and shapes in American cities - including Charlottesville!

This poster from Greater Greater Washington shows the variety of grid sizes and shapes in American cities – including Charlottesville!

This graphic compares block sizes to scale from cities in the U.S. and across the world, including Barcelona's shaved-edge corners.

This graphic compares block sizes to scale from cities in the U.S. and across the world, including Barcelona’s shaved-edge corners.

neighborhood

While the neighborhood represented a dominant mode of North American urbanism from the dawn of permanent human settlement to World War II, the suburb greatly supplanted the traditional neighborhood and composes the majority of human habitation to this day. However, a traditional urban neighborhood should be:

  • a comprehensive planning unit that could stand alone as a village
  • circumscribed in size such that most people live within a five-minute, quarter-mile walk from the center, where daily needs like workplaces, shops, and community spaces are concentrated

Conceptions of neighborhoods have varied throughout the years, from Clarence Perry’s neighborhood unit sized to accommodate enough families to fill an elementary school with ten percent dedicated to parks and recreation, to as subsequent iterations of his diagram like Andres Duany’s 1989 update with bigger schools shared between neighborhoods and more shopping and parking spaces, and Doug Farr’s 2007 update with ecological features like green infrastructure and habitat corridors. However, most urbanites would agree that a good neighborhood should have:

  • streets that accommodate a variety of transportation modes, laid out in a network with strong connectivity so people can take various routes to reach the same destination
  • buildings that front the sidewalk, uninterrupted by seas of parking
  • a mixture of building functions and sizes, creating an economically integrated, authentically bonded community
  • civic buildings in prominent locations that serve as landmarks
  • open space, green space, park space
  • collective security; Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street”

Neighborhoods are more easily defined by their centers than their edges, and most neighborhoods often dissipate into others’ territory instead of stopping at defined borders.

Here’s a map showing my neighborhood in Charlottesville, Virginia. The purple area contains my home and abuts the orange area, which encapsulates a shopping center that includes a natural foods store. I conceive the unshaded space between these two areas as a thoroughfare or corridor with no real destinations I seek out. The blue area below my neighborhood represents The Corner and an abundance of housing for university students. The dashed circles show a quarter-mile radius from my house, neighborhood centers, and the closest bus stop to me, or areas I can reach within a five-minute walk (though the hilly topography of Charlottesville sometimes requires extra time for chugging uphill).

Here’s a map showing my neighborhood in Charlottesville, Virginia. The purple area contains my home and abuts the orange area, which encapsulates a shopping center that includes a natural foods store. I conceive the unshaded space between these two areas as a thoroughfare or corridor with no real destinations I seek out. The blue area below my neighborhood represents The Corner and an abundance of housing for university students. The dashed circles show a quarter-mile radius from my house, neighborhood centers, and the closest bus stop to me, or areas I can reach within a five-minute walk (though the hilly topography of Charlottesville sometimes requires extra time for chugging uphill).

Below is another conceptual framework for an urban neighborhood. This piece, titled “Cleveland Foreclosure Quilt” and crafted in 2011 by Kathryn Clark, represents foreclosed and abandoned lots in the Forest Hill neighborhood with navy rectangles, and the green patches show community gardens that have sprouted up atop empty lots.

So, there you have it. Facades, plats, and setbacks make up blocks, separated by rights of way; blocks make up neighborhoods; and neighborhoods make up cities. How do we experience the different building “blocks” of our own hometowns? How does our relationship with the city vary by scale when we travel by foot, by bike, or by car? How does the articulation of the various scales of our city influence our interaction with other people inside it?

These definitions and explorations are a combination of my own thoughts and inspiration from Urban Design Reclaimed: Tools, Techniques, and Strategies for Planners by Emily Talen and The Language of Towns and Cities: A Visual Dictionary by Dhiru A. Thadani et al.


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