10 Blogs We’re Reading… well, keeping an eye on… by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor
We say ‘reading’ but really it is ‘periodically checking in on’ because there is way too much content to keep up with everything on the web. We have over 30 newspapers and online journals from the United States and Europe alone bookmarked for daily review! The Outlaw Urbanist is backlogged over a year with interesting news articles we have saved for re-posting on the blog. We are only now (very slowly) beginning to diligently work our way through this backlog. In the meantime, we encourage you to visit these blogs (in no particular order).
1. Clusterfuck Nation by James Howard Kunstler
Now archived on www.kunstler.com but still worth a periodic visit. He is on Twitter but not much so you can follow @Jhkunstler.
7. Spatial Disjunctures by David Jeevendrampillai
(UCL Research Student whose blog has gone quiet for over a year but we hope returns soon)
8. Urban Formation or Mapping Urban Form and Society by Dr. Laura Vaughan
Professor of Urban Form and Society at UCL, whose blog has also gone quiet for six months… we’re all very busy these days. Laura tends to be on Twitter more than most and she often actively engages in interesting discussions via her feed @urban_formation.
NOTE: This is a shorter, punchier, reference-free version of “The City’s Essential DNA: Formal design and spatial processes in the urban patterns”, which appears in Volume 4, Issue 1 of The Journal of Space Syntax, 2013, pp 160-164, ISSN: 2044-7507. It was prepared at the request of a Planning Department for their academic publication but they decided to pass on the article because it was “too technical”.
Our descriptions of cities are often based on their physical form. In urban theory, the description of ‘organic’ and ‘regular’ cities is one of the most persistent and useful. The first stresses process over time in terms of unplanned growth whereas the second on conscious design. This ‘shorthand’ provides a basic understanding of cities across different times, cultures, and geographical regions, which is useful precisely because they are theory-loaded terms. They seemingly convey a lot of information in an easy-to-grasp manner. Regular explicitly describes physical form and the design process that gave rise to it. Organic explicitly describes process over time in terms of urban growth, tacitly understood such cities tend to be characterized by deformed grids. The explicit and implicit description of urban form and process is the basis of their descriptive value since most cities are easily classified as having common or different attributes when characterized as organic or regular. There have been frequent attempts to develop better terminology. Utilitarian, deformed, surface order, neutral, offset, gridiron, radial, uniform, homogeneous, undifferentiated matrix, sprawl, geomorphic… the amount of jargon is enough to give anyone a headache. However, describing urban form as deformed or regular is also theory-loaded since cities are characterized in geometrical terms. The key is the incidence or deficiency of a readily apparent geometry in the physical composition of streets and blocks in plan. American cities tend to possess such geometries so they are regular grids. European or Middle Eastern ‘organic’ cities appear to lack such geometries so they are deformed grids. Others have defined this as the difference between composition and configuration to better distinguish between how we view the city (static form) and how it works (dynamic process). Composition is an easy-to-grasp, understand-all-at-once description and configuration is a more complex view of relations amongst elements that potentially affect urban functions. This distinction is often confused or misunderstood, inevitably leading us to a theoretical dead-end.
At a detailed scale, the Urban Transect specifies this distinction between form and process in the design of the street itself for those transitioning from Euclidean zoning to form-based codes. Several formal elements (street width, road sections, building footprints, landscaping) are tied to functional uses (density and intensity). If cities are interfaces between scales of movement, as suggested by John Peponis at Georgia Tech, then the Urban Transect creates an idealized model of this essential urban dynamic of form and process for the design of streets to better classify it for application in form-based zoning regulations and streetscape design. Duany and Talen’s explanatory diagram of transect planning specifies a geometric logic (all urban streets connect at right angles) but the applicability of transect planning for types of cities seems readily apparent. What varies from one city to another is geometry and scale as realized in the layout. The true brilliance of transect planning is, the more it is applied in real world conditions, then the less tenable becomes the roadway classifications of modern transportation planning. Those beholden to the dominant 20th century planning paradigm should beware of New Urbanists bearing gifts.
Transect planning is largely silent about generating an urban pattern above the level of the street, leaving this to the design sensibilities of the professionals. This appears to leave a gulf of understanding between the urban whole and the street itself. However, this is precisely where the essential dynamics of form and process as it impacts on urban functions are realized in cities. Hiller and Hanson argue in The Social Logic of Space the physical arrangement of space “has a direct relation – rather than a merely symbolic one – to social life, since it provides the material preconditions for patterns of movement, encounter and avoidance which are the material realization – sometimes the generator – of social relations.” New Urbanists have been basically arguing the same for thirty years. In everyday practice, this becomes complicated because we tend to view and design space in discrete terms, independent of a larger geographical, topographical, and/or urban context. In doing so, the importance of design in establishing the material preconditions for our everyday use of urban space is often minimized, misunderstood, or even ignored.
Our design decisions in generating the urban pattern are important. For example, it is in this realm that an important (and little discussed) distinction arises between intra-connectivity (street connections within the bounds of a site) and inter-connectivity (street connections between bounds of different sites). Historically, intra-connectivity has been strongly realized in New Urbanism developments but inter-connectivity weakly so. We cannot simply leave design of the urban pattern to the (varied) abilities of professionals and hope for the best. We must identify and understand it so we can intervene better and smarter. If we focus on the static and dynamic relationship between form and process, composition and configuration, in the design of the urban grid, a basic set of design decisions having formal and process implications for urban space can be identified.
We could describe this as the essential DNA for all types of cities. There is grid expansion and deformation, whereby the urban pattern expands in a consistent manner or else deforms in relation to some external factor, usually topography or land ownership patterns. In regular cities, deformation usually occurs whilst still adhering in some manner to the basic conceptual order of the existing urban pattern but in different cardinal directions. In organic cities, deformation tends to occur during up-scaling of the urban pattern to relation to its ever-growing edges by introducing more geometrical order in the layout. There is street extension, whereby an existing street is extended in one of both directions. In regular cities, this tends to occur as a straight-on continuation in adherence to the conceptual order of the regular grid. In organic cities, this tends to occur as an open-angled continuation, which generates its distinctive deformed grid pattern. Street extension is also the primary tool for strip development in the growth of linear and crossroad settlements, especially during the early stages of community growth, of which Las Vegas is probably the most famous example. The most easily recognizable form of the essential urban dynamic is block size manipulation.
The dynamic nature of block size manipulation in our cities can be easily seen in a side-by-side figure ground representation (blocks in white, space in black) of Philadelphia yesterday and today. There are two remarkable yet seemingly contradictory things about this comparison. First, is the degree to which the original block scheme of Penn’s plan has changed, principally through a process of block subdivision and, second, is the degree to which the integrity of Penn’s original plan concept has endured despite hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small- and large-scale interventions over 330 years. Finally, there is discrete separation by linear segregation of streets. Street connections are either broken (as in American suburban sprawl through interruptus in extremis) or complicated (as in Middle Eastern cities by narrowing street widths to generate labyrinthine-like but still well-connected layouts) to isolate (usually residential) areas in the urban pattern.
These design methods can be found in the urban pattern of all cities. The spatial processes associated with formal design tend to converge on the ortho-radial grid model. This is a prime example of what Carvalho and Penn mean, saying “the impact of local controls on growth… is, at most, spatially localized… at a macro level, cities display a surprising degree of universality.” In fact, the essential variation across different types of cities appears the scale of street lengths and connections tied to their degree of geometrical articulation; longer, more connected and expansive in regular cities primarily using right angles whereas shorter, less connected, and more compact in organic cities using open and right angles. In the end, cities are not so complicated; rather, it is our theories that tend to complicate our understanding of them.
Based on excerpts from forthcoming The Syntax of City Space: American Urban Grids by Mark David Major.
“Thoughts meander like a restless wind, Inside a letter box, They stumble blindly, as they make their way,Across the universe.” — Across the Universe, The Beatles
Urban Patterns | The Center of Our Terrestrial Universe | Chanute, Kansas USA by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A
NOTE: Urban Patterns will focus on more obscure and/or extreme locations in a number of posts over the next few weeks.
According to the Mac version of Google Earth, the center of our terrestrial universe can be found in the City of Chanute of Neosho County, Kansas. When you open Google Earth on a Mac, allow the globe to stop spinning, then only zoom in on the Earth and you’ll eventually find yourself in Chanute, Kansas. Dan Webb, a software engineer for the Mac OS X version of Google Earth, programed the software this way; he explains his charmingly flippant reasons here. Incidentally, if you do the same on the Windows version of Google Earth (you know, fifteen minutes after the PC has started up and Windows has downloaded all of its updates), you’ll actually end up in Lawrence, Kansas. However, since Apple is infinitely superior to Windows, then the Mac version of Google Earth must be correct about our ‘terrestrial center’.
“Neosho” is a Native American word generally accepted to be of Osage derivation. It is translated variously as “water that has been made muddy”, “clear cold water” or “clear water”, the last being the most accepted. Chanute was formally founded in 1873. When the Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston Rail Road crossed the Missouri, Kansas and Texas state limits within Neosho County, four rival towns initially sprang up in the vicinity of the junction: New Chicago, Chicago Junction, Alliance, and Tioga. The four towns were consolidated in 1872 and the new town was named Chanute in honor of Octave Chanute, a railroad civil engineer. Chanute has a population of approximately 9,100 people (Source: Wikipedia). The urban pattern of Chanute is characterized by several typical – but still interesting – components of the American landscape. First, there is a predominant regular grid aligned to the cardinal directions, consistent with the method of land division established by the 1785 Land Ordinance in the United States; Second, this regular grid marginally shifts from perfect orthogonality. For example, West Main Street (the primary east-west route toward the top of the above image) marginally shifts northward along some distance before shifting southward again into alignment with East Main Street on the other side of the railroad tracks. Third, this regular grid has evolved over time around the railroad line passing through the center of Chanute in a southwest to northeast direction (from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Kansas City, Missouri). This generates a significant interruption to the orthogonal grid in the town, introducing differentiation from east-to-west by privileging those routes crossing the tracks to link both sides of town. Indeed, the interruptions (e.g. the railroad tracks, the large block to the south defining the Neosho Community College campus, and 215th Road/E. Elm Street angling into the regular grid from the east at the upper middle right of the above image) to the regular grid of Chanute characterize the town as much as the regular grid itself. Finally, the western edge of Chanute is defined by State Highway 169, which mirrors the Tulsa-to-Kansas City alignment of the railroad. However, this is not an interstate highway. Chanute is almost exactly at the center of a ring of interstates, more than a hundred miles in any direction to 35/335 to the north and west, 498 to the east, and 44 to the south. Because of this, and the fact that its population has remained relatively stable over the last 100 years (only variation of +/- 1,000), Chanute has maintained its small-town persona as an American farming community.
(Updated: July 3, 2017)
Urban Patterns is a series of posts from The Outlaw Urbanist presenting interesting examples of terrestrial patterns shaped by human intervention in the urban landscape over time.
Las Vegas is a source of fascination. It has been since the publication of Learning from Las Vegas in 1972. Some say Las Vegas is “the way you’d imagine heaven must look at night.” Norman Mailer describes the city thus; “the night before I left Las Vegas I walked out in the desert to look at the moon. There was a jeweled city on the horizon, spires rising in the night, but the jewels were diadems of electric and the spires were the neon of signs ten stories high.” Alistair Cooke observes, “Las Vegas is Everyman’s cut-rate Babylon… (there was) a roadside lunch counter and over it a sign proclaiming in three words that a Roman emperor’s orgy is now a democratic institution: Topless Pizza Lunch.” Cooke implies waitresses were serving pizza sans clothing but it could have meant the roadside lunch counter was serving its pizza lunch sans toppings, i.e. Margherita. Given Las Vegas’ reputation, it is probably wise to assume both options were on the menu. In any case, architects and urban planners have shared this fascination with the ‘Modern Babylon’ of Western civilization.
Learning from Las Vegas narrowed its arguments against the precepts of Modernism in favor of a new theoretical approach. The emergence of Post-Modernism as a distinctive architectural style overshadowed some of the most remarkable things in that book. This unsurprising since the point of examining the “phenomenon of architectural communication” where the “symbol in space (comes)
before form in space” in Las Vegas and, specifically the famous Strip, was to expand to the urban level a theory Robert Venturi had already outlined in 1966’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. The preoccupation with the semantics of architectural form in Post-Modernism – and its successor, Deconstructivism – took to heart what Learning from Las Vegas showed us to the exclusion of what was said. For example, there is an implicit acknowledgement of a spatial dimension to the pattern of urban functions in Las Vegas. Namely, “a set of intertwined activities that form a pattern on the land… the Las Vegas Strip is not a chaotic sprawl but a set of activities whose pattern, as with other cities, depends on the technology of movement and communication and the economic value of land.” The book also extensively uses plan representations such as figure-grounds to reveal crucial information about the functional structure of urban space in Las Vegas during the late 1960s.
This is a little remarked upon yet still remarkable concession, i.e. more than semantics is going on in Las Vegas. Albert Pope seizes on this concession in Ladders (1996) to argue the “urbanism of the Strip was itself structured on a relentless linear armature… in contrast to the original Las Vegas gridiron and the pedestrian ‘strip’ of Fremont Street, the organization of the upper strip was a discrete and reductive axis of development – a complete linear city.”
In hindsight, the flaw of Learning from Las Vegas is taking an urban object as a subject before its time. Las Vegas is more fascinating today than five decades ago because it represents a quintessential example of American development during the post-war period. We say this because the city is spatially transcendental. This means first, the city is characterized by congruent spatial networks occupying (grossly) the same point in space/time and second, these spatial networks exist a priori and emerge as a consequence to urban growth. By congruent, we mean coinciding at all points in terms of location since one is super-imposed over the other. The a priori conditions are a consequence of the pattern of land division imposed by the 1785 Land Ordinance. Using computer modeling such as the configurational software of space syntax, we can ‘peel’ these congruent spatial systems apart and examine their role in Las Vegas; much like peeling layers off an onion and examining the individual layers (we know together they form an onion). The results are fascinating. First, Las Vegas has a well-defined, center-to-edge spatial pattern, the focus of which is not the Las Vegas Strip (though it is partially in the core) but the historic area/Central Business District (CBD). Second, a congruent, large-scale orthogonal spatial pattern emerging from the pattern of land division over time characterizes Las Vegas. This orthogonal grid pattern did not exist in the early 20th century (though we can infer its outline from section lines) and only began to emerge during the 1950s and 1960s before fully manifesting in the late 20th century.
Urban form in Las Vegas has evolved over time to privilege the CBD/historic area so there is a micro-scale urban fabric that includes the historical diagonal routes from the CBD to the edges of the city in addition to this macro-scale orthogonal grid logic arising from the national grid system. We can demonstrate this by identifying all orthogonal routes aligned to cardinal directions arising from the pattern of land division. Some of these streets are long and highly connected (such as Charleston Boulevard). Others are not but all are evenly spaced apart in terms of metric distance arising from a historical process (subdivide the section, township, etc.) previously described by John Reps in The Making of Urban American/Cities of the American West. These streets represent the “strong prescriptive order” (using Pope’s terminology) of the national grid system as realized on the ground over time in the urban object. A portion of the ‘holistic’ Las Vegas super grid is composed of these large-scale orthogonal streets. This includes highly integrated routes such as Charleston Boulevard (east-west) and the southern segment of Las Vegas Boulevard (north-south).
However, this orthogonal logic is imperfectly realized. There are two reasons. First, the national grid system is a conceptual division of the land. The process Reps describes of section lines becoming main roads and so forth did not always occur for every tract of land. Second, the national grid system lays over the circumstance of the Earth. Bill Bryson succinctly summarizes the problem this causes for surveyors. “One problem with such a set-up is that a spherical planet does not lend itself to square corners. As you move near the poles, the closer the lines of longitude grow… (so) to get around this problem, longitudinal lines were adjusted every twenty-four miles… (which) explains why north-south streets… so often taken a mysterious jag” (136). This appears to be evident in diversions along the length of some north-south streets in Las Vegas. Peeling off this large-scale orthogonal street network reveals the underlying variation in the Las Vegas urban layout including a striking center-to-edge pattern formed by the historical diagonal routes and micro-scale street network. This shows how movement might utilize the urban grid, independently of the large-scale orthogonal streets.
The effect of the micro-scale street network is to privilege Las Vegas’ CBD/historical area. Configurational analysis using space syntax demonstrates this micro-scale street network is more closely related (significantly so) to the Las Vegas urban grid as a whole than the macro-scale network. This should be unsurprising. The crucial relationship for movement/urban functions in a city is center-to-edge. Edge-to-edge movement (for example, passing through Las Vegas in going from one city to another, i.e. Denver to Los Angeles) is nominally the function of the interstate highways. Instead, the macro-scale network operates as super-integrators since these streets are about six times more connected into the network compared to the average in Las Vegas.
The macro-scale network is reminiscent of a hierarchy imposed on the urban fabric by large-scale historic interventions: for example, Haussmann’s 19th century boulevards in Paris. However, there are key differences. First, the national grid system is an a priori conceptual order. Development allows this hierarchy to emerge during the growth of American cities. It is not a later remedial correction to the urban fabric. Second, it is distinct from the Las Vegas super grid. Some streets compose both but the most important are the diagonals of Las Vegas Boulevard, Main Street, Fremont Street, and Rancho Drive. If we removed the super grid in a similar experiment, then the urban fabric would disintegrate into discrete elements in the absence of these diagonals. Finally, there are highly segregated interstitial areas of the urban grid. These are suburban-type developments poorly connected into the urban grid except via the large-scale orthogonal streets defining their perimeters. We can describe this as discrete separation by linear segregation. Often, the only connection from neighborhood-to-neighborhood is via parallel curb cuts into separate developments (with at least one development somewhere having a minimum of two entry roads). This has nothing to do with inter-connectivity and everything to do with traffic management of vehicular turning actions.
This emergent hierarchy in Las Vegas and other cities characterized by post-war growth in the 20th century (such as Phoenix and Orlando) derives from modern transportation planning. Regulatory requirements mandate the design of roads including street width, stopping distance, frequency of curb cuts, turning radius, and so on based on traffic speeds/volumes projected to utilize the streets using origin and destination gravity models Local governments have adopted these standards into their development review regulations, having a profound impact on American urban form since the mid-twentieth century. Planning to ‘minimum requirements’ gives rise to a spatial hierarchy that becomes embedded in the urban pattern. Borrowing from Christopher Alexander, Las Vegas proves that, in part, a city can be a tree. It is a different question whether it makes good urban form.
Based on excerpts from forthcoming The Syntax of City Space: American Urban Grids by Mark David Major.
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