Chai Hour with the Uni Project

This past Saturday, I spent the afternoon in Jackson Heights with Sam and Leslie Davol, the husband-and-wife team behind The Uni Project, a pop-up, outdoor reading room that travels throughout NYC’s five boroughs.  It was my first volunteer event, and I didn’t know what to expect other than some children’s books and maybe some of the ethnic food offerings of Queens.

My expectations were blown away.  Turns out, The Uni has not one, but three of these custom-made, mobile bookcarts each with a thoughtfully curated collection of children’s books in a broad range of age levels, subjects, and languages.  My favorites were: Jennie’s Hat by Ezra Jack Keats, a beautifully illustrated and printed book from the 1960s; and a colorful Chinese book with elaborate pop-ups illustrating important events in Chinese history.  As Jackson Heights has large populations of Indian, Nepali, Bengali, and Latino residents, that day’s collection had a little bit of everything.


As for the ethnic diversity, Queens did not disappoint.  Coincidentally, that afternoon was Chai Hour on Diversity Plaza, an hour of free chai tea and yummy snacks from plaza vendors.  We had our fill of pakoras, kulfi popsicles, and halal sandwiches, all while catching the best of a religious (Sheikh?) parade across the plaza AND reading to the neighborhood kids.




uni_5A beautiful day for some community building!

Chai Hour with the Uni Project

The Social, Economic, and Ecological Balance of Community

 This series of essays explores the design and planning of American communities through the lens of the New Urbanism, a planning methodology developed in the late 1980s and formally proposed in 1993 with the founding of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and the adoption of its Charter.  Presented as a planning solution for the sprawling social, economic, and ecological failures of the Euclidian zoning of American suburbs, the New Urbanism reintroduces the tenets of traditional city planning such as diversity of uses, public space, and walkability while addressing modern-day realities such as the automobile and “big box” retailers.

Successful urban design achieves a triple bottom line–a balance between social, economic, and ecological forces¹.  Should the value of any one factor outweigh the others, humanity and the earth suffers the consequences.  Today, the swaths of isolated, poorly-constructed buildings in mono-functional zoning districts have created a sickly dependency on the automobile and have made us parasitical in our waste of resources.  These place-less cities stand as glaring evidence of not only our poor planning choices, but also of the social, economic, and ecological imbalance of our cities.

A place-less intersection that prioritizes the automobile by segregating commercial uses from residential.  Copyright, unknown.

Cities haven’t always been designed this way.  Before mono-functional zoning became entrenched in our planning policies, cities were walkable, were mixed-use, were sustainable.  These seemingly new buzz-words actually signal a revival of traditional city planning.  This movement, now formalized and known as the New Urbanism–including its subsets of Smart Growth, TOD, and TND–offers planning solutions that seek to rebalance our cities so that we may, once again, build community.  But what exactly is this New Urbanism?

Its principles are as follows²:

Neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population.

One New Urbanist trademark method of achieving diversity reintroduces one of history’s strongest solutions: a diversity of housing types.  Single-family residences are straight-forward enough; however, we have in our historic portfolio many types of multi-family residences.  Today, we think of multi-family residences typically as apartment houses of four to five stories, each with hundreds of units and maximized with every possible density and height bonus.  The New Urbanism reaches into our architectural repertoire to reintroduce the live/work spaces, duplexes, quadruplexes, townhouses, granny flats, and carriage houses to the housing stock–all of which bring a diversity of income-levels and age groups into the neighborhood.

Backyard guesthouses, sometimes called "granny flats," allow relatives to live closeby or can be sources of additional income for home owners while diversifying the neighborhood demographic.
Backyard guesthouses, sometimes called “granny flats,” allow relatives to live close by or can be sources of additional income for home owners while diversifying the neighborhood demographic. Copyright, LA Times.

Communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car.

Before the advent of the personal vehicle, we relied on the robust networks of transit systems to take us farther than our feet could.  When the automobile became ever-prevalent, we sacrificed our original forms of transportation, eradicating our transit lines to make more room for roads and highways.  It is time to reclaim our feet and our communal transportation.  The earth cannot keep sustaining our waste, and we cannot keep sacrificing our physical and mental health sitting alone in our cars.  The New Urbanism advocates not for the eradication of cars, but rather, for keeping the automobile in perspective.  Thus, multi-modal design, particularly walkability, is yet another signature feature of New Urbanist developments.

In 1945, Los Angeles's Pacific Electric Red Car public transit system had about 25 percent more track mileage than did New York City's subway system.  By 1961, the last Red Car made its final trip.
In 1945, Los Angeles’s Pacific Electric Red Car public transit system had about 25 percent more track mileage than did New York City’s subway system. By 1961, the last Red Car would make its final trip. Copyright, unknown.

Cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions.

Today, new development typically prioritizes private uses over public uses.  Although our planning policies often require that developers provide for open space, these spaces are still private property and cannot be substitutes for civic, communal spaces that can be used and enjoyed by all.  In order to create a true sense of community, municipalities must take the lead in planning and shaping public, civic spaces where all can truly commune.  Recognizing that shaping policy will shape design, the New Urbanism goes beyond simply preaching about design to actually writing zoning policies that can legally enact its tenets.  Miami 21, Miami’s new form-based zoning code, is a premier example of such policy application.

Expansive, private green space that does not foster neighborly encounters but rather, only wastes money and natural resources.
Isolated from any civic or public uses, the green does not foster neighborly encounters but rather wastes money and natural resources.  LPA, Inc.  Copyright, unknown.

Urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrates local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.

The unique history of every city should be reflected in its ultimate manifestation–that is, its architecture and landscape.  By celebrating the stories and regional differences that make each place special, the built environment can instill local pride in its residents.  Local materials, local building techniques, and local ecology should be emphasized in design practices in order to truly reflect the spirit of each community.  This often means, however, that truly traditional buildings, i.e., those of traditional design and construction, more honestly reflect the architectural language and heritage of a community than do experimental modernist creations.  That said, however, the New Urbanism is partial to neither traditional nor modernist architecture, and this is unfortunately a common misconception.

Aqua, Miami Beach, FL. View from the canal looking east.  DPZ & Co.  Copyright, Steven Brooke.
Aqua, a New Urbanist community in Miami Beach, Florida that celebrates modernist lines and forms.  DPZ & Co.  Copyright, Steven Brooke.

The New Urbanism, then, at least in principle, seems to be a triple-bottom line answer to restoring our cities.  Socially, it provides for public spaces anchored by civic uses along with walkable and connected street networks to allow for neighborly encounters.  Economically, it provides for a mix of uses and users along with convenient access to daily necessities and businesses in order to lessen personal financial burdens and support local commerce.  And ecologically, it seeks harmony and balance with our natural surroundings in order to celebrate local history and materials and to stay sustainable.

Now, to see how these principles have actually played out in practice!  First stop: Playa Vista, a neighborhood between Marina del Rey and Westchester in the ever-so-vast car mecca of Los Angeles, California.

¹An idea influenced by Peter Calthorpe’s essay, “The Region,” found in The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community by Peter Katz.

²From the preamble of the Charter of the New Urbanism, pages v – vi.

The Social, Economic, and Ecological Balance of Community

In Search of Community: A Fortnight’s Journey into the New Urbanism

This series of essays explores the design and planning of American communities through the lens of the New Urbanism, a planning methodology developed in the late 1980s and formally proposed in 1993 with the founding of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and the adoption of its Charter.  Presented as a planning solution for the sprawling social, economic, and ecological failures of the Euclidian zoning of American suburbs, the New Urbanism reintroduces the tenets of traditional city planning such as diversity of uses, public space, and walkability while addressing modern-day realities such as the automobile and “big box” retailers.

EDIT (07/13/15):  Apologies, but I’ve put this series on hold for a couple more months.  Just moved to New York City a few months back and still am unpacking!

I would like to acknowledge the great minds and kind people who offered me insight, guidance, and hospitality in my search for answers.  In Playa Vista: Vinayak Bharne, Michael Bohn, and Ed Varela. In Kentlands: Mike Watkins and his team; Marina Khoury; Caroline Heggen; Maria Gonzalez-Peterson and Donald Peterson; and Kate and Matt Hurson.  In Seaside: Robert, Daryl, and Micah Davis; Diane Dorney and the Seaside Institute; Michael Lykoudis; and Sadie Davis.  In general: City Fabrick, for the luxury of time; and Joseph Peterson, for the freedom to learn and fly.  Thank you all.

I am fascinated with the city as an organism–the symbol of human civilization and the synthesis of an infinite number of minds.  What I love most of all is the connection to other human beings that a healthy, functioning city provides.  This connectivity, this community, exists neither by wishful thinking nor by accident, but rather, by design.

I am fortunate that City Fabrick offers a two-week sabbatical period for its employees to study and reflect upon an urban topic that intrigues them.  For me, that topic has perpetually been Community.  As designers of the built environment, how do we build the sense of community?  How do we foster this casual trust between neighbors?  How do we create common goals and interests among an ever increasingly diverse demographic of strangers?

By design.  By carefully and thoughtfully planning for community, we can remedy the last half-century’s obliteration of our pride of place (literally speaking) and of our connection to one another.  Presently, the New Urbanism–including its subsets of Smart Growth, TND, and TOD–is the most comprehensive and relevant planning model for city planning.  But does the application of the New Urbanism, in fact, create Community?

To fully experience the sense of community so often associated with New Urbanist folklore, over the course of two weeks this past January, I traveled to and examined three of its poster children communities: Playa Vista, Kentlands, and Seaside.  These three communities stand out because their initial designs actually predate the New Urbanist movement, thus heralding and influencing its founding.  Each week, I’ll bring you a new chapter in my travels below.*


What are the tenets of the New Urbanism, and how does it propose to usher in an architecture of community?


A planned New Urbanist community until financial and legal troubles overcame its original development team.  Can its current developers maintain the vision?


The first year-round, New Urbanist suburban community.  Can the New Urbanism be successfully applied to suburbs?


The first full application of the New Urbanism–a vacation town in the ‘Redneck Riviera’.  Truman Show fake or Emerald Coast authentic?

Long Beach: From ‘Iowa by the Sea’ to ‘International City’

Coming full circle, what can the New Urbanism do, if anything, for Long Beach?

*This series does not reflect the views of any of the persons or entities mentioned or acknowledged herein.  It also does not purport to be a New Urbanist source or reference, but a personal study and analysis.  These words are my own reflections and thoughts, as supported by what information I could find and observe.  No one made me or paid me–alas, I’m just a nerd.

In Search of Community: A Fortnight’s Journey into the New Urbanism

Good Morning

I’ve been walking to work about once a week lately, which is worth mentioning since it’s a little farther than two miles.  Obviously, I haven’t been doing it for the time efficiency; rather, with my work having been so pedestrian focused as of late, I’ve adapted this form of transportation to more parts of my life in attempts to practice a bit of my preaching.  And, of course, it gives me the illusory feeling of being in a big city, one for which I’ve hungered since leaving Rome.  On this particular day, I had left the house later than usual, and as I came upon a certain intersection, I spied a somewhat familiar sight.

He was a white-haired gentleman likely in his eighties.  Wheelchair-bound, I could always count on him to be parked on the sidewalk in front of his apartment building, black leather jacket on despite all weather conditions and a cigarette hanging placidly out of the corner of his mouth.  I usually only saw him as I biked past at this hour and was secretly pleased to now be able to get a close-up look at one of the characters in my commute.

He had his back turned toward me as I walked up, and so as not to startle him, I passed in front of him before unleashing my excitement.

“Good morning!”

I had startled him anyway.  “Good morning,” he repeated, voice a little raspy.

And that’s all.  I smiled and continued on my way as he continued with his cigarette.  However, with the encouragement of that first greeting, in that two mile walk, I passed through six neighborhoods of vastly different demographics and exchanged 14 “Good Morning”s with a real sampling of the Long Beach community–with chatty crossing guards, busy gardeners, young folks and old.  No commitments had been made, no friendship offered, no privacy sacrificed–yet, basic human connections had been realized.  And it really made my morning.

It’s convenient to isolate oneself even when so close to strangers–to roll up our windows and pretend that we live in a box.  But if we’d each just reach out, just enough to acknowledge each other’s existence, we’d have everything to gain from it…even if it’s only a more enjoyable walk.  Go on, see for yourself.

(Helder Santana via Flickr)
(Helder Santana via Flickr)


Good Morning

Drought Fight

The drought: hot topic of the summer as its effects slowly make themselves felt.  For me, although we’ve tightened up our water usage for a while now, I’ve only begun to actually see the consequences as of late.

While camping in Cachuma Lake this past weekend, I climbed down into what seemed like a rock quarry before reaching the lakeside.  Two thirty-foot walls of white rock cascaded down on either side of me.  It was obviously not a designated hiking trail, and the “missing” water was blindingly apparent.

Cachuma Lake (PatsPics36 via Flickr)

Then today, at an outdoor meeting with the Health Department, the woman I met with pointed out the City’s new means of landscaping: mulch mounds.

“It’s a bit unsightly, but they aren’t watering the landscape anymore.  They’re basically letting everything under the mulch just die.”

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I didn’t understand the extent of the drought until now.  It hadn’t yet touched my little life here in Long Beach.  But here it is, staring at me with eyes of rock and mulch and asking, begging, for a fight.

You can report water waste here or call the Long Beach water waste hotline at 562.570.2455.  I’ve done this twice already, through email and phone, with ease and anonymity.

Drought Fight

Next Stop: Dream Job

This past month or so has been quite a blur:  I resigned from my first professional job, which brought an onslaught of emotion; and I also landed what I suspect might be my dream job–which has presented some fascinating reflections.

I’ve started a Designer position with City Fabrick, a nonprofit design studio that promotes all forms of urbanism within the Long Beach community.  We design, we advocate, we write, we advise–all in the name of creating a healthier, safer, and better quality of life.  The thought of my work here makes me giddy.

The overriding emotion, however, is one of commencement.  In just these past eight days, I’ve already participated in two meetings with city planning, met more than one dozen Long Beach community members, and have been charged with leading the studio’s effort on pedestrian planning.  I’ve also set my own schedule, made my own task lists, and given my opinion on matters both foreign and familiar.  The sudden freedom and trust has emboldened me, and I’ve been made adult.

Read more about my work with City Fabrick:


Next Stop: Dream Job

Restore Pershing Square!

Calling all Angelinos and Urbanists:  Sign this petition to help restore Pershing Square as our central park.  As I write this, only 234 more signatures are needed!

Prior to the 1950’s:  A Lush and Inviting People-space


After the 1950’s, including the 1990s redesign:  An Isolated, Concrete Desert


You can read more on KCRW’s Which Way, LA? blog and the Los Angeles Times website.

Restore Pershing Square!