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.

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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.

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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.*


THE SOCIAL, ECONOMIC, AND ECOLOGICAL BALANCE OF COMMUNITY

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

Playa Vista: LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

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

Kentlands: GAITHERSBURG, MARYLAND

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

Seaside: SANTA ROSA BEACH, FLORIDA

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

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:

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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

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

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

Restore Pershing Square!

Home, Sweet Home

Well, it has been about a year since I’ve taken my writing (typing) pen out.  I am married now, and my last name is officially not Tran anymore, but I think I’ll keep it like that on here for a while longer.  Maybe.

The last ten (?) or so months have been quite full–full of love, full of life, full of new and old joys.  I’m not sure where I was in the planning of this the last time I wrote, but last September, I decided to move out of my mom’s house and into my first place of my own.  I chose downtown Long Beach, somewhere between 8 and 10 minutes walking from my office, upstairs from a coffee shop in a former naval hotel.  Not a bad kind of life, I’ll tell you, walking a few minutes to and from home to get everywhere you need to be.  It was my way of liberating myself from the stink of suburban Southern California, and though it lasted only six months’ time, I cherished every day of my little European life.

In thinking about a place of my own, I began to think of the meaning of “home.”  Yes, it is sweet, and yes, it is where the heart lies.  But why is that?  What is it exactly about a place that causes us to bestow such affections upon it?

I began this train of thought a couple of weeks ago.  My husband and I had just moved into our first apartment after our nuptials and were in the midst of unpacking.  Although no longer walking distance from work, I had moved only a couple miles to east Long Beach.  He had gone somewhere on that Saturday morning, and as it was the first weekend in months that was devoid of any wedding business, I made some coffee and peeked out upon our new world.

Long Beach, California.  What do I love about it?

The people here share.

Share the streets, share the parks, share the public realm.  After having lived here for almost a year, I can now easily pick out the Long Beach visitors from the residents.  When driving, for example, the visitors feel uncomfortable and especially angry at having to weave around the bus, bike, and pedestrian who are all somehow taking up the right-most lane of traffic.  The residents, however, just make their way around the obstacles, even using the center turning lane to make it work.  Living gets tight sometimes, but Long Beach residents are space efficient like that.  Congestion in this form, “is often a symptom of success” (John Norquist, CNU).

Long Beach Sharrows (San Clemente Patch)
Long Beach Sharrows (San Clemente Patch)

The city has “good bones.”

In a lunch conversation on my very first day of work, I remember asking my colleague why he thought that Long Beach was such a vibrant city.  He responded in architectural lingo, saying, “Long Beach just has good bones.”  That is, unlike many newly developed cities and towns, Long Beach has a true city street grid, with blocks that are small enough to promote walking and other forms of urban life.  This gives future development, and re-development, a much-needed foundation on which to build.

Say that the average person takes twenty minutes to walk one mile or 5,280 feet.  If your city block is only 300 feet square, think of how many directions and places a person can go in those twenty minutes.  Think of how many types of buildings and uses can have street frontage.  But if your city block is 5,280 feet square…it’s pretty likely that for the next twenty minutes, a pedestrian is limited to that single direction in which he or she started.  And it’s pretty likely that the buildings and uses are farther and fewer.

“…Summertime, and the livin’s easy”

Sublime isn’t the only one who has said that life in Long Beach is “easy”–my boss, who has lived here since the 1980s, also told me this one day.  “I really like Long Beach.  It’s just…easy.  It’s got everything you need, all in one place…even an airport.”

And so I’ve discovered for myself.  There’s more art, music, and food–and life–here than I know what to do with.

Home, Sweet Home

Where do people tend to sit most?

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/82618859]

Every other Friday afternoon, my studio has (or tries to squeeze in) something called our “Friday presentation,” an hour reserved for learning where a coworker usually presents a current project or something of general architectural interest.  This was my first time attending a Friday presentation, and as there was no presenter this particular week, we watched a documentary instead.

It was titled The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, a 1980s documentary by William “Holly” Whyte that had originally accompanied his book by the same title.  To explain how I felt while watching the documentary wouldn’t capture enough of my interest and excitement.

Whyte covers the basic ingredients of successful urban spaces–seating, sun, and water to name a few–in a study of New York City’s different plazas.  Although the people studied are obviously of a different era given their fashion styles, their behavior–their very human behavior–described in Whyte’s witty and informative manner remains absolutely contemporary.  I was both surprised and amused by the simple brilliance of one of Whyte’s findings:

“People tend to sit most where there are places to sit.”

Ha!  Talk about anticlimactic.  But yet, so true!

For example, take downtown Long Beach, California.  During my lunch hour, I will often go outside to find a place to relax and enjoy my break.  A hard task, and this isn’t even a suburb.  I might just write a separate blog about my findings (or lack thereof!)  In general however, I have found that while the nearby Promenade and parks do have some scattered seating, they’re rather lacking in “sit appeal.”  Of the ones I did find, many are too small or narrow to sit on without extra efforts.  One park I tried was completely shaded by its adjoining office building and felt very damp, mossy, and much too cold.  Some benches were hardly deep enough to actually fully sit on, and at striking height of 5′-1 3/4″, I’m hardly long-legged.  The point is, a successful plaza will offer a variety of seating choices, all of which should appeal to the average person.  Oftentimes, I think, designers of places and objects of such importance do not sincerely design for people, but rather for aesthetic appeal that achieves a look or trend of the moment.  I can tell you, however, that sitting on a piece of art has yet to allow me to enjoy my lunch in comfort!

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is thus a true eye-opener, giving viewers insightful perspective on every-day places we often don’t think twice about.  It is the second inspiration for this blog.  View the online video above!

A copy of the text can be found here.

Where do people tend to sit most?

Better than my morning coffee

Last Thursday, my architecture firm had invited a guest speaker to present his work to us at the wee hour of 9 am.  I by opportunity had walked by the seminar room early and so had peeked in to see what all the set-up was about.  Learning that it had something to do with urbanism and public spaces, I dipped out of my desk area and into an hour of pure inspiration.

I remember inhaling with absolute delight when our guest speaker began his talk.  What serendipity!  The speaker was Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a nonprofit planning organization that works with a community’s own people to revitalize and re-urbanize neighborhood centers all over the world.  Their mission is to help people create public spaces that give back to their communities and that bring value and local pride to its members.

To PPS, “…Placemaking is a catalyst for building healthy, sustainable and economically viable cities of the future.”  I listened with both my ears and hands, scribbling away as Kent described PPS’s “Placemaking” approach to programming these spaces.  I found their concept of the Power of 10 most exciting: in any city, first find ten destinations that people go to or ten reasons to be there (e.g., cultural museum); near each destination, identify ten places to go to (e.g., coffee shop, movies, bookstore); then at each place, identify ten things to do there (e.g. have a conversation, meet a friend, buy a lotto ticket).  If the quota is lacking, then program more of the necessary ingredient.  The idea here is that a great place to be should be brimming with activities of all kinds, for all kinds of people.

I could feel purpose in my step as I left the room.  I felt invigorated to hear about a group of people so dedicated to improving the quality of life through the same means as mine, and I returned to my work with a different sort of energy boost.  That morning’s event was the first inspiration for this blog.  Read my studio’s PPS blog here!

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Better than my morning coffee