The Great American Grid Debate
This debate was the most entertaining session I think I've ever attended at a CNU! Paul Knight, Kevin Klinkenberg, Bill Dennis, and Howard Blackson squared off roughly on Lincoln-Douglass debate format, but with tag teams instead of one-on-one. Paul and Kevin took the position that the gridiron layout of cities is a good thing; Bill and Howard took the counter position. Here are the tweets of the proceedings:
• Bill: Making lines straight, as 19th century urbanism has done, eliminates diversity of streetscape.
• Bill: Build an unrelenting grid, and say hasta la vista to interesting man-made vistas.
• Bill: Uniformity of street width and direction is gob-smackingly boring.
• Kevin Q: Mr. Dennis, why do you hate America so much?
• Bill: There is nothing particularly American about the gridiron pattern.
• Bill: A boring street is one where you can tell well in advance what a street is going to be up ahead.
• Bill: Geometric fascism is top-down planning that decides that all streets will be straight.
• Paul: Please leave the doors open; there's a lot of residual hot air from Mr. Dennis' presentation.
• Paul: The grid is inherently walkable and provides a good level of connectivity, depending on block size, of course.
• Paul: The grid is inherently navigable. Never ask for directions again if the streets are numbered.
• Paul: The grid behaves as a yardstick if you know the distance between streets… so you know how far you have to travel.
• Paul: The grid is economical to plat and survey, and it allows you to do the most with the least land.
• Paul: Orthogonal blocks are ideally suited to the orthogonality of our lives… look at how many things are built of rectangles.
• Paul: The grid is the best way to accommodate the greatest number of land uses in a given area.
• Paul: The grid is appendable. as long as you know the increments, you know exactly how to expand.
• Bill Q: What is the proper range of block sizes?
• Paul: Ideal blocks are 200' to 600' on a side, with a maximum perimeter of 1800'.
• Howard: The fact that I use the grid, but not nearly so successfully as Geoff Dyer illustrates the grid doesn't guarantee quality.
• Howard: The grid descends from the Law of the Indies that were used to subjugate the New World and the imperial expansion of the Romans before that.
• Paul Q: Howard, let's pretend that you are presidential material in 1785: how would you have divided the Louisiana Purchase?
Howard: I would have based American expansion on greatest common good rather than greatest initial $.
• Kevin: I'm here to set the record straight: urbanism is about sociability - life in public.
• Kevin: We should focus on techniques that enhance neighborly places. The grid is proven to encourage people to stroll.
• Kevin: The grid is inherently a democratic device. it was promoted in the spirit of Jefferson's desire for citizen farmers.
• Kevin: Bill and Howard are promoting plans that are aristocratic.
• Kevin: Grids are inherently affordable, less expensive on all fronts, and they don't require great architecture to succeed.
• Kevin: The most important element is block size, not street right-of-way.
• Bill Q: Kevin, how committed are you to mediocre and bad architecture?
• Kevin: I have great faith in the mediocrity in most of my architect colleagues!
• Paul: The grid isn't just used by greedy developers. William Penn used it to express the virtue of equality.
• Kevin: Most things that frustrate us about the built environment is not the grid, but the implementation of what's built.
• Kevin: The grid that Jefferson created is a uniquely American phenomenon, and the most walkable places are usually gridded.
• Howard: The grid wasn't about urbanism; it was about efficient land subdivision.
• Howard: I don't think the high point of America was 1787; I hope we're still moving toward it.
• Howard: Even in San Francisco, you get into the city because of the interruptions in the several grids.
I made the following comment in the subsequent Q&A: "New Urbanists love to design "cranky streets," but they're not getting it right. Most New Urbanist cranky streets crank by 6° to 15°, but those cranks look more like a right-angle turn when you're approaching from the distance. The cranky streets in the old towns that we appreciate most usually crank 0.5° to 1.5°… beautiful on the ground, but almost imperceptible on a plan. The problem is that we feel pressure to design sexy plans. We need to detach ourselves from the romance of the plan, and care about the romance of the place."
The Western Grid, Applications for the Future
Howard and Kevin next joined joined Christopher Duerksen and Matt Lambert (moderated by Lee Sobel) for a more scholarly discussion of the grid. Mr. Duerksen, an attorney, was expert on issues of solar access, while the other three panelists fell firmly on the side of great streetscapes first.
I'm worried that this might grow into a bigger issue, and while I'm sympathetic to solar power, it should not be the trump card. Gizmos alone are not the solution, as any reader of this blog has read many times. There are two problems with oppressive solar access:
• The images Mr. Duerksen showed of places built to rigorous solar access standards look dreadful. All the buildings lined up like soldiers with photovoltaic roof acne. This is unacceptable. When there are solar panels or photovoltaics, they must be designed with the rest of the building to be lovable.
• Cutting down street trees for solar access in a warm climate means people simply won't walk. And when people don't get out, they don't get conditioned to the local environment and start living in season. Nothing we can do has a bigger impact than creating great outdoor public and private realms that entice people outdoors because when they get conditioned, they can leave the equipment off for much of the year when they return indoors. There is no piece of equipment so efficient as that which is off.
2013 Charter Awards
Kudos to Doug Farr and the members of the jury who revitalized the Charter Awards this year. Everything from the way the jury dressed at the awards ceremony (black & top hats) to the multimedia presentation of the projects to the re-branding of the awards (Global Award for Excellence in Urban Design) this definitely didn't feel like last year. And because they're serious about the "global" part, look for future awards that expand horizons of what New Urbanism is as far-flung projects with radically different regional conditions, climate, and culture find different ways of building sustainably.
Emily Talen was honored at the end of the Charter Awards ceremony for her herculean effort in putting together the totally-revamped Charter, which was the work of 62 authors. I'm honored to be one of them. Yes, the Original Green is now in the Charter!
The Peery Hotel
Andrés Duany reserved the entire Peery Hotel, not just as a place for colleagues to stay, but as a place to discuss and debate the latest issues. The problem with the official Congress is that it has to be set up almost a year beforehand to get all the speakers and continuing education credit lined up. So it's impossible that the latest ideas can be discussed at the Congress. The public spaces of the Peery (the bar, the restaurant, and the meeting room) are being used each evening after official Congress events are wrapped up to solve this problem by providing a marketplace of idea-swapping between anyone who stops by.
I presented the latest version of Walk Appeal at the Peery hotel. I followed a presentation by Rick Hall on transportation issues which in turn followed a raucous presentation by Dan Slone. Andrés Duany turned Dan's presentation into a debate across half a room, with lots of good-natured shouting and gesticulation.
Chuck Marohn set up a series of debates on behalf of NextGen that was completely hilarious. But the levity did a curious thing: because the scene was indiscernible from a comedy club show, it allowed exploration of subject matter not so often discussed amongst New Urbanists… because they just might be kidding. This is of great value, and the format should definitely be used long into the future.
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Great updates, Steve, thanks!