Three New Approaches To Making Urban Spaces More Accommodating
March 5, 2006
Commentary By PHILIP LANGDON
If some modern-day Rip Van Winkle were
to awaken this morning from a 20-year sleep, he'd notice that Americans
are not building cities and suburbs quite the way we used to. The
goals and character of development are changing substantially -
in the most progressive communities, if not everywhere.
Three examples illustrate what's going
on. First is the rapid spread of the "live-work" unit.
Throughout the United States, adept developers have begun to abandon
the idea that workplaces and living quarters must be two distant
realms. In Connecticut, the trend toward bringing work and home
close together can be seen in two of the state's most ambitious
real estate developments: the town center planned in Storrs and
the transformation of the former Gilbert & Bennett wire mill
complex in the Georgetown section of Redding.
The $300 million Georgetown project,
which gets under way this spring, will convert a 55-acre factory
site into a collection of housing, stores, offices, recreational
and cultural attractions, and space for "functional artisans"
(such as woodworkers). Most of the 416 housing units are envisioned
as potential live-work units.
They will come in two principal forms:
townhouses whose ground floors can be used for business purposes,
and "lofts" where residents can combine living and working.
In Storrs, the town center planned by the Mansfield Downtown Partnership
and developer Leyland Alliance is expected eventually to have townhouses
where residents can operate offices or shops on the ground floor
and have living quarters above.
Why not? From 1990 to 2000, the number
of Americans who work at home full-time grew 23 percent, to more
than 4 million. The number working at home part time has risen to
20 million. Combine the effects of corporate outsourcing, changing
career paths and the yearning of many people to be their own boss,
add in a growing desire for nearby amenities such as restaurants,
cafes and health clubs, and the result is a growing market for mixed-use
Living above the workplace had been
common in the United States up to the 1940s, but in the postwar
decades it became a rarity. As automobiles proliferated and Americans
became wealthier, they saw less reason to live above a shop.
Many municipal zoning codes prohibited
the mixing of residential and business activities. But today the
possibility of being able to go between home and work without spending
time on the road is regaining its appeal. In Redding, says Georgetown
developer Steve Soler, 25 percent of the town is self-employed,
and some of those people are looking for a place where they can
both live and work - and walk to coffee shops, restaurants and other
conveniences. The secluded, single-purpose subdivision is looking
A second example of how development
is changing is the emergence of the "liner building."
This is a building designed to make parking garages practically
disappear. Almost every dense town center or downtown needs parking
garages. The problem is, they're usually big and dull. Inserting
shops into part of the ground level makes them less dull, but still,
the upper floors remain uninteresting, and sometimes the shops shoehorned
into the ground floor don't prosper.
Consequently, architects have come
up with the idea of placing fairly shallow buildings - usually 30
to 40 feet deep - along the perimeter of the garage. These liner
buildings sometimes have stores or restaurants at ground level.
Apartments or offices fill the upper floors.
In Hartford, a recent example is Trumbull
Centre, across from Bushnell Park. Architects Herbert S. Newman
& Partners of New Haven designed Trumbull Centre as an L-shaped
building containing retail and restaurant spaces at street level
and seven to eight stories of apartments above - an attractive brick
structure that effectively hides two sides of a seven-story, 600-car
In the past five years, liner buildings
have gone from almost unheard of to almost commonplace in new town
centers and downtown projects. For the Storrs center, the Newman
firm is looking at designs of townhouses or other units that would
wrap parking garages. The liner building, Herbert Newman says, is
a sign of the growing demand for urbanity and pedestrian-oriented
The third example of how communities
are evolving is the "form-based code." This may seem a
difficult term at first, but the idea is fairly simple. Let me explain
it this way: The vast majority of municipalities have zoning codes,
which typically stipulate that residential uses will be in certain
parts of town, office uses will be in other parts, manufacturing
uses will be in still others, and so on. For decades the assumption
has been that if a municipality rigorously separates the various
uses, conflicts over noise, smells, traffic and other annoyances
would be reduced.
Despite the codes, or perhaps because
of them, communities ended up with ugly roadside retail strips and
soul-deadening office parks- single-purpose places with little human
interest. After half a century of these disappointments, it became
obvious that a different kind of code was needed, one that would
organize buildings into engaging groupings - more like Main Street
and less like the strip.
Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth
Plater-Zyberk responded by devising a form-based code - a code that
emphasizes the forms, shapes and placement of buildings. Their SmartCode
- one of a number of form-based codes being enacted around the nation
- often requires buildings in dense settings such as town centers
to come close to the sidewalks and to rise high enough to give people
the feeling that the street is like an "outdoor room,"
with the walls of the buildings acting as the room's walls.
These codes often require buildings
in a town center or downtown to have windows, awnings or other features
that add comfort and interest for pedestrians on the sidewalks.
The SmartCode and other form-based codes shape the denser parts
of communities to accommodate and encourage public life.
In the past three years, these
codes have been adopted by municipalities in New York, California
and Florida, and even in Alabama and Mississippi. Closer to home,
a form-based code is under discussion in Simsbury. Sooner or later
the new codes will arrive in Connecticut, just as live-work units
and liner buildings are arriving. Town and city life is about to
get a boost.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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