Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity

A conversation about the geometry of nowhere

In response to my previous article, Bruce Liedstrand of Community Design Strategies in Paris writes,

I read with interest your essay on The Geometry of Nowhere because I divide my time between Paris and Silicon Valley (the site of your Cupertino Target store example). After re-reading the essay, I am puzzled. I hear your frustration with narrow sidewalks, but I am lost in understanding your concept of “place”.

My experience has been that a “place” is created by spatial enclosure, the use of adjacent buildings to enclose and shape the space into a comfortable "place”.  Paris is strong on spatial enclosure. To me it seems almost as if Paris started as a solid mass and that the boulevards were carved out of the mass by broad blades and the narrower streets (“rues”) by finer blades. Wherever I am in Paris I feel comfortably inside a good place.

Your essay seems to indicate that “place” exists without any enclosure by buildings. That, indeed, it can exist on the outside edge of buildings rather than inside a group of buildings. Is that what you intend?

I am puzzled also by your discussion of the Cupertino Target store, which I have personally visited. (Ed note: What are the odds?) When I look at your illustration of your changes, I don’t see any “place”. What I see new is open spaces outside buildings from which cars have apparently been excluded. Do you intend to say that exclusion of cars is the key to converting undifferentiated open space into a good “place”? What is it about these new open spaces around the store that would make them comfortable for people to linger in?

Perhaps I am reading your essay wrong? Can you please point me in the right direction?

Thanks.

Enclosure creates a room, but it's not sufficient to create a place. You can see this in Paris, where some of the best places in the city are not enclosed, for example along the Seine, or the Luxembourg garden. And the most enclosed places, like Place Vendôme, are not very interesting.

To get a good understanding of the relative impact of enclosure and open space on place, all we have to do is take a long walk along the axe historique. Start at Place de la Concorde, which was about 50% sidewalk 50% free space when it was created and is not enclosed. All the free space was converted to road and now it is perilous to get across, but still a place. Walk down to Rond-Point de l'Élysée through a wood with substantial open space to walk across. I don't know if that counts as enclosure, but it's a good place. Then you have the model of place, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées with its straight-aligned buildings, that is also a place with 50% sidewalk and 50% road. And it is a major road, 10 lanes of traffic, but that doesn't really interfere with it as a place because there is little reason to cross the road, and it can be done in two steps thanks to traffic islands.

Once you're up the hill and you go across the monster Place de l'Étoile (horrible place, all cars driving maniacally so that pedestrians have to cross in underground passages), you end up on Avenue de la Grande Armée, which is morphologically identical to the previous avenue except that some of its space is taken by parking lots. That means the ratio of sidewalk to road is much less than 50/50. It's also much less crowded and much less attractive than the previous avenue, but it still works.

After you get across Porte Maillot to Avenue Charles de Gaulle in Neuilly, then you find the same buildings with the same alignments and the same enclosure as the two previous avenues, except this time the space has been traffic-engineered to hell, combined with speed cameras to dissuade speeding. What space there was on Grande Armée has been cut even further, and the result is a dead street on what is a major business center of the city.

Finally cross the bridge and climb your way up to the Parvis de La Défense, where you will find that the buildings are modern and completely random, but the space is fully open to people and always full of people. (Even on Sundays!) I interviewed the master planner for the northern expansion, and he said the developer of La Défense did not agree to build the 25m wide pedestrian bridge he had designed to connect the site to the main place. After their small "passerelle" failed they backed down and built the full bridge, and it works, always full of people.

So there you have it, the closest thing to a controlled experiment on place and enclosure. Enclosure turns out to be irrelevant.

Have a nice walk.

Do you really find La Defense a pleasant place?  For me, it is utterly placeless - one of the worst locations in Paris?

If you have extra time on a pleasant afternoon, would you really rather spend it sitting in the open space of La Defense than in my neighborhood park?

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La Défense is a business place, and it works at what it is. But compared to Avenue Charles de Gaulle, which is another business place, and which has the same architecture and alignments as the rest of Paris, it is a much better place.

Can you say this is not a good place?

Look at all the people. They're not locked up in their offices. The neighborhood is set up so you can go straight to your office to the metro using tunnels, but when I was there I always preferred taking a detour on the surface. Take my word for it, people even go there on the weekends to teach their kids how to ride bikes and roller-skate. They don't care that the buildings aren't aligned.

What I am asking with my article is how can we reduce and remove sprawl without going through an expensive process of total demolition for which we won't have the money anymore? We don't have the choice of your small neighborhood park. A place and a park are very different things anyway. Cities existed for centuries without parks, but never without place. If we reintroduce place in sprawl cities, that means shops that rely on place to survive don't have to open up in the mall anymore, they can do business anywhere because the entire city is a mall (one of the first things I realized about Paris). Then your city starts to grow around place instead of around roads, and people have a reason to linger.

Yes, for me it is not at all a good place in the photo or in personal experience.  People are dwarfed by the size of the space (in the photo, the space is almost empty) and it is not comfortable.  One can look at the buildings as perhaps interesting objects, depending on one's taste, but it certainly is not a place I would linger in or return to regularly if I didn't work there.Let's accept that we disagree, vigorously, about whether La Defense is a good place.  But what, in your view, makes a good place.  So far I hear you favor an absence of cars and openness?  Is that right?  Is that all, or can you tell me more?

And what would be good about your redesigned Target store?

I didn't redesign the Target store, I left it there as a necessity of the context, and the people at La Défense aren't looking at the buildings. They're a necessary part of the décor, but they're not the reason people use the place, or any place.La Défense became a success, despite everyone's intent, because economic conditions forced the developers to break the master plan and allow any random building to be built. Had they not done so it would be exactly like Empire State Plaza in Albany. The difference between the two is not architectural, it is socio-economic.

You do not need to remove cars to make a good place, you only need to remove the exclusivity for cars. What makes a good place is total freedom of movement for everyone, including the freedom to stop and linger. You can't do that in traffic engineered space because you are confined between very narrow limits. They tell you how fast to go, when to stop, where to turn, it's a nightmare, but one that we put up with to go fast.

Is an empty space out in the desert a good place because everyone can move freely?  Or are you talking about places within cities?  Is it just traffic engineered spaces that you reject?  Are you advocating a Hans Monderman approach to streets?  Are you rebelling against "confinement", or is some broader principle involved?

I agree that the Empire State Plaza in Albany is a terrible place.  Are you saying that the only problem with it is that, unlike La Defense, the buildings are not place at random?  What do you mean by saying that the difference is "social-economic"?

Could you please write in one paragraph what you believe are the key factors in creating a good place within a city so I can understand where we might agree or disagree?

Deserts can make a good place, although there is not much desert urbanization. (Desert driving is a lot of fun nevertheless.) Open space alone does not make a place, you also need people there, and the reason that people go through any place is to participate in and generate social and economic networks. This was not done at Empire State Plaza but was done at La Défense.

The issue is at core about freedom. How much freedom of movement do I enjoy, how much freedom to grow and build do I enjoy? In a place you can walk anywhere and build anything anywhere, or just occupy the space to conduct some activity like playing hockey or learning to ride a bike. That creates networks and attracts people. In sprawl the entire space is traffic engineered. To move around you are practically on a conveyor belt, offered only a linear path, delimited speed and a select few choices. You can't build anything because of the zoning. The choices available to you have been selected by the traffic engineers and the planners, and they only fit  their model of what they want you to do. There is no creativity possible to invent your own journey. A famous game designer once said "a game is a series of interesting choices." What kind of choices does sprawl offer?

The one place in sprawl where people are given a shred of creativity is the mall, and that's how people who live in sprawl spend their free time. You can go there and just hang out, inventing an activity from nothing. It's all the place they have left.

Comments

I tend to agree with Bruce. You can't create a place by simply removing everything. People will not automatically populate open space. La Défense works because it is in Paris, a dense city with existing social networks, but those results are not reproducible in low-density American suburbs. Replacing parking with pavers at a Target will not entice people to stroll around.

"You do not need to remove cars to make a good place, you only need to remove the exclusivity for cars." I would argue that parking lots fit this definition very well. They are for both cars and people. I learned how to ride a bike in a parking lot. I used to play roller hockey in parking lots. But that doesn't make them places. In fact, the existence and uniform badness of parking lots seems to disprove your point entirely.

I am sympathetic to your idea that places are better when people are allowed to act freely in building and moving. But I disagree with your description of "place," and I certainly disagree with your diatribe against sidewalks. I, for one, have no desire to walk down the middle of the street.

Why would you want to entice people to stroll around? People should be able to do what they want. People don't stroll around at La Défense, they go about their business or they hang out. The dense networks of La Défense are internal networks, people moving around within the neighborhood. The presence of Paris has nothing to do with it. The fact that they can do that is exceptional for Paris' endless first ring urban departments. Nothing is expected of them. There's room to move however you like.

This doesn't exist in a parking lot, where the ground is marked and sliced up into pre-defined parking spaces, and the lot is separated from the rest of the city by a grass berm with only a few small entrances. And for walking in the street, would you really prefer to walk single-file on a sidewalk if the whole street was safe?

Place is much bigger than what's around the Target store. It has to exist from anything to anything in the city, connecting them so it is possible to move around freely. The place I designed in my example is not "around" the Target store. It is between the different buildings and it connects them.

Before traffic engineering no one thought of enticing people to stroll around or play in the street. It was just understood that you could do that there, and people used the space to do it amongst the many different things they could do.

If you approach urbanism from the perspective of creating certain behaviors or certain patterns, you are no different than the dogmatic planners who followed Le Corbusier's prescriptions. You only want to engineer a different style of controlled behavior. The result of this for an increasing number of New Urbanist developments is that the neighborhoods are deserted of people.

"If you approach urbanism from the perspective of creating certain behaviors or certain patterns, you are no different than the dogmatic planners who followed Le Corbusier’s prescriptions." I agree with you. But I also firmly believe that large amounts of open space unactivated by people are dangerous and hostile for the reasons described by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. So I do not think that providing the same amount of "place" around a Target in suburban California will produce results as amiable as La Défense. There simply aren't enough robust networks of people around.

Of course, the reason I don't believe such places will ever be activated enough to be safe is that most people will continue to drive around in their cars. And even if we were to convert the entire public right-of-way to free-form place, most people would continue to drive in cars. If you want an example of this, consider Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where there are far, far more pedestrians than cars, far fewer instances of any sort of traffic engineering, and almost no traffic laws. However, pedestrian life is utterly miserable, because the presence of cars is overwhelming.

There are many places in the world without traffic engineering. Consider the quality of pedestrian life they have.

If the whole street were safe, I would probably still walk on the sidewalk because they are safe, comfortable, wide enough to walk two abreast, and free from the occasional oncoming car. I like sidewalks, and I find them useful to urban life.

I did not propose to remove sidewalks. In the pictures I showed of places in the 19th and 18th century buildings all had sidewalks. The difference was that their purpose was not to carry pedestrian traffic, which is what they are meant to do today, but simply to act as a boundary between private and public space.

I can't speak for Ethiopia because I have never been there, however from your description it sounds as if place is overcrowded, implying that there is not enough of it. It is the very opposite of the luxurious open spaces in the pictures I showed. That is not a problem with any of our modern sprawl cities. In fact crowds are what most place-oriented enterprises like shopping malls attempt to create.

Of course there will not be a lot of pedestrians moving through Target place in Cupertino right away because, as you understand, there are not many networks that have been created based on this possibility. It took time for La Défense to form its internal networks as well. But any city that begins its growth has very little traffic despite the fact that the network structures are already in place, and how are pedestrian networks to form if there is no pedestrian space? Place has to come before people, and people fill up a place with their creativity. This is how all traditional cities were built.

"Place has to come before people, and people fill up a place with their creativity. This is how all traditional cities were built."

I think that before developers began developing, places were created by the people that built them as they needed them. Now, developers create generic places that will appeal to a safe (as in guaranteed) population.

The reason that sprawl is so unappealing is not due to the lack of space, or even place. The issue with sprawl is that spaces are well defined and meant to be permanent. The affluence of sprawl demands this high level of definition. There are no vacant lots or unkept yards.

Yet the affluence is an illusion. Though the spaces are clean, maintained and landscaped, they are (with many exceptions) standardized. One landscape firms tends to a whole neighborhood of lawns. The traffic engineering handbook defines every road and parking lot in the country. Sprawl doesn't lack canvass, it's just all been painted with the same picture.

Sprawl is terrible because it shuns creativity in favor of conformity. Better to have something that looks nice than have something different.

This, of course, brings us back to the problem of the suburban Target. It can never become a place because Target will never let it. Places are special and Target has a brand to manage.

The way that corporate structures are set up, it would mean that a non-user of a space (the Target overlords) would have the final say over the space around it. The employees of that particular Target--even the management--couldn't decide to paint a mural, or allow for public art displays.

Our built and social environments are indeed intertwined.

"The employees of that particular Target–even the management–couldn’t decide to paint a mural, or allow for public art displays."

Why not? Any claims that suburban superstores can't change are negated by my personal experience. I live in Manhattan, a 10-minute walk from a Home Depot which has none of the usual suburban amenities- standalone building, enormous parking lot. It is built inside a large building and looks nothing like your typical suburban Home Depot. Superstores can, and do, evolve, according to conditions. The problem is, outside of Manhattan the typical dumb parking requirements and other zoning laws force conformity and car-dependence.

I see Mathieu's point about "place" intuitively and don't understand what there is to disagree about. To see some recent conversions from a "dead zone" to "place" take a look at some new projects done by the NYC Dept. of Transportation.

"The problem is, outside of Manhattan the typical dumb parking requirements and other zoning laws force conformity and car-dependence."

Boris, I must disagree. As an employee of an architecture firm that designs all new branches for a certain bank, I know that the suburban form of big bow stores and other buildings is not decided by local regulations, but is in fact generally what the store owner wants. The owner wants the lowest-common denominator, and the owner wants a very ordinary store.

Much more likely is that the Home Depot in Manhattan is a response to strong local regulations and very high land cost, and that Home Depot made an exception for the sake of having a store in Manhattan. But you won't magically have better form by removing regulations. You may have smaller parking lots and less landscaping, but otherwise you'll still have buildings, floating in parking lots, in shopping centers. The market has decided the form, and the form has bowed to commercial demands for big signs, easy auto access, and low overhead.

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