“Bigger is better”, “Keeping up with the Jones’”, “Rollin’ ’round in my Escalade”. While they may not be the idioms America was founded on, they are the ones it lives by today, until recently. With the rise of the Green Movement, and the increase in consciousness in both government and society, the state of our country – and our planet – has forced us to really take a look at what The American Dream means to us now.
In an article by Co. Design, a city planner and urban designer from Perkins+Will, an interdisciplinary firm encompassing design, sustainability, and social innovation with offices all over the United States and internationally, discuss the problems many US cities are facing in competition with the sprawling suburban lifestyle we’ve created, contributing to increased commutes, stress levels and waistlines. Much like the effort being made here, in downtown Phoenix, the pair discuss possible solutions, as well as the key factors that make an urban metropolis truly livable: walkability, flexibility, and concise solutions to city planning.
Most urban planners in the past have found solutions to specific problems: “We want shorter commutes”, “We want less crime”, “We want more commercial traffic”. While this method has been able to solve some of these problems, it has also created quite a few in the process. Instead, Anthony Lyons and David Green ask “What kind of city do we want this to be?” It sounds painfully simple, but by painting a picture of what kind of result they want to create, it better identifies where problems lie and the simpler ways to solve them. After commissioning a project in Gainsville, Florida, the pair set out asking that very question to revive the downtown area. Since Gainsville is not the only city to be struggling with underutilization, the duo compared aspects of successful urban sites like New York City and Portland, OR to struggling cities all over the country. What makes Manhattan so feasible? Walkability. The key to keeping a city walkable? Small blocks.
Think about it.
It is so much more enjoyable to walk short blocks. There is a sense of accomplishment in passing block after block when we’re walking down a street. We feel like we see more, and experience more. It’s almost as if we are moving faster than what we might “expect” through a big city. It is more about perception than reality. The trouble is, current land development regulations that have dictated what a city block should look like increase the sprawl with their “huge parking requirements, large setbacks, and unnecessary buffers”. It’s always that damn red tape! So how do we deliver these requirements, maintain social and economic responsibility, and build for the future all at once? We have to stay flexible.
By creating spaces that can be easily repurposed over time, the idea is more conducive to the demands of changing social structure. How do we create entire cities to be infinitely flexible? It’s simple: keep it simple. Identify the very basics of what a community needs, such as emergency response resources, and then design and build the rest to support changing conditions. The idea is develop to redevelop. Cultivate and idea that fits the needs of society today that will also fit the needs (whatever they will be) of society fifty years from now, one hundred years from now. Knowing change is inevitable while not wasting time trying to figure out what those changes will be. By planning with no preconceived notions, it makes answering the big questions easier. It fosters coming up with rational solutions through creative measures result in artistic implementation.
So what kind of city do we want Phoenix to be? What kind of downtown do we want? As Urbanites, what do we do to combat the results of Suburbia and its less than desirable tendencies? How do we redefine our American Dream?