Montreal: Lessons from great Canadian urbanism | PlaceMakers

Rue St. Paul. From

For a city I’ve never been to, Montreal has gotten quite a bit of love from me recently. Partially this is because, as Hazel Borys describes in this post from a little while back, it is an excellent city. Americans will visit Montreal and comment on its European feel, due to it’s strong bike and pedestrian culture, quality public space, and strong connection to its history and historic structures. This doesn’t happen by chance in Montreal though; nothing about being Canadian gives it a default tie to it’s European heritage, as sprawling cities like Calgary can attest to. Montreal, despite some hiccups such as the 1976 Olympics, has simply made good urbanism a part of what it does, ranging from platting streets from its early days to have terminated vistas to creating a bike share program and a system of bikeways. Montreal is a great example of North American urbanism, that I promise, one day, I will actually visit.


Eight Qualities of Pedestrian- and Transit-Oriented Design


Walkable Portland, ME. From

This post is a rather lengthy excerpt from Pedestrian- and Transit-Oriented Design, a new book from Reid Ewing and Keith Bartholomew, professors at the University of Utah. Although long for an article, it is a great summary of some particularly important characteristics of urban design. While quoting from design greats Kevin Lynch, Jane Jacobs, Allan Jacobs, Jan Gehl and Andres Duany, Ewing and Bartholomew focus on eight important topics:

  1. Imageability
  2. Enclosure
  3. Human Scale
  4. Transparency
  5. Complexity
  6. Coherence
  7. Legibility
  8. Linkage

With descriptive language and a few great supporting images, this is a good article to show to your parents when you’re trying to explain to them what an urban designer does.

10 Techniques for Making Cities More Walkable – Design – The Atlantic Cities


Kaid Benfield, one of my favorites, recently posted this list of walkability ideas from Jeff Speck’s recent book, Walkable City. This list includes:

  1. Put cars in their place. Streets are public spaces for people, not conveyors for cars.
  2. Mix the uses. In particular create more affordable housing in growing neighborhoods prone to gentrification.
  3. Get the parking right. Consolidate it and make people pay for it.
  4. Let transit work. Plan transit in tandem with urban investment, make housing dense enough to support it, and make it an enjoyable experience (I’m looking at you, SEPTA).
  5. Protect the pedestrian. Cars go slower, and thus pedestrians are safer, when drivers are afraid of crashing into things. Speck, and some others, encourage getting rid of signage and road striping all together and forcing drivers to concentrate.
  6. Welcome bikes. Cycling allows people to have another choice beyond the car.
  7. Shape the spaces. Create outdoor rooms and a sense of enclosure.
  8. Plant trees. Trees improve auto safety, naturally cool cities, and contribute to stormwater retention.
  9. Make friendly and unique [building] faces. Interesting architecture will keep people entertained and encourage them to walk.
  10. Pick your winners. Focus initially on downtowns and transit corridors.

Benfield also has a few critiques for Speck. He criticizes the “cars suck” idea that he and many designers (I will admit, often myself included) have a habit of exhibiting. He also criticizes Speck’s dismissal of green space as important to the city, although Benfield does agree that it is important to make sure green spaces contribute to the urban nature of a place rather than making it feel more suburban or rural. He also agrees with John Norquist’s statement that there is good and bad congestion, and that small cities such as Pittsburgh shouldn’t try congestion pricing because it will give people just another reason to stay out of the city.

Pedestrian Penalty Cards Teach People How To Use The Sidewalk : TreeHugger


My mom used to carry around a pad of sticky notes, and if someone had done a bad parking job or something similar, she would write them a little note, encouraging them to do better. I’m sure all of us have wanted to do this same thing; there are a lot of activities where, even though there is no law regulating them, there is a sort of unspoken code, and when someone breaks the code, we feel a sense of indignation. There is a code of the sidewalk, and Lloyd Alter’s latest post details the latest tool in enforcing that code: pedestrian penalty cards.


The penalty system ranges in severity from 4.3 (wearing a surgeon’s mask) to 9.7 (escalator idiocy), and has fourteen distinct offenses. You can buy the whole set and print it out yourself for a buck. A lot of fun.

Can city life be exported to the suburbs? – The Washington Post

Jonathan O’Connell wrote an article in the Washington Post over the weekend asking the above question. He compared suburban developments, including the Village at Leesburg and Reston Town Center, to some of the more vibrant parts of Washington, DC. O’Connell is a very good writer, in that his article could be read to support either side of the argument. For me, it comes down to semantics: what do you mean by “city life,” and what do you mean by “suburbs”? I feel that, based on your definition of these, you very well can “export” city life to the suburbs; I’m just not sure the examples O’Connell cited have actually done so. Let’s take a look.

City Life

In his article, O’Connell cites two neighborhoods in the District as examples of “city life;” those are Georgetown, and U Street.

These streets are classical examples of city life. They are built on gridded street systems, and although some streets are definitely wider than others, none are overwhelmingly wide (for instance, Wisconsin Avenue, the widest street in Georgetown, is only 80 feet from building front to building front). They are decidedly mixed use, with shops, offices and housing all bunched together. I think it’s important to point out that, although shopping and vibrancy are concentrated on a few streets, the majority of these neighborhoods is still housing, i.e. people actually live here rather than just coming here to shop. There is a fine grain of buildings, most of which have a fairly small footprint, but there are a lot of them, and it has the population density necessary to make it vibrant. While cars are certainly present, these areas are very pedestrian friendly and transit accessible.

You can find all these qualities in Alexandria, Virginia, as well. Alexandria is an old city which, as DC has grown, has sort of been sucked into its sphere of influence, and could be called a suburb. It has multiple stops on the DC Metro, is very pedestrian friendly, has a fine grain, mixed uses, high density, and the streets aren’t too wide. If Alexandria counts as a suburb, then you could say that city life was “exported” there; however, with Alexandria being as old as it is, it’s almost more appropriate to say that it co-evolved rather than that it was brought over from Washington. Other cities that came into their own later in history fit easier into the suburban definition, and will be covered in the next section.

Modern Suburbs/Emerging Cities

When I say Modern, I mean that they hit their growth spurt during the Modernist period in the mid-20th century. They sport the trappings of Modernism, including lots of towers and some roads that are wider than they should be. However, many of them are working to address the less desirable aspects of their modern development and are evolving into true cities as they mature. In Washington, cities that match this description include Arlington, Virginia; Bethesda, Maryland; and Silver Spring, Maryland.

These cities, as opposed to the ones in the first section, often have wider roads at their centers; however, they have taken efforts recently to make them more pedestrian friendly by including planted medians, bulb-outs, and other elements to shorten pedestrian crossing time. These large roads are also framed by large towers, so they have a nice height to width ratio. The towers help create density, although a lot of these cities have a fairly sharp drop off from towers to single-family homes. They are increasingly mixed-use, with the ground floor of these towers being shops and more of the towers becoming residential in addition to office space. Although the building grain isn’t as fine, shops still have fairly narrow frontages that change frequently and from the ground it feels similar in grain to the above examples. Each of these examples has a Metro stop and is otherwise well served by transit. These places also show how the element of time is important to creating city life; while these places may have been mostly office centers at their inception, as the cities have grown, they have become more mixed-use, more fine-grained, and more pedestrian-friendly. They also are more affordable than the District and have better schools, and if DC can’t fix that, these cities will continue to house the families that want city life, but can’t get everything they need in Washington.

Better Suburbs

These are the areas that O’Connell seemed to focus on in his article. These areas are relatively new, and although they are more urban than the single-family and strip mall suburbs around them, they still lack city life. However, these places are in a better state to develop it as time goes on than their traditional suburban neighbors. O’Connell discusses the Village at Leesburg and Reston Town Center, and I would like to add Kentlands to the mix.

Like most suburbs, in these places, the car is still king. The roads in the Village and at Reston, despite nods to pedestrians on their “main streets,” are overwhelmingly wide; even the village’s main street is 110 feet wide, and the roads ringing Reston are over 160 feet from building front to building front in some areas. Kentlands is better with the exception of Kentlands Boulevard, but it too falls prey to the other major demand of the car; parking. Kentlands has large surface parking lots all around its shopping and office areas. Reston and the Village feature much more structured parking, which takes up huge percentages of their development. Reston has three blocks devoted exclusively to parking, and three more where towers are built on parking podiums. At the Village, I would guess from aerials that nearly half of their buildings are parking garages, including one that is 1,000 feet long, and even the median of their main street is devoted to parking. Much of this parking isn’t lined by other uses, creating a poor streetscape.

This amount of parking makes sense, oddly enough, because they aren’t dense enough or have enough mixed uses. There is essentially one apartment complex at the Village, and it’s in the middle of nowhere surrounded by highways, so driving is about the only option for most of its users. Reston is in a better case, mostly because it is older and is surrounded by residential development, but its ring of massive roads discourages walking and I would bet that even people who live close by would rather drive. And while Kentlands almost has enough residential to support its large commercial area, they are in no way mixed. There is pretty much a line where, on one side, it is residential, and on the other it is commercial, so anyone more than a quarter mile or so form that line will probably drive. These places don’t have corner stores or diners mixed in, they have designated living and shopping areas, and for the most part, the best way to get between them is by car. With the possible exception of Reston, they don’t have city-like densities, and none of them are served by rail transit, with limited bus connections, if at all. The buildings and the blocks are large (with the exception of Kentlands), which discourages walking. They are also relatively new, and haven’t had a chance to really go through a change of generation and tastes, and I think it would be interesting to watch these areas and see where they are at in 20 or 50 years.

Can you export city life to the suburbs? Yes, but you can’t go halfway, you need to use all the elements that make city life worth living. Alexandra has all of those, the modern suburbs/emerging cities have most and are developing the rest, and the better suburbs have a few. We’ll have to check back on all of them in a generation or two and see if it has actually come to pass.

Chicago releases 1st pedestrian safety plan –

Pedestrian infrastructure/public art. From

Bridget Doyle reports on Chicago’s first pedestrian plan which went into effect on Wednesday. Like San Francisco’s Better Streets Plan, Chicago’s plan includes making sure city projects optimize pedestrian travel. Interventions include wider sidewalks, high-visibility crosswalks, and mid-block bulb-outs in certain areas. I find it really encouraging to see another major American city making pedestrian access and comfort a priority. Everybody walks, but as John Dales recently pointed out, we rarely clamor for our “rights” the way motorists and increasingly cyclists do. Hopefully as Chicago and San Francisco make pedestrians a priority, other cities will take notice, and make their own pedestrian plans.

Pedestrians arise: you have nothing to lose but bad infrastructure | Resource for Urban Design Information

Pedestrians not being prioritized in London. From

In this post, John Dales wonders why there isn’t really a pedestrian lobby. There is, of course, a very vocal motorist’s lobby, and cyclists are becoming more and more vocal, to the point where a candidate’s cycle-friendliness was an issue in the latest London mayoral election. But pedestrians, maybe not always happily, seem to put up with unsafe, ugly, and otherwise poor travel conditions in their chosen mode. Dales speculates that there are three reasons why we do this. First, walking is such an ordinary activity (Dales compares it to breathing), that we don’t think it needs to be a special or pleasant experience. Second, we’ve dealt with poor conditions so long we don’t even know any better. And third, we can cheat at it—jaywalking, walking in the street when the sidewalk is obstructed, etc. We, as pedestrians, need to be more vocal about our opinions of our travel ways. We need to demand better streetscapes from our cities.

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