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.


Spotlight on Lynchburg, Virginia


I was out of town this weekend and will be basically for the rest of the month, and will be spending much of this time on the road. I hope though that while I’m out there I can spotlight some of the towns I visit and show what sort of urban design lessons can be learned from them. I’ll start in Lynchburg, Virginia.

I went to Lynchburg with Holly and three friends, and as we drove down the road the city just sort of emerged without warning; one moment we were on a country road and the next, boom, we saw something like the image above. Lynchburg is nestled in the hills along the James River and has received the nickname of “the Hill City.” One thing you will immediately notice when staying in downtown Lynchburg is that everything is very steep.In some places, the city has addressed this in different ways. They have a number of stairways of varying grandeur:And, in at least one case, a municipal elevator, although it was out of order when we saw it:However, many of the streets had no such help, and you just had to be very careful walking down them.

Some interventions that you see in situations like this in Pittsburgh and San Francisco include sidewalks that are partially or completely stairs, or that have handrails to help people steady themselves.

Main Street in Lynchburg is very well designed. It is oriented to the hill in such a way that it is virtually flat, making it much easier to walk, and features well-maintained planters and bus stops, most of which have benches:

The buildings are mostly of a classic American Main Street architecture, with a few modern and even post-modern additions, but not a lot of new development. There were actually a few very lovely structures that were vacant and for sale. I don’t know enough about the history or current economy of the city to make any strong judgements, but it didn’t seem like there was a lot of housing downtown (or even people, for that matter), and I wonder if planning the downtown for more people would enliven it a bit.

There were a few newer public spaces close to the river, such as Amazement Square, which definitely had a strong family focus:All in all, I was very impressed with Lynchburg. I didn’t really know what to expect coming down there: based on its relative isolation, I assumed is was a little podunk town. Instead, I was greeted with a classic American small town, with some really great features, both natural and designed. I had a lovely time in Lynchburg and would recommend it to anyone.

Also, just for fun, here is my favorite picture from the wedding that brought me and my friends to Lynchburg:Congratulations, Anne and Erik!

The Mid-Autumn Festival in Philadelphia’s Chinatown

Saturday was the Mid-Autmn Festival in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. The event included singing, dancing, and a parade of lion and dragon dancers. It was a really fun experience, and I think part of what made it work was the design of the Chinatown neighborhood.

First of all, the main part of Chinatown does not have any major streets going through it, which allowed them to essentially shut down the entire neighborhood to cars. This allowed them to set up a stage at the intersection of Arch and 10th and seats set up in front of it further north on 10th. The parade, which started literally right on front of our building (pictured above), made a sort of figure 8, going up 11th, across Race to 9th, up to Winter, back to 10th, and down to 10th and Cherry. It was interesting to walk through these streets with no cars but plenty of people. It was amazing how, when the streets were full of people, it still seemed fairly full and busy:but felt very different when they were mostly empty:I felt like it really hits home how much of our streets are devoted to cars. When you’re just walking on the sidewalk, you feel like streets are very narrow, but when you stand in the middle of them with no cars, even the narrow ones in Chinatown feel very large.The parade finished with a dance number at the intersection of 10th and Arch. Although this is a very central location to the Chinatown neighborhood, I wonder what it would be like if Chinatown actually had a public plaza or park, which it lacks entirely. These sort of public spaces are important for a neighborhood, especially with these sort of public festivals. In a neighborhood like Chinatown, with a very active market stall culture, this space might function as a sort of farmer’s market the rest of the year, and be cleared for special events. These sort of spaces are important for a neighborhood, and can help festivals like the Mid-Autumn Festival in their effort to pass culture and history on to the next generation.

Low-income People Need Public Spaces the Most | On the Commons

Ramona Park in Long Beach, CA. From

In this post, Jay Walljasper of the Project for Public Spaces argues for the progressive nature of public spaces. he cites Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Columbia, saying that the rich have “big homes, backyards, private clubs and country houses,” while the poor rely on public spaces—streets, parks, libraries, etc. He argues that they are just as important as hospitals and schools. Walljasper also emphasizes the importance of public spaces in emerging democracies, from Eastern Europe of the 1980s and 90s, to post-apartheid South Africa, to the squares of the Arab Spring. He warns about the dangers of cars and highways as status symbols for individuals and governments in the developing world. We in the West have gone down that path and are just beginning to see our mistakes; let’s hope that the nations still developing will skip that hazard.

Impressions of Tibby’s Triangle, Southwold « Ink & Compass

This post on Ink & Compass describes Tibby’s Triangle, a new development in Southwold, a beach town in England. From what I saw in the video and the photos, I really liked it. None of the buildings are exactly the same, but they have a similar design language which also meshes with the older fabric of the town. There is a range of sizes which creates a community which can house people of different ages, incomes, and stations in life. The site features a loose grid which connects to the outside, creating a community that is not exclusive, but an extension of the existing fabric. A new public square which features mixed-use buildings is central to the development.

Of course, the promotional video doesn’t show the bad stuff, which is why it’s important to have critical reviews like this one from Ink & Compass. The author seems to feel that too much space is given over to cars, with one space per home. This is preposterously low by American standards, but the way that it is concentrated in certain areas, such as by the flatiron building, does give it a stronger presence in some areas. The streets are essentially woonerfs, with shared pedestrian and car spaces, but the author says the pedestrians still feel like they are intruding. Similarly, some of the houses have open carports, which contributes to the feeling that cars have too much control. Also, some facades, especially those painted white, seem blank, whereas the unpainted ones have the various shades of red and the grey of the mortar to give some color. As the author says, the pros definitely outweigh the cons, but the cons are something we can learn from in the future.

Reuse and Repurposing of Existing City Materials for New Use: Jesolo, Italy | SCOTT BURNHAM

Innovative reuse of old umbrellas to create seating and shade. From

Scott Burnham describes a project he worked on in Jesolo, Italy (near Venice) where he helped to create public installations using the city’s own leftover materials. Cities all across the world want to make their public spaces more engaging, but lack the funds for major innovations. That doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t have materials or even skilled labor on hand, it may just mean that they need a creative spark to figure out how to put it in motion. Burnham helps provide that spark in his “Made of Jesolo” project, where he gathered designers to create insteresting places using existing city materials. Designers used stop lights, pipes, street lighting, and the umbrellas shown above to create dynamic spaces, many of which have an interesting post-industrial sort of feel that I think would go well in a Pittsburgh or Detroit type city. A really interesting project.


Density bonuses in the 3BLOCK1BLOCK program. From

3BLOCK1BLOCK is a proposed program in Istanbul which came about due to concerns about earthquake readiness. it proposes encouraging the private sector to redevelop blocks full of non-earthquake-proof buildings by offering density bonuses for doing certain things while redeveloping. Some of these make sense to me, while others don’t so much.

Merging bonus: This proposes taking as many as three blocks and merging them into one superblock. Now, especially in areas with informal developments, you can merge small blocks and still have something walkable. What I’m hoping is that there is some sort of guideline saying that “merged blocks shall be no longer than 200 meters on a side” or something like that, because otherwise, superblocks become unwalkable real fast. Many of the proposed projects on the website feature secondary pedestrian circulation within the blocks, but unless there are shops or really nice parks there, people won’t be encouraged to go there, and they could develop neglect or crime problems. Also, this sort of large-scale demolition threatens historically significant structures. There should be options for retrofit rather than demolition only.

Street widening bonus: Certain streets probably do need to be widened, both for emergency vehicle access and for evacuation routes, but I think the project, if it doesn’t have one, needs a master plan outlining which streets should be widened and not having a blanket bonus for wide streets. This is the best way to kill an area’s walkability. You need access roads every 400 feet or so that are wide enough for emergency vehicles, and then the evacuation routes should be highway capacity, and that’s it. If a small road is serving its community, leave it small.

Public space bonus: This is great. Many cities lack sufficient public space, and open spaces can help mitigate stormwater and pollution. Just make sure that there is some sort of revue mechanism to make sure that they are good public spaces, and not just grass.

Parking bonus: The website says that this is for both underground parking and surface parking. Leave it for underground or even structured parking, but take away the bonus for surface parking. Surface parking kills walkability and in a city as dense as Istanbul is and wants to be, it isn’t worth the land it takes up. Don’t make concessions for cars, unless they are going to help people.

This idea has a lot of merit, but it is walking a fine line. It needs to consider historic structures, short blocks, narrow roads, good public space, and limited parking. Otherwise, it could cause some real problems for the city.

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