The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary

I stumbled upon this book perched on the shelf of a recent housesit. I hadn’t realized that one of the owners is an urban planner, and this book is exactly what I have been looking for. Eventually, I hope to read Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, but I am curious what sorts of patterns this author, Dhiru A. Thadani, illuminates in this tome.
“Crucially, the principles of urbanism are a natural solution to the world’s crisis. Cities have always faced challenges of crowding, infrastructure, safety, and social and fiscal balance. Yet cities continue to provide the forum to met, make connections, trade, and exchange ideas. This resilience has kept urban form relatively constant for five thousand years.”
My initial pushback is that I don’t see any mention of greed, corporatism or migration. I suspect that this author will romanticize the notion of cities, without examining or accounting for the more nefarious ways in which cities are prime grounds for powerful players to take advantage of the less powerful. Cities have historically been places where new ideas arise from cross-fertilization and multiethnic communities. But cities are also traditionally places where power & wealth are valued more than justice & equality.
I am pleased that this author believes in centering pedestrians, and aims to “return to sustainable city forms where mobility is fueled by human power.”
As this is my first serious reading in the New Urbanism field, I am curious to learn what ideas do & do not “fit” in this field.
• Working with the landscape, rather than against it
• Considering the human scale, rather than colossal sprawl
• Principle-based methods of planning versus process-based (charter vs. charrette)
• Ways of measuring
• A & B Streets: A streets are designed to provide an excellent pedestrian experience, and B streets prioritize auto & transit-related functionality. Combine them by block platting and using alleys.
• Accessibility: refers to literal access, both pedestrian and by auto, and also to accessibility for people with physical & mental disabilities.
This is important because 1) it’s right, and 2), because “it recognizes that barriers to employment, transportation, public accommodations, public services, and telecommunications have imposed staggering economic & social costs on society.”
Various ways of measuring include person-trips and person-kilometers. Consider priorities — is it better to have a person make less transfers, but have a longer commute? Will a better public transit system degrade another system, like walking and cycling paths? Note that car traffic is easier to measure, so be careful not to leave out alternative transportation measures.
I am particularly interested in accessibility issues from a sensory perspective, and I look forward to prioritizing this in my own projects.
• Activity: Outdoors: People go outside for either necessary tasks (going to work, getting groceries), optional tasks (coffee shops, taking kids to the park), or social tasks (public park, public square).
• Adaptive Reuse: Using old structures for new uses. In Portland, Oregon, where I currently live, and in various places around the United States, this concept trends toward gentrification. Wealth, mostly white people are buying old industrial spaces and converting them into expensive condominiums or office spaces. These developers are utilizing adaptive reuse but without considering the needs of the community or the historical use of the space, beyond its advertising potential.
It seems to me that this concept, on its own, poses a serious risk. Unless stakeholders are consulted & community buy-in is achieved, adaptive re-use will only serve the wealthy & powerful. Otherwise, it becomes a process of erasure. I think of Palestine, and the numerous villages that have been razed & renamed.
While I do agree that when possible, buildings should be renovated and adapted, rather than torn down, it is my intention to consider the past, present & future of a building in consultation with the people to whom it serves.
• Affordable Dwelling Units: I didn’t know that ADUs are for a specific income range: “The Urban Land Institute defines workforce housing as that which is affordable to households earning 60 to 120% of the area median income.” This book states that 10 – 15% of housing stock should qualify as affordable, and should be technically identical to other housing.
I feel it is important to break down the “us” and “them” in conversations about affordable housing. Many ADUs are row-houses or apartments, and do not provide access to outdoor space or quiet. Why should we as planners accept a lower standard of living for affordable housing than we do for the wealthy? I accept that my idealism is showing, but I am eager to rise to the challenge of redesigning affordable housing that includes all the benefits of more spacious, low-density living, and exploring how others have solved this problem.
Another aspect of affordable housing is diversity. But let us not confuse “non-white” with poverty. If we understand that people of color are not a unified mass, and bring a plethora of lived experience to the table, then we know that “diversity” cannot a simple checkmark on our development list. We must understand that racism is a system whereby people of color are, over the course of generations, stripped of their resources, denied access to opportunity, and often kept apart from groups of white people unless to be their token of diversity.
Planning should be based on an understanding of diversity as complex, evolving, and systemic, while centering the voices and experiences of those who are traditionally marginalized. We must not plan for tokenized diversity.
And “modernization” must not be limited to shiny materials and innovative building methods. Modernization is not an end in and of itself. It is tool with which we might meet the needs of a community. I am eager to learn more more about traditional methods of architecture & planning that might inform this “modernization” trend.
• Agricultural Urbanism: This excites me! I love all the various ways in which cities can incorporate agriculture visibly into daily life. I believe that many of us are generally out of touch with food systems, and unfamiliar with the changing seasonal landscape of our community. Options in this list include: forageable land (natural wilderness), farm land, specialty farms, community farms, community gardens, allotment gardens, yard garden, kitchen garden, roof garden, container garden, window boxes, and vertical gardens.
• Allée: These are familiar to me from traveling through Europe — it is a sort of pedestrian promenade, made famous by French garden designers. You can see the allée in the gardens of Versailles and the Palais Royale in France. They include a flat and wide walking area, lined by trees.
• Alley: I am eager to explore the potential of alleyways. Many installation artists, from Banksy to Kurt Perschke to the muralists of San Francisco and Northern Ireland and Palestine, have claimed alleys as their own. Alleys have a connotation of danger, shame, hidden things. and unsavoury characters. I think this can be changed by design.
• American Dream: I reject this concept completely as one conceived of by advertisers & people in positions of power. I admit that it still motivates many people, consciously & unconsciously, as a way of parenting and reason for immigration. But just because it is unachievable doesn’t mean it isn’t a real motivating force, and planning should account for such. Planning is a way of storytelling — acknowledging history, shaping present, and listening for the future.
• Amphitheater: I am a theatre-goer. I am also someone whose favorite book is Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. I think a lot about public gathering spaces, and how we can change attitudes of spectacle into engagement.
• Ancillary / Accessory Unit: Personally, an ancillary unit is part of my long-term housing plan for myself & my family. I like having a separate space away from the home to work. I also like that an additional unit could provide affordable housing in my community while also helping me pay off a mortgage.
• Anticipation: Oh! I love this idea, and it never occurred to me in a design context before. I am someone who startles easily, so I really value clues and warnings before something in my environment changes. How can we design for a sense of pleasant anticipation that cues people for what’s coming next, while still allowing them to make choices about their next move?
• Apartment: Apartments have changed throughout history as a high-density housing solution. Some are accessed from the street, whereas some new high-rise buildings have parking garages inside the building itself. Primary concerns in the apartment building are natural light and ventilation, according to this book. I would also add that designs should provide for quiet individual spaces as well as optional community gathering spaces. I enjoy spaces that offer communal patios or courtyards centrally. There are systems of circulations modeled in this book (see image below).
• Arbor / Pergola: Certainly, we need more green spaces in the city, and we need them yesterday. How can we work with trees & nature to meet the needs of an urban ecosystem, including humans and other animals?
• Arcade: This is a covered passageway that helps shelter pedestrians from bad weather. This book shows examples where designers have curved the wall and spaced columns in a way that helps reduce the perceived distance of travel. As someone who went to school on the East Coast and spent a year in Toronto, I understand the need for shelter in bitterly cold winters. And as climate change begins to wreak havoc on the globe, with heat waves and hurricanes and floods, I am very interested in building ways for people to access their city on foot no matter the weather. Ideally, these passages would 1) be built to withstand emergencies, 2) provide guidance in the event of an evacuation or disaster, and 3) have a low carbon footprint and work with the natural landscape.
• How can we plan excellent spaces without having control over the surrounding environment?
• How we incorporate nature into our planning without playing God to natural processes?
• How do we create a building that is eco-friendly but also resilient?

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