Category Archives: Urban Planning

Pertains to all posts related to urban growth and design issues, principles, and debate.

Principles in Urban Design & Planning: Vitruvius

                                                                                                                  Above: Vitruvian Man

This article is the first in a series covering the fundamentals and theory behind good city design. This post begins with the principles of Marcus Vitruvius Pollo. Vitruvius is remembered today for his foundational work of Western architecture and urban design, De Architectura better known as Ten Books on Architecture. In his vast treatise, he laid out a system of anthropometric proportions which would be utilized in Classical and Renaissance sculpture, architecture, and sculpture and memorialized by DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man.                                                                              Reading Vitruvius’ books, one can’t help but appreciate the elegance of the Vitruvian scale because it acknowledges the  of human form in the greater natural scheme of things. The Vitruvian-sized city is designed around the human end-user. With such ends in mind, Vitruvius devotes the first portion of his work with a description of the qualities of the ideal architect, those being draftsmanship, arithmetic, geometry, reading, history, philosophy, physiology, music, medicine, climate, law, and astronomy. Vitruvius’ belief was that if architects were to design the built environment in which people lived, the architect would need a holistic education in order to understand the various facets of citizens’ lives.                                                                                                                                     Above: The Parthenon

Vitruvius’ worldview breaks architecture into three general elements: Ordering (“taxis”), Design (“diathesis”), and Shapeliness (“oikonomia”). There are further two properties of ordering  in the Vitruvian scheme: Symmetry and Eurythmy. Eurythmy is defined as proportionality within an element of construction and symmetry is defined as proportionality between or amongst elements of construction. There are three other important metrics by which to evaluate a building or plan: soundness (the quality of the foundations and building materials), utility (ease of use and practicality of the design), and attractiveness (pleasantness and elegance to the eye).         Vitruvius goes on at length to explain his methodology for selecting an ideal site for a city. According to him, the place should be elevated, not cloudy, not liable to frost, facing away from areas prone to intemperance (climate), and away from swamps. Much of his thinking was, of course, influenced by the defense concerns of the day and the Greek belief in medical Humorism (the four humors being yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood). Vitruvius also held that the wind patterns of a site should be studied prior to construction so that the streets could be laid out at angles oblique to the wind currents.

                                                                  Above: Netsch Campus at University of Illinois Chicago                                                                                    According to Vitruvius, if the settlement is to be inland the city forum be built in the center of the town but if the city is on the coast, the forum should be directly adjacent to the port. As for the scale of an ideal forum, we are given two rules of thumb: the width should equal 2/3 of the length and the overall size should be proportional to the population of the city. Being a Roman and an inheritor of the great Greek building traditions, Vitruvius expounds on the differences between Greek fora and Italian fora. While Italian fora are preferable because of their 2:3 width/length ratio, 1/4 shorter second story, and allowance for shops, Greek fora are adequate with their square shape, tightly-packed columns, and double story loggias.                                             As the core nucleus of the urbs and vicinity, the forum is situated at the confluence of the various public facilities and a vast array of commercial activity. The forum plays host to the diverse public life that characterizes the city and its environs. As such, Vitruvius prescribes the situation of the jail, senate house, and treasury on the forum. Should the senate house have a square floor plan, the height should be 1/2 of its length. If the senate house is to be oblong (2:3 width to length ratio), Vitruvius says that the height should be 1/2 the sum of the length and width.                                                                                                                                                                       The basilica (a court building) was to be located in the warmest plot of land adjacent to the forum. The width of the basilica itself was to be 1/3 – 1/2 of its length and each of the porticoes (open-air balconies) should be 1/3 the width of the central area. The second story columns of the portico should be 3/4 the height of the lower story columns and the parapet (compartment) between the lower colonnade and the upper colonnade should equal 3/4 the height of the second story columns.        

                                                AboveVitruvian Park, Addison, TX.                                                                                                                     For the placement of public baths, Vitruvius recommends a warm site not facing Northward. In addition, the tepidarium (warm) and caldarium (hot) should face Westward since the common bathing time is midday-evening. To make construction easier and to make the building more efficient, the male and female caldaria should be adjacent and connected to each other so as to share the same furnace.
The town’s amphitheater was to be situated at a “healthful,” non South-facing location. The dimensions of the amphitheater should be such that it is possible to draw a straight line from the center of the stage to the outermost entrance of the theater that touches the edge of each row of seats. In order to achieve this, the backing of each successive rows of seats should never exceed the width of the aisle.                                                                                                                           After providing a very sophisticated understanding of acoustics, complete with a substantial knowledge of chords and harmonies, Vitruvius calls for the placement of echea -bronze vessels that resonate sound- in chambers underneath the amphitheater seats. The echea are to be placed upside down in the chambers, propped at angle with wedges of at least 0.5 feet in height. Along the footing of the seats of the amphitheater, there should be openings measuring 2.5 feet in width and 0.5 feet in height that allow the sound to travel.

                                                                Above: Tablinum                                                                                                                                                    In the private homes of citizens the importance of the atrium is central both physically and figuratively. There are three ideal length/width ratios for the atria: 5/3, 3/2, and (2r^2)^1/2. The height of the atria should be 0.75 of the length of the atria. The alae, the wings or aisles on the side of the atrium, should be built according a sliding scale according to the length of the atrium. If the atrium length is 30-40 feet, the alae should be 1/3 of that length. If the atrium is 40-50 feet long, the alae should be 1/3.5 of that; if 50-60 feet, the alae should be 1/4 of that; if 60-80 feet long, the alae should be 1/4.5 of that; if 80-100 feet, the alae should be 1/5 of that; if 100-120 feet long, the alae should be 1/5.5 of that; if 120-160 feet, the alae should be 1/6 of that; if 160-200 feet, the alae should be 1/6.5 of that; if 200-240 feet, the alae should be 1/7 of that.                                                                                                                                                                        The ancient ‘home office,’ the tablinum was an airy room situated just off the atrium and was used for drafting and study as well as important business. Like the alae, the width and height of the tablinum was dependent upon the width of the atrium. If the atrium was 20 feet wide, the tablinum was to have a width 2/3 of that ; a 30-40 foot wide atrium, the tablinum would have a width 1/2 of that; a 40-60 foot wide atrium, the tablinum would have a width of 2/5 of that. The height of the tablinum would be 1 1/8 of the width of the tablinum.  

Moving Up Not Out

                                                                        Above: North End, Boston                                                                                                

        When most people think of the life cycle of city districts, in terms of desirability, they think of poor newcomers to the most distressed and thereby cheapest parts of a city. They move out to more desirable and far-flung suburbs when they or their upwardly-mobile children achieve some level of financial success that allows them to assimilate and identify with the middle class. Once a group of slum dwellers has completed their “term” in the slum, a new group of unfortunates takes their place.                                                                                                                              Rarely are large-city slums thought of as stages upon which the drama of upward mobility is to take place. This is unfortunate, because by encouraging the transience of residents, certain areas that are designated as slums are condemned to remain so forever. One of the great qualities of big cities is their ability to successfully and consistently turnover people. However, if city residents don’t have any attachment to their communities, big cities run the risk of becoming flophouses, devoid of the attractions that make them so attractive to passers-by.                  In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs discusses the limited phenomenon of unslumming, in which, the residents of decrepit city slums gradually improve their districts as they, themselves, improve their socioeconomic status. She cites a shortage of conventional financing from banks, due to the redlining practices of banks and insurors, as the primary reason most city slums never successfully unslummed themselves. Jacobs explained that newly middle-class individuals who wished to improve existing property in their “slum” neighborhoods could not receive bank loans to do so simply because of the neighborhood they resided in. Effectively, newly-minted members of the middle-class could either remain in squalid conditions or, using their new-found means, move to a more desirable suburb. This also meant that the neighborhood slum loses invested, stable middle-class households.                                                                                                                                                            Home_Owners'_Loan_Corporation_Philadelphia_redlining_map                                                                  Above: HOLC Residential Security Map of Philadelphia (1936)            

        The question now becomes how best to counteract this cycle of desertion and divestment from inner-city neighborhoods. The first thing that must change is our view of cities; we need to begin viewing cities as long-term projects and realize that great cities like Rome, New York, and Paris “weren’t built in a day.” I think the best way to encourage people to “gentrify in place” or “move up” is to promote affordable home ownership, a deep sense of community, and incremental investment in the neighborhoods.                                                                                                 Housing options like cheap single-family homes, duplexes, townhomes, and apartments to own allow low-income people to buy real estate. Hopefully, as the homeowners join the ranks of the middle-class, they will make incremental improvements to their home. The same goes for business owners in the neighborhood. Other constructs can help with this incremental upgrading including: creation of Public Improvement Districts, neighborhood organizations, community organizations, and churches. These things act as anchors for residents and create both economic and sentimental value for the neighborhood.     

The Building Blocks of Community Life

The networks of great cities differ from those of small towns, cities, and villages. In small towns and villages, a community is easily created partially as a function of its size. Small-town football games, churches, county fairs, etc. are all the more effective at promoting community and are, therefore, more prominent in people’s minds because of they are shared among a small, tight-knit amalgam of different characters.                                                                                                                  In great cities the touchstones of community must be accessible to and shared by strangers. This is a far greater challenge due, in part, to the need for both familiar and unifying touchstones of community in big cities. In order to be rooted in one’s community, everyone, regardless of their residence, needs a network that is stable and constant and, most importantly, familiar to them. As mentioned earlier, this role is filled well by churches, local sporting events, neighborhood/town fairs, etc. The people in a small community have a reason to be in these places and, as such, will make organic connections with their neighbors. In a small town, these networks are sufficient because they incorporate practically the whole community.                                                                                                                                                                In large cities, these networks need to exist with and feed into larger networks that join strangers with each other, and form, as it were, an network of networks or an “internet” of social interaction that incorporates interactions across the spectrum of intimate and familiar to spontaneous and wildly new.

Case Study: Sewanee

While on one of my recent bike rides it occurred to me that I sleep roughly 754 feet away from a perfect example of the phenomenon that Jane Jacobs discusses in public parks. On Sewanee’s campus, marked out in black in the image below, is an informal park located off a busy thoroughfare, library, science building, and administrative office. It is located a bit farther but still in relatively close proximity to the town coffee shop, dining hall, archives building, student life center, and residence halls.


Location in Black

This park then fulfills Jacobs’ first criterion for a successful park: location in an area in with diverse uses which people use regularly and consistently. This ensures that there is a constant flow of users. The story becomes more interesting in the image below. In that image, you see in the background one half of the park which is well adorned with trees, shrubbery, flowers, benches, picnic tables, lawn chairs, street lights, and a human foosball court. This portion of the park obviously makes good use of space and as a result is well-attended because it is able to capture people’s attention and attract them.                                                                                                  In the foreground, the other half of the park, a level field of short grass lies bare, devoid of users and uses that might attract them. There are no students at cafe tables enjoying a casual phone call under the shade of an old tree nor are there youngsters chatting with each other around a park bench. Rather, there is dull eyesore, laid bare for all on the second floor of the science building to see.


North View

This is not the first time I have observed this phenomenon. I have noted this development at least two other times. It seems Jane Jacobs really knew what she was talking about.

Case Study: Robert E. Lee Park

In a previous post, I went through some of the basic principles of park design set forth by Jane Jacobs. Now I would like to take the discussion from the realm of the abstract or academic to a real life example.                                                                                                                                                 In my hometown of Dallas,TX. there is a magnificent cultural and civic asset that is little-known and advertised (there are many such assets in Dallas). I myself only learned of this park after a friend invited me to meet him their. In all my eighteen years of living in Dallas, I had never heard of this park nor had anyone in my immediate family.                                                           The park, Robert E. Lee Park should by all means be Dallas’ Washington Square Park. I hope one day it reaches this status as well. The park is located in a vibrant urban community and is located in close proximity to a number of cultural attractions as well as a dense residential population and a good mix of businesses. Most of the park’s space is well-utilized and there is relatively little wasted, open space. It’s a memorable place and not a trite contrivance on the city’s landscape.                                                                                                                                                   The park sports Arlington Hall, a replica of Robert E.. Lee’s home in Virginia which is open to the public and hosts an interesting and continuous sequence of programmed, private events. The park is open to the surrounding high rises and street life and is paved in parts, heavily cultivated in others, sports a pergola, and a criss-crossing network of paths. In short, it’s intriguing, diverse in the directed activities it offers, and well-located.                                                     Why, then, is this jewel in Dallas’ crown not appreciated by more people? The answer lies in its relationship with the street. The park is not surrounded with fully built-out curbs that can support a vibrant, multi-modal street life, but rather a narrow, suburban-sized path surrounded by grass that accommodates no more than a single, fast-paced pedestrian. No consideration is given to pedestrians in large groups, their leashed dogs, straddling children, elderly men enjoying a game of chess, hopscotch games, people watchers, peddlers, or any other active participants in the life of the street. The street doesn’t welcome would-be users to enter the park. Instead, the message they receive is that they will be inconvenienced if they attempt to enter on foot.                                                                                                                                                       This is the great difference between Washington Square Park and Robert E. Lee Park: Washington Square with its wide, functional, and landscaped sidewalks convinces people that they can conveniently move from their position on the street or in the adjacent buildings into the intriguing park beyond.


In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs discusses the curious case of city parks. The conventional wisdom of the time (remember, this book was written in 1961) held that adding more parkland to distressed inner city areas would automatically improve adjacent neighborhoods and generate activity and life. Jacobs countered this line of thinking with a more nuanced view.                                                                                                                                                          First of all, she asserts that parks are “creature[s] of their surrounding and of the way their surroundings generate mutual support from diverse uses or fail to generate such support.” In essence, Jacobs refutes the notion that parks automatically confer a degree of vibrancy and activity to a neighborhood. Rather, the park is a stage for the surroundings. The neighborhood generates the activity; a well-designed park is an effective stage for the cast of characters.                  Jacobs draws a further distinction between generalized and specialized parks. Generalized parks are more bare, they are intended to serve more as a public yard. This flexible, blank slate model can work well in areas with a high degree of user diversity. An open field, for example, might work well surrounded by a good mix of mixed-use apartment buildings, office buildings, schools, or cultural attractions. This type of park does not do well in, say, a largely residential neighborhood composed of single-family homes with relatively expansive backyards. In such a neighborhood, a more specialized park with a great variety of different specific activities laid out in a spatially intriguing and intriguing arrangement will hold the interest of a great variety of users. Large, blank parks are rarely used or loved. Such places are too boring and too anonymous for anyone to care.                                                                                                                          So parks should be located in places where people congregate and pass through. They should also have a variety of directed activities and encourage exploration through a varied layout. This includes simple adornments such as trees, cultivated gardens, park benches, tables, ponds, etc. Just the sight of such a place is more enticing than the sight of an empty field, especially in a large and diverse city that thrives off the diversity of services and uses it furnishes to its residents.                                                                                                                                      Furthermore, Jacobs makes the claims that large unused parks are practically an invitation to crime. With a lack of eyes on the park, as there would be on the neighborhood street or thoroughfare, the park becomes a fantastic place for unsavory characters to do their work. With more planned activities and more exposure to its surroundings, the park truly fulfills its role as a stage for urban life and it is used and appreciated. A good park is not divorced from its surroundings, rather it interacts with them in easy, seamless way making users comfortable in transitioning from to and from the park. Concretely, this means exposing the park to well-designed sidewalks and the businesses, residences, and activity that line them and making the park lively and pleasing to the eye of passersby.                                                                                              Jane Jacobs uses the example of Washington Square Park to demonstrate her concept of the specialized park with an intriguing layout. She writes of a group of activists who, in their attempt to save Washington Square Park from bisection by a freeway, pointed out that people who visited the place every day could not draw the park from memory because it was diverse in its landscape and activity.                                                                                                                                      Even every day, “bread and butter” neighborhood parks can and should serve in this specialized capacity. They can incorporate minor everyday leisure or practical activities on an intimate scale into their design. For example a local park can sport small ice rinks, kite-flying areas, fountains, places for spontaneous street performers, etc. It is precisely these type of activities that not only draw people to a park, but they create a meaningful sense of attachment. People care about places that they associate with frequently and familiarly.

Great Design Can Save The World

One oft-heard quip in urban design and philanthropic circles is that “great design can save the world.” Just what does that mean? Surely advocates of sensible planning don’t think their craft can rectify the depravity of men and the evil of the world.                                                              What I think (and hope) is meant by “great design can save the world” is that proper arrangement and composition of the spaces and things we use can only aid in our best intentions for human flourishing. Put more simply, great design does not necessarily add to our virtue but it is free of the hindrances that stifle the realization of our best intentions.                          I also think that great design can do a lot of good towards improving the daily, physical well-being of people. There is a lot of value in planning our spaces thoughtfully with honest and self-assured attitudes. We can be both deliberate and realistic in our plans. We can, to some extent, contrive the world we are to occupy without making it seem out of place.                                              As I read more of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, I’ll follow up with more concrete examples of what I’m trying to articulate.


Urban Design Booklist

If you know anything about me, you probably know that I’m an urban design geek. Discussions about walkability, floor-to-area ratios, and perceived density get me going. It’s a very multi-faceted discipline that requires some aptitude in various areas of expertise to be able to construct a functional city with the various aspects of human life considered. The city is man’s habitat, therefore, it should be made with all of his needs and realities taken into consideration.      This year, I have devised a list of books concerning good urban planning. The list is choc full of all the greats: Jane Jacobs, Vitruvius, Georg Simmel, etc. So far, I have read Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture. Admittedly, I skipped two or three of those books but I got a lot out of the texts. Vitruvius really emphasized the need to imagine the urban context in terms of human scale. After reading the Ten Books on Architecture, my mindset has shifted from thinking in terms of raw dimensions to thinking in terms of ratios. At some point, I will post my notes and commentary regarding this work. It was a really enjoyable read, to say the least.                                                            Currently, I am about to start The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Living in Manhattan during the height of the Automobile Age and the suburbanization of post-war America, Jane Jacobs sparked what essentially became the New Urbanist Movement. She had no formal training as an urban planner yet she rose to prominence for launching an anti-freeway expansion crusade in her inner-city neighborhood. She would go toe-to-toe with Robert Moses, New York’s chief planner at the time and a champion of the very decentralization and suburbanization that characterized post-war America.                                                                                    I promise to be back with interesting findings and insights. Until then, find your genius.