Sunday, January 18, 2009

Picturing Smart Growth

A recent email from Kaid Benfield, fellow blogger and Director of Smart Growth for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) alerted me to an interesting visual tool they had recently unveiled, called Picturing Smart Growth" A short overview: "With generous assistance from our friends at Urban Advantage, NRDC has created a map of the United States featuring 70 locations across the country that are ripe for transformative change. Open the map, zoom in on a location (one of two Tempe, AZ, sites shown below) and, without leaving our web site, you will be shown a Google Maps satellite view of the existing site, given some context about the metro area, and be treated to a brief slide show demonstrating how each can be converted, step-by-step, from sprawl, vacant property or disinvestment into a lively, beautiful neighborhood"

Check out the photo array of site to completed neighborhood (these are developed as overlaid flash movies on the PSG site). all images via Switchboard - Kaid Benfield

:: Existing conditions / Proposed light rail line and neighborhood park

:: New walkable street / Residential development

:: Additional multi-family residential development convenient to light rail,

There are over 70 locations from around the country as well as a searchable database, so definitely check out the ones in your neck of the woods and report back to see if they are compelling examples... to give a little more expansive example, I did some screen shots of the version of visioning for Mount Pleasant, South Carolina called Variety Beats Uniformity - to give a little more idea of the process and product... there's around a dozen frames, each expanding from the previous - of which I've included a few (images via NRDC):

It's quite a dramatic transformation. An interesting addition for this visual is an alternative view of the area seen as a residential area instead of the final mixed use version above.

The idea of the iterative visuals (instead of the typical before/after that we often do) are incredibly powerful, showing the aggregation of changes and improvements - not a snapshot of a distant future - and also allow for alternative scenarios. I'm thinking of the rudimentary 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books where you could establish a range of visions, then give some points of decision for clients or others to pick - which would allow the story to unfold along multiple pathways.

I also checked out the closest example in Eugene, Oregon, and it looked pretty great - (with the exception of the slip road, but that may be my own personal transportation bias)... It'd be interesting to see if there's a mechanism for sharing these videos aside from the embedded flash videos... (aside from my above screen shots) they would be an amazing resource for meetings and presentations.


  1. i took a look at the "designs" that were proposed. While I think it's great in terms of New Urbanism, I think it is rather archaic and doesn't address the ephemeral. (which is a problem in new urbanism as a whole) and much of what they propose seem to be very simple and, i dunno, old ideas. But in terms of "new urbanism" it looks great and it's nice to see a series of phasing rather than just a before and after image.

  2. I don't think these images need to be designated as "new urbanist". Simply put, it's just good urbanism at work.

    The whole suburban sprawl landscape is ephemeral. It removed old ideas and in the wake of new concepts. I would disagree that just because something is new that it is "good".

    My only critique of new urbanism (along the lines of your comments) is that the architectural style seems to be of a specific time period. I would like to see more modern architectural styles.

    But I don't get too caught up in specific details like that - really it comes down to spatial standards and good planning, to which new urbanism (and plain 'ol urbanism) addresses well.

  3. While there may be some 'new' urbanist tendencies as play - I agree with Wes that these are displaying the elements of good urban form (albeit somewhat genericized in the visions). The point of new urbanism and good urbanism - and Portland is a good case in point - is that the building form can vary from mundane to dramatic, but the urban form at a macro and micro scale is based on solid principles. That makes good cities.

  4. How can we discuss the "transportationsscape" in compare with the "landscape urbanism" point of view, the mobility as the city shaper. Theorists talk about a new landscape along the highways, as a result of urban-rural disconnection. How in practice are we suppose to design this "middle landscape"`?

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  6. Good question Evis. There's a strong connection between the landscape urbanism theory and the role (and potential) of highway infrastructures as one of the venues for implementation. Check out Tatom's essay in Waldheim 'Urban Highways and the Reluctant Public Realm' for a bit of context... where she goes from the viewpoint that highways "...are part structure and part earthwork, occupying a formal position between architecture and landscape. They are conceived as abstract technological artifacts, yet local topographical and hydrological conditions – not to mention local political circumstances – must be accommodated to realize them.”

    Their potential as a landscape indicative of the public realm is pretty powerful - and it's up to us to figure out how to intervene in meaningful ways - particularly as peak oil and other larger issues with transform the need and nature of these systems.


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