Last week, I introduced the notion of urban fabric. Urban fabric is not just the built form, however. It also reflects the delicate interweaving of social, economic and physical connections.
New developments need to be looked at not as single entities, but as part of a block, a neighborhood, a city, a region. Design guidelines and zoning that respect historic context and pedestrian scale are essential to creating great buildings and enduring places. Moreover, since every project is part of the overall urban fabric, how projects connect to each other and to the city is a central tenet of urban design. Streets, public transit, bike-ways and connected green space tie the city together. They provide the framework for a vibrant city.
Connectivity is Key
Creating more direct connections shortens travel time, which effectively brings people closer to their destinations. With more available connections, community residents can get to schools, shopping centers, and other spots that may have simply been off their radar before—not because these places were too far away—but because they were too far out of the way. Intuitively this makes sense; the smaller the blocks, the greater number of intersections, the more storefronts, the more choice of routes, the more chances for serendipity. All this leads to more urban vitality.
A side benefit of increased connectivity is the decreased burden of delivering public services. Firefighters, police, and ambulance services can save precious minutes reaching the scene of an emergency, and can serve a broader area without driving up operating costs. Similarly, greater connectivity can reduce costs of providing other services, such as waste collection, by decreasing travel time and mileage. This leads to more efficient use of limited tax dollars.
Urban Fabric Redux
This leads us back to the concept of urban fabric. Even within the tightest natural fabrics there remains porosity and permeability; i.e. openings that allow for connection and interaction with the outside environment. Alas, in many master-planned suburban and even many ‘new urban’ developments, the urban fabric is artificial. And like artificial fabrics, such as polyester, these projects do not ‘breath’—or allow for external interaction—even though they may get the right grain of urban fabric.
The Importance of Interdependence
HB: So the effect of putting an enormous single-purpose entity within this fine network of the city core is the same as putting a huge field of a single crop in the middle of an ecology: it renders the whole thing essentially sterile, incapable of generating anything new.
JJ: That’s right, and wow, watch out when a disease hits that one thing.
HB: It no longer has the resilience of the natural system that relied on the interdependence of many different ingredients.
It is better to have many small projects that interconnect with the existing city fabric—and are interdependent with the city at large—than to ‘redevelop’ entire sections of the city in isolation, even if it would otherwise support walkability. This concept is connected to the need for a mix of building ages, not only to create a diversity of uses (and users), but almost as importantly, to create visual diversity and an aesthetic interest in the city. This is what urban vitality is all about.