Urban Fabric: The Form of Cities

Urban fabric is the physical form of towns and cities. Like textiles, urban fabric comes in many different types and weaves.

Examples of urban fabric

For simplicity’s sake, I am going to divide the multiple of different urban fabrics into two typologies: coarse grain and fine grain:

COARSE GRAIN

“Long blocks isolate the users of one street from the next one over. This isolation reduces the capability of those living on these streets to jointly support retail establishments.” —Jane Jacobs

Coarse grain urban fabric is like burlap: rough, large-scale weaves that are functional, but not usually comfortable. Such places consist of one of two things. Large blocks, predominated by big box stores and other car contract retail and corporate centers, or multi block mega project dropped on a city without integrating the surrounding city or community.

Not only do coarse grain fabrics NOT give many opportunities for interconnecting; the fabric itself is usually inhospitable to interaction. Instead of asserting control over the street, such places turn inward, fortifying themselves against the perceived dangers of the outside. This begets yet more undesirability.

In this regard coarse grain acts as a barrier for all but those who are there for a specific purpose. Just as we are not comfortable wearing a burlap shirt, we are not comfortable spending more time them necessary in coarse-grained places.

…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. —James Howard Kunstler

FINE GRAIN

Street patterns must be easily navigable and lattice like, with blocks that are not too big and intersections that are not too far apart.

Roger Lewis

On the other hand, there is fine-grained urban fabric. Like high count egyptian cotton; fine grain urban fabric can feel luxurious make people want to linger in or around it. Fine grain urban fabric consists of several small blocks close together.

Within each block are several buildings, most with narrow frontages, frequent store fronts, and minimal setbacks from the street. Streets and opportunities to turn corners are frequent, and as a result, so are storefronts. This offers many opportunities for discovery and exploration. There are almost no vacant lots or surface parking. Also, as there are more intersections, traffic is slower and safer.

Fine grained urban fabric is not imposed on a community like its coarse cousin. Rather, it evolves over time; responding to what came before, and adapting to what came afterwards. This evolutionary process creates place that are not frozen in the era when they were built, but are dynamic and reflective of a neighborhood’s changing needs.

This creates an urban fabric that can seamlessly evolve over time from lightly developed residential areas to mixed-used retail to dense urban core, if that’s what the community desires. In this way, there are far more resilient than the mega projects mentioned above who, when they lose a single tenant, often fail.

Tweet: Urban fabric is the physical form of #cities. It comes in many different types and weaves. http://ctt.ec/b7uje+

Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.

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  • Ashley, thank you for your comment. It is always nice to hear from readers with thoughtful comments. You have touched on a big pet peeve of mine (and a topic of an upcoming post). However, I would turn what you said on its head and say that a more exciting and neighborly city can make everything more walkable, despite the weather.

    While climate definitely plays a role, it think that politicians and developers use it as an excuse to continue auto dominant developments. Sure it is hot ~100 days a year. That leaves 250 days where the temperature is great for walking. Yet not too many more people walk in February than in August. The problem is in Phoenix, including downtown there simply are not many places that promote walking. The few fine grain examples are not in close proximity to each other, making it inconvenient to walk more than a block or two. To travel between anywhere interesting you have to walk by huge swaths of parking lots, vacant buildings or block walls.

    Thus, to me the lack of shade is the symptom of a larger problem (namely the lack of exciting and neighborliness of much of Phoenix you mentioned), not the cause. Indeed, when the city has spent large sums of money on promoting shade, such as along 2nd Ave between Van Buren and Roosevelt, the results have been underwhelming. not because the streets are pleasantly shaded but because there is nothing to see for blocks at a time. On the other hand when people have something worth seeing or doing they are out in droves, despite the heat. One example is First Fridays. Even without the Phoestival’ street closures, there were thousand of people out and about in the 100+ degree temperatures, checking out the galleries and restaurants.

    If Phoenix spent less time worrying about shade and more time concentrated on enhancing it’s urban fabric, people will start walking again, and shade will follow. But as long as we continue to build monstrous developments like CityScape (that provide neither adequate shade nor fine grained fabric) we will continue to be an auto dominant city.

  • Thanks for the comment Matthew.

    The grid maps are just illustrative of various types of physical forms. It is next to impossible to chose an entire city and say if they are fine or coarse grains. A general rule though is that the shorter the blocks and the more intersections that exist, the finer the potential urban fabric. Another general rule is that, if it has been built within the last 50 years, it tends to be coarse grained, while if it is a older/or examples of adaptive use.

    Applying this concept to downtown Phoenix, I would say that the 1/2 block with Turf/Sens/Pasta Bar and Breadfruit is representative of fine-grained fabric, but the apartment complex immediately to the south is defiantly coarse grain. Other examples of fine-grained in downtown is Roosevelt Row, patricianly between 5th and 6th St and Roosevelt and Garfield. On the other hand coarse grain would be places like the Sheraton, Phoenix City Hall, and obvious places like the Convention Center, Chase Field and US Airways Center.

  • Nice post! It definitely gave me a new way to think about urban areas and how they're structured.

    One thing I think would be interesting would be some examples of coarse and fine grained urban fabric. I think most of Phoenix would be coarse grained, but what about the nine examples in the graphic?

  • Very interesting article. It'd be interesting to consider the impact of all of this when you think about the weather. As someone who works downtown, I know that making the trek on foot in the heat can sometimes make it incredibly unappealing to want to go anywhere, especially if it's too far away. After living for a time in the UK, I know that an easily walkable city can make everything feel more exciting and neighborly.

  • Thanks for the comment Matthew.

    The grid maps are just illustrative of various types of physical forms. It is next to impossible to chose an entire city and say if they are fine or coarse grains. A general rule though is that the shorter the blocks and the more intersections that exist, the finer the potential urban fabric. Another general rule is that, if it has been built within the last 50 years, it tends to be coarse grained, while if it is a older/or examples of adaptive use.

    Applying this concept to downtown Phoenix, I would say that the 1/2 block with Turf/Sens/Pasta Bar and Breadfruit is representative of fine-grained fabric, but the apartment complex immediately to the south is defiantly coarse grain. Other examples of fine-grained in downtown is Roosevelt Row, patricianly between 5th and 6th St and Roosevelt and Garfield. On the other hand coarse grain would be places like the Sheraton, Phoenix City Hall, and obvious places like the Convention Center, Chase Field and US Airways Center.

  • Thanks for the comment Matthew.

    The grid maps are just illustrative of various types of physical forms. It is next to impossible to chose an entire city and say if they are fine or coarse grains. A general rule though is that the shorter the blocks and the more intersections that exist, the finer the potential urban fabric. Another general rule is that, if it has been built within the last 50 years, it tends to be coarse grained, while if it is a older/or examples of adaptive use.

    Applying this concept to downtown Phoenix, I would say that the 1/2 block with Turf/Sens/Pasta Bar and Breadfruit is representative of fine-grained fabric, but the apartment complex immediately to the south is defiantly coarse grain. Other examples of fine-grained in downtown is Roosevelt Row, patricianly between 5th and 6th St and Roosevelt and Garfield. On the other hand coarse grain would be places like the Sheraton, Phoenix City Hall, and obvious places like the Convention Center, Chase Field and US Airways Center.

  • Thanks for the comment Matthew.

    The grid maps are just illustrative of various types of physical forms. It is next to impossible to chose an entire city and say if they are fine or coarse grains. A general rule though is that the shorter the blocks and the more intersections that exist, the finer the potential urban fabric. Another general rule is that, if it has been built within the last 50 years, it tends to be coarse grained, while if it is a older/or examples of adaptive use.

    Applying this concept to downtown Phoenix, I would say that the 1/2 block with Turf/Sens/Pasta Bar and Breadfruit is representative of fine-grained fabric, but the apartment complex immediately to the south is defiantly coarse grain. Other examples of fine-grained in downtown is Roosevelt Row, patricianly between 5th and 6th St and Roosevelt and Garfield. On the other hand coarse grain would be places like the Sheraton, Phoenix City Hall, and obvious places like the Convention Center, Chase Field and US Airways Center.

  • Thanks for the comment Matthew.

    The grid maps are just illustrative of various types of physical forms. It is next to impossible to chose an entire city and say if they are fine or coarse grains. A general rule though is that the shorter the blocks and the more intersections that exist, the finer the potential urban fabric. Another general rule is that, if it has been built within the last 50 years, it tends to be coarse grained, while if it is a older/or examples of adaptive use.

    Applying this concept to downtown Phoenix, I would say that the 1/2 block with Turf/Sens/Pasta Bar and Breadfruit is representative of fine-grained fabric, but the apartment complex immediately to the south is defiantly coarse grain. Other examples of fine-grained in downtown is Roosevelt Row, patricianly between 5th and 6th St and Roosevelt and Garfield. On the other hand coarse grain would be places like the Sheraton, Phoenix City Hall, and obvious places like the Convention Center, Chase Field and US Airways Center.

  • Thanks for the comment Matthew.

    The grid maps are just illustrative of various types of physical forms. It is next to impossible to chose an entire city and say if they are fine or coarse grains. A general rule though is that the shorter the blocks and the more intersections that exist, the finer the potential urban fabric. Another general rule is that, if it has been built within the last 50 years, it tends to be coarse grained, while if it is a older/or examples of adaptive use.

    Applying this concept to downtown Phoenix, I would say that the 1/2 block with Turf/Sens/Pasta Bar and Breadfruit is representative of fine-grained fabric, but the apartment complex immediately to the south is defiantly coarse grain. Other examples of fine-grained in downtown is Roosevelt Row, patricianly between 5th and 6th St and Roosevelt and Garfield. On the other hand coarse grain would be places like the Sheraton, Phoenix City Hall, and obvious places like the Convention Center, Chase Field and US Airways Center.

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  • yousf

    Thank you it was usefull