Picturing 10 Urban Qualities Every City Should Have

In recent months, architect friends have explained how several post-Recesssion projects focus sustainability goals on the end-user experience, rather than simply pursue  flagship "green" designations. It seems there is a commendable and renewed emphasis on the particular needs of building use, and, significantly,  the specifics of  a building user’s relationship to the surrounding urban area.
 

I see this as a tilt to the qualitative aspects of the urban experience—an approach I believe should stay as a lynchpin of evolving urbanism.

I find that when writing outside of the confines of my day job as a lawyer, I usually pursue these qualitative aspects. I like to emphasize the impressionistic and, essentially more ethereal, emotional "bookmarks" of experiences in cities around the world. By and large, these bookmarks recall modern expressions of traditional urban life. Together, they are a useful summary of evolving human experience in the city.

As background to work on my forthcoming book, I itemized and illustrated several of these more qualitative bookmarks while traveling last year. Here is the result.

Spontaneous competition in simple places



The aspects of the city that avoid rigid regularity are among the most interesting and memorable. Here, an empty storefront provides the stage for competing glass providers to advertise with several different labels. Commercial needs drive unpredictable results in even the simplest of situations.

Signage with a direct message



Commercial signage also provides a prime venue for urban observations. When such signage carries a lifestyle or political message in direct form, the purpose of the associated business is clear. In this urban place, living animals prevail, without question.

Wood-framed storefronts and proud displays



Natural building materials give an organic sense of invitation to an otherwise ordinary world of metal and cement. While not possible in all climates, and demanding of maintenance, wood-framed retail establishments punctuate their surroundings. Passersby are often drawn to these exteriors based on variety, color and well-presented merchandise within.

Water features that emulate nature, in context



While not always allowable for health and safety reasons, water features in the public domain emulate spontaneous puddles, pools and streams of urban times gone by. Just as sidewalk tables or benches give a human scale to the street, careful placement of water complements greenery and presents the unexpected. There are lessons learned from such small-scale improvements, especially if they are linked together in a restored natural system, or meet a dual aesthetic and drainage purpose.

Classy blokes in front of classy places



"Third places" with character, such as local bars, are nothing new. Rather than mandate all alcohol consumption occur within, outdoor customers can provide ambiance and interface with daily life. Such street interface need not be uncivil, and, in this case, resounds with local character.

Commercial porches, with color and vantage points to the street



Some parts of the world present traditional architectural styles that mix commercial and residential uses, and offer "eyes on the street" from open verandas above. This is a logical, and not artificially segregated approach to neighborhood. Rich color often enhances such traditional building form.

Spectacular examples of shopping tradition



Debates about density often lack a rich visual record of active, close-knit community. In this case, a shopping day crowd fills city spaces in a comfortable way, consistent with local culture. While not adaptable to all cities without permanent or scheduled pedestrian uses of rights-of-way, this example shows dynamic potential of which many are not otherwise aware.

Young children in open squares

One of the universal aspects of safe urban open space is a place for children to explore at more than arm’s length from parents or family. The most simple human experience, such as viewing a shadow, also becomes touching theater to nearby observers. This photograph is a challenge and a test–can children safely act the same way near where you live?

Culturally indigenous engravings in the built environment



Another universal and traditional pattern is for the built environment to reflect important cultural aspects of its builders. In Portugal, a common feature of public squares reflects the ocean, is important to a historically seafaring people, and walking produces a feeling of the rolling sea. Have we lost unity of purpose that such places can no longer be built?

Merger of family and business in fundamental ways



Here, family and small city roadside business merge with indescribable precision, reminding us of fundamentals we should not forget. Commercial transactions and family purpose were once commonplace. The evolving city, with increasing mixed uses and work close to home, might learn from images such as this one.

All images composed by the author in the United States, Australia, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Malta and Tanzania. Click on each image for more detail. © 2009-2013 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

This post first appeared in The Atlantic Cities and myurbanist in similar form.