Urbanism: On Remaking Cities
Cities are never finished. They continue to evolve and adapt to change. The urban design of a city is the sum of organic and planned public spaces that have formed over time in its streets, riverfronts, plazas, and neighborhood parks. These spaces are formed and activated by the the uses housed in both public and private buildings that frame them. They serve as the enabler of the city’s economy and the backdrop for the city’s vitality, character, and livability.
Cities around the world are experiencing and responding to impacts stemming from a steadily urbanizing population. Within cities, demographic changes and economic realities have lead to the rediscovering of diverse, mixed-use, urban neighborhoods as a basis for residential and local economic life. Central to this trend is the availability of and accessibility to vibrant, memorable public spaces that range from grand civic spaces to a more neighborhood-focused public realm.
It is the public realm that plays host to the most vibrant part of city and neighborhood centers. The public realm is not only the platform for exchanging goods and ideas, but the primary means by which people are connected to one another. The health of a city is distinctly tied to its public realm’s usability, flexibility, and vibrancy. Sound urbanism is the primary tool for shaping public spaces, the form and elements of which vary widely based on use, context, size, and location.
The core module of a city that is vibrant and interconnected is a convenient, safe, and dynamic walk. The health and economic benefits of this module is best realized at three scales: the city, the block, and the building. A walkable city contains equitable connections between places, neighborhoods, open spaces, and opportunity. Walkable urban block design fosters a number of clear, intuitive choices about how to move through a neighborhood or district. Buildings-particularly their ground floor(s)-act as the front lines of walkability. They provide a clear distinction between public and private realms; safety that comes from the passive policing of public space by the people in buildings; and economic vibrancy in the easy exchange of goods, services, and ideas along active building frontages.
Resilience as the 21st Century Remaking Cities Agenda
The ultimate longevity and prosperity of a city grows out of the resilience afforded to it by an adaptable public realm and building stock. Because buildings and public spaces have a design life that spans several economic cycles, design trends, and demographic preferences, they must be built with inherent ability to respond to known and unknown needs that cities will have in the future. This is best done by learning from a place’s past to inform its future for those places that have survived and thrived through a number of generations provide a number of lessons to be reinterpreted and incorporated into new buildings and public spaces.
Resilience goes beyond a place’s ability to respond to changing trends. It endows a population with the ability to come together and respond to challenges and capitalize on opportunities. In a world of constant change and unpredictable, disruptive events, community resilience enables a city to recover or even benefit from shifts in the economy, climate, politics, natural resources, public health and natural disasters. The building of such community resilience is most clearly demonstrated in a well-defined public realm that hosts community traditions, culture, public art, and programmed events. It is activated through engaging the citizenry in discovering with them the future of their own urban environments.
Pittsburgh has a legacy of such resilience due, in part, to the composition and inherited value of its public realm and adaptable building stock. Reinforcing and advancing Pittsburgh’s urban form through its remaking is critical to continuing this legacy and position in a highly competitive market place for where people are choosing to live, raise families, start companies, and creatively expand the economy.
The built environment is the joint product of private development, civic leadership and planning. Policy and administrative functions of the City, such as design review, zoning administration, strategic and neighborhood planning, public works, building inspection, and the commissions and boards that render final approvals rely upon objective goals, executable mandates, and customer service that is predictable, clear, and convenient to the public. Moving forward, this agenda will start at the bottom and work up. Cities will be the curators of a bold new agenda. The places most up to the task will naturally be the most investment ready.
Pittsburgh, like every remaking city, is in a constant state of change. In fact, a city’s ability and willingness to adapt to change is a strong indication of that city’s future health and vitality. After undergoing severe population and economic decline, the city is beginning to turn a new corner in pursuing new economic anchors and their supporting industries; to attract a young, energetic workforce; and to start aggressively targeting environmental concerns such access to the rivers, water and air quality, and stormwater management. As we march on from the 2013 Congress, Pittsburgh joins its peer communities in remaking itself for the next generation.
Joe Nickol is an urban design and real estate development advisor with Urban Design Associates based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, focused on the regeneration of urban centers and neighborhoods in North America and Europe. He is a cofounder of www.Street-Sense.org.
Other Posts by Joe Nickol
Sustainable Cities Collective
- Green Buildings Alive
- Kaid Benfield
- This Big City
- Tyler Caine
- Centre for Cities
- Julian Dobson
- Polis Inclusive
- Kristen Jeffers
- Warren Karlenzig
- David Levinson
- Adam Nathaniel Mayer
- Scott J Morrison
- Daniel Nairn
- Project for Public Spaces
- Douglas Reiser
- Jim Russell
- Neil Takemoto
- Renée van Staveren
- Chuck Wolfe