These entries present ideas about how buildings, cities, and landscapes can be made into better places for humans. Humane Design is published by Jeremy Fretts, and is committed to "improving the human habitat." Jeremy Fretts is a designer and project architect at Niles Bolton Associates, and a member of the Congress for New Urbanism.    RSS/XML

Click to switch to Index view


Death by Architecture

Plenty of architects would chuckle at this subject, and presume I am speaking of the profession.  But the death of which I write is the death of a religious congregation (or, I suppose, any organization) by the failure of its facility to support its mission.

I have now visited numerous churches in the Washington D.C. area in which the high Georgian architecture, and the ornate built-in woodwork, the brass lamps, and the formal altar do not support the needs of a contemporary congregation.  However, these forms have become so important to many members of the congregation, that they become a stumbling block to change.

While I am a firm believer that an ancientfuture church (see Leonard Sweet) can exist within any building, it is noteworthy that the most vibrant congregations I have know are housed in less classical buildings.  Is this simply a function of when they were built, and the average age of the residents of that neighborhood?  Or, has the building shaped them?  Or, has the building simply stayed out of the way of God's shaping of their ministry?

 It is easy to become sentimental about any building where important moments are shared.   But I would argue that there comes a point where certain buildings are so formal, carrying so much weight of tradition, that they become stifling to life and growth within.



Transit Church at Clarendon Metro


Shortly after moving to Washington, I began considering the idea of a church located at a Metro station.  It is only appropriate that any building which attracts large volumes of people should be located near transit.  In my conception, I also decided that it should incorporate a daycare center, public meeting rooms, and other "mixed use" components.

Today, I discovered that The Church at Clarendon is developing a mixed-use project on their site of 90 years, located across from the Metro.  They have multiplie congregations that meet within their building, and the new facility will include market rate and affordable housing. 

Kudos to Church at Clarendon for realizing the wisdom of maximizing their land, providing for the poor, and retaining the presence of their ministry.  You can see their development plans online at

"Rather than sell to a private developer, the church agreed that a non-profit dedicated to building and maintaining affordable housing should purchase the development rights to the site."


Palaces in the Park

Famed architect Le Corbusier suggested modern "towers in the park" as the ideal form of contemporary human habitation.  Since Corbu's time, his idea was tried, and found severely wanting, particularly when used for low income housing. 

In the United States, many of the buildings resulting from Corbusier's vision have been built, and demolished.  Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., there are what I call "Palaces on the Parkway" that stand the test of time with magnificence. 

In northwest Washington, along Connecticut Ave, magnificent apartment houses pierce the tree-lined skyline.  In today's market, none are affordable housing, but they do offer a level of elegance and civility unknown to apartment dwellers in most places.  Rock Creek Park, the National Zoo, and gilded bridges accessorize the neighborhood.  Cafes abound, as do elegant restaurants. 

Unlike Corbusier's vision, the ground plane here is a multimodal street system, rather than a vast green lawn.  Rather than elevated superhighways, cars must compete with pedestrians, and each enhances the perceived safety of the other. And the "towers" are not skyscrapers, but rather majestic 10-story buildings.

Omni Hotel overlooking Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC


What's 'New' in New Urbanism - Part One: Squeaky Clean

Inspired by a lecture by Andres Duany at CNU XV, May 2007.

Any studied urbanist will tell you that authentic neighborhoods are not tidy.  They are not ordered.  They are not perfect.  Rather, they develop over time, and are filled with oddities that make them unique.

However, in creating "new" urban environments, or when breathing life into dead "old" urbanism, the competition is suburbia.  And, in fact, the newest construction in suburbia.  And suburbia is squeaky clean. 

A suburban retail development (one that's successful) is managed, and kept safe and tidy.  Expenditures on private police, cameras, and lights are all easily justified.  Just one crime could cost the retailers, and therefore the developer, hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.   A healthy suburban shopping center must be safe, and must be perceived as safe.  A clean environment implies a safe environment, and helps to keep a positive image of the center.

Flash back to the city street.  Cities are often mired in slow-to-change systems designed to save money, not maximize quality.  If a development owner sees an overflowing trashcan, heads roll.  If a city employee sees a full trash can, it still waits until trash day.

On the residential side, suburbanites are accustomed to a certain maintenance standard, enforced by the homeowners' association.  It is expected, and demanded, that the homeowner properly care for the exterior of their dwelling and landscape.  Not so on the individual city lots of yore. 

Don't misunderstand -- I am not in favor of overzealous HOA's, nor cookie cutter houses with managed color palettes.  However, this is the new norm in which New Urbanism must craft its diverse townscapes.



What's 'New' in New Urbanism: Introduction

Frequently, members of CNU are confronted with the question "Isn't it just old urbanism, rediscovered? Besides greenfield sites, what is 'new' about New Urbanism?"  As part of a lecture at CNU XV, in May of 2007, Andres Duany mentioned several things which distinguish New Urbanism from its elder cousin.  Over several entries, I will share my own summary of, and comments on these items.

New Urbanism (in contrast to Old Urbanism) is:

1) Squeaky Clean (and safe)

2) Managed (and open late)

3) Organized

4) Water-permeable (and environmentally friendly)

5) Automobile-friendly



Playing in the inalienable right!

We declare these truths to be self-evident: public fountains at ground level must be available for wading, toe-dangling, and light water play!


This weekend I saw "no wading" signs at two memorials in Washington, D.C.  "Please respect the memorial."  Well, sorry - I can't respect the sign.  It's not that I disrespect the nature of memorials and monuments, but rather that I respect the intent of intent of the monument designer, and the inate human desire to interact with water.  If you design a fountain in a hot, granite-clad public space, you should assume that people will touch it, and, if possible, walk in it.  

On a more philosophical note, is it not a testimony to the success of our battles for freedom that children should splash about at a memorial?  Childlike innocence, joy, and freedom are the very things our fallen heroes died to defend. 



Clever detail for uplights


Lighting can add a lot to a monumental building, but what to do with the fixture, which is often ugly? Here's an elegant and ornate solution and the Wilmington Public Library, in Delaware.



RESIDENTIAL liner buildings!


The original home office, or live-work unit.  This "liner building" sits in front of (and below) residential dwellings in Manayunk, PA.  These are one block from the train station, and one of these was originally a barber shop.  The barber lived a block away in a townhouse.   He died in his home around the corner, watching the neighborhood kids play streetball.



Live from CNU / Philadelphia - A tour of Manayunk

This is the first entry chronicling what I learn and observe as the Congress for New Urbanism descends upon Philadelphia.  This if my fifth consecutive Congress.

Today, I toured Manayunk, PA, a commuter suburb that has experienced a recent rebirth.  Tom Comitta, a well-known urban planner in Eastern Pennsylvania, explained how understanding his own neighborhood led to his "conversion" from conventional planning to traditional neighborhood design. 

Two things shaped the neighborhoods of Manayunk: Catholic parishes, and the rail service to Philadelphia.  There were once three train lines and three stations in the small community. There were five ethnic Catholic parishes, language and nation of origin distinguishing them.  As a result of the train service, few people had cars, and the local retail served the daily needs of workers on their way home.  Corner stores, cigar bars, barbers, etc., were located on the main path from train to home.  The corner stores became the hub of the neighborhood, and were usually only a block or two from home. 

Today's Manayunk is an delightful walkable neighborhood with local retailers and restaurants, along with prestigious national chains like Banana Republic and Starbucks.  A block from main street, a small townhome can still be purchased for well under $200,000.

While no single "plan" led to the revitalization of the area, the cleanup of the canal and towpath one block from main street helped to catalyze a new outlook on the town.

Manayunk helps to reinforce a theory I've been mulling over in my head.  Urban places can become so successful that they lose their charm.  When the pizzeria is replaced by an osteria, and it becomes a destination rather than a hometown. The true magic occurs in between.  When a place has a mix of old and new, local and national -- with respect to both its business establishments and its patrons.

At any rate, Manayunk is a delightful surprise.  It shows that otherwise bland, run-down Pennsylvania towns can have vibrant, colorful downtowns, affordable housing, and be really cool.  As a Pennsylvania native with a low opinion of much of the housing stock, this is encouraging and paradigm-shifting. 

(pictures to follow later)



SPM Desperately seeking Third Place

I am disenchanted with urban life.   I finally escaped suburbia and moved to a spectacular new job in one of my favorite urban places in the world, Alexandria, VA.  I live next to a metro stop, in one of the "best places for singles."  And yet, much to my surprise, I am disenchanted with my new city after working hours.

Certainly, parts of Washington, DC, are still nine-to-five places, where they "roll up the sidewalks at 5 o'clock."  But Alexandria is a charming tourist district, with waterfront, and is a healthy city in its own right.  It is one of the finest examples of urban planning, walkability, and mixed-use "old urbanism" in the United States.  

Yet I am stunned to discover that my new neighborhood is....dull.  At least after 6:00.  I moved to a condo tower for the purpose of being sociable.  I rarely see neighbors.  Further, I live immediately adjacent to a Metro (subway) stop.  That, if anything, should yield a hub of activity.  Instead, the first floors of metro-adjacent real estate are vacant or used for offices, rather than retail or dining.  The nearest Starbucks is six blocks away.  Few cafes are open when I need them, and fewer have outdoor seating. Or any seating.

Granted, I also live next to public housing projects.  But condos in my building start at $340,000.  It's a genuine mixed-income area.   And some of my accusations apply even to renowned King Street, which is NOT the low rent district.

So far, my diagnosis is that store owners haven't gotten the memo that retail happens after work.  So many shops and even restaurants and coffee shops close at four or six o'clock!  In Indianapolis I lived next to a 24 hour Starbucks, and many of the casual restaurants were open until ten, or even later.

After a week as a pedestrian purist, I finally returned to my car in hopes of locating signs of life.  I am sad to admit it, but I found a beacon of bustling activity in a suburban-style shopping center called Potomac Yard.  It could be anywhere in the suburbs.  It was bright, and busy, and the stores were... OPEN.

As a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, I am embarassed to admit that I am thrilled to have this lively strip-mall nearby.  But for the time being, this seems to be where my neighbors go to shop and play. And for lack of other alternatives, I'll gladly join them.

So hear me Alexandria businesses:  open your !@$% store later than 6 pm.  It's good for the neighborhood.