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

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Urban design & terrorism

I intended to write this shortly months ago, but perhaps it is appropriate or at least ironic to document these concepts on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

For millenia, city design has been closely tied to protection from enemies.  From city walls to castles and forts to the labyrinthine passages of Mykonos, defensibility has always mattered.  After World Wars One and Two, the development of suburbia was actually promoted as a modern defense to modern weaponry and destruction. 

As much as I hate to admit it, the decentralization of the population as a defense against bombs and nuclear weapons was not an entirely bad idea.  But the cost to our psychosocial health has been high, and the cost in oil and pollution is high.

In June, I was introduced to a drawing by Leon Krier, which succinctly argues what is perhaps the middle ground:  low-rise construction, in high density, is urban without being an easy target.  Krier is opposed to both urban sprawl and, what he terms, "vertical sprawl."


The drawing depicts the number of jets necessary to take down the World Trade Center, versus the number required to destroy more broadly distributed square footage.  Krier's drawing is perhaps suggests part of the urban planning response to the current threat of terrorism.  With mid-rise structures, casualties would more limited than with high-rise.  And, there is always the argument that this size is more humane and pleasant to begin with.




What's Missing in Residential Design

I've been on a several month obsession with understanding housing.  Namely, why are home prices skyrocketing, despite the fact that most of the choices are dreary, poorly-built look-alikes.   This week, I was even looking at the "products" available from a legendary developer of senior housing.  I only looked at one Illinois community, but if that's the "state of the art" in retirement living, then it's good that I don't plan to retire.

This week, I have been reading "Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles," the seminal work by Stefanos Polyzoides and associates.  I also watched a documentary on the architecture of Thomas Jefferson.  What has stood out in both presentations is the integration of indoor and outdoor living. 

Thomas Jefferson, as it turns out, introduced the concept of decks and patios (with French doors) to the American architectural lexicon. His homes at Monticello and Poplar Forest were designed with a keen eye toward indoor-outdoor living. Bungalows and their derivative courtyard housing types also were keenly focused on the quality of the outdoor space, and the visual and physical passage to and from the outdoors.

Now consider housing in Indiana, circa 2006.  Even the finest (largest) developer-built homes come with a mere concrete patio and the minimum plantings allowed by law.  The transition from indoors to out is usually delineated only by the door itself.  As a part-time nursery salesman, I can't count the number of customers who come in to replace the "builder special" shrubs that they despise.

In the Los Angeles courtyards, the high-density equivalent of the private LA backyard, the finest materials are used on the courtyard interior.  In Indiana, even "brick" houses often have only vinyl siding and trimless windows in that most hallowed private realm of the backyard.

Bungalows and cottages are perennial favorites.  So why, I must ask, are so few of these products being offered? 

Gardening is one of the leading national hobbies. Endless periodicals and Martha Stewart books portray beautiful homes in beautiful landscapes.  "Curb Appeal" and "Flip This House" teach the benefits of adding a few nice touches to the yard.  So why is integration with the landscape so overlooked by new homebuilders?

Finally, I will close with one additional observation about "typical" residential neighborhood-making.  Many neighborhoods have vast entrances, medians, and buffers.  Yet none of those greenspaces are at all usable by people.  They look nice to the car entering the subdivision, and their visual appeal is not without merit.  However, when I tried to take my 1-year old nephew outside to roll around in some grass, we had a hard time finding a "yard."  Neo-suburbs have "townhouses" without the amenities of a "town," which would include real park space.  It's the worst of all worlds - no private backyard, and no worthy public park.

I would like to challenge conventional developers and municipalities to reconsider where they are placing their greenspaces.  Perhaps instead of thick buffers, we could have wonderful, usable park space.




Deadly cul-de-sacs

Cul-de-sacs may remain popular with homebuyers, but increasingly design professionals are aware of their physical and social dangers. 

According to researcher William Lucy, as reported by NPR: "Lucy says cul-de-sac communities turn out to have some of the highest rates of traffic accidents involving young children.

"'The actual research about injuries and deaths to small children under five is that the main cause of death is being backed over, not being driven over forward,' he says. 'And it would be expected that the main people doing the backing over would in fact be family members, usually the parents.'"  (1)

Charlotte, Portland, and Austin have effectively banned cul-de-sacs.  At present, buyers, however, will typically pay a 20% premium for a cul-de-sac location.

(1) Read the full article from NPR:

From other lectures I have heard on the subject, it would seem that street width is the best determinant of traffic-accident safety.  Narrow streets cause slower speeds, which cause fewer deadly injuries.  As for the other perceptions of safety, I have also heard it said that you are less likely to die in a "dangerous" urban neighborhood than on a cul-de-sac.  (I'll need to add some legitimate sources for that, though.)




"Lazy Man Planning" benefits developer (From the experts at CNU XIV)

Traditional street grids, including alleys, provide greater marketplace flexibility for developers. David Pace, developer of Baldwin Park, refers to it as “Lazy-Man Planning.” With a 120’ deep block structure, he can vary the lot WIDTH as needed for whatever product happens to be most marketable at a given moment in time. He is able to sell a variety of house types, townhouses, live-work units, or apartment buildings all designed to fit the 120’ depth.


The (Broken) Promise of Suburbia

Originally, suburbia promised nature, variety, easy access, cleanliness, and freedom.  Now, 50 years into the suburban experiment, we know that the massive suburban monster that has evolved has failed to make good on those promises.

Instead of nature, we experience endless pavement.

Instead of variety and choice, we experience endless low-quality homogeneity in retail and housing.

Instead of easy access, we experience traffic and public battles to prevent increased traffic from new development

Instead of freedom, we experience segregation by age and economic status, and mandatory auto ownership.  (Jeff Speck, Design Director of the National Endowment for the Arts and an urban planner, explains that "your car is no longer an instrument of freedom but a prosthetic device." (1))

Instead of cleanliness, we experience an ugly or nonexistent public realm.

sierra club outdoors.jpg


Suburban neighborhoods often offer constructed amenities such as pools, gatehouses, clubhouses, and golf courses.  Yet studies and surveys show that the amenities people most desire are walkable and interesting neighborhoods.  These are amenities that are virtually free, requiring only careful design consideration. (As an aside, a golf course costs $8-10 million to construct, and uses 140 acres of land)

The amenities of a New Urbanist community include walkability and proximity of varied uses.  If we look at Manhattan, millions of people live there willingly, without yards, because they love the street life amenities.  "Townhouses must have towns!" exclaimed Andres Duany.

(Adapted from Andres Duany, Presentation to the XIV Congress for the New Urbanism, June, 2006)



Highlights from CNU XIV, Providence, RI


Greetings to my new urbanist and developer friends who were unable to attend CNU XIV. I have done my best to summarize a few highlights and useful tips gathered at this year’s Congress, held June 1-5 in Providence, Rhode Island. Of course, it is impossible to capture the full breadth of learning and inspiration that occurs at this premier gathering of urban visionaries.

My teachers for the week included:

· Jed Selby , 27-year old wunderkind developer of riverfront South Main in Buena Vista, Colorado. Jed & sister Katie are developing the first kayaking-focused TND.

· Christopher Alexander , famed (and long-winded) architect-author of “A Pattern Language” and other expensive volumes.

· Leon Krier , visionary French architect and urbanist

· The Honorable John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister of Great Britain

· Andres Duany , Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co.

· Lee Sobel , US Environmental Protection Agency

· Doug Storrs , developer of Mashpee Commons

· Yaromir Steiner , developer of CocoWalk, Easton Town Center, and more

· Marilyn Taylor , Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Chairman of Urban Land Institute

· Marianne Cusato , designer of the now-famous “Katrina Cottage” for homeless residents of the Gulf Coast (Marianne also designs “society homes” for New York’s wealthiest).

· The developers & architects of Stapleton, CO; Celebration, FL; and Poundbury, UK

· And many others!

With this year’s focus on developers and implementation, I heard many stories of how good design of buildings and neighborhoods result in exceptional profit. More than a few panelists and speakers from the development and construction communities emphasized that they are New Urbanists first because it pays, and second because it’s a philosophy with which they can identify.

At the same time, this year’s Congress focused more than ever on affordable housing. CNU members recognize that the great success of NU communities only garners us more criticism for failing to serve the underprivileged. The greatest growth in homelessness is among WORKING FAMILIES. “Worker housing” is a phrase which is increasingly used in discussing ways that workers at low-paying jobs can live in close proximity to their jobs. We need affordability other than what Todd Zimmerman calls “drive ‘til you qualify.”

With CNU’s landmark response to the hurricane ravaged coast, we have begun to change the nature of the the housing discussion in the United States. There is no reason that small, affordable homes cannot also be well designed. This is proved by the incredible desire across multiple markets for the “Katrina Cottage.” The wealthy are seeking to recreate this affordable-housing design for their mountain vacation cottages; the middle class are building them as alley rental apartments to generate additional income in West Coast neighborhoods, and the poorest of the poor will begin receiving these well-designed cottages from FEMA. CNU XIV celebrated the return of dignity to affordable housing.

Marilyn Taylor, Chairman of the Urban Land Institute and a partner in the famed architecture firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill, shared statistics that will define our world in the next 20 years. In 2007, for the first time in history, more than one-half of the world’s population will live in cities. By 2030, the United States population will increase by 90 million people. Density is no longer an option. Good design must supercede the bad impression that the word makes on most Americans. Why do eight million people CHOOSE to live in Manhattan, asks Marilyn?

Speaking of density: Hong Kong has 74,000 people per square mile. New York City has a meager 26,000 people / mi square.

Finally, I’ll close with a new spin on New Urbanism from Andres Duany. What New Urbanists do is simply “assemble and connect what would be built anyway.” We assemble the parts into a whole which

  • Increases walkability
  • Increases compactness
  • Increases diversity

CNU is composed of diverse practitioners who are not afraid to look at the big picture, and embrace the full complexity of city-building. We refuse to oversimplify, and we welcome anyone to our ranks who is willing to engage in this level of discourse. (Amen, Rev. Duany.)

Please make sure to see other postings on specific topics extracted from the Congress. I’d also be happy to share more specifics on any of the sessions I attended.

Also, CNU Next Gen member Mike Lydon has written a good summary here:


Modernism and New Urbanism

A few notes from "Modernism and New Urbanism" presentation at CNU XIV, June 2006.

Four reasons for urban modernism (Ellen Dunham-Jones)

  1. Growing market for Modernism (
  2. Modernism can behave urbanistically
  3. Modernism is an optimistic expression of a better tomorrow
  4. A diversity of styles (i.e. including modernism) makes a place more "urban"

Cities are polycentric, they require multiple communities, multiple expressions, whereas villages can be a bit more homogeneous.

In Prospect, CO, (Kiki Wallace) modernism has been used as an expression of individual freedom.  Prospect has continued to thrive (albeit at a slow buildout rate) despite a collapse in the surrounding housing markets.

At Aqua, in Miami (Andres Duany), the varied modernist buildings ending up being quite unified, perhaps due to "value engineering" which led to a very limited palette of materials...doors, windows, etc., from a very short list of suppliers and products.

A big reason that New Urbanist towns have ended up being "classical" has to do with market desires of homebuilders and homebuyers.  At Seaside, for example, only the private dwellings were carefully coded.  Yet many of the public buildings still ended up following a very classical idiom.

Perhaps part of the reason New Urbanism has spent so much time focusing on classical/traditional architecture is because there is so much BAD classicism being  built by homebuilders. Once upon a time, the in-house credo at DPZ was "IF you're going to work in the classical idiom, you shall follow these rules..."



Miscellany from CNU

At least initially in no particular order...

-According to David Pace, a "fiscal new urbanist," builders make MORE MONEY on PURE traditional neighborhood developments than on other (conventional) projects.  That's why he has always been very hard-nosed on sticking to pure, mixed-use, high quality projects.  He is demanding of his builders, and they have learned to appreciate the financial result.

-Yaromir Steiner, developer of CocoWalk, Easton Town Center, and other renowned projects, stated that his firm has experienced a philosophical shift toward a fully gridded street plan as best practice.  They are learning to "chain" multiple urban rooms together.

-Work with small banks and lending officers who are there for the long haul.  It takes too much effort to educate successive lending officers in a bank with high staff turnover.




Hoosier & Buckeye Urbanists

While at the fourteenth Congress for the New Urbanism, I hosted a gathering of attendees from Indiana and Western Ohio.  There finally appears to be a critical mass of interest, with attendees (at our dinner) from Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Bloomington, Cincinnatti, and South Bend.  As is apparently our custom, we met at a Cuban restaurant.

Ball State University's CAP:Indy Center has agreed to develop and host a website and listserv for the Midwest Urbanists Guild (name tentative).  Watch for more information on this new networking, education, and advocacy group.




Artful Trash Cans

providence2006-27.jpgSpotted in Providence, RI - public trash cans as an art form!  These are made at an art colony called The Steel Yard.  The one labeled "Met" was produced by students from a charter school (at-risk kids, I think), and it graphically represents their school values.  ("Liberty" represented by a broken chain). 

My tour of the Steel Yard, and other artist-led redevelopment efforts in Providence, was part of the 14th Congress for the New Urbanism, the world's premier gathering of urban designers and advocates.


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