Monday, September 29, 2008

TRANSIT VILLAGES: Developing as if mass transportation really mattered

As we head into the new millennium, Transit Villages are important paradigms for the building of sustainable communities. A Transit Village, also known in the west coast as a Transit Oriented Development (TOD), is a compact piece of existing or proposed territory built around a mass transit station -encouraging people to walk and ride transit more often. Transit Villages embrace traditional urban forms and the production of cohesive neighborhoods where greater densities, diversities, design, public safety and community revitalization can be achieved.

The same development patterns used in the design of sustainable neighborhoods should apply to Transit Villages: an identifiable public space should be adjacent to a transit station; a defined commercial core should occupy its center; a horizontal as well as a vertical mix of land uses should be present at walking distance; a variety of craftsmanship, building types and unit sizes should encompass its residential repertoire; a network of shaded sidewalks, small streets and service roads should encourage a pedestrian friendly territory; and, most importantly, a diversity of cultures and social layers should promote community cohesion, freedom and education. In fact, young households, retirees, childless couples, and in-migrants from foreign countries or other suburban areas are welcoming candidates for this paradigm shift. To the extent that governments capitalize on these untapped territories, Transit Villages can often offer an alternative to living and working in automobile-dependant suburban environments. But, before diving into the depths of these long term investments, the following ten issues must be taken into consideration:

1. Transit Villages require a long term commitment and a supportive political will from its neighboring residents.
2. Do not translate rail investments with significant land-use changes.
3. Land needs to be assembled for a development of sufficient size -40-80 acres.
4. Local governments must become development partners of any of these initiatives.
5. Pretty drawings must be grounded on sound financial realities and pro-formas.
6. Substantial infrastructure improvements are often necessary.
7. New parking configurations, parking reductions (typically 30-50%), and shared-parking agreements must be devised and implemented before the development takes place.
8. Fast-tracking review and approval policies are fundamental.
9. Development risk shall be underwritten by local governments –typically, these developments have a front end revenue advantage of 6.5% over their competitors.
10. Direct financial participation in the form of tax-exempt bonds, low interest loans, loan guarantees, etc. is required from the Public Sector.

Obviously, a Transit Village must be based upon a detailed master plan supported by local residents, staff and elected officials. As a consequence, Transit Villages must promote what in our professional jargon is called the three (3) D’s: DENSITY, DIVERSITY AND DESIGN.

1. Density: higher densities and compact patterns of development should lead to higher rates of transit riding. In typical suburban stations a density of 24-36 du/ac is still acceptable – 3 to 5 story townhouses and walk up apartments.

2. Diversity: a mix of uses should encourage people to walk while promoting resource efficiency. At the same time a variety of building types and unit sizes should guarantee a vital community of place.

3. Design and Detail: attention to light-imprint design details is vital for its differentiation, sustainability and beauty.

It is time to stop encouraging the oil dependant developments of the past; it is time to start a new age of self-reliance and independence. In the new millennium, the automobile is not a necessity but a luxury. Let us make the most of our own two feet!

Friday, May 30, 2008


The presence of universal principles in the building of the city is an undeniable fact. Despite the constant attacks by a flock of disconnected modernists, these principles cannot be outdated, replaced, or superseded. Traditional cities and architecture are not the result of dogmas or outmoded doctrines but the outcome of years of human experience attempting to find connections between the order of nature, our human bodies, and our minds.

Unlike the intellectual simplicity and spatial bankruptcy of the so-called “modernist cities”, traditional cities and architecture are timeless and legitimated by proven anthropological rules. Our defense mechanisms and our subconscious minds trigger convoluted chemical reactions when we experience one or the other; in the presence of utter simplicity, our brains initiate feelings of loss, fear and horror; in the presence of complexity and fractal information, we are prompted to feel interest, find peace and reach happiness.

Humans instinctively recognize what feels and looks natural, and react accordingly. We can hardly examine different city plans without realizing that despite their many differences, they fall into two broad categories: the regular and the irregular –or what Unwin and Parker called “formal and informal beauty”.

In spite of what we are set to believe by the Ivy League mob, neither regular nor irregular plans represent a particular modernist or traditional practice. The sensible beauty of places where building frontages are not straight, roads do not meet at square angles, or views are not symmetrical is undeniable; and, so is the graciousness of those formal parts of Paris, Nancy or Washington D.C.

A formal setting is a product of the mind; an informal setting is a product of our human experience. A formal plan requires a grand vision advocated by a leader with a lot of clout; an informal plan is an evolving act composed of many incremental decisions taken in-situ. Formal beauty is man-made and requires maintenance, management, and surveillance; informal beauty is natural, care free and the product of ordinary judgments.

We shall be wise to avoid dogmatizing on the reasons why one is better than the other; in truth, some designers may lean to one side, and some to the other. Most importantly, we must keep in touch with the actual requirements of our commissions, the practical manners in which they need to be solved, and the obvious needs of those who will dwell in our projects.