I’m always keeping my eyes open for new and exciting street designs, and I was surprised to find one in a New York Times article on Silicon Valley tech companies. The photo below is from Facebook’s campus:

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Facebook’s campus has a promenade/town square at its center, and this “street” is one part of that space. I love this space because it looks like it’s from a future where bicycles have supplanted cars as the dominant mode. As a result, the space between the sidewalks dedicated to cars was transformed into a cycle track, planted strip, and a big ol’ tree to ensure that cars won’t be returning any time soon.

There are other things to love about this street. Check out the campus map embedded in the sidewalk to the right of the yellow brick path. Check out the yellow brick path! I do wish the tree wasn’t intruding on the cycle track, but in this case the tree probably predates the cycle track.

Cities could implement a similar design as small, one-block installations downtown. Ideally this would be installed on a street with an existing cycle track and businesses that primarily rely on foot traffic. A one-block version may also quell complaints from the fire marshall about emergency vehicle access. This design could also spruce up an aging pedestrian mall — the addition of a cycle track would inject some energy into often-barren spaces.

Bottom line: The Social Network designs the future of the street network.

I’ve written about street texture before, but a recent trip to Brooklyn provided an excellent example of the importance of getting that texture just right.

State Street, Brooklyn, New York

I took Sunday morning stroll in the Boerum Hill neighborhood and happened upon a block of State Street that had one side lined with brownstones on the historic register and the other with recently constructed townhomes. In general, the new homes complement the historic buildings well. They are of a similar height, they have nice front stoops, and use the same material palette. You can tell the architect of the new townhomes was trying hard to balance the style of old brownstones with a modern aesthetic based on clean lines and an honesty about the materials. For instance, the new townhomes don’t have lintels above the windows because their brick façades aren’t load-bearing like the historic façades. The brick is just a veneer and is detailed accordingly.

A close-up look at the two sets of façades

All of this honesty and modernity creates stark façades when compared to their historic neighbors. The historic homes aren’t even as richly detailed as some townhomes of the same period, but simple elements like a decorative cornice, lintels, divided lites in the windows, and a rusticated base add human-scale texture that creates a charm and warmth modern structures of a similar type haven’t been able to match. Modern architecture is in many ways about stripping away the artifice that makes these historic buildings so successful. Ornament isn’t useless, it helps us feel comfortable in an urban environment that could easily feel monolithic and cold. Such ornament can be eschewed in buildings like skyscrapers, where the primary vantage point for viewing the building is often miles away. But when a building is up close and serves as a residence, modern architecture isn’t as successful as its traditional counterpart.

Click here for a full-sized PDF of the map.

Eugene’s bus rapid transit system, EmX, is at a fork in the road. In one direction, a new west Eugene extension of the system is killed by vocal opponents. In the other, the extension is built. I believe that if the first path is chosen, bus rapid transit in Eugene will see little to no future expansion. Lane Transit District (LTD) will be approaching any future expansion from a weak position, where any neighborhood or business groups can organize and defeat it because they have seen how it can be done.

LTD’s current vision for EmX map. Not very attractive.

My map is a glimpse 50 years into the future if the west Eugene extension is built. Down this path, future expansion efforts are successful and residents begin to see the benefits of a strong network of frequent bus service. I think LTD has a problem explaining their vision for EmX, and how it will eventually serve all major corridors in the area. Residents now don’t see how the west Eugene extension fits into the vision of an expansive network. My map gives Eugene and Springfield residents that vision into the future in an attractive, exciting (for a map) way.

Notes on the map

All of the new routes on my map came from LTD’s future EmX corridor map above. I simplified a few routes and didn’t include the “perimeter” route that would follow the beltline highway. I just couldn’t figure how BRT on that highway route would work and connect with other lines. Also, LTD’s map just shows corridors, so in some cases it was clear what would constitute a route, but in other cases (like Coburg/Harlow/Gateway) I had to guess. I placed stations on the new routes at significant intersections at roughly the same distance apart as the existing EmX stations.

Detail of downtown Eugene and the UO

Downtown Eugene was the trickiest part of the map due to the concentration of routes. For the most part, the stations on all of the routes make sense relative to each other, though I drastically simplified the area around Eugene Station by creating one large dot.

My hope is that this map won’t be taken as a literal set-in-stone plan for the future of EmX, but a possible scenario for a vast, connected network of frequent transit service in 50 years. While I probably won’t be in Eugene to ride it, I hope something like this gets built! To learn more about the efforts to support EmX visit West EmX Yes!

Thanks to Transit Maps for the inspiration and instruction that made my map possible!

The square on the left was built in 1984 in the era of cars, Reagan, and Styx, and the square on the left was built roughly 700 years before that, in the era of knights, the Crusades, and the plague. What do Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square and Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy have in common? Both are recognized as excellent public spaces; in fact the Project for Public Spaces ranked these squares in the top five in the world. How did each become great people places, given their different beginnings? Are there universal principles that govern good public spaces?

What’s Different

Before drawing parallels between the two squares, it’s important to acknowledge the differences. As the quick-and-dirty figure ground diagram shows below, the cities themselves are quite different. Portland is a traditional American grid city, with 200 foot squares checkering downtown. Siena is typical of all very old cities in Europe built before the car, with winding, narrow streets and a dense urban fabric. Pioneer Courthouse square looks like it was formed from an omission from the grid, while Piazza del Campo looks like it was carved out of the dense fabric.

Figure ground diagram of Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square and Siena’s Piazza del Campo

Whenever comparing anything in the urban United States with urban Europe, the big difference is the car. While the figure ground diagram shows the squares at roughly the same size, Pioneer Courthouse Square’s edge is dominated streets and traffic. Siena’s edge is given over to pedestrians, so the square comes to the buildings and the buildings are more incorporated into the façade of the square. Portland, to their credit, has tried to fix this problem in their newest downtown square Director Park, where the paving treatment of the streets around the edge match the square.

Key Similarities

The single most important ingredient to any successful public square is people, and both of these squares have them in spades. As the renowned urbanist William H. Whyte said:

What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.

In Siena, the Piazza del Campo was and is a public market, the center for trading and commerce in the city. One of the reasons Pioneer Courthouse Square exists is because TriMet, the transit agency, insisted. The square has a transit information center and is almost entirely ringed with light rail and bus lines and stops. No matter what else is happening around it, Pioneer Courthouse Square will always remain lively as a sort of open-air Grand Central Station for Portland commuters.

The Palio di Siena

Great squares typically have anchors, buildings or institutions that serve as a focal point. Siena’s gorgeous city hall and bell tower serve that role for the Piazza del Campo, and the Pioneer Courthouse serves that role in Portland. The Pioneer Courthouse is one of the oldest existing federal buildings in the West and actively serves as a courthouse for the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Siena’s city hall has the advantage of presence, however. All of the buildings around the square are roughly the same height or shorter, so the city hall and it’s tall bell tower stand out more than the pint-size courthouse amongst all of the taller downtown buildings. In fact, Siena’s bell tower was the tallest building in Italy when built.

Siena (above) and Portland (below).
Photos via the Project for Public Spaces.

Both Siena and Portland’s squares benefit from their perceived centrality. If you were to ask a citizen of Siena where the “center of town” was, they would likely point you to the Piazza del Campo. The same would happen in Portland and Pioneer Courthouse Square, even though the square is nowhere near the actual geographic center of the city. There’s something important about a city’s center of perceptual gravity, and the public space that occupies that space will be more successful than one toward the periphery. Downtowns and town centers are places people want to be because that’s where everyone and everything else is. Both squares take advantage of this by hosting high-profile city events that cement their center-of-gravity status. Pioneer Courthouse Square seems to be in almost continuous use by various organizations and city functions, and twice a year the Piazza del Campo plays host to the famous Palio di Siena, a horse race around the edge of the square (right).

Simple design moves also enliven the squares. Both squares are located on slightly sloped sites. In Siena, the entire square itself is sloped toward city hall, giving the square directionality and making the ground more comfortable to sit on. Portland’s square uses a series of steps to give people a place to sit, enjoy lunch from a nearby food cart, and watch other people on the square. Both squares use brick paving, a material that is of a human scale. Can you imagine if the Piazza del Campo was paved in asphalt? A fine textured surface signals that people are welcome, not cars.

From these examples, it is clear that the ingredients to a successful public space are simple and timeless. People, institutional anchors, location, and person-sensitve design, when done right can come together to create a world-class space.

I was visiting some friends in Portland when I happened upon some unique paving. Instead of the street consisting of one solid slab of asphalt, the asphalt was limited to the narrow travel lane. The parking lanes were paved with brick-colored pavers. After I returned home, I did some research and found that this was a City of Portland, OR pilot project to test a couple of pervious paving schemes.

Portland’s pervious paving experiment

The street above is one of a few the city did in the Sellwood/Westmoreland neighborhood to mitigate the effects of storm water runoff after heavy rains. Portland has been on the forefront of storm water mitigation at the source, but usually through the use of bioswales. This treatment allows rainwater to flow off of the asphalt and into the parking lanes, where high-strength concrete pavers allow rainwater to flow down the spaces between them. The layers below the pavers filter out pollutants that would otherwise contaminate the groundwater.

While I really like this approach to managing storm water, I am most interested in this as a bit of urban design. This street looks like it is about 30 feet curb-to-curb, with two eight-foot parking lanes, two one-foot curbs between the lanes, and about twelve feet of asphalt for the queuing travel lanes. The idea on this street is that when two cars pass each other, one slows or stops in the parking lane to allow the other to pass. It’s a condition that results in slower speeds, perfect for residential neighborhoods like this.

This scheme really makes the street feel narrower and more appealing. A 30-foot-wide street on a quiet residential block is a bit overkill and out of scale for the place. Reducing the ocean of asphalt to a pleasant strip is a step in the right direction. The addition of pavers adds some human-scale texture to the street — another plus.

The same street, with less on-street parking

The scheme also highlights an absurdity in residential street design. Namely — does this street really need two sides dedicated to off-street parking? Taken together, parking takes up over half of the street area and it’s used by maybe three cars in this picture. In places where there is plentiful off-street parking, this much on-street parking seems like a waste. The different pavement treatments really shows off this ridiculous allocation of space. Imagine if one side of the parking was removed, and the curb-to-curb width was only 22 feet (the quick photoshop at right). The result is much more intimate and better proportioned to the area the street serves.

Even with the street at the present width, the new pavement treatment is a success on a couple of levels. The storm water entering the sewer system will undoubtedly be less, and the street is far more attractive than a plain asphalt-only one. It’s not within the City of Portland’s capabilities to stretch the fabric of the earth to reduce the width of the street like I did above, but it shows that new streets do not need to be built to the same specifications.

In a recent post over at New World Economics, Nathan Lewis posted a series of photos of great urban streets (see one below) and asked: “Does the place you live/work/shop look as good as this? Why not?” He’s making the obvious point that most people don’t interact with spaces like this on a daily basis, at least not in the United States. There are many reasons for this; Lewis looks at the economics behind it, which makes sense as he’s an economist. I’m an architecture and urban planning student, so I’m interested in the design of these spaces. What about those streets makes them universally appealing?

Quebec City, Canada via Nathan Lewis

As the title to this post has indicated, the texture along the street is what makes the street in Quebec City and the others so appealing. Just look at the picture to the right. Check out at all of the signs, balconies, awnings, stairs, and vines. All of these elements create a visually interesting space for our eyes; we could walk up and down this street many times without being bored. There are plenty of windows, as well, for looking into. Many of the elements, like the window displays, awnings, and landscaping, change with the seasons. Furthermore, all of these elements are designed for humans passing by at walking speed. Signs are placed just high enough so that they can be seen above the heads of other people along the street. In a typical suburban strip mall development, the signs are incredibly high so that speeding motorists can see them from a mile away. Of course, this street is helped because there are no cars on it at all. Cars are big and streets designed for only them tend to be incredibly ugly for pedestrians. I guess the hope is that in a car you’re moving by so fast you don’t notice.

Wells Fargo Center, Portland, OR

This poor attention to human detail even occurs in the downtowns of America’s cities. These are places that originally were the bastion of pedestrians, but in many places have become wastelands. The picture at right is an example of what happens when architects stop designing for humans. Instead of thinking about the texture of street level, the architects cared more about how their skyscraper would look as a piece of modernist art. Thankfully, due to this building, the city of Portland requires that a majority of a facade at street level be transparent. This means that some form of retail will occupy street level, with the hope of creating more pedestrian-level texture.

Texture is only one element of a beautiful city street, but without it a street can’t truly be successful for pedestrians. It’s the primary indicator that people are welcome, not (just) cars.