Eyes on the Street
With this issue of Terrain.org, we are pleased to welcome editorial board member Ken Pirie to our regular columns. Ken’s “Eyes on the Street” will appear each winter and summer. Welcome, Ken, and thanks for providing your keen insight!
I’m a practicing urban designer and planner and I also teach a class at a local university’s graduate school of planning. In this class, I encourage students to learn about the physical structure of cities, through deep exploration of the layers of natural context, urban history and culture, as well as the more prosaic details of things such as utility lines and street dimensions. I sense in the students a real thirst for this aspect of urban planning, a positive reaction to the course suggesting that some of the people who embark on such careers actually are seeking a direct, engaged role in the design of cities, versus a future of passively regulating the efforts of developers, or writing policies that form theoretical guidelines for city design.
A recent article by Randall Arendt bemoaned that urban planners have lost their focus and connection to the original founding ambitions of the discipline. Arendt suggested that, since the 1950s, urban planners have abdicated their rightful roles as shapers of cities to other professionals, such as landscape architects, architects, and civil engineers, all of whom have stepped into the vacuum left by the planners’ departure. To Arendt, this situation hasn’t been helped by fragmented graduate school planning programs which include social sciences, statistics, law, and politics but little training in interpreting and designing cities. Part of the problem, he notes, is that few programs include detailed study of traditional towns and cities, or new and emerging urban forms meeting 21st century challenges. Planning students are generally not required to analyze how the scale and arrangement of a community’s component parts (such as neighborhoods, streets and boulevards, and parks and open spaces) contribute to its functioning as a livable, walkable, bikeable, sustainable place.
One of the early readings I suggest is from the masterfully simple book by John Stilgoe, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, which is a meditation on the value of getting out, as we say, into “the field.” (The mere use of this term implies a walk across fallow cropland, deciding where to lay out future subdivisions. But busy city streets with only weeds poking through cracked concrete still qualify as “the field” in my mind!) Stilgoe’s work complements the classic work of 1960s city planner Kevin Lynch, who wrote about the “psycho-geography” of the city and who engaged ordinary people in creating what he termed “memory maps,” which helped to define how people really experience places. Denis Wood, an artist and cartographer, illustrates the idea of deep observation with his book of unique maps describing his neighborhood in North Carolina, Everything Sings, including a representation of graffiti on sidewalks, jack-o-lantern designs, and overhead power lines.
Some have suggested that the use of mobile devices and the proliferation of online mapping software is leading to a much more detailed cataloging of urban conditions. I enjoy the sometimes baffling depth of the internet but I do feel the sense of foreboding that arrives when you are presented with “too much information.” You feel almost adrift in a deluge of words and images, but like a marooned sailor, you’re still thirsty despite all that apparent nourishment. I can appreciate cool new tools for linking urban observation with digital maps, such as Foursquare, (and the new Google Maps app is strikingly well-designed) but I wonder if the engagement is truly deep enough, or just as fleeting as the seconds it takes to post your location and thoughts and move on to the next distraction. It seems almost too obvious to note that when you’re looking at a screen, you’re not mindful of your surroundings.
For me, slowing down and truly paying attention to the complex details of my surroundings serves as a powerful antidote to this online anomie and feelings of “placelessness”—as well as a foundation for my work in city planning. The best way to do this is the easiest—on foot. A fundamental principle of modern urban design is that walkable cities are a solution to many problems. But how many city planners are actually walking around to test how their cities are performing? One doesn’t have to be an obsessive like Thoreau to gain the benefits of sauntering through cities.
Stilgoe reminds us that even a short walk outside presents you with an incredibly stimulating range of sights—that probably do more for your brain than the fleeting smirk that comes from viewing an onscreen cat’s presumed thoughts. Whenever you walk, or cycle, you also get a keen sense of how the conditions you’re experiencing can be improved and how the scale of a place relates to everyday users. You’re not hermetically sealed in a car and you’re better prepared to understand cultural differences within a city. You’re also open to surprises and detours, both physically and in your thoughts.
Some city planners, such as Dan Burden, conduct great mobile workshops called “walkability audits,” leading planners and citizens on walks to determine specific areas that need building, street, and sidewalk improvements. The popularity of such efforts leads me to believe that perhaps one of the first steps (pun intended) in addressing the city planning profession’s apparent detachment from its core subject really is as simple as taking everyone outside for a long walk, with eyes wide open.
Ken Pirie is an associate with Walker Macy Landscape Architects in Portland, Oregon. Originally from Quebec, via Scotland, then Seattle, Ken works on urban design and campus planning projects up and down the West Coast. Ken teaches a graduate class in planning at Portland State University and loves to hike and ski when he’s not supporting the Portland Timbers.