Friday, May 23, 2014

on the terrace wih Crow

As Crow and I watched the sun set over the sea from his terrace perch while one of our young friends marveled at the view, we talked about how cities look now compared to the way they did 100 years ago. The seriously big change came about in the 1960s when two developments coincided: steel framed high rise buildings and city streets ruled by cars. While there aren't too many cities in North America that haven't been entirely overtaken by this phenomenon, it's no wonder people still enjoy going to Europe for their holidays.

Of course, I haven't been there for a long time but Crow tells me the high rise/high speed method of city planning has made inroads there as well. It's also true that Europe still has metropolitan centers that don't look too different now than they did long ago - with the major difference being that people of modest income can no longer afford to enjoy the benefits.

Benefits? Yes. Streets that offer varied, eyecatching stimuli every 4 to 5 seconds interest us, and those that don’t bore us. This works out to façades of 16-20 feet for people moving at average walking speeds. Whenever someone notes that a commercial district full of small and unusual storefronts feels human whereas a featureless big-box store saps the soul, there’s more to those preferences than simple nostalgia.

While Crow can travel in almost no time to anywhere, he understands that our natural speed limit is in single digit numbers rather than average car speeds. We like to have things to look at, especially each other. We feel more comfortable in surroundings set at a smaller scale.

Jahn Gehl is a Danish architect who has been promoting his philosophy of a return to people friendly urban development for years. This interview with him is good, but if you don't have time for reading here's a trailer for a documentary about him called The Human Scale:

Meanwhile, it's time for Crow and I to retire to the dining room.

(This is another Crow illustration awaiting color that I already like enough to show you. He does too.)


marja-leena said...

Good video and article! The old city centres, squares and streets with little shops are what we love about many European cities - not that we've visited them all. I'm beginning to detest all the highrises growing in Vancouver like mushrooms on steroids! Sure there are green spaces, but the street levels are cold with havey traffic zipping right by the sidewalks.

Great drawing, Susan - I look forward to seeing it coloured and Crows as handsome as ever.

Life As I Know It Now said...

I suppose that is one reason why I have always liked living in the country. I like being surrounded by trees, birds, hearing the water flow in the creek, green and live things around me. Right now I live in at the edge of a small (but heading towards bigger) town. There are fields across the street and cows grazing, and trees alive with the sounds of birds in the morning and before sunset.

Sean Jeating said...

So glad I became a villager. :)

susan said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it all, Marja-Leena. While it's true that North American cities lacked a lot of the very beautiful architecture of old Europe, most did have their own character and charm. Like me, you remember Vancouver in a more innocent time. Now I'm certain I'd still recognize Stanley Park and the Lion's Gate Bridge, but little else.

Thanks so much for your compliment of the drawing. Crow was in very good form that afternoon.

Should Fish More said...

I lived in Europe for almost a year, now 4 years ago. Before that I've visited several times over 40 years, usually 2 or 3 weeks at a time. What you say is true...Frankfurt is indistinguishable from any modern city in the US. But other places, not rebuilt like that, are the same as they was when Napoleon wandered through.

Crow looks smug as usual, impressing the young folk.

susan said...

Yes, Lib, living in the countryside does have many benefits and you're very lucky to have the cows grazing and the birds singing. I hope it all stays that way for you.

I grew up in the countryside 25 miles north of Toronto. As the years passed almost all that land was bought or expropriated for highways, strip malls, and thousands of houses. The last I heard the lake was still there but, goodness knows, it wouldn't surprise me if they filled that too.

susan said...

I always knew you to be a wise and gentle man. :)

susan said...

It was nearly 50 years ago (gasp!) that I spent two wonderful years living and traveling around Europe. It was amazing and, happily, long before package tourism began. I wouldn't mind returning to some cities or seeing others I didn't quite catch (Venice, for instance) but it's likely I'd no longer recognize many. I know Paris is surrounded by high rise apartment blocks too.

Crow delights in the company of children.

Tom said...

Don't have time this morning for the in-depth comment this post warrants, but I will make two points. Many buildings over here are metal-framed even though they do not carry the tag 'skyscraper'. It's a question of fire risk rather than the need to crowd humanity into an ever-decreasing living space.

The other point is that I love the attention to architectural details in your drawings. I always have.

susan said...

Good morning, Tom,
The chief point I wanted to make with this post is that within the past century changes made in urban development haven't been in everyone's best interest. The main reason the fabulous homes of prior ages are still in place is because they were built for people who could afford them. The equally fabulous (in their own way) and more populous great slums that surrounded those 'marble halls' have been swept away. That's all to the good.

There's nothing inherently wrong with steel-framed construction as a method for building but people need more than a shoebox in the sky in order to thrive.

I'm delighted you like the drawing. In truth I'm terrible at drawing architecture or mechanical things but, such is the power of human imagination, that I'm largely forgiven for my generalizations. :)

Lisa Golden said...

I'm in the process of moving back to the place where I grew up. A place where I could ride my bicycle from one end of town to the other in 15 minutes. It's a very small town with limited places for commercial interaction, but the downtown is constantly being revitalized, the riverfront has been turned into a place of gathering, exercise and fun and the community has embraced the idea of providing social events and entertainment that keep people there instead of having them drive the 45 minutes into Cincinnati to see a show or go to dinner.

It is delightful to be able to walk to the riverfront, walk to restaurants and bars, a bookstore, the bank, the post office. Hell, I'm even trying to get a job in town so I can turn my car over to my son who will need it for work. I'd be happy to not have to drive every day.

I can see how cities can use this concept in neighborhoods. Make places human friendly, keep people close by providing for all they need. Thanks for sharing this concept. It's a long time coming.

susan said...

Ah, Lisa, I'm very happy for you that you no longer have to spend so much time going to and from Atlanta - never mind spending the days there. Your new version of the old town where you grew up sounds to be a fine and lovely place. It's good to live somewhere you know and among people who know you as well. Having things of interest and opportunity around you must be a pleasant experience indeed. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you finding a job there. For our last twelve years in Portland we were able to walk to our jobs from where we lived and I even got to return every day for lunch. It was great.

Yes, people do need areas where they can relax and wander. Having a little spot to garden or just sit is nice too. Not many cities provide that.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Susan,
If we want friendly cities with sufficient common space we can only hope this ideal takes hold in a global federation of human societies, working collaboratively to ensure pleasing architecture reflects this objective, but this is probably a rather remote hope given present practices.

I think the lack of common areas in cities and towns has a more profound effect upon us than is generally realised. Part of such an objective is in the preservation and reservation of old buildings and surrounding paved area such as we are privileged to see in much of Europe and the UK .

However, here in Melbourne, thankfully much of this is taken for granted – such as a laneway culture of outdoor dining, with pedestrian and cyclist facilitates which are the past influences from Jahn Gehl.
Great drawing, it looks like a Melbourne’s city rooftop from one of the older buildings
Best wishes

susan said...

Hello again, Lindsay
From the perspective of living in a culture where international architects still drop their bizarre skyscrapers seemingly at random you're most assuredly correct in saying present practices aren't hopeful. Really, what can the average person do if their house and garden are expropriated by the city government in order to provide ground space for a multi-million dollar high-rise? Not much. I guess if that person were lucky they might be able to afford an apartment somewhere in that new building.

Meanwhile, we can only hope that the efforts of people like Jahn Gehl and all the people who support his ideal gain favor with urban planners.

I've read about the Melbourne miracle more than once, his first major success in changing how a city can become much more friendly to its populace. You're lucky it's your city.

'A good city is like a good party', he says. 'You know it’s working when people stay for much longer than really necessary, because they are enjoying themselves.'
Best wishes

ps: Glad you like the drawing :)

Lydia said...

I spy a stork spying on you and Crow! Love this drawing, Susan. As ever, my mind goes all fanciful when I think of how Crow can move quickly around the world, and of all the places he has seen.

The trailer is interesting, with a new set of heroes in those architect/planners. Good luck to them on an almost impossible task (in my mind, anyway). When I look at that mass of humanity in the video I sink into a low, dark space. Overpopulation is killing this planet. This might sound truly jaded of me, but I cannot celebrate humanity any longer.

Has springtime arrived there for good now, preparatory to what I hope will be a beautiful summer for you?

Ol'Buzzard said...

In 1900 there were one billion people on the earth - now there is seven billion and climbing.... the world of the past is an illusion. The reality is the world of the future must deal with people and where to put them; how to feed them; and how to supply their wants.
the Ol'Buzzard

susan said...

Not only places but times as well, dear Lydia. My friend Crow has been everywhere and everywhen too :)

You're right that it's an almost impossible task. When I watched the video I couldn't help but think that if things continue the way they've been going the cities of the future may look a lot like the one featured in Bladerunner. Overpopulation is killing the planet, or at least the biosphere as we've known it, but who is going to listen?

Yes, spring finally arrived about a week ago (we have daffodils, tulips, and dandelions). Next up: summer! I hope yours is a beautiful one too.

susan said...

I'm well aware of the numbers, OB, and they are depressing, particularly regarding the human wants part at a western industrialized level. I joined the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement years ago, but capitalism keeps on demanding more customers so nobody listens.