Which elements of urban design were 'aha' moments for you?

Wise words from Leon Krier, found while diving back into my own education.

Wise words from Leon Krier, found while diving back into my own education.

This week, I attempted to give my first urban design walking tour of Fredericton to about a dozen friends. Anyone who travels with me is always getting an earful of "oohs and ahhs" about urban design, but this was my first time stringing together that commentary into a tour.

Before hitting the road, I asked my partner if I've ever mentioned something about urban design that made him see the city in a new way. Then, I revisited my own highlights from dog-eared books that have guided my own thinking and compiled a best-of list.

I'd like to practice, improve, and repeat this walking tour going forward. What else would you add to this list of concepts that cover the basics and 'aha' moments of urban design?

The concept list so far

  • Street widths - impact on sense of enclosure, importance, and speed of traffic
  • Height : width ratios - in general, don't take it any wider than 1:6, building height to street width.
  • Street trees - miracle workers for stormwater, aesthetics, home value, cooling, safety, and walkability
  • Neighbourhood roundabouts - illustrate the principle that it's much more effective to keep people moving at a slow and cautious rate than drag strips between stop lights. Safer, cheaper, and quieter as well.
  • Booo one-way multilane roads! - Talked about this little fella, right here -> (I hope that's pointing at a youtube video on your screen)
  • Setbacks - The importance of a consistent streetwall. How the setback (and step-up) delineates space as public/private etc.
  • Fine grain building vs. monolithic building - when it makes sense to do either.
  • Walkability - see this video.
  • Democracy around design - Where to people choose to live? What side of the street do they choose to walk on? What does that tell us?
  • The danger of slip lanes downtown - terrible for pedestrian comfort and safety and encourages faster vehicular traffic.
  • Appropriate technology - in home building and general design. What can we learn from the small, slow solutions that have been used for generations?
  • Skateboard deterrents - Those who don't skateboard (like me) are usually shocked to realize the city is covered in passive-aggressive anti-skater treatments.
  • Why is there no good plaza? - A discussion on our favourite public spaces (usually abroad) and how there is not a single good plaza in the city. Why? What makes a good plaza?
  • Timelessness and maturity - The most loveable places feel mature, not necessarily old, just timeless and lived-in.
  • Navigation - How can we build cities so that they are navigable without a map? The use of symbolic buildings, landscape, street names, etc. to make a place understandable.
  • Desire paths
  • Relying on design to influence behaviour, not gadgetry and amendments like traffic lights, speed bumps, and signage.
  • Reading local influence in the city (through natural materials, vernacular architecture, colours, tradition).
Skateboard deterrent - https://www.flickr.com/photos/avlxyz/

Skateboard deterrent - https://www.flickr.com/photos/avlxyz/

My tour turned out ok. It needs practice, a few jokes, and more emphasis on positive design examples. Still, my friends explained that they now see the city with new perspective and are more grateful for certain blocks and more annoyed about others. As much as I love making videos, there's nothing quite as effective as explaining this quiet language of urban design on-site. As we arrived at a hairy intersection, it was so much more potent to explain that it's designed for dangerously fast vehicular traffic when I had to yell over the sound of cars to be heard. As we walked by boring blocks and interesting blocks, it was so nice to be able to turn to the group and ask "Which do you prefer? Why?"

If you're at all the kind of person that loves to fill people in on the secrets of urban design, you should try this! Turn it into a Jane's Walk or just grab a bunch of friends and go for a stroll.

GRACEN JOHNSON is a communications designer living in The Maritimes. Despite finishing her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats trying to crack that nut herself, including as the designer and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.

This year, Gracen is sharing field notes on her experiences with Strong Citizenship. In this regular column, you'll get snapshots of life as a friendly neighbour in a quintessential Little City that feels like a Big Town.