Monday, June 4, 2012

First Life, Then Spaces, Then Buildings

The quote in the title came across my desk late last week.  The full quote is “First life, then spaces, then buildings.  The other way around never works.”  The speaker is Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl.  His master work, “Life between Buildings”, is considered a classic in the theory of public places.

Almost immediately, another quote came to my attention.  “It’s hard to design a space that will not attract people.  What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”  This time, the speaker is William H. Whyte, Jr. whom I introduced in a recent post as a seminal figure in place-making.  (White also coined the term “groupthink”.   The coinage may be unrelated to his work on public spaces.  Or it may be his explanation of how place-making goes awry.)

The two quotes, although both full of meaning on their own, add up to an even greater insight about public places.  Whyte tells us the place-making often fails.  Gehl tells us that place-making as an afterthought to buildings always fails.  The question this poses is whether too much of our land-use planning is centered around buildings rather than around the spaces in between.

As a matter of fact, yes, virtually all of our land-use planning is building-centered.  Zoning codes, whether use-based or form-based, generally start with the rules for buildings.  Place-making isn’t ignored, but often falls into the realm of “Do the best you can with the space left over.”

It’s not surprising the buildings have the primary place in land-use planning.  Most of the costs and revenues from development are directly tied to buildings.  Buildings are the engine of the land development economic train.  But that is an explanation of why we often end up with weak public spaces, not a justification.

Most of us would likely agree that European cities generally have more lively public places than cities in the United States.  Some of this is probably due to culture.  But I suggest that another factor is at work.  European cities probably also began with buildings, with the public spaces being the remnant land between the buildings.

But the city origins were sufficiently ancient that the buildings wore out or burned down long before our time.  The replacement buildings were often forced to conform to the uses already being made of the public spaces.  Gradually, public spaces reached primacy, which is what we see in heart of European cities today.  Although one can travel to the fringes of European cities and easily find the reverse, proving that not even good examples can necessarily change the planning process.

With our increasing awareness of public places as a key component of urbanism, we can sometimes move place-making back toward the heart of land-use decisions.  A recent example in Sonoma County is the station area plan around the coming SMART station in downtown Petaluma.  The city, the consultant, and the other project participants spent much of their initial effort sorting out the non-building uses, both roadways and public spaces, to ensure that transit and automobile passengers could reach the train station easily, that pedestrians from downtown had an enjoyable walk to the station, and that the neighborhood had places to play.

Only when these public areas were determined, did consideration of the buildings commence.  The result is a plan that has good potential public spaces.

The problem will be preserving those areas when developers begin to look at their options.  There will likely be pressure to let the buildings take back some of the area now allocated to public space.  This won’t be because developers are evil.  It’ll be because developers have investors and banks who must be satisfied before construction funds are provided.  It’ll be the responsibility of the city and the community to resist the pressure.

Hanging in the balance will be a livable community with great public spaces for Petalumans to bequeath to their next generation.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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