September 7, 2010

Automobile Attrition v. City Erosion

In her famous Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs asserts that priority of automobiles in urban planning creates one of two realities: automobile attrition or city erosion.

The latter is the accumulated result of many individual decisions to boost drivers' convenience: a road widened here, a curb corner softened to allow for faster right turning traffic flow, removing parking meters, and so on. Individually these seem fruitful--I can imagine an engineer pleasantly surveying his handiwork with his hands on his hips, secure in contributing to expedited travel. The aggregate, however, is a city slouching toward automobile dependency, less friendly to pedestrians and bikers, and thereby lacking the foot traffic and density to sustain vibrancy. Developments grow outward because ever more room is needed for automobiles. And a city is eroded.

Automobile attrition works in the opposite direction. Sidewalks in high ped traffic areas are widened. Buses get signal prioritization. Zoning doesn't require a mandatory minimum number of parking spaces, street parking is priced, and parking lots are behind stores, rather than separating the would-be window shoppers from their window quarry. Note that these policies are not knee-jerk anti-auto policies: they work toward a definable, positive goal. This is different from, say, shutting down a street to cars and turning it into a pedestrian mall. Unless skillfully done in the right location, removing cars doesn't do much of anything. In fact, such a move can be quite deadening. Eugene, Tampa, Boston and others learned the hard way that ped malls are tricky to replicate.

All this push/pull about the issue of cars in cities brings me to this conundrum:

At 1111 Lincoln Road in Miami, Herzog and de Meuron have built a parking garage with ground floor retail, a penthouse, and additional retail space on the 4th floor. And a distinct visual style, to say the least.

I've been torn on this for a while: I dislike that it's a monument to automobile culture, and I somewhat dislike the concrete aesthetic, though I've rarely seen concrete wielded with anything approaching this dexterity (usually you get this and other Le Corbusier knock-offs). I also worry that it might start a trend, and I fear that its less artful progeny will just be big and blocky deadspaces. Like most parking garages.

On the other hand, I love that it adds real identity to its location--it's a destination, justifiably. It nicely encloses the pedestrian promenade, and the wall-less parking levels make a usually claustrophobic space open and nearly vertiginous. As Andres Duany, king of New Urbanism, says in the above clip, it is a form of civic activism that expands a parking garage from a cramped afterthought into a public space capable of bringing people together. A parking garage as plaza--I bet architects can push that angle in neat ways, but again, I fear the less-skilled imitators (Benches and potted plants do not a plaza make, and I think the wall-less-ness only works when there's a killer view, like here).

Ultimately I'm siding with Duany on this one. I don't think automobile accommodation can be termed city eroding when it clearly adds diverse uses and visual pizazz while creating a defined a pedestrian mall at its base.

All cities need parking; 1111 Lincoln Street shows us that sating this need can also create dynamic public spaces. I hope the vibrancy sticks after the buzz wears off.

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