Meet Russ Sikes. The Plano resident –yes, Plano! — is a founding member of the North Texas chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, or CNU, which advocates principles of good “place-making” as a key to improving our quality of life. Good “place-making” makes for a better environment. Actually, over drinks Russ told me he and his wife used to live off Greenville Avenue in Dallas. He moved to Plano like so many do, for reasonable housing and decent schools.
Which is why I really like Russ: he’s real. Never mind the fact that a couple hours with the Harvard-MBA, who is VP at Regal Research and Manufacturing Co. in Plano, flashed me back to the richness of social discourse in Harvard Yard. Russ was refreshingly not one of those “new urbanists” who wants us all to dump our cars in a landfill and scrunch into the city, live on top of 1500 others like cockroaches in two rooms. “New Urbanist” sometimes has made me think of the post-war scene in Dr. Zhivago, when Yuri returns to Moscow. Through Russ and Andres Duany I am learning the the Congress for the New Urbanism wants to make our lives more WORKABLE, not necessarily all WALKABLE. Good neighborhoods require planning to create complete, compact, efficient and connected spaces, a variety of housing types, and integrate other building uses. The traditional town pattern was created by humans centuries before the automobile; cars, God love them, have changed a lot of the natural place-making.
When I told Russ that though I love our fair city, I just don’t think downtown Dallas is very walkable (especially in heels!), but downtown Fort Worth IS, he explained why. Herewith is Russ Sikes’ first great guest post:
A Tale of Two Cities
One vast metropolitan region anchored by two downtowns is certain to provoke constant comparison between them.
How often have you heard, “Downtown Fort Worth is improving, but I ADORE downtown Dallas!” Never? Me neither.
Considering how thoroughly subjective aesthetic preferences are, this is interesting in itself, for it suggests an underlying consensus in our preferences concerning “place”.
What those shared preferences are, and why they exist, is central to understanding how we can make all of our urban places more appealing.
Several principles underpin this consistent response.
We humans are hard-wired to feel most comfortable in places with identifiable centers and edges. Throughout all of human history prior to the recent rise of mechanized transport, centers have offered safety and security, while edges presented danger and uncertainty. Be it a neighborhood, town center, complete village, or simply a distinct district, our inclination is to seek orientation by locating the centermost spot in any environment, and to look outward for its boundaries. Identifiable centers and edges create psychological comfort. The compact size, palpable center and tight contours of downtown Fort Worth create a tighter identity of place than Dallas’ diffused, distended collection of downtown places.
Visibility, Access and Egress
Humans are also above all visual creatures. We are most comfortable where we can actually see our surroundings, and routes of approach and escape. (Who wants to venture down dark, enclosed alleys?)
Downtown Dallas is comprised of many buildings that are much taller than those of its smaller neighbor. For all their virtues of impressive scale, skyscrapers tend to block light, or, in some rare cases, reflect it. They darken the streets below, as they form wind canyons that make Dallas colder and draftier than it would be with shorter buildings. Cold and drafty versus warm and light explains the difference in feel, and one is clearly more appealing than the other.
This dimensional contrast extends horizontally as well. Downtown Dallas tends to have very long blocks, especially along its east-west axis. Its “superblocks” emphasize the canyon-like quality of the street. In contrast, the short blocks and frequent intersections of downtown Fort Worth create a visual porosity that bathes the city in light, enabling people to see multiple pathways nearby.
HumanScale and Orientation
Openable windows suggest human activity and control. Brick streets slow cars, calming traffic, and embrace us with warm color. Frequent Intersections activate the street by providing corners, visibility, porosity, options, actively embracing pedestrians and thwarting the speed of vehicles. In short, places scaled to our own physical size and approach are much more appealing than those that clearly aren’t.
The material composition of human places matters too. Bricks, stone and other materials of natural color are warm and accommodating to humans. Cool tinted glass, over-sized blocks of concrete or gray rock, and unnatural colors are less inviting.
Dallas has grander scale, bigger projects, a longer list of attractions. But viewing the two downtowns through these lenses explains the uniformity of people’s emotional responses to each. And it all adds up to a cohesive, welcoming, human Place in Fort Worth, versus a distended, diffused collection of adjacent spaces, colder in comfort, color and accommodation in Dallas.