Lego and the City

8 06 2009

I’ve been struggling the last few weeks to put together a monster post attempting to explain all the possible urban ramifications of a) climate change and b) Peak Oil, and the related need for c) planned urban shrinkage. It’s ridiculous. It’s going to be the longest post ever, and it’s possible that no one will take the time to read it, except for me. 

So, since I have made little headway on this overambitious project, I offer you a link this week to Don Iveson’s website, Edmonton City Councillor Extraordinaire. His website is generally excellent, revealing a grasp of urban issues that would put many city planners to shame. And his most recent post is classic and fun and dear to my own tiny planner heart:

A Lego Urban Design Primer, by Don Iveson. Check it out, you won’t be sorry.

LEGO's City Corner set. Click photo to link to

LEGO's City Corner set.


Built Well, But All At Once

19 02 2009

You might think that a city whose economy is based on innovative technology might also develop an innovative urban form, but San Jose instead seems to be a prototypical new American city: a downtown bristling with tall towers surrounded by low-density sprawl and strip development for about as far as the eye can see. The creativity of Adobe, Cisco and other Silicon Valley stalwarts seems focused within the walls of their tech campuses, not spilling out onto the sidewalks and into neighborhoods. But that’s not to say that there is nothing to see in San Jose’s suburban hinterland. Since San Jose is home to one of the most affluent populations in the US, there’s money to splash around on high-end shopping, and that has resulted in Santana Row, the most ambitious “lifestyle” retail development I have ever come across.

Turn a mall inside out and put it on steroids, and what do you get? Big box power center development. But reduce the dosage of steroids, hide the cars, add in a residential component and some smart urban design and you get Santana Row. Or, to characterize it somewhat differently, you get a European town center on steroids.

Arcaded sidewalks

Arcaded sidewalks

The design is very smart. Coming in from the surrounding roads, the first thing you notice is the absence of parking. The parking is almost all hidden underground and in the interior of blocks, and the best way to shop is to stash the car and get out and walk. Then you notice the wide sidewalks and the sense of enclosure by the 3 to 5 storey buildings. One block has arcaded sidewalks and mews to adjacent streets and parking areas, another has fountains and small kiosk shops and restaurants in a wide, tree-shaded pedestrian plaza between the lanes of traffic, and another street has a green square, Valencia Park, bordered by roads on two sides and buildings on the other two. Retail or restaurants are the consistent ground floor use, and pricey condominiums and a boutique hotel rise above. In short, it’s got a little bit of everything in a compact and attractive package. Santana Row has a space to please everybody, and though it didn’t appear to be a terribly busy shopping day the afternoon I visited, there were still plenty of people enjoying the space under the big tree, sitting in the green square and strolling the arcades.

A mature tree in a central pedestrian plaza creates a great place to relax

A mature tree in the linear pedestrian plaza creates a place to rest and people-watch

When compared to Westfield Valley Fair, the big traditional mall just to the north across Stevens Creek Boulevard, or to the isolated, asphalt-surrounded shoeboxes of standard power centers, Santana Row is a dream. And a really good one at that. The place focuses on people, de-emphasizes the car, and has some elements that inspire real delight. It’s won awards, and it’s no wonder: this is a very rare form of large-scale commercial development.

But, when it’s compared to a thriving main street shopping district, or to the European town centers it seems to be modeled on, I think it does come up short. All the glitz of the Gucci, Burberry and Diesel wares on display do not make up for the fact that there is a uniformity to the place, a lack of authenticity. And I can’t say that I see this as a slight against the designers, as the creativity, expense and attention to detail is evident around every corner. But it is inescapable that this place was designed and built all at once.

Valencia Park with its astroturf, bordered by palms and restaurants

Valencia Park with its astroturf, bordered by palms and restaurants

It lacks the organic quality of a street that has seen changes over time, with multiple owners taking care of their buildings in different ways, perhaps neglecting them, or perhaps trying to one-up their neighbors. Santana Row is beautiful, but it also feels airbrushed. The grass in Valencia Park was actually astroturf. And for all of its attractive qualities and emphasis on the walking experience, it is still a disconnected oasis of pedestrianism amidst an otherwise auto-dominated landscape.

I can’t say I disliked it. I found it a very interesting place, and it really does represent a huge improvement over the parking lots and blank walls of malls and big boxes. But Santana Row doesn’t feel like a place I could easily take ownership of. Perhaps, like a new pair of jeans, it might just need to be lived in for a while. But in the meantime, I think I’ll probably stick with Main Street.