Monday, February 18, 2013

Facade/Sidewalk Porosity?

I have been asked to consider putting forth my ideas on the state of downtown Lexington's parking. That is taking some research and maybe a little history as to how we got to where we are. I am feeling something in the wind and hope that it is not some “lets solve our problem like name a city did it”, because I always find that we only go about half way and then look for better things. Until then I am continuing to think about urban walkability.

One of the most common complaints about Lexington, and its downtown in particular, is the blandness of the architecture since the 1960s. We do have our share of windowless, rough concrete panels or tinted windows hiding who knows what from the passing public. These building may be right up on the sidewalk but they do not engage the public or any pedestrians – they do not help in creating any sense of street life. Even the ones which set back and have their semi-public plaza spaces are not relieved of guilt.

My main objection to the downtown CVS project was not the location but the design of the face which they chose to show to the street and the public. The Board of Adjustment had already cast their lot against the pharmacy drive thru before it became a controversial subject and that opened the subject of facade design. We need no more dead walls looking out on our streets.

If there is one more thing that we should have learned ,since we began to reverse the trend from bland Brutalist architecture, is that the typical pedestrian needs to also be entertained on their walk. One of the common jokes in my family was that we were taking the kids on a “march through the Sahara” whenever we went on walks – and especially through uninteresting areas. Long stretches of treeless streets were quite stressing for us and them - because there was just nothing mildly entertaining about it.

The mildly entertaining aspect of downtown pedestrian life, historically, was the ever changing facades and display windows of the buildings there. Every 16 to 20 feet, certainly no more than 40, there was an apparent change or difference in the periphery of ones vision. It was these changes and differences which gave the pedestrian reference points as to the distance traveled or an estimation of how much farther it is to go. The blind can still use the sounds and smells which usually accompany these changes for the same reference points. Long stretches of dead walls or open expanses of empty parking leave very few of these points.

I have begun to understand the concept put forward in Walkable City about the need for porous and deep edges between our public (pedestrian) space and the private (commercial) space. Jeff Speck's definition of porous refers to the number and size of the windows and doors which allow proper lighting and otherwise engage the two spaces in a lively relationship. The idea of depth is simply the degree to which edge allows for the space to blend or blur area of the said relationship of activity. These opportunities can include; awnings, ledges, columns, recessed doorways, etc. All the things that our older stores had in abundance.

Too few doors or windows, such as the backs and sides of commercial buildings, give absolutely no chance for any relationship – lively or otherwise. Likewise the distance setback from the sidewalk, anything in excess of a few small steps, allows no blurring or blending to occur at all. Does it make sense that developments at our sidewalk edges tend to repel the pedestrian these days rather than encourage them?

It seems possible that, from what I have put forward, a formula could be devised and refined with which to rate our commercial streets as to the potential of pedestrian activity. A residential formula may also be created with similar or adjusted values applied. I really want to see how the “stand alone” re-figuring of Rupp Arena would fare in this “urban sidewalk porosity” rating for lack of a better moniker. It would be my hope that this is something which could be included in the Design Excellence Guidelines whenever they are written.


Mark said...

One possible strategy to evaluate downtown parking:

Lex Streetsweeper said...

I do not believe that Lexington has anything like the situation in Louisville, but a grandiose plan is being discussed for the near future. Stay tuned.