What Makes a Great Urban Street?
We recently had the opportunity to think about what makes a streetscape feel or be urban. As part of the exercise, several people from our office collected images of what they thought were landscape characteristics of a vibrant urban street and we started developing an ever evolving list: bold horticulture that stands up to the architecture, busy sidewalk in front of a skyscraper; density; not always clean and orderly; vibrant colors; places to spend money; illuminated wildly at night; trees; water; somewhere to watch people; shade; irregularity from one street/storefront to the next.
And what about when these things don’t happen? Earlier this month, the Dirt, the blog of the American Society of Landscape Architects, posted about a variety of creative ways in which people humanize or alter the physical experience of an urban environment – not through design intervention, but through motion, collective action, and conceptual statement. The Atlantic goes even further and includes a clip from an upcoming film on ‘parkours,’ or free runners, who vault themselves through cities as if they had springs in their feet, using urban landscapes like an extreme jungle gym.
As landscape architects we approach the same desire in a very different way. I can’t say there is anyone in our office who spends their weekends rappelling off the sides of interesting modernist architecture (but we could, you know, if we wanted to), but the heart of our approach to landscape architecture is a commitment to envisioning places in which urban infrastructure can give way to places for human interaction. In other words, we’re trying to think ahead of time about how to make standard infrastructure more of a ‘playground.’
Sometimes, we do that literally: instead of a parking garage, winter sledders at Soldier Field get to take a ride:
Photo credit: Leslie-Schwartz
A humble traffic circle in Normal Illinois becomes a park:
Photo credit: Scott Shigley
And a vast stretch of the street on Michigan Avenue is now a garden where brides have their photo taken:
Photo credit: Steve Gierke