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C200: Spatial Diversity

2011 March 31
by Ray Johnston

< University District, Seattle - click image to enlarge; photo: Ray Johnston >

The variations in the fabric of the street are among the things that make a city great. Looking down the street, block after block of possibly wonderful buildings, our eye is caught by the green splash of a pocket park or entry court. The punctuation of a dramatic entry or canopy also draws attention. Beyond physical form, the corner grocer elicits a different kind of street life than the rest of the block. So too does the athletic club, the barber and the café.

Looking up from our sidewalk bench, a different kind of diversity is possible. Perhaps a second floor terrace extends from a meeting room. Behind a ribbon of glass, a set of professional offices may exist, different from the apartments above marked by a rhythm of punched window openings and balconies.

The vast and uninhabited plaza in the center of the business district also represents a diverse city fabric (in a negative way) as does the night club: vacant by day and vibrant by night, the soup kitchen dispensing a little warmth and nutrition to street denizens, the civic building with one grand entry along a hundred yard stretch.

All of these examples, good and bad, represent diversity in the human scaled fabric of the city. In a 500 year old city both horizontal and vertical diversity abound. Humans have molded the built environment to fit their needs and potentials. Within a block in most older cities, one can rest in a pocket of greenery, play chess in a coffee shop window, buy groceries, be entertained, live, work and play. This condition is tied to diversity in the built world.

In our fast paced world, cities rise and fall at a fast pace. Vacant blocks become large developments housing hundreds of families. Others become office towers or shopping meccas. All of these conditions arise in the context of our automobile culture and the seven year proformas. City builders ask themselves: what market is strong now? How do we pull profit out fast? Decisions are made based on the most dependable and broadest based data. If apartment vacancies are low, then we build apartments. But, if retail is foundering or office space is abundant, that big block apartment development will avoid both – these kinds of diverse uses won’t even appear on the proforma unless required by codes. And then, they will be listed as a net zero in the profit line or even a loss. Yet, a variety of uses and the related diversity of built environment are key to the charm and success of older cities.

One difference, of course, is time. The old city has had a chance to learn, to adjust and to change. Economic fluctuation is reflected in those surprises that we find around the corner and the broad range of uses that we find. Generations within families and neighborhoods have evolved the uses they need within their local environment. Another difference is the car. We can drive to do our big box shopping, diminishing the base line need for local markets.

Perhaps these conditions are temporary. Fifty years ago there were no big box stores. Will they exist in another fifty years? We cannot know, but we can speculate that the age of the car is in a state of flux and may decline. Even if it doesn’t, perhaps the young culture of the United States can teach itself the benefits of diversity. Maybe we can develop zoning that promotes the pocket park or the corner grocer within the context of our development realities and the large projects that seem to dominate our built environments. Could it be that the “local” movement will manifest itself in the marketplace and that a building that accommodates work, exercise, entertainment, retail sales and of course housing can thrive? Signs are pointing in this direction. I hope that the next period of growth will explore the richness that diversity can bring and help us to create great cities in the 21st century.

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Ray Johnston is a founding partner at Johnston Architects pllc, a Board Member of Futurewise, and Chairman of the TwispWorks.

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