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C200: Urban Fabric: The Form of Cities

2011 April 12
by Yuri Artibise

< Roosevelt Row in Phoenix, AZ: a half block of fine grain lost in a sea of course grain; photo: Mario Grey - click to enlarge >

Urban fabric is the physical form of towns and cities. Like textiles, urban fabric comes in many different types and weaves.

Coarse grain urban fabric is like burlap: rough, large-scale weaves that are functional, but not usually comfortable. Such places consist of large blocks, predominated by vehicle dependent retail and corporate centers; or multi-block mega projects dropped on a city without integrating the surrounding city or community. Not only do coarse grain fabrics NOT provide many opportunities for interconnecting; the fabric itself is usually inhospitable to interaction. In this regard coarse grain acts as a barrier for all but those who are there for a specific purpose.

On the other hand, there is fine-grained urban fabric. Like high count Egyptian cotton, fine grain urban fabric can feel luxurious and wants to make people linger in or around it. It consists of several small blocks in close proximity. Within each block are several buildings, most with narrow frontages, frequent store fronts, and minimal setbacks from the street. This offers many opportunities for discovery and exploration. There are virtually no vacant lots or surface parking. Also, as there are more intersections, traffic is slower and safer.

Fine grained urban fabric is not imposed on a community like its coarse cousin. Rather, it evolves over time, responding to what came before, and adapting to what came afterwards. This evolutionary process creates places that are dynamic and reflective of a neighborhood’s changing needs, able to seamlessly evolve over time from lightly developed residential areas to mixed-used retail to dense urban core. In this way, they are far more resilient than mega-projects that, when they lose a single tenant, often fail.


Yuri Artibise is an urbanist and blogger from Phoenix AZ.