The development of cities in the United States has been for the most part in the hands of engineers, city planners, and architects. Their overriding priorities have been efficiency, speed, risk avoidance, and minimal cost. European urban theory seems often to derive from social objectives, whereas American practice often grows from assumed economic opportunities or imperatives. One factor that has apparently been left out of American urban theory has been the subjective well-being of those residing in our urban centers. It is unfortunate that American engineers, city planners, and architects too often idealize a world literally devoid of people.
Sadly the more machine-like the proposals, the greater the reception among developers and design professionals. Ecologically destructive development here in San Luis Obispo has been increasingly practiced and embraced. A most recent example is San Luis Ranch, the high density, multi-family residential development currently being built on prime farmland and involving the removal of nesting habitat for raptors, great blue herons, and songbirds as well as roosting habitat for owls and turkey vultures.
Our city fathers have become conditioned to not see disappearing green spaces as an ominous sign given the dire and imminent prospects of climate change. They prefer lesser and “tamable” amounts of vegetation around them. Despite contradictory findings in studies relating to crime rates and environment, many planners believe that more urban vegetation, especially numerous trees, foster anti-social criminal behavior as that environment provides many hiding spots. It is rather worrying that we have reached a point to perceive trees as risk magnets.
On the other hand, visionaries like Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander were among those who recognized subjective well-being and human scale as essential parts of the process of city development. Jane Jacobs said, “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”
Christopher Alexander, in his seminal book A Pattern Language, explains the importance of how a building interacts with the street: “The building with a lively building edge is connected, part of the social fabric, part of the town, part of the lives of all people who live and move around it. … If the edge fails, then the space never becomes lively.” Professor Alexander also maintained that no building should be taller than four stories. “At three or four stories, one can still walk comfortably down to the street, and from a window you can still feel part of the street scene: You can see details in the street—the people, their faces, foliage, shops. From three stories you can yell out, and catch the attention of someone below. Above four stories these connections break down.”
Sadly, our City Council recently approved a 75-foot tall building to be located at 1144 Chorro St.—a site that is located within our Downtown Historic District. A building this tall is in violation of our recently revised Downtown Concept Plan (which recommends three- to four-story buildings), our Historic Preservation Program Guidelines (i.e., maintain consistency in scale) and with our Community Design Guidelines. Human scale is the key to making cities more human-centered, user-friendly, and livable. In the last 50 years, architects and city planners have forgotten what good human scale is. Why, one may ask?
Perhaps this is because a few fundamental questions about the crucial role of the user seem to have been left out of many of our engineering, city planning, and architecture school curricula. Strategies for improving subjective, user-oriented well-being through urban planning depend on answering the following six questions:
1. How do we enhance conditions for a walkable city?
2. How do we provide easy access to facilities and services?
3. How do we integrate the natural environment into our cities?
4. How do we provide “third places”—accessible, inclusive public spaces and communal spaces?
5. How do we implement noise reduction strategies?
6. How do we develop aesthetically pleasing, human-scaled buildings and public spaces based on residents’ needs and preferences?
In the spirit of creating a “lively building edge,” the first floor of some buildings could be lined with open-air stairs and arcades enclosing cafes or sidewalk displays of merchandise. Great streets have an “inside-outside” quality where indoor activity spills out onto the street. Second- or third-floor balconies extending over the sidewalks could be used for more outdoor dining.
Natural resources, which often determine the character and uniqueness of a place, must be preserved and developed sympathetically to provide moments of escape. Such natural resources include views of mountains, glorious sunsets, creeks, lakes, uncommon vegetation, and urban forests. San Luis Obispo however has been systematically blocking mountain views and eliminating street trees with overlarge developments. This includes the new student housing project under construction at the corner of Foothill and Chorro. Once lost, these unique features are extremely difficult to reintroduce.
Every opportunity must be explored to encourage our residents including the elderly, the handicapped, and mothers with prams to venture into our downtown. Surveys of all permanent and temporary residents and visitors should guide the redesign of our streets and sidewalks. In order to inject life into the centers of our cities we must get rid of our scrawny and cluttered sidewalks. Sidewalks must be widened in order to accommodate promenading families and friends.
Unfortunately, sidewalk widening never appears in San Luis Obispo’s November 2020 Active Transportation Plan. Their so-called “complete streets” proposals include “street dieting,” i.e., involving the elimination of parking in exchange for dedicated bike paths. But there are no plans to give over the city’s right of way to wider sidewalks.
Our streets should become greenways or linear parks that can be lined with “placemaking,” wind-buffered and/or noise-buffered mini-parks. These mini-parks could accommodate water features, lending libraries, fitness equipment, picnic and game tables, and kids’ play areas.
As temperatures increase due to climate change, more shade-providing trees must be planted our city. Unique designs could also be introduced to accommodate public art installations, information kiosks, weather-protected transit stops, and lunch wagons located at regular intervals. In the final analysis, every type of magnet to attract both residents and visitors must be explored in order to inject life back into the centers of our cities.
To further explore what you can do, please write letters promoting these ideas to your City Council members and/or join Save Our Downtown by contacting us at [email protected] Δ
David Brodie and Allan Cooper are ready to save downtown SLO. Send a response for publication to [email protected].