Street Level Design and Beautiful Cities

It was exciting and an honor to be featured in Eric Roper’s recent Star Tribune story about the ground floor design of recent developments in Minneapolis. Roper did a good job of explaining the concepts that those of us in the real estate industry take for granted; we speak in tongues and he translated it well. I hope this piece is a valuable addition to the ever important conversation about how we design and develop real estate in Minneapolis and elsewhere. I hope it helps developers, architects, Minneapolis’ Department of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED), elected officials and neighborhood groups to help express the kind of development we want, and leads to better results.

Regardless of Architectural Style, an Active Ground Floor is Critical for a Walkable City

Regardless of Architectural Style, an Active Ground Floor is Critical for a Walkable City

Even if the Star Tribune article is long forgotten, there are some other very interesting things going on. In Minneapolis, Ward 10 councilmember Lisa Bender and CPED are working through some changes to the zoning code with regard to parking. Parking required by zoning for new residential units would be reduced or eliminated depending on proximity to transit. It is worth checking the link and speaking up while you can. Several of the critiques I raised in Eric Roper’s article were directly related to parking and the negative impact it can have on design. Every development is full of compromises, and time and again parking is a major compromiser. Parking reform can be a game-changer, particularly coupled with better regulations regarding the ground floor of buildings.

Elsewhere, a successful CNU 23 was held recently in Dallas, and although I couldn’t attend, the gathering helped shine a light on small scale development. John Anderson, a former Minneapolitan, is serving as mentor for a growing network of aspiring young small scale developers across the country. Check out their Facebook page. Strong Towns is hosting a couple small scale development boot camps later this year. Closely related is Opticos Design’s “Missing Middle Housing,” an interesting but so often overlooked part of our development industry that will shape our cities for decades to come. Of course, getting the ground floor right with small-scale development is just as important as with larger projects, if not more so.

Something interested happened to me a couple days after Eric Roper and I cycled around Minneapolis for his article. We started our journey together at West River Commons, and a couple days later I returned there to eat at the Longfellow Grill. As I walked along Lake Street towards the restaurant, a young woman emerged from the front door of her ground floor unit. I wished Roper was with me, but the point remains this: urban design is not an abstraction. Urbanists aren’t talking in tongues about form-based codes, ground floor frontage and Gehl Door Average for no reason. When buildings are designed right, with doors facing the street, real people use those real doors and our cities are more beautiful, active, walkable, healthy and sustainable as a result.

Urban Design is Not an Abstraction - People Actually Use These Doors

Urban Design is Not an Abstraction – People Actually Use These Doors

I remain optimistic that we can collectively build a better city, although patience is required. Regardless of the architectural style, doors facing the sidewalk are a very important piece of urban fabric. Developers and architects can design doors better and more often, but the city should also require more of them. Together we can make our city more active, walkable and beautiful, especially where the building meets the street.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.


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3 Responses to Street Level Design and Beautiful Cities

  1. Matt Steele June 4, 2015 at 11:37 am #

    Thanks for being such a great advocate for good urbanism in our city!

  2. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell June 4, 2015 at 2:11 pm #

    I’ll echo Matt’s comments. I’ve walked along the stretch to Longfellow numerous times, before and after construction. Amazing how much more pleasant, inviting, and welcoming it is today.

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