Arial view of downtown Rochester, MN

The Dirty Words of Urban Design

Previously I have described the inherent qualities of urbanity.  So if you are trying to reinforce or perhaps create from scratch that essence of being urban–determining what typifies the essence of a livable city–where should you begin?

I believe that to truly begin to embrace urban is to accept two rudimentary principles.  Two vilified, egregious, “dirty” words of urban design.  The first, simply stated, is that to achieve a rich urban fabric requires density.  Now before you close this webpage or tear up this paper in disgust because I mentioned that dastardly “d” word, stop and think for a second about how population density leads to many other attributes of urban life that are desired.  Density can apply to much more than population (e.g., street widths, tree spacing, etc.) and I would argue that embracing the concept of density can help design the majority of component parts of the city system and produce results that far surpass expectations.

The second principle, and one that may be more difficult to explain, is diversity.  A vague and catchall term, diversity ensures that everyone is represented, that one demographic is neither isolated nor compartmentalized, and that everyone has choice.  Diversification and integration in all forms serve to achieve the larger goals of urban vitality.  What I am not intending is to simply address ethnic diversity, which often is the first thing that comes to mind.  While that is a part of population diversity, it is far too specific.  Rather, it means having a Rochester Symphony Orchestra & Chorale concert on the same night as the Americana Showcase.  Different strokes, for different folks.

Ultimately, our pursuit of the great city experience that exists in the pages of the Destination Medical Center Development Plan in Rochester as well as the illustrations found on countless webpages and blogs is not difficult to achieve.  What it takes is a fierce determination, a vigilant battle against the outdated planning doctrine of the latter 20th century, and promotion of the settlement style growth patterns that are inherent in cultures all across the globe.  It is about making a public place out of empty space.  It is about overcoming fear of the word density because it evokes images of slums and high-rises and understanding the word diversity without picturing scary people lurking in the shadows.

We all can do a better job of embracing urban, and if DMC desires to increase the vitality and livability of downtown Rochester, then get ready to drop a whole lot more “d” words in public.

Adam Ferrari

About Adam Ferrari

Adam Ferrari is an Architect living and working in Rochester, MN. He is a passionate advocate for quality design of the built environment and promotes the power of design as a tool to help individuals, organizations, and neighborhoods develop a shared vision of a sustainable future. Adam has a breadth of experience with architecture, urban planning, community engagement, community development, affordable housing development, urban design, economic development, and process design. His firm, 9.SQUARE Community Design, is an outgrowth of his years of work performed in Rochester's neighborhoods, with colleges and universities, as a volunteer with the Minnesota Design Team, and his years with the Rochester Area Foundation. 9.SQUARE was recently recognized as a recipient of the Mayor's Medal of Honor for Industry and has been driving force behind adaptive reuse of historic buildings in downtown Rochester, Minnesota.

5 thoughts on “The Dirty Words of Urban Design

  1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    IMO, density is superstitiously feared because people make a plausibility leap that density means a loss of free/easy parking, and it means more drivers-who-aren’t-them who will make driving less convenient for all-hours on-demand driving. Both are entitlements that nearly every resident has come to expect as a matter of “quality of life”. I think this has surpassed the argument against density that density is high rise slums.

    Single-occupant driver-only city design will always struggle against driver entitlements of “free parking everywhere I want to be, and clear streets every time I want to drive anywhere”. Density is a threat to these precious, unspoken government entitlements and unfunded liabilities.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Don’t underestimate how scared suburban residents (and possibly Rochester too) are of crime, but people are starting to understand that “dense” and “walkable” often mean “hard to drive around and park”

  2. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

    How about another D-phrase for Rochesteer: Demand Pricing. Especially for parking. It’s irresponsible for Mayo Clinic to hand out “free” parking like it’s some sort of seniority perk.

  3. Jordan Parshall

    I think a better way to phrase “density” is “human scale.” As a resident of Westbank, I know that just flat density leaves things to be desired.

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