Simple Urbanism – Inspiration and Aspiration

As a follow-up to the critique of a recent post about the urban design of Harriet’s Inn, let’s consider the parts of the city that inspire us and the standards to which we should be aspiring. To do so, we need only look past Harriet’s Inn, as well as the gold standard for old urbanism in the Twin Cities, Linden Hills. Assisting us is a really great recent how-to guide on urban storefronts by Steve Mouzon at Original Green.

Looking Past Harriet's Inn for Inspiration

Looking Past Harriet’s Inn for Good Urbanism

Looking up the Lyndale Avenue and across 40th Street from Harriet’s Inn (above) is the kind of streetcar-era mixed-use building that defines so many corners in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. It’s good simple urbanism: mixed-use, attractive brick, minimal setback, multiple storefronts, addresses the public realm and corners well, and is very pedestrian-friendly. One interesting aspects related to Harriet’s Inn are the moderate setback from the sidewalk of a few feet. The difference is the old building’s setback consists of a concrete pad, which allows for window shopping and interaction with passers-by, and also for sidewalk seating if a future tenant so desires.

Building Meets Sidewalk

Building Meets Sidewalk

Moving on to Linden Hills, a place to be sure that is associated with high incomes and fancy shops, but for me conjures the type of pleasant little urban village we should try to replicate. The image above is just one of many examples around 43rd and Upton of excellent relationships between buildings and public realm. The boulevard is used for shade tree canopy and pedestrian-friendly lighting. A landscaped buffer between sidewalk and storefront seems silly here, but rather the greenery is ever-present in pots and planters, providing additional beauty at a human scale.

Human Comfort in the Public Realm

Human Comfort in the Public Realm

A pedestrian out for a stroll or heading to lunch passes by a new storefront every few feet, providing good urban variety. The storefronts are mostly glass and window sills are low enough to meet Mouzon’s standards in his Original Green post. The boulevard space is used for sandwich boards and bus shelters. Even a simple bench or two can provide a place to rest and additional opportunities for human interaction.

Door + Door + Door = GDA

Door + Door + Door = GDA

Not only do windows meet good urban standards, there are enough doors for a GDA to make Jan Gehl proud. Doors are commonly set back so as to not swing in to the sidewalk and under shelter from elements, at least those falling from the sky.

Comfortable Transition From Public to Private Realm

Comfortable Transition From Public to Private Realm

Whether or not formal sidewalk seating is required, stores and restaurants can provide informal seating and patios in front or to the side of their main door, as the bakery above shows. This can go a long way to create a welcoming presence and get people to rub elbows a bit.

There are No Buffers in the City

There are No Buffers in the City

Urbanists believe buffers don’t exist in the city. This above example proves this out, as what would otherwise be a buffer between the parking lot and sidewalk is instead used as patio seating for this coffee shop. Keep in mind these are all winter photos, but even with all this dirty snow you can imagine this is popular in nice weather.

Parking Meets Building Meets Sidewalk

Parking Meets Building Meets Sidewalk

The boulevard is also used for outdoor seating has a place on the boulevard. If this gets too crowded then take it one step further and build a parklet. More interesting is this brick patio with the circular pattern contains even more additional outdoor seating immediately adjacent to the parking lot. If we are to accept that some amount of parking is at minimum a necessary evil, and is ideally out of sight, out of mind, perhaps this is instructive that parking need not be so strictly segregated in the urban environment.

What an Adorable Little Bench!

What an Adorable Little Bench!

Maybe my favorite example is this narrow bench outside a storefront in Linden Hills. It’s just so human-scale. Clearly the building relates well to the sidewalk, but adding human comfort, a little greenery and a place to sit, is what makes this work so well. And every last piece of precious space is used for something; holistic urbanism.

So this was a visual preference survey of sorts. A review of the urbanism we love. We like the retail and food options in Linden Hills, but we love its urban form. How do we better emulate this? To borrow from Robert Fulghum’s Air Force bake sale quote, it will be a great day when a developer proposing a simple urbanism building with great frontage that relates well to the public realm can walk in to city hall and pull a permit, and a developer proposing a suburban-style building or a drive-thru has to go to the neighborhood group to ask for variances or a zoning change.

True, an air force bomber and a bake sale are pretty concrete things, whereas “good urbanism” is pretty subjective, but there are cities that have stronger regulations that generate better results. Minneapolis is part way there, but we could be doing better not just talking the talk but walking the walk. I’ve written about this before, and it’s worth posting this companion blog post from Price Tags in Vancouver. A new storefront every 25 to 50 feet? No drive-thrus in any commercial district in the city? That would be nice. We can do better. Let’s keep at it.


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4 Responses to Simple Urbanism – Inspiration and Aspiration

  1. Matt Steele February 16, 2017 at 12:04 pm #

    I was at a meeting last night (Sam was there too) for a revised Starbucks plan because the City would not allow them to deviate from the required 8 ft setback requirement. Of course, the submitted site plan revision showed an aluminum fence and a hedge completely separating the patio (in this 8 ft setback) from the public sidewalk. They were treating this setback (half 8′ and half 16′) as a side yard for a patio, not as frontage. It sounds like the City will require (gasp) an actual primary entrance facing the street with an actual sidewalk connecting to the public sidewalk.

    But it got me thinking – how did we come up with this 8 ft setback anyways? It seems like 0 to 2 ft would be more appropriate. 2 ft would allow for sandwich boards, benches, or other narrow amenities. And of course this type of development usually has an amenity zone between the curb and the sidewalk rather than a grassy boulevard. Even 8 feet misses the point, but that’s our current code.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary February 16, 2017 at 1:42 pm #

      Is 8 ft a minimum or a maximum?

      • Sam Newberg
        Sam Newberg February 16, 2017 at 4:30 pm #

        8 ft is a maximum, if I understand the requirement correctly.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg February 16, 2017 at 4:35 pm #

      Better to have a range – setbacks should be between 0 and 8 feet, for example.

      The crazy thing is the architect representing the developer in this meeting was pretty much apologizing for having to be so close to Cedar. So the tail wags to dog – we build a horrible, wide street, traffic fills it at high speeds and nobody wants to be near it.

      This exposes issues with the city’s code, as Matt points out. The city wants buildings closer to the street, so the 8 feet is a quantitative measurement, but there isn’t enough qualitative requirements – such as making the space nice by not allowing an aluminum fence and hedge dividing patio and sidewalk.