Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

Dateline: 2:32 pm August 5, 2011 Filed under:

I just saw Charles Landry speak. Mr. Landry is a worldly urban thinker, and I found his presentation very enlightening. One of the many pithy quotes he recited was “if your plan starts with parking, your vision may not be good enough.” So to butcher an old expression, I must say I concur. Too often, we can’t see the forest for the trees in urban development. We do start with the parking (trees), addressing design and context (forest) secondly.

I was just in a charrette where the discussion immediately went to parking. How much parking we could get under the building determined the number of units. Following that, we considered how the building and uses may relate to the public realm and surrounding uses. Exactly backwards, and yet it happens this way all the time!

In an ironic twist of our metaphors and expressions, it does make sense to start with the trees. Street trees. Begin the site plan at the very edge and show a boulevard of planted trees separating the sidewalk and the street. Then consider where the windows and doors are on the building and how they relate to the street. Figure out the density of the buildings and parking later. Repair that urban fabric that perhaps never existed. Then, no matter how good or bad your actual building is, at least you’ve done the city a favor by improving the public realm. Be a good neighbor. Then move on to the thorny issues of parking all those cars.

Start with the trees and you will indeed see the forest.

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