Calthorpe-ism: Restoring the Ecology of Urban Areas

This evening, I had the opportunity to sit in on a lecture by Peter Calthorpe, an architect and urban planner that has taken transit-oriented development and regional planning to the next level. The biggest take-away I gathered from his discussion of urban challenges in the US and China was a stream-lined concept of urbanism. He opined that architects often focus too heavily on architectural form at the expense of the urban context and suggested that planners can wrongly assume higher densities will create better cities.

For Calthorpe, true urbanism boils down to three things:

  1. Diversity, of both types of people and types of land use
  2. Human-scale, the urban environment must be built around people
  3. Connections, the more isolated the City, the more dysfunctional

Together: diversity and connections at a human-scale create an urban ecology.

Two of Calthorpe’s recent plans illustrate how to restore and/or create this simple urban ecology. For Stapleton, Colorado,  Calthorpe took an abandoned airfield of 4,700 acres and converted it by first restoring the natural riparian corridors and then clustering development around these green spaces. The right mixture of land uses, housing income levels, shared public space, and a variety architectural types create an inviting, green, award-winning community.

Unique public open spaces are extremely important to healthy urban areas. The Piazza in Northern Liberties at various times of day can be a quiet green space for reading, a community gathering space, or a vibrant outdoor nightlife venue.

Infill development is popping up in some neighborhoods across Philadelphia helping to bring out a mix of new and old and a range of housing prices.

In a separate project, Calthorpe presents a remedy for China’s “super blocks” surrounded by 8-lane roads using the Yuelai Eco-City as a model. A series of retrofits can help convert this car-oriented, inhuman development pattern. By converting massive thoroughfares into one-way couplets and then weaving car-free roads and local roads into the superblocks to reestablish a walkable street grid and human-scale passageways. Calthorpe’s urban development models showing how a “new” urbanism can create mixed-use, walkable and affordable neighborhoods without sacrificing housing density or automobile capacity have the potential to make a huge impact for China where 300 million new people are expected in the next 25 years.

This is a nice example of a car-free street lined with small businesses (another very important element of urban areas) in Northern Liberties.

Good urban areas provide adequate infrastructure for alternative modes of transportation.

Philadelphia, a city of 1.5 million people, has inherited a dense street grid and extensive rail system. The addition of an elaborate park system and proximity to several major rivers create a unique physical setting for the community. Unfortunately, Philadelphia has lost hundreds of streams to the early development of the city and is cursed with multiple mid-century, car-oriented “boulevards” that dissect entire swaths of the city both physically and psychologically. I would be interested to see what Calthorpe would recommend to treat the physical scars such as Roosevelt Boulevard and Spring Garden Street.

What would you do with Spring Garden Street, Peter Calthorpe?