About the Project

Centers & Edges examines how we come together in urban centers and how we intersect with nature.  A project of ideas and strategies that relate to built environments, Centers and Edges arises out of the concern I have for our shared future.  Since World War II, our consumption of land, oil and other resources has increased exponentially, and diminished our wherewithal to face mounting challenges — economic, environmental, and social.  At the same time, our communities are more fragmented, and collective action has become more difficult.

In large part, this self-inflicted entropy results from the way we have arranged our communities.   As a nation, resources have poured into suburban locations, not only as privately financed development but also as huge public subsidies for highway infrastructure and home mortgage guarantees.

We are more spread out, and we’ve paid a price for this personally.  We depend on our cars for so many things — not only to drive to work, but also to shop, meet, and relax.  The amount of time that we stay tied to our cars takes us away from other things, too – and it takes a lot of cash to buy more gas and maintain more cars.

Considerable research describes the social and environmental costs of sprawl — costs that results from the way we have organized and subsidized this development pattern.  Looking forward, these real costs will be difficult to hide.  The later twentieth century saw economic growth rates that hid inefficiencies, but these growth rates will not be matched.  Today, we face many challenges not the least of which are crumbling infrastructure, an enormous government deficit, the health care and economic needs of an aging America, and a world economy that may not grow in the foreseeable future.  We must learn to do more with less.

While I have a degree in economics from the University of Chicago, I am foremost an urban planner and designer.  My professional degrees are from UC Berkeley.  After working as an urban designer and environmental planner at Wallace Roberts and Todd, I worked along side Peter Calthorpe for over a decade.  As a Principal at Calthorpe Associates, I co-authored the nation’s earliest transit-oriented development policies and master plans.  For three years I had my own firm, Catalyst, before entering public service and developing Berkeley California’s Downtown Area Plan (DAP) and Streets & Open Space Improvement Plan (SOSIP).  I took on the Downtown project for the challenge – and I have not been disappointed.

On Centers

Downtowns and other urban centers are perhaps the most promising and effective locations for addressing today’s economic, social and environmental challenges.  I have launched “Centers and Edges” to describe the unique advantages of mixed-use urban centers, and to share tools and techniques for making centers highly functional and livable places.

Urban centers share common characteristics.  They are where people, transport, commerce, and community come together.   Urban centers always include a business district, but some centers have little retail while remaining the heart with cultural destinations, community services, and interesting things to do.

There are many kinds of urban centers.  The smallest urban centers lie in small towns.  The largest are the focus of whole regions. Downtowns are traditional centers which grew over time at historic convergence points – with small separate parcels across gridiron streets.  In contrast, new “town centers” and other “activity centers” are orchestrated to transform large parcels in a relatively short period of time. 

Housing and offices occur in urban centers in varying degrees.  If the center has exceptional access, commercial activities can dominate and housing and office may happen in small amounts. Where access is poor, residents and workers may need to populate the place to support any kind of retail .

Centers & Edges will first consider the importance of urban centers.  Tools and techniques for successful centers will be taken up in 2011.

The Urban-Rural Edge

The urban-rural edge has received little attention compared with suburbs as a whole. Yet the edge is a line of dramatic change — not the least of which is rapid environmental degradation.

Many Americans want to locate near a region’s edge for good reasons.  The outer reaches of a metropolis offers access to open space and a perception of safer and more intimate communities.  But conventional development at the edge has led to the loss of nature and agriculture at alarming rates, and a family that lives near the edge will likely drive at least three times as much as a family in an urban neighborhood — and ten times the rate as high-density centers.

Centers & Edges will describe typical ecological impacts resulting from edge development, and reveal important ways that urban and natural systems are connected. The project will consider ways to grow at the metropolitan edge while protecting valuable ecosystems and farmlands. One way for creating human settlement near resource-rich natural and agricultural lands is the “pedestrian pocket,” clustered development where many daily needs can be met on foot – but where coherent and functional open space remains.  This project will discuss strategies for resource planning and community design in the urban-rural context. 

There is a tension that comes by accommodating edge development, while also promoting dense urban centers. Centers & Edges will grapple with this dialectic. Is it reasonable to think that investment at the edge development can be redirected toward infill development locations in an appreciable way? Is this a naive notion or an environmental imperative?

By considering both urban centers and the metropolitan edge, I hope that both place types can be better understood. Each place type presents special challenges and opportunities, and each place can play a greater role in promoting sustainable and more livable regions.

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Topics covered by Centers & Edges:

downtowns, city centers, urban revitalization, urban centers, infill development, transit-oriented development, historic preservation, transportation demand management, location efficiency, defensible space, urban economics, urban design, community engagement, livable density,

environmental footprint, place types, green infrastructure, conservation development, pedestrian pocket, low-impact development, mixed-use development, town centers, form-based codes, urban transect, smart growth, metropolitan edges, regional sustainability,

downtown berkeley, berkeley downtown area plan, berkeley streets & open space improvement plan, churchill homes holyoke, windsor town square, prairie crossing, downtown naperville, lake forest