Monday, June 16, 2014

Fine grain design - the permeability remedy

Laneway in Langley - flowers, color, and personal touches

Yesterday I walked another small town, this time the village of Langley in Washington State, and found a gem. It reminded me of themes from the book Happy City and what my social planner friend Wendy Sarkissian says about making spaces work well. "We must pay careful – and loving – attention to the fine grain. The divine dwells in the details."

That was true last week in my blog on Brandon where high-density, low income housing so dramatically outshone nearby low-density suburban sprawl. And it was true yesterday in Langley where plants, paintings, murals, and all sorts of personal embellishments adorned laneways, alleys and the walkways between them. More importantly, those adornments were installed and maintained with loving attention by the owners of adjacent shops and residents living nearby.

Walkways need attention - plants, windows and natural surveillance 
Wisely, the town council did not regulate away these informal design details in some regulatory panic. That was wise. It is a step towards the fine grained urban design that will succeed where design guidelines will not. And it looks beautiful. (They were busy too! I waited for ages to take pictures without people walking in the alleyways). People say they don't like alleyways and high density until they see how well it can work.

In her 2012 presentation What's Psychology got to do with NIMBY? Wendy reminds us in order to show residents how it works "we must retrieve and embrace our lost sociological and psychological wisdom about what makes good housing and good neighborhoods."

In Langley lanes were decorated with flowers and windows looked down upon those flower-strewn spaces. Beauty and natural surveillance work better when they go hand in hand.

Decorations, landscaping, clear sightlines and windows - details matter
Skillful attention to the fine grain is precisely why the permeability-is-bad crowd miss the point. They believe more people walking and driving through an area increases crime risks because more potential criminals can access crime opportunities anonymously.

We don't need gated communities to be safe. What places inside Brandon and Langley show is that even places with plenty of flow-through can be made safe with the right kind of density, fine grain design, and locals who care.