Making Better Places: Ten City Design Resolutions

Jeff Speck offers advice -- in the form ten City Design Resolutions -- for city mayors who want to build better places.

 Jeff Speck

Photo by Yoko Inoue

America's cities are changing every day. Some are becoming better places to live, some worse. Cities improve or worsen as a result of many intersecting forces, but if any one person has the ability to lead this change -- or at least exert an influence -- it is the American mayor.

One of the best unheralded programs of the National Endowment for the Arts is the Mayors' Institute on City Design. For almost twenty years, this group has been putting mayors together with designers to rethink the shape of their cities. After eighteen months working with this program, a number of design truisms that I once understood mostly in theory have become painfully obvious in practice. That many of these items are common sense does not alter the fact that mayors every day make decisions large and small that violate them outright. So, for all the mayors today who want to make better places, and for the citizens who want to help, I offer the following ten City Design Resolutions for the New Year. Those who wish to call them commandments are welcome to do so.

1. Design Streets for People

What attracts people to cities? For most, it is the public realm, with the vibrant street life that phrase implies. A successful public realm is one that people can inhabit comfortably on foot. Unfortunately, most cities today still allow their streets to be designed by traffic engineers who ignore the real needs of pedestrians. For example, parallel parking, essential to protecting people on the sidewalk, is often eliminated to speed the traffic. Every aspect of the streetscape, including lane widths, curbs, sidewalks, trees, and lighting can be designed to the needs of either cars or people. Too many cities favor the former.

2. Overrule the Specialists

Engineers are not alone in their quest to shape the city around specialized needs. The modern world is full of experts who are paid to ignore criteria beyond their profession. But the specialist is the enemy of the city, which is by definition a general enterprise. The school and parks departments will push for fewer, larger facilities, since these are easier to maintain. The public works department will insist that new neighborhoods be designed principally around snow and trash removal. The department of transportation will build new roads to ease traffic generated by the very sprawl that they cause. Each of these approaches may be correct in a vacuum, but is wrong in a city. Cities need generalists like mayors to weigh the advice of specialists against the common good.

3. Mix the Uses

Another key to active street life is creating a 24-hour city, with neighborhoods so diverse in use that they are occupied around the clock. Eating, shopping, working, socializing-these activities are mutually reinforcing and flourish in each other's presence. Moreover, many businesses such as restaurants and health clubs rely on both daytime and evening traffic to cover their rent. When considering the future of any city district, the first step should be to ask what uses are missing. In many downtowns, the answer to that question is housing, and cities from Providence to San Diego can point to new housing as a big part of a recent turnaround. In Up from Zero, Paul Goldberger is dead-on in bemoaning the main error of the World Trade Center planning process, its failure to introduce any housing into those sixteen commercial acres.

4. Hide the Parking Lots

If they are to keep walking, pedestrians must feel safe, comfortable - and entertained. And nothing is more boring than a parking lot. Whether they are open-air or six-stories tall, parking lots must be banished along any street that hopes to attract walking. Happily, parking lots are easy to hide. It only takes a 20-foot-thick crust of housing or offices to block a huge lot from view, and new parking structures can easily be built atop ground-level shops. Smart cities across the country are putting these requirements into law. Is yours?

5. Small is Beautiful

People are small, and the most walkable cities acknowledge this fact with small blocks, small streets, small buildings, and small increments of investment. Portland owes much of its success to its tiny blocks that create an incredibly porous network of streets, each of which can be quite small as a result. Whether for the mega-block housing schemes of the sixties or the cul-de-sac craze of the eighties, most cities that have closed streets in the past now wish they hadn't. Building height is another place for smallness. Only in the densest cities, where land doesn't sit empty as parking lots, are tall buildings justified. Otherwise, allowing skyscrapers just causes a few lucky sites to become overbuilt while their neighbors all lay fallow under massive speculation. Limiting building heights is also a useful bargaining chip: only with a height limit in place can height bonuses then be offered as an incentive for other concessions. Finally, a healthy real-estate development community is one of chipmunks, not gorillas. Do not tie the fate of your city to a single corporate juggernaut with its silver-bullet megamall when you should instead be leading the way for the local investor who wants to renovate a rowhouse.

6. Save That Building

How many buildings do we need to tear down before we learn our lesson? Almost every city that deeply regrets the 1960s destruction of its 1900s structures is happily permitting the 2000s destruction of 1940s structures. Need the march of time only confirm our current ignorance? Historic preservation may be our best way to respect our ancestors, but it is justified on economic terms alone. Don Rypkema reminds us that in market economies, it is the differentiated product that commands a monetary premium. This is why cities like Savannah and Miami Beach can point to historic preservation as the key ingredient in recent booms. It isn't always easy to find a productive use for an empty old building, but tearing it down makes that outcome impossible. In these cases, remember the old adage: "don't do something; just stand there!"

7. Build Normal (Affordable) Housing

Affordable housing remains a crisis in most cities, but the solution is not to build more housing projects. Rather, to be successful, affordable housing must do two things: be integrated with market rate housing, and look like market-rate housing. The most effective affordability programs combine housing with preservation by building city-owned houses on "missing tooth" empty lots in struggling historic neighborhoods. These houses provide smaller-than-standard apartments, but they are stylistically compatible with their neighbors. Despite the best-intentioned efforts of three generations of architecture students, affordable housing is exactly the wrong place to pioneer new design styles. Experiment on the rich; they can always move out.

8. Build Green / Grow Green

People have been talking about sustainable architecture for decades, but that movement has finally hit the tipping point with the advent of the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED standards. There is no longer any excuse for not building green. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and the standards allow a building to become certified as sustainable in terms of its resource use and interior health. It costs a little bit more to build green, but these costs are made up quickly in energy savings and worker productivity. Chicago and Seattle are two of many cities that now require all municipal buildings be LEED certified. Does yours? Oh, and while we're on the subject of green: Plant more trees! If mayors understood the correlation between tree cover and real estate value, our cities would look like forests.

9. Question your Codes

A "dingbat" is an apartment house on stilts floating above an exposed parking lot. The construction of one dingbat on a street of elegant rowhouses is enough to send property values plummeting. Why, then, do most city codes make no distinction between rowhouses and dingbats? Conventional zoning codes, made up of incomprehensible statistics like floor area ratios, ignore the differences between pleasant and unbearable urbanism. More often than not, they also make a city's traditional urban form-short front setbacks and mixed uses-illegal to emulate. For these reasons, a new generation of design ordinances is gaining favor among planners. Called form-based codes, these ordinances regulate what really matters: a building's height, disposition, location, and where it puts the parking. These codes actually have pictures in them-imagine! Cities including Arlington, Virginia, and Miami are creating form-based codes for key neighborhoods. Governor Schwarzenegger just signed a bill encouraging form-based codes in California. What does the Arnold know that your city doesn't?

10. Don't Forget Beauty

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley reminds us that cities should be places that make the heart sing. For many of our citizens, especially those too poor or infirm to travel, the city is an entire world. For this reason, it is our responsibility to create and maintain cities that not only function properly, but also afford moments of beauty. Yet how many communities today routinely award to the lowest bidder their contracts for schools, parks, and government buildings, the only investments that belong to us all? In the interest of short-term parsimony, we cheat ourselves out of an honorable public realm and a noble legacy. This did not use to be the case, and it need not continue. Many of the nation's most beautiful buildings and parks were built during periods of unparalleled adversity. It should not take another depression to make civic structures lovely again.

Cities are the largest and most complex things that we humans make. Despite evidence to the contrary, the knowledge exists on how to make them well. To the mayors -- and citizens -- who want to create better places: please start here.

City planner Jeff Speck is director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts, where he oversees the Mayors' Institute on City Design. He is the co-Author of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.



Past participant

We were fortunate enough several years ago to become part of the Mayors Inst. of City Design. We presented a deteriorating shopping center as a project. Today we have a very beautiful and thriving office park that everyone talks about. It has actually changed for the better, a large section of the SW portion of our city. A Wal-Mart has come across the street where a former broken down car dealership was located. One of our older neighborhoods has been completely changed, with new streets and sidewalks. I feel our relationship with NEA was the catalyst that helped make all this happen. We would love to show it to to you - the before & after.

ten city design resolutions

Jeff's resolutions, as he says, are reincarnations of a "number of design truisms"; and therein lies the trap. Truisms are often repeated because they sound so commonsensical but, surprisingly, they are not always as sensible as they seem. Take for example #1: Design Streets for People. Sure, we should. But....
What attracts people to cities? The story of urbanization says: jobs, jobs, jobs and then opportunity and "urbanity" (another word for tollerance and lifestyle choice). In NY, LA, Bangok, Tokyo, Paris and London there are probably more bad streets than good but these cities keep luring people to them. Streets don't register on the radar of common people choosing a city as their destiny.
A successful public realm? Streets are only one part of the public realm and a very small at that. Squares (small and big), parks, trails, promenades, pubs, cafes, stadia, arenas, theaters, train and subway stations, conference centres, stock exchange halls, farmer's markets and flee-markets, open and eclosed malls are all elements of the permanent or transient public realm that livens a city. The greater their frequency the more vibrant the city. Let us then not ignore 90% of the real "public realm" by focusing exclusively on streets, the majority of which are rarely "inhabited". On these grounds #1 becomes: Let there be many people places.
Streets for cars or people? It depends. Both need to move, both need to connect, both want to be safe. Streets have many faces and not every face fits every role. Highways, Parkways, Regional Roads, Main Strips, Main Streets, Local Streets, Mews and Lanes to name just a few. Each of these suits the car or the pedestrian to differing degrees; some even exclude one or the other with good reason. The best people streets exclude cars (in many downtowns) and the best car streets bar pedestrians (most highways). Pick your master and design appropriately.
A Portland model? The "porous" plan of Portland uses about 43% of land for ROW and a corresponding amound of asphalt; neither a developer's ideal nor an environmentalist's dream. A five minute-walk means crossing up to 10 motor streets, almost one quarter of the trip on asphalt; not exactly the ideal, care free, socialy stimulating stroll.
With these additional grounds Resolution 1 becomes: Let there be many people places and as exclusively for people as possible.

Fanis Grammenos
Senior Researcher
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation
tel 613 748-2321 Fax 613 748-2402

Jeff Speck's Resolutions

I'm delighted to have had this column pointed out to me. From a UK point of view - a small country, sky-high property prices/land values, lot of history - the resolutions are most reminiscent of the CittaSlow movement. Started in Italy, I know that at least its parent, the Slow Food (i.e. as opposed to fast food) movement has reached the US. The key is local distinctiveness: keep your individuality, keep the corporations and the faceless developers at bay. Don't build malls, cherish your small shop-keepers, gallery owners, local restaurants etc. etc. You'll improve the quality of life for residents and be more appealing to visitors at the same time, as well as safeguarding the environment. And read Jane Jacobs, Death & Life of the Great American Cities - she said it all in the 1960s. If only the planners had listened then.

10 City Design Resolutions

At last, some sense. Good Luck.


Great idea for an article, but short on reality. Point five is the wrong way to go if you want to provide for point seven.

As a builder I can attest to the idioticy [sic] of arbitrary height restrictions and how that drives up the cost of housing. Case in point, I'm looking at an in-fill site for luxury townhomes. If the site is five acres and I can either build three-story townhomes at 15/acre or a mix of townhomes and a condo building at 20-25/acre, I can mix in some more affordable units with the latter scenario because the density allows me to defray the costs over more doors. Either way, the seller is going to want $6 million for the site.

The same goes for high-rises; An arbitrary height limit in a major city or suburb only pumps up the prices for homes artificially while taking away value in the land. That's why suburban residents fight so hard: they want to preserve character (i.e., pump up their home value).

For this reason, the Mayor of Seattle is trying to--increase the height limit in his city. Most suburbs would do well to follow suit. If you are worrying about how tall buildings and short buildings look together you need to get out more. See some cities. Don’t let the New Urbanism get to your head.

Jeff Speck's column

Jeff clarifies many good points in a clear, succinct column. My only concern is his reliance on mayors to protect the public good. There are others who also work to bring a sense of balance, including community planners and town managers. Indeed, in many places, folks in these appointed positions are better able to do this, whereas mayors, being more directly political, may bend to the same short term winds feared in the article. This is not a criticism of mayors; just a reminder that other forms of municipal government also include officials who watch out for the long term public good.

Thanks for listening.


Ten City Design Resolutions

The article written by Planner Jeff Beck should be a required read by all planning, architect, and landscape architect students. As an LA wrapping up a masters in community planning and development, it was exciting to read that these tenants have been put to paper. Sustainability is woven throughout each tenant. My next step will be to read Suburban Nation. Thank you for this article!
Roxanne Young


..Well put. I'm just surprised this offering has not been attacked as unAmerican. Perhaps the naysayers are confident that by being the dominant power in Washington, there is less need to be reactionary?

Jeff Speck Op ed

I was fortunate to be invited to the Mayors Conference on City Design. It is wonderful and caused us to think out of the box and seek help. I came back and made changes and adopted many ideals as concepts.
Great program thanks to Jeff and NEA for keeping it strong.l

Ten City Design Resolutions

Mr. Speck:

I agree with your observation about the NEA Mayor's Institute on City Design. Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes has had the opportunity to attend this program.

Your 10 guiding principles for City Design is a great idea. Do you know of any City that has formally adopted such a resolution or guiding principles?


Donovan Mouton
Director of Urban Affair,
Office of the Mayor

City of Kansas City, Missouri

ph: 816.513.3513

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