Making Sense of Neighborhood Structure

Planner Sam Gennawey details a public participation exercise he regularly uses, taken from the ideas of Christopher Alexander, that makes complex ideas simple for public understanding.

Read Time: 5 minutes

August 16, 2010, 8:00 AM PDT

By Sam Gennawey

The City is organized complexity. – Jane Jacobs

Photo: Sam Gennawey

We are always asking the public to participate in our planning projects. We line the room with our charts, project notebooks, and digitally created visions of the future. We get people talking and then hand out markers and maps and ask them to draw and then we listen and write down their answers on the wall. The real pros are always asking, "Did we get it?" This article focuses on another question. "Did the people get it, and now own it?"

Andres Duany said, "Planning is simpler than they will allow." I thought his comment was a good challenge. The real world is complex and sometimes that complexity makes people give up or do the wrong thing. They become satisfied with the acceptable or even the regrettable instead of seeking the exceptional. Is there a way to make the complex simple, measurable, and sharable? How can we describe our neighborhoods in such a way as to inform, enlighten, and inspire?

In The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander provides a possible solution. He said, "The new should always grow out of respect for what is there now and what was there before." He has proposed a way to illustrate and measure our neighborhoods so that it could be shared it with our neighbors. Combined with an open and transparent public engagement, I've found that this tool gets everyone involved on the same page and looking at their neighborhood through the same pair of eyes.

Alexander suggests there is a global structure that consists of four interlocking elements. Think of these four elements as molecules that create different outcomes when you play with the proportions. Those elements are:

  • Pedestrian Space: including public outdoor space, paths, and pedestrian streets
  • Gardens: private gardens
  • Buildings: houses and businesses
  • Space for cars: parking and roadways

We can analyze any neighborhood with an aerial photo and five markers. Color all of the pedestrian areas, including all outdoor public spaces, in yellow. Next, color all private gardens in green. Be sure to include courtyards and sideyards. All of the buildings will be marked up in gray. Commercial buildings should be dark gray and residential is light gray. Finally, use red for the areas dedicated to the car including driveways and parking.

The impact should be immediate and memorable. Now you can start to look for positive patterns and those areas that may need our attention.

For example, a healthy neighborhood will show a strong ribbon of pedestrian connections (yellow) linking public gathering nodes at frequent intervals. The buildings (gray) define the public (yellow) and private gardens (green) and create distinct outdoor rooms. The space for cars (red) plays a secondary role and is in balance with the other uses.

In a neighborhood that is out of balance we see the four elements tilted toward the automobile. The map will seem red and angry.

Now, every act of construction becomes an opportunity to repair, enhance or embellish the public realm. Harrison "Buzz" Price, a close adviser to Walt and Roy Disney, said the question we must always ask is "Yes, if". This is the enabler of the truth. We should not get stalled by talking about "No, because".

We must document people's expectations and their conditions for accepting change. We must pull it from their lips - then the healing can begin. Alexander suggests we start with the pedestrian realm and he has some suggestions. He asks if there are gaps or barriers? Look for breaks in the yellow ribbons. Is there a linked system of pedestrian areas clearly defined by the buildings and the gardens? The front of each gray building should work like a "wall" whose job it is to create and help to shape the public space. Do the buildings and gardens create positive space? Positive space is when the background should reinforce rather than detract from the center.

As density increases and buildings get larger and taller, there is more demand for space for cars. Even small changes in density can make a big difference. If you start to see red bleeding all over the map then you are going in the wrong direction. Take advantage of the density to create more public space (yellow) or private gardens (green).

One benefit of this mapping technique is the ability to appeal to people who process information differently. For those who are visual, they will see vivid color patterns that represent the connections and the barriers. For those who are quantitative, they can measure the percentages given over to any one use and compare those percentages to environments that they find acceptable.

This process can empower a neighborhood and creates a common language for its transformation. The goal, as Christopher Alexander says, is to "make the whole better, make it comes closer to the ideal completed neighborhood in which pedestrian space, gardens, buildings, and small spurs of road and parking remain in harmony, and provide a continuous world of movement for pedestrians, while also allowing each building its own freedom and sway over its immediate domain."


Sam Gennawey spends his professional time working with his clients and their partners to create a collaborative atmosphere and facilitate creative and constructive discussions. He has honed his craft over the course of 100 projects and has conducted more than 700 community workshops. He is also a land use planner and his innovative General Plans include the California cities of Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, Claremont, Azusa, Brea, Chula Vista, West Hollywood, Rialto, and the County of San Bernardino. In his spare time he writes about the design and history of theme parks and hosts a popular blog on the subject.

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