In 2000, EcoCity Cleveland endeavored to find a common language that describes where we want to live, and why. Think of it as a Rating the Places We Love instead of Rating the Suburbs.
Disturbed as he drove around Northeast Ohio, seeing the loss of rural countryside and wishing that more could be done to redevelop our older urban areas, EcoCity Cleveland founder David Beach and others struck on an idea: a Built Environment Rating game, “What We Love...and What We Don’t: Images of the Western Reserve."
Simply put, images of new sprawl development and places like Main Street in Burton and Clifton Boulevard in Lakewood were given to people to grade (from +10 to -10). They consistently ranked the walkable places higher.
“Our workshop revealed that there is a high level of consensus about the kinds of places people like,” Beach wrote. “People want shady residential streets and houses with front porches. They want walkable commercial districts with buildings that define and respect the street. They want town squares and other inviting public spaces for community gatherings.”
“The trouble is that we’re not getting what we like. Much of the new development in Northeast Ohio does not reflect our preferences. It seems that, in practice, we have lost our common language of design. We have forgotten how to create a pleasing built environment -- places that feel right.”
Speaking to Beach today about the visual preference survey, he’s still struck by how much latent design intelligence can be found in Northeast Ohioans. We know what we like even if we don’t have the confidence or words to express it. He reiterates, “we don’t get what we like because what we like is illegal.”
The fact that we are getting ugly strip malls instead of charming retail streets is not always the fault of developers, Beach added. It’s often the fault of our communities‘ zoning codes, building codes, and transportation investments, which are biased toward increasing the mobility of cars rather than creating pleasing places for people.
“We have created regulations that require new suburbs to be built as places completely dominated by congested roads and parking lots,” he wrote. “And we are allowing historic older communities, which were originally built to the compact scale of the pedestrian and streetcar, to be bulldozed and replaced by the same, generic, automobile-centric sprawl.”
“We can do better. If we can agree on good design, then we should be able to write our zoning and building codes to promote what we like.”
Flash forward to Sustainable Communities and Northeast Ohio’s attempt to once-again establish a design vocabulary that produces vibrant places where most of us want to live. VibrantNEO has tapped a number of local knowledge banks, including “What We Love,” Beach says. The consultant team from Sasaki & Associates have investigated the visual preferences outlined back in 2000 as a data point in their search for an alternative course to sprawl and its attendant costs.
“We demystify the discussion of good places” by visualizing density, wrote former Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative Director, Ruth Durack. Her goal was to educate people to participate in a community conversation when they feel otherwise too intimidated to respond to an architect or planner’s proposal. “We want to encourage people to look more critically at the places they inhabit and to think about what works, what doesn’t, and how these places could be improved.
Back in 2004, EcoCity and CUDC assembled a guidebook, “Making Better Places” that illustrates what works in good urban design, and analyzed it down to the block and street level. With artist Steve Manka, they produced a manual that dissects the visual preference survey of 2000 with illustrations and analysis of what goes in to our most beloved buildings, streets, and public spaces.
In the Forward to the book, former CUDC staffer Maurizio Sabini, wrote that finding a consensus around a notion like “urban quality” starts with a definition of a good city. Many big thinkers have grasped at this issue, Sabini says, but “real urban quality today can only emerge from a constant social and cultural dialogue.” Good urban qualities will take all of our critical eyes. He cites an example, James Howard Kunstler, a national writer who critiqued the suburbanized form of Cleveland’s Church Square development on Euclid Avenue at E. 89th Street.
“The appropriate model for neighborhood development still exists in Cleveland for anyone who opens his/her own eyes or wanders around town with a tape measure," Kuntsler wrote. "The streets alone instruct you what to build. There are photographs and drawings in the Cleveland Public Library of mixed use developments that once stood on these rubble fields.”
It may be unfair to pick on Cleveland which is not alone in producing developments that are not built to last. Standing up to developers and city officials who tell people without design degrees that Church Square or any typical strip retail development in the suburbs “has to” be this way because it won’t succeed otherwise is not easy. Ask them to define success, and then hand them this book, “Making Better Places: A citizens' guide to assessing existing neighborhoods and proposed developments in Northeast Ohio.”