Finding our
common
design language

As you travel around Northeast Ohio and look at the changing landscape, do you like what you see? If youre like many of the people we talk to at EcoCity Cleveland, the answer is no.

You are disturbed by the rapid loss of our rural countryside and wish that more could be done to redevelop our older urban areas. You wonder who in the world is buying all those ostentatious new homes on five-acre lots. And you are depressed by the sheer ugliness of the automobile-dominated sprawl of fast food joints, gas stations, and big box retail stores.

Some sights may please youa lovingly restored century home, a walkable neighborhood street, a redeveloped brownfield in the city, or a dignified church that frames a public space. But, in the balance, there is a sense that change is eroding the quality of life of many communities.

At EcoCity Cleveland we spend a lot of time trying to understand why this is so. And we try to give people the ideas and language they need to know what they dont like and to articulate their vision of a better future. With our Citizens Bioregional Plan project, for example, we helped citizens understand how Northeast Ohio could develop differently at the regional, metropolitan scale.

Recognizing what we like

In 2001, we undertook a project to articulate how people want to develop at the scale of the neighborhood, street, and building. This project, What We Love&and What We Dont: Images of the Western Reserve, used photographic images of locations in the seven-county region to help people recognize the landscapes, street scenes and buildings they prefer. The idea is that people generally know what they like when they see it. And then they can translate their preferences into principles of good design.

Here is how the project unfolded over the year:

We identified a consultant, Mark Gillem, who has experience leading community groups through ratings of their built environment. Several years ago, Gillem did a similar exercise for residents in Medina County. Although he is now working as an architect in Berkeley, CA, he is very familiar with the Ohio landscape.

Over the summer, EcoCity staff collected suggestions of places in Northeast Ohio that people especially liked or didnt like. We tried to get a sense of the kinds of places whether residential streets, commercial strips, or industrial parksthat provoke strong reactions. We also recruited more than a dozen cosponsoring organizations, who agreed to help us publicize the project.

At the end of August, Gillem spent four days photographing locations in Northeast Ohio. Using our list of sites as a starting point, he drove over 1,000 miles and took 20 rolls of film. He also interviewed representatives of the cosponsoring organizations and other people involved in land use and development.

Gillem distilled the photos down to 40 pairs of images that represented the diversity of landscapes in the region. He didnt necessarily choose the best and worst examples of each type of place. Rather he chose images that illustrated what was going on in each type of placeimages that would help people understand the underlying design principles at work.

On Saturday, November 11, we organized an interactive workshop at which participants scored the images. More than 70 people spent all morning discussing the images and developing planning and design principles appropriate for guiding the regions future growth. They asked, What is working? Why is it working? Where can it work in the future?

The following Tuesday evening, we presented the results in a public show at Cleveland State University. Attendees were given a detailed score sheet for evaluating places in their own communities.

Design consensus

Our workshop revealed that there is a high level of consensus about the kinds of places people like. 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.

These preferences are consistent across the country, Gillem told us. From Tucson to Charleston, we have agreement on what we like.

The trouble is that were 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 environmentplaces that feel right.

Getting it right does not require rocket science. Its a matter of basic design principlesscale and proportion and function. Its a matter of making tree lawns of a certain width, planting street trees at proper intervals, constructing roads narrow enough to be crossed easily, or locating destinations in convenient proximity.

The fact that we are getting ugly strip malls instead of charming retail streets is not always the fault of developers. Its 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. 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.

A new visual code

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. Indeed, there is a growing national movement to do just that. Whether the movement is called new urbanism or smart growth, its about creating livable communities for people.

The photos and score sheet in this section are intended to help citizens in Northeast Ohio 1) understand what they want for their communities, and 2) evaluate development projects based on their preferences. We encourage people to use these tools and get involved in the planning discussions in their communities.

Its important to fight for good design. High standards communicate that our communities are worth caring about. The quality of our buildings and streets sets the stage for our social interactions. Lively urban neighborhoods help attract the high-tech workers that will make Northeast Ohio more competitive in the new economy. And environmental quality depends a great deal on how wisely we develop land and redevelop our cities.

If we can articulate what constitutes good design, we can build communities that will last.

 

 

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EcoCity Cleveland
3500 Lorain Avenue, Suite 301, Cleveland OH 44113
Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
www.ecocitycleveland.org
Copyright 2002-2003

Back to main What We Like

 

Our workshop revealed that there is a high level of consensus about the kinds of places people like. 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 fact that we are getting ugly strip malls instead of charming retail streets is not always the fault of developers. Its 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.

 

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