Local Codes: Revitalizing Cities with a Capillary Network of Redesigned Vacant Lots

Riley —  April 15, 2010 — 4 Comments

This week we’ll be featuring some of the designs of the finalists from WPA 2.0: Whoever Rules the Sewers Rules the Streets, UCLA cityLAB’s infrastructural design competition.  “Nearly two hundred teams from 13 countries and 25 US states entered the professional competition. The six final proposals represent some of today’s most progressive plans for transforming existing urban infrastructure with an emphasis on better public spaces, more conscientious energy and water use, and turning detriments into resources.”  The winners were determined back in November, but these projects haven’t lost any of their relevance or forward-thinking in the interim months, and they’re too innovative to pass up.

One of the runners up was called Local Codes, a comprehensive plan organized by Berkeley Professor of Architecture, Nicholas de Monchaux, to revitalize and reinvigorate cities by building greenscapes on “remnant parcels” – city owned but unmaintained streets, alleys, and vacant lots.  “When we examined all the leftover spaces in San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, Minneapolis — we found the same thing to be true in every city,” de Monchaux says. “You had a whole archipelago of city-owned lots lying fallow. In New York they add up to the size of Central Park and Prospect Park together. It’s a massive untapped resource that’s impossible to visualize without these contemporary tools.”

Monchaux and his team of students used GIS (Geographical Information Systems) to locate all of these remnant parcels, and overlay them with maps of elevation & topography, microclimate, soil type, hydrology, population density & demographics, economics, and crime, in order to determine how to best use the space.  And the possibilities are astounding, particularly because when viewed as a whole, these unaccepted streets are “like heat map of all the areas with health problems, pollution issues, and neglected spaces.”

By planting parks and other public, social gathering places in these areas, cities have the potential to increase quality of life where it’s needed most.  And while each individual project might not have a significant infrastructural impact, taken as a whole system, Local Codes has the potential to transform municipal approaches to environmental issues like the heat island effect and storm water runoff.

De Monchaux and his team have done a detailed evaluation of San Francisco, where they see a massive potential for positive growth and development: “The unaccepted streets of San Francisco represent a heterogeneous bureacratic backwater; 1,625 sites are, taken separately, a disjunction, or even irritant, in the city’s neighbourhood infrastructure. Taken together, however, they represent an archapeligo of opportunity, resistant to traditional forms of design but, perhaps, open to more radical speculation.”  The project is beginning to be implemented bit by bit in San Francisco, where city codes allow for residents to make use of some of the remnant parcels already.

One of the themes of city planning and industry over the last few hundred years has been centralization – focusing everything around a core, perhaps with smaller satellite cores orbiting around it.  But Local Codes, with its fundamentally decentralized approach to urban renewal stands to make bigger strides toward healthy, comfortable neighborhoods than centralized projects ever could.  In Manhattan, Central Park is a wonderful resource, but it is so necessary in part because of the rigid delineation between “nature” and the city.

Monchaux’s proposal would add a second “Central Park” to the city, only it would be anything but central.  Instead, it would be scattered through the urban fabric, integrating nature into people’s daily lives in a way that William Cronon would approve of.  Plus, this capillary network would serve an important – and cost effective – function by acting as an ecological buffer for the environmental problems that afflict most large, modern cities.

What I find most compelling about this proposal is not actually the benefits it provides – there are countless proposals for revitalizing and greening cities – it’s the efficiency and economy with which it proposes them.  Local Codes reminds a lot of ColaLife, the push to get Coca-Cola to carry humanitarian aid and medical supplies to remote African villages through special pods that would fit between Coke bottles within the crates.

“If, in the 19th century, it was a biological metaphor that fueled the creation of Central and Golden Gate parks, the idea that a city needs hearts and lungs to grow, there’s now a networked metaphor. The city is a dense network of relationships. The best way to provide infrastructure is to not go in with a meat ax but to practice urban acupuncture, finding thousands of different spots to go into.”

In the past, urban designers like Robert Moses simply bulldozed the areas they needed for their projects, but that approach isn’t socially or environmentally responsible.  Local Codes would essentially “fill the cracks” in the modern industrial city with healthy, useful, pleasant infrastructure.  That’s the best part.  It isn’t just effective, it’s practical and low-cost.

Sources: WPA 2.0, NYT Blog, Streetsblog.

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Riley

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Riley MacPhee is a recent graduate of Pomona College with a B.A. in Environmental Design and a minor in Philosophy, and has been writing for the JA blog for the last 3 years. He is passionate about architecture and design, and will be applying to M.Arch programs in the fall.

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