Urban Design and Life Between Buildings

Since its formal foundation sixty years ago the discipline of urban design has chiefly concerned itself with a response to the Modernist approach to city building. Modernism held up the idea of a city composed of buildings that were free-standing, internally-focused, unadorned, efficient solutions to the needs of humans for shelter and privacy. These buildings were big, as made possible by new construction methods. They were constructed and designed as singular objects, meaning that they did not combine with nearby buildings or open space to create a coherent form. The only coherent form was the building itself. The new role played by the building in the city caused a fundamental reordering of the shape of cities. And, in this instance, function followed form.

The new shape of the city altered how people lived and moved about, what kind of places they spent time and how the interacted socially. Throughout human history cities were formed of a dense built mass, cut through with narrow alleys, squares, and a few broader thoroughfares. These openings in the built form provided a space for the public life of the city in addition to circulation and access to buildings. The public realm was shaped by the many buildings which surrounded it and life that flowing through it into and out of these buildings. It was composed of nothing more than the sum of the relationships between these elements (Kostof 1991).

The modernist approach to architecture and city building was an acknowledgment of the 20th century changes in construction and transportation technology and it was an earnest attempt to deal with the many problems of the industrial city, with its crowded, polluted, and unhealthy slums, economic inequality, and congested streets. Still, urban designers found it necessary to repudiate many of the tenets of the modern city and its effects in their own work. This was perhaps most powerfully achieved by Jane Jacobs in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she the compares modernist city planning to the archaic medical practice of bloodletting, saying “years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense.” Jacobs calls out for a new discipline of city planning based around the ways cities work in reality, derived from nothing more than the observation of cities themselves (J. Jacobs 1961).

The key element that Jacobs searches for in her study of the real functioning city is life, and the circumstances and environments which sustain it in an urban environment. This life is found in the street, in the “sidewalk ballet”, in well-used parks and in safe, supportive, vibrant neighborhoods. This quality has been sought by many theorists of urban design throughout the development of the field. It is something like “magic”, a “sense of place”, greatness, life, and it happened in the public realm, a result of the complex interplay of the built elements of the city and of lives of the people who inhabited them. This quality was perhaps best characterized by Jan Gehl, who called it the “life between buildings” (J. Jacobs 1961) (A. Jacobs 1993) (Cullen 1961) (Gehl 1987).

Thursday morning I went to the Island

This morning I went out to the island to write. I walked out my door around seven, got on the train downtown, took the passenger ferry and then the bus into town, where I arrived about a quarter after eight. The reverse commute is a strange special thing. You start out in the midst of the morning rush, through downtown amidst the office workers and bums, but before long you’re nearly by yourself, and then you plug right into the island’s sleepy, but industrious daily life. It felt a bit like I’d arrived in another country, with different customs and values and social problems, and a different kind of economy.

The bus from the ferry dock into town is particularly resonant. I grew up on a hill on the north end of the island, a short, steep walk up from the dock. I rode the bus to school, basically the same route for nine or so years. We’d start out nearly empty, power up the big hill, head down around the Dilworth loop where we could see the sunrise against the mountains at certain times of year. The bus passed through town and by the coffee roasterie, where on roasting days the the toasty, smooth smell of which alerted us that we were nearly to school.


The bus ride this morning skipped the Dilworth loop but it wasn’t so different. It is a county bus, but just like the school bus it stops for people on the side of the road, where there is no sidewalk or signpost or any perceivable clue that a bus stop is present. We don’t run the Dilworth loop, but we do pick up a few people along the “highway”, the main two-way road that runs down the spine of the island. Each has their own business about the island, and is dressed in their own uncoordinated attempt to resist the wind and rain. Or not all uncoordinated. Two men get on the bus just up the hill from the dock, they are medium height, with decent bellies, each has a straight handled full-size umbrella. They are both wearing hats, one a paperboy and the other a sort of German-style fedora with a little feather. One wears a leather jacket and the other a denim jacket, with canvas sleeves. They are twins. I remember riding the school bus with them many years ago. I think they were two or three grades below me.


They sit down opposite each other in the front part of the bus. Each has their phone in their right hand and their left on the handle of their umbrella. They get off just past town, on the funny little “Dead End” street that leads the the islands’ quiet industrial park, and open their umbrellas and set off on foot, perhaps walking the half-mile to a place of employment.


I get off at the Roasterie. It is one of the oldest buildings on the island and was built with a spatial logic that has become foreign with the passage of time. It sits right out on the street, with a long front porch, where the excellent coffee is served. Inside, odd tables and stools are arranged around jars of medicinal herbs, houseplants, historic coffee paraphernalia, with newspapers, cards, cribbage and chess sets, and posters about island happenings scattered about. The large windows are only twenty feet from the street and cars stop directly in front of the building for the four-way stop at the intersection of Highway and Cemetery. People in cars look out to see if they know anyone on the porch, roll down their window to yell a quick Hello How Ya Doin’ while the porch folks look out at the car passersby just the same.

The school buses roll by around nine. Their windows are foggy. Temporary drawings and messages have been written all over, traced with fingertips on the cold glass and slowly fading. On the lower panes openings in the fog have been hastily cleared with sleeves and little faces can be seen looking out at the world.