Author: Ryan Biland

Courthouse Square, Redwood City, CA

Courthouse Square is the cultural heart of Redwood City, though most of its government buildings lie elsewhere. As the name suggests, the square is the plaza in front of the building with the rotunda, however the building has been converted from the county courthouse into a history museum. Across the street, which is frequently closed to auto traffic, is the Fox Theater. The Square is immensely successful, and has been integral to the revitalization of Redwood City’s downtown, for a variety of reasons. First is that it is simply a nice place to be. Auto traffic is low speed and relatively infrequent due to traffic calming measures, it is within walking distance of most downtown attractions and regional transit, and the layout comfortably encloses the space. Broadway, the diagonal street which runs across the train tracks, also provides the Square with sight lines and helps open the space as well. Though Redwood City lacks the history of many Roman settlements, it has taken some spatial design cues from the Roman tradition. Second, the Square is the great gathering place for most civic events. From movie nights to concerts to the local cultural festivals, they all take place in and around the Square. Finally, the Square itself provides amenities and amusement, ranging from a tea shop to fountains and the museum itself. Overall, Courthouse Square is an excellent example of a small civic space at the human scale, and it is immeasurably important to Redwood City’s cultural and civic growth.

Civic Center/UN Plaza, San Francisco, CA

Civic Center/UN Plaza, San Francisco, CA

After the 1906 earthquake destroyed the original city hall, plans were drawn up for a new complex. Constructed roughly around the the turn of the century, the SF civic center and the UN Plaza extension, are grand in the truest sense of the word. The focal point of the area is the iconic city hall, built in a neoclassical style. The area also hosts important cultural institutions such as the SF Symphony, SF Opera House, and the Asian Art museum. Throughout the past century, the area has seen its ups and downs. Though the scale and architecture are grand, the area suffers from a variety of issues at ground level. One famous issue is the homelessness problem, especially in the UN Plaza. This, juxtaposed against the chic neighborhood of Hayes Valley immediately to the west of the center almost seems to highlight San Francisco’s inequality issue. Though the Civic Center is monumental in scale, it is ironically the human-level dynamic which fails to truly unite the city.

Cape Coral, FL

Cape Coral, FL

Cape Coral is a city of 200,000 in southwest Florida. The city perfectly illustrates that there is not necessarily a perfect dichotomy between “grid” and “non-grid” patterns, as the “irregular” loops, canals, and curved roads that are decidedly non-grid elements are still imposed upon a grid-like network of large thoroughfares. One thing that Cape Coral shows is that it is not the regularity or irregularity with which an area is planned that inherently leads to density and good land use. In some sense, the city mimics the urban pattern of the Islamic world, featuring minimal public space, dead-end streets around which housing is oriented, and regularity of the external appearances of dwellings. That said, this development differs from that settlement pattern by being built at a vehicular scale, meaning that much space is wasted. Perhaps the greatest oversight in the planning of Cape Coral is cross-access between multiple points. The canals segregate large parts of the city, requiring use of the hierarchical road system to navigate from one area to another, which stands in sharp contrast to other “organically” developed non-grid cities and medieval city cores. Cape Coral suggests, then, that without careful attention to road layout, artificially mimicking non-grid patterns is a poor idea.

Lima, Peru

Lima, Peru

The capital of Peru and the largest city in the country by far, Lima has seen over 500 years of urbanization built off of the original Spanish colonial pattern. Lima’s original nine squares can be seen abutting the Rimac river, featuring all the standard attributes of a Spanish colonial town plan. But the latest satellite imagery shows that this grid hasn’t been extended perfectly, there’s substantial grid deformation as one gets farther from the original center. This is an excellent example of a grid, featuring planned regularity and some organic attributes to keep it interesting. Moreover, while access to the “center” isn’t as easily achieved as in say Chicago, the center of the city has sort of grown in size to match the needs of the local residents, distributing function rather than relocating, which adds to the coherence of the grid.

Fair Oaks, CA

Fair Oaks, CA

Fair Oaks is a neighborhood on the southeastern side of Redwood City, CA. In an almost completely suburban environment, Fair Oaks stands out as a well defined neighborhood, featuring community connection, a generally well defined extent (above the arterial on the bottom, left of the trees, and straddling the fork in the train tracks), and political power within the broader city. It is primarily Mexican-immigrant neighborhood, with many first and second generation families living there and giving the area a distinct character. Though decidedly larger in population than Clarence Perry’s vision, it’s still a cohesive neighborhood despite being split up by railroad lines. It seems that these rail lines act more as seams than barriers. Its self sufficiency comes from numerous services within its boundaries, ranging from locally-owned grocery stores to auto repair and more. Recently, the community has succeeded in attracting more public investment from the City relating to infrastructure and social services. The nexus of the community is the Fair Oaks community center, which is near one of the rail lines, and provides a hub of activities for local residents. The area also has a good number of schools, religious centers that represent the local population, and decent access to downtown. Perhaps the only area of improvement for this neighborhood is economic diversity, as despite being in the Bay Area it is relatively low-income. The trick would be creating a better income mix, while avoiding gentrification (which, in the Bay, is very tricky). Other than that, it’s a shining example of organic neighborhood growth that the city has only come to appreciate in the last ten years.

Mountain House, CA

Mountain House, CA

Mountain House is a planned suburb of Tracy, CA. Originally given development approval in the 1990s, the bulk of the single family houses were built in the pre-recession era, leading to a high percentage of vacancies. Though most of the land area is covered by (relatively) dense single-family housing, the development overall suffers from various zoning restrictions enacted by the Chamber of Commerce, most notably that there can be no commercial center in the development. This makes it a very vehicle-dependent suburb. Its conception as a pure suburb, with limited transit options, means that life is built at a larger spatial scale than what is otherwise be considered human-scale. Perhaps its only redeeming quality is the concentration of schools at regular intervals, which assist in forming intra-community social bonds. Mountain House raises questions on the ethical nature of the existence of purely residential suburbs. In an ideal world, demand for suburb living would be met by the right amount of development, but given the modern nature of bureaucracy and developer-capitalism, Mountain House is likely the only available housing stock for many people that would prefer another lifestyle. Thus, ideally, pure suburbs are not wrong to contemplate, but their manifested reality is usually harmful. Given that I-205 (the main road into Tracy) is almost at capacity, Mountain House is an excellent example of what not to do when planning a new suburb.

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