The three rules of city comfort


What makes a city a desirable place to live? Author David Sucher has written a book called City Comforts which tries to isolate the keys to answering the above question effectively. Here's the home page for the book:

Our purpose is to help make our urban civilization more...well...civilized. By and large our cities lack comfort and grace. Oh, they have their bright spots and there is lots of good work being done but overall it's pretty dreary.

The 'theory' of this book is that we don't pay attention to the small details of cities that really make the difference in our comfort. We spend a lot of time planning, a lot of time thinking about how wonderful it could all be. But we don't spend a whole lot of effort dealing with the thousands of small details that make up our daily experience. We are great on large-scale strategy and a bit inept at tactics.

There are many people all across the world who see both the poverty of our urban environments and see a way to evolve out of it. Speaking loosely, this approach can be called 'the new urbanism.' (I say loosely because there are many threads to this emerging urban tapestry and some pull in different directions. But they are all tied together by the desire to create cities built to human scale, where people can walk and where there is a sense of community.)

The simple patterns and simple details shown in City Comforts are not any panacea but they provide a framework for judging new construction, for separating the simple but crucial patterns from the trivial matters of style. This simple framework asks us to examine a very few elements of the urban landscape but it will go a long way to improve our cities.

He's got a blog which covers urban design issues, as well as other topics:

What is this blog about? Cities, architecture, the 'new urbanism,' real estate, historic preservation, urban design, land use law, landscape, transport etc etc from a mildly libertarian stance. Our response to problems of human settlement is not "better planning" and a bigger budget for local government. But alas, conservative and libertarian (not the same, to be sure) response to shaping our cities is too often barren and in denial. Our goal is to take part in fostering a new perspective. But not too earnestly.

I'm pleased to see someone approaching urban design issues from a libertarian stance. The centralized, mandated approach to fixing bad urban design or prescribing good urban design usually doesn't work and is foreign to America's ideal of private property rights. If anything, central planning has usually led to the destruction of good urban design and the construction of dead urban areas. Let's figure out how to work with market forces to make our cities livelier.

Sucher has a helpful blogroll of other sites dealing with the built environment and a list of his favorite blog entries. Here are a couple of recent highlights.

Here is an animated GIF illustrating the contrast between urban and sub-urban design -- it all starts with where you put the parking.


He asks what could be done to improve the graphic, and I think there are a couple of things that would help communicate the visual impact of a huge suburban parking lot separating the pedestrian from where he wants to go.

(1) The cross-section view at the bottom would be clearer with some subtle elevation differences, for example, showing the sidewalk and bottom of the building at a slightly higher level than the street, alley, and parking lot. A tree between the pedestrian and the street might also help make the distinction.

(2) A view showing the front of the building as seen from the sidewalk would help -- the urban version with the front door and display windows right there, and the suburban version with the front of the building far in the background, with asphalt and a few cars in the foreground.

This entry contains a link to a PDF excerpt from City Comforts the book, which outlines three simple rules, which he calls "the 'pattern generator' for creating 'city-ness'". Here are the rules, all of which have to do with the relationship of the building to its surroundings, rather than building height and style:

  1. Build to the sidewalk (i.e., property line).
  2. Make the building front "permeable" (i.e., no blank walls).
  3. Prohibit parking lots in front of the building.

Some day, when I have a few minutes to spare, I hope to post some photos I took along Rue Ste. Catherine in Montréal back in July, which illustrate how buildings in a variety of styles, ages, and sizes all work together to create an interesting and pleasant place to walk, as long as the buildings adhere to those rules.

In the meantime, I've bookmarked the City Comforts blog and encourage you to visit there frequently.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 5, 2004 7:44 AM.

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