I went to a Maine Downtown Center event sponsored by the Maine Development Foundation and the Maine CDC. The first part of the event featured Mitchell Rasor, a landscape architect who has been involved in some interesting projects in Maine. The second part was on Active Community Environments. Apparently funded by federal money flowing through the Maine Centers for Disease Control, the gist was that we should be designing communities that encourage physical activity. This is a great idea, but it is Mr. Rasor’s presentation on The Ecology of Streets that I want to spend a few moments describing. More than anything, this lecture showcased what good design is: it is a process that is equal parts intentional, technically rigorous, and metaphorically rich.
By “intentional”, I mean good design has a purpose. We want to design not simply to make beautiful vistas upon which we can gaze. Rather, good design benefits people. The notion of a triple bottom line captures how design should be of benefit. Design cares for the environmental, the social, and the economic.
In being technically rigorous, good design does not pretend to be beyond analysis. Design does not depend on intangibles or non-quantifiable attributes. Rather, good design is rigorous and open to analysis in the way fractals are hauntingly beautiful yet easily described by relatively terse mathematical formulas. Mr. Rasor demonstrated this by casually mentioning that big box stores have floor area ratios (FARs) of about .1, while a downtown composed of small shops and walkable streets might have an FAR of .5. I found this intriguing, not so much because the FARs verify what all hope is the case, but because Mr. Rasor compares the two FARs as a matter of course in his work. Another example is the ratio of circulation area to buildings in cities. Mr. Rasor pointed out European cities have ratios of around .18 to .25. American cities have ratios closer to .30. Some cities, like Houston, have ratios as high as .40. There are many ways to compare European and American cities. Knowing how they compare and contrast mathematically is one more tool in the designer’s toolkit.
Finally, designers travel in metaphorically rich territory. Perhaps the most compelling image Mr. Rasor presented was a section through a coastline, the sort of image one might see in a textbook about marine biology. There were trees along the upslope border of the drawing, then grasses, then a sandy stretch, then an intertidal zone, and finally the ocean. At a certain point, Mr. Rasor had visualized city streetscapes and saw the coast of Maine. Buildings were like trees. The sidewalk was an intertidal zone. The cars traveled in the ocean. There was an unmistakable richness to this metaphor. Humans inhabit streetscapes like crabs inhabit intertidal zones. Certainly we can learn something here. Certainly there was a connection between the built and the natural environment.
That made me think.[This post was updated on 3/14/2016 to reflect comments from Mr. Rasor. We thank him for the input.]