Saturday, February 28, 2015

Make more little plans

Posted By on Sat, Feb 28, 2015 at 7:15 AM

I hesitate to state that Colorado Springs should think smaller, however I wonder sometimes if that’s exactly what we need. This goes against conventional planning wisdom, and the celebrated architect/urban designer Daniel Burnham's statement, "make no little plans."

Perhaps smaller, more incremental steps are the answer for today. Perhaps, a lot of people making smaller plans is better than just a few people making very large plans.

Imagine if we had a dozen Ivywild school retrofits or Dog Tooth Coffee shops that create third places for neighborhoods. Consider the eclectic mix of shops and fabric of architecture that makes up Old Colorado City; these are not places that were created by a few individuals, they developed almost as a form of economic magnetism, organically created out of necessity. Each business creates energy for the next, forming what we refer to as a district today.

click to enlarge JOHN OLSON
  • John Olson

Channeling thoughts from the Strong Towns podcast on Nassim Nicholas Taleb's “The antifragile city,” smaller plans are more organic and the fragility factor is decreased. Some failure is inevitable — it’s healthy. Without failure, there is not innovation. Without innovation, civilization becomes static.

The problem with making very large plans is that there’s a greater chance of nothing happening with the proverbial eggs all in one basket. Cities became cities in a very incremental manner; they built what they needed at the scale of the human foot as the method of transportation. This meant that smaller convenience stores, churches, banks, etc. were built within walking distance to homes. The result was what we consider to be downtowns and central business districts — smaller, more compact and dense — what we now consider more urban. Although not all downtowns and business districts are thriving, they do have a built-in framework for adaptability. They are what Nassim considered to be “anti-fragile.”

Can we say the same about shopping malls, or big-box lifestyle centers? No. The failure of the too big to fail anchor tenant, i.e. Macy's or JCPenney, creates a chain-reaction to the ancillary tenants.

I implore the citizens of the Springs to make little plans while considering the larger plans; we need all of the small, local neighborhood bakeries and coffee shops just as much as we need the thriving business districts.

Don’t misinterpret this post as a statement against City for Champions (C4C). C4C has validity toward the “make no small plans” notion, but not in isolation. C4C requires transportation reform, and the "little plans" to create the greater sum for downtown. It’s the transportation reform, the smaller businesses, pubs and coffee shops adjacent to the projects that will make City for Champions succeed, not the large event center or museum. But, having said that, the actual architecture of these features must present a timeless and adaptive character that will allow the structures to realize a life after the initial use inevitably fails.

Allow me to draw the parallel to the business of urban design and landscape architecture. When I started out my company in 2010, it was great to have the larger clients of Fort Carson and Gold Hill Mesa. However, it was imperative to have the smaller contracts of the six-unit townhome in Arvada, and the early residential contracts, to our success. These smaller projects provided stability when the larger projects went on hold for the variety of reasons that projects go on hold.

Like any firm's large projects, building uses also fade. The surrounding uses must be resilient enough to sustain growth and adaptation for the surrounding uses. A parking lot surrounding a stadium, for example, does not generate wealth. It is completely dependent on the primary use.

Staying with the stadium theme, Coors Field in Denver rejuvenated LoDo. If the Rockies were to leave Denver, I believe the LoDo District would continue and sustain a new life for Coors Field. However, if the Royals were to leave Kaufman Stadium in suburban Kansas City, would the parking lot yield a new land use? Or would it simply be demolished in favor of more parking for the 8 days that the Kansas City Chiefs have home football games each year?

John Olson is a licensed landscape architect, residing in Colorado Springs. He serves as the Director of Planning and Landscape Architecture for EVstudio Planning & Civil Engineering. He is also a co-founder of Colorado Springs Urban Intervention, which implemented Better Block Pikes Peak in 2012, the recent Walkability Signage found in Downtown Colorado Springs, and perhaps most notably, Curbside Cuisine.

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