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About 5 years ago I had my first run-in with urbanism–a word I had rarely encountered and seldom really considered. A new community was being proposed, and the developer hired some leading planners to discuss the benefits of walkable communities, with moderate density and local economies. Near this time I became familiar with Chuck Durrett and Katie McCamant’s great work in planning cohousing communities. Cohousing combines private homes with common facilities. Proponents are quick to describe cohousing’s energy, efficiency and quality of life benefits.

My head was further turned as I looked at examples of auto-driven suburbs transformed into friendly neighborhoods, with small business storefronts, bicycles and mass transit.  I was delighted this spring to find David Sucher and his book, City Comforts, an everyman  guide for pedestrian-friendly urbanism.

I had long noted that once a building is up, it stays up–the energy, costs and time seem to produce a kind of intertia, making it all the more important to consider what is built. Grieving over antiquated strip malls, I had not considered the inverse of this–city parks can almost perpetually reserve green space.

This summer I took the circular stairs up to the very top of the Water Tower in Volunteer Park Seattle. What I found was a detailed, historical overview of the Olmstead Brothers greenbelt design for Seattle in the early years of the twentieth century. Lining the walls of the Water Tower, these displays were offset by a fine view of downtown Seattle. Just like stripmalls, it turns out that parks tend to stay. Today there are more than 40 or so parks in the Greater Seattle area that were planned by Olmstead’s offices.

Interviewing environmental activist Tzeporah Berman this week, I asked her about how it was to move from Vancouver BC to Amsterdam, where she recently assumed Greenpeace International’s post as Climate and Energy program Co-director. Here is a taste of her response:

“As I look out my window this morning I think a big part of it has to do with the way our cities are designed. Many European cities were simply designed with people in mind and not cars. In Amsterdam despite the streets being so cute and narrow the majority of the space is dedicated to pedestrians, trams and cyclists. The occasional car looks out of place as it tries to awkwardly maneuver through the city.  Walking through the city every five minutes you come upon a square or ‘plein’ filled with cafes, children playing and musicians. To be clear I know little about urban design but after a year in Amsterdam I have a new appreciation for how a city that is not designed around the automobile creates community and fosters relationships.  Living without a car encourages you to shop close to home and frequently. On the way to work in the morning with the thousands of other people on their bikes I would frequently stop off at my local bakery. On the way home I would mingle with fleets of cyclists in suits balancing their briefcases on their handlebars while they picked up their kids (the number of family members that the Dutch can balance on one bike with special seats, wooden buckets for toddlers or perched on the back tire rack is simply amazing) and stopped at the local cheese/meat/veggie shop. There is simply much more human interaction when we are not in our little metal boxes shuttling from our big box stores to our garages.” (read entire post)

As the season shifts more deeply into Autumn, I hope you find a park to walk in, a local street to stroll along and think for just a moment about everyday urbanism.

Disclaimer: McCamant & Durrett and David Sucher are clients of Pamela Biery. Watch for a future interview with Tzeporah Berman, whose new book, This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge has just been  published by Random House/Knopf Canada.