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Why is it that some large urban projects succeed where others fail? What’s the magic formula for revitalizing cities?

While I doubt there’s any one formula that can be applied everywhere, I do think that there are lessons that can be learned everywhere, in cities all across the globe. Having been around just a little bit, I also like to think I learned a few of them firsthand.

I’ve been opposed to a rail project here in Saint Paul for a long time. The basic plan is to put an LRT type train down the middle of a major commercial street. A long description of the plan and my reasons for opposing it have been stated in another post.

I am still against this idea, which was funded for another year by the Legislature, for one simple reason: it’s too big. It’s way out of scale with what is needed.

That gets me directly to the big secret as to what works and what doesn’t in cities. It starts with the simple observation that I made in my Urban Core series: a city is not a collection of buildings, but a shared life. The buildings and streets and transit and all that other expensive stuff is nothing more than a kind of furniture that allows us to have that rich and exciting urban life.

When projects fail, such as Galtier Plaza here in Saint Paul, they almost always do so for one reason: they are built to an oversized scale that is more about buildings than life. Think of them as an exotic designer chair that looks kewl and funky but is horribly uncomfortable; as furniture, it’s a failure. What’s the point of it then? I don’t know.

Consider another part of the world, the Gateway District in Minneapolis; this is the area just south of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. It’s never been anything more than a problem for local Planners of Good Things. First it was a slum, and then it was all bulldozed to make room for exquisitely designed buildings surrounded by concrete and swirling wind. The new library isn’t an improvement. Everything there right now is horribly oversized, scaled to match the wide Hennepin Avenue much more than humans.

Don’t large open spaces work? Sure, they do in a lot of places. Times Square is a great example, the heart of the generally oversized Broadway. But what makes it work isn’t just Broadway, it’s 42nd Street. And what makes both of them work are the smaller streets one block off. Small feeds to big feeds to massive.

One of the guiding principles in all of this is that nothing draws a crowd like a crowd. If there is a smallish street that is full of people, such as First Avenue in Minneapolis, you can have it spill over into a large space. That’s why Hennepin just south of the Gateway works pretty well; it has a feeder of crowds that have a reason to be there. Even where Big works, it does so because Small has first done its job. Big for the sake of Big is a recipe for disaster.

If there’s one formula for avoiding disaster, it’s to think about the life that’s going to fill the project. If it can’t fill it up, it won’t own it. That means the project is about itself, not the people who would use it. And so it will fail. If you build in smaller places that urban life can take over and call their own, you have a chance.

What it takes is the audacity to think small. Daniel Burnham is credited with the saying, “Make no small plans, for they lack the capacity to capture men’s imaginations”. What makes him an idiot is the idea that imagination should be “captured” at all, somehow placed in a concrete box and kept from running wild in the streets. Life is made up of hearbeat and sweat and imagination, heart and arm and brain. None of this can be “captured” if an urban project is going to be successful; it should run free instead. That’s the scale that has proven to be successful.

4 thoughts on “Scale

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