Walking the Walk

Urban design from the front lines

Kevin Klinkenberg

Using urban design to make our lives more enjoyable and create wealth

This site is for all those interested in the making of cities and towns, and especially the lives of the humans that inhabit them. Kevin Klinkenberg is an architect and urban designer who's practiced from coast-to-coast. He opines and consults from here.


Click on the image for more info

Click on the image for more info

I've got a few events coming up this fall and into the winter. Below are the scheduled events as well as tentative. If you're interested in having me come your way, please drop me a line at kevinklinkenberg@gmail.com. I do need to schedule at least a couple of months in advance generally, but I promise puppies, unicorns and free ice cream for all.

October 28th - Kansas City, MO: The Center for Architecture & Design

November 1st - Savannah, GA: Barnes and Noble (signing only)

November 9th - Savannah, GA: Flannery O'Conner Childhood Home

Pending: Orlando, FL; Charleston, SC; Washington, DC

The case for unremarkable buildings redux

Last week Strong Towns had a blog post about the benefits of just being "nice" for a community. It reminded me of this piece I wrote a while back - reposted and linked here for your enjoyment.


A great way to spend an hour

Joe Minicozzi talks about cities, taxes, economic development, beer and Asheville. It's a very entertaining and enlightening hour to spend - I highly recommend it for anyone remotely interested in these topics:

My Tedx talk: America 6.0

The video is now up of my Tedx talk from two weeks ago. Titled "America 6.0," it's my look at where we've been, where we're going and why. In 12 minutes. Enjoy and please share. 

Friday design wars

It's a Friday, which must mean it's time to argue about architecture. Here's some recent items from the internets that highlight the ongoing battles in design thinking and theory:

First, David Brussat worries about design direction within the CNU and lashes out at the creeping desire to accept contemporary architecture in New Urbanism:

The New Urbanism is really the old urbanism guided by principles of human scale, residential density, proximity and walkability. Before World War II, cities, towns and villages got built and grew over time with few rules. Builders used forms and practices that had worked well throughout the history of human habitat.
That has changed, of course. Civic evolution was interrupted after the war by an ideological revolution. Tradition was dethroned by modern planning and design, based upon the dubious machine-age idea that honest design looks utilitarian and that beauty is expendable.
So by now, what is new in cities and towns is believed by most people to be worse than what it replaced. An entire movement, historic preservation, arose to defend old places against modern architecture.
New Urbanists be warned: The modernists are on the march. They have purged preservation of its founding fear that traditional neighborhoods are under assault. They have staged administrative coups at about half of the few remaining architecture departments that feature a classical curriculum (the University of Portugal at Viseu, the University of Oregon, the Prince’s Foundation, in London). Yes, there are only three or four architecture programs with a classical curriculum left in the world.
Modernism is like a virus that uses subtle techniques to infect its host and achieve brutal results. Modernism does not want to befriend tradition. New Urbanism has long had the virus in its blood. Now, in Buffalo, it has broken out in a rash. Watch out! Not pretty!

Speaking of tradition, the Frick Collection shows that you can in fact expand a museum with classical architecture. Yes, despite the howls of many architecture theorists, it is possible to build a new building that looks like the old:

Image by Neoscape, Inc. and the New York Times

Image by Neoscape, Inc. and the New York Times

Frick officials said the new design, by Davis Brody Bond, the architecture firm behind the interior of the new National September 11 Memorial Museum, was intended to be sensitive to the integrity of one of New York’s beloved historic buildings. It would retain the Beaux-Arts vernacular of the original home and use the same Indiana limestone.
Officials at the Frick are taking a decidedly different approach from those at the Morgan Library & Museum, which is housed in another Beaux-Arts building, but whose new wing, completed in 2006, features a contemporary design of steel and glass.

In the "how to do it" world, architect Donald Powers writes in Builder magazine about alternatives to the pervasive "pork chop" eave. Thank God that talented architects like Powers are writing for Builder mag:

The dreaded "pork chop" eave. Drawings by Donald Powers

The dreaded "pork chop" eave. Drawings by Donald Powers

The pork chop evolved from generations of builders trying to imitate homes with classical entablature and traditional eave construction. But because so much common knowledge about traditional form has been lost over the years, so, too, has the ability of consumers and professionals to discern what looks genuine and what doesn’t.
Pork chop eaves happened because they were efficient and simple. They didn’t stray too far from a traditional solution. A logical builder will say, “It saves work—what’s the problem?” The problem is it looks terrible.

And finally, just for old time's sake, here's a tired old argument straight out of the Bauhaus about architectural design:

If the “Vintage Collection” merely made reference to older building styles but were clearly new builds, it would be a different thing. But there is a huge difference between making reference to an older style versus actually just plain copying an older style. The latter is lazy and opportunistic. Instead of moving architecture forward, it slows and even reverses the creative momentum of the discipline by recreating styles, forms and details that made sense decades ago, but have nothing to do with our current times. Architecture is supposed to be a reflection of what is happening in the world today, the current technology and the current ethos of our culture. When buildings become nothing but bad copies of buildings past, it sullies the entire creative process of designing buildings.

The theme that happens in every architectural critique like this is the zeitgeist. I previously wrote about that fallacy here, and suggested an alternative mindset. Just to remind architects that are so eager to dismiss "vintage" styles - those old styles aren't popular just because of nostalgia. They're popular because they engage us as human beings. You get the feeling that there actually, you know, might be humans involved somewhere and not machines or industry.

Best stories on the internets

It's my humble opinion, but The Bitter Southerner takes the prize. It's a great format with beautiful images and generally excellent stories. This week's edition, "The Many Battles of Atlanta" is well worth a few minutes of your time. If you live in the southeast, you especially need to be subscribing to this site.

Here's a passage from this week's version that rings true for me, and something I talk about in my book (pre-order links here and here!):

Hiking is something people usually do in the woods. I enjoy hiking the wilderness of our great nation as much as anyone, I suppose, but there's an appeal to urban hiking I think is systematically overlooked. It's been said that the Civil War was transformative for the United States not least because it was an opportunity for millions of people — soldiers, mainly — to traipse across it and to get a first-hand idea of what it was they collectively possessed. It’s for the same reason I believe everyone should take long walks through American cities.
There's a big difference between viewing a city from a bucket seat and experiencing it on foot. In a car the landscape spools past like a film, accompanied only by the sound of whatever music happens to be bubbling from the stereo, the atmosphere attenuated to its nadir by air conditioning. It's fast, one-dimensional, and — barring a fiery accident — quickly forgotten.

On foot, by contrast, the world inhabits not only the eye, but also the ear and not seldom the nose. It touches the skin and even the tongue, and it does all this at a stately pace. The horizon manifests its mysteries with exquisite leisure, charging the initiate in both time and sweat for the pleasure. Objects rise up, pass, and linger in the distance, giving you plenty of time to observe, to digest, to think. The road trip may be the modern rite of passage, but as is usually the case with technology, for all we gained, something was lost — richness of experience, in this case. Which, after all, is the stuff of life.

Thursday data: digging into the numbers and the market

Two recent studies have me digging into data on the market for cities and urban life, though both are unrelated. One is the recently-released census data, and the second is a worldwide survey on the sharing economy.

As I noted last week, the Census Bureau released some new numbers on 2013 population. As Pete Saunders noted, the numbers are complicated by the fact that some large cities have a lot of car-oriented development in their city limits, and quite a few suburbs are very walkable places. So, a clean city/suburb distinction is tricky, as is a pre-WWII/post-WWII. William H. Frey has this take on the numbers:

Still, the new numbers for 2012-13, suggest a closing of the city-suburb growth gap with the small downtick in city growth and an even tinier suburban growth uptick. This modest suburban growth rise is reinforced by a separate updated analysis of exurban counties that showed their population growth rise from a low 0.4 percent in 2011-2012 to 0.6 percent in 2012-2013. This is still well below the exurban growth rates of around 2 percent during the high suburbanization years in the middle of last decade.

So where are cities headed for the rest of the decade? This initial city growth upsurge could well be attributable to recession’s aftermath and the suburban housing market slowdown. If that were the case, then the  newly reported city growth slowdown and modest exurban gains could  signal that past suburban growth patterns are re-emerging.

Yet city growth levels remain strong by the standards of recent history. Moreover, the cities that are growing most rapidly are located in areas with economies and amenities that are attractive to millennials, graduates and young professionals, who make up a growing portion of potential movers. So while it is too soon to anoint this the “decade of the city,” the persistence of big city growth is hard to ignore.

Andy Kiersz strikes a contrary note:

Americans still love the suburbs, and are still moving there from big cities.

According to the Census Bureau's most recent release on inter-county migration shows that in some of the nation's largest cities, the trend is to move out to far-flung suburbs. The Census keeps track of population flows between different counties by using data from the 2007-2011 American Community Survey.

Look, if the question is, has the move back to the cities been exaggerated? Of course it has. Journalists love a story, and it's a great story. But it also has the benefit of some truth to it. Yes, many, many people still love the suburbs and will continue to do so. We're in a transitional era, and I fully expect it to be another couple of decades before the 20th century car culture truly recedes. After all, it's been in the makings for 100 years.

But Kiersz and Wendell Cox are being disingenuous in their analysis. The new numbers are in fact very positive for cities. The percentages matter more than raw numbers, and the percentages are very encouraging. It's a sea change from the 1980's and 90's. Population has stabilized or returned in nearly all cities, money has returned, and cities are much safer and cleaner. This is in large part due to understanding that cities function best as havens for people and walking, not speeding cars and parking. As those lessons continue to be reinforced, we'll see more and more positive numbers for cities. The market for urban living is certainly not 100% of the population, but it's far, far more than what is apparent in today's built world.

Moving on...

Nielsen Newswire released a global study of the sharing economy. Most interesting to me is how when the questions went from general to specific, how quickly the numbers changed:

It turns out that more than two-thirds (68%) of global respondents in Nielsen’s survey said they are willing to share their personal assets for financial gain. Similarly, 66 percent say they’re likely to use or rent products or services from others in a share community.


The next grouping of products include just about anything that isn’t nailed down. Power tools (23%), bicycles (22%), clothing (22%), household items (22%), sports equipment (22%) and cars (21%) were regarded as shareable by roughly one-fifth of global respondents. Less-popular sharing items include outdoor camping gear (18%), furniture (17%), homes (15%) and motorcycles (13%).

Like all surveys, the specific trade-offs and questions are what matter most. The percentages on the latter seem about right to me, as I've always viewed much of the sharing economy as a very appealing market to a niche, not a majority of the population. Hopefully Nielsen will track this over time and see if attitudes change in coming years.