Urban Grain and Vibrancy of Older Neighborhoods: Metrics and Measures is a new paper by Kathryn Rogers Merlino at University of Washington. It speaks to what Livable Mountain View has been saying we need for Mountain View’s downtown, which is to create density but with livability that includes a sense of place that is unique to Mountain View. One of the things we hear from Sunnyvale folks, both residents and their leaders, is that it was a huge mistake to tear out their historic downtown (all but two blocks). The 5 story boxy steel and glass buildings have tenants who live in them above, but the retail shops below aren’t all filled, and the sidewalks are deserted after 5pm. It’s not a place that is special or that people want to be. And we’ve heard that Sunnyvale is now looking to recreate that as an extension to the 2 blocks of Murphy Street so they can get it back.
We don’t want to see Mountain View lose our first three blocks (See our analysis of our Downtown Precise Plan which shows that every building, even ones that might one day be on the historic register, can be removed and bulldozed the next.) And frankly, we are concerned that without the preservation of the buildings that give us character we could end up just like Sunnyvale. Regretting it and not having the new development used as a downtown like it should be. We want density, but we want to use the lots and areas without special buildings to make it and leave the special buildings in tact and protected.
Current trends of urbanization across the country are focusing on increased density in our cities. While the idea of living at higher densities can combat sprawl, how does this affect existing, older neighborhoods? Many new buildings built for high density lack a sense of historic character and uniqueness of place, and cover entire blocks that don’t lend themselves to a quality pedestrian experience. Density must be combined with livability if we are to make quality cities that make successful places for people. This paper presents a study that suggests that a variety of age, texture and scale in buildings inherently assert a degree of richness in neighborhoods. Preliminary results of the study suggest that fine grain buildings in a block correlate with increased pedestrian activity and therefore urban vibrancy.
The study’s conclusion:
…preliminary results of the study provide quantifiable data that suggest a finer grain block with older building ages corresponds to increased pedestrian activity and street vibrancy. Higher ratings were found on blocks that had shorter average building widths that corresponded with older buildings and more durable materials. Blocks that had long, continuous building facades appeared to provide no interest or engagement for the pedestrian, nor did blocks that had open, empty lots, or buildings with poor material quality.
As the Merlino team at UW continues the study collecting data and analyzing the ways people react in different urban environments, we will keep you updated.