Divide (properties) and conquer (boring facades)

A new article in NY Mag explores research that proves what many urbanists and city dwellers have noted: that boring urban design hurts your brain.

A growing body of research in cognitive science illuminates the physical and mental toll bland cityscapes exact on residents. Generally, these researchers argue that humans are healthier when they live among variety — a cacophony of bars, bodegas, and independent shops — or work in well-designed, unique spaces, rather than unattractive, generic ones.

The article isn’t really referencing parking, but since I live in Downtown Atlanta among masses of parking decks, that’s my own reference point for this phenomenon. Here’s one of them, on Peachtree Center Avenue. Walking past these block-long stretches of blank walls is a soul killer.

Parking deck in Downtown Atlanta

The NY Mag piece is really talking about certain office buildings and apartments, the kind that take up large pieces of land with a boring facade that robs pedestrians of enriching environments. By coincidence, Bill Torpy at the AJC recently wrote about a very similar issue: the many complaints about the sterility of the facades on “cookie cutter apartments” popping up around Atlanta.

I think a larger point is being missed in these discussions. What’s missing from the urban fabric that would allow more variety is smaller parcels. If large properties could be subdivided into more narrow ones, a given block could contain multiple buildings from different developers, eliminating stretches of sameness.

This kind of subdivision is difficult to achieve when single entities own entire blocks. In that case, they all get sold as a single piece to someone who will build out a large project all at once. Think of the case of Atlanta’s Civic Center property, where a new mixed-use project will go. It will all be sold to a developer who will control the design of the entire block, with an eye on ROI rather than cacophony.

One small way we can get around the sameness, at street level, is through a variety of retail storefronts. Here’s a large building on Peachtree Street with colorful stores at the bottom. If we looked up, we’d see a boring wall of glass fronted apartments. But on the sidewalk, things are more mixed:

Peachtree Street, Atlanta

But if that parcel was divided and sold to separate builders, we’d get the classic mixture that we see in urban fabric of big cities built out long ago.

This is the intersection of Fulton and Nassau Street in Manhattan, NYC. These narrow land parcels force a variety of architectural style by way of distinct developments. The scale and density might be off putting to some, but the variety of styles — the cacophony — makes for a very stimulating walk. It’s an attractive place for pedestrians and certainly won’t bore anyone:

Nassau Street, NYC

Can we get into a habit of subdividing our large properties in Atlanta for sale to different developers? Is there political will for that? I don’t know. Personally, I’m not as sensitive to the sameness of new apartments and mixed-use developments as many people are. Maybe it’s because I walk fast, I don’t know. I’m much more interested in any solution we can find to the boring facades of existing parking decks Downtown. We have so many.

Everything not in red is parking. Downtown Atlanta.

That, my friends, is a bland cityscape. We live a couple of blocks from this. It takes a toll. Someone divide and conquer that, please.