We CAN Have Nice Things

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The dream of flight

Flight – a common dream of my past

After living in the Midwest for a decade, I began to doubt whether our communities had any chance of making progress on plans for public transportation. The support for these initiatives was obvious as almost every referendum about public transportation would successfully pass when held to a vote.  But for many reasons, citizens were being blocked from investing more in their transportation options.

Public transportation is important to the US economy.  And perhaps more important for American cities than anywhere else in the developed world due to our sprawling infrastructure and geographically scattered labor force.  Without public transportation, a significant number of our neighbors can’t access jobs, healthcare, education, or other critical institutions.  It is a sad situation.

Because I felt that only cities with public transportation have any future, it became a priority to be located in one.  So, while living in the state known as the “Crossroads of America” I ended up at a certain crossroads of my own.  I decided to pick up and move somewhere that public transportation was robust and useful.  I moved to the San Francisco bay area, and now feel blessed to live in a place that values public transportation.

Port of San Francisco

Port of San Francisco

In fact, the ability to get on a train, cablecar, streetcar, light-rail, bus, or ferry and quickly travel around the city is nothing short of a miracle to me.  Yes, local and state taxes are high, but oh-so-worth-it.  For me, deciding to get onboard with public transportation was a one-way ticket: I can’t imagine life without it now.

These days I have a real sense of why public transportation is important, rather than despair over a broken infrastructure funding system.  I have come to realize that there is very little standing in the way of better transportation options.  When the US is ready to build a better network, I’m sure that we will.

Open-air streetcar on Market

We CAN have nice things!

In the meantime, I offer encouragement in the best form I can imagine – an open-air streetcar running along Market St and Embarcadero.  Not a utilitarian or mean vehicle, this one reminded me that we can still achieve the city of our dreams.  Combined with the workhorse BART and MUNI systems, it is a perfect way for this city to celebrate it’s commitment to public transportation.

Keys to the Highway

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Having a fun time on sabbatical.

The Beauty of Bikes is in the Parking


Indianapolis has been pushing hard to catch up with leading bicycle cities such as Portland and San Francisco. Seeing all that two-wheeled traffic in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods has been a blessing in so many ways – less pollution from cars, less vehicle congestion, better public health outcomes, and especially watching people get outside and reconnect with their city.  But I wanted to share what I consider the key benefit to bringing back bicycles:  the opportunity for dense downtown development without parking lots or subsidized garages!

Bicycles and Cities, together again!

Bicycles and Cities, together again!

Bicycles seem to be sprouting everywhere in Indy

Bicycles seem to be sprouting everywhere in Indy

Our current renaissance of downtown required some big bites of that dreaded sandwich of compromise. While many of us at Urban Indy have taken a stand against subsidized vehicle parking, seeing it as a continuation of the old “highways first” policy that doomed many downtown areas to begin with, it is true that city leaders and business developers have a hard time seeing how any modern city could function without adequate parking. Finding a place to park is the most important concern for many commuters and shoppers, especially since densities have been creeping ever lower and people have to travel further for their jobs. But bicycle infrastructure gives us that magical silver bullet to end this concern, and reverse the trend in our cities.

Bicycle parking is radically more efficient than car parking

Bicycle parking is radically more efficient than car parking

Bicycle infrastructure generates beautiful cities!

Bicycle infrastructure generates beautiful cities!

I certainly don’t want to imply that everyone should be riding bicycles, but it is clear that bicycle infrastructure does benefit everyone. Every dollar not spent on gasoline (or expensive cars, insurance, and vehicle maintenance) is a dollar that is likely spent on local goods and services. The economic benefits are huge! Every bit of mode share (the percentage of people using a particular type of transportation) that bikes can capture means that Indianapolis sees real job growth, real increases in quality of life, and real improvements in household savings.

And never forget that bicycle infrastructure can serve double-duty for accessible routes - Vastly improving Quality of Life for some citizens

And never forget that bicycle infrastructure can serve double-duty for accessible routes – vastly improving Quality of Life for our citizens

Coming back to the issue of parking, this is where bicycles really deliver their benefits to Urban Design. Building a city to mimic the old streets of Paris or Brooklyn is impossible when everyone must drive. Instead, we end up with a “stroad” and collector system, typically with a design life of 20 years before the cancer of dead mall syndrome takes over.

Car lots don't leave room for the cities they serve

Car lots don’t leave room for the cities they serve

Filling car lots requires this kind of infrastructure

Filling car lots requires this kind of infrastructure

But a city with intensive bicycle infrastructure means that beautiful cityscapes don’t have to remain a fantasy. Because bicycles require so little space for their parking needs, they encourage well-designed traditional urban landscapes. Old-style city blocks become feasible, and in fact become more economical than the sprawling parking lots of suburbia; houses can once again use narrow lots when they don’t need a driveway and triple garage door; and streets can once again use names like “lane” or “avenue” without sounding like a cruel joke.

This clever addition to the old meter means I never look for parking near the Circle anymore

This clever addition to the old meter means I never look for parking near the Circle anymore

Bike parking can pull in new customers no matter the location

Bike parking can pull in new customers no matter the location

So here are some examples of great bicycle infrastructure that I’ve collected in the past few years. We may never “catch up” with the great cycling initiatives of the West Coast or Copenhagen, but trust me when I tell you that in the case of bicycle infrastructure The Deed is its Own Reward.

A new kind of garage, fit for a modern city (image credit: unknown)

A new kind of residential garage, fit for a modern city (image credit: unknown)

Portland's bike lockers remind us that some bicyclists demand higher levels of protection (image credit: H. Simmons)

Portland’s bike lockers remind us that some bicyclists demand higher levels of protection (image credit: H. Simmons)

New York's bike lanes next to the Flatiron remind us that bicyclists are part of the city too and deserve space on main routes

New York’s bike lanes next to the Flatiron remind us that bicyclists are part of the city too and deserve space on main routes

Munich reminds us that multi-modal commuters need a place to store bikes, or people will make their own

Munich reminds us that multi-modal commuters need a place to store bikes, or people will create their own

Milwaukee's "Marsupial" bridge reminds us that there is always room for innovation in bicycle infrastructure

Milwaukee’s “Marsupial” bridge reminds us that there is always room for innovation in bicycle infrastructure

Just because Milwaukee is known for gas-fired two-wheel monsters, there is always room for new technology

Just because Milwaukee is known for gas-fired, two-wheeled monsters, there is always room for new technology

Black Rock City reminds us that bicycling can be a joyful shared experience

Black Rock City reminds us that bicycling can be a joyful shared experience

Bicycles, and their smaller parking requirements, allow us to create the cities that people like to inhabit. Bicycle parking holds the power to invigorate our local economies and unleash the power of our local architects.
Support for bicycle infrastructure is support for a city of humans, rather than a city of vehicles.

Option #1: Cede the city to parking spaces, Detroit style (image credit: Sean Doerr/WNET.org)

Option #1: Cede the city to parking spaces, Detroit style (image credit: Sean Doerr/WNET.org)

Option #2: Help people build a better city with bicycle parking, as in Amsterdam (image credit: Airbete/Wikimedia)

Option #2: Help people build a better city with bicycle parking, as in Amsterdam (image credit: Airbete/Wikimedia)

Iconic Structures of Indiana: IND Airport


The Indianapolis Midfield Terminal is a lesson in successful long-term infrastructure planning. The site of the airport was picked in the 1930’s, the “temporary” terminal was built in 1957, the upgraded control tower was finished in 2006, and the current terminal was finished in 2008. The current location was picked over 70 years ago, and the wait has been worth it.

South elevation and main entry

As is customary, I would like to refer readers to my fellow Indianapolis A/E bloggers and their thoughts on the new airport:
Urbanophile (start here and find links to all 7 pieces)
Circles & Squares (pre-construction review here, great photos too)

The new terminal is a great piece of infrastructure because it has made the Indianapolis Airport one the most convenient, comfortable, and successful airports ever. The iconic structural elements including the exposed roof trusses, vertical bowstring trusses, and eccentric braces give it an open, industrial grandeur. The structural system is easy to comprehend and the building feels safe and comfortable inside.

Interior of plaza (construction)

One of my favorite structural features is the column/brace system supporting the main roof. Depending on which direction is considered, the members will act as a column or an eccentric brace, and no moment connections were required. The trusses above did require a little bit of extra detailing, I’m sure, but everything looks great and I’m sure the system performance had to meet strict requirements with all those windows.

Brace columns and skylights
Pin connections at column base

I asked the original designers about these columns. I never got a clear answer about what seismic classification was used, but I would bet they considered them eccentric braces. The connections were designed as conventional pins per AISC specifications. They pointed out that while the trusses and braces were different from typical construction, the contractors were experienced with this type of construction and thus construction problems were limited.

Another unique element used on the airport is the vertical bowsting truss. These trusses are used on the huge expanse of glass fronting the passenger drop-off area, resisting the large wind forces that develop on this face. The open web design matches the architectural style of the interior, and the ratio of open-ness allows natural light to filter throughout the building.

Bowstring window trusses near public plaza (construction)
Vertical trusses near front entry (construction)

Much of the project was LEED registered (still awaiting USGBC confirmation), and it is clear that some sustainable thinking went into the project. A good writeup of the Airport’s efforts towards acquiring LEED certification is here, or you can visit Blackburn Architects who were responsible for managing the LEED documentation (but you must use IE not Firefox).

Roof detailing on eastern side (construction)
Braced column supports and art space below (construction)

This was the first terminal to open under the new regulations passed since the 2001 terrorist attacks. A great deal of planning went into ensuring this airport would be able to meet all of the new regulations enacted to tighten security. Several areas of the airport are hardened against natural and manmade hazards, and new technology rapidly screens problems out of the system in case anything strange is found.

Tornado shelter entry

The front approach from Interstate 70 is convenient, and the traffic arrangement on the airport property is simple yet logical. Economy and long-term parking is the first option, and it sits in a field dominated by the new control tower. The tower makes it easy for people to orient themselves, even with the tall berms obscuring any other visual landmarks.

Air traffic control tower

Next up is the parking garage. This pre-stressed concrete structure has some really cool features that raise it above the banality of most parking structures. Several locations are high-lighted by tensile membrane roofs. The corkscrew vehicle ramps add flair to the southern corners, while the central pedestrian area is covered by another fabric roof. This central pedestrian area is actually quite attractive. There are automated people movers, glass enclosed elevators, kinetic sculptures, and a ground transportation center directly across from the main terminal.

Corkscrew vehicle ramp membrane structure
Tensile membrane roof over parking structure

The bridge structure linking the parking structure and the terminal is basically a trussed pedestrian bridge. Automated people movers and a central aisle are covered with an amazing bit of public art. This multimedia installation involves sound, light, movement, and sense of awareness that makes the traverse across the bridge an interesting experience. The bridge delivers travelers to a mezzanine level with escalators heading up or down.

Pedestrian bridge and front entry (construction)

The up option delivers another great experience as the expansive main plaza opens to view as you raise up to the main floor level. This room contains all of the ticketing areas and while there is no easy way to find where each airline is but the area is small enough, and interesting enough, to encourage a bit of exploration.

Main ticketing and entry lobby (construction)

On the way towards the gates and security areas is the circular plaza that establishes a special place within the airport. The circular public area is surrounded by retail and food establishments, which is one of the best public spaces in the city. The translucent roof panels add natural light to the space, and the hanging arts offers a visual reward for looking upwards.

Sky plaza

My favorite part, however, is the elevated catwalk that rings the public space. This links the administrative areas on the east and west wings, but it adds a new dimension of walkable space that really helps to enclose the area. It is a shame that the city has not learned how to apply these concepts to the cityscape, there are many places that could be reclaimed for pedestrians in a simlar manner.

Public space lined with shops
Upper walkway with torque-tube (construction)

Passengers can go through security at either concourse, each has plenty of queuing room and the latest equipment that speeds people through the checks. This in contrast to the previous Indianapolis security experience, and to many other airport terminals around the country which were not built to handle the new security provisions. Both security check areas have a large mosaic that adds visual interest.

View of the sky plaza and terminal from the tarmac (construction)

The A/B terminals offer a more typical experience, each gate has a seating area and the central area is taken up by automated people movers. The best part about these wings is the high ceilings and exposed structural members. The roof trusses and use of glass really shows the modernity of the airport. Once again, this is a night and day contrast with the previous Indianapolis terminal. While the overall feeling is still an industrial and impersonal one, the space is less depressing and fills travelers with confidence rather than despair.

Terminal A with Automated People Mover
Terminal structure with eccentric braces and steel trusses

Incoming passengers can easily find their way to the baggage claim. The automated baggage handling system takes up most of the space below the main floor. The system quickly routes each incoming and outgoing bag to the correct destination. It is so quick that it is possible for your bag to be waiting for you at the baggage claim before you are even on your way down the escalator. Siemens designed and installed the baggage system (more info here).

Braced steel frames and mechanical systems in lower level (construction)
One small turn within the 13,000 foot baggage handling system (construction)

The passenger pickup and dropoff area has been used to showcase even more structural elements. The cantilevered bus stops are similar to units covering the ticketing areas, tying the different areas together with a cohesive architectural style. The pickup/dropoff area has a great vista to the south, but it doesn’t feel too open because the large glass backdrop provides a sense of enclosure.

Lower level exit from baggage claim to ground transportation

In general, one of the reasons that the airport seems so large is that people move through it so quickly that there are no large crowds of unhappy travelers. The limited time I have spent in the airport has been full of the typical travel issues: tickets lost in the computer system, baggage fees, expensive long-term parking, and neck cramps after falling asleep on the plane. But, it is all much more bearable when you aren’t trapped in a building that looks as much like a military bunker as it does a functional piece of transportation infrastructure.

Baggage claim area (construction)
Baggage claim area

The airport managers realize that long-term planning allowed Indianapolis to accommodate the future growth of the airport corresponding to the growth of the city. They have further realized that expansion may be necessary in the future. This future expansion is provided for by adding extra gates in the A/B concourses. Room for an extra runway is located across the interstate.

The unused space between the parking structure and the nearest parking lot is expected to be taken up by a special-purpose hotel and convention center. I have even heard that there is an on-site location that can be used to link up to a mass transit system. If you don’t think that is the definition of long-term planning, then you haven’t spent much time in Indianapolis.

Better Blocks (recap)


Thanks again to everyone who arranged, volunteered, or attended the Better Blocks event on East Washington last weekend.  It was great fun to see so many people there and even more fun to see the result – Indianapolis’ Main Street full of life, activity, and happy citizens.

I was only a spectator myself, but was happy to see so many friends actively engaged with the event.  That afternoon I met up with Kevin and we explored, chatted with friends, and had a good time imagining what Indianapolis could become if we embraced policies that prioritized healthy communities instead of merely traffic flow.

I took a short video if anyone wants to see how these small changes can completely change the streetscape and traffic dynamics.

Watch how the cars treat pedestrians.  Listen to how the festive atmosphere encourages community and conversations between neighbors.  Notice how the street acted as a single address instead of a strict division between the North and South sides.  This was just one afternoon, but it was truly a great event and a testament to Indy’s untapped urban potential.

Better Blocks - East Washington Street A fine day for a promenade Taking in the sights A temporary but well-respected crosswalk Traffic was slow and steady, and curious Streetside dining next to Washington Street?  Only after traffic calming Tlaolli opened, and served some great Tamales A restored storefront building hosted URBN DSGN and other community groups I wish every median in Indy could host a party Once again, only possible with traffic calming Calm traffic makes a safer street for everyone Hanging at the Indy Connect bus stop Dedicated transit lanes? A new member of the community The old Carnegie Library received many new visitors A planted median with balloon trees Plentiful bike parking and well-used

UI Archive – Cover Photos


We were updating our social media and produced some of our favorite images in wide format.  Find the whole collection on this Flickr set or see some favorites in the gallery below.  I wanted to share these photos because I thought they showed many sides of the city, its people and its places.

It will be fun to see how the city continues to change over the next few years.  Indianapolis did not always have a canal district, a cultural trail, or even Monument Circle.  What big thing will Indianapolis take on next?

These images are free for any personal or non-commercial, unmodified use (some rights reserved, so please contact us if you need permission to use them for something else).


Downtown from the West Bank of White River (image:  Art Malito) Cultural Trail Lighting Exhibit (image:  Curt Ailes) Construction of JW Marriott Hotel (image:  Curt Ailes) Jogging along Canal (image:  Curt Ailes) Indiana State Capitol at Night (image:  Curt Ailes) Cultural Trail Iconography Pressed into Crosswalk (image:  Curt Ailes) Snowing in Broadripple (image:  Curt Ailes) Duckpin Bowling signage in Fountain Square (image:  Graeme Sharpe) Metallic Script Lettering on Historic Coca-Cola Bottling Plant (image:  Graeme Sharpe) The Pyramid Buildings on Indy's Northwest Side (image:  Graeme Sharpe) View of Downtown Indy from the Nature Conservancy Greenroof (image:  Graeme Sharpe) Warming Up for Cataracts Festival (image:  Graeme Sharpe)

Iconic Structures of Indiana: Hinkle Fieldhouse

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Butler University is located to the north of downtown Indianapolis.  Butler University is a great institution and is well known for its basketball team (currently ranked 11th in the nation).  The strength of the current team stems from the strong basketball traditions of Indiana and the investment that the citizens have made in this sport.  Hinkle Fieldhouse is evidence of this support, which was built with money donated by local businessmen.

The Fieldhouse is a massive building built specifically to showcase basketball

More information can be found at the website hosted by Butler University, or at the Hinkle Fieldhouse Wikipedia entry.   The structure is named after Tony Hinkle, a former coach who created the orange basketball and developed the dribbling action of the game.

The building was renamed after former coach Hinkle in 1966
The structure was built in 1928, and is notable as one of the first “fieldhouse” college gymnasiums.  Almost factory-like in its simplicity, it has guided basketball arena designs such as Conseco Fieldhouse and it was the basis for the fieldhouse styling of Lucas Oil Stadium.
Structurally, it is composed of a brick masonry facade with steel framing supporting most of the walls and the internal structures.  The roof is a barrel vault of trussed steel 3-pin arches.
The exterior has windows in key locations to catch natural light
The end walls are quite tall and require steel girts to brace them against wind
The massive building is oriented roughly east-west, and originally the court was as well.  However, a few years after its construction the court was reoriented north-south.  This gave more spectactors a “half-court” seat and is generally a better arrangement.  This goes to show how early this building was built, as the sport was still developing and gaining in popularity around the nation, whereas Indiana already had built the “basketball cathedral” that was the largest collegiate fieldhouse for many years.
Many features were upgraded in a 1989 renovation
The roof trusses are exposed and are well integrated into the interior design.  The spectator seating allows access to many of the trusses, so that people can see the rivets and handiwork involved with the steelwork of that age.  Each truss has three pin hinges, so that it can accommodate movement and settlement without inducing large forces in the steel members near the center.
The base of each truss is easily accessible from the spectator seating area

A modern scoreboard is suspended from the trusses that span over the court
 The central pin is visible at the midpoint of each truss, providing an ideal hinge
Hinkle fieldhouse is a great piece of history.  It has many quirky features that show how the designers were willing to experiment with basketball and how to accommodate the spectators.  The structure has changed alongside the game that is now popular around the world.
The spirit of place and legacy comes alive in a structure like this.  For Hinkle fieldhouse to remain so popular and useful after so many years is testament to the original investment over 80 years ago.  Few structures represent a state as well as Hinkle Fieldhouse represents Indiana.

Action on the court is some of the best in the world

What does a Complete Bridge look like?


What is a Complete Bridge?  Well, if you are familiar with transportation issues, you have probably heard of the phrase “Complete Street.”  A Complete Bridge takes this concept of a Complete Street and applies the same standards of safe accessibility for non-motorized transportation.

Complete Streets policies are an excellent way to ensure that our streetscapes reflect our social values, by giving designers a mandate for roadway user inclusion but not tying their hands with any mandated geometries.  It is also a satisfying vindication of basic rights for anyone who gets honked at or has snow plowed into their path just because they use the public right-of-way without an accelerator pedal.

This is 38th Street - a good example of why Complete Streets are a necessary policy

This is 38th Street in Indianapolis where it joins I-65 – a design for only 1 type of user, and a good example of why Complete Streets are a necessary policy (image:  Graeme Sharpe)

People should be able to use a street safely whether they decide to walk, ride a bike, or drive a car. After all, we call it a “public right-of-way” instead of “private automobile right-of-way” for good reason.  This concept is the essence of public owned space in a democracy.  Our streets are “city property” as a legal convenience, but in reality they are public space – everyone has a right to safely access it using whatever travel modes we can accommodate.

When a Complete Streets bill came to a vote in the Indianapolis City Council, it was a slam dunk.  A policy can’t get more popular than unanimous. Our representatives agreed with public opinion that designing a road for automotive users should never be done at the expense of vulnerable road users like bicyclists and pedestrians.

But that policy has a loophole – if the costs are considered excessive then the policy could be ignored.  This is often an issue when it comes to bridges, because they are such expensive pieces of infrastructure.  While a complete street can usually be designed for a similar price, a Complete Bridge will always be much more expensive than one carrying a single type of traffic.

But bridges are where safe access is needed more than anywhere else, because there aren’t side streets or scenic alternatives.

The Ravenel Bridge is exercise path, nature trail, bike lane, and community link - but the design could have been more than merely functional

The Ravenel Bridge in Charleston, SC functions as exercise path, nature trail, bike path, and community link – but the design did not address future growth of non-automobile use (image: Graeme Sharpe)

Fifth Street Bridge in Atlanta spans 16 lanes of interstate traffic with a very complete street (image:  National Transportation Alternatives Clearinghouse / www.ta-clearinghouse.info)

Fifth Street Bridge in Atlanta spans 16 lanes of interstate traffic with a very complete street that includes bike/ped access and park space – if we want to actually link communities together, this is what our bridges should look like (image: National Transportation Alternatives Clearinghouse / www.ta-clearinghouse.info)

I find it interesting that even though we recognize our need for Complete Streets in spite of higher costs, we fail to apply the same principles for new bridges.  It seems like current practice for bridge planning is plan a bridge with forecasted traffic conditions of 25 years into the future but plan for ped/bike access with data from 25 years ago.  This is a false economy, because we already know that active transportation is growing by huge amounts every year, and bad bridge plans could restrict this growth and its beneficial consequences.

The Kessler bridge on Meridian St at Fall Creek

The renovated Kessler bridge in Indianapolis clearly prioritizes rush hour commuting over the comfort of vulnerable road users (image: Graeme Sharpe)

But we can choose to build better bridges.  If we did, what would a Complete Bridge look like?

  1. Follows Complete Street principles
  2. Meets current and anticipated long-range uses by alternative transportation modes
  3. Uses low-impact design and accounts for mitigation of harmful effects on local residents
  4. Provides for public engagement whenever appropriate with scenic viewpoint stations, history centers, or public parks

Our awareness of these issues will force us to redefine what makes a revolutionary bridge, just as the Brooklyn Bridge or Golden Gate did for their eras.  But what about the smaller bridges – the ones that don’t demand special treatment or receive special funding?  These are bridges that people cross over every day without much notice, but it is the ones that carry people to local jobs and kids to local schools that might deserve our closest attention.

Portland is currently building a bridge that might be a good model for planning a bridge of this type, with their Sellwood Bridge project. They are addressing each of the issues listed above in appropriate ways for their community.

The existing 2-lane bridge is being moved to allow construction of a new bridge (image H. Simmons)

The existing 2-lane bridge is moved onto temporary piers to allow continued use until construction of the new bridge is finished (image H. Simmons)

Rendering of steel arch bridge that will replace the existing multispan truss (image:  Multnomah County)

Rendering of steel arch bridge that will replace the existing multispan truss (image: Multnomah County)

The existing bridge is narrow and makes little accommodation for alternate modes compared to the new lane configuration on the new bridge (image: left - H. Simmons, right - Multnomah County)

The existing bridge is narrow and makes little accommodation for alternate modes compared to the lane configuration on the new bridge (image: left – H. Simmons, right – Multnomah County)

The public engagement process is critical, but often overlooked for small bridges.  The new bridge features a pretty good public website too.  Bridges are important in ways that streets aren’t, as they represent the physical location of a mental transition.  Communities rally around bridges and they can become powerful symbols.  Engaging the public early and often means that people begin to care about the bridge and understand the importance of tax money spent on its construction and maintenance.

Portland’s strategy was to create a festival celebrating the bridge closing and the start of new bridge construction.  This 1-time expense helps the local community learn to accept and take  ownership of the bridge building process.

Community involvement included an outreach program featuring music and an event booth (image H. Simmons)

Community involvement included an outreach program featuring music and an event booth (image H. Simmons)

People in a community are naturally interested in their nearby bridges and transportation agencies - we must learn to take advantage of this interest (image:  H. Simmons)

People in a community are naturally interested in their nearby bridges – transportation agencies must learn to take advantage of this interest (image: H. Simmons)

The Sellwood Bridge project is notable because it used the principles of Complete Streets during the planning stage, and also because it planned ahead for the growth of alternative modes.  At the same time, it did not expand the number of automotive lanes because increasing traffic would have negative effects on the local communities that this bridge was meant to serve.  Finally, the planning agency worked hard to engage stakeholders and communicate the reasons for these decisions.

Here in Indianapolis, the citizens are making progress in their quest for Complete Streets.  But we shouldn’t forget that Complete Streets need Complete Bridges.

The Genius of Traditional Buildings


Have you ever been to an old downtown and marveled at the historic buildings? Have you ever wondered how they could create such beautiful buildings on such small budgets, compared to the placeless architecture we are told is barely affordable today?

Graeme Street in Pittsburgh

Graeme Street (Pittsburgh, PA)

The truth is that those multi-story, mixed-use buildings lining the street were built by a different culture.  We are a different people now, and we demand different things from our built environment.

Buildings along Washington Street in Downtown Indianapolis

Buildings along Washington Street in Downtown Indianapolis

Take a few steps back to remember what changed

Take a few steps back to remember what changed

But that old American culture was a very clever one, and we can profit from studying what they did right, and how they did it.  So here is their basic recipe:

1.  Leverage small investments

The typical traditional urban building is between 20 to 40 feet wide, and between 60 to 200 feet deep.  This small width was a product of structural engineering limitations.  A traditional building with masonry walls and wooden floors could not span further without significant cost increases, and tax policies often charged by street frontage instead of square footage.  The result was small frontages and deep buildings.

Traditional Buildings start small (Indianapolis, IN)

Traditional Buildings start small (Indianapolis, IN)

The overall effect of a traditional streetscape is like walking through a well-curated art exhibit, where people can admire the buildings or the products in the glass storefronts.  The density of different buildings and stores satisfies the pedestrian’s need for visual interest.  It is a key part of what we call “walkability”.

Perhaps even more importantly, the small sizes encouraged ordinary citizens to become developers.  Many buildings were financed directly by business owners or residents, who would offset building costs with lease income from unused spaces.  These self-developing streetscapes ensured that no single developer or architect controlled the evolution of the city.  It would reflect a social, shared history instead.

A plain street can be more important to people than a capitol building

A plain street can be more important to people than a capitol building (Derby, UK)

This is what made historic downtowns beautiful in a way that no government or philanthropist could recreate today, and why historic preservationists nurse a broken heart with every lost structure.

2.  Share with your neighbors

The party wall style of building, where adjacent buildings used the same structural wall to support their floors, was a very important money saving technique in traditional buildings.  From the dawn of human civilization we have been building cities by slowly adding onto the existing structures.  However, new construction codes that strictly regulate fire safety have eliminated this technique, and for all intents and purposes party walls are no longer in common use.  Every building is now an independent structure.

Traditional Buildings share walls (Derby, UK)

Traditional Buildings with shared walls (Derby, UK)

Party Wall vs Fire Wall

Party Wall vs Fire Wall

The change has been beneficial in terms of life safety, but the effect on older buildings has been onerous as owners were left with a complicated legal situation just when downtowns were under fierce competition from the suburbs.  The results are plain to see in downtown Indy, where adjacent buildings were torn down for new parking lots and the old walls still bear the marks of beam pockets.

A scarred party wall (Indianapolis, IN)

A scarred party wall (Indianapolis, IN)

When we lost party walls, we didn’t just lose an inexpensive way to build.  We lost an inexpensive way to live.  A traditional building with party walls on either side will only have exposed facades on the back alley and the front elevation.  There are two benefits:  reduced heating costs and reduced facade costs.

Street versus Alley materials, but it blends so well (Indianapolis, IN)

Street versus Alley materials, but it blends well (Indianapolis, IN)

The heating and cooling issues are simple enough to explain, because there are fewer pathways for heat transfer (assuming your neighbor is also climate controlled).  This results in a significant savings compared to independent buildings with 4 exposed walls.

The construction costs are also lower, because only 2 facades must be weather-proof.  The owners typically used the savings to invest in attractive architecture with architectural flourishes, since it made business sense.  The corner buildings, with a higher burden of exposed facade costs, would naturally attract more profitable tenants.  The loss of a corner building is the ultimate way to devastate historic districts, because there will never be a profitable way to replace what has been lost.  The economic conditions that created those buildings is gone.

3.  Build up, not out

Traditional buildings, and traditional streetscapes by extension, never happened overnight. They evolved over time, as each small plot was filled in and then raised upwards.  The neat thing about masonry walls is that they can support an incredible amount of weight if they are braced at each floor level, so adding a new floor on top was usually a simple process.  This gave owners the ability to start small and incrementally expand their property as needed.

A nucleating commercial strip

A nucleating commercial center

Here in Indianapolis you can see this evolutionary process frozen in time.  The old streetcar stops were the commercial areas for each neighborhood, and as you travel towards downtown you will be traveling in time.  On the outskirts of the old city limits, you will find buildings that look like 1-story general stores, but maybe just a solitary one or one that was converted from a residence.  A bit closer in and you will find a healthier pocket of commercial buildings, some with 2 stories.  Look closer, you can usually find where the first buildings were upgraded from 1 to 2 stories.  A change of masonry, architectural style, or apparent age will show.  Sometimes it’s easiest to spot in the rain when the masonry takes in water at different rates.

Irvington Terrace historic district (Indianapolis, IN)

Irvington Terrace historic businesses (Indianapolis, IN)

The closest neighborhoods will have fully formed commercial streets with 4 or 5 story buildings, which were the final stage of traditional building evolution until the invention of the safety elevator.  This incremental development paradigm was a very cost-effective way to establish a business district, and also very different from our current style of development.  The “build at once” streetscape phenomenon is a recent invention, and only necessary because of the presence of parking requirements.

A block of traditional buildings wastes no space and can be built up extensively

A block of traditional buildings wastes no space and can be built up extensively

A block of contemporary buildings is a scattered mess that is commonly abandoned rather than upgraded

A block of contemporary buildings is a scattered mess that is commonly abandoned rather than upgraded

Minimum Parking Requirements, whether for permitting compliance or loan approval, have been the single greatest enemy of the traditional building technique.  The need for parking spaces based on square footage means that adding an additional level to a building requires more parking.  And in an urban area, land is a limited resource.  Building a parking garage is far too costly and complex a process when considering the needs of so many varied businesses on a single street, and so the only solution is to close the business and relocate where land is plentiful.

The modern method of placemaking

The modern method of placemaking (Columbus, IN)

No way to expand?  Relocate!

No way to expand? Relocate! (Carmel, IN)

Lessons to Learn

As you can see, traditional building developers used their limitations as advantages, making the most out of known technology and social behavior. It is up to us to figure out how to apply these concepts to our modern urban areas.  But the key lessons here are to create a development environment where buildings can start small, expand gradually, and create mutually beneficial relationships with their neighbors.

A Street has 2 Sides


Good urban design recognizes that the street has two sides.  It doesn’t separate people on one side from shops on the other.  Because in a world designed for automotive superiority, streets become barriers much too often.

In short, a good street encourages jaywalking.

What are you waiting for?

What are you waiting for?