Luckily for all of us, ‘simultaneous use’ has trumped isolation
C O M M E N T A R Y
Livable Communities, Big and Small
TOP PHOTO COURTESY THE WOODLANDS CONVENTION & VISITORS BUREAU; BOTTOM PHOTO BY PAUL HESTER
by CLOVIS HEIMSATH, FAIA
AS ARCHITECTS AND URBAN PLANNERS, let’s congratulate ourselves for what we are doing today as we glance back to the recent past. In the 1960s, community planning, particularly at the federal level, was sorely lacking. At that time, there was a widespread feeling that a building’s function was enhanced when isolated by typology with others of its kind. Codes specified zones – industrial, commercial, or residential – and in many cases still do. But back then, the codes were reinforced by a climate of opinion that believed isolation was efficient and socially relevant. That era’s frame of mind led to disastrous public housing developments across the country. One of those was in St. Louis, where I worked in the early 1970s trying to make three low-income high-rises livable. I was devastated to realize there was no commitment to proper security, community services, educational facilities, or even convenient shopping. Residents in those developments were forced to walk six blocks to a grocery store because commercial enterprises were prohibited on federal properties. While in St. Louis, I witnessed the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s implosion of Pruit Iago, an abandoned housing project, as neighboring residents The Woodlands applauded. Frustrated with my inability of make meaningful change, I was compelled to write Behavioral Architecture, published in 1976 by McGraw-Hill. I’m pleased to say that things have changed for the better. Luckily for all of us – architects and citizens, alike – there is a refreshing breeze wafting through the halls of today’s architecture. The change toward more livable communities began in Europe after WWII with the New Town movement that spawned a host of comprehensive urban developments. These new cities were focused Fayetteville around a town center with commerce, transportation, schools, and churches located within walking distance (or a short commute) of residences. At that time, master planning on such a large scale was easier to accomplish in Europe than in the United States because there was great impetus to rebuild after the war and many of the countries controlled a large proportion of the available land. Eventually, the post-war planned community concept arrived in the U.S. and took root in several places. Among the successful projects are Reston, Virginia, and Columbia, Maryland, founded in 1964 and 1967,
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respectively. Perhaps the best example of a “new town” in Texas is The Woodlands, established in 1974 just north of Houston, which today comprises 12 villages and districts supporting a total population of 100,000 residents. My term for this new approach to planning and design is “simultaneous use,” which comes from my book and describes places where people come together in one location but for different reasons. These are places where buildings with divergent functions are strategically grouped for people to interact, where young families casually congregate with retirees and office workers rub shoulders with windowshoppers. While such places are more commonly referred to as “mixed use,” I prefer the term “simultaneous use,” which aptly describes venues designed for a narrower set of overlapping functions. In the mid-1970s, about the same time that The Woodlands was being developed, my wife, Maryann, and I “discovered” the small Czech community of Fayetteville about an hour-and-a-half’s drive west of Houston. Founded in the late 1830s, Fayetteville, Texas, perfectly illustrates the concept of simultaneous use. The tiny town (pop: 279) is laid out around a central square, with small commercial shops – including restaurants, a bank, and antique stores – lining a downtown square. At its center is a public park with a historic courthouse (now a museum) and a bandstand. Today, Fayetteville enjoys a year-round schedule of special events that brings the town alive, particularly on weekends. It is delightful to see metropolitan areas becoming more like Fayetteville, creating places that offer everyone the pleasures of living on a smaller and more intimate scale. What a long way we’ve come, as a society and a profession! Even the federal government shows signs of understanding this cultural shift away from monolithic housing projects and toward comprehensive urban planning. Case in point: HUD has just opened an Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities. Perhaps more significant is the fact that HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan is the first architect to hold that position. Now that’s progress! Clovis Heimsath, FAIA, is the author of Behavioral Architecture: Toward an Accountable Design Process, published in 1976 by McGraw-Hill as part of its Architectural Record Book series. He is a senior designer with Heimsath Architects in Austin.
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