4. The Great Gig in the Sky

This is the fourth installment of my urban design blog tribute to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. I feel compelled to more boldly highlight this after a recent episode. Last week I did Time, an interpretation of a brilliant song that contains some of the best rock and roll lyrics ever written. The day after the blog came out, my stepdad informed me that my mom was very concerned about my mental state after reading the “poem” that prefaced my post (the “poem” being the lyrics to the aforementioned song). I assured them that my mental state is pretty much the same as it always is, and that I’m fine. I will note, that it’s always great to be reminded that your mom cares (and that she thinks you are capable of writing the lyrics to one of the great songs of all time).  In an effort to avoid any further confusion: Linda, the next song deals with time and death. I am not overly fixated on either, just following the structure of the album. (…and I’m sorry I don’t call more often).

Obviously “The Great (Fill in the blank) in the Sky” is a reference to death or passing of what the blank was filled in with. In the context of the album, I’ve always thought of this as the song with the screamy chick in between the two most poplar songs on the album.  Either way, there is a reference to transition. 'Round here, the most auspicious example of transition is the upcoming change in city leadership. I considered writing about that and what the implications might be for urban design, but I have decided to write about something a bit more concrete.

Urban design, as I practice it, focuses on the urban public realm- the streets, parks, plazas, and views that comprise our communally owned spaces. This public realm belongs to all of us and expresses the values and aspirations of the community. The other side of that coin is private property. (This is especially true in our country where we have developed a very black and white view of property- it is either public or private, there is no gradient). Our private places belong to their individual owner(s) and express that values and aspirations of that person. (Yes, your house/office/lot expresses your values and your aspirations to God and everybody). Public and private places serve different masters and are attended to different stewards. A healthy city, however, will leverage each to make the other better.

One of the most important and nuanced maneuvers in urban design is treating the transitions between pure public space and pure private space.  One of the hallmarks of a poorly designed place is a lack of attention to transition- these are places where one moves directly from pure public space to pure private space. This type of situation makes both of the spaces feel less comfortable because they retain the mental residue of the other- the private doesn’t feel totally private and the public doesn’t feel totally public. This lack of definition and legibility results in places that we perceive as being uncomfortable. We thrive on clues that inform us about the space that we are in and that indicate what types of activity are accommodated or appropriate.

The most successfully designed places create gradients or transition zones between pure public and pure private. The classic American example is the stoop of a downtown residential unit. Consider the examples of homes in our downtown. To enter, a person makes a gradual transition from pure public space to private space- sidewalk (pure public), steps (semi-public), porch (semi-private), indoors (pure private). It only takes 10 feet to make the transition, but the perception of space is far greater that the actual difference traveled. This makes the city, and its part more legible and defined, and therefore more comfortable. Beyond the public realm gradient, a well designed home will have its own privacy gradient that provides transition from “public” to “private” spaces within the home- the same principles apply.

(The gradient applies to all places - offices and retail spaces as well. However, the interiors of those types of private property are semi-public/public anyway, so the transition phase can be somewhat lessened.)

The challenge is to find the literal common ground between the public and private sectors to be able to create these transitional gradients. It is important to do so since this is where the rubber meets the road: we can create a healthy, legible, beautiful city that expresses our value of community and generosity, and our aspirations of being the best city in the country; or we can build a city that tells the world that we do not value place, and the we aspire only to do what it takes to get by.

This is indeed a tricky wicket. The baseline of the argument is “you can’t tell me what to do with my property”. This is true (to a certain extent) and I do not propose making anyone do anything. The challenge is to nurture the spirit of community that elevates us above the baseline argument. It would be great if we could create a culture where people do things like creating these transitions because: a) they understand the underlying principles, b) they understand that these techniques have practical and economic benefits for the property as well as the community, c) they trust that if they do something their neighbors will as well, d) they want to express their own values and aspirations, and e) they have pride in their community. If we can find a way to create that culture, we will be one of the great cities in the country. If we can’t overcome the baseline argument then the community can’t transition and we are left in purgatory.

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