Urban Planning 101

Really, urban planning is not hard. However, based on the countless urban planning disasters since WWII, one would think urban planning is some incredibly complicated and obtuse thing to understand.

It ain’t.

For example, in designing a building for an urban location, like a Main Street, there are just three rules:

1) Make sure the building kisses the sidewalk. No setbacks.

2) Make sure the building has retail along its entire frontage.

3) Make sure the first-floor windows are contiguous.

The next two things are not really rules but are really nice to have:

4) Make sure the building is more then one-story.

5) Create apartments above.

See? Simple!

Yet it is amazing how often architects cannot process these simple things. I find this baffling. Is it ego? Do architects distain the idea of THIER building lining up with all the other buildings? So, do they push THIER building back a few pointless feet to make it STAND OUT? Hey! Look at me!!!!!

I dunno. But I think all communities across the land should smack, hard, any architect who comes froward with a urban structure violating the above simple issues. Oh, and also deny them a permit. Please.

In Emporia, there are a handful of new structures on its main street, Commercial. This is good, as the majority of main streets across the land have not seen new construction for many decades.

However, two new structures violate the rules. Egregiously.




ABOVE: Most people walk by this building without even noticing what an urban affront it is:

Affront #1: It has a pointless setback, breaking the all-important street wall. A street wall is an unbroken line of main street buildings. As one walks along there should always be a consistent line of storefronts offering a pleasing pedestrian experience. While most people will not be entirely conscious of it, as you walk along this block the experience is less pleasing when you pass this building.

Affront #2: Look at the three windows. Classic main street buildings have walls of glass not stucco facades with a few small openings punched in. The latter is a suburban-style aesthetic, not urban.

Affront #3: Pointless planters.

Affront #4: Pointless planters…with no plants.





Affront #5: Gee, just what people enjoy on main street. An exposed, cracked party wall that was never meant to be visible.





Affront #6: Note all the two-story structures? So, why is the new-ish one just one-story? Do you find this attractive?

Affront #6: In short, this is a suburban-style structure that has been dropped onto a classic main street.

My problem is not really with the architect or developer but rather the city. Such a structure should not be allowed. It is that simple. The building diminishes the whole block and streetscape.  If I were looking to open a retail business on Commercial, I would NOT want to be on this block.

Well, on to another urban disaster:




ABOVE: The new county courthouse.

The courthouse was built about ten years ago. I cannot express enough my loathing of it, and my anger about its existence. You see, about ten gorgeous two-story buildings were demolished to build this bloated monstrosity. I was in a state of shock watching these fine late- and early-20th-century structures be knocked to the ground. And for…this?

The building is, again, suburban-styled. It is the kind of structure which really really really wants to be surrounded by a sea of asphalt and parked cars. It also TOWERS above everything; its scale relates to nothing else on Commercial. The titanic-sized arched windows offer no sense of scale, either. Is the building two-stories tall? Three? Four? One has no idea looking at it.

And it gets worse. Much worse.




ABOVE: This just makes my eyes hurt. Intsead of having retail stores along the sidewalk, the courthouse has this utterly pointless arcade. WTF?




ABOVE: WTF????? WTF????? WTF????? WTF?????

WHAT were they thinking?????????? WHAT is the point of this arcade?????????? There are no doors leading anywhere. The wall-o-windows is so dark that you cannot see in.  It is an exceptionally unappealing space. And to this day I am still in a state of shock that something SO bad got approved.

Now, by way of contrast:




ABOVE: At a glance the above structure, built a few years ago, does not look like much. But it brings joy to my heart. You see, it does everything right:

1) It is built out to the sidewalk.

2) It has retail on the first floor, and with contiguous glass. All the retail spaces are rented, too!

3) It is more then one-story high.

4) It has apartments above, bringing people downtown which means that there will be more customers for main street restaurants, stores, and theaters. This is good!




ABOVE: This structure is even newer and it also does everything right. Whenever I walk by I smile.

So, things ARE getting better. I pray that the first building in this post will be demolished and replaced with a a structure like the one directly above.

Sadly, there is no hope for the courthouse. It will be with us for a long long long time. Oh, want to know what the old courthouse looked like? OK, but be prepared to cry:








  1. Meg@sparrowhaunt.com on November 5, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    I humbly submit ONE exception… Restaurants with outdoor seating. There is nothing better than having breakfast outside watching the people go by. Make it an enclosed arcade, or overhang the second story – I don’t care – but put some tables and chairs on the sidewalk please. And bring me some coffee and pancakes…

    • Ross on November 6, 2014 at 3:03 am

      I wholly concur that restaurants with outdoor seating are a GREAT thing. But one does not need to destroy the all-important street wall to have this. NYC has a zillion sidewalk restaurants with nary a building indent!

      And now you have me yearning for some coffee and pancakes!

  2. Chad's Crooked House on November 12, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    There are slightly staggered street walls in some parts of Philadelphia that are fine; you can Google Street View stalk them if you want. 1935 and 2033 Chestnut Street. Your example is bad because the setback draws more attention to something it would be better to ignore. Then 5 South Chester Road in Swarthmore, PA. I don’t think these architectural quirks detract from the character of the streets at all. And for that matter, cities with irregular street layouts can’t have straight building lines anyway, and they’re possibly more charming than what we usually have.

    • Ross on November 13, 2014 at 12:06 am

      Hi Chad!

      I am all for urban anomalies! Such things make for interesting streetscapes.

      Quirky is good. The unexpected is good.

      But such examples are a very different thing than I am addressing above. The first building pictured is simply, well, wrong. It RUINS the street wall rather than ADDS to it.

      In one example you give, 2033 Chestnut Street, I concur that the street wall is not ruined. However, I think the street wall would be better if the indented structure(s) did not indent.

      • Chad's Crooked House on November 13, 2014 at 1:09 am

        Yes, the building in your post is shit. I was just saying I think all rules are made to be broken.

        • Ross on November 13, 2014 at 3:43 am

          Chad, normally I would concur. But WAY too many architects have broken the Urban Rules since WWII and the results have wrought havoc on our cities.

          Urban Planning is not a free-for-all, as has been supposed since WWII, and rules really do make for a more civil, more attractive, and more pleasing urban experience.

          Please note however that I am NOT talking about architecture but rather urban planning. Too many main streets across America want to return their urban landscapes to a supposed ideal pre-1930 aesthetic, and in the process remove some great post-WWII structures (which are, admittedly, very few in number). I love a main street with structures dating from the 19th-century, the early 20th, the great Deco years, and even the 1950s and 1960s. It is the rare structure which deserves retention from the 1970s through the 1990s.

          This kind of architectural diversity is good, IMO. But great diversity regarding urban planning has rather the opposite effect. Hence, this is why rules matter, and should only be broken with great deliberation.

  3. Steve on January 28, 2022 at 1:26 am

    Ross, this is solid gold! Iam planning to start reading a book called Visual Intelligence soon. I would love to know how many of the decision makers in charge of urban America are visual morons? No wonder main streets struggle. Glad you discussed anomolies. It’s hard for me to think of an example where pulling a retail building back was a good idea. Some times a first floor arcade works ( look at the Palais Royal in Paris or the Burlington Arcade in London) but the part above the arcade must hew to the street wall along sidewalk or extend over it ala an awning Recommend people read H L Menckens essay “The libido for the ugly” circa 1926.. Walter Lippman was right , the omnicompetant citizen does not exist. Most people don’t comprehend the planning flaws they live with and suffer from on a daily basis Maladaption A final pet peeve of mine, many cities spend money on their urban forest ineffectively. They make multiple mistakes…. species selection, “stock” selection, time of planting, maintenance, tree pit preparation is frequently done badly. And maintence departments love inadequate “lollipop” trees like Bradford Pear to this day even though several states have put them on the invasive species list. They dont provide inadequate shade or architectural presnce Keep up the good work! PS everyone, read “Great Streets” by Allan Jacobs!!

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