G R A M L I C H  D E S I G N

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Musings on the Swiss countryside.


My Building Systems students were recently interested in land use planning, and in how different cultures express their values through apportionment of space. Here are a couple of pictures from a trip to Switzerland in September of 2018 showing a common pattern of green space interspersed with density. To me it reads like a how-to of intelligent land use.


We’ve tended to think of ‘density’ as a negative in this country. That’s, happily, changing. But there are miles (light years, actually) to go before we’re there. Most Western European nations have a significantly higher number of people per square mile than we North Americans do, but their development patterns aren’t any less attractive or effective than ours: actually, the inverse is true.


So what do they get right?


Some of it is embedded in a centuries-old social contract that understands the role of the collective transcends that of the individual. Not much we as designers can do to quickly change that in the US.


But design can absolutely address other facets: things like smaller homes, smaller lots, building multi-family units (attractively!) and, above all, constraining development into certain areas while preserving much of the countryside for farm and forest uses. The US concept of sprawl doesn’t exist here.


Once sprawl is off the table, imagine how massively that impacts life! Infrastructure costs are lower. Trips are shorter. People walk instead of drive. Health quality increases. Urban cores are pleasant, healthy spaces. Most food is truly local. That means fewer preservatives. Smaller refrigerators. Lower energy costs. Round and round we go.

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Revisiting the Lower Ninth


Had a chance to visit New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward in late March of 2019. This was the epicenter of the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005. So it’s been 13.5 years and I wondered: what’s it look like now?


The Lower Ninth is a historically African-American neighborhood east of more well-known New Orleans regions like downtown, the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny and Bywater. It’s adjacent to the Industrial Canal that links the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, so it’s got rising water levels on 3 sides. The levees failed in 05, at the junction of Johnson and Jourdan, and water came in and quickly flooded the neighborhood.  


The population today is 37% of what it was back then. Many lots sit vacant, the occasional concrete stoop all that remains. Others are rebuilding, often with the dwellings raised on stilts, through the help of foundations like Make It Right. But those are few and far between- it still feels abandoned.


The river level was once again quite high when we visited. I wonder if we’ve really re-engineered the system of levees to do the job right this time, or if this can happen again. Louisiana is losing a football field’s worth of land to the sea every hour. It’s on ongoing battle; one senses we’re way behind on mitigating this problem, and will continue to fall further behind, given our collective lack of civic urgency.