What Does Urbanism Mean?

Is urbanism more than the lifestyle of city dwellers?

This question was raised during a recent discussion with some local planning and design minds in relation to defining the vision for the Utah Center for Architecture. The architects, planners, landscape architects, urbanists, educators and community leaders that make up the board of the UCFA defined their mission as “a catalyst for creating better places by increasing knowledge of how the built environment shapes our lives, communities and culture.”

One of the bright lights in this group is Dr. Nan Ellin, Professor and Chair of the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah. Nan is a fairly recent transplant to the Wasatch Front, and has a mile-long biography of scholarly writing on urbanism.

In her book, Integral Urbanism, Nan outlines a model of urban life as an antidote to the problems of poor planning: sprawl, impoverishment of public space and heightened sense of fear as well as a diminished sense of place and sense of community. Nan proposes, “Rather than neglect, abandon, or erase our urban heritage, Integral Urbanism preserves buildings, neighborhoods, and natural landscapes that we value; rehabilitates, reclaims, restores, or renovates what is underperforming and adds what we do not have yet but would like, as informed by effective community involvement.”

Being a part of this discussion of urbanism in Utah was to me a re-awakening of how a small practice architect does contribute to and participate in creating good urban life. The move for Jennie and me from Seattle back to Utah a dozen years ago was grounded in fairly practical concerns: housing affordability, public school choice, quality of life and access to the mountains. But the underlying question of understanding what Urbanism means in the Great Basin in general and Salt Lake City in particular has taken longer to define.

The architectural projects of Lloyd Architects in the last decade have centered on individual buildings, many of which are infill projects in Salt Lake’s urban core and historic neighborhoods. This lens to look beyond the building envelope and critically at the larger context has come about, for example, through engaging in the issues facing the Yalecrest neighborhood where we live, after having moved into a house around the corner from what has become known as the “garage-mahal.”  Work by the Yalecrest Compatible Infill committee in 2001-2003 led to the adoption of Salt Lake City’s zoning ordinance  that now has been extended to encompass a large percentage of the residential neighborhoods of this city. The question “Is Yalecrest a historic neighborhood” in many ways defined my six years on Salt Lake City’s Historic Landmark Commission and continues to be at the heart of nearly all discussions of the role of preservation in our urban life in Utah. In coming posts I’d like to look at how even small projects of existing buildings in our urban neighborhoods tell a story that contribute to “good urbanism.”

Here are a few buildings or shells of former buildings that tell a story in two- or three acts.  This first building served as an auto repair facility nearly a century ago.

Recently renovated, it is now home to welikesmall, an interactive design consultancy here in Salt Lake City.

This building in the Central City historic district was originally home to a young family in the 1920s.  A few owners later, the home had fallen into neglect by the late 20th century.

After several months of rehab work, the building now houses our offices.