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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Don't Stoop to That Level: Better Contextual Design

Intact, well-maintained stoops in historic neighborhoods certainly
create an appealing rhythm to the streetscape
Planners often promote and sometimes even require stoops for new urban neighborhoods or infill development in existing neighborhoods. This is supposed to be contextual. It is supposed to provide a varied streetscape. In practice, it often looks contrived and generally creates unnecessary problems for the people who will live in or visit the homes.

To be sure, stoops are often well-loved features in many historic neighborhoods. Residents may sit on their stoops watching pedestrian traffic and talking with their neighbors (although this generally seems to happen somewhat less in real daily life than romantically imagined). They create a rich layering of space and provide a rhythm for pedestrian progress down a block. The appeal is obvious, and preserving the character of such historic neighborhoods is an important task.

Buildings that have had their stoops removed
can be real eyesores
Yet, walking around these neighborhoods with a critical eye, you start to notice that many of the old houses no longer have their stoop. Something happened. Perhaps it was the cost of reconstructing the deteriorated stonework. It may have been a revised layout to facilitate subdividing the house into either modern apartment units or to chop it up to squeeze more out of it. The specific reasons actually deserve more study, but whatever the case, the people who owned and/or used these buildings clearly found a reason to modify them. We shouldn't ignore these needs when we start laying out new homes.

So let's give some cursory consideration to some of the issues that surface from designing new buildings with stoops. Let's start with the obvious and one of the largest concerns: stairs limit accessibility. They don't work for people in wheelchairs. Parents struggle to get strollers up and down. Planners are always talking about how great it is when residents walk to shopping in their own neighborhood, but I'm not sure how many of them have actually tried lugging their grocery carts up the stoop stairs.
Putting a stoop to the floor above a garage only
gives a good view of the empty concrete expanses
All the inherent disadvantages of stairs are compounded by placing them outdoors. Exposed to the elements, they become slippery in the ice and snow.

Additionally, new buildings often have difficulty adapting the stoop to their modern program. Combining a stoop with a garage gets just about everything wrong. To make the elevations work, the stairs have to be even more extremely high. The driveway creates a big dead space, formlessly open to the sidewalk. (Adding a fence/gate across the driveway can mitigate the problem by maintaining a coherent edge for the public space, but it still leaves an unsatisfactory dead space behind the gate.)

Sometimes new stoops just look like clutter
Even without the driveway, new stoops often look out of place and fail to create the interesting streetscape as intended. Perhaps they neglect the courtyard feel. Maybe the dimensions corresponding to the modern lots don't scale properly. Whatever the case, they often feel more like unnecessary clutter.

It seems planners are missing some of the real lessons that could be learned from those old neighborhoods filled with stoops. They should spend more time looking at the handful of buildings that had their stoops removed that were actually adapted successfully. There may be specific site conditions where a stoop makes sense and works well on a new building. There are certainly cases where the stoops never should have been removed from the houses. Yet the old, adapted buildings we can walk around and see can provide some useful lessons for achieving a rich, varied streetscape without imposing the hardships of a large external staircase.
An attractive, interesting entrance
where the stoop has been removed
Accessible for people in wheelchairs, convenient for parents
with strollers, and free of problems with ice and snow

Hopefully, more emphasis can be placed on urban design approaches that don't require unnecessary exterior stairs. If you look around, there are examples that can contribute ideas for new forms that can provide great streetscapes.

This newer building shows some promising features that could be further cultivated. The planting beds create some of the variation and rhythm that stoops provide. The single step could be avoided for ADA access. With only a little modification, the ledges could be rethought as more deliberate seating for socialization. And there are options; the outside ledge could be removed and a low, ornate fence introduced with an entry feature or gate at the entrance if more intimate, "owned" space was desired for socializing outside.

There are a lot of options if we look around and think creatively. We should do more than try to copy and paste historic neighborhoods, problems and all.

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