9 January 2011


Grain / photo by Doug Joyce

Grain is a universal characteristic of nature and of the work by human beings. It lies within the striations and layers of wood, the crystal formations of minerals and metals, the formations of plant-life, the flow of rivers and streams, the coat of a tiger; as a characteristic of nature, the places where it applies are infinite.  Grain extends to the man-made; the surface of sandpaper, or the texture of a digital or film image. It can be contained in someone's personality; are they suave and refined or coarse and simple in their behavior? Grain can be considered a characteristic of nearly everything, and every type of grain has its place and purpose somewhere. Coarse, medium, or fine grain, all have their place. If something is coarse grain, it is wider, rougher, meant to dispatch with tasks and situations in a basic and broad way.  If something is fine grain, it is for finely finishing a task, or rendering a detail; because it is finely wrought, it is meant to be enjoyed and appreciated over a long period of time.  

To the craftsperson, the grain of a material is the most important consideration in determining its use, and how it will be transformed into craft. ‘Grain’ is an essential characteristic of the craft; the analogy extends well beyond the metaphor of wood to a carver or stone to a sculptor. Craft is universal, and 'grain' is the essential and basic to the understanding of the endeavor.


In urban planning circles, the word 'grain' can be applied to the basic configurations and characteristics of urban fabric. A quick application of this would be that coarse grain applies to long or non-existent blocks and fine grain is short blocks and individual storefronts.  Coarse grain is large and faceless buildings and fine grain is buildings of easily walkable dimensions, with interest, transparency, and detail. Coarse grain is large vehicles and service operations, and fine grain is walking, working, sitting, unhindered by unsettling noise, activity, smells, etcetera.  The analogy can be carried to any of the built features or activities within a city.

Looking at the 'grain' of cities can make for a deep understanding of how they function, or why sometimes they don't. It is the craftsperson's outlook to urban design. How grain is imposed has a profound effect on how we experience and use a city. As the craftsperson takes into account the grain of a material to be used in their work, so must a designer of cities take into account the 'grain' of what goes into the design. And as making something, hastily conceived without attention to grain, makes it a disposable object, making a city without attention to grain makes a place that people don't care about and don't particularly want to occupy. An unpleasantly compromised place.  

We all live with the effects of places that don't take this into account. Everyone at some or another even recognizes this, though they probably would not put it the way I have. This is my way of saying that we suffer mightily in our daily lives with city design that pays little or no attention to grain.

What is it that makes a taller building or denser development an unpleasant idea to some people? Tall buildings can block the sunlight, or dense development with its additional activities can cause congestion. But these same liabilities can be transformed to blessings as shade at street level in the warmer months, the convenience of getting to what one needs with an easy walk, and by the vitality and energy of the activity itself are active counterpoints to these perceptions. It turns out that the differences in building type, style, and what happens inside time are not as important as how the building meets the street. The presentation, access and the servicing of such a structure often matter more then any other consideration. The best streets actively avoid carelessly imposed course grain activities in a fine grain street setting.

Yet a lot of city 'experts' don't talk about the continuous imposition of course grain elements along the urban grid, and how it discourages or even eliminates the urban vitality.


Urban planners in the United States have been grappling with the notion of how to activate streets since shopping malls when out of favor in the 1980s. The obvious answer is to insist that developers include street-front retail and commercial spaces at the ground level of new developments. The disappointing result of that requirement is seen in cities across the country; empty retail storefront, un-rentable, in the street level of sizable mixed-use projects.

There are hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs looking for spaces to run successful businesses out of. It isn’t as though there is no need for these places. In the economic world of internet commerce and big boxes, there are places where small, moderate and even large enterprises work very well from a street front venue, profiting from and in-turn, feeding a vital urban street-scene around them.

The conundrum is that urban vitality, i.e., foot traffic, is a result of useful and interesting things along the walk, i.e., thriving retail businesses; for the potential thriving businesses, it’s flipped on its head. Foot traffic is needed to make a business thrive.

The solution never comes if you only analyze the conundrum on its face. A step back and a look at the details surrounding the conundrum will reveal important but forgotten details. I have an example near where I live in Southern California, adjacent the successful Old Town Pasadena walking district. Note that there are many other examples of this same issue around California and the United States, and I have no doubt that the same issues replay themselves around the world.

My example is a mixed use project located on a prominent boulevard. Residential condominiums over retail. Plenty of eyes see the space on offer, on a daily basis from the passing cars. The retail space has remained vacant for the years since the building was finished in 2008.

arroyo pkwy1

arroyo pkwy2
Google Maps


A potential tenant might consider that 2 blocks away thousands of people move through every day on foot. That tenant would also note all the vehicles that pass by on the six lane boulevard in front of the space. A lot of potential customers! Yet all those people who are walking 2 blocks away, won’t make the jump. All people who drive cars down the boulevard won’t stop to shop. The space may not be rented anytime soon.

In reality, this place is difficult to walk by or drive in. Pasadena has been able to carry off its dual nature of being a real city while clinging to also being an automobile access suburb, but examples such as this show that the old big-block unlimited-parking mentality is interfering with the City’s higher aspirations around its urban core. The site is a mere two blocks south of a real fine-grained urban walking experience on a boulevard that acts as a shoot to the freeway leading to downtown Los Angeles. In a mere two blocks, the character of the street grid completely changes, from an easy and pleasurable walk, to 6 lanes of maximum traffic flow, with the objective of moving as many motorized vehicles through the district with the least amount of congestion. The walk by the site is tedious, unpleasant, and downright difficult. The street corners all have light timing designed to maximize vehicle flow. Pedestrians don’t have permission to cross anywhere but at severely limited crosswalks. Permission to cross is granted by pushing a vandal-proof button, which signals the switch computer that a pedestrian is in the queue The computer will eventually signal a limited time for crossing (just enough time for a physically fit adult to quickly cross), usually in order, but sometimes missing a cycle if the system determines that a pedestrian crossing would impede traffic too much. There is absolutely no priority for the person on foot.

Along the walkway are a large number of parking lot and dedicated loading zone entrances. For generations, the zoning code has insisted on dedicated parking for every building, and multiple dedicated delivery locations, ensuring a difficult and un-pleasurable experience for the passing pedestrian. There are eight interruptions like this along the two blocks. The walking experience becomes all about not being hit by an entering or exiting vehicle, looking, starting and stopping to avoid an incident, and not at all enjoyable or particularly efficient.

The City has recently invested a lot of money to improve the sidewalks and landscaping along the way. There is a light-rail transit stop intermingled with a well done mixed use project by the architects Moule & Polyzoides. There are good restaurants, food stores, shopping, health clubs, and offices, along with intermingled residential uses in very reasonable proximity. There are reasons to risk the walk, but the legacy of course-grained planning moves makes the insertion of the urban combination of street vitality and successful storefronts nearly impossible. Ironically, these small storefronts, insisted upon by the well intentioned, aren’t used by the automobile bound either. Too difficult to get in and out of.

When parking and loading maintain their position as the top planning priorities, there can’t be much chance for making a place where people don’t go EVERYWHERE by car. Yet in Pasadena and around the world urban design decisions that don’t pay attention to the obvious details are being made. Quite simply, the lack of attention to detail, to the urban grain, will insure that growing and changing cities will struggle with creating the walkable public places. Cities that do not understand the dynamic and imperative of change are in functional and therefore economic and environmental peril. Just as cities changed during the twentieth century to accommodate the automobile, they must also change to move beyond traffic and congestion to efficiency and delight, making for a civilized place to live.


There are thousands of little things that make a city a pleasure to be in, to make it a delight visually. The clash between vehicles and people who are walking through the public place is just the start of these considerations. Grain is not floor-area-ratios, facade undulation requirements, design review, or even massing as prescribed in the ’Smart Code’. It is one of the greatest components of creating the Great Outdoor Room. You see, attention to grain isn’t mentioned in any zoning or planning code. It is realized in the act of craft, not in municipal codes and administration.

Here are some basic considerations of grain for those who craft cities:

  • Wherever possible, don’t mix the coarse grain with the fine. Work the transitions very carefully. If a city and its designers don’t pay attention to this, the results will be dis-jointed. Is the goal a few good buildings, or is it a great city?

  • There is no architectural style to a Great Outdoor Room, the great spacial experience of the street. There is no limitation to one style; inexorably a building will work with all the others that surround it in that great negative space. There is no such thing as a ‘more appropriate’ style, theory, ecology, or construct. There is also no such thing as working out of context. A designer or architect can choose to deny the surroundings they are creating in, but inevitably the success of a project will be judged by how well it works with what is around it.

  • Grain is not a two dimensional drawing of a building on a piece of paper. The way a door looks, how it allows you to enter a building, what color it is, how it affects traversing of the block; the fine details of how a building defines the street, this is grain.

  • Understand that architects and designers work best as craftspeople. The overall vision of a community should be understood, and the expectations held high, but then let these people do their jobs. Administrators, boards, and commissions do not know how to craft a city.

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