An artful life

On the island of Bali in Indonesia, art is necessary nourishment for life. Here, art, spirituality and beauty offer an antidote to a densifying and increasingly stressful world. 

Top photo: Ubud Garden Palace is now a public open space

Etty Padmodipoetro


In Bali, the arts are integral to everyday life – every activity is done with care and infused with beauty. It is said that traditionally the Balinese have no words to describe art; it is all just a way to connect with the spirit. The unabashedly vivid colors of the fabrics and flowers, the sound of the music, the dance, the smell of the incense, the distinctive carvings and architecture–these all attract visitors from around the world. But in Bali the approach to what we consider art is not for the benefit of tourism; rather it is an adaptation to the unpredictable and at times violent environment. Contrary to what one might expect, Bali would still be as it is, in all its beauty, without any visitors–for it is the Balinese way of life.

At first glance Bali seems remote and disconnected from the problems of global population increase and urbanization, yet from an urban design perspective Bali shows what is possible. The Balinese approach stems from the environment; we can tease out the essence of that approach to help us address the challenges of future cities.

Bali is actually densely populated, a volcanic island with areas of rich soil that are cultivated for rice production, a staple food in most of Asia. Traditionally, extended families live in compounds, where individual privacy is lacking. Life is lived communally and collaboratively. Temples, or “Pura,” are the public spaces where people of all backgrounds can find respite and calm, or can celebrate life. Every space is designed with serenity and beauty in mind as an offering to the ancestors and the spirits – yet it is really for the benefit of the living. There is a harmonious balance between the arts and faith, between the day-to-day routine and religious observance.

A sense of continuity emerges from the cycles related to religious practice. All Balinese, whether rich or poor, offer gifts to the gods, always presented in an artful way. The frequent religious festivities restore a sense of peace. During Nyepi–Day of Silence–which occurs once a year, everything shuts down, including all transportation, even the airport. Nyepi means “to quiet,” and it’s a cleansing of all the “noise” of everyday life—a way to reboot oneself.


The lessons of Bali apply to increased densification in our urban settings. As the world’s population grows and becomes more urbanized we are in danger of caring only about the numbers, such as square footages and cost. Developments are judged solely on their efficiency. We are remiss if we do not consider art and beauty as an integral part of the environment–something to be considered as a necessity. Taking the lessons from Bali, this paradigm has to be at the core of our urban design approach. Awareness of beauty and mindful creation of beauty are coping mechanisms to have a high quality of life in a very dense environment.

With the explosive growth of the world’s population, the shift to urban areas is inevitable. Among immigrants it has often been the case that a family member establishes a beachhead in a new community and other family members follow. Currently the “sandwich” phenomenon is increasingly prevalent: grown children return to live in their families after their education is finished or older parents move into their grown children’s homes. In the near future, different living configurations will continue to be the norm.

As the world’s population grows, neighbors increasingly will be in closer proximity. It is unconscionable to have vast wasteful urban plazas or densely populated housing developments without any respite. Integrating artful public spaces at all scales will help feed the individual and communal spirit and provide relief from the daily chaos. Beautiful spaces can help bring down the walls that isolate people; they can provide a sense of surprise to break the daily routines of life.

Imagine a world where art is not about museums, but rather about the quality of life, ensuring a sense of health and happiness. In a world where space is premium, making the most of every nook and cranny will be critical. So yes–in our future, art and beauty have to be a part of everyday life. Art should not be confined to the wealthy, it should be accessible to all; it is a matter of social justice.

Art is the magic potion that can transform a city into a community and a community into a home.


This article was first published in Loeb Lab 8, a publication of the LOEB Fellowship, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, July 18, 2014.

Why transport projects must make cities more liveable

We have to be more mindful of how projects can benefit the larger cause of city renewal or improvement and in particular, the opportunities and benefits it can bring to the urban environment in terms of liveability, rather than focusing purely on the impact that has to be mitigated.

Top photo: The Shanghai Bund project created a new public space in the city

Etty Padmodipoetro and Camilla Ween


The world is in an unprecedented period of urbanization, ever since the first cities emerged about 9,000 years ago. Within just over a decade the total number of megacities will grow from 26 to 37. Cities will inevitably become denser and homes are likely to be smaller, so there will be growing pressure on public areas to provide the space for social interaction; this space will need to be accessible and socially inclusive for all members of the community. Many cities inevitably have dysfunctional areas created through rapid unplanned growth, past infrastructure interventions or changes in land use and big infrastructure projects create the opportunity to put right some of the disfigurement of the city. But delivering a high quality public realm, that responds to social conditions and climate change issues, and is resilient to changing circumstance, should be at the centre of any mega project.

The opportunity to undertake such infrastructure changes only comes along every few generations and often a century will go by before any such projects are considered. That is why it is so important to keep liveability at the core of major infrastructure projects.

The Central Artery, Boston

The Central Artery project in the US city of Boston is an example of how not to do it. It is the most expensive transport project the United States has undertaken, costing US$14.8 billion. The Central Artery was an elevated viaduct carrying Interstate Highway 93, which bisected the centre of Boston-a much too common legacy of 20th century transport planners in cities across the US and the rest of the world. The traffic it carried had the effect of choking the downtown area and severing the city from the waterfront. The project included the construction of a north-south tunnel (I-93) to replace the old elevated Central Artery, and an east-west tunnel (I-90), as well as associated roadways and ramps. The project’s heart was in the right place–it was driven by the ultimate goal of city renewal and to undo the ‘progress’ of the original misguided 1960’s notion of creating the ‘city of the future’. Many good things were created, but the key opportunity to improve the livability of the city and give streets back to people was missed. So much more could have been delivered if the Boston Big Dig project had been more people-centric.

Its shortcoming was that its focus was narrowly restricted to transport; specifically, it was a vehicle-oriented project. The measure of success was judged mainly by its ability to move traffic expediently. Also public benefit was seen as project mitigation-costs that the project had to absorb in order to gain consent. There was much pressure to move the project forward with the minimum amount of ‘give’ or mitigations, to keep costs down. Furthermore, the drive to depress the viaduct structure led to several megalithic new highway infrastructures just beyond the new tunnels, designed with traffic rather than people in mind, which created another set of problems. In order to depress the Central Artery in the very limited area in downtown proper, the alignment of the highway had to be ‘straightened’ as it entered the tunnel; this re-engineering failed to question the impact on the urban fabric and resulted in complicated spaghetti-like highway interchanges just outside the downtown area, the South Bay Interchange and the North of Causeway Interchange, and a sea of viaducts. It was highway planning on steroids. In many ways the problems were just shifted to other neighbourhoods, severing them and compromising the future of the city.

The Central Artery project would have been a great opportunity to redefine the meaning of an urban highway. But the project did not challenge the existing rules for traffic and highway design or explore the common wisdom of shared use, cycle accessibility, true pedestrian connectivity or public space integration. Instead, the engineers displaced the highway to the hinterland. This is a mistake that should not have happened. Had the concept of high quality public realm been considered as part of its core mission, the solution could have been infinitely more sensitive and delivered new spaces for people.

The Central Artery Tunnel, Boston

The Bund, Shanghai

An example of how to add a high-quality public realm as part of delivering better mobility is the redevelopment of the Shanghai Bund district in China. The Bund district had grown in the 19th century in response to the shipping activity on the Huangpu River and the wealth that flowed from this trade, but in the 20th century, the fine 19th century buildings had been cut off from their river frontage by an ugly elevated highway. The city planners seized the opportunity to reinvent this part of their city in time for the 2010 Expo. The initial objective was to remove the eyesore of the elevated highway but the scope of project was widened to include a major new public realm project. A competition to replan the area was won by US-based architect Alex Kreiger.

With spectacular efficiency, the city removed the highway and buried the traffic in tunnels below and created a human-scale surface street and a new boardwalk along the river with pocket parks along its length. The new surface street provides crossings for pedestrians and integrates the local street network. Above all, the project has created a magnificent setting for the historic buildings and created a new public space in the city. It is remarkable that such a large-scale urban transformation could be conceived and delivered within four years; a time frame that is inconceivable in the West. The results are a testament to Chinese determination, values and project management skills. Clearly, having political backing opens most doors in China, but the important thing to recognize is that the promoters of the project saw the engineering project as a major opportunity for sensitive urban renewal.

Crossrail, London

London’s Crossrail project is an example of how community engagement can create more livable areas for local residents affected by the multi-station development across the UK capital. After years of negotiation, the project was signed off by Parliament in 2008, very specifically granting planning permission to build a railway within fixed boundaries. This project is now underway and is due to be complete in 2018.

The permission was purely to build the tunnels, tracks, stations and station modifications as required, but nothing beyond the entrance area of any of the stations. They did, of course, have to ‘make-good’ where streets and surroundings had been disturbed, but if these areas were unattractive environments before, there was no requirement to put back anything other than what had previously existed. The wider stakeholders such as the many local authorities, Transport for London, the Greater London Authority and others, did not deem this approach acceptable.

As a result Crossrail established an Urban Integration Programme to review the opportunities at each station through collaboration, partnership and joint working relationships, many opportunities have been identified, such as creating new pedestrian and cycle links and addressing poor lighting, signage, street furniture and planting. Public realm designs for 31 stations have now been created that go well beyond just putting back a bit of asphalt, through this process of partnership, £90 million of additional funds have been bought in from various sources to fund the additional works, but this is an invisible drop in the ocean compared to the £16 billion price tag for the railway. These enhancements will transform many grotty corners of London into delightful new public places.

By bringing the stakeholders together that have a vested interest in the area at each location, a joint vision was created. It is well known that improved transport infrastructure enhances local property values, but providing high-quality public realm links to the new infrastructure can further enhance these values. The public realm schemes have built on existing long-term plans from local authorities, transport providers’ aspirations for better integration of modes; heritage bodies’ desire for better settings for their asset and environmental bodies seeking local improvements. By bringing all the stakeholders together in collaboration and partnership, the funding burden will be shared and projects that seemed years off are now becoming a reality.

London’s Crossrail project will involve the redevelopment of Liverpool Street Station

Capturing the Future

A liveable city is one that provides for a decent quality of life for all its inhabitants. Individual needs vary and the urban realm must support diversity be accessible to all and be adaptable to future needs. Annoying detours, clutter and degraded environment as opposed to convenient logical access and good quality public realm can make the difference between high levels of anxiety and stress or a pleasurable experience. Remove an irritating detour and you might even put a smile on someone’s face. Can we, as a society, afford to ignore the opportunity to improve the quality of our cities and make our citizens happier?

The three case studies discussed demonstrate three very different approaches. The Big Dig was a single purpose megaproject and essentially a transport oriented solution even though, at its heart, the intention was urban enhancement. The promoters were fixated on delivery of the technical solution and many opportunities were missed. The parks, which have been created in the footprint of the old Central Artery, have not been properly integrated into the city fabric and as a result it is not uncommon to see people walking along the streets adjacent to the parks, rather than crossing into the parks. The streets on either side of the parks are much too wide and carry one-way traffic which isolates them as islands in a hostile car dominated environment. Failing to integrate the parks into the city fell short of the original intent to connect to the waterfront.

The Shanghai Bund project, on the other hand, is an exemplary illustration of seizing the opportunities and putting back something that is much more than an engineering solution. Of course the political ‘carte blanche’ approach is unlikely to be the norm in many parts of the world, but its key success is in how the project was conceived as a major urban renewal opportunity. The Crossrail project will also be an exemplary project, but this happened almost by accident, through common sense, collaboration and goodwill.

The pressures of funding and time scales for megaprojects are such that if the urban realm aspects are not addressed as part of the project, the pressures of project delivery may well just ‘wish them away’. To lose the opportunities to improve cities, when sites are dug up is foolish; once a megaproject has gone, the site might not be revisited for generations to come. To ensure that all the opportunities are exploited to the full, the project scope must be broadened to include urban renewal. In addition to this, it should be a requirement that a funding source for urban renewal be set aside, so that if the costs have not been assessed at the time of sign-off the money will be secured for future urban renewal.


Etty Padmodipoetro, AIA, is principal of Urban Idea Lab, a Boston based multidisciplinary team of architects and urban designers working to find creative solutions to the challenges facing urban communities. She has worked on numerous transportation and transit-oriented development projects in the USA, including Boston’s Big Dig.

Camilla Ween, RIBA, MCHI, FRSA, and Harvard Loeb Fellow, is an urbanist working on city planning and transportation. She lectures regularly at universities and conferences worldwide.

This article was published in Cities Today, April 2014.

Boston: A model for fostering transit-oriented development

Transit-Oriented Development can provide a convenient umbrella to coordinate many existing City programs while implementing the principles of sustainable growth. The establishment of TOD Overlay districts to foster TOD is one means to creating a more livable city.

Top photo: The new station at Uphams Corner in Dorchester was a catalyst for new development in the area including a community center

Don Kindsvatter, project manager; H.H. Smallridge, principal; Susan Moran, editor
Wallace Floyd Design Group



Boston’s history of growth and development has been closely linked to the development of mass transit. As trolley lines expanded beyond the downtown core during the later part of the 19th century, new neighborhoods formed around this access. Many of the factors that made these streetcar developments successful a hundred years ago are still valid and can serve as models for encouraging development in the City.

Transit-Oriented Development was one of the tools for sustainable growth identified during the Boston 400 planning study. The results of successful TOD include development focused around transit access, allowing for less reliance on cars; creating more walkable neighborhoods where it is convenient and safe to do errands on foot or by bicycle; and promoting mixed-use neighborhood centers that provide goods and services within easy walking distance.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority undertook the TOD study in order to understand the potential of TOD within Boston and to develop policy guidelines for implementation. It looked at 56 candidate sites throughout the City and established criteria for rating their potential for success. The more promising sites were divided into distinct typologies in order to identify stakeholder relationships and land use patterns. Several sites were looked at as prototypes to investigate policy alternatives on parking requirements, density of development, and mix of uses.

Transit-Oriented Development can provide a convenient umbrella to coordinate many existing City programs while implementing the principles of sustainable growth. The establishment of TOD Overlay districts to foster TOD is one means to creating a more livable city.


In 1997 Mayor Tom Menino formed a taskforce to undertake a long-range planning effort for the City of Boston, named Boston 400 because the plan looked ahead to 2030, the year of the City’s 400th birthday. One element of this effort consisted of determining the potential for TOD as a redevelopment and reinvestment tool for the City’s neighborhoods. Mayor Menino and his administration also considered TOD a significant tool to reach the administration’s goal of 5,000 new housing starts in Boston, as the project would identify areas where residences could be constructed near transit, allowing for an increase in housing without a commensurate increase in traffic on city streets.

Through TOD, Boston has the opportunity to reduce its dependence on the car. Due to the region’s extensive public transit system, Boston, and many similar communities, can take advantage of TOD as a means to provide more opportunities to live and work close to an alternative means of travel that is safe and reliable. Through TOD, Boston can help to reduce the single biggest reason people use their cars, which is to get to work, and thereby reduce sprawl and traffic congestion.

TOD Principles Defined for Boston

Successful TOD requires a large population living within easy walking distance of a transit station or bus stop. This is generally considered to be a five-minute walk, or roughly a quarter of a mile, although a ten-minute walk, half-mile radius is often cited strictly for transit users rather than shoppers. Our study focused on the quarter-mile radius. Population density is frequently talked about in terms of dwelling units (DU) per acre, and 12 to 15 DUs per acre is often cited as the minimum needed for TOD. At this density a quarter-mile radius would contain about 3,800 to 4,700 people, using an average household size of 2½ people.

Six principles were developed for Boston. Although not unique, they address the specific needs of the City. By far, the most important aspect of the principles is their need to be used in an integrated approach to design and development. They are:

  1. Concentrate Development. Higher densities of use – whether residential, office, or retail – should be centered around the transit station. Concentrating development places many residents and employees within walking distance of the station and can contribute to increased ridership. By creating denser development around a transit station, the surrounding neighborhood character can be preserved.
  2. Encourage Mixed Use. Mixed land uses bring vitality to the area throughout the day and provide convenience retail – such as restaurants, dry cleaners, video rentals, and grocery stores – in order to encourage walking trips for daily needs and errands.
  3. Provide Alternatives to Driving. Reduction of reliance on the private automobile and the number of trips by car, as well as shared parking and a pedestrian-friendly design, encourages a park-once-and-walk attitude.
  4. Build Seamless Connections. Travel to and from the transit station and in the surrounding commercial area should be a convenient, safe, and pleasant experience for the pedestrian and bicyclist.
  5. Improve Streetscape Design. Good urban design principles – including buildings oriented to the street, attractive signage, and active storefronts – are more important than ever.
  6. Highlight Transit Stations. The transit facility – whether it’s a subway station or a bus stop – should have high visibility and make a positive contribution to the identity and character of the area.

Where TOD Should be Located

The approach was to categorize the 56 potential sites and reducing them to four selected sites to be used as prototypes. The first part of the project involved taking an inventory and making an evaluation of all of the potential sites. The second part was to prepare development scenarios for the four prototype sites. And finally, we would make recommendations for the establishment of a citywide policy based on the work prepared for and lessons learned from the four sites.

The field survey team rated each site based on the following criteria: available land for development; the number of commercial or professional establishments within the area; commercial vitality; physical attributes, including pedestrian friendliness. The criterion for selecting a particular site for further study was replicability – the measure of whether a particular site is representative of a typical condition so that ideas developed for one center can be transferred to other, similar sites.

After reviewing characteristics of each of the sites for similarities we developed seven typical conditions or typologies. They are:

  1. Community Crossroads : large-scale neighborhood commercial center that serves an area beyond the immediate neighborhood
  2. Neighborhood Centers : smaller commercial center serving primarily the immediate neighborhood
  3. Intersections : small commercial area (sometimes just a couple of stores) that does not serve as a center
  4. Institutional Dominated : majority of the land area being owned, or strongly influenced, by a major institution or several institutions, such as a college or hospital campus
  5. Industrial Edges : characterized by older industrial areas, often with superblock patterns and divided by a major highway or rail corridor
  6. Suburban : low density of residential development in the area and general lack of a center or focus
  7. Mixed : an area that falls into two or more of the other typologies with none dominating, such as industrial and residential developments divided by a highway

The final four sites were Uphams Corner, Mattapan Square, Sullivan Square, and Ruggles/Roxbury Crossing.

Typology and Implementation

The physical differences between typologies were obvious, and they also revealed the differences that would be necessary to implement TOD in the various typologies. Older, denser cities have land use and ownership patterns that virtually guarantee the involvement of many different parties to put a development together. Contrast this with a site in an industrial location that is ripe for redevelopment. The city would play a leading role in planning to insure the right mix of uses and infrastructure improvements, such as new roadways, are included in order to attract developers.

The lesson here is that each typology will require a different mix of stakeholders, deal structures, and funding to insure a successful TOD even though the policy goals would be citywide. Each TOD project will have a different proponent – sometimes the city, sometimes the transit authority, and sometimes private developers – but most will require complex negotiations and financing among many stakeholders.

Implementing TOD

The BRA is responsible for the City’s economic development, including zoning and design review. Much of the implementation of a TOD policy needs to be carried out by other city agencies and the local transit authority. A number of strategies to implement TOD are within the purview of the BRA and are considered the foundation for developing other strategies. Primary among these is the establishment of TOD Overlay Districts within the zoning code. The following summary highlights some of the strategies currently under discussion for each of the six principles.

  1. Concentrate Development
    Provide more housing and employment opportunities within transit-oriented development overlay districts to encourage walking trips for daily errands, and increase use of public transportation. Maximize the density of development that can be built without significantly altering the character of the area. Encourage residential or office uses over commercial uses in overlay districts. Allow for greater densities within the transit-oriented development overlay district but encourage the highest densities closest to the public transportation facility. Increase development density to reach 15DU/acre within the transit-oriented development overlay district as a minimum.
  2. Encourage Mixed Use
    Make the neighborhood convenient by providing a mix of land uses that will create a 24-hour neighborhood – such as restaurants, dry cleaners, video rentals, and grocery stores – in order to encourage walking trips for daily needs and errands. Make the neighborhood safe by providing increased on-street surveillance. Do not allowed auto-oriented uses such as gas stations, car sales and car repair within a transit-oriented development district. Encourage civic, cultural, and entertainment venues in addition to housing and commercial uses. Include affordable housing as a component of any residential development larger than 20 units.
  3. Provide Alternatives to Driving
    Establish a balance of residential, commercial and other land uses that reinforce one another in a shared parking concept. Develop alternative long-term parking that is safe and secure for residents. Encourage alternative means of travel that do not require car ownership. Manage on-street parking to reduce all-day parking along commercial frontage. Provide space for car sharing programs, taxi stands, and delivery vehicles. Establish reduced parking ratio of 2 spaces/1000 SF for commercial use and 1 space/unit for residential development.
  4. Build Seamless Connections
    Provide Universal Accessibility for all modes and age groups. Allow pedestrians and bicyclists to have priority in situations where there is a conflict with motorized vehicles. Provide guide signs in a variety of languages, particularly around public transit. Use streetlights mounted on buildings to create more space on narrow sidewalks. Where a building street wall is not currently established along a narrow sidewalk, set new buildings back a few feet to increase the area for pedestrian circulation. Post and enforce ‘State Law Yield To Pedestrians’ signs, and speed limits. Encourage awnings over sidewalks near bus stops for additional weather protection.
  5. Improve Streetscape Design
    Recognize that the storefront and window display area are part of the public realm. Increase sidewalk areas by minimizing the roadway area. Do not combine blocks to form super blocks. With in large pre-existing super blocks create pedestrian easements to provide walkways through the block. Install a structural soil mix under sidewalks, when major construction provides an opportunity, to enhance the growth of street trees. Place off-street parking behind buildings rather than between the building and sidewalk. Use the minimum turning radius wherever possible. If surface parking is the only viable alternative, establish guidelines for edge treatment so that the lot reinforces the street wall.
  6. Highlight Transit Stations
    Provide facility entrances directly onto major streets. Provide guide signs from major parking areas, commercial centers, and other generators of pedestrian traffic. As part of Civic Architecture, include interpretive information about the neighborhood. Retail space included as part of the station should be located to serve the street as well as the station. Provide secure bicycle storage in a high-visibility area.


Successful TOD in Boston lies in the development of solid working relationships between the various branches of the city, between the City and the MBTA, and the establishment of public-private partnerships that can carry specific projects forward. Establishing a pro-active atmosphere of cooperation with the neighborhoods and the MBTA is essential to gather public support and to develop creative solutions to design and financing. In the course of this study, we learned there are three significant maxims for creating a successful TOD program in older, dense cities such as Boston:

  1. The study developed a proven methodology for selecting potential successful TOD candidates in cities with many diverse neighborhoods and transit stations.
  2. In the course of selecting the most promising candidate sites, it became evident that the districts fall into a series of discreet districts, which we have labeled TOD typologies.
  3. The implementation of TOD programs in these various districts requires the involvement and collaboration among the varying stakeholders, neighborhood groups, institutions and commercial properties that are prevalent in each typology. Funding and financing mechanisms also vary within each of the TOD typologies. There is one prerequisite however: in each one of the differing areas, both the city and the transit authority must be committed to TOD at the highest policy level and must work closely together to ensure its success.


Don Kindsvatter is senior urban designer at Urban Idea Lab. This article is excerpted from a paper published in the conference proceedings of a Transportation Research Board annual meeting.