SMa.rt Chronicle: Planning the True Future

In the 1970s, famed USC architecture professor Ralph Knowles developed a method of planning and designing cities that would dramatically reduce the use of fossil fuels, while retaining the qualities people find more attractive and useful in cities: walking, cycling, meeting people, using efficient public transport.

The idea was to design and orient the buildings to have the best exposure to the sun. This would provide light and warmth when needed, and cooling shade at appropriate times of day. Applied to entire city blocks, the method ensured access to the sun by placing taller buildings in locations that did not cast excessive shadows on other buildings. Blocks would have taller buildings on one side and lower buildings on the other.

With Knowles’ method, courtyards and shared open spaces within each block ensure solar access for all. Urban blocks designed with this method – called solar envelope – ensure that solar power systems can access sunlight without risking being shaded by future nearby buildings. Arranged this way, buildings and city blocks can provide healthy, human-sized housing and commercial buildings, with heating and cooling costs reduced to near zero in our climate.

The challenge is that the solar envelope method, carefully tailored to strike a good balance between population density and access to sunlight, requires zoning and building code limits on the amount of development that can occur within city blocks. Our current stackable zoning, in commercial and dense areas of the city, is designed to maximize the number of units built on each property without taking into account climatic considerations, such as solar access and shade.

A tour of Lincoln Boulevard and adjacent streets in downtown Santa Monica provides excellent examples of projects designed for optimal short-term economic returns, with no concern for climate other than code-required energy efficiency measures. . And these are just band-aids to a much larger ecological problem.

Our colleague Ron Goldman often reminds us of the need for a comprehensive master plan for our city. Planners refer to LUCE (Land Use and Circulation Element) as the overall master plan for the city [link:]. But the document only addresses a limited set of ideas, focusing on transport, housing and economic considerations, and a limited subset of environmental goals, including solar power. But the plan does not outline a comprehensive effort to combine these ideas into a single guidance document that includes the actual physical design of city blocks in response to climate concerns. It does not deal with the protection of solar energy systems and the provision of shade if necessary; all effective ways to help reduce the city’s energy needs to next to nothing, in many cases.

In a broader sense, the plan does not take into account the real and long-term environmental stresses that can affect every individual and every family in the city. For example, on the theme of water, LUCE calls for the collection and recycling of rainwater – laudable goals that have resulted in extremely successful efforts by the city in recent years, including planning for the purification of sewage as an additional source of drinking water. But the plan does not consider a strategy when drought and development overwhelm the city’s ability to produce or recycle water in the quantities required.

This possibility is now in sight. The city aims to be fully independent of the state water supply system, which provides about a third of the city’s water needs and is under severe and growing pressure from climate change. But a report from public works staff to the city council last June suggested new state housing requirements would see the city fall short of that goal. [link:]. A truly comprehensive master plan would anticipate this eventuality and begin to steer the city towards a drier, warmer future with fewer resources. This would include guidelines for the design of buildings and city blocks with courtyards similar to the methods developed by Professor Knowles.

One problem is that development has become a battleground in the city for competing interests. The result is a focus on short-term political triumphs at the expense of long-term planning that recognizes the specific and real challenges posed by the stresses of climate change.

For years, if not decades, Santa Monica claimed municipal leadership, in housing, transportation and even information – many of us remember a previous city manager’s resounding announcement that “we we are a data-driven city”. The reality today is that the collapse of the foreign tourism industry, the retail apocalypse and the pandemic have paid off many of the fantasies that underpin these claims to city leadership. If it is, in fact, a data-driven city, we must recognize the data that point to ecological limits, even if it means getting rid of certain financial, technological and ideological illusions.

The reality stamps have been removed. With Earth Day this week, it’s time to focus on practical solutions to our very real, if rarely admitted, challenges. We can start by preparing a really complete master plan.

Daniel Jansenson, architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, for SMart (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow).

Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Marc Verville, CPA (inactive ), Michael Jolly, AIR CRE. For previous articles, see

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