Archive | June, 2012

Building Smarter Cities…In the Year 2060.

29 Jun

When my colleague put an article on my desk today with the subtitle, “Climate change will drive people to urban areas. How will urban planners accommodate them all?” it caught my attention, not because of the topic, but because of the double spread striking image of the “flat tower” proposed by architect Schirr-Bonnan. With an opening line of “The world’s population will top nine billion by 2060,” I read on.

Paul-Eric Schirr-Bonnan's Flat Tower building

Paul-Eric Schirr-Bonnan’s “Flat Tower” building (Image: Bryan Christie in Popular Science, July 2012)

These huge nebulous buildings house 40,000 people, as well as offices, recreational areas, and transportation hubs. They spread across acres of the city, hovering over green spaces like a web. My first reaction to this piece of architecture was fear. This “flat tower” concept reminded me of Le Corbusier’s City of Tomorrow and more terrifyingly (since they were actually built), American public housing failures like Cabrini Green in Chicago and Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis. This is all very ironic because the architect defends his design by saying, “the conventional skyscraper model- a tower surrounded by green space- leads to the isolation of communities from one another. A greenbelt area under the building would encourage communities to interact.” Even more ironic, is that “interacting community” is the exact same argument architects used to promote the green space that surrounded towers. As I sat pondering the article, it baffled me how organizing people in massive structures that covered green space was any different from towers sitting in it. My conclusion: they are the exact same.

Public housing towers have gone down in history as one of the largest architectural failures in America for many reasons. One of the largest, I believe, is mostly because the architectural design of the building separated people from public space. By only providing shared public space, it meant that no one supervised it, took care of it, or cared one bit about it. It also disconnected people from the human scale. Quite simply, when you do this, it makes people feel less human. The architect of Pruitt Igoe, Minoru Yamasaki, simply stated about its failure: “I wish I had never built it.” That kind of sums up what a massive failure the last City of Tomorrow vision was.

Visions are great, don’t get me wrong. They are better than great, they are necessary. Without vision, change is not possible and it is very clear to accommodate the enormous growth of cities into the year 2060 we will certainly need it. However, sometimes visions go bad – like Le Corbusier’s and the modernism movement that followed. But this is where John Powell’s famous quote, “the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing” pops into my head. And then the fear sets in. This “visionary” idea by Schirr-Bonnan, will no doubt have the same segregation and community-killing effects that modernist architecture did. These mixed-use webs separate people from their built environment at an inhumane scale and create public spaces that are unclaimed and unsupervised.

Minoru Yamasaki - hallways of Pruitt Igoe

A sketch showing Minoru Yamasaki’s vision for the hallways of Pruitt Igoe vs. the reality before demolition. (Images: When Art History Goes Bad Blog)

I have said it before, but it bears repeating: the real vision in urban planning lies not in revolutionary reorganization of how people live or interact, but using traditional design principles to address the most challenging issues of our day, like climate change, obesity, and social exclusion. Just as every “vision” into the future, whether its Orwell’s 1984, 2001 Space Odyssey, or The Jettson’s, has not come to fruition, neither will a world where we have to abandon our most human need: sense of community. So lets stick to our dense residential townhouses and live/work units and mixed-use mid-rises. We know they work; they have for centuries. The proof is in the pudding. No “vision” required.

As this article is in Popular Science, I shouldn’t be surprised by its futuristic, or should I say, far fetching ideas. However, most in this article weren’t. MIT professor Dennis Frenchman, says the most important factor is accommodating a huge influx of population into cities is efficiency. Transportation networks, city locations for manufacturing firms, power generation, and food production, and mixed-use buildings are solutions to cut down on commuting and pollution. Now these are ideas I can get on board with.

We have our work cut out with these issues that are relevant to today. These are not challenges of 2060, but challenges of 2012. While a summary of solutions, which include “community-shared electric cars, neighborhood nukes, hyper-efficient housing, really local eats, all-in-one recycling, and multifunctional buildings” have varying degrees of reality, they all require a massive cultural shift in people’s behavior.

While most of this article creates an enormous level of fear that comes from reorganizing human nature, one idea is an exciting indulgence in the visionary future: the LO2P Recycling Center, envisioned by Gael Brule and Julien Combes. A turbine harnesses wind power to run a recycling plant in the building, while carbon dioxide from the plant reacts with calcium to become lime in mineralization baths. Pipe dream? The process is already being used to make the lime in cement.

Certainly is food for thought. Take-away: revolutionize technology, not human nature.

LO2P Recycling Center

The LO2P Recycling Center (Image: Bryan Christie in Popular Science, July 2012)

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Semantics: Redevelopment vs. Regeneration.

21 Jun

I received my urban design and planning education in England, which sometimes leads to little, yet awkward, misunderstandings. It has been a slight challenge to get comfortable in the drastic differences between the two planning systems, but mostly I have made peace with the translations. However, one term: regeneration, which is often substituted with redevelopment in America does not sit well with me. People see my specialization: “Urban and Regional Regeneration” and they ask me, “what is regeneration? Is like redevelopment?”

The answer is yes, and no. They overlap quite a bit, and while the number of anomalies are few, they are so distinctly different, that the terms are more dissimilar than at first glance. In its simplest form, to redevelop, is to develop again, which implies doing it over completely. While regeneration most directly means “rebirth or renewal” of something, implying that the entity remains throughout the process. In my experience these simple definitions distinctly describe the difference in the urban planning context.

The American Planning Association (APA) defines redevelopment as “one or more public actions that are undertaken to stimulate activity when the private market is not providing sufficient capital and economic activity to achieve the desired level of improvement. This public action usually involves one or more measures such as direct public investment, capital improvements, enhanced public services, technical assistance, promotion, tax benefits, and other stimuli including planning initiatives such as rezoning.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) defines regeneration as “a holistic process which aims to reverse the economic, social and physical decline of places where market forces alone will not suffice. The planning process provides the opportunity to enhance the role and capacity of communities as well as balancing community, business, environmental and individual needs. Effective regeneration requires active and meaningful long-term community engagement and involvement, as well as changes to the physical environment.”

The slight difference in definition is that redevelopment focuses on monetary investment and physical changes. Regeneration focuses on the existing community and “social decline” of a place, equally with the economic and physical factors. It even goes further to say that it addresses “holistically,” “individual needs.” Of course there are many redevelopment projects that do address the community, but because the APA distinctly says that “the private sector may initiate redevelopment projects without any active public involvement beyond the government’s traditional regulatory role,” I would argue that it is not enough to measure against the social investment of regeneration.

Perhaps the distinct difference in the responsibility to act directly on behalf of existing residents versus the primary goal of monetary investment is that England’s planning system is much larger and more politicized (and therefore receives more federal funding.) Of course, this comes with its own hindrances, but in this case social decline being put on equal footing is well worth what some call the overreaching arm of the government. While in America, gentrification might be seen as an inevitable and therefore an accepted side effect of redevelopment, in England, I would argue it is seen as sometimes inevitable and therefore tragic side effect of regeneration.

To illustrate this point, let me give you an example of the power behind a true regeneration project: Angell Town in Brixton, London.

Angel Town, Brixton

Angell Town Brixton Estate - Improvements

The urban design and physical improvements made at Angell Town Estate.

Problem (courtesy of Rudi):

  • Lack of public space for social interaction – derelict communal areas were unused.
  • The garages provided were dark and unsurveyed, and therefore, never used.
  •  The estate was perceived as crime ridden as the multiplicity of bridges and walkways provided ideal escape routes for criminals, often from outside the estate itself.
  • Litter accumulation resulted from removing the bridges (which gave access to the waste removal pick-up points), in an attempt to reduce crime
  • The estate came to epitomize neglect and decline
  • The estate became stigmatized a sink estate.

Solution – A summary of simple urban design changes:

  • The first main part of the scheme involved re-orientating the existing deck-access housing into a more “normal” street format, based on terraced dwellings which related to the street through individual entrances.
  • Each dwelling was given an individual, recognized identity (surveillance on the street was improved, as windows now faced directly out
  • Terraced housing replaced the monotonous, unsafe corridors of entrances.
  • The pedways, which were perceived as unsafe, were removed so that the houses could be extended to face on to the street.
  • New central grassed areas were defined as focal points for the houses. These areas were separated from the new vehicular perimeter roads by railings, enabling children to play, away from the danger of traffic and dogs.
  • The un-used garages on the ground floors were replaced with shops and community facilities, such as a bar, cafe, workshops, and even a recording studio in one area – to provide the previously, much lacked social amenities. This design measure also helped transform dark and bleak spots into animated facades of street level activity.

Instead of looking at this place, and only seeing its problems, the urban designer, planners, and architects looked at them as opportunities to build on the strong community that had lived there for decades. The project improvements didn’t eradicate every trace of the place that had become their home, but committed a large investment to renovate the buildings they could and design the new ones to complimented the existing so well you had to look hard to tell the difference between the two. Members of the community could still look and see where they came from, in other words, it still felt like home, but most importantly they could look again a little harder and see their bright future. This might sound like I’m laying it on a little thick, but the success of this regeneration stunned so many nationwide, and contental-wide, that intense project documentation occurred, including resident interviews. The members of the community realized what so many times planners don’t: they looked to their physical environment to define their identity. With the existing bones of the original Angell Town Estate still in existence, they easily correlated the physical improvements to be improvements in themselves.

This outstanding result came from an intense and time-consuming community consultation process (another distinctly different term than public involvement). The lead urban designer was so involved with the community that he actually lived there are the weekends in a flat. While this is rare in either country, it certainly is to be commended.

Perhaps the most powerful item in Angell Town now are the benches that poetically are made from the rubble from the demoed parts of the old buildings, caged, with a stone seat atop them. People can actually sit on the physical representation of what was destroying their community: a poorly designed public realm. This was recited by residents often as what made the biggest difference to them. Don’t ever underestimate the power of poeticism.

Caged Rubble Wall

Caged rubble representing moving forward to a healthy and safe community.

I will let you make your own observations and would love for you to share them on this blog. But I invite you now to look at redevelopment projects that have occurred in similar conditions (public housing sites) in America:

So, what will it be redevelopment or regeneration?

Magnolia Street New Orleans Louisiana

The Magnolia Street homes that were demolished even though they were listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance as an early federal housing effort in New Orleans….replaced with “traditional” suburban housing. (Images: CoLab Radio and McCormack Baron Salazar)

Mission Hill Boston Design

What does it say to a community when you eradicated everything that was their home and build it back with sub par architectural crap? (Mission Hill, Boston) (Images: Affordable Housing Institute)

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High Demand for Transit and the Consequence of Little Supply

16 Jun

What happens when you provide something that everyone wants?

When there is a huge demand for something prices are high, and usually markets answer with a large supply. As a result prices lower. Supply and demand…we all learned about it in high school. But in the case of housing along transit lines, in many places across America that demand is never met. With gas prices rising, commutes getting longer, obesity levels increasing, and quality of life deteriorating, the demand for accessible and efficient transit has never been higher. No matter what sector of society you are in, most people add to that demand. However, building high speed rail, light rail, and commuter rail require an oftentimes insurmountable level of funding.

So, when rail is built and housing is constructed along it, the cost per unit is through the roof. It is not unusual for rail to traverse deprived parts of town as a result of taking advantage of existing infrastructure and actively trying to revitalize areas most in need. Therefore the result is often gentrification: people who have lived in one neighborhood for years are forced to move because they can no longer afford it. For people in the later years of their life this uprooting can be devastating.

Architectural style and building form is indicative of gentrification - Andrew Smith

A familiar site of redevelopment along transit lines. Architectural style and building form is indicative of gentrification (Image courtesy of Andrew Smith) http://seattletransitblog.com/2012/05/23/gentrification-the-cause-of-and-solution-to-displacement/

Gentrification is arguably the worse effect of urban redevelopment and it certainly has been the most debated for decades. The debate lies in the nobleness of improving the quality of the built environment, which has enormous effects on the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of a city, versus the inevitable result of people being displaced from their homes and neighborhoods after decades of living there, because of the growing unaffordable cost of living. Is there a way to reap the benefits of redevelopment while avoiding the natural effects of the economic markets?

The June 2012 issue of Better Cities and Towns, explores how Los Angeles will try to avoid displacement as a result of the “largest transit expansion in the United States.” In the Reconnecting America last month, it was reported that the city will get 42 additional transit stations as a result of the $40 billion ballot measure approved by voters in 2008. LA County will benefit as well.

So, in a city where the average family spends 28% of their income of transportation, how will LA curb the negative effects of growth that have plagued planners for decades? Unsurprisingly, the instruments have not been completely identified, but will most likely focus on:

• Acquiring key properties for long-term preservation and development.

• Coordinating existing tools that can be used to keep buildings intact and reasonably priced.

• Anticipating the behavior of property owners and aiming outreach and enforcement activities at owners and tenants.

Is this government overreaching into the market? Are these practices sustainable and effective over time? Will restricting development hinder the spillover effects of regeneration? Doesn’t a larger amount of the population than you are protecting need and deserve access to public transportation?

These are questions that the LA Housing Department, with the support of Reconnecting America, will be hard-pressed to answer and defend. I will be interested to see how withholding land from development and preserving lower rents affects the lives of the gentrified. I am weary that these few measures will be effective. My gut tells me they will restrain the positive benefits of TOD development, while not prohibiting, what years of redevelopment has shown to be the inevitable. I do have to applaud the city for maintaining the restraint of social responsibility instead of succumbing to the giddy attractiveness of an exponentially growing tax base and re-branding of their city. This is important because “approximately 70 percent of workers who commute by transit earn less than $25,000 a year.” That is a sobering piece of data…

In the Next American City article, “Why We Struggle to Talk About Gentrification,” author Christine McLaren suggests that the unquantifiable result of gentrification makes it impossible to integrate in policy. After all policy is based on provable data, not anecdotal evidence. As a result the conversation of gentrification has become misguided: do we focus on the gentrified or the gentrifiers? Does perception lie in human right issues or social and commercial diversity?

Also, like other societal issues that are often oversimplified to one of race, the debate on gentrification is reduced to a black vs. white issue constantly. In another Next American City article, “Gentrification: Not Only About White People,” Matt Bevilacqua focuses the conversation back to socio-economics and reports on stronger ties to education level and weaker ties to race. With the challenge of collecting accurate data and standing against hot topic debate, the gentrification conversation constantly loses its way and is very difficult to control through policy.

Poor Redevelopment: Loss of culture and identity

The devastating effect of insensitive redevelopment = a loss of culture and identity. (Source: DToronto) http://media.photobucket.com/image/recent/dtoronto/b6.jpg

As an urban designer who has studied gentrification case studies of the past and witnessed it on the ground..I don’t know the answer. And I’m confident no one does.

Through our public finance work at Tindale-Oliver & Associates, I come across counties that suffer from a tax-base that has nose-dived as a result of the recession and crumbling infrastructure that they cannot afford to repair, much less expand. Facilities like fire stations, schools, libraries, etc. are burning a hole in local government’s pockets because low densities cannot support them. So I get it, and as a planner, I want to help these places redevelop themselves to be self-sustaining and healthy environments. And perhaps the best catalyst for growth and redevelopment to higher densities is transit.

I think until we can collect the data to be implemented into policy, redevelopment and regeneration should be done sensitively using the following tactics:

• Require high levels of funding for public involvement to ensure local communities are instrumental in the planning process.

• Preserve the physical structures and urban form that contribute to the historical identity of a neighborhood and design sensitively around them.

• Incentivize high levels of public and affordable housing as part of the development.

Sensitive redevelopment, preservation of urban form.

Sensitive redevelopment = preservation of urban form, character, and identity. (Image: http://www.rhiz.eu/artefact-52197-en.html)

Will generation still occur using these tactics, probably. Will it be done more sensitively with the result of preserving it’s identity? Probably. Gentrification is no doubt a hot topic that after decades has appeared to be inevitable, but many projects demonstrate that the level of destruction that it causes can be curbed. As long as we are constantly aware of everyone’s lives we are affecting as planners, including those who might suffer loss as a result of gentrification, we can have a clean conscience while we continue to debate.

All eyes will certainly be on LA as they actively try to maintain the current population along the future transit line and 40+ future stations. While they will certainly have the luxury of providing a higher supply, for what is guaranteed to be a high demand, hopefully they can set an example of how policy can control gentrification without controlling the market.

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A New Urbanist’s Pilgrimage (Part II): Seaside.

6 Jun

After I wallowed in Duany’s crowning achievement for 4 days, I finally headed down the 30A to spend a day where it all started. I of course was aware of Seaside’s legacy, celebration, and the bouts of criticism its endured over the last few decades (even by its own creators.) I knew I couldn’t properly form a critical opinion in just one day, so I decided to go with an open-mind and a youthful excitement. That’s right, second best to a critic: a tourist (after all, I did buy a t-shirt.)

However, despite accepting my role of tourist, I couldn’t help think of something that Duany said about Rosemary Beach… that he was given the once in a lifetime gift to an architect: to be given the exact same project twice, and having the good fortune of time and perspective to get right the second time what he didn’t get right the first. He had been given a do-over. So as I drove down the 30A, I knew that I would not be entering the utopia that the Truman Show or the critics of New Urbanism have Seaside portray.

Here are some reflections and impressions of my time in Seaside:

The town center was a big disappointment. As I approached the overpowering buildings by Daniel Solomon and Steven Holl, which I instinctively knew were out of place, my stomach kind of sunk a bit. As an afterthought this is surprising. Steven Holl was my favorite architect in architecture school after I spent 4 weeks studying his Stretto House. It was perfection, these buildings were not.

The magic that Rosemary Beach embodied so perfectly disappeared. For all the talk of this urban code, where the heck did it go? It must have been lost, or the code must not have been strict enough. Having said that, these buildings were designed to support the public realm by maximizing the transparency on the ground floor. They did this well except along the 30A where it was completely ignored. But I wanted to be lounging on the front porch of Sundog Books and having a drink on the deck at the Great Southern Cafe, not wandering underneath the comparatively cold arcades of Solomon.

Seaside Florida - Sundog books and The Great Southern Cafe

The striking contrast between the Solomon/Machado and Silvetti buildings vs. the vernacular Sundog Books and Great Southern Cafe. (Sources: Real Photo Stock, Sister Schubert, TripAdvisor)

Finally, some legibility. After being frustratingly and permanently lost in Rosemary Beach for the weekend, I learned my way around Seaside in about 10 minutes. A street hierarchy with emphasized channels of movement (Seaside Avenue, the Lyceum, and Ruskin Place) and a clear block structure made Seaside accessible and permeable. I believe that because of this, in stark comparison to Rosemary Beach, Seaside felt more like a true town and much less like a resort. Making it easy for everyone to pass through the streets of Seaside is the epitome of social sustainability.

Snooty? No thank you. In stark contrast to Rosemary Beach’s mansions on the beach, Seaside had a strip of commercial activity on the waterfront. While you couldn’t access the beach unless you were a resident you could watch it while eating “seaside” (no pun intended), shop, or have a cup of coffee. With commercial uses intended for those who live outside of Seaside, the very civic central square made the place feel welcoming to everyone. Funny thing was, is they were never meant to be there.

Instead of worrying about keeping people out, the design of Seaside concentrates on bringing people in. The street network connects seamlessly with existing residential streets. As we were exploring, we left pinkish colored streets and postcard architecture and found ourselves on a dirt road with 1950s ranches. So we turned right, and right again, and we were back in Seaside. This was by far the most surprising discover of my trip. If you don’t know it by now…I love connectivity!

Pop Up Urbanism If someone took you blindfolded to Seaside’s Central Square at the 30A, and you suddenly opened your eyes you might think you were in Portland. The most unique and creative food trucks line the road. Not only do they serve the function of creating an urban identity for the town, they give structure and intimacy to what would otherwise be a gaping hole of a public space. If you haven’t visited it already, please have a look at Pop Up City. This website explores some of the best temporary items that can have the largest influence on public spaces. This was certainly the case here.

Food Carts in Seaside, Florida

Seaside food truck row. Pop up urbanism at its best. (Source: Lauren Taylor)

Some charm lost? I love trees, and there is no doubt that they are instrumental in creating an urban place, especially in Florida. But somehow Seaside has been eaten by them. I had seen the photographed, clean and simply designed streets of Seaside for years and those are the ones I have admired. I was constantly challenged to sometimes see and experience the place behind the forest that has firmly established itself in the streetscape. The below picture that is my favorite of Seaside is now unrecognizable. It’s just not what I expected, and the trees certainly muddle up the iconography of early Seaside.

Seaside Florida Then and Now

The iconographic image of early Seaside vs. the reality of it today. (Source: Coastal Family Living)

Don’t be fooled. Watercolor is not Seaside. Watercolor is a master planned community by Cooper, Robertson & Partners, directly west of Seaside. While the architectural style is very familiar, the similarities appear to stop there. While there are some great urban design achievements in Watercolor like the street cross-section of 30A and what appeared to be a cyclist’s dream connection with Western Lake, it got very suburban, very fast, and did so with very little magic that DPZ was able to create in Seaside and Rosemary Beach. Perhaps it was the reappearance of the curb and therefore the strict definition of space, but the streets very much became roads: they belonged to the car, and not the pedestrian. Cyclists could be found riding their bikes on the roads closer to the community core of the development. But the farther you went from it, the houses got bigger, the density got lower, the roads got wider, and the speed increased…tell tale signs of suburbia.

I finished up with a swing by my mate, Leon Krier’s house, the Truman Show house, and the Seaside Chapel. It was a whirlwind day in Seaside. And while I had the pleasure filled task of trying to explain to a 7, 5, and 3-year-old (my awesome nieces and nephew) why we were missing an afternoon at the pool to simply walk around and “experience a place,” I think they forgave me when they got ice cream.

In lieu of some of my own critical thought, here are a few quotes on Seaside from the best:

“Seaside’s influence has been helped along by criticism that it is “not a real town” – that it is a resort…Yes it is precisely as a result of the rental program that hundreds of thousands of people have been able to experience what it means to live in a compact, diverse, and walkable community…As a resort, Seaside strives for an ideal. Resorts are compelled to be even better utopians…a full-time community of everyday living cannot be as effective. The criticism of Seaside being a resort we understand, but we also approve of its destiny as a demonstration project.” – Andres Duany

‘The first time I saw Seaside, my heart sank. I already knew so much about her, felt so inextricably connected to her fate, that I approached our first meeting with high anxiety. For years I had heard about her impeccable ancestry, her good values, and noble things she championed, her fame, her notoriety, and all the rest. Then suddenly, there she was, in the flesh. Oy, oy, oy, I thought – too much makeup; she spoke too loudly; she smoked. Were all those nasty critics from the other camp really right? Could I ever really love her? The short answer to that complicated question is – yes. I saw what a great companion she makes; I learned how much fun she is to be with; and I grew to understand that she really has a soul…” - Daniel Solomon

“Over the years, Seaside has endured quite a lot of abuse and objurgation from various quarters. The “cuttingedgista” architects denounced it for being nostalgic that is; for attempting to make people feel comfortable in their surroundings instead of fibrillating them with anxiety. It was sneered at as “elitist” by the political progressives who send their kids to private boarding schools and vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Pretty much everybody else got it, though, and showed their admiration by bidding up the prices of the building lots…Seaside definitely started something. The great achievement of Seaside was to demonstrate in three dimensions that we weren’t a nation of clowns after all, that we were actually capable of building something in our time, and of our time, that was worthy of the human spirit.” – James Howard Kunstler

Truman Show Seaside, Florida

Sorry, couldn’t resist. (Source: The Daily Balance)

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A New Urbanist’s Pilgrimage (Part I): Rosemary Beach.

1 Jun

This Memorial Day weekend I had the opportunity to go the hotbed of New Urbanism on the 30A coast in the Panhandle of Florida. Of course I was thrilled to finally see what many consider to be the foundation of New Urbanism and the development that catapulted Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) into architecture and urban planning fame: Seaside. (Post to follow…) Of course a few others have popped up along the same county road, including Rosemary Beach, where my family and I stayed for 4 days. That’s right – I was livin’ it up, New Urbanism style.

This was my first visit to a Duany designed community. To really understand the movement, I felt like I needed to witness the founders’ work, especially that of the most active in getting New Urbanism on the ground. I wanted to spend the 4 days immersing myself in the world that they created for me, and try to remain a critical observer based on my urban design expertise. Do these guys really live up the CNU Charter and all the hype that exists around them in the profession? The following are my unbiased observations, and an attempt to answer that question.

Placemaking at It’s Finest

The public realm design at Rosemary Beach was the finest I’ve seen in any new place. There is just as a strong “sense of place” in old New England fishing villages and small midwestern towns, but what was so impressive about Rosemary was that it was just built out in the last 1-2 years. While other places have had decades to develop their identity, Rosemary Beach has done it relatively quickly. While many factors contribute to its stellar placemaking, which will be discussed further, the foundation that holds it all together is its public realm plan.

Rosemary Beach Design - Public Spaces

A Rosemary Beach public realm masterplan emphasizing the public spaces of the development. (Image: Richard Sexton)

The public realm design is a wonderful result to meeting the 100′ setback requirements on the 30A county road. With the human scale of the development relying in part on the height of the buildings, this was a threat that could have ruined the project. Instead Duany and Co.used the restraint as a design inspiration by incorporating an angled green corridor through the heart of the project that fulfills the setback requirement while serving as a hub for community events and playtime. What I like about it most is its poetic angled form that appears to funnel people into the town center where it is anchored by a fountain and another public green space that runs perpendicular. This creates an axis of public realm for the town center to form around, and guides people to the waterfront where they will find another beautiful public space.

Communal green spaces are continued throughout the development, the most influential periodically placed along the Gulf. More intimate spaces, such as small gathering places, are nestled along the pedestrian boardwalks between homes. There is never a want for a communal place. However, there also isn’t so many public spaces that they lose their influence or meaning to the identity of the development.

Rosemary Beach Florida Parks

Arguably the three most predominant public spaces in Rosemary Beach.

Finally, Rosemary’s cherry on the sundae is the Town Hall and Post Office which sit smack dab in the middle of the town center, acting as a node between Main Street and public open space. As a landmark, it makes the statement that the public space is civic and belongs to the people. Atop is a bell that rings hourly. It was amazing to me how something so simple as a bell unified everyone together who heard it.

Rosemary Beach Town Hall and Rosemary Post Office

Rosemary Town Hall and complimentary Post Office, designed by Scott Merrill.

Pedestrian Paradise

There ain’t a curb in this place (well almost)…and it had a marvelous effect. From recent memory this is the only place I have ever been to where the streets belonged to the people, and cars were allowed to borrow them. Walking and cycling was the norm in Rosemary and cars felt out-of-place and driving was very uncomfortable. This was because of a few reasons including diversity of uses and high densities, and a large number of users, but I think the most influential was the design of the streets. Unmarked pavement, wide enough for two cars to slowly pass, was bordered by brick on-street parking, a planting strip, and a walking path. All were on the same level with no divisions, which allowed the street to be flexible: space was differentiated when it was necessary, and could act as one otherwise. Humorously, the only markings on the street were crosswalks, which I didn’t see observed once.

During a moment on Saturday afternoon, I stepped back and realized that my niece and nephew were playing in the middle of the street. And no one seemed to mind. They didn’t need to, they were perfectly safe. The only place people needed to pay attention to cars for their safety was at the crossing of the 30A. With no curbs in place, even then pedestrians walked comfortably across the county road. Instead of it dividing the town center in half, it was so seamlessly integrated into the streetscape that people paid little attention to it.

Interwoven with a very pedestrian safe street network, there is a beautifully boardwalked pedestrian/cyclist system that is as predominant in navigating the town. This is the case because some of the nicest houses front onto it and are only accessible by car from the back alleys. What makes the system so well-used is not necessarily its design, but its abundancy and efficiency in navigation.

Rosemary Beach 30A - Rosemary Avenue

The crossing of the 30A, Rosemary Avenue, the hidden pedestrian network, and the unnecessary crosswalk.

Architectural Character

While I don’t usually give architectural design the time of day, Rosemary Beach proved that after you achieve the appropriate land use design, architectural quality and style can have an enormous effect on the placemaking and identity of a place. DPZ’s strict urban code had 12 building types that established the character of the development. While each home is unique, the code ensured a “harmony and architectural integrity” through the town. Rosemary Beach’s architectural design was based on regional examples like St. Augustine, the West Indies, New Orleans, and Charleston. Deep eaves are used to provide shade and high ceilings and porches on the first floor draw breezes.

Honestly, I have been doubtful of the necessity for Duany’s urban code, and while I do not think it is necessary in every, or most urban conditions, I certainly have a respect for what it can achieve. While you might think that the code would result in monotony and boredom, it instead encourages unique, creative design form in the quest to be different. The result was pretty spell-binding.

Rosemary Beach Architecture and design

The unique architectural character of Rosemary Beach as a result of the DPZ urban code.

Is this Reality?

While I am very impressed with the placemaking, street design, and architectural quality of Rosemary Beach, I constantly question if it was a real place. It is so well done and feels so unlike any place I had every been before, I can’t quite grasp it as a real urban solution.

And I think that is perhaps its downfall.

This post has taken me so long to write, because I have been struggling with how to respond to something being so perfect its wrong. Surely that’s not possible? Urban designers and architects create something that is perfect and then we hang them for it? Because of its Walt Disney beginnings, critics say that Celebration is “too Disney” but in reality Rosemary Beach felt WAY more “Disney-like.” Walking down Rosemary Beach’s Main Street doesn’t make me feel dissimilar to walking down Magic Kingdom’s Main Street. It is so magical of a place that as soon as I did get in my car and drive 1/8 of a mile to the west my heart sank as I returned to a real-world architectural mess.

Socio-Economic Fail

Of course one of the reasons why Rosemary Beach feels so unreal, is because it doesn’t address the socio-economic context that real places have to consider. Rosemary Beach accommodates one type of person: white and wealthy. It is because of the generosity of my brother and sister-n-law that I was able to enjoy it – my husband and I couldn’t afford it ourselves, and we are securely middle class. In part, this is not necessarily DPZ’s fault because of Rosemary Beach’s beach side location. It defaults to a resort town that attracts a specific demographic. However, from my still growing knowledge of Duany’s urban code, it does not adequately address the socio-economic housing requirements of the people who might otherwise want to live there. Perhaps this is the reason that Rosemary Beach prices out the majority of the population.

Or perhaps it is because “magical” places like Rosemary Beach are so few and far between its enormous price tag is a result of supply and demand. If more places looked and felt like it, and provided a more diverse mix of housing, I am certain the cost of living (or visiting I should say) would drop.

A Few Other Observations

Rosemary Beach has zero legibility, especially to the north of 30A. I was there 4 full days and got lost every day. In plan it looks simply designed and easy to navigate. On the ground, with no street hierarchy or clear grid arrangement, it is a plethora of confusion. Alleys are used to hide cars and act as access points for housing, but they are designed at the same width and in almost the same style as the main streets. With very few through streets in the town, users have to thoughtfully weave around unclear of what direction they’re traveling. With most buildings looking similar outside of the town center, there are no landmarks to guide you on your way.

While this street network is confusing, it is extremely connected. I haven’t counted, by the intersection/per sq. mile must be through the roof. However, while it is permeable within itself, it is completely disconnected from the development to either side of it. While DPZ were constrained by the number of access points on US98, there was no effort to connect with Seacrest Beach adjacent. While the cynic in me can’t help but assume this was done on purpose to keep the “riff raff” out and eradicate through traffic, it does a disservice to the greater civic community.

Final Thoughts

If you take Rosemary Beach for what it is (a resort) it is perfection.

The problem lies in that New Urbanism provides real solutions, but the firm who are building the most genuine New Urbanism developments (or at least those that are most well-known,) are not building “real” urban places that address BIG issues like socio-economic equality and transportation. The most talked about DPZ projects like Rosemary Beach, Seaside, and Windsor have a majority of housing that sells for well over a million dollars on average. Therefore, a substantial amount of critics and built environment professionals believe that the Charter does not offer real solutions. Rosemary Beach works because on vacation people don’t need to drive to work or school, they have the time to leisurely fill their day with bike rides and walks to the beach.

However, having said that, I believe that one day far, far away, a town like Rosemary Beach with a greater mix of housing can be a real solution. If there were an extensive public transportation network that eradicated people’s want and need to drive their car, pedestrian oriented streets, high densities, and mixed uses will be the natural form of urban development. Even today in many traditional neighborhoods where kids ride their bikes in the street, curbless, shared space can be an everyday solution.

The big take away from my time living the life that Duany created for me is that for the CNU and New Urbanism to become the mainstream way of designing for all urban conditions, it must start producing more well-known and cherished places that are more relevant and accessible to the majority of people. In part this will come from clients’ willingness to pay for what I am sure is an expensive planning process, but also for people like Duany and Plater-Zyberk to loosen up a bit on the perfection. In creating a place that is not seamless in its architectural perfection, they will contribute more to reality and less to “Disney.”

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