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Travel Series: Ahh, the Places We Love…

3 Apr

That place. That place where when you arrive you feel immediately calm, centered, and most like yourself.

That place for me is Hilton Head Island, SC. I left my true home in Charlotte when I was 16. My parents sold our childhood home in the city and moved to the suburbs. It was devastating and at the time I attributed this to the loss of my actual house, but in retrospect it was the loss of my neighborhood and community. Ever since then, when I needed to find a place that provided the same security and sense of love to me, Hilton Head has stepped up to the plate.

Perhaps it’s because it’s the only place I can go to and feel the memories that I had as a child. Perhaps it’s because its been the only place throughout the entirety of my life that I return to consistently. Perhaps it’s because I went there right after my grandmother’s passing to mourn. Perhaps it’s because I took my first steps in Hilton Head. It’s always been there, I love this place.

My favorite places in Hilton Head: Pirates’ Island Adventure Golf, South Beach, the beach at Palmetto Dunes, the Omni Hotel, the Crazy Crab, the Oyster Factory, Harbor Town, and Shelter Cove.

(Source)(Source)

So when I drove almost a 14 hour round trip for a day and a half on the island this past weekend, I am pretty sure some of my fellow Floridians thought I was crazy. After all, we have the fourth nicest beach in the world 35 minutes away. It was only when I arrived there that I realized how much I needed it. I am a trooper; I went to boarding school when I was 15 and since then, I have had many new beginnings in my life. My move to Tampa and beginning a new job has been amazing and everything that I’ve worked for my whole life. But it’s still a transition, and when I crossed that bridge at 11:40 pm on Friday night, Hilton Head reached its arms around me like it has my entire life and I felt at peace.

There is one special place on the island that means more than all the others…I just have to share it. Charles Fraser, the original developer of Hilton Head Island, was committed to saving an ancient oak that stood in the middle of his planned harbor. He designed it and the rest of Harbor Town, one of the most beloved places on the island, around its preservation. Every night in the summer a children’s singer by the name of Gregg Russell (shout out to Gregg here), sings. He even has little children come up on stage to sing with him. My brother sat on that stage of children before I was born, then myself, and now my nieces and nephews. This show is a foundation for our family. Gregg Russell a great entertainer for sure, but why I love going to his shows decades later is the place where it is held. There is nothing more beautiful than sitting under an oak tree that is hundreds of years old with the moonlight shining through it.

This is all very ironic because Hilton Head Island actually has pretty appalling urban design. Hilton Head has a long history steeped in Native American, African-American slavery, and Civil War culture, but most of what you see on the ground was built in the 1960s and after. It was developed as a resort town, and therefore is divided up into “plantations.” The name, given the island’s history, is very irksome. As a result more than 70% of the island is in gated, private communities. The public can enter many of these plantations, but for a cost and at the discretion of security. Unfortunately, this pretty much goes against everything that I believe our built environments should represent. The result is that the island feels very exclusive…and I hate to say, upper/middle class.

While Hilton Head has a very active cycling culture, it is impossible to be a pedestrian for utilitarian purposes. Sure, you can take a stroll down the beach, or walk to the tennis courts, but if you want to actually leave your plantation you are pretty, well, screwed. The island’s land uses are organized around one arterial highway. It has a completely disconnected street network (but remember, they wanted it that way), and uses that are very spread out. It’s not a big enough place where you couldn’t tackle it on your bike, but these rides are always saved for leisure purposes, not trips to the grocery store. In fact the majority of land along this arterial doesn’t provide a sidewalk at all.

I do have to say Hilton Head did achieve one crowning glory. They saved their trees. As a result the island is for the majority under tree cover, and I a mean beautiful hundred year oaks with hanging moss. They also have strict town ordinances of very little public lighting and natural wood carved signage. I tell you, that is one classy McDonald’s. As a result there is a distinct character, so much so that I can be any where in the United States and say “hey that’s Hilton Head architecture.” It’s not really, it’s just that Hilton Head is very much representative of the early 70s. And yes, they managed to make that charming, trust me.

So yes, there are some great things about Hilton Head and most people who go there love it. But from an urban design and planning perspective it can be very damaging. And there is no doubt that it has, especially early on in its history. It’s resort identity and associated development pretty much forced an entire, quite healthy African-American culture and community from its shores. Even today, if you aren’t among the more well-off visitors you strive to find adequate public beach access or really experience some of the most naturally beautiful parts of the island. As I became an expert in urban design, this has always haunted me…

…but hey, sometimes you can’t help who (or should I say where) you love.

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Travel Series: Savannah

30 Jan

Every year since I was born my family and I have gone to the beach in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. A 33 mile drive down the coast is one of the most beautiful and well-planned cities in America: Savannah, GA. Savannah was established in 1733 and is rich in history. The city played a large part in the American Revolution as a port city in the cotton-rich south. But perhaps its saving grace was that it was spared as the ending point in Sherman’s March to the Sea across Georgia. General Sherman of the Union Army on his quest to capture Savannah burned down most towns and fields that he passed by, including the capital city of Atlanta. Because of Savannah’s usefulness as a port city, it was saved instead and presented to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift. Even today when you visit Atlanta, it is comparatively void of any physical history of its colonial days. Savannah on the other hand is rich in historic architecture and planning.

Savannah is often overlooked for its grander and more visited counterpart to the north: Charleston. Charleston is located on a sound with direct views of the Atlantic Ocean, filled with large, historic mansions, and was the start of the Civil War. While Savannah’s historic homes are more modest in size, its genius masterplan and open space steals my heart as an urban designer.

Historic map of Savannah showing the connected network of streets and public, open squares. (http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1865/january/savannah-map.jpg)

Savannah has many landmarks that any tourist should see, including one of my favorites, the home where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island. But what any visitor will appreciate is the network of open squares, each with their own history, personality, and community identity. Savannah is designed around town square parks (each numbered in the map above.) These still remain, serving as anchors of the street network that connects them all together. My favorite part of the masterplan was the strategy behind it: self-defense.

Described as a British “social reformer, visionary, and military leader”, James Edward Oglethorpe discovered, founded, and designed Savannah as a trustee of the Georgian colony. I can’t help but feel a personal connection to this urban designer: he is from the small village of Godalming, Surrey where some of my best friends currently live. He studied in Oxford where I received my two masters. He set sail from Gravesend, Kent, close to my husband’s hometown, for Georgia. And of course, he designed my favorite city.

The legend alive and well in Savannah is that Oglethorpe was very much aware of a possible British threat of violence and designed the city to protect itself. With no telephone or means to connect quickly with one another, the idea was that if one person stands in the center of a town square and yells urgent news in four directions to another person standing in those town squares, it would quickly spread across the city. No need for Paul Revere or his horse!

Of course today we are safe from the threat of the British, but Oglethorpe’s design has an infinite amount of positive effects that has made Savannah the unique and sustainable city that it is today. Here are some of those:

  1. Safety – perimeter blocks perfectly intersected with the network of town squares allows all public space to be completely overlooked and monitored.
  2. Personalization – with each district having its own green space, the town squares easily transform to host formal neighborhood festivals and informal get-togethers by members of the local community. It is popular to even get married at the center of your town square.
  3. Connection with Heritage – town squares are named after historic generals and town leaders, and they often have a statue in their honor at the center of each. This allow residents to appreciate where they have come from and understand how it has shaped themselves and their community.
  4. Walkability – I have never been to a city that provides a more enjoyably walkable environment. Because public spaces are so connected to one another, perimeter blocks are a manageable size, and buildings are built at a high density, you can easily navigate the town.
  5. Legibility – Because each town square has its own identity and connected by an axial and rigid street network, the city is very legible. You always know where you are, and how to get to where you are going.
  6. Variety – Even though Savannah’s street network grid is rigid and similar to New York City’s, it offers an enormous amount of variety. The interruption of the grid by the town squares creates interesting visual views in streetscape and tree pattern that constantly and pleasantly surprise the pedestrian.
  7. Flexibility – the city’s town square and street network allowed it to be easily added on to. It often was, growing exponentially between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, to a total of 28 districts (each organized around a town square.) The city was able to grow organically, but still to this day be part of a well-connected and integrated masterplan.

The City of Savannah has done an amazing job at preserving the historic masterplan and the heritage that it represents. Of the 28 original town squares, 21 still exist. Most of seven that were lost were to make way for necessities that required larger plots including a courthouse and convention center. Perhaps the greatest legacy of this city is that it is now a teaching tool in placemaking and how to create unique developments. There is no doubt that when exploring the streets of Savannah, one can easily and simultaneously connect with the history of our country and the future of sustainable city planning

For further reading please click here for a fascinating entry from The New Georgia Encyclopedia.

A great architectural drawing showing how building relate to the Savannah street and town square network. (http://www.planning.org/greatplaces/spaces/2009/gallery03/image01.jpg)

Travel Series: Edinburgh

9 Jan

This past weekend my husband, Matt and I, traveled to Edinburgh to celebrate our first anniversary. Little did I know that the small getaway we planned during a trip to England for Christmas was a city so rich in urban planning history. I honestly didn’t have any expectations of this capital city and didn’t know too much of its history or appearance.

My first impressions were of slight disappointment; many of the stone buildings were black with soot, giving the city an unloved appearance, people weren’t too friendly, and the city streets were absolutely lifeless for a Saturday afternoon. In the present time the city is apparently less affluent than other cities in the UK, obviously London, but most of its surrounding towns as well. Matt had a clear explanation for this: it’s January in Scotland, it’s freezing, there’s little sunlight wouldn’t I be snuggled up at home in front a fire as well?  He had a good point, because as I’m writing this post in a Starbucks on a Monday afternoon, the city centre has appeared to become much more alive.

As I learned about the history and development of the city, my interests and my impressions peaked. Perhaps with a strong Scottish ancestry (my maiden name, McGirt is bastardized from MacCart, part of the Scottish McArthur and Campbell clans) I could almost imagine myself in the city centuries before.

Edinburgh Old Town Urban Design

On the Royal Mile in the Old Town

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Edinburgh is that it is clearly split between the Old Town, the original and oldest part of the city, and the New Town, which was designed and built from 1765 to 1850. These two areas, while both connected and legible, feel completely different. This is emphasized by the Nor Loch, a drained valley once filled with water, which acts as a physical separation between the two. This fact in itself will certainly ensure that the young James Craig’s design will continue to be recognized as the first modern planner in Edinburgh for centuries to come. The common tourist can pick up the differences between the two parts of the city within an hour.

The Old Town is like walking through a small village in the countryside: small winding streets, narrow pedestrian gaps, and modest leaning buildings. It clearly is ancient and was built organically over time with little planning. With bagpipers and tartans lining the streets its hard not to imagine that you are in a scene from Braveheart. It’s quaint, charming, and feels very Scottish.

Edinburgh Old Town versus New Town

A comparison between the residential streets of the New Town (left) and the narrow closes of the Old Town (right). http://images.travelpod.com/users/zimmel08/1.1288826019.edinburgh-new-town.jpg

The first development of the New Town in contrast has wide roads organized in a strict pattern with stately Georgian buildings. It feels elegant, orderly, and European. The simple axial grid is bound by two boulevards, including the famous Princes Street, that link together drained Nor Loch bordering the Old Town and the green fields beyond (now the Queen Street Gardens) and butted by two stately public spaces, Charlotte’s Square and St. Andrew’s Square. While it originally was planned as a suburb, the area became so popular that commercial and other mixed uses soon filled the ground floors of the buildings. The New Town expanded north, east, and west over 100 years in the vein of Craig’s design. It was classical in its organization and unfortunately traditional in its social influences: the rich moved to the large countryside homes and the poor remained in the overcrowded squalor of the old city.

Matt and I were able to witness this first hand by going on a tour of St. Mary’s Close, underground and preserved in its 18th century state. Closes were narrow streets of about 6 feet with tenement houses, sometimes 7 stories high, on either side. This is where the majority of the Edinburgh population lived in the old city. The higher up on the hill the richer you were, the lower on the hill, the poorer you were. You were reminded of this twice as day as everyone who lived above you disposed of their excrement and it ran down the close to the polluted Nor Loch. With 12 people living in a 10’x10’ room, the plague spread rampantly. The resulting realization by the wealthy that these conditions had become unhealthy, led to the need for the urban planning profession in Edinburgh.

It was fascinating to witness the preservation of the old and the celebration of the new so clearly in the 21st century. In so many places the augmented city grid, redevelopment, and modernization hides the boundary between pre-planning and planning. The result can be a muddled cultural identity. It was a joy to be able to see clearly the before and after in one city. This can allow Edinburgh residents to more easily understand and connect with their heritage: a gift that many cities don’t benefit from. When people can do this they can have a clearer sense of where they came from, who they are, and how they fit into their community. While Edinburgh clearly preserved their past in the Old Town, they designed the New Town looking forward to a new identity during the Scottish Enlightenment. Perhaps the residents moved forward in the same manner, mirroring the impressive modern development of the city.

I have to admire the Scottish Enlightenment planners who acknowledged the inadequacy of their urban fabric and solved it so drastically by engineering their land through the drainage of the polluted Nor Loch, creating the Earthen Mound, a large mound of dirt and the North Bridge, to connect the Old and New Towns, and designing the New Town with an elegance that has stood the test of time. Edinburgh’s boulevards, open public gardens, distinct perimeter blocks, and stately Georgian architecture solidify Edinburgh’s identity as a proud European city for generations to come.

Nor Loch Edinburgh New Town and Old Town

The Old Town and the New Town separated by the drained Nor Loch (now the Princes Street Gardens) http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/edinburgh/edinburgh/images/castleview-450.jpg

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