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Local Series: The Original Suburb.

26 Jan

I grew up in Myers Park, a much-loved neighborhood near Uptown Charlotte. Today, it is celebrated for its historic homes and beautiful tree-lined streets. Some families have lived there for generations. The neighborhood is seen as a present day icon, but many are unaware of its history. Myers Park was a streetcar suburb developed at the turn of the 20th century (c. 1905) by George Stephens on his father-in-law’s cotton farm and designed by the famous John Nolen, a Harvard trained urban planner. Nolen gained notoriety by designing neighborhoods and cities all over the country.

Queens Road West: one of Charlotte's most beloved streets (http://www.agentbecky.com/img/Bill-pics/queens_w.jpg)

Charlotte was originally condensed to four wards densely surrounding the heart of the city, Independence Square. Its population grew as a cotton trading town that expanded to the cotton mill and banking industries. Businessmen looked to farmland south of the city as a development opportunity they couldn’t pass up. But what made this all possible was the electric streetcar. Before the widespread use of the automobile, the streetcar allowed people to live out of the city but still be able to access the urban center, the location of the workplace and daily necessities. A short 1.5 mile ride, the easy commute and comparatively country living was irresistible for many Charlotte residents.

The streetcar in historic Uptown Charlotte (http://www.cmhpf.org/photoGallery/4/scars1.jpg) and the then undeveloped Myers Park neighborhood. (http://www.cmhpf.org/site-pix/MP-EntranceGate.jpg)

Unlike other cities, the move to the suburbs in Charlotte was due to the incredible growth of the town. Before the Civil War it was a hamlet of several hundred people. By 1900 it was 18,000. For reference, the metro area now has a population of 1,745,524. The four original wards had gorgeous, large mansions of the rich. Of course Myers Park and other suburbs attracted the wealthy, but the large expansion of the city was really about its steady and enormous growth in population. Other suburbs part of this overall growth, such as Plaza Midwood to the west of the city, expanded at a slower rate because of its poor access to the streetcar. George Stephens made one very important move – he subsidized the streetcar in Myers Park so it would serve his community first and extensively.

You might ask – how is Myers Park different from the growth patterns that we see in cities across America today? Isn’t suburban growth now the same? An example of the Garden Suburb movement, Myers Park was typical of early 20th century growth, and the majority of similar neighborhoods exhibit at least three characteristics that have sustained them as some of the most loved parts of cities across the country.

Connectivity

As can be seen from the map below, Myers Park is a very connected and permeable neighborhood. Its perimeter block structure connects easily and clearly with its surrounding context. When Charlotte citizens travel from one side of the city to another they pass easily through the neighborhood. While this supports economic sustainability, which has led to successful commercial businesses, its real success lies in social inclusion. Because Myers Park operates as part of the larger city, it belongs to every one, not just the people who live there. This is its greatest quality. In consequence, the neighborhood has become well-loved and cherished.

If Myers Park were built in the disconnected street structure of modern-day suburbs, it would exclude citizens in favor of exclusive residents. Not part of the larger city, it could have been forgotten over time. When a place is forgotten it isn’t socially or economically sustainable, suffering from dropping property values and closing businesses.

Streetscape

While houses are spread out and set back from the road, three rows of trees are what give the street definition. The Myers Park streetscape is cherished and at any time of day you can see families taking walks, children riding their bikes, and adults going on runs. The side walks are buffered by a generous amount of green space and shaded by a canopy of beautiful oaks. Two lanes of traffic separated by large medians in the middle of predominant roads make room for the car while not overwhelming the pedestrian. Both live harmoniously. Visible and overlooked, the streets are safe and remain active in a car-centric culture.

Many streets in modern-day suburbia have no sidewalks, or if they do they are small extensions of the road with no pedestrian buffer. Even if the streets were connected, which can be rare, the focus on the car can makes a pedestrian uncomfortable.

Infrastructure Investment

There is an enormous amount of space in Myers Park that is donated to the public realm. While this land did not directly achieve a profit, there was no question on the part of George Stephens to its necessity in the development. Because of the inclusion of the streetcar, a larger amount of public space was necessary as part of the streetscape. But even so, the desire for open, country living allowed for a green infrastructure to infiltrate the city. Along with it comes ecosystems and a green lung that positively affects the people who spend time there.

Today many developers are focused on a turn on profit. Public open space and investments in the public realm do not receive a direct profit. Recently, cheap housing prices and large amounts of space attracted buyers, despite little investment into making their neighborhood feel unique.

A site plan showing the connectivity of the Myers Park street network. (http://www.mpha.com/images/area5-map.jpg)

Despite these very important and crucial urban design qualities, there is no doubt that Myers Park is still very much a suburb. Even with its modern-day central location, it does not feel urban. The reasons for this is that it is lacking two very distinctive urban qualities that would make it a completely sustainable development: density and mixed uses. Because of the trends of the time, these qualities were purposefully neglected. People wanted space from denser urban living and the streetcar allowed easy accessibility to the city center for daily necessities. Over time commercial uses have become established nearby. However, the large plots and low density make walking there a less attractive option than hopping in your car. But, it can be done. Some of the fondest memories from my childhood were walking from my house to the old Black Forest toy store with my grandmother.

As I was researching Myers Park’s history, the drive for development built around public transportation reminded me of another part of Charlotte that saw a boom of development recently based on its location near the new Charlotte light rail system. In the same spirit as Myers Park’s development, mixed-use high density and multi-family housing, and restaurants sprung up along the South Boulevard corridor. While the light rail system isn’t expanding at a rate fast enough to satisfy urban designers, planners, and even citizens, it has shown to be a powerful and unparalleled catalyst for redevelopment and sustainable growth.

Poetically, the reintroduction of the streetcar is happening at this very moment along a main corridor in Elizabeth. Time will tell its modern-day success, but I have faith that the streetcar will encourage the same sustainable growth that it did 100 years ago. In a time when the car is so prevalent, will the streetcar return glory to the city?

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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

The Grid…200 Years On.

4 Jan

The Greatest Grid: the Masterplan of Manhattan, 1811-2011 is an exhibit now showing at the Museum of the City of New York that details what the New York Times calls “a landmark in urban history and a defining feature of the city:” the grid. Starting north of the oldest part of the city all the way past Harlem, the strict grid of avenues crossing with streets defines how New Yorkers live their every day life. I wanted to write about the Manhattan grid following the post on connectivity yesterday because New York City is perhaps one of the most connected and permeably designed cities in the world.

Original Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/03/arts/design/manhattan-street-grid-at-museum-of-city-of-new-york.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1 Also check out this awesome interactive map that shows the growth of New York City over time http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/03/21/nyregion/map-of-how-manhattan-grid-grew.html?ref=design

Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times columnist, mentions some classic urban design elements defined by the strict grid:

  • Legibility: It’s simplicity and orientation allows the city to easily be grasped by users, even tourists who have been there for a few hours.
  • Flexibility: The planners originally thought that the population of New York City would be moving east and west to waterside parks. When the city’s orientation changed to north and south, the grid was able to handle the shift in movement. The grid also was able to adapt to the inclusion of a Central Park, which was introduced to the masterplan later in its development.
  • Economic Vitality: Because there was ease in navigating the grid and made the growing city so accessible to users, property values soared and began what some consider the beginning of the property market in America.
  • Sociability: The permeability of the grid’s design makes the entire city feel like it belongs to everyone. Equality and social inclusion are a result. It is easy to run into your neighbor or become a regular at your corner diner. Kimmelman gives the examples that consistency of its design allows the public realm to become a “public theater.”

What Mr. Kimmelman hasn’t realized in this article is that the above positive characteristics are not because of the grid, but because of the connectivity that the grid offers. Connectivity can be achieved with many different designs, which can be seen from the street layouts of cities above. The organic nature of London, or the intricate network of Paris, are both very connected in a different way and both provide the same benefits of the New York grid. These three cities all feel completely different. One might say the way the way a person feels in a city is down to a matter of opinion. Let me offer mine…

There is no doubt there is a culture associated with being a New Yorker. I know many New Yorkers and they have more pride in the place they come from than almost any other person I have met. I have always admired this about them. An emotional connection to place is growing more rare as technology and poor planning has begun to define our sense of community. Having said this…I just don’t get New York, which I 100% believe is because of its grid. I understand that “the city that never sleeps” has the most amazing cultural and artistic offerings of any other city in the world. You can’t get any better in that respect. But while it has tugged on my heart-strings it has never done so in a positive way.

I have never immediately felt like a New Yorker like Mr. Kimmelman claims. Unlike him, born and raised in Greenwich Village, I’ve always felt the opposite: an outsider. I think it’s a mistake to think the strict design of the grid allows everyone to personalize the urban environment or feel at home in New York. I agree with Frederick Law Olmstead, one of the greatest American landscape architects, that the New York grid is monotonous, and I would further say…heartless. We are lucky that the culture of New York that has developed has given it its huge heart. Mr. Kimmelman is correct in saying that its the New Yorkers’ constant attempt to break the grid that actually gives it its character.

My experience in a city like London is a breath of fresh air. While it might take a little longer to get your bearings it is still very legible. It’s organic layout is even more flexible than the strict grid and can constantly shift. It’s so connected any development can easily tie back into the contextual urban fabric. It has gorgeous public spaces where “street theater” can be witnessed by hundreds. But the real difference for me as I walk the streets of London is that every turn of a corner is a surprise! Whether its a landmark, a pocket park, or a beautiful streetscape, I am always left pleasantly surprised by every step I take. The diversity in street design easily lets the city dissect itself into neighborhoods, each with their own very distinctive character.

Don’t get me wrong, there is no doubt that Manhattan’s grid was a tremendous act of urban planning that must be congratulated. The gung-ho attitude required by city planners to survey an enormous space and reorganize privately owned land for the betterment of society and the city is a huge task. As Kimmelman states, and I agree, this is an attitude our urban planners could use a little more of in the face of issues such as global warming and sprawl.

In the New York Times article John Reps, an urban historian at Cornell, is quoted saying that the city commissioners “were motivated mainly by narrow considerations of economic gain.” Even if money was the motivation behind the grid and not creating a beautiful place with “squares and boulevards,” the grid’s connectivity allows enormous benefits over the design of the majority of America’s development. It allows for a density that makes New York City one of the greenest places on earth and the most active public realm that I have ever witnessed. With little public space, aside from Central Park that is centralized, the excitement and surprise of human nature is in front of you wherever you go…there is no space for it anywhere else.

But here’s the food for thought. The grid works because the street network is very permeable and connected, not because of the design itself. Connectivity, while it is the first step in creating a development, doesn’t take away the ability for urban planners to design it well.

The 1959 Warning of Sprawl.

30 Dec

Community Growth Crisis and Challenge – The Urban Land Institute and the National Association of Home Builders (1959)

Original Article: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/housing/2011/12/warning-urban-sprawl-1959/824/

When I came across this video via the article above I was so interested to know that the issue that I am most passionate about in my career was on the radar in 1959. The negative effects of urban sprawl are so horrifying to me I had assumed that it hadn’t been recognized as a problem before the 1960s and 70s when the worst of it was built. To know that it could have been prevented was a little disheartening to say the least. Another surprise were the origins of zoning. What from first impressions has always seemed like a rational way of dealing with land use (ie: we don’t want toxic factories next to schools), actually was also a statement in social class. In order to keep lower classes and poorer people out of their neighborhoods they raised the minimum plot land area to raise property prices. Of course I shouldn’t be surprised. Class warfare has played a major part in our land and population patterns for centuries – “White Flight” being one of the most influential occurrences in modern history.

The ULI’s 1959 proposed solutions to urban sprawl were actually quite enlightened. The Planned Unit Development, or masterplan, as we would call it ensured a certain level of mixed-use, mixture of housing types and densities. Despite the video’s condemnation of the Victorian townhouse, one of my favorite elements of the city, the reinvention of this housing type to encourage high densities and beautiful streetscapes was refreshing. Also, the suggestions of loop and circular streets supported the use of perimeter blocks, one of the most sustainable urban elements.

The ULI also proposed some pretty horrifying suggestions, including the Cluster Method, which is no more than a glorified cul-de-sac. We know now that this method of planning prohibits pedestrian activity and a connection with a neighborhood’s surrounding context. This encourages the use of the car and single-use development, which is one of the major problems urban sprawl has left us with. At least with the Cluster Method proposition, a higher density was taken into consideration. Another suggestion of separating car and pedestrian traffic, we know now, can lead to an unsafe and less active public realm. In time this can weaken the community and social inclusion.

The ULI concludes with a challenge to American planners, developers, builders, and the “American Community”…did we live up to it? I would argue not, but after the turn of the century we certainly have realized the mistakes of our past and have moved forward with solutions that far outshine the “before-their-time” thinking of some in 1959. As we move into 2012, I look forward to moving the ideas of our time ahead. See you in the new year!

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