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Tag Archives: heritage

Place Identity: A Sensual City.

4 Feb

I recently reblogged a great post on environmental psychology by The Happy Spaces Project that looks at how people’s surroundings directly affect how they feel. Urban design takes this concept a step further in the concept called place identity. Place identity is how someone defines the perception of themselves through the environment around them. Read more here. The slight difference between the two is quite a big one: feelings vs. self-identity.

The medium of urban designers is the physical: streets, blocks, plots, building frontages, and public space. But one of their purposes is to form rich communities based on heritage of place and interaction with the natural environment that people reference in establishing their self-identity. As soon as urban designers neglect this responsibility, developments can become monotonous, generalized, and undefined in any way. The result? A person can go to any part of the country, and sometimes the world and it will feel the exact same.

What effects can this have on a person as they look to the built environment to define themselves?

I’ve always prided myself on being a southern girl. I know lovely women who pride themselves on being New York girls. California girls…you got it! Midwestern girls…some of the best! I speak to people who enjoy exploring the country, but when they want to settle down they can’t imagine living anywhere different then where they grew up. While there are lots of cultural factors that contribute to this, the physical form is a big contributor to parts of the country feelings so different. And diversity is a good thing!

Identity by Design, by Ian Bentley and Georgia Butina-Watson, address almost a century of globalization and generalization of design, which resulted in deprivation of the factors that contribute to peoples’ emotional response to their built environment. Definitely check out this book…listed below are 4 factors as a preview:

Co-dwelling with Nature

Co-dwelling with nature can be expressed through a better integration with wildlife habitats, open green space, and natural landscape elements. Research has demonstrated that the more contact humans have with nature the less stressful and more healthier their lives are. This can be achieved on different scales and can be reflected in the underlying structure of a city.

Place Identity NYC

A landscape detail that represents the integration of the built and natural environments.

Rooted in the Past, but not Stuck

Creating a place that is rooted in the past, but not stuck there is extremely important to how people create their own identity. If a place reflects only the past and not seen as forward-looking, then people might feel like they won’t be seen as someone who is forward thinking and relevant. However, if a place is constructed with no relevance to the rich history and character of its region and is designed in only a contemporary way it can lose its foundation as a strong and secure community. This can cause its residents to feel disconnected from a culture and a heritage that contributes to their identity.

Empowerment

Designing a development that is empowering is reflected directly in the morphological layers of the physical environment that give people a feeling of strength and confidence. Empowerment relates directly to choice, and the ability of people to determine every aspect of their lives, even if it is walking to the store to get a pint of milk. Having an infinite amount of choices for the simplest of tasks creates a variety in people’s everyday life. With these choices comes a better understanding of their neighborhood, richer relationships with people, and be more confident in themselves.

Transculturality

When laying out the streets and the block structure of a development they are constructing an urban fabric that will remain longer then the people who live there. Therefore it is important that while a design exemplifies the other three principles, it is able to be accessible to generations of people, especially as our world becomes more globalized. A clear distinction of public and private space will allow people to personalize their built environment, addressing their cultural expectations and needs.

A tool in achieving these factors is creating a sensual city, meaning characteristics that address all of ours senses. Urban design can be very focused on visual identity, but actually it can address all five senses. The more senses a development incorporates, the more unique its place identity, and the greater chance people can find their own identity in their environment. These don’t have to be extreme gestures…here are some great examples of simple details:

Examples of how the built environment can address the senses: sight, smell, sound, touch, and movement.

Sources: Bakery, Fountain, Stairs
A variety of street to building ratios can create visually interesting streetscapes. Mixed-uses allow for local businesses such as this bakery, which leaks delicious smells onto the street. People can hear the wind blow through clusters of trees and leaves crunching under their shoes on the path. Water is a wonderful tool that allows people to interact with their built environment; people can’t help but brush their fingers, dip their toes, and get sprinkled by fountains. Stairs, ramps, and platforms allow people to experience the topography changes of the city in an interesting way. These are all examples of how addressing the senses in a simple way create intriguing environments throughout the typical cityscape.

Urban designers have an opportunity to not only sustain the way people healthily operate in their built environment, but to create inspirational moments or a “humane response” that enriches and inspires their lives. Whether it is the experience of walking down a street, enjoying vistas over a valley, or connecting with a landmark across the city, all of these experiences contribute to peoples’ happiness and how they define themselves. Therefore it is a great responsibility of urban designers to carefully address each of these factors so that when working together, they will create a place that reflects the history, region, and natural environment in which people draw from to reflect their own identity.

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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)

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