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Tag Archives: legibility

Local Series: Celebration.

11 Mar

I have been a supporter of New Urbanism ever since I was educated enough to understand traditional urban design principles and the effects they can have on people’s lives and local businesses. I wrote my first masters dissertation on the New Urbanism movement, mostly because I realized there was a a disconnection between the CNU (Congress for New Urbanism) Charter, and what was actually being built on the ground. I was witnessing a fourth and fifth wave of New Urbanism developments being built where I lived, and saw little to no direction on the how CNU’s principles should be implemented, or any measure on which to judge them. Developments were being built, that in my opinion, weren’t properly embodying the movement; my research proved that this was the case.

Since moving to Florida I have been itching to make it to Celebration and Seaside, two of the most well-known examples of New Urbanism. Yesterday I had the opportunity to check out Celebration, and I took it! I have to say, overall I was very pleasantly surprised. But this was a reaction I wasn’t expecting. Reports of people who have been weren’t stellar, and time has provided lots of criticism of the movement.

The main criticism of New Urbanism on the public, national scale is the architectural design often used in these developments. It is almost always traditional and sometimes lacks design detail. The result is that buildings can look unsubstantial, almost like a movie set. Which is ironic, since the New Urbanism development of Seaside was used as just that for The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey. For a movement that is supposed to be so forward thinking addressing the modern issues of society, critics ask why does it appear to be stuck in the past?

After visiting Celebration my answer to this question was confirmed: because architectural style is the least important issue of New Urbanism, and it ticks almost every other box pretty well. A very wise professor pointed out to me the great responsibility that urban designers have, that architects don’t. Urban designers design the public realm, which will remain for thousands of years. When we design a street, millions of dollars of public infrastructure will be designed along with it. In Europe the busiest of roads were designed and built by Romans – they are still there. Buildings on the other hand are a very transient layer of the built environment. While they are of course instrumental in giving a piece of town its unique identity, they last a comparatively short amount of time; demolished and rebuilt on the average of a 40 year cycle. My point is that street network and design is more important to contributing how we can navigate our world in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.

The majority of the architectural design of Celebration was very traditional, but also very nice. The truth of the market speaks: we are in Orlando, FL, not southern California where modernism and post-modernism is the accepted architectural style. However, the developers, which of course was Disney, backed up Celebration with some big architectural heavy hitters. Michael Graves, Phillip Johnson, and Robert A.M. Stern all designed civic buildings in the Celebration town center. ‘Nough said.

My own personal criticism of New Urbanism is that it often focuses on the small-scale design details, such as streetscape and pedestrian experience. While of course these are crucial, larger and arguably more influential factors like connectivity with its urban context are sacrificed. Of course you hear me harp on about connectivity like I’m a broken record, but it’s so important to being able to use our built environment in an environmental sustainable way. While Celebration is very permeable within itself, with perimeter blocks and connected streets, it is not connected to its greater context. Of course that in part is because there is nothing much to connect to; it’s location like a traditional subdivision, is off the side of a highway with no efficient mode of public transportation.

And this is where the greater conclusion of my research on New Urbanism comes in: it’s worth it anyway. Because one day I truly believe that we will get our acts together (out of necessity instead of choice I’m afraid), and provide our citizens with an efficient, accessible, and extensive public transportation network. And when that happens, developments like Celebration will best be prepared to accommodate it without any alterations. Like the most ancient towns built around the same traditional urban design principles, it will be the most flexible and sustaining.

If you can look beyond the architectural design or the fact that on the large-scale it isn’t accomplishing large environmental change like the movement aims to do, Celebration does so much right. Mixed uses that include retail, commercial, residential, office, educational, and institutional truly allow residents to not have to leave the town for days on end. Perimeter blocks allow public spaces to be completely overlooked. Opportunities are provided to connect with nature, including fishing in the town center lake, an active/play water feature, and natural corridors that make room for wildlife. A true mix of housing is provided: small apartments, townhouses, small and dense single-family homes, and large mansions with water and wooded views means a family can be accommodated their entire lives. Celebration is very legible: landmarks galore create place identity unique to the town. While of course Celebration has the weather in its favor, the public realm is very active. Ground level spaces create lots of hustle and bustle on the main streets, filled with people doing my favorite activity: people watching. This is evidence of a healthy public realm.

Above all else, it is extremely walkable with a stunning pedestrian environment. I saw one of the most beautiful streets I’ve ever seen in Celebration. It was proportioned perfectly with a stream and wildlife corridor down the center, one lane of traffic with a one bay of parallel parking on each side. Intermittently it was crossed by beautiful, arching bridges to provide a connected street network. A welcome arch of shade over the sidewalk is created by a line of trees. Kudos…it was perfect.

Water Street, Celebration, FL

Finally its important for me to say there was not one trace of Mickey mouse in this whole place. While it might have been developed by the Walt Disney World corporation, it will sustain itself as a town in its own right for sure. It has matured well, and grown into its own over the last two decades. Celebration was the first, younger generation example of New Urbanism I got to witness first hand, and what a treat it was. If the New Urbanism developments built in later years, and those still to come can adhere to the CNU principles as well as Celebration did, we can perhaps start to see some real change in our suburban built environment.

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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)

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.

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