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Tag Archives: streetscape

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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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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