Sunday, January 3, 2010

Alligator Urbanism

I'm back from my favorite town...Savannah, and new thoughts on odonomy abound (more later). I just spent a week surveying great developments in South Carolina and Georgia.

The development work I was most struck with were the interesting developments on the Marietta Street Corridor in Atlanta and DPZ-planned Habersham, near Beaufort, SC (all the photos here are of Habersham).

The biggest surprise of the trip was my first visit to Hilton Head Island, which I may blog more about later. Hilton Head showed me that a sustainable type of sprawl actually exists. Its really remarkable job integrating infrastructure for bike/ped transport was some of the most stellar I've ever seen. Of course, Hilton Head was built for bike use from its inception, and its relentlessly controlled planning represents a resort-style urbanism (or sustainable sprawlism?), the kind that is way out of the adoptable range and integrative capacity of most suburban communities. But the respect to the landscape was superb. Hilton Head's nearly unbroken sea pine canopy and high standards for vegetated screening are a work of amazement. You really do get the impression that alligators coexist happily with humans in that sprawl. I'm surprised as a planner that I haven't heard more about Hilton Head, especially as we are now increasingly confronted with the problem of sustainably "retrofitting" our suburbs.

Both Hilton Head and Habersham made me appreciate the potential of landscape design to make sprawl more sustainable...and a rich experience - the kind that appeals strongly to most Americans. Call it golf-cart urbanism if you like, but I really like it when golf-course tested landscape architects get involved in urban design. The results are very interesting, and I was quite surprised at the level of thought we can glean from these experts to carry over into our TOD's and urban developments.

So far, Habersham is the best TND sprawl I've seen ( beautiful and interesting sprawl!). While Habersham for sure appeals to the second home 55 and over crowd that populates these places around Hilton Head, evidence abounds that a fair amount of families with children live in the neighborhood.

If you are an urban designer, landscape architect or planner, a good vacation to consider is a trip to Savannah/Hilton Head. You are guaranteed at least three treats: Savannah's Historic District (with its unparalleled grid of insights - yes more odonomic contemplation is in order!), Hilton Head Island's tremendously cohesive and well-integrated bike paths (with a trail system featuring boardwalks through the swampy areas, BMP's and parks), and Habersham.

Habersham, in a way, represents a more urbanistic approach to do Hilton Head, and it employs road and landscape design at a level of subtlety that left me there for hours carefully observing the details. To me it represents the best imaginative work of DPZ I've seen so far. You can tell they really went out of their way to prove that design for 18 mph can be interesting - never "one size" and "one solution" and always respecting and purposefully integrating the existing trees and site conditions.

If you do go... Do NOT forget...Be sure to bring a bike!


Daniel said...

Interesting take on Hilton Head. It reminds me a little bit of Randall Arendt and Conservation Subdivision principles. If for whatever reason low densities are going to happen anyway, they may as well be done in a way that preserves the unique ecologic function and beauty of the location. Resort communities like Hilton Head are probably in the best position to do something like this.

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled up the Florida coast from the keys to Palm Beach and had some similar impressions. Miami Beach itself is actually a surprisingly nice example of vibrant urbanism. Ocean Drive along the coast with its preserved art deco hotels and restaurants and Lincoln St. pedestrian mall are superb public places. On the other side of coin, Boca Raton and Palm Beach are meticulously planned as well. Also very nice, but much different. Parking lots are completely hidden, the landscaping is lush and everywhere. I'm not sure how ecologically sensitive it is as it does feel more like a golf course than a wildlife preserve (I have a hard time imagining alligators passing through).

Lots of the coastline in between is basically condo sprawl with little character or forethought, IMO.

Eric Orozco said...

Ocean Drive is a Great Street. Frankly, I think that is more of what Miami should be. There is no life downtown because humans - duh Miami developers - like to walk on streets. Where are the Jane Jacobs streets in Miami? Miami Beach of course. I have no idea why they went the opposite way downtown. It is an ode to the blank wall.

I love what was happening with downtown West Palm Beach last I visited a couple years ago...It seemed well-used, diverse, and I loved the splash pad "in the street". But you are right, most of the rest of it is despairing Palm Springs sprawl.

I am thankful that we now have LEED-ND and the downturn to help redirect (hopefully) where things may yet take us in coastal Georgia and the Carolinas. I dread the thought of that Floridian style development increasingly setting the tone. In a sense, we are fortunate development went down first to Florida for the McMansion/Sun City boom of the 80's to mid-Naughties. Part of me, I hate to say it, wants the bottom to fall out of this commercial real estate market so that banks, home builders and REIT's finally see their models of stand-alone investment implode. Let me tell you, I for one am rooting for New Urbanism to change the tide. As pricey as communities like Habersham and City Place in Palm Beach might be, every person genuinely interested in a more sustainable trajectory for our future should hope that their success changes market models. Ellen Dunham-Jones has a lot of good points when she bashes architects for not caring more about the "75 percent" we don't touch. We need to take it back. I'm really hopeful not only about what LEED-ND might do to the industry (as a model of market setting)...but, frankly, for what it can do to bring back planning as a real design-oriented profession. Reading over the latest version I was so impressed. I got goose-bumps! Drastic improvements from the pilot version, and all that - let there be no doubt - is the hand of the New Urbanists...not sadly, the elitist design architects who claim to be interested in "green design".

Ludid said...

since i don't know anything about urban design, i enjoy coming to your blog to learn about it. it's like a mini-lecture for me.

Eric Orozco said...

Wow...thanks for reading Ludid! Reminds me that I need to make an attempt to not sound so professorial here. ...Write more about what strikes me, rather than critique. ')

Todd W. Bonnett said...

I just read your "Alligator Urbanism" Blog. I visited Savannah and Habersham last fall. As a landscape architect, urban planner and former golf course architect, I appreciate your recognition or our roles within the built environment.

@Todd_BDG (twitter)