Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Avenue


The Reader, originally uploaded by True_Bavarian.

An Odonomy of Savannah VI: The Avenue

For the purposes of this blog and my odonomy of Savannah, I co-opted the Commissioners’ Plan for Manhattan to name the streets that travel against the loading grain of a grid “avenues”. In Savannah, the avenues are coincidentally also the north-south traveling streets. (The fact that these streets travel north-south in both Savannah and Manhattan’s case has nothing to do with their functional strengths …Sorry Chicago, but your street nomenclature system is perfectly useless to an odonomy of grids.)

I think of avenues as having two tempers, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When they are square to the grid, they are in the Dr. Jekyll temper. They are usually lean and no-frills in this temper. Except for the seasoned commuters, no one really pays them any attention. But when they tilt and slant and become radial, suddenly they become strapping, boulevard-like Mr. Hyde streets that dominate over the fabric. Due to its nomenclature system, the streets named “avenues” in L’Enfant’s DC, happily, are true avenues as defined in this odonomy. For these special Mr. Hyde avenues, I will modify them as “grand avenues”. Grand avenues function very similarly to loading street boulevards, except for the fact that their tendency is to be less curvilinear.

(And so the Odonomy begins.)

Avenues are not the streets that diverse uses are loaded onto or accessed. These streets are not focused on serving abutting uses. They are not the streets with the “destination”. They are the streets, rather, that lead you there. This is not to say that these roads can’t be fronted by uses, they are just the streets that are obsessed with the travel experience itself: the strolling in the shade streets, the promenade streets taken with a friend for an ambulatory discussion, the streets for “taking” (or “crossing” or “collecting together”). Ideally, they should evoke in the traveler the sense of “going to” or “arriving” at a place. In landscape design terms, avenues are associated with long rows of trees planted with equal spacing along the travel way. Such repeating elements evoke the sensation of discerning your progressive arrival to a “place”. I think design applied for these sensations of travel appreciation, paced progression and place-arrival is proper, instructive and useful for designing good avenues in the urban context.

Avenues can of course be grand, well-loved streets tremendously busy with pedestrian activity. In Manhattan, they are so active, by the way, in part because of the primary north-south orientation of the island and in part because the blocks in the loading dimension are really long, making the breaks in the loading grain critical concentration points for travel. While their tendency is to be lean, many avenues are wide streets, and they often also have separated travel-ways.

Here are several tendencies to notice about avenues:

1) Simplicity/utility: Avenues are not fanciful, variegated streets at the fine scale. Their short sections seem to keep them from carrying through a complete thought block to block. So they simplify to a simple beat, a staccato. Avenues are not your royal “Main Streets” or “Grand Boulevards”. They are your lean and gravitational rook and bishop streets.

2) Directness: Avenues tend to have straight segments. Often this gives them long, dramatic vistas. This is another reason why repeating elements are great streetscape elements to give them: to emphasize the perspectival lines and lend readability to distances, which is nice in a city every once in awhile. These vistas give us a sense of a city’s breadth and size and that directness is important for our mental image of the city as well.

3) They Like to Climb: Avenues travel against the grade as well. This is by default, since loading grains like to follow contours rather than travel against them. Your steepest streets in the city will therefore tend to be avenues (of course, in grade tolerant cities like San Francisco, this tendency does not hold).

I have begun a gallery in Flickr, called Carrying, which captures the qualities of environments that are inspirational for designing good Avenues. Next time I need to design a streetscape for an avenue kind of street in my work, these kinds of images will be part of my design wall.


Price Street, one of Savannah's "avenues".
I hope you are beginning to sense why such a proposed street taxonomy would be useful and important in design and discussion of city form. Savannah had to teach me this. To understand the way street networks function in highly interlinked (urban) contexts, we need exactly this pronounced and precise taxonomy in order to work for the city in more sensitive ways. We need to know what the warp and woof of the fabric are so we can realize how to thread and tweak the streets for interesting effects. Savannah, however, shows us that all roads are joyfully not the same. Certain functional hybrids can coexist happily in the fabric…so fluent is Savannah with these lessons of exception. It is, in fact, one environment where seemingly small fissures and disruptions and rules of exception have interesting consequences, an interesting jazziness.

Why is Savannah’s ward grid so musically tuned that way? Well, this is what this effort is about. We need an Odonomy to apprehend that. First sit back and let this primary conceptual distinction between the “loading street” and the “avenue” stew a little in your head. Allow it to live a little with you, and tell me if you do not begin to read the city in a new way. Please let me know what you observe. Delightful realizations about your local street network probably await you.

1 comment:

Ludid said...

love new your banner. thanks so much for the tips and i will certainly check them out. i looked at some slideshows of the places you mentioned and it looks beautiful.