Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Admiring a Beauty

I am periodically re-enchanted by the charms of Savannah's fabric. Part of the appreciation I have for Savannah's Historic District to me is no doubt the love I have for anything manifesting an "esprit de systeme". For this reason, I can stand for hours in front of the panels of Ghiberti's Baptistery door in Florence...literally, and contemplate for days the thematic order of Giotto's campanile medallions, composing dissertations of order in my head. I think I have a medieval brain. (Which in my book is a good thing).

These things (I apologize ahead of time to my readers) do not bore me. I was a student philology at one point in time for a reason. I have been and still remain, as far as I'm aware, the only student of New Testament era texts to see that the composition of Johannine books remains fixated on the structures of the creation narrative in Genesis. Rigorously. Playing with the order of chronology, but with rules of adaptation not unlike jazz. To this day it startles me that contemporary scholars do not notice these things..., but I'm a medieval-brained thinker, and the deep point of philological inquiry, as Gershom Scholem usefully pointed out once, is to dispense with the illusion that we can truly understand our ancient subjects. ...But I digress.

Savannah's rigorously patterned urban fabric creates many rare opportunities to see what would work in cities when a greater order is allowed to exist. Savannah's deep order actually does exist in less structured city fabrics (or is it more correctly, more structured fabrics,...more imposed or restrained?). But in Savannah, the order of traffic form comes to the surface. It becomes legible. More compact. More synapsed.

If one walked with horse's blinders, one could walk across the entire Historic District in ten-twelve minutes, but probably no one ever realizes this (much as no one ever notices the creation template in the murky depths of the most popularly read New Testament book, due to all the distracting surface sights). So enchanting is Savannah that it steals your notions of time. It is larger than itself, and there is something to be said about that. For that reason alone, Savannah is worth contemplating. I will begin sharing some of its beautiful order. This beauty is manifest in the traffic pattern (diagram below), which is a dissertation in system logic. Deep rules to a city's traffic circulation do exist, and have application even in amorphous, non-rigidly patterned fabrics. What Savannah can teach urban designers is very useful indeed, but orders need named elements. They need taxonomic categories, and thus a humble "odonomy" awaits our sensitive patience to name and to prod.

...Before I get to that (which might be a little while yet), I would welcome any observations you might have. As always, better insights are gleaned by listening first to others. In the diagram below, I depict the one way streets in purple, the 2-way streets in teal. The size of the arrow roughly indicates the intensity (in volume, speed and priority) of vehicular flow. The block and right of way widths are exact to reality, although I made the blocks more uniform for clarity's sake. What is depicted here is the ideal platonic traffic flow of the city...It's normative, not its actual (exceptions, as in all systems, abound).

So ...any observations about the pattern below that you think are worth mentioning?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Welcome to the Next American Suburb

A New Model of Suburban Development? This photo demonstrates some smart neighborhood development features of note. Here are just some of the elements: (a) A greenway crossing in the foreground; (b) Bike lanes, but more importantly, roadway and neighborhood conditions that generate frequent bike trips; (c) Children (in the background crossing the street); (d) Townhomes (at right) populated by households that include said children and which suavely wrap around a super market and its parking lot; (e) In the background to the left is UNC Hospital's Wellness Center - basically a Y souped up with clinical services, therapy/rehab services and a rich array of preventative health-care and community supportive programs; (f) In the background, in the distance, is a retirement village center

I have recently come across an interesting community development that I believe is a compelling model for the next stage of "edge city" development. This is Meadowmont in Chapel Hill, N.C. I see in Meadowmont a transformational model that can re-mix and consolidate the separated uses of a typical suburb into a form whose smart-growth strategies effectively liberate Americans from that 7-day-a-week vehicular co-dependency that leads to sedentary lifestyles. This, and doing it in such a way that Meadowmont may actually represent a viable market model that has the thoughtful ingredients for successful replication. If LEED-ND has a version of Levittown (a development model that replicates), this might be it.

Among other things, Meadowmont offers yet another great example of what can be achieved with more tightly coordinated commercial, institutional and residential development - working in tandem with a cohesive, multi-modal neighborhood transportation strategy. As an urbanist, I have to be attuned to what is working in the market, and I think Meadowmont is an implemented precedent that offers great lessons to appreciate and chew on. I share here just a visual survey and some cursory comments. I think we can easily spot in Meadowmont (following in the trope of family-appealing New Urbanist developments such as Denver's Stapleton) some subtle but significant innovations to integrating a richer array of lifestyle services with neighborhood development, and which can create a market draw for them and can potentially entice capital markets to - not just embrace - but promote smart(er) growth. There are enough ideas here to warrant further contemplation, which I hope presage where development in the suburban periphery may be heading soon. (I must say... I would not mind it at all if Beazer, Centex and Pulte began to copy and paste some of the innovations Chapel Hill's signature development affords us.)

1) The interesting heart of the community is the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont, an impresive, greenway-hugging, environmentally friendly preventive health care and fitness center facility. If hospitals actually thought their job was to keep their clients healthy (not just treat their illnesses), they would probably create wellness centers right smack in the middle of their clients' communities.

2) Every generation shares a piece of the pie. The elderly are thoughtfully accommodated within closer proximity to the services of the community. The Cedars of Chapel Hill below is a continuing care facility facing a central, generous green and full-service community center. The Cedars are in close proximity from the town center and directly across the street from the Wellness Center above and the grocery store. An apartment complex buffers the retirement village from the busy arterial road.

2) The grocery store
(a Harris Teeter) is located centrally near the arterial and surrounded by townhomes. Where you would typically have a 20-40 foot commercial use setback filled with berms and water-needy plantings, you raise instead townhomes that eventually become populated with loyal customers who arrive and depart by foot and who no doubt visit you more frequently than other customers. Cha-ching.

3) Greenways
and multi-use trails connect all the dots. The central spine trail follows the main valley streams flowing through Meadowmont, the primary conveyances of storm water. This trail connects to crossing trails that offer crossing points across the stream, helping to tie the different parts of the neighborhood and its uses together. They actually offer a completely equivalent transportation facility (see below) which more directly connects uses to one another than the actual winding vehicular streets, meaning, walking and biking become more enticing options. Notice, by the way, that the backyards often open up to the greenway, giving the trail an intimate connection to the community. This means residents, especially children, have great access to the greenway and help keep it secure. (Contrary to logic hinged on parental paranoia, the presence of children is actually the very thing that helps keep an area safe and secure - if children are present, others use and enjoy the facility much better, and fear encounters with strangers less. More people on the trail then help keep the facility safer. It is a mutually reinforcing phenomenon.)

4) The neighborhood elementary school is located unobtrusively in the neighborhood, in a lower plain by the stream, well-below the tree line of the overlooking street. All the classrooms are directly connected to the outdoors via a colonnade which shades the outdoor learning spaces associated with each class room (like the arcade schools of the classical era). The school itself is generously daylit and is smartly comprised of three east-west oriented wings. But the most noteworthy thing about the school is that it can be accessed by the greenway trails connecting to the residential subdivisions surrounding it. I loved the covered bike parking facility (by the way, there is only one bike because I took the photo at 5 pm ...this bike is probably a teacher or staff-person's).

5) Luxurious townhomes ring the hill tops much like fortified Italian hill towns. Unfortunately, we see here some examples realizing current urban design fetish for employing greens-in-the-round, but at least the circular form here is suggested by hilltop topography ...unlike the useless usual. However much I sincerely doubt Jane Jacobs wanted us to invert the Panopticon, for all I know, these residents will want their "eyes on the park" in order to keep a careful watch over things.

6) These soccer moms can punt the minivan. This soccer field, I kid you not, does not have any vehicular access to it! Located across the stream from the elementary school, the only access afforded is via a bike path.

7) A head-turning mixed-use strategy represented by Meadowmont is the attempt to mix residential uses in an office building. Office uses represent a security liability, being depopulated at night, and thus typically require night-time security. The upper level of this office building helps to secure the building by allowing the upper (terraced) level to be used as luxury residential condominiums, granting it 24-hour use. This office building, along with the large detention basin it overlooks, also helps buffer the community from the arterial road. A bike path tunnel, crossing underneath the road, connects it to the office park across the road. I'm not sure how successful this residential-mix strategy is going to play out (the building is not rented out yet), but the sign advertising the potential uses definitely made me do a double-take.

8) But ...Meadowmont's strategic, multi-modal transportation integration is what really gets me excited about the future of suburban expectations in Chapel Hill. I note that planners have been insistent on providing an "equivalent facility" approach to bike-path integration (photo below left). Along the limited access arterials, that's where you put your wide bike thoroughfares on both sides of the road, and you create crossings wherever you can. This is the policy of Hilton Head Island as well. I welcome the raised expectations this will create for future development whole-heartedly. I also am warmed by the fact the office parks along Raleigh Road (the arterial I've been mentioning above) are circulated by compact, express buses at commuting times (photo below right ...taken between 6-7 pm).

...But of all the things I'm warmed the most about future of Meadowmont, and its potential long-lasting success as a model for greenfield development, is the fact that it has a good shot to be serviced directly by the TTA's future LRT, on the link connecting Chapel Hill to Durham. We all need to congratulate Chapel Hill planners for very conscientiously locating this TND, as Jarrett puts it, to be on the way. Between just the handful of smart growth principles mentioned above, think of how many vehicular trips Raleigh Road has been spared in the long-term.