Following up on their debut episode, “Sprawlanta,” the good folks at First + Main Media have unveiled the latest installment in their “American Makeover” documentary series: “Seaside: The City of Ideas.” (Disclosure: PlaceMakers is a sponsor of the series.) In it, town designer Andrés Duany leads a guided tour through New Urbanism’s most iconic project, spelling out a host of best practice lessons and applications that, perhaps most importantly, are not exclusive to resort development.
Slow and steady progress is built on an ongoing series of course corrections. Subtle variations in direction based on new variables, new challenges, and new innovations.
As times and circumstances change, some things inevitably become less productive. Or effective. Or conducive to contemporary sensibilities. So, we make changes.
Historically, they’ve been made by a matter of degrees. A minor turn here, a more substantial turn there. But today, in the modern era, we seem overly-fascinated with just one increment in particular. The most extreme increment. 180 degrees.
Out with the old, in with the new.
Taking shots at the suburbs is like playing bass in a garage band: Easy to do, but hard to do well. After all, their original intent — an idyllic melding of town and country, with all the advantages of both — implied a tranquil, family-friendly promise that, over time, has proven notoriously unfulfilled.
Surely that’s a subject worthy of more than just another McMansion joke.
I’m a freak magnet.
For reasons unknown, the more, err, colorful characters of the public realm seem to find my personal space especially attractive.
If I go to a midday matinée and another patron — let’s say an agitated mumbler in a trench coat with shoes crudely fashioned out of car wash sponges — joins me in an otherwise empty theater, that person will sit in the seat directly behind mine. Which he’ll then begin kicking.
I live in an old house that overlooks a single-track CSX rail line. Between my front gate and the train is a two-lane, neighborhood-edge thoroughfare with a speed limit of 35 mph and an average speed closer to 40.
Though it functions as an in-town, city street, it’s classified as a state highway by the Georgia DOT, which means that, while modest in scale, it’s not exactly context-sensitive in its behavior. It’s been repaved many times without being milled, so the historic curbs once in evidence are now long covered up with asphalt, and the 4 and a half-foot sidewalk that runs along it is separated by a planting strip of 24 inches or less (depending on the block) which, ironically, can’t legally be planted with anything other than grass.
Earlier this month, writing about successful neighborhood planning, my fellow PlaceMaker Howard Blackson used the term “placeshaker” as a catch-all for the grass roots engagement efforts that empower, but don’t necessarily define, placemaking.
That got me thinking. Even though our firm is called PlaceMakers and our blog, PlaceShakers, I’ve never really given a lot of thought to the distinction between the two. Is there a difference and, if so, is it a meaningful one?
It wasn’t intentional but a look back at the past few weeks of PlaceShakers reveals that we’ve been working a bit of a theme. It began when I wrote about the failure of planners to ask meaningful questions, and how that not only sets the stage for unmet community expectations, but devalues the art and craft of urban design at the same time. I then followed it up with a look at the other side of the coin — corrosive elements lurking within communities that undermine collaborative progress.
I’ll admit it: I wish there was a more user-friendly way to say “terminated vista.”
Perhaps I’m more sensitive to it because, as regular readers here know, I’m not an urban designer. I just work with them. That means I’m more inclined to scratch my head like any other layperson when I hear wonky expressions that sound far too highfalutin for an everyday community.
That’s too bad, because the terminated vista plays a pivotal role in good community design.
Community fascinates me. Not just the idea of it, but the dynamics, and how those dynamics end up stoking or choking our collective efforts to be together. Having worked in a lot of different places, I’ve had opportunity to study community in action, at both its strongest and weakest, in all different contexts — economic, political, cultural — and have tried to identify patterns that lead to results.
“What would you like to see here?”
And there it is. Perhaps the most inane question ever posed in the course of a public design process. And posed it is, constantly.
“We’re doing a master plan for downtown. What would you like to see here?”
It’s crazy. In one sweeping question, practitioners not only set the stage for unmet expectations, they devalue the art and craft of urban design at the same time.