Sunday, January 13, 2013

The South Could Learn From The South

When one thinks of innovative, sustainable urban planning, the American South doesn’t come to mind. As the story goes, the South’s most significant boom took place after World War II, spurred by the advent of air conditioning and the growth of defense-related industries. We know what forms of development the mid 20th century brought: sprawling, looping subdivisions with homes on oversized lots; seven-lane arterial roads with big box stores and garrish signage; downtown urban renewal schemes with brutalist concrete architecture and dead streets. Really, it was the same stuff being built everywhere else in mid-century America, just more of it, and worse. And with Piggly Wigglys.

Visiting family over Thanksgiving, I had a chance to see if the South had since learned some lessons – like in the 1990s when Atlanta was nearly stripped of its federal transportation funds for egregiously violating the Clean Air Act. Maybe I would be pleasantly surprised with post-2000 walkable streets, bike lanes and transit options. Charlotte has light rail now, after all.

Atlanta's Downtown Connector. Image: ironchapman (Flickr)
Unfortunately I witnessed a South still sprawling like it’s 1959, like land is infinite and there’s no such thing as climate change (a sentiment shared by many of the region’s politicians). My wife and I white-knuckled the 16-lane freeways of Atlanta. We walked disconnected South Carolina subdivisions with sidewalks built on one side of the street to save money. We plied suburban highways on missions for fried chicken at Bojangle’s or pre-made appetizers at Wal-Mart. We drove through massive new industrial parks carved out of pine forest and ubiquitous construction zones destined for seven-lane arterials. There were even plans for a new freeway to cross miles of sensitive tidal marsh outside Charleston with the purpose of saving one minute of travel time.

Obviously growth is inevitable and it has to go somewhere. People and corporations keep moving south, chasing sunshine and loose labor laws, respectively. You can’t blame someone for buying a house in an isolated subdivision if that’s the only option available. It’s the planners and their elected bosses who have dropped the ball.

So, what can be done? Is the South doomed to devolve into further automobile dependency and habitat degradation? Is there no hope for progressive planning concepts like urban growth boundaries, new urbanism, transit-oriented development, or (gasp) sidewalks on both sides of the street? Where can Southern planners and politicians look for inspiration? Another obligatory field trip to Portland, Oregon?

No. The good news for the South is that exemplary communities are not too far afield. In fact, they’re right here. Simply put, the South could learn from the South.

Lessons From The Past: Charleston and Savannah

Among the South’s best examples of sustainable development are its earliest ones: Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. I would say these two Low Country Colonial cities are among North America’s best places, period. Any practitioner, student or aficionado of planning, architecture or urban design should visit them – preferably between October and April to avoid sweltering humidity.

Tradd Street, Charleston. Image: author
Charleston and Savannah, founded in 1670 and 1733, respectively, developed around the needs of human beings, not cars, trucks or even trains. The size of both Colonial capitals is manageable for the primary transportation of the era – a pair of shoes. Historic Savannah is one mile long and ¾ mile wide. The oldest part of Charleston, at the bottom of a peninsula, is roughly 1¼ mile wide and tapers to a point about the same distance south. Within these areas are dense assemblages of homes, shops, offices, restaurants, schools, churches, and virtually anything else one would need to live a happy life (though full-service groceries are somewhat underprovided).

On a finer scale, the cities’ streets, buildings and open spaces were also designed for humans. Street networks are interconnected, and the streets themselves are safe and pleasant, with sidewalks and trees. Homes and commercial buildings have comfortable dimensions, tall enough and close enough to achieve a sense of enclosure, but rarely more than three stories. Facades have interesting details and eye-pleasing proportions. Open spaces – whether Savannah’s famous squares or Charleston’s church cemeteries – provide shaded respite from the hot Southern sun.

Lafayette Square, Savannah. Image: author
The cities differ most in their intentionality. Charleston developed somewhat haphazardly like many Colonial settlements. The initial central core – once a walled compound – spread outward in rough-hewn grids and occasional diagonals. Block shapes, lot sizes and street widths were unscripted, and public open spaces were few. Savannah, on the other hand, is one of the most famous planned cities in the world. General James Oglethorpe imposed a beautiful order, a measured grid of wards outlined by grand avenues and each with a public square.

Charleston and Savannah may have vastly different layouts and be of slightly different vintage, but their combined effect is the same: pleasant, human-scale urbanity with mixed uses and safe streets that allow you to walk most places. Why don’t we see more of this in the South?

Lessons From The Future: Atlanta

Imagine a shiny metropolis of glassy towers and speedy electric transit, with chic restaurants and museums bringing life to the street. Envision a beltline, not of congested freeway lanes, but of streetcars, multi-use pathways and parks. This is the future of Atlanta, and in some places, the future is already here.

Atlanta, a city of 430,000 in a metro area of over 5 million, gets a bad rap, much of it deserved. The region is a poster child for sprawl – a low-density landscape of subdivisions and office parks splayed across 28 counties (28 counties!), connected by monstrous, smog-inducing highways, and punctuated by a lackluster downtown of oppressive buildings.

But things are changing, and not just because the region got in trouble with the feds. It turns out that Atlantans, like many other Americans, don’t want to or can’t afford to drive 100 miles each day to and from work. Nor do they necessarily want that 3,000-square foot McMansion on two wooded acres. Atlantans (and newcomers from elsewhere) are returning to Atlanta proper, reinvesting in older neighborhoods and creating brand new ones on recycled land. They’re also discovering that they’ve had a world-class rail transit system since 1979.

Peachtree Road, Midtown Atlanta. Image: author
These changes are evident in Midtown Atlanta, immediately north of downtown along tree-lined Peachtree Road. Having undergone a century of constant reinvention – from 1920s mansion and cultural district, to downtrodden 1960s freeway blight, to 1990s corporate phallus farm – Midtown is now filling in its remaining spaces with gleaming condo towers with active ground-floor uses home to popular restaurants. Add in art museums, theaters, colleges, leafy side streets, rapid rail transit and a large urban park, and you have one of the best places to live in the 21st century South.

Similar transformations are underway in Buckhead, Atlanta’s upscale shopping district to the north; at Atlantic Station, a high-density mixed-use redevelopment of a former steel mill; and in other pockets within a few miles of downtown. One of the most exciting planning initiatives is the Atlanta Beltline, a partially-abandoned 33-mile railroad encircling downtown that would be transformed into an emerald necklace of parks, trails and light rail transit.

But Atlantans need not wait for quality transit. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) operates 48 miles of electric rapid rail in exclusive rights-of-way fanning out in five directions from downtown, plus a network of 92 bus routes.  In terms of travel time, MARTA rapid rail puts many other American transit systems to shame, including Portland’s light rail system. A Red Line train from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to downtown Atlanta takes 17 minutes – competitive with free-flow driving conditions. Continuing to the terminus in North Springs takes an additional 26 minutes. MARTA doesn’t get bogged down by a multitude of tightly-spaced downtown stations like in Portland or San Diego. These trains get you places quickly and are clean, safe and affordable at $2.50 per ride. Maybe Atlanta is figuring it out.

Will The South Learn?

People continue to move to the South in droves. Will Southern policymakers recognize that 20th century suburban sprawl is obsolete? Do public sector leaders care enough about sustainable development to make controversial changes to land use, zoning and transportation plans? Do private developers understand the largely untapped regional market for walkable, mixed-use communities, and if so, do they know how to build them? It remains to be seen. But if Southerners need inspiration from on-the-ground examples of great places, they don’t have to look far.

No comments:

Post a Comment