Tag Archives: Homewood

New Urbanism (1)

Yesterday I traveled out to Trussville Springs for the first time. This is a planned, mixed-use development about 15 miles northeast of downtown Birmingham, and was designed by the internationally recognized planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ). DPZ–which has also designed the Mt. Laurel and Blount Springs developments in the metro area–is known as the preeminent proponent of New Urbanism worldwide. New Urbanism draws on time-tested urban principles, and argues that communities should be compact, mixed-use, and friendly to alternative transport. It is an antidote to sprawl.

A vision for Trussville

Trussville Springs’ master plan is certainly typical of DPZ work: lots of preserved open space and public amenities instead of private lawns; garages fronting alleys, rather than driveways on the main streets; a commercial center designed within walking distance of all residents; and a distinctly old-fashioned marketing package that draws heavily on nostalgia for an earlier time. The Cahaba river runs through here, and is beautifully framed by old trees and rolling hills. Yes, the developer skillfully inserted some stones into the river to create both a “rushing river” sound, and to allow a path across. But still, it is a stunning natural feature.

A truly public amenity

However, something strikes me about this–and many other new towns designed by DPZ and their many imitators. While certainly preferable in many ways to typical, sprawl development, whose gated communities and feeder roads encourage car use, social isolation, and single-use development, I can’t get over the feeling that Trussville Springs isn’t dense enough to qualify as a real antithesis to sprawl. It’s hard to say due to the current economy (only a few houses have actually been built), but with all the empty housing stock in the metro area, much of which is already in compact, urban neighborhoods, and without larger influxes of new people moving into the metro, the overall need for a place like Trussville Springs seems questionable.

In fact, right across Main Street is downtown Trussville: a fairly compact, urban, walkable neighborhood, with big trees, narrow streets, and sidewalks filled on Saturday with families strolling to the school for a festival, to the library or just chatting with neighbors on front porches. As an authentic, organic neighborhood, that actually seems to thrive with a lot of the New Urbanist principles, it made me wish all that energy spent across the street in Trussville Springs was instead being spent elsewhere. It was sort of like an “Old” Urbanist neighborhood already existed across the road.

Compact, walkable, and populated: downtown Trussville

If you talk to Andres Duany, he will tell you that the final rendition of the developments he planned is often disappointing. The original intent for affordable housing? Gone, due to market forces. Transit connections? The municipality isn’t interested. That quaint commercial center filled with corner grocers, ice-cream shops, and quirky live-work spaces for artisans? The developer just didn’t see the demand, and filled the space with more houses instead. So residents end up having to get in their cars, head onto the highway, and go the the strip malls like everyone else. Instead of truly transforming how people live and interact, these places become just prettier, slightly denser versions of homogeneous suburban developments.

Here’s an idea: let’s hire DPZ (or some like-minded company) to design a master plan for an existing urban neighborhood in need of revitalizing and repopulating. We’re not creating new roads, or extending the power grid, or tearing up more virgin land on the outskirt of the urban core. It could be Woodlawn. Or Rosedale-downtown Homewood. Or the Railroad Park neighborhood. Places that could benefit from more density, more alternative modes of transportation, more shops and services. DPZ did a master plan for an area of downtown Providence, RI that examined many smaller sites, suggesting new densities, retail opportunities, transit improvements, etc. To me, this type of planning is what is going to save Birmingham from soulless sprawl and urban neglect, not far-flung suburban communities like Trussville Springs, as well-intended as they may be.

Providence had the vision

Of course, Providence didn’t just hire DPZ to make pretty renderings like the above. They have been methodically implementing the plan over the last decade. Birmingham has a terrible history, as I’ve noted before, of commissioning plans which, due to lack of community buy-in and leadership, sit gathering dust on the shelf. Wouldn’t it be great if we had excellent urban plans, prepared by experts with lots of community participation, and the will/mechanisms to actually implement? I see a city where New Urbansim and plain-old Urbanism could weave together in a brilliant web of vitality. There’s a lot more to say about this topic, coming soon.

This neighborhood deserves a plan as good as the park itself

[Thanks to DPZ for the master plan of Trussville Springs, and the Providence rendering; and to Tom Leader Studio for the aerial of Railroad Park.]

Skate park!

Skating: essential to any urban environment

When we developed 2nd Row here on 2nd Avenue North, we were delighted to bring Faith Skate Supply and its owner Peter Karvonen into the neighborhood. Skating has become ubiquitous in urban America, and your city lacks edge if it lacks a decent skate scene. Unfortunately, unlike Nashville and Chattanooga, Birmingham does not have a central skate park that’s fun, safe, and available to all. (thanks to mississaugamuse for the pic of the boy safely skating in a purpose-built park).

Skating, according to a Memphis site devoted to a similar deficiency in that city, “is a positive physical outlet needed for our youth and it’s an activity that naturally forms friendships among participants coming from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds.”  Peter is particularly interested in how younger kids, those with autism, and kids prone to obesity can benefit from the exercise provided by skating. To that end, he’s helped organize an art auction to help raise money for the Magic City skatepark effort  this Friday at Urban Standard at 6:30 PM (this interview from Transworld Business helps explain the intersection of autism and skating).

As Peter points out, it is often more difficult to build a skate park in a large city than a small one, due to the more complex land uses, zoning rules, and ownerships involved. He has been working with the City of Birmingham for the last number of years trying to identify a piece of City property appropriate for a park. The City would donate the land, and at this point the construction funding would come from elsewhere. Peter knows one thing–any park will have a special section set aside for younger kids and those with autism.

One really interesting example of how a smaller city saw the positive urban value of a skate park can be found in Greensboro, AL where Auburn University architecture students have designed a compelling and economical place for skaters:

Rendering of Greensboro skate park

Here the park nestles into the landscape: a sculptural element that’s visually appealing as well as functional. Thanks to the Auburn Rural Studio for the rendering.

One of the reasons why the smaller skate park (ideally it needs 30-40,000 square feet of area) closed in Homewood Central Park was due to complaints from neighboring residents in new, high-priced condos. It seems (surprise surprise) that the often loud rattling and thumping of skateboards do not mesh with condo quiet-time. While the Birmingham City Council, Mayor’s office, and various community leaders all support the idea in theory, a sort of NIMBY-esque excuse is found for just about any desirable location (i.e. “we love the idea for the city, but it just wouldn’t work with the sort of people/businesses/investment we are trying to bring to our proposed park/development.”)

A completely different, inclusive take on skateboarding: Peter sent me an article about architects designing skate-friendly buildings: this pic (courtesy quon) illustrates how the new Olso Opera House designed by the Norwegian firm Snohetta is essentially a series of ramping surfaces anchoring the structure into the land, dissolving it into the sea, and–in theory–providing plenty of fun for skateboarders.

Ramps and opera in Oslo

There are plenty of stereotypes out there about skateboarding. In reality, kids (and adults) are getting exercise, staying out of trouble, and making new friends in (ideally) a safe, purpose-built environment. I strongly support the construction of a super-cool skate park in a central location in the City. The sooner this happens, the happier Peter–and his legions of local skating followers–will be.