Here’s a shot of my final pin-up for the Pantops redesign, with a framwework plan on trace, 3D models of the site build-out, street sections, and photos of precedents and inspiration.
I started off with three concept diagrams for the dreaded Pantops Shopping Center site. Then I chose one from which to build a framework plan and a 3D build out. Here they are:
In all three schemes, I wanted to maintain a strong line of site from the north end through the tip of the peninsula, where there will most likely be a more cultivated park tucked into the natural area surrounding the river. On the east side, a steep slope precludes building, but between the slope and the floodplain area I sited an urban farm to provide food (and experience growing it) for the residents.
- The main goal here was to reorient the buildings in the opposite direction of their current state. Now, all the storefronts in the shopping center look inward toward an ugly sea of asphalt (planner-speak for parking lot). It would be super cool to have buildings, especially residences, that take advantage of the natural beauty surrounding the little peninsula by peering out onto the river. For this reason, the density is concentrated along the central spine, with the higher buildings in the middle and lower buildings on the edges so you can see past them from the top to the river. Sort of like a less-ugly Roosevelt Island stepped approach.
- I wanted to focus on interesting block sizes, so I chose a square with a courtyard in the middle that could be used for recreation or edible gardening, depending on the character of the space in the buildings (commercial, residential) and users’ preferences. I expanded on the park on the northeast end that appears in the first scheme to create a dialogue with the end of the peninsula as well as a hierarchy of green spaces with the sizing of the courtyards.
- I thought most about traffic circulation in this scheme, creating a green spine and allowing for heavier car circulation around the darker lines. The hatching denotes building height for these blocks, and I hoped to buffer route 250 and the east side of the site with taller buildings.
One of the biggest lessons I took away from this exercise was the importance and difficulty of a seemingly simple concept: scale. I’m doubtful that I’ll ever be master-planning greenfield sites (I hope not, anyway), but it’s important to keep in mind the size of a block or street. I started out with concepts that had too many small blocks, apparent in my first three concept diagrams below. After choosing my diagram, I spent a significant amount of time making sure my blocks were at least 200 to 250 feet in each direction, with buildings sized from 50′ by 50′ to 30′ by 150′.
For our next problem, we’re focusing on a very real site – the dreaded shopping center on Pantops Mountain directly east of Free Bridge, the epitome of Charlottesville-Albemarle area sprawl.
Thankfully, I’ve been tasked with examining the bicycle and pedestrian connections to the site (currently not many), and assessing the site for potential connections. The Old Mills Trail is perhaps one of my most favorite places in Charlottesville – it’s a beautiful place to run or explore along the Rivanna River, and there are some connections to the Pantops Shopping Center that could be strengthened should the space be put to better use. Right now, no bike infrastructure exists in the area, and Free Bridge is plagued with so many lanes of traffic that you have to go up and down the stairs and under the bridge to get to the other side – the process is confusing to the point where I have trouble even articulating it.
I came across some cool visualizations a while ago from I Quant NY, a site that uses open data from New York City to map out and graph out topics of interest, that could provide some useful fodder for inspiring my own site analysis diagrams.
Here’s a shot of some notes I’ve accumulated throughout the various reviews of a design problem in which we essentially planned out a neighborhood on a 10-acre greenfield site. Some interesting points:
- Triangular parks and object buildings are interesting, even whimsical ways to make a certain space more prominent and engage the public with it
- Moving streets off the grid pattern can slow drivers down (but can it also cause headaches for bikers and walkers?)
- The rule of thumb for European public spaces is to ensure they’re small enough so you can recognize a face across the dimensions of the space
The plan of the site, below, shows a residential strip to the west with the character of the Fan in RVA, a commercial area to the north, an area of single-family residential homes to the east, and a natural preservation area to the south, as well as a stream running through the site.
Photos of my design forthcoming!
I chose to make the space a car-free, bike and pedestrian zone with a primary focus on different intensities and uses of park space, from open public park to edible garden to green infrastructure surrounding the stream.
There are countless approaches planners and designers can take in the ever-important task of integrating nature into the urban fabric. Here I’ll highlight just a few.
Low Impact Development, or LID, seeks to shape the landscape in a way that controls storm water where it’s generated, using both natural and engineered features.
One example of LID in Charlottesville is Greenleaf Park’s rain garden off Rose Hill Drive. It employs native species and plants that attract wildlife as well as drought-tolerant plants at top of the slope and moisture-tolerant plants at the bottom. The plants and their root systems filter storm water that runs off roads and asphalt patches nearby. Here’s a video about the construction process, and below is a photo of the park.
In addition to rain gardens, LID can take the form of bioswales, permeable pavement surfaces, subsurface retention and filtration facilities under parking lots and other swaths of pavement, treebox filters, rain barrels, green roofs, and smart landscaping design. See this website for specifics about these and other approaches.
When we build, we inevitably infringe on natural habitat. Habitat fragmentation has threatened the living and migration spaces of species around the world, so some cities and countries have made a concerted effort to build wildlife corridors that maintain ecological throughways around human development.
The Australian government has laid out a National Wildlife Corridors Plan that has resulted in structures like this wildlife bridge overpass in Queensland.
This photo shows Spanish design firm Aldayjover’s plan for a green corridor in Barcelona that includes an “agroforestry matrix.”
Wildlife corridors can span from the small, like a revegetated strip of key habitat along a stream, to the large, like Singapore’s Green Corridor Proposal, which connects key green spaces throughout the country along railway routes.
I conceive a greenway as a spine or a link of green space that connects natural areas throughout the city, often with bicycle and pedestrian access as well as plenty of vegetation and wildlife habitat. Greenways often capitalize on existing natural features like rivers and other waterways.
Manhattan’s extensive greenway system includes the Hudson River Park and the East River Park. I’ve run around the tip of Manhattan on these narrow park spaces that line the city and provide access to parks like Stuy Cove and Battery Island with its recently opened Teardrop Park. See the full map here.
Aldayjover’s plans to restore the famous Diagonal Avenue in Barcelona with a linear park call for a greenway that invokes city dwellers to slow down and interact with nature among rich biodiversity and atop underground public transit routes.
A growing trend in urban space creation is the pocket park, or the park that’s small enough to be located within everyday neighborhood spaces. The idea is that people can have daily interactions with nature without actively choosing to disrupt their routines – they can stroll through a block of green space on their way home from work, for example, in addition to trekking to the larger central-city park on the weekend for a picnic. Pocket parks offer a chance for passive recreation, as opposed to the active recreation that tennis and basketball courts, tracks, and full-scale playgrounds in larger parks afford. Instead, pocket parks can be used for casual walking or simply sitting in a pleasant space. See my previous post for some questions about the goals and value of pocket parks.
This article highlights some of the pocket parks in my home city of Richmond – I’ll admit, some of these are so tucked away that I’ve never stumbled upon them!
Even if you didn’t know the name for it, you’ve probably been through an allee. French for path, aisle, or driveway, an allee in the context of urban nature is a line of trees or vegetation through which people pass. It can provide a degree of enclosure, which pedestrians enjoy, and it can serve to separate foot traffic from vehicular traffic.
Here’s a rather idyllic photo of an allee at Princeton in the fall.
This rendering of an allee comes from plans for Freshkills Park, a 2,200-acre park to be developed atop the former site of the Freshkills Landfill on Staten Island. After a fraught process of closing the landfill, the park will be the largest built in New York City since its most famous 19th-century counterpart, Central Park.
When people don’t interact with nature, they’re not inspired to take care of it. An entire generation of Americans grew up in the suburbs (myself included), isolated from the nature that their homes have covered with manicured lawns and impermeable pavement. Such a disconnect from nature makes people complacent in its invisible destruction – trash simply goes “away,” and the damage of auto emissions goes unnoticed by the human eye. For this reason, cities must incorporate nature within their borders to be sustainable not only in the tangible sense – nature provides vital ecosystem services like storm water management, air pollution mitigation, the list goes on – but also in the intangible sense, in that interaction with nature will drive urban residents to live in a more ecologically conscious way. This week, I’ll explore some ways to embody urban nature and what natural features to consider when planning our cities.
In order to lend urban residents a sense of identity, planners must create a sense of place, starting with the natural features around them. The physiographic province is a division of land area that shares similar features, climate, and geology. Physiographic provinces are what we all learned about under a simpler name – regions of Virginia – in the third grade, and our state’s include:
- Coastal Plain
- Geologically, the easternmost area is composed of layers of sand, clay, marl, and shell, and it stretches from the coast to the fall line. Lots of groundwater is available, but the potential for pollution is high due both to the geology and to the area’s high population density.
- The largest province has a varied geology of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rock formations as well as a range of groundwater quality and supply levels. Its border with the Coastal Plain exists at the fall line, and it encapsulates both of my cities of residence (Richmond and Charlottesville). Richmonders settled where they did because the fall line prevented ships from going any further, and now the city has embraced its riverfront as its greatest natural asset.
- Blue Ridge
- The province containing the Blue Ridge Mountains stretches only four miles wide in some areas, and impervious rock makes for low groundwater supplies.
- Valley and Ridge
- The V&R consists of sedimentary rocks like limestone, which makes for a high pollution potential because groundwater can flow quickly.
- Appalachian Plateau
- The water in the Appalachian Plateau, also called the Allegheny Plateau or the Cumberland Plateau, has largely been polluted by coal mining operations. Mine drainage acidifies the water to the point that it’s no longer usable.
We hear all the time about the James River watershed or the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but what really constitutes a watershed? A watershed is an area where all of the water draining off of the land goes into the same place, and there are watersheds within watersheds. These maps show the major watersheds of Virginia (where water flows into the Atlantic Ocean, the Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi River, or the North Carolina Sounds) and the next-largest denomination. Within the James River watershed, for example, there are numerous watersheds inside where water flows into tributaries, and those watersheds are also divided into countless smaller watersheds.
The boundaries of a watershed are found on its ridge lines, or the high points of the land where water flows in the opposite direction on each side. Cities or important parts of cities are often located on ridge lines, because it’s simply more convenient – less flooding to worry about. Charlottesville’s West Main Street, which connects the Rotunda and the City Courthouse, lies on a ridge that divides the city into two watersheds: Meadow Creek to the north and Moore’s Creek to the south. Here’s my markup of the ridge lines in Charlottesville.
The roots of the term ecotone, the word ecology and the Greek –tonos, literally suggest a tension between two environments. However, an ecotone is an area where two environments meet in a biologically rich setting. Ecotones can occur at the macro scale, like the meeting of the Piedmont region and the Blue Ridge Mountains, or the micro scale, like Meadow Creek and its shores in southern Charlottesville.
When I think locally of ecotones, I think of the Richmond Riverfront Plan’s proposal for riparian terraces along the James River. The plan seeks to capitalize on our city’s greatest natural asset and bring people into contact with urban nature, but in designing for ecotones it’s important to prioritize the well being of the rich ecological landscape that exists there. Designs for terraces in Manchester hope to vegetate the currently cemented floodwall area with non-woody riparian species to add habitat space and decrease erosion.
I finally watched William H. Whyte’s 1979 documentary The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, and while it did make some great points that hold true today – successful urban spaces offer places to sit, water features, food vendors – it left me with more questions than answers. I had to ask myself if 1970s life and 2010s life are similar enough to make the film relevant anymore. I saw images of mostly white women with Farah Faucet-y hair chatting and laughing with street vendors and strangers – but does this happen anymore? In my experience, New York has seemed rather cold; a conversation with the halal man seems strange and impossible when no one even looks each other in the eye. Is it because the city has more immigration, diversity, language barriers?
Perhaps, more insidiously, I’ve been thinking about the degree to which public space is relevant in light of the technological age we live in, which was supposed to make our lives easier so that we could spend more time with each other but instead has perhaps constructed more barriers to interaction than it broke down. Are parks and plazas even relevant when more and more people sink deep into their phones at the instant of creeping boredom instead of looking up and around at the people and place they share space with?
What was and is the purpose of public space? Even if we don’t interact with others, perhaps its point is to allow us to encounter difference where we otherwise would not. The recent design trend toward pocket parks and button parks is a great one – it seeks to allow people everyday interaction with nature in a small, digestible way that doesn’t distract from their daily routines, especially important for people in low-income neighborhoods who don’t live near or have the time to travel to the Central Park of the city. However, pocket parks bring up another concern in relation to larger central parks. While pocket parks serve small neighborhoods that may house people who can’t access a big park farther away, big parks have the ability to draw people from more than one neighborhood and have them encounter different types of people. Is the proliferation of pocket parks decreasing the need for people to travel to more central locations and thereby isolating them in their own neighborhood? Perhaps it depends on the purpose of the very park you’re building – should it encourage daily interaction with nature or encourage public interaction with others in third spaces? And how does this influence the way you design the park?
While these questions remain, I think we can agree that parks aren’t usually a bad thing. Here are some cool parks that inspired me this week.