Tag Archives: node

Making Memories

While my 16-year-old sister was at the beach last month, she stopped by the local bookstore and bought me a copy of The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch. Amazing. A lot has changed since it was published in 1960, but the main idea is just as important today: we should work to enhance the quality of the experience of each city. Is the city easy to navigate? Is it memorable? Is it hospitable?

Throughout the book, Lynch uses small drawings to explain his theories. Now, instead of practice my signature when I’m bored, I’ve been doodling:

Screen shot 2014-06-24 at 5.41.02 PM

This is my idea of the best highway experience. The road travels toward the city, embraces the full broadside view of its beauty, then bends around. In Richmond, there is a reoccurring conversation about the view of Richmond from the highway (especially traveling south on I-95). Lynch’s research gives good context to this and similar, ongoing conversations.

To explain his desire to improve cities, Lynch uses the terms legible and imageable. Basically, does it make sense and is it memorable? If it doesn’t make sense to the viewer then it won’t be memorable. I have to add, you want your city to memorable for the right reasons: beautiful, consistent, dramatic, historic, dynamic, creative, vibrant, efficient.

To describe the “imageable city,” Lynch chooses five elements that he believes make up the urban experience. Each of these can either be completely forgettable or incredibly memorable. Here are some examples from Richmond:

  • Paths (Monument Ave., Grace St., the Boulevard)
  • Edges (the James River)
  • Districts (The Fan, Church Hill, and many others)
  • Nodes (downtown, Carytown, MacArthur Ave.)
  • Landmarks (The Sailors and Soldiers Monument, The Carillon)

Fortunately, Richmond has been blessed with examples that show off the potential beauty of each element. At the same time, there are many issues with the “Richmond image.” To many, it’s a confusing and disconnected city. 

To move forward, we need to find simple ways to turn everyday elements into memorable, quality experiences. For decades, economic development in Richmond equated to wedging large-scale projects in or near the central business district. These projects aren’t going to improve the overall experience of the city. In contrast, improving the most basic elements—paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks—will gradually create what Christopher Silver refers to as the “Good City.”

The real lesson of the book is that urban form is important from border to border. It’s a lesson for us as we work to create the best possible Richmond: a city that is coherent, beautiful, and vital.

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C-T-D: Broadway Center

Here’s the deal: I want downtown to be cool, but I think we need more than one cool place. The historical buildings and “monuments” on the square are worth saving, but they shouldn’t have a monopoly on dense urban development in Tyler. I’m convinced that we can improve downtown and create more high-density developments at the same time. Most importantly, if we connect them to each other, their synergy will have far more positive social and economic impact than they could on their own.

First stop: Broadway Center. Once we have finished building The Complete Loop, we should look to Broadway for the next great artery of development in Tyler. But, instead of the constant retail strip malls and big boxes that you see in South Tyler, this section of Broadway will augment the existing historic neighborhoods with new, high-density developments. Like two weights on the end of a barbell, Downtown and the redeveloped Bergfeld Center will anchor this region. See the difference? Instead of constant retail strip, we will concentrate businesses in two high-density places that will are in close proximity to valuable real estate. It’s better 🙂

Rule #1: Every parking lot in this section has potential for development. It’s a pretty basic rule, but  necessary. Building on parking lots has the capacity to transform ugly/boring/typical spaces into unique and attractive spaces. We also don’t often don’t even realize how incredibly big these parking lots are. We just get used to them so we don’t “see” them any more. I know, people have to park somewhere, but we also deserve to have a beautiful city, right? Let’s find a way to do both.

Rule #2: Reconnect the roads and the complete the grid. More roads means more access and more retail space. In regard to the issue of parking, it also means more on-street parking. If we connect Troup Highway (left) through what is now a parking lot and Stein Mart, it would meen a straight shot to Old Bullard and plenty of places to spend money. Additionally, the connectivity would invite residents of the nearby neighborhoods to visit the new shops, parks and restaurants on their morning walk. According to a recent traffic study, 30,000 cars per day drive by this spot on Broadway — Let’s give them more reason to stop. Also, in order to extend the grid, it would be great to build two new roads through this development in front of (to the right) and behind (left) what is now Stein Mart. This will complete the grid and create city blocks for more dense, protected urban development. Think less people would come? Think again. More people are likely to shop and spend their time in compact, beautiful spaces. These developments are essentially the free-market “one-stop-shop” developments that incorporate a multitude of uses into previously unloved space.

Rule #3: Build to the street on street level. This is important: Don’t pop it up with a “sporty” flight of stairs, don’t put parking in front, and do keep the street trees as a buffer. If there must be parking, put it on the inside of the development. The point is to make the development itself the advertisement for the development. Currently, with a football field of asphalt infront of the strip mall, you have to put a sign out front informing people exactly what it is. With the building built to the road, they will know what it is and they will appreciate the good urbanism.

Rule #4: Finally, of course, make it walkable and bikeable. According to the recent Walk Score report, the most walkable cities in America are, as always, also the coolest cities in America. Tyler was not on the list. Many times when I walk in Tyler I have this feeling like I don’t belong. Today was no different … as I was walking down Old Bullard toward this development the sidewalk ended. There aren’t crosswalks across Old Jacksonville or Broadway and there isn’t a sidewalk along Ninth St. That’s just not acceptable … and more importantly not welcoming. With a little public investment, this could be a completely accessible and welcoming area for everyone.

So that’s the newest node! I’m gradually “Connecting the Dots” in Tyler and hoping one day someone will take my ideas and make lots of money with them.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.

C-T-D: Downtown, no finer place … for sure

If Jane Jacobs is famous for describing “the sidewalk ballet” outside her window in Greenwich Village, I would like to be the first to say Tyler is in a “sidewalk intermission.” There was a time when our downtown was full of people “dancing” around each other to get to the stores and offices, but I believe we are now experiencing the intermission that happens before a renaissance. Rather than hold on with nostalgia to a proud past, we have to look to the future and imagine how downtown will once again be great in a completely new way.

But when did we begin to neglect our downtown? Petula Clark’s  famous ballad, “Downtown,” offers some insight into the process. “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely,” she sings, “you can always go downtown” … “everything’s waiting for you, downtown.” This song is such a incredible artifact of the 60s zeitgeist and a common reference point for urban historians. The paradigm shift is that in the twentieth century (many say after WWII), the dense urban spaces in America became places to visit rather than places to inhabit and as a result they became neither. The problem is that downtown will not always be “waiting for you” if there are not people living there and sustaining it while you’re gone. Like many cities with oil and money, Tyler followed the trend of outward growth and the commuter lifestyle. Fueled by our cheap, local oil we basically packed our cars and left downtown in the dust.

The result of this growth mentality is that we do not have the money to “care about what we already have.” For every new development in Tyler, the public sector is expected to provide roads, sewage, fire departments, police departments, schools, street lights, signs and other various forms of public services and infrastructure. This cost is significant and it is somewhat needless considering there are vast sums of land in the city where services already exist. As the city continues to cater to new developments, we do so rather than reinvesting the money into older, existing spaces elsewhere in the city. These images of Tyler’s downtown (below) are images of a city waiting to be reborn.

Downtown Tyler, TX

So here’s the basic dilemma: How does our local government incentivize businessmen to build on parking lots rather than horse ranches? I suppose it starts with a vision.

Empty lots, parking lots and vacant buildings are waiting for a renaissance. Young people, artisans, and creatives are looking for a place to find community. Some churches desire to feel more connected to the city. Our government deserves to reside in a place of prominence. This is my vision for downtown Tyler as a dense node of city life connected to the rest of the city by transportation and urban design. A great example of this sort of development is Mockingbird Station in Dallas. The place is an incredible example of the potential of a repurposed factory building that is now connected to the DART light rail. It’s attractive, interesting and it has created a significant draw for itself even in its relatively short lifetime. This is the vision I would like to cast for every empty lot in downtown Tyler. Could we do it?

First, I suppose we need a zoning code that allows for a variety of living options such as row houses and lofts next door to hole-in-the wall cafes and shops. A place for people to live. One popular concept promoted by Duany Plater-Zyberk (pictured below) is called the Transect.

The transect is basically a zoning plan that allows for a wide variety of urban forms and gives the city a gradual progression from the urban core all the way out to nature. In addition to new zoning, I am (of course) confident that we need to “connect the dots” of high-density developments with a street car loop along beautiful avenues, bike lanes and sidewalks. All I want is one loop of public investment and long-term commitment to our existing city. The private-sector investments would be astounding. We have already begun to see developers look to the downtown with businesses such as Don Juan’s, Rick’s, Jake’s, the Downtown Coffee Lounge, Balance, and others. What these all need is to be more connected to the city and they will not simply exist as moments of brilliance. Instead, they will reside in an area inhabited by people that have pride in their business and share this pride throughout the city. These people also sustain the economy while visitors increasingly come enjoy the city life.

So there are economic arguments, community arguments, and even valid entertainment arguments for downtowns. To me, the argument for downtowns and urban spaces is more simple: Let’s turn this city (the whole city) into a source of pride. It’s not too late. I don’t want us to look back and wish we had taken our city a little more seriously. We need to allow for a little urban chaos, promote design oddities and find some way to discourage this endless leapfrog development to the next new loop. We need significant places and I believe we need to collectively begin to care about what we already have.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.

Longing for a Heyday

So we all know that our downtowns aren’t what they used to be. They’re cleaner, taller and most importantly (in most places) they’re quieter. There’s just no people. But we Americans also all seem to carry this strange collective memory of a heyday when our cities and our downtowns were bustling, busy, smelly and successful.

In that era, downtown was a source of pride and a symbol of ambition and progress. In her book Downtown America, Alison Isenberg describes downtown as the cite of transformation, protest, destruction and renewal. Most importantly, she argues, the history of downtown America teaches us about ourselves as Americans and specifically what we value. She writes,

“It has been the people — their crusades, their financial stake, their ideals, and their changing priorities — that have given meaning, hopes, and limitations to the material condition of downtown and that ultimately have given Main Street its form. This interplay puts buildings up and takes them down (Insnberg, 316).

It was people who cast a vision for a space and called it downtown. They called it special — worth taking a risk and worth making bold statements. But today downtown America is mostly just a few lines on a historical marker, “This place was once great because ___.” There are very few people who live downtown, there is little diversity, and most of the buildings are relics of a once-proud past. We have lost downtown and the institutions that resided there. All we have now is a memory of a space and an incredible longing for the heyday of our cities.

In the past few months I have visited two small towns that perfectly encapsulated this nostalgia. The first is Houma, Louisiana and the second is Ilwaco, Washington. In Houma, I experienced the mélange of Louisiana cultures: Country music bars, party busses blaring rap music (it was Mardi Gras weekend), old southern mansions, a beautiful old courthouse and food carts serving Mexican food. As I walked through the city I noticed a mural of an old “Main St.” scene (above). “A look in to the past …” the mural reads, “Historic Downtown Houma.” The larger image is of “Main Street looking west” and the smaller image to the right is of the old Houma Courthouse ca. 1906.  I suppose this mural, sponsored by the Downtown Business Association, was an attempt to remind people in the region of the proud history of Houma. Hopefully visitors will enjoy a stroll “into the past,” spend their money, and come again.

The second example of a nostalgic mural (left) is a little more complex. It is titled a “Main Street” mural in Ilwaco, WA located on, not Main St., but Spruce St. at the intersection of First Ave. This mural depicts the same nostalgia for a bustling past with cars! trains! A/C grid! and a man with a hat! walking through the street. This is clearly  a mural of past progress and innovation. When I looked closer, however, I realized that it’s actually a mural of a mural of progress. On the left side of the mural, there’s a boy walking with a skateboard toward the mural of the old Main St.  The boy seems to represent a newer sort of progress, but is placed in context of the historical legacy of the city.

So what are these murals trying to say?

Greg Dickenson writes extensively about the connection between memory and place and the significance of both on personal identity. He considers the new spaces that we inhabit (e.g. McDonalds and strip malls) which seem devoid of historical context. They are clean and new, but what do these spaces lack? Dickenson’s perspective states,

“In a post-traditional period, a time of deepening memory crisis, secured place becomes harder and harder to maintain, giving rise to nostalgia to cover the discomforts of the present.”

This nostalgia is often revealed in murals such as the two above as well as in old photographs, old marquees, historical markers and similar references to the past. It is sort of a cheap nostalgia because it really doesn’t help us to understand the complexities of the past. I think that a more complex history would defeat the purpose of increasing tourism because it wouldn’t make people feel “comfortable” in these nostalgic places. The problem with that simple message is that when downtown was bustling it was a complex place. As long as we continue to sanitize (“suburbanize”) our cities for the sake of visitors and tourism we fail to revitalize (“urbanize”) our downtowns.

Isenberg, Alison. Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2004.
Dickinson, G. (1997). “Memories For Sale: Nostalgia and the Construction of Identity in Old Pasadena,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 83, 1-26.

C-T-D: Thoughts on “Downtown”

I would love to start drawing a map for downtown Tyler. I’ve already written extensively about an imaginary place I call the Urban Valley, but right now I have this burning question in my mind, “Do we want a downtown in Tyler?” If yes, then for what purpose?

You see, there is this crime that occurs when people try to “bring the suburbs in to the city.” I’m worried we don’t quite realize that the two concepts are completely antithetical. Suburban settlements usually have large parking lots, small wooded areas and one-story detached buildings. These should have very little relevance in a downtown. Take a look at the photo of the parking lot. Does this photo look like a city? (Side note: The city of Tyler has looked into building a parking garage here, but most likely won’t put floorspace on the first floor) The real tragedy is that there were likely beautiful buildings here that served a whole variety of purposes. Now, this entire city block serves one purpose: The storage of cars (idea cite: Douglass Rae). Urban space should be considered so valuable that buildings are next to each other, green space is a planned park or garden and cars cannot be given ultimate precedence. In all sincerity, we have enough suburbs in Tyler … please, first and foremost, let downtown be urban.

I believe that the potential of every space is limited by real and imagined barriers. If there are real, perhaps topographical, barriers to building a higher density downtown than I’ll be content to give up this dream. I just don’t think that’s the case. Most barriers I would consider “real” are primarily economic, but as long as people continue to build farther south I’ll contend that they might as well build downtown. To me, it’s the imagined barriers that I can’t stand. If it’s a zoning issue, some regulation, or a city of small dreams then I won’t be satisfied. Cities do not become great with small dreams. Cities become great when people do bold things that the mainstream calls crazy. Take, for instance, the Seattle Public Library (pictured). This building is a strikingly beautiful and completely functional structure that could theoretically be built anywhere on any square piece of land. In Seattle, they love it. Could we love this library? I should add, there are people in Tyler doing great work to revitalize our downtown, but I’m just not sure whether the public will appreciate it.

Another possible impediment to Tylerites embracing urban life is a lack of urbanity. It seems like Tylerites like to live in wooded neighborhoods rather than urban spaces. Most of Tyler is so spread out that we don’t always have to interact with people who are different from us on a regular basis. I fear we’re missing the beauty and diversity of urban life. But could it be that there is simply not a viable urban option? I say yes. I bet there are thousands of people in East Texas that are tired of mowing their lawns, driving everywhere and living far away from “the action.” I bet if we promote city life in Tyler and remove P&Z red tape then people will come from all over to create and inhabit a thriving downtown.

The other day, my friend Dustin asked me what my ideal downtown would look like if I could design it. I said that there really isn’t (or shouldn’t be) an ideal downtown. As long as there are people there at every hour of the day and night; as long as there are public spaces that welcome every citizen of the city; as long as people claim it rather than exploit it; as long as it’s traditional, deviant, creative and ultimately “Tyler,” then that will be perfect no matter what it looks like.

Look at the arial photo of Tyler to the left. These nine city blocks should not look like everywhere else in the city because if they do then they will be no longer be significant. Downtowns are places where you can live to not only experience the diversity of other people’s lives, but most importantly you can personally add to the diversity of self expression, culture, perspective, race, ethnicity, etc. When we begin to add to this multi-cultural society and invest in the community we become a part of organizations and we learn what it means to be citizens instead of consumers. I don’t want us to “consume” downtown as entertainment the same way we sometimes consume church, media and everything else. Rather, we must commit to downtown as an idea and be unified on our goal at the outset. This idea is that, in many ways, downtown is what we look to as the zenith of our city’s development. I believe there is an inherent value to dense urban downtowns as the site of culture creation, political debate and financial stability. Our downtown is a vital element of the future of our city as the capitol of East Texas. We need a viable downtown option, but we have to want it. And we have to know what it is.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.

C-T-D: The Rose Garden Complex

There are many proud  Tylerites who love the Tyler Rose Garden while also thinking that it needs some work. It’s heralded as the largest municipal rose garden in the nation (impressive), but for  some reason it just doesn’t do it for people. It doesn’t have pull. For the past few days I’ve been thinking about the garden and wondering what Tyler could change to make it a more desirable destination. When I drove there myself, I realized something: The Rose Garden can’t be significant on it’s own.

While there are several components of “The Rose Garden Complex,” they don’t form a cohesive destination. They’re essentially separated from each other by roads and parking lots. As it is, this expanse of asphalt ruins what could be a really cool Rose Garden Complex experience. I wonder if Depave would be willing to help us take it out because it’s got to go. It does not draw you towards anything or direct you to go anywhere. Most of the parking lots don’t even have lines marking individual spots … it is truly formless space.

If you look through the photo album at the end of this post, I think you’ll notice what I’m talking about. I was even impressed and I was expecting a lot of asphalt. I found myself thinking that we patterned our parking lot design after the ship harbor design. It might be because the huge Rose Festival floats need a place to sit and maneuver before starting the annual parade. While that may be the case, I think we can find some parking elsewhere in Tyler … their waiting area on one day of the year shouldn’t hold back the entire space.  Besides, wouldn’t it be more fun to parade through a beautiful space?

Fortunately for Tyler, a blank slate is a great place to start. My mind has wandered for hours these past few days and it finally arrived at the place pictured to the right. It looks like the Tyler Rose Garden Complex, but the center of the picture is grass (light green), trees (dark green dots), and rose bushes (dark green squiggly lines). And a water feature! (blue dot where the paths converge). In this place, the view from Harvey Hall is grand: Down a path bordered by trees, across a great lawn and toward the old fairgrounds and the Rose Garden. There is nothing but trees and grass between Harvy and the Rose Garden so that people can walk from one to another in the cool shade of trees. The Rose Garden itself hasn’t changed much except for the addition of an amphitheater (!) for live converts. (Big shout out to fellow visionary Tom Ramey and others for the idea of making the Rose Garden a music venue).

“Live at the Rose Garden” is the hottest tagline in East Texas because (you guessed it) the backdrop to the concert is the largest municipal rose garden in the nation and for once there is something to do while you’re looking at it. This amphitheater looks like the one from the Portland Rose Garden (to the right), but it’s better because it’s facing the flowers instead of big bushes. Every Friday night during the summer there’s a live concert here and people come from all over to fall in love with the place (and return again). When they arrive, they exit the street car at the stop just outside Harvey Hall on Front St. If they’re driving, they’re directed to park in one of the parking garages (PG) or lots (P) located on the perimeter of the complex. The roads within the complex also have on-street parking and handicapped spots closer to the center of the site. They all meet at the new roundabout in the middle.

Once they’ve parked, they walk down a number of brick paths (red) or bike in the bike lanes along each street (black) to get to the amphitheater. Every Friday night during football season people come early before the games to walk to the lawn that is lit up with lights from the trees. The Rose Garden is even open on these game nights with special events to keep people in the area. All this visiting is great business for the bars and restaurants that opened up in the former fairgrounds buildings! That whole area was rezoned to allow mixed-use infill development so there’s even a small community of people living in apartments with a view of the lawn and garden. They go on walks down the brick paths and do stair runs up the amphitheater in the mornings to stay in shape.

Whew! That place is so alive and engaging that people (even locals) don’t have to have a reason to visit. They just want to be there. Stay tuned for the next place my mind wanders to! I’m thinking it might visit a place that’s more urban … in the meantime, enjoy these photos from the Tyler Rose Complex! It’s ripe for redevelopment.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX Page.

The Rose Complex