Monday, March 23, 2015

20 Year of Urban Design in Maine 17

We must move from object-oriented thinking to public space-oriented thinking.

Continuing discussion of my generic good walkable urban design article I wrote in September 2008 just as the world was about to collapse: 

In my last post I talked about creating town buildings that formed great urban space and each building may be used in any number of ways. And that specific function buildings like libraries and gyms could be used by many ages and at all hours so we didn’t waste money and space on having a different one of each for each age group. I posted the article as well. 

For instance we might have a post office booth in a town building so there was a post office in each town without having to build a separate building. Essentially that focusing on walkable neighborhoods that contained life’s spaces made for a better quality of life.

Traditionally when we look to build a new public building we find a place for a building by searching for empty lots near the existing facility or greenfield sites near popular roads easily driven to. We create objects that are given a little extra care architecturally if they are important. This I call object-oriented city/town planning thinking. 

This sort of planning leads to facilities scattered about, each dressed up according to importance and not necessarily linked in any way. They are like objects placed randomly on a table. Some of those objects may be beautifully designed but as each one is built there is no greater space or experience formed by them; no link between adding and a overall experience.

When you are in Venice walking down a path along a canal and into a piazza or over a bridge, you don't care what is behind one door or another. If one door had a school and one a post office and one a facilities maintenance bureau offices that's fine. It's the urban space formed by the buildings that makes for a great experience. 

If you are making great spaces with your plan then every time a new building goes up a more wonderful public space is created. And each piece adds to the whole. With a good plan every time someone builds people of the area are happier as the public space becomes better and better; their place becomes better.

My mantra is, "Each piece adds to the greater whole."

We must break from object-oriented public buildings thinking and move to urban space-oriented public spaces thinking.

Friday, January 16, 2015

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 16

  (Cheeky graphics by Telegram staff but town green clearly visible.)
In September 2008 I wrote a sort of generic good walkable urban design article just as the world was about to collapse. My main point was that we could create town buildings that formed great urban spaces and each building may be used in any number of ways. And that specific function buildings like libraries and gyms could be used by many ages and at all hours so we didn’t waste money and space on having a different one of each for each age group.

Here's the article as it appeared in the Maine Sunday Telegram:

Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram Insight section:

Close To Home
Copyright 2008 Michael Belleau

Get in the minivan and drive to school to drop off kids. Drive to work. Drive back to school to pick kids up. Drive to soccer field for kids practice. Drive to grocery store. Drive to music lesson. Drive to everything.

Until now, we have located all our daily activities on the basis of driving to them. All of our decisions were based on how much driving time it took. When building a soccer field location was determined by how many minutes drive it was for the most people. When locating schools we looked at how long a trip it was for buses. When purchasing a home we looked at how long a drive it was to school and work. All the talk of building village communities with open surrounding land and the, ‘New Urbanism’, movement did nothing to impact potential homeowners from purchasing the best house and lot for the money they had regardless of whether it was in town or not. Even the sustainability movement could not change the power of best-lot-for-money and drive time equation.

Now things are changing.

We are trapped. We buy hybrid cars. We still drive them in frantic pick up and drop off routines and time consuming stressful daily circuits of pavement. Much of our time is spent chatting on cell phones while driving, hoping to get some joy from conversation while stuck in a discorporate (out of body) space. Fat, stressed and isolated we feel happy to be a part of the culture but strangely out of sorts. Something doesn’t seem right.

Now is probably the time to bring the sustainability movement, the new urbanism, the cost of oil, and our own unease together to return to a pedestrian way of life.

Imagine waving from your front door as you children leave to walk to school. Imagine if the soccer practice was a 10-minute walk from home. Imagine walking by the grocery store on your way home from the field. Imagine during that walk you were accompanied by another parent also walking home! Our whole automobile centered living paradigm must change.

We can start by creating neighborhood zones using the 10-minute walk as our maxim. Luxembourgian architect Leon Krier who had studied the work of the Austrian Camillo Sitte forcefully propagated this urban design concept. By locating elementary school, library branch, post office, sports field, grocery store, YMCA, etc. in each neighborhood, our lives are made simple and sustainable.

Schools are most easily taken on as the state could mandate this. By taking a facilities-centric approach we can create flexible places for the community. If you have a neighborhood gym then children can use it during the day and other community events at other times. As number of children changes the rooms used for classes can be used for other things if facility is considered part of the neighborhood’s available space. Middle and high schools can be located within a longer walk- slightly longer for middle (15 minutes?) and substantially for high school (20 minutes?).

Similarly with the library, we can discard the old precedent of having one large municipal library where all printed matter is stored as if we are still using it as the only source of information. Branch libraries can be small and staffed by few with a small children’s books section and one-day delivery of interlibrary books and videos for others as well as internet terminals and an expert on information retrieval on hand. Audio and video books could be distributed with mp3 devices loaned out. These places can have the latest technology for those who have older technology. If this is part of a neighborhood building then meeting space can be shared and the elementary school can use the same library.

Post offices should be just a stall staffed by one in a neighborhood building with people in a hurry going to the central city one.

Grocery stores are market driven but can be encouraged through town incentives. If people are creating pedestrian traffic, the market will respond and partner with town planners.

Sports fields are multi-use and best located in each neighborhood. This may require eminent domain but at fair market price they are well worth having in each neighborhood for obvious reasons. Fields can be used as parks, sport fields, town squares, and community activity hubs. Retired people can sit and watch games and wildlife. Saturday vegetable outdoor markets can be there. This is the single most important space from an American culture point of view and we need to have large spaces for this in each neighborhood.

Now, whether a YMCA runs the community exercise facility or the municipality does, this type of gym, pool, exercise space can be in a community building along with other facilities so that space is shared and not locked into single program ownership; a facilities-centric approach. By leasing these spaces to the Y for community programs we can avoid complicated bureaucracy if that becomes an issue (just as mail is best left to the federal post office).

Now no one can make people move into neighborhood centers and leave the open suburban lots behind but if we work together as a state we can get the infrastructure in place for healthy sustainable lifestyles. This old bumper sticker of mine I found the other day says, “If the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow.”

If the state leads, eventually the people will follow.

Michael Belleau is principal of Michael Belleau Architect in Portland Maine. He has written articles on urban design in Maine for this paper previously and can be reached at

Next I'll discuss the break with traditional icon oriented, or object oriented city/town facilities thinking.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 15

Deering Oaks Park as Portland's oasis.
This post continues to discuss my 2003 article proposing design changes to show Deering Oaks could be our Central Park. I believe we are on the verge today of making moves to transform the park into Portland's great oasis. Removing the auto centric scars that State and High streets cut into the park is key and with the cleaning up of Kenduskeag Street so it stops a block short of Forest will enable us to move forward with Forest Ave as a pedestrian boulevard. Cutting out roads through the park forces us to make Forest Avenue a major auto and pedestrian route and this means boulevard. By eliminating the cloverleafs at 295 and substituting on and off ramps with stop signs, people and bicycles can move out and into town under shade trees and with a metropolitan flair.

One thing about my proposal looking back would be to ignore the sinking of State and just eliminate it for autos entirely. This is on par with current models showing people will use a number of streets to reach each individuals particular destination and time is not lost eliminating one option. Also, pedestrian advocate groups like one in Portland are embracing turning the classic interstate through cities (like 295) into a surface boulevard and ending the poor planning of past.

Here is the second half of the article (part 2; see previous blog for part 1):

Deering Oaks Heading for Dead End
By Michael Belleau copyright 2003

...As it works now, many of those using the park arrive by car. A true city park should be a natural walk from one errand or household. In order to achieve this, we need to eliminate the two highway-like roads that slice through the park like violent gashes in a gentle oasis. Healing these wounds would allow residents and visitors to walk to the park from all over Portland: the Portland Public Market, the main post office, the University of Southern Maine, Congress Street, Middle School, and the West End, Back Cove and downtown.

In order to transform the park into a true urban back yard, three changes must take place:
  • Heal the scars caused by High and State streets.

Assuming that federal funds are out of the question on a big scale, it is State Street that does the most damage, cutting a third of the way into the park's rectangle.

This must be run under the park for as great a distance as affordable. Obviously, the area alongside the lake would be a great place for the road to disappear underground and allow park users to play on that edge. Assuming dropping the road underground twice is expensive, the city should study where to run State Street underground.

This study should look not only at easing the flow of pedestrians, but also at the emotional perception of the rectangle as a whole. And if a full tunnel is too expensive, running State Street underground can be achieved by spending only for depressing the road and covering it with a wide pedestrian area with soundproofing sprayed underneath.

Next, High Street is close enough to Forest Avenue that the two should be combined into a Parisian boulevard, with Forest Avenue at the post office turned into a 15-mph one-way side street with parallel parking, as a boulevard would have. Pedestrians must be able to enjoy slow, casual pace crossing from the post office into the park, waiting for only one light at High Street and then getting total access to the park.

As we all know, Forest Avenue is a nightmare to walk down going out of town by 295 and almost impossible to walk across once you get to the park area- and it stays that way going out of town.

  • The park must feel like a room with buildings forming four walls, like Central Park.

This means finding ways to build tight to the sidewalks surrounding it. Park and Forest avenues work well as is. It would be great if the middle school dide could be built tight to a large sidewalk and indoor sports facilities could be built alongside 295.

  • Connections in the form of sidewalks and lights must be run in straight lines into Deering Oaks from areas surrounding the park.

These rhythms of light and path will strengthen the feeling for us, while walking, of the park's being a room in a series of urban spaces all liked as in a house

If Deering Oaks is the hub of the city, the real estate on Park Avenue could be compared to the buildings that line Central Park.

And to help establish the park as the city's mall-like showpiece (think Washington D.C.), a major science museum or other crowd-drawing institution should occupy the post office area. (This supposes that the annex to the original will become available when the new distribution center is built.) Twain Braden proposed the idea of an indoor botanical garden to me a few years ago, and that would appeal to all of us year-round. The park would then have neighborhoods and institutions surrounding it.

Depressing 295 like 95 does in downtown Providence would be helpful to the city in all areas but not critical to the park's fulfilling it's 80 percent of its potential.

In 2000, I took part in the Bayside design workshop run by Alan Holt of Portland's planning department, and there were many schemes linking Bayside with the park. (Look for the forthcoming book about Holt's Bayside and waterfront meetings.) The star urban design guru headlining the event, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, suggested sinking 295 as a way to reclaim the visual and pedestrian connections between the sides.

Take a map of Portland out of your kitchen drawer and it's obvious that Deering Oaks is our chance to make a new center uniting both sides of 295 into a whole: our Central Park, our oasis in the urban fabric.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 14

In July 2003 I wrote this article thinking Deering Oaks could be our Central Park. It was supposed to be. Both designed in the English pastoral and picturesque style. I thought how can we make this our jewel in the middle of Portland? First we need to get rid of State and High cutting through and make Forest Ave into a boulevard. And strengthen access into it.

As you can see both parks dominate the surrounding areas:
Central Park
Deering Oaks Park

Except that Deering Oaks has a freeway and cloverleaf exits bullying their way into what could be a peaceful oasis amidst the various neighborhoods.

Here is the first half of the article:

Deering Oaks Heading for Dead End
By Michael Belleau copyright 2003

Beautiful, tall, shady trees dot the gently rolling grass. Children laugh and dance through a pool of fountains that turn on and off, to the youngster's surprise. Music soothes the souls of families who are a mixture of ages, colors and means. People stroll between carts of fresh flowers and vegetables. Baseball diamonds, basketball and tennis courts, and playgrounds supply spaces to play. Skaters carve generous arcs on the the large pond. As a public park was meant to be, this park is ideal as an outdoor living room for all who visit or reside in Portland.

And then, as skaters sit down to take off their skates, a swarm of cars whizzes by at 35 miles an hour- just a couple of feet away. Looking across State Street, another two large areas of the park lie empty.

Deering Oaks is our jewel- our diamond in the rough. Like Central Park, Deering Oaks is a large rectangle in the middle of a city and proportionally probably similar. If we put our minds to it, we should be able to make a back yard out of it and use it to its full potential.

Deering Oaks takes its name from the Deering family, descendants of a wealthy ship builder who bought up much of the land around Back Cove in the 1760s. Originally, the area of the park was full of thick woods and tidal marsh. A wood in which Longfellow hunted ducks and read as a boy, it was a wilderness amidst pastures.

After the town of Deering was incorporated in 1871, an editorial appeared two years later calling for the annexing of the town by Portland and the creation of a park in this area. “It would be to them (Portlanders) what Central Park is to New York....”, the writer said. The Deering family and others agreed to the park idea and the land became public in 1879.

Horse races, sledding and circuses created activity in the fields. The city's civil engineer transformed the park by creating a skating pond and a bandstand and bridges. Portland architect Frederick Thompson created a stone structure as a waiting room. Deer, bears and monkeys were donated, eventually leading to a zoo. The first playground was built here. The rose circle came in 1931 and Portland architect John Calvin Stevens designed the post office facing the park. The park was full of all kinds of people from all parts of the city.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the park became a seedy place. The city had neglected it. But in 1982, what became the annual Deering Oaks Family Festival started, helping to reinvigorate the park. The neighborhoods responded as well with foot patrols, and eventually, the city began a park ranger program in 1991.

A master plan children's play fountain pool, Shakespeare in the park, summer music, and a food and flowers market have combined with the many playing fields to turn Deering Oaks into a true city playground. But it is sliced in two by auto traffic and not truly integrated into the city's urban fabric.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 13

As I mentioned in my last blog entry, I loved the Camden Market in London and thought Portland Maine could use that great urban experience. The thriving, burbling market atmosphere jived nicely with the current ideas on economic stability. The relatively new science of complexity shows us that a healthy macrosystem can only be achieved through a large number of very small changing events. Economists use complexity theory to show that a healthy macroeconomic system can only be achieved though a large number of very small changing businesses. 

In Maine, instead of people creating things at home and then jumping to a storefront on Congress Street and failing, we could have a street market as a step up from selling at home and a step before opening a storefront which would ensure more likely success and economic stability.

Here's the second half of the original article:

(To Jumpstart Livelihoods, Create A True Marketplace
By Michael Belleau copyright 2001)

...I propose that Portland make a big space for a marketplace, say six to ten times the size of Monument Square. A location within walking distance to the Old Port is key, but marketplaces can be in any area. They do not call for precious sites like the Old Port.

I have been to many markets in Europe, which you come upon by walking through the streets. These are dynamic places. Indoor markets, such as Fanueil Hall in Boston or the GUM in Moscow are one or two levels up from the starter stall of the street market. Frankly, they don't count as marketplaces in the traditional sense.

They are more like malls, and that is why the wonderful Portland Public Market (since closed a few years after this article was published) does not work as a market but more as a mall with restaurants and outlet stalls. This market has done great things by placing a public place in an area in need.

I lived in London for a short time and used to go to the Camden Market in the Camden Town section of the city on Saturdays. There, all kinds of products were for sale, and you could always find something someone made or resold that you needed.

It might be a sweater, socks, jewelry, books, or things completely invented by creative people, who all looked different from each other and had different temperaments and attitudes.

It is no secret that clothing designers go to marketplaces to discover the next trend.

When I walk into a marketplace I always feel I am in the beating heart of life itself. A thriving human life, unpredictable and yet continuously celebrating human existence.

A marketplace is the perfect petri dish for enterprise to grow. It is a seemingly chaotic system based on simple rules of stall and product that achieves remarkable success because it is always changing and adapting.

The relatively new science called, "complexity", used by economists, shows us that a healthy macrosystem such as an economy can only be achieved through a large number of very small changing events. 

Success at the marketplace micro level can lead to opening a shop on Congress Street with a good chance at success.

Without a micro success, macro successes are reserved for the gifted business person or the person with startup capital he can afford to lose.

The marketplace is not just for those without money. A person from a household with some means may want to stay at home and knit sweaters that she can sell at a stall, her children by her side.

Our education and career systems train us to go to school every day and learn how to focus for long periods of time in order to pick a career and then go to work from 9 to 5 and behave within very strict, "norms".

But people are all very different from one another and one person's normal is not necessarily another's. Employers expect a person to show up at a certain time and behave a certain way. Marketplaces are performance based. They allow for quirks in behavior and changing patterns of sales techniques. 

Our fixation on careers bypasses the most critical component of free enterprise: the mechanism to start from scratch with no established path of study.

Creating a marketplace is like handing everyone a fishing pole instead of handing out fish.

Monday, May 26, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 12

In 2001, while living in Portland, I had an idea that Portland could use an outdoor market like I had gone to in Camden Town in London on the weekends. While living in London we would walk along the canal over to Camden Town on Saturday's and visit the market. There were permanent shops and large outdoor weekend stalls set up in various open spaces. Thousands of people swarmed around looking for bargains on a myriad of offerings. Never is a city so alive as when it's market stalls buzz with activity. From ancient times to today, the market continues to provide connections between citizens and place. 

Despite all the Amazon's direct shipping and Google product searching, walking through stalls looking and discovering amongst people chatting and making direct personal connections in public or semi public space has no substitute. This is the urban experience. In Portland we had at the time a glossy indoor market attempt (since failed) but no outdoor market other than little farmer's markets. In addition there were/are plenty of people who could make things and sell them to begin to develop a business. So this article discussed how Portland can use an outdoor market to bridge the gap between making things at home and selling them and actually renting retail space on Congress Street and paying utilities, etc. besides which is way too big a leap for most businesses. It appeared in the Business section. Here's the first half of the original article:

To Jumpstart Livelihoods, Create A True Marketplace
By Michael Belleau copyright 2001

What do you do when you have nothing: no job, money, higher education or particular skills?

You can attempt to get a low-wage job- say in fast food- or look for handouts. And while many of us have a career or two, many other Mainers lead simpler lives, lives that are productive and engaging, but which the shoe called career never quite fit.

These days, high school graduates are under enormous pressure to pick a career and go to college to learn it. In America, we are expected to take out huge loans and then have some vague notion of our intended profession at the end.

But when we go for our first job interview, we have no experience and at 21 we are like 10-year-olds.

For most American families, there is no daily life for children around working adults, which would help to educate and inform young people about the working world around them, and cultivate their interests for the future.

American life- middle class life- depends almost exclusively on an academic path to choosing a career, leaving a whole underclass and middle class of people to fend for themselves.

Instead of career choice in the form of textbooks, we need to offer children daily exposure to careers and the American workplace. And not just through field trips.

We offer community college as a great opportunity to learn web design or some other vocation, but with an assumption that there is money available to start an enterprise.

Where do we go to start making money to eat and cover other basic needs?

Marketplaces have traditionally served this function. In the third world, they are places of commerce. In European cities, there are many marketplaces, such as Portabello Road in London (watch Disney's "Beadknobs And Broomsticks"), in which a person can attempt to make money from imagination with little capital.

Without these marketplaces we have no mechanism to start the process of success from scratch.

I propose that Portland make a big space for a marketplace, say six to ten times the size of Monument Square. A location within walking distance to the Old Port is key, but marketplaces can be in any area. They do not call for precious sites like the Old Port.

Next blog I will include the rest of the article and discuss the step by step business success process (using the outdoor market as step two from home to storefront) while creating the urban place we all crave.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 11

Picking up from where I left off in the last post regarding my 1997 urban design article in the Maine Sunday Telegram titled, "A Sense of Place"- 

While living in Camden I noticed a new high school was going to be built 3 miles out of town so I wrote an article in 1997. Camden Maine was an amazing little town with the town hall, police, fire, library, schools, Y, town landing in town. The current school was in town and almost all the kids walked to school and walked down to bagel shop and over to the Y in town for swimming or sailing and lived a wonderful holistic life. The new state of the art school would mean all would have to be bussed to and from and parents would have to drive them everywhere. I thought the existing old mill building right in town over a stream with high ceilings and lots of space would be perfect if they moved the credit card telemarketing company out (that company eventually did leave). I said Portland school stayed in town. They built the new Y out of town too so the kids couldn't just walk there for lessons, etc.

Speaking of walking I had time to write this for a few days as I was lying in bed barely able to move after injuring my back somehow during basketball game. Another anecdote is this time is when my first son began to walk and holding his hand we would step down the granite blocks along the stream and bay.

After the article the state did start looking at schools staying in walkable areas so perhaps my urban design work began to have an effect. It's always hard to tell as I've never been contacted by any state or municipal planners, etc. regarding any of my articles.  

Quoting from the end of the article: An exchange student from Switzerland was interviewed recently regarding her experiences so far in the United States. She said it was so different, all this rushing around by car to run simple errands. In her village, people walk. ``Things are so hectic here,'' she said. ``We move a lot slower where I come from. My house is closer to everything there, and it's new to always have to drive somewhere. We don't even have school buses there.''
Where was she? Los Angeles? Miami? Some New Jersey suburb?
She was in Camden, Maine.

Here is the second half of the article 'A Sense of Place' as published in spring of 1997:

In the future we will have access to unlimited alternate realities in 3-D video. Access to our institutions, such as libraries, town offices, police, fire department and even schooling may come through the video world. From a purely pragmatic view, there will cease to be a need for many institutional buildings. Based strictly on the numbers, we might say that life will be more efficient without them.
But no matter how many tasks we can accomplish with the computer or how entertained our children can be by one, we will always desire to be around people for a certain amount of time each day. How many of us go into a shop after work just to be around people, even if we don't need to purchase anything?
Therefore, our institutions might simply change to fulfill needs that are not based solely on function. The library may be a ``quiet zone''; the police station will contain a ``safe zone.'' We can develop our public spaces based on emotional values.
In Orono, I lived across the street from the road up to the high school, so I walked to school. The high school in Orono contains the public library. The building sits behind the middle school, which sits behind the police/fire station/town office building, which sits on Main Street.
After school we could walk into town, and maybe go to Pat's Pizza or LaVerdiere's. The institutional buildings were all placed in town because it was common sense to do so. We must use common sense when placing our institutions in the future.
The zoning laws we write are the rules by which developers play. Any time we see a building go up that does not fit our concept of what our town should be, we have only ourselves to blame. The rules we write are the basis for the creation of our towns, and we need to incorporate goals that are in step with the experiences we would like to have in moving by foot through our town. These rules should incorporate networks of experiences such as the movement from library to school; from town hall to post office; from police station to town hall; from shops to school, etc.
When we plan our public institutions around automobile traffic, we place the comfort of a large piece of metal over our own comfort. We try in vain to have a meaningful conversation in five seconds as we pick up a burger at the drive-through window. And while our cars sit comfortably in their spaces, we wander aimlessly through seas of asphalt to complete simple chores.
In Camden, the best place for a new high school may be smack in the middle of town in the old mill now used as offices for a telemarketing company. That company with all its commuters may in fact be better off at the proposed high school site. That would make common sense.
An exchange student from Switzerland was interviewed recently regarding her experiences so far in the United States. She said it was so different, all this rushing around by car to run simple errands. In her village, people walk. ``Things are so hectic here,'' she said. ``We move a lot slower where I come from. My house is closer to everything there, and it's new to always have to drive somewhere. We don't even have school buses there.''
Where was she? Los Angeles? Miami? Some New Jersey suburb?
She was in Camden, Maine.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 10

Returning to Maine from London where I had studied at the Architectural Association, we settled in Camden where my first son was born in 1995. Camden is an idyllic small town with a thriving Main street and cozy harbor. In Camden the kids walked to school for the most part and then downtown and to the Y and bagel shop. Parents could let them get there by themselves. Children could walk out the door in the morning and go to school, hang out after, go to swimming lessons, etc. all downtown and walk home for supper. Then I saw they were going to build the new high school 3 miles out of town. Now everyone was going to bussed to everything.

Here is the first half of the article 'A Sense of Place' as published in spring of 1997:

It's three o'clock in the afternoon and Camden's village center is full of kids. The library, the parks, the churches, the YMCA - institutions all clustered in the village center - begin to fulfill their roles as stages for the next generation's concept of who they are - where they're from.
Each morning, children clamber onto bicycles or walk the short distance to school, which is centrally located. Buses reach out to gather those living on the periphery. This ritual, repeated over and over, becomes one of the strongest identity factors in each child's life: ``I am from here; this is my street; this is my path to school; this is my town; this is my place to play hackysack.'' Although we live in the information age, some things, like our senses, never change.
When it came time to expand Camden's library, the town didn't think, ``Hmmm, let's sell this old landmark and build a new library on a greenfield site a couple of miles from downtown, where square footage costs will be low and vehicle circulation will be optimal and there will be plenty of parking.''
No, the thinking went more like, ``How can we add the space and preserve the character and enjoyable space outside as it relates to the town as a whole?'' Priority was given to strengthening the quality of the village concept. This respect and commitment to the idea of village was so strong that the new library wing is actually underground.
Now Camden and its surrounding towns are going to build a new regional high school on a greenfield site three miles from downtown. It will be a wonderful school and everyone is very excited about it. Many of our new schools around the state are being built at similar locations. This is logical, given the need for a large building, for large amounts of land for athletic fields and for easy access for buses, which will be necessary for transporting so many kids who used to walk to school.
But it occurred to me that something precious will be lost. And will continue to be lost unless we put our heads together and come up with some solutions.
On the one hand, each new facility built on an open site on the outskirts of town will function very efficiently, with one building, ball fields and bus traffic all taken care of.
On the other hand, the car appears to have won. Traffic engineering would appear to be the most important factor, along with square-foot costs, in deciding where to build a school. Almost all the kids attending the school will be bused in, or will arrive by private automobile. The same criteria that govern the building of suburban malls by private developers appear to have been applied here. No more stepping out of the classroom and into the town square; the kids will line up at the curb waiting for rides home.
BASED PURELY on the numbers, the greatest need in planning a new school is classroom space, followed by athletic fields and traffic. The classroom space can be easily accommodated in any town, if the state would support efforts to keep our kids in the town center and therefore strengthen our town identities. As for the athletic fields, they can be located at various places and used by everyone. Imagine everyone in town playing on the town green surrounded by some of the institutional buildings we all use.
As long as we allow decisions to be made on the basis of pure numbers, the way life should be is in trouble. Slowly, we are disassembling our towns piece by piece. Soon, no discernable town will exist, only traces: ``That building used to be the post office. That police station used to have a town hall next to it.''
Our tendency to see a building as an object alone and unique keeps us from seeing the relationships between buildings, and between us and the street space. We then continue to build our buildings standing alone, heroically fulfilling their only purpose, be it school, library or town hall, without also forming a part of a greater whole called the town.
Several spaces come together to form the experience we call a town. And several spaces come together for each child and us as we move from front door to school or library or town offices or five-and-dime. In today's world disorienting gaps appear in our spatial experiences when we suddenly change from walking down the sidewalk to hurtling through space at 50 mph to sitting in a room some distance from home. We need to create wonderful town spaces to reconnect ourselves to our surroundings.
In Maine, high school is not merely a step on the road to a bright future. Each town's high school is a container for the town's living history. The basketball games are dynamic events to be cherished and discussed for eternity. The identity of each town is formed in large part by the stories from events occurring in the schools. Our high schools are in many ways our most significant buildings, and perhaps in our should be placed in the center of our towns.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 9

Continuing from my last post, discussing my 1992 fall article on Portland Maine's downtown and the mall, I was discussing how Portland's peninsula pedestrian brick fabric was a great lure as all the mall was not.

You get the idea, everything downtown was historical, craft, emergent, regional, experiential. We had weather and very high quality urban experiences to use to draw people in. In fact both the mall and downtown could grow together by being opposites.

Here is the second half of the article as published back then:

Growth guidelines

Back in the city, lets’ establish a few guidelines to planning:
-Rule number one: Never build more than 10 subsidized housing units in one place and allow at least one mile between those places. If you create hell, you get hell, not a big surprise.
-Rule number two: It’s OK to bust up hell. Eminent domain and public redevelopment are OK in areas with profound social problems, but not in others.
-Rule number three: Design as if you made $8.50 an hour and had a wife and two kids. If you blow a head gasket your finances are shot for a year. But if you had a bike path and a light rail system to help you get around then things will be OK and you needn’t be too upset.

A “bread and circuses” policy would emphasize free outdoor concerts and festivals, skating on the pond and other activities that make life for your family delightful without costing you money. A beautiful city is part of that policy.

Now we can work on the orchestration of the beautiful city.

Let’s envision Portland as a city where a light train carries people from the mall to Union Station and back. Bike paths link surrounding towns with the city. Automobiles arrive at high speed along I-295 and at medium-high speed along Franklin Arterial, Washington Avenue, High Street, State Street and St. John Street.

-This brings us to rule number four: Where two paths intersect, each carrying a different load, the less powerful load is not interrupted. Therefore, Franklin Arterial, High Street and State Street are moved underground at their intersections with Congress Street.

Vital central avenue

Congress Street, as the city’s spine, will control and support the experience of being in Portland. 

First, a continuous running trolley moves from Union Station to the Eastern Promenade and back. The whole street is pedestrian oriented, with the area from High Street to Franklin Arterial pedestrian only.

As development occurs, pedestrian-only sections of the street are added. Streets such as Cumberland Avenue, Free Street and Federal Street- re-established across Franklin Arterial- are designed as delivery streets to support Congress Street.

Plaza-to-plaza mapping can start at Congress Street with the existing Longfellow-Congress-Monument squares used as a base. With Franklin Arterial underground at Congress, a new Franklin Square could be the next plaza. Other new plazas could appear at Union Station and at the intersections of Congress with Deering Avenue, North Street and the Eastern Promenade. 

In this pedestrian-oriented city, the streets running parallel to Congress Street would be service streets, oriented to motor vehicles. Beyond the service streets, more plazas could be established along the second streets down from Congress such as Spring Street (west of High Street), Middle Street and Oxford Street (re-establish across Franklin Arterial).

The system of alternating pedestrian-only and service streets could be altered to create pedestrian-only parts of Fore Street and Exchange Street. Commercial Street could accommodate both autos and people. More plazas could be established on the water.

The establishment of plaza could proceed along these lines: The city identifies intersections as good locations for plazas in a master plan. When activity picks up enough at one of these intersections, merchants petition for the city for “plaza” status. A contest is held to create a sculpture that celebrates some aspects of the city and is built with city funds. Lamps, benches, trees, and brick or stone paving are installed by the city, usng a different design for each plaza.

The key to successful Portland is activity along Congress Street. As I drove along the street one night recently it was dark and no one was around. The feeling of being in a city at night with no people in sight was very unsettling.

We need to provide incentives that will encourage development of appropriate nighttime activities. These businesses include hotels, restaurants and theaters.

Stores would be encouraged to remain open later if police foot patrols and hotel-restaurant-theater activity gave people a sense of security during the evening. A new convention center close to Congress Street would help.

I hope this article has stimulated dialogue and revived dormant ideas. It is possible to build the path of least resistance, both physically and emotionally.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 8

1992 Maine Sunday Telegram article.
Before leaving to study in London, still in the 92 recession, I felt that if everyone loved the mall then downtown could grow by emphasizing how it was the exact opposite. That if the mall was a hermetically sealed indoor private conditioned shiny auto destination then downtown could be promoted as an outdoor, brick sidewalked pedestrian wonderland. So I wrote an article published in the Insight section of the Maine Sunday Telegram in the fall of 1992 while I was starting studies at the Architectural Association in London.
Maine Mall object in empty sea of parking vs. Portland waterfront spaces between buildings.

Here is the first half of the article as it appeared:

By Michael Belleau copyright 1992

Two sources of energy dominate the relationship between Portland and the communities that surround it: downtown and the mall. By understanding the source of each one’s energy, we can begin to understand how the city relates to its suburbs and find ways to help the city grow.

The mall is a product of the suburb, itself a product of our love of nature, our distrust of the city and our drive for self-sufficiency.

Self-sufficiency is at the core of our collective conscience, and the single-family home and single-owner car are its means of expression.

Once we were all independently driving around, we needed a place to drive to. First came the drive-in, followed by the supermarket, and finally the mall, where we can do our shopping in one comfortable location.

Now the easier-to-park-at-and-more-comfortable-with-everything-you-need mall has wholesale warehouses springing up around it, providing us with the lowest prices. Nearby we find office parks to centralize our activities further.

All are guided by the maxim: Easy to get to. The mall’s powerful lure is predicated on the use of the car to run errands: a definition of suburbia.

The city has historically been a place where we could walk through the streets from shop to shop to run our errands. But now it is easier for most people, who live in suburbs, to shop at the mall.

The city has become a place for doing business, a place for people (mostly young) to get to know each other. It is a place to find graphics centers, banks, and bistros for schmoozing.

It is easier to find a good restaurant in the city. It is easier to find cultural events and attractions. It is easier to experience beauty in built form, as you are walking or sitting. And it is easier to strike up a conversation in the city, because you’re probably not in your car.

The city’s power lies in culture and human interaction, with man-made buildings and plazas its stage.

For Portland to grow in the future it must copy the mall in some ways and strive to be opposite in others.

If the mall is easy to get to, then Portland must be easy to get to as well. If the mall has public toilets, pedestrian-only streets, is well lit, and has security patrol, then downtown must also have these amenities.

On the other hand, if the mall area is ruled by the car then the city can emphasize the pedestrian. A light-rail link between downtown and the mall seems to be the ideal solution to the mall-downtown equation. The mall area is for cars and parking; the city for people and walking. Bother are for bicycling.

By building brick by brick, a pedestrian dreamscape in the city, the city will strengthen its natural source of power. Not only can it emphasize culture, but also intimacy, the kind of day-to-day interaction with others that the suburban lifestyle has nearly eliminated. And, with a little ingenuity, it could compete on the mall’s home turf: shopping.

The city can never compete with suburban shopping centers for wholesale-priced business unless city stores can move the merchandise to the customer’s house by delivery. Then only a showroom is required, and the customer is free to roam without bags.

Next we need to make roaming the city fun.

Escape to the city

As the mall area grows into a behemoth of endless parking lots and warehouses, signs of varying degrees of loudness act like a thousand television commercials simultaneously screaming for our attention. Driving through this zone we become anxious, confused and physically taxed. The city can offer relief.

Let people hop on a rail line or bicycle and come into town to shop amid a complex of beautiful plazas and pedestrian-only streets carefully orchestrated to provide the most soothing experience.

Conversely, for the mall area to strengthen the city as the opposite face of the same coin, steps must be taken to boost the source of its power: the countryside.

The mall area now is an anarchic free-fire zone that is rapidly dissolving into an anywhere-USA-but-most-likely-New Jersey. Residents of South Portland and Scarborough may wish to think about the identities of their towns and how they would like their towns to look in the future. A good theme for development here could be “A peaceful drive through the countryside.”