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.”

Thursday, March 6, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 7

"Arc of a Sturgeon" Casco Bay Bridge sketch

In spring 1992 George Neavoll, the Editor at the Press Herald, didn’t like the proposed new Casco Bay Bridge which looked like just a highway over the water so he called for sketches from the readership. I proposed a big arch thinking of St. Louis and called it ARC OF A STURGEON. He published 3 of the sketches with mine at the top stating:

"I rather like the top design, myself, submitted by M. Belleau of Portland. When I learned he wears a T-shirt with the Einstein quote, 'Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds,' I thought to myself, this is my kind of guy."


Portland Press Herald snippet.

And no drawbridge.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 6


Diagram showing potential new plazas as red dots in string along Congress St. 
and red arrows showing reconnecting streets.

Continuing previous blog entry discussion around my 1992 article, "Portland: Back to the Future":

I advised we could create string of plazas along Congress Street up to the Eastern Prom to make a seamless pedestrian experience using the existing Longfellow Square- Congress Square- Monument Square sequence to build upon. Thus, pedestrians would always be moving from one great public space to another.

(from the article:) "This means: sidewalks of brick with lampposts, benches and trees; buildings with ground-level shops and architecture that engages the passer-by; street widths that allow for across-the-street conversations and window shopping; plazas at every square and major junction, like Monument Square; a master plan of linked plazas along Congress Street that continue up to the Eastern Promenade and down to the Greyhound station as well as along Commercial Street and into every pocket of the city."

In addition, the "urban renewal" created in 1960's by the removal of delicate urban fabric for the Franklin Street Arterial smack in the middle of the peninsula and the similar destruction of building and streets by the Spring Street arterial I suggested back then, should be repaired. These gashes in the urban street and building fabric of the city required careful stitching back together. The red arrows in diagram above show my suggestion back then to reconnect all the cutoff streets to establish proper urban block sizes.

I offered this example for how to start revitalizing the at the time poor Munjoy Hill area which would be part of a Congress Street plaza sequence as noted above:

"Munjoy Hill would be a good starting point for the definition of communities. A central plaza, office building, cultural center, and light-industrial facility would be a good start. With a clear, long-term development plan, banks might loan on a longer time frame."

And finally at the end of the article I suggested Portland could use an economic symbol, what is called "brand" now to communicate world wide:

"In addition to egalitarian zoning and development, it is necessary to provide a commercial symbol to anchor Portland’s place in the global community.

Just as Zurich has banking, Oslo has shipping, and Houston has oil, Portland should have a symbol by which to communicate with the rest of the world. Wood products might become such as symbol. 

Then by taking up this symbol and focusing on becoming an international center for this commodity-product-service, an identity can emerge over the next 50 years or so. No hurry."


Although I received almost no response in the community, the seeds had been planted.

Friday, February 21, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 5

1992 article in Maine Sunday Telegram.

In 1992, a recession year, I wrote this article as a pep talk to the city. I talked about what an amazing pedestrian experience we had here and how we could strengthen this by looking at our past, our present, and our future. 

Using the diagrammatic historical analysis described in my previous post, I laid out a roadmap for urban design work that built on the cities past. 

Diagram from article.

We needed to reconnect streets from Congress across Commercial Street out into the waterfront and be able to walk all around the piers. The whole peninsula I suggested could have a marginal way walk around it. Plazas along the waterfront would encourage public use and hence economic activity. People should be able to walk all around the nooks and crannies of the waterfront. Mixed use buildings with waterfront use out on piers at pier level and other non-residential uses above with most density at Commercial Street. Imagine an outdoor fish market.

Graphics from article using my thesis project as example.

Commercial Street itself at the time was a giant gap between the waterfront side and old port. I proposed narrowing this length for pedestrians by extending the sidewalks the depth of the angle parked cars narrowing the distance from 60 feet to 36 feet. Also, to plant trees and put lights and bench infrastructure in. And to use form based coding to create a variegated building profile along the water's edge (nooks and crannies).

Portland has the bones of a medieval european pedestrian city with our brick sidewalks and historic center. In 1992 while malls ruled the country, this article stood for the human scaled life. Next, further discussion of the article's ideas.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 4


I drew these diagrams in 1988 studying Portland Maine while working on my thesis, a mixed use project on Union Wharf. At the time I lived in Boston. For me, being from Maine lent a sense of urgency to working on our urban design issues. I chose Portland as the most interesting urban environment. As a former commercial fisherman, I wanted to explore the overlap between the working waterfront and regular urban living. The first step was to use historical maps to analyze the waterfront.

In the first sketch a street along the waterfront (now Fore Street) for water access is balanced by a street up to the peninsula spine and one to the eastern shore. Just enough path to manage a settlement.

The 1775 diagram shows wharfs for ships but three horizontal as it were (Fore, Middle and Congress), dominant streets tell an almost agrarian story in that movement along the peninsula was important.

1823 diagram clearly shows a radical change. You can see how the city streets used to go right out into the water. The pattern is for a very aggressive urban leap out into the harbor. Sea commerce was in full swing. The Portland urban experience became constantly moving along a street with buildings on both sides that may or may not be hovering over the water. You could look between buildings to verify this.

The 1831 diagram highlights the delicate "soft edge" created by all the wharfs and large and small buildings and pathways along the water front. This crenallated edge provided a rich variety of pedestrian experiences unique to Portland defining it experientially from another place as all site specific spaces do.

Then they built the railroad which after filling in behind became Commercial Street which cut the city off from the sea. The bottom four diagrams describe this new beginning; loss of the delicate soft edge; loss of the streets all running right out over the water; and finally a separation of the waterfront from the rest of the city.

Analysis like this helps us all create urban design plans which strengthen what we love about a place and move in a direction with confidence.

Here are two sketches of my thesis a mixed use development on Union Wharf using the above analysis. Offices and retail are toward the street and fish unloading and processing buildings are toward the pier end. The first sketch shows a movement from dense brick Commercial Street fabric (tiny piece of this shown far left and poking out at mid pier at bridge) to a pier column structure lighter wooden fabric with walkways along the edge.

Union Wharf thesis drawing. 

The next sketch shows the glass atrium arrived at from the brick courtyard just behind Commercial Street. The atrium has the brick fabric 4 stories on one side and the 3 story wooden fabric on the other. Eventually walking to the end of the atrium leads back into the brick fabric and either out to the fishing buildings from a fish market at grade or on second floor to the pedestrian bridge linking to the adjacent pier. This sketch is looking back toward Commercial Street direction.

Union Wharf thesis drawing.

Next we'll look at how the diagrams can inform an overall urban strategy for Portland.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 3


My first experience with truly great urban space was traveling through Europe during architecture school where I fell in love with medieval Seville and the spaces at the Alhambra and Mezquita in Spain. Just great spatial urban experiences.
Orange tree grid in the cathedral courtyard- Seville

Here sketching the courtyard attached to the cathedral in Seville I discovered how gardens can become an outdoor room with walls and paved floor. Each tree placed in a grid spot with water channels running in the paving irrigating them. Moorish garden design at it's best.


Mezquita de Cordoba- Cordoba

Having admired Escher's prints I fulfilled a dream of sketching the same tiles and scenes he had as in this sketch I made inside the infinity inducing Mezquita de Cordoba. Truly a spatial experience of the highest order.

Entrance to the Alhambra- Granada

It is at the Alhambra though where it all came together: entrance sequence, courtyards, gardens, mathematically complex tiling, intricate vaults, etc. I remember walking up the ramp to the entrance surprised when water began to flow down channels in the handrail height walls on either side of the ramp. A poetic experience if there ever was one.

Alhambra Palace- Granada

Here in the Alhambra the most extraordinary sequence of complex variety of spatial experiences created a lasting impression on my architectural mind. I wanted to create these experiences at home in Maine some day.




Friday, January 24, 2014

20+ Years of Urban Design in Maine 2


I grew up in Orono Maine, a small college town in the middle of the state outside Bangor. We lived right on Main Street across from the road up to the schools. I walked to school every day and walked downtown to meet friends. The schools sat behind Main Street as they do in many Maine towns. The downtown had the town hall, police/fire station, post office, etc. all right there. Nice homes and churches lined Main Street close to town.

The state university main campus is on the other side of the Penobscot River which runs through the middle of the town. The University of Maine at Orono (UMO) is organized around a quad with the library on one end and the gymnasium on the other; mind and body. Students walk around, along and across the quad from class to class.

It's about the same distance, 1400 feet, from my house to Pat's Pizza (the original where Pat would stand behind the counter with his cigar and lip burn) as it is from the UMO library to the gym. This is the foundation for my personal sense of walkable neighborhood space and scale. I believe we can use these two examples to strengthen our state's town and city urban fabric ensuring economic success in the long term.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

20+ Years of Urban Design in Maine 1

I've been working on solving Portland and Maine's urban design problems for over 20 years. My first urban design proposal was an article addressing how to build on Portland's existing at the time great urban fabric to create economic success during the 1992 recession. Since then I've outlined numerous urban design solutions for Maine and Portland in particular. Here is a link to the Pecha Kucha presentation I did last winter quickly summarizing my work in this area: 20 Years of Urban Design in Maine by Michael Belleau

The slide above represents the locations of the generations of my family. My great grandfather took big city tourists out hunting as a guide. My great grandparents raised my grandmother in Dover-Foxcroft, a small town, where they had a cow in their yard. My father went up to work during Med School summer and apparently got jaundice drinking the cows milk, a condition expertly diagnosed by his professor that fall.

My father grew up in Sanford, a small town from where he, at age 12, got dropped off on his own at the closest train station and went to Boston for the day. There, wandering the Commons, a group of kids playing baseball commandeered him to be umpire and then, when inevitably the calls did go someone's way, they yelled at him, sending him scurrying off. His dad, a manager at Stop and Shop, had a camp built on a lake nearby where where we kids went every summer.

I grew up first in the Boston/Cambridge/Lincoln PBS-ish world in Massachusetts before moving to Orono, a small town with a University. Many of my friends parents were professors and there was always an air of intellectualism about amidst the intense practicality of a rural environment. This combination of thinking while shoveling snow colored my future urban design outlook.

And now my kids are growing up in Portland on the "gold coast" as some of us Mainers like to snicker. They do, however, go to Bangor for winter vacations to hang out with my mother, their "Oma", and down to Shapleigh for summer vacations at camp and thus enjoy a similar geographical comprehension of the state.


Monday, November 18, 2013

City Center Streets for Bikes & Pedestrians


Currently we are on the cusp of the movement to convert our streets from automobile only to "complete streets", those that fully accommodate all modes of transportation. This means the creation of bicycle lanes first and foremost. These bike lanes are best made as separate from auto lanes with barrier to get parents with kids and the vast majority of people who will bike to feel comfortable. This means more width sometimes in street section and more infrastructure.

Of course this is wonderful to get the kind of dedicated bike lanes like Copenhagen has but perhaps in city centers we should think about how wonderful narrower streets feel to walk down and that it may be best to turn the street lanes in city centers into bike lanes. A gradual shift from sitting in a high speed vehicle to pedaling to walking as primary mode of transportation can follow the gradual shift in urban fabric from isolated building in countryside to tight walkable medieval pedestrian street city centers.

Sometimes its better to skip the intermediate step of building for current trends and save money by just converting what we have bit by bit.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Park(ing) Day Portland Maine 2013


Once a year in September in cities around the world Park(ing) Day is held to celebrate alternatives to automobile centered urban living. From the parkingday.org website: 

"PARK(ing) Day is a annual open-source global event where citizens, artists and activists collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into “PARK(ing)” spaces: temporary public places. The project began in 2005 when Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio, converted a single metered parking space into a temporary public park in downtown San Francisco. Since 2005, PARK(ing) Day has evolved into a global movement, with organizations and individuals (operating independently of Rebar but following an established set of guidelines) creating new forms of temporary public space in urban contexts around the world.
The mission of PARK(ing) Day is to call attention to the need for more urban open space, to generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and to improve the quality of urban human habitat … at least until the meter runs out!"
I designed and built an installation in a parking spot in front of the building my office is in. As our public spaces are teetering on irrelevance due to the domination of the automobile for mobility and the television and computer screens for public forums, there is certainly a need to promote urban spaces. 

My installation titled, "Piazza", creates a scaled down urban space of the sort common in medieval city centers. Buildings with no gaps between them form blocks which create streets and plazas in the space between them. My installation creates benches as blocks which are free to be moved about as they interlock to a piazza flat surface where your feet rest. This micro urban experience is a great instructional tool for children and adults who may not have lived in Venice or the Old Port.

Together we can promote these urban spaces and raise the quality of our Maine living experience and the health, community and sustainable benefits which go along with these environments.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Complete Streets Restore Immediate Surroundings

The future is bright for humans moving through space. As we move back to a more body centered environment and away from the automobile centered 20th century, the quality of space increases dramatically.

When we slow down our movement through space our eyes pick up more information about our surroundings. Driving fast in a car, eyes can only pick up that there are some buildings or woods or parking lots around us. However, walking we begin to notice every little detail around us. Who cares what kind of elaborate trim detail is around that door or what the door joinery looks like at 35 miles per hour? Walking by our eyes scan and pass over the granite curb, every brick in the sidewalk, the craftsmanship in the wrought iron lamp post, the way the storefront glass meets the frame. And each door is a statement about design and care in the area.

Same with bicycling. Biking makes us notice every bump and object in our path as well as what each biker and each pedestrian is wearing. I believe the bike lane separated from the roadway entirely as shown above is best. Believe it or not, if complete separate bike lanes are available a kazillion more people will get out of their big nasty cars they can't park anyway and bike places. And kids can finally get around without chaperones. And one car families....

For a short video on complete streets in NYC: click here.

The slower you move the closer your field of awareness becomes. Because of this natural visual and sonorous and olfactorous heightened awareness of the near, we care about much smaller pieces of the built environment than when driving.

Freeway architecture can be big boxes of ribbon windowed office  buildings because we can only catch a glance at them. We are interested in 500 foot segments. Pedestrian architecture must be interesting at the 1 foot segment level. This means the more pedestrian environments we create, the better quality architecture and urban space will result.

Let the complete streets begin!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Elements of NE Style: Hedges

Walkway Walls
I love hedges. Encountering ubiquitous hedges while living on Cape Cod and in England, I experienced them as living walls. They can define a space, shield you from the wind, screen out ugliness or create privacy. I think they are an element of New England design.
House Hedge
There are many different species of hedge plants but I think of only a few due to the time I spend on Cape Cod. The emerald arborvitae is evergreen, soft and can grow very high, but also susceptible to snow damage and deer nibbling; a good choice non-the-less for general purpose evergreen hedge. The Yew has poisonous berries but makes a nice hedge.

Cotswolds Yew Hedge
Here's video of trimming it

The deciduous north privet, though needing to be trimmed a few times every year, is my first choice overall due to density and ability to shape it in that you can do topiary with it. It's listed as invasive so if not already in your area, you may want to be consult your nursery to be sure it's okay ecologically. Only plant the fast growing privet if you can trim it regularly from all sides.
Knot Hedge
One way to plant a hedge using arborvitae as example is this. A good generic hedge choice site is this. Another generic hedge planting instruction is this.
Road Hedge
The largest hedge in the world is the Meikleour Beech Hedge in Scotland built in 1745 and over 98 feet tall. Hedges can define property lines or screen out your driveway and it's parked cars. Here's a classic shot of big pine tree hedges used as windblock in Japanese farms from Rudolfsky's "Architecture Without Architects":
 Shimane Prefecture Farm Hedges
You can also do cool topiary things with hedges.
Sculptural Hedge at Audley End

Here's a link to a nice blog entry on hedges in Nantucket.

Let's close with this:
Yew Hedge at Blickling
Is it a house or a hedge?