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.

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