Spotlight on Brunswick, Maine

2012-11-23 09.27.52A combination of travel, holidays, and some really interesting contract work (as well as devoting an inordinate amount of time to my last post) have come together to keep me from posting as often as I like. Part of what that means is that I have a lot of backed up Spotlight posts to work on, which hopefully I can take care of in the next week or so. I have also thought about spotlighting areas that I have been to in the past rather than just new places, so I might be adding some stuff from previous travels to Brazil and parts of the US. But for today, this post is all about Brunswick, Maine.

Brunswick is a town of just over 20,000 people on the south bank of the Androscoggin River 26 miles north of Portland, Maine. Although it started as a mill town, it became the home of Bowdoin College in 1794. The town has a number of picturesque waterfalls, homes and surrounding forests, but I won’t focus on those; instead, I want to cover some of the urban elements found in the town.

Brunswick’s main street, which happens to be Maine Street, is abnormally wide for a main street, especially in a traditional New England town. Further south the town green and a smaller street fit within the space that is all road further north, and I wonder if the green once extended up further than it does today but was converted to a road at some point. Some effort is taken to narrow it with angled parking and with neckdowns with benches at the corners, but it still feels very wide, and despite the signs imploring drivers to stop for pedestrians at virtually every intersection, I still felt out of place crossing it.

The road , despite its width, does have the quality of a large outdoor room, thanks to being terminated on both ends. On the north there is a mill tower, and on the south a church steeple, that show you where the ends of the street are. This double termination is rare in a lot of American cities, especially ones that aren’t built on a Baroque plan like Washington or Annapolis.

Brunswick has a lot going on in its planter zone of the sidewalk. Trees are fairly consistently spaced, but they are of different ages and sizes. Some have metal grates around the edges, some have bicycle parking. Some are set in diamonds, some in squares. There are benches, sometimes in the planter zone and facing each other, sometimes along the buildings facing the road. In my mind, this is totally okay. I don’t feel like the street elements necessarily have to be uniform, unless you’re going for a more ceremonial feel to a street. I’m really just happy that they are there. Also, since I was there around Thanksgiving, there were small Christmas trees hanging from the lightpoles, which I thought was unique and appealing.

The sidewalk is also not a consistent width. Though always wide enough to accommodate multiple people side by side, it gets wider in some parts, forming small plazas. These areas are still lined with a strong streetwall, and present a neat deviation from the norm. I don’t know how they use these spaces, but I can imagine that in the warmer months there could be some sort of stands there or other outdoor commerce.

One thing I noticed walking around in the cold morning temperatures was that the paint used on the crosswalks seemed to stay frosty longer than the neighboring asphalt. While the long band crosswalks are generally considered safer because they are easier for drivers to see, they could present a slip and fall hazard. I wonder if crosswalks that have lots of white visibility paint, but in thinner lines with more asphalt between, would be safer.

As you travel south on Maine Street, you approach the town common. Like many New England commons, it is not overly programmed with sports fields and other active recreational uses. It is mostly just a large grassy area with lots of trees and places to sit. There are a few memorials there, as well as a gazebo. On the east side there are a number of large and stately houses, many of which have been converted to offices. The west side has not fared as well, and features a lot of poorly designed suburban-style schlock with parking lots in the front.

Just south of the church that terminates Maine Street is Bowdoin College. Bowdoin is a true, traditional college campus plan, in that most of the buildings are surrounding a yard, part of a tradition established with Harvard. The yard, like the common, is not overly formalized. It is mostly a large green space with lots of trees and paths crossing between the buildings. Though some of these are axial, such as the one leading from the art building to the chapel, most simply follow the lines that form the shortest paths between buildings. When I see a traditional campus like this, I wonder how we’ve gotten so far from it in anything that isn’t a college today. Think of a modern business “campus.” Most of them are just a few buildings surrounded by parking lots, no real useful green space around them and no connections to other buildings. In this age, where we have mobile technology and value networking connections, why couldn’t we design business campuses much like traditional college campuses?

Brunswick is a lovely New England college town with a lot of lessons for urban designers. From an informal but active main street to a traditional New England common to a traditional American college campus, there are lessons that can apply in a variety of places and in our modern time.


About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

One Response to Spotlight on Brunswick, Maine

  1. Amy says:

    I realize this was posted awhile ago but I’m from Brunswick so I thought I’d she’d some light on the width. The fort is at one end of Main Street and the road is so wide that they would be able to see troops coming from down the road easily. That’s what I was taught in school at least. Also the mall (the green space) has been there pretty much as long as Maine Street, and probably the town of Brunswick, has been.

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