CHILDREN & NATURE BELONG DOWNTOWN: Let’s Create a New Vision : The New Nature Movement

Children in a park in Portland. From

In this post, Mary Vogel discusses some of the challenges of families that want to move to the city. There are a number of issues that face an urban family; affordable housing, quality schools, the perception of crime, and sufficient green space are just a few of them. She discusses the plans that Portland has to convert parts of its riverfront to beaches (hopefully the Willamette’s waters are clean enough for such a proposal). Portland also has long, linear parks running through it’s downtown, which are another opportunity to interact with nature. She also mentions green streets. Conspicuously lacking from her assessment is Forest Park, the largely undisturbed forest immediately west of Downtown, which I visited on my honeymoon and went hiking, which is not something I care to do often but felt compelled to because it was just so close. As someone who will, in just a few months, be a father, and wants to stay in a walkable, urban place, these are strong concerns for me, and I hope that in the coming years cities will start to take the concerns of urban families under consideration.


Spotlight on Bath, Maine

2012-11-24 14.56.46Bath is a small town on the mouth of the Kennebec River about 35 miles north of Portland, Maine. Its principal industry has been and continues to be shipbuilding, although the wooden pinnace ships built in 1607 have given way to Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Over this time, the town has maintained picturesque residential districts, working industrial districts, and a vibrant retail area.

City Hall is at the top of the hill from which Front Street, the town’s main street, descends, and terminates Centre Street. These two streets make up the retail core of Bath. Front Street, like Maine Street in Brunswick, has some places where it bulges to form small plazas. The street is dense with trees, benches, signs, and other furniture. The commercial district ends to the north about when you get to the Patten Free Library. The district exhibits the idea of having “A” and “B” streets, and Water Street, where parking is located to keep it from damaging Front Street, is a perfect “B” street.

Bath lacks the common traditional to New England towns, but does feature a very nice waterfront park which is adjacent to the commercial district. This shows the importance of the waterfront in the history of the town.

Many of the residential streets of Bath run perpendicular to the commercial and industrial streets along the river, and as such they go up the steep hills of the bluffs that line the Kennebec. The town is known for its pre-war residential architecture, and people from nearby towns will often visit to look at houses.

Bath is rare in that it is a small Northeastern town where many of the jobs are still based on manufacturing, and those mostly on shipbuilding. The Bath Iron Works is a major regional employer and supplier of US Navy ships, as well as yachts and lightvessels. They have done a good job of preserving some of their oldest buildings from back in 1884, while expanding to serve the needs of modern ship manufacturing. Some of the neighboring homes across Washington Street have been converted to offices where ships are designed and other support services take place.

Bath is a great town, and not just because it is pretty, but also because it is a town that knows how to work. It’s lessons in retail, industrial and residential design can serve as models for towns in similar situations across the country.

Spotlight on Casa Grande, Arizona

My recent travels have taken me to Casa Grande, Arizona. It’s a small town between Phoenix and Tucson. It started as a mining town on a railroad line and only recently exploded as a place for snowbirds, like my grandma, to spend the winter. While there is a lot of new suburban-style development, there is still a traditional core that has some interesting strengths, and a few weaknesses to develop.

The first thing I noticed was that there are some great bulb-outs in the core of Casa Grande, but what stood out about them is that they are now at sidewalk level, but at street level. I’m not sure why this is. My best guess is that by doing this is might have been cheaper than to build it up to sidewalk level, or that it might have been better for drainage reasons. Although Casa Grande is in the middle of the desert, it is subject to Arizona’s regular monsoons which cause a lot of quick, heavy rain. There were a variety of these bulb-outs, from mid-block trees to full pocket parks. There were also a few more traditional bulb-outs with benches and trash cans.

There was an area called “The Alley” that was painted up in an interesting way. It seemed that it was an area that could be used for art events, although it was pretty dead while I was there.

Something I noticed after a while was that all of the stores had large awnings covering the entire sidewalk. This is important, especially considering the low density of trees, to create shade and cool down the desert. With summer temperatures as high as 120 degrees, unless there is shade you will never get pedestrians.

Another thing I thought was interesting was that some of the street trees were actually fruit-bearing lime trees. I wondered why the city chose to use these trees when they would come with the additional cleanup duty. I also wondered how they did such a good job, because the sidewalk below the trees seemed spotless.

One issue with Casa Grande’s traditional core is that it is virtually all retail. The residents of Casa Grande could drive there and then walk, but they can drive to the suburban strip locations as well. It would be good for them to create some small, affordable units, aimed at artists or even some more active empty nesters. There’s even a grocery store downtown already, so it would be pretty easy to live there.

Where the traditional town center meets the suburban arterial lies Peart Park. This is a pretty nice traditional town park. It has a number of both active and passive uses, as well as the all-important shade. I think it’s especially important to have parks in desert climates because you need an oasis from the heat, and if you’re going to be blowing a lot of water on something, better it be a public park than a whole bunch of private lawns. That being said, there were some issues. For instance, there was a path on the south side of the park that was exposed to the sun. If they planted a row of trees on the south side of the park, it would make it a more comfortable place to be.

Casa Grande is home to some interesting civic buildings. The city hall terminates a vista and has a nice, green plaza in the front of it. If anything, it could be improved by a lot more trees. The main approach has only a few, and if they were replaced with two rows of palms and a bunch more around the edges, a la the Nevada Statehouse, it would have a much more stately approach and the shade it would need to make it a desirable place to spend time. Heritage Hall is a great example of early Spanish colonial architecture, and it is flanked by a plaza made up of native plants, which shows that you don’t necessarily have to have grass to make a comfortable place.

Casa Grande is a booming little town with some good retail, parks, and public buildings. The recent development has not been going in the same direction, unfortunately, but hopefully some future development can be brought back to its more urban roots.

Pallets, Tires, Garbage Bags and Plastic Drums Turned into Lovely Playground in Niamey : TreeHugger

Some Americans of my generation may remember playing on playgrounds that featured a lot of old railroad ties and tires. This was a great example of reuse which, today, doesn’t exist, due to various issues (safety concerns, liability issues, simple fashion in playground design, etc.). But hopefully, as we see in this post from Paula Alvorado, we can bring these back, like Spanish collective Basurama is doing across the globe. This video shows a project in Niamey, Niger, where Basurama recently completed a playground built out of shipping palettes, tires, water jugs, and plastic bags. I think most Americans would scoff at doing something like this when we have the money to build our injection molded plastic parks, but the Niamey method kills two birds with one stone. It builds a nice park in an affordable way, while keeping materials out of a landfill and using them in a productive way.

Brent Toderian: Want Families Downtown? Design for Them!

Families can live in the city. From

Brent Toderian wrote this post on families in the city, inspired by recent comments from Toronto’s deputy mayor about how cities are bad for families. He argues that this actually may be true, but it is because cities haven’t been designed for families. They lack family services, such as daycare, parks, and schools (or, in most of America, adequate schools), and often there aren’t housing units large enough for families. Toderian calls kids an “indicator species” for good neighborhoods, because if a neighborhood is good for kids, it is good for almost everyone. My desire to attract families to cities is somewhat selfish, because I want to be able to live in a vibrant, urban community with the services I enjoy, but I want to have a family, I want to have spaces for my kids to play, and I want to send them to good schools, ideally without paying more to send them to private schools. Attracting families will also help bring the middle class back to cities and broaden the tax base. I’ve commented on this a lot, but I think that cities should do more to attract and retain families.

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