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Oscar Newman

Cities! Stop trying to be like the suburbs.

Baltimore - early 20th century

The recent article in the Baltimore Sun about the failed Madison Park North apartment complex got me thinking about suburbs. Yes, the suburbs, and how all the cities wanted to be like them during a good chunk of the 20th century. Like the suburbs were the popular high school football stars and all the cities were the nerdy kids who bought the football jerseys which didn’t really fit them, but wore them anyway.  And then they got beaten up for it. My point is this; cities should be cities. Embrace it. Don’t be ashamed of it. Don’t be something you’re not. And sometimes, suburban design backfires in a big way in urban environments.  A few local examples:

Garden Apartments – low density, multi-family dwellings surrounded by landscaping and parking lots. In Baltimore, a lot of great Victorian rowhomes were replaced with garden apartment complexes, and in some instances they work, but like in the case of Madison Park North, they often act as secluded, anonymous beehives of criminal activity in transitional neighborhoods – bringing nearby blocks down with them. Part of the crime problem comes from building set backs which make entrances and common areas less visible from the street, and also limited street connections which isolate these apartments.  The ugly, barracks style modernist architecture which flies in the face of nearby historic buildings doesn’t help, either.  In less-than-great neighborhoods, look up some crime maps and you’ll often see these garden apartment locations lit up like Chevy Chase’s house in National Lampoons Christmas Vacation with all sorts of offenses.  Mixed income projects, like Albermarle Square, which maintain the street grid pattern and provide individual, highly visible building entrances are better alternatives.

Seton Hill. This cul-de-sac became dangerous partially due to its secludedness.

Cul-de-sacs and street barriers – urban streets want to be connected. People want options, and streets need activity to be safe. Dead-ending streets may make for a pretty photograph for a post card, but they also limit circulation, create dead space and dark places, and frustrate police and emergency responders. The former cul-de-sac at Orchard St. and Pennsylvania Ave. in Seton Hill is an excellent example of a planner 30 years ago trying to bring some Oscar Newman style Defensible Space concepts to the city. But dealers in the city don’t need cars to do business (at least they’re traveling sustainably), so trying to block drug traffic by putting auto barriers up is useless.  In certain situations, you want to encourage through traffic, not eliminate it.

Office Parks – When originally built, State Center created a gaping hole between 6 or 7 neighborhoods with monolithic office buildings which were completely functionless at street level, excessively wide streets and huge blocks, and a single use function (work) which made the place empty after 5pm. As Lewis Mumford said, superblocks are the soulless invention of commercial capitalism.  Charles Center, though it included a theatre and some retail, oriented its uses away from the street and toward the inner courtyard.  In cities, people want to do a lot of different things all in one place. Designs should be open and outward, encouraging activity around the perimeters of blocks and facing the street.  In suburbs, streets are less important than the center. In cities, the street is everything. Luckily, redevelopment plans for both of these projects get this.

Taking up what could be a prime development parcel, this landscaped corner doesn't even qualify as a park.

Landscaping - Walking down Pratt St. is a great example of suburban landscape architecture imposed on what should be an active, urban street.  Yes, we all know trees and plants are good, but that doesn’t mean they should compensate for blank walls, block views of the harbor, and fill up prime downtown corners which could be developed and put on the tax rolls. More isn’t necessarily better, and an inactive, poorly designed alley of trees can do more harm than good. The Pratt Street Redevelopment Plan shows some potential for correcting some of these things and making Pratt into a more active, urban street.

Lighting - Light this baby up. There are enough dark-sky friendly lighting designs out there to make even the most glassy eyed star watcher satisfied. Baltimore is too dark at night. Our neighborhoods, and our iconic monuments and buildings.  Lights improve safety, identify buildings of importance, bring tourists and residents out at night, and create a sense of excitement. The countryside should be dark. Cities should be ignited.

Links: Download “Creating Defensible Space” – Oscar Newman