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 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.

Spotlight on Lynchburg, Virginia


I was out of town this weekend and will be basically for the rest of the month, and will be spending much of this time on the road. I hope though that while I’m out there I can spotlight some of the towns I visit and show what sort of urban design lessons can be learned from them. I’ll start in Lynchburg, Virginia.

I went to Lynchburg with Holly and three friends, and as we drove down the road the city just sort of emerged without warning; one moment we were on a country road and the next, boom, we saw something like the image above. Lynchburg is nestled in the hills along the James River and has received the nickname of “the Hill City.” One thing you will immediately notice when staying in downtown Lynchburg is that everything is very steep.In some places, the city has addressed this in different ways. They have a number of stairways of varying grandeur:And, in at least one case, a municipal elevator, although it was out of order when we saw it:However, many of the streets had no such help, and you just had to be very careful walking down them.

Some interventions that you see in situations like this in Pittsburgh and San Francisco include sidewalks that are partially or completely stairs, or that have handrails to help people steady themselves.

Main Street in Lynchburg is very well designed. It is oriented to the hill in such a way that it is virtually flat, making it much easier to walk, and features well-maintained planters and bus stops, most of which have benches:

The buildings are mostly of a classic American Main Street architecture, with a few modern and even post-modern additions, but not a lot of new development. There were actually a few very lovely structures that were vacant and for sale. I don’t know enough about the history or current economy of the city to make any strong judgements, but it didn’t seem like there was a lot of housing downtown (or even people, for that matter), and I wonder if planning the downtown for more people would enliven it a bit.

There were a few newer public spaces close to the river, such as Amazement Square, which definitely had a strong family focus:All in all, I was very impressed with Lynchburg. I didn’t really know what to expect coming down there: based on its relative isolation, I assumed is was a little podunk town. Instead, I was greeted with a classic American small town, with some really great features, both natural and designed. I had a lovely time in Lynchburg and would recommend it to anyone.

Also, just for fun, here is my favorite picture from the wedding that brought me and my friends to Lynchburg:Congratulations, Anne and Erik!

San Francisco Better Streets Plan

I recently read through the San Francisco Better Streets Plan (BSP), a comprehensive guide to making streets more walkable and pedestrian friendly in San Francisco. It helps you figure out what kind of a street you’re working with, gives recommendations on what you can do to make it better, and even gets into the specifics of how far apart trees should be, what the slope of access ramps should be, etc. Although designed for a major city, I think that, with a few adjustments (for instance, not every community has to worry about tree species that are resistant to salt spray), and with the exception of truly rural communities, this plan could be applied practically anywhere, and I wanted to show how.

“Why not do some streets in San Francisco?” my wife suggested. Too straight forward. “How about Philadelphia?” Still not enough of a challenge. No, I wanted to pick a place that is as unlike San Francisco as I could think of. And that place that I chose was Spanish Fork, Utah.

Spanish Fork skyline. From

I worked for Spanish Fork for about three years while I was in undergrad, and got to know the city pretty well. It’s population is about 35,000, and growing quickly. Up until about twenty years ago it was a very small town, but as suburban growth supporting Provo and further Salt Lake City continued to expand, it was sucked into this sphere, and many of the newer residents work outside of the city. Spanish Fork is probably best known for its annual rodeo and for their championship high school baseball team and general baseball culture. I wanted to take a look at three streets in Spanish Fork and see what the BSP would recommend for them: 800 East, 300 East, and Main Street (see slideshow below).

800 East is not a particularly wide road by Utah standards, but it carries a high volume of traffic as well as transit. Local residents complained about the speed of cars going by, and the city restripped the road to narrow the lanes with some success. Interventions from the BSP could help calm traffic as well as make it more pleasant to walk along. Based on the aforementioned criteria, 800 East meets the BSP’s definition of a residential throughway. The first step I took was to widen the sidewalks based on chapter 4 of the plan. Next, for each street type, the plan lists standard improvements, which for residential throughways include crosswalks, street trees, and bulb-outs. Each street type also has case by case additions, and the ones I felt were most appropriate were an extended bus bulb-out and a high visibility crosswalk.

300 East is a simple local street, except it’s a million feet wide (okay, so more like 86 from curb to curb, but still, wide). The only explanation I ever received for why it is so wide is that it lines up with University Avenue in Provo and at one point it was thought that they would connect, but they never did and 300 East is still a sleepy residential road. With all that width, I thought it would be fun to turn it into what the BSP calls a parkway. This required some more sidewalk widening, and the standard improvements were again street trees (larger this time, to form a canopy), a crosswalk, and bulb-outs. For the case by case additions, the high visibility crosswalk comes back, but the main feature is a wide landscaped median with a shared-use trail and benches. A curb opposite the crosswalk from the median creates a pedestrian refuge.

Main Street has the double function of being a local-serving shopping area as well as being a major arterial connecting much of Spanish Fork and its neighboring communities to the south to I-15 and bigger cities northward. The street is bumper to bumper much of the day, and when it isn’t, the wide expanse encourages speeding over the already high 35 mile an hour limit. This double function makes creating a boulevard a simple choice. First, the lanes would have to be realigned and the side medians installed, and the existing sidewalks and planters actually pushed back a bit. Then the standard improvements include bulb-outs, street trees (although the existing spacing of the street trees is less frequent than the BSP would recommend, Main Street has a unique series of planters with two trees each that are maintained by volunteers, and I thought it would be good to keep that element; new trees are provided in side medians), and street furnishings, including benches, garbage cans, and cafe seating. The case by case additions I chose to include are raised crosswalks in front of the side lanes, another high visibility crosswalk, and a different paving texture on side lanes to give it more of a shared feel.

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The San Francisco Better Streets Plan is a great document that I hope will have a positive impact on their city, and could be used as a model by other cities to improve their streets as well.

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