Sunday, December 19, 2010

North American Urban Case Studies

Good urban residential areas are not confined to Europe. There are many examples throughout North America, beautiful urban neighborhoods built mainly during the 19th century. They largely follow a British model of row houses and the occasional garden square, no bad thing.

The quest for the idle living environment is not a clearly defined task, nor does it present a clear path. The method I will start with, the case study, will look at cities in the United States and Canada. Why mainly the US? Well, like it or not, the US is a powerful, influential nation. They invented the car-dependent suburb and skyscraper dominated central business district, a model copied the world over, especially in emerging economies in the Middle East and Asia. Any global change is therefore likely to come once again from the US, or at least must be popularized in the US. It's heartening to know that a strong urban debate is brewing between traditional pro-suburb planners and more progressive models like New Urbanism and landscape architecture. The tide is turning, with downtown areas in some cities reporting greater population growth than the suburbs. 

These case studies will use historical and cultural facts, real estate information, and my own intuition in conjunction with photos and mapping services such as Google Street View and Bing Maps. A bit unprofessional analyzing a city and making judgments without actually visiting these locations? Perhaps, if it weren't for my passionate interest in cities. This is not just a hobby for me and I'm no layperson. I've been studying cities on a personal level for many years and am naturally critical of my surroundings. Of course a first hand account would be preferable, but this will have to do for the time being, until I find the time and resources to travel extensively. 

Beacon Hill, Boston. flickr : Wolfrage
When I lived in the United States, my family didn't travel regularly beyond Indiana. Certainly like many families we visited Florida for a couple of summer holidays, and I've been to New York, Chicago, and Austin, but that's not much in my view. The small town where I grew up is considered a "great place to live" and frequently features on lists of architecturally significant towns, but if anything that's testament to the low standards of towns and cities in the US. I never felt like I lived anywhere special. My town was nicer than many others in Southern Indiana but all in all it was your typical American town, with a small commercial downtown with a few historical buildings, surrounded by miles of suburbs and quite a few big box chain stores (Wal-Mart, Target, Lowe's, etc.) and a shopping mall. Oh, and a Starbucks. 

Living there, I had no idea what life might be like somewhere more urban. NYC gave a taste, but I wasn't particularly interested in urbanism and urban living when I visited as a 14 year old. I was young. Now I know better, having lived for three years in London, that great metropolis. I also now know that the US has far more to offer than what I saw. Cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Boston offer urban architecture very similar to those in large British cities, and historical cities such as Savannah and Charleston have a large collection of beautiful old buildings. I wish more Americans, and indeed visitors as well, could experience the continent's residential urban areas, not just the touristy downtowns.

I had hoped to get to some of those other cities, but later Google changed Street View, making it impossible to hide the street names, and they got rid of aerial photography in favor of their 3D view, which is a very poor substitute. So these cities will have to be it, for now.

The Case Studies: