Who would’ve thought that story-telling might become an important planning tool for cities looking to revitalize themselves after the Meltdown? It might happen in New Orleans... here’s how:
Names in the Story
Southerners, especially those from the Crescent City, are often master story-tellers. Many of them will tell you that they can weave a more compelling tale when places and buildings in that tale have nifty names... “Dead Man’s Curve” rather than “highway 431, a couple miles out of town. “High Rustler” instead of “the efficiency unit in Robert Orr’s house.” “Printer’s Alley” rather than “the alley between 3rd and 4th Avenues.” Tara was by no means the first southern house to be named, nor the last.
A Time for Healing
I was just on a design charrette in New Orleans run by thePrince’s Foundation for the Built Environment (Prince Charles’ organization) and sponsored by the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans.
Ben Bolgar of the Prince’s Foundation set the course for this latest charrette when he said “We’ve been building for many years. But maybe now is a time for healing the city rather than building the city.” So this charrette began with a desire to find seeds that we could plant small... especially important now as there isn’t yet funding for constructing anything we designed.
The seedbeds were the Faubourg Marigny, New Marigny (or St. Roch, if you prefer) to the north, Bywater to the east, and the St. Claude neighborhood to its north. Moving away from the river, the disrepair deepened in concert with Katrina’s flood levels.
Less Than a Shoestring
I struggled with Ben’s directive... how exactly do you “heal the city” without funding? I’m a designer, so design and construction are the tools I know best. Without them, how could I help? But on the afternoon of the last day, it hit me:
Our study area contained place after nameless place with the beginnings of coolness. Sometimes, it was because of the people moving there, like the rag-tag band of artists opening a few galleries on a certain stretch of St. Claude. Other times, it was because of the physical configuration of the place, like the funky little double triangle where you can find Flora’s, Mimi’s, and Schiro’s.
So why not name each of these places? The galleries on St. Claude could be Gallery Row. What aspiring new artists wouldn’t want to be located on Gallery Row? Every town has its Five Points, but the funky little double triangle actually has nine streets coming out of it, so it should be Nine Points.
Most of the names qualify as “telling the truth in advance” (a Zig Ziglar term,) because the places aren’t nearly so cool... yet. But with a name that conveys a clear intent for the future of the place, it’s far more likely that people will buy into that future.
Places Worth Naming
There’s another aspect as well: the more important something is in your life, the more likely you are to name it. Children invariably get named within the first couple days of life; pets get named quickly as well. So naming a place doesn’t just predict the future condition of the place, it seals that prediction with the importance of all things named.
Convinced it was a good idea but frantic because the final presentation was now only hours away, I scrounged around and found an extra base map and a couple markers, and hastily put the scheme on paper. The more I looked for latent coolness in fresh memories of miles of walks through the neighborhoods, the more a network of cool places began to emerge out of the page. Now the trick was connecting them.
Pointing the Way
There were enough cool places that they could all be connected with straight paths... no need to go three blocks, take a left, then the second right...” Instead, if you’re at Nine Points, it’s five blocks straight down Royal to Washington Square (the only one of the places that already had a name.) So it should be simple enough to have European “pointing signs” like this one (except with fewer signs, of course) that point the way to the next cool spots when you’re at the edge of one. Maybe there’s also something cast occasionally into the sidewalk, like the mythical breadcrumbs along the path... but I’m not sure it’s necessary since no turns are required.
A Bigger Story
Each of the cool places will, I believe, eventually be well-known on its own merits, and with its own lore and embedded memories. But there’s a bigger story as well: someone clever in the visitor’s bureau will certainly pick up on the network: a “necklace of cool places,” if you will, and will tell that story as well.
“Don’t just come down to Coffee Corner, or to the Restoration Blocks, or Art on the Tracks, or Craftsman’s Corner,” they might say. “Instead, make a couple days (and nights) of it while you’re in New Orleans and discover all of these little treasures for yourself!” Makes sense, doesn’t it?
PS: I have no idea precisely why, but design charrettes conducted by the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment tend to be great breeding grounds for new ideas. This post describes two charrettes in Rose Town, a neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica. The first saw the development of the Wet Appliance, which takes slum-dwellers from sleeping on the ground all the way to a masonry house over time. Six little children transformed the second charrette into a story I’ll tell for the rest of my life. I’ve worked with the Foundation in New Orleans as well, dating back to 2009.
Thursday, April 7, 2011 - 05:16 AM
See design team member Gate Pratt's blog post on the charrette here.
Thursday, April 7, 2011 - 08:03 AM
I couldn't agree more. I always insist that we name every open space within a community whether it is a tiny little pocket park or a vast community green. By naming them each space begins to have an identity and people begin to relate to that space i.e. I live just past Longmeadow Park or turn right at North Lawn Park. It makes a big difference.
Thursday, April 7, 2011 - 10:12 AM
Exactly, Todd! Thanks for the comment!
Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 07:34 AM
I like the idea of naming places and spaces around what you want to have appear there. It occurs to me that this would be a great way to redefine zoning. Rather than label an entire district with "commercial" or "residential", districts could be labeled based on the kinds of businesses you want in an area —and these micro-districts can be really quite tiny, a block or less.
It's also a return to a medieval sensibility, though, where bakers and chandlers and smiths and apothecaries all clustered together in the same place in certain towns. My own new hometown of Middletown, CT, sometimes refers to Broad Street as "Pill Row" because it's where all the Doctors' Offices used to be.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 10:08 AM
Thanks, Andrew! You bring up an interesting point about the uses. On the one hand, I'm a vigorous advocate for a mix of uses. But this organic form of place-making only encourages clustering; it doesn't rule things out. So Schiro's in Seven Points can have a guest house above, and a residence next door. And because the clusters of uses are tiny, it's not like a typical zoning district today, anyway. But New Urbanism really needs to acknowledge the value of some things (restaurants, etc.) clustering in places... without ruling things out.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 08:00 PM
Well, multi-use residential/commercial is the way things ought to be in a high-density neighborhood... restaurants and shops at ground level, offices on the second floor, apartments on the third floor and above. Buildings — as per ancient Roman law — shouldn't be taller than twice the width of the street, to make sure that light and air reach the people on the sidewalks. Canopies and balconies should overhang the street, as well, to provide shade for pedestrians, if that's part of the vernacular.
In Roman cities, the apartment blocks had central courtyards to provide light and air to the interior apartments. Green Roofs and Green Walls, perhaps a little too gadget-y for this blog, could make a real difference in such spaces. But it would also lead to doctors and nurses living in the buildings where they worked, sometimes... maybe not enough of a distance. Not sure. Having restaurants and cafés in the neighborhood would be an attraction, though.