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Thread: City focal point or vista

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Streck's avatar
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    City focal point or vista

    Does good city planning require a city to have a focal point or a vista?

    Is the "town center" really a visual focal point?

    Is a vista from a town toward a mountain range or toward a seascape really a focal point for the town?

    Should there be a focal point to help identify the town?

    A fountain may be a focal point of a town center, but is it a focal point for the town?

    Is the town identified by the focal point?

    In the old days the focal point may have been the cathedral steeple.

    What is a successful focal point for town identity today?

    Is it a building? Is it a square? Is it a park? Is it a monument (Washington DC comes to mind.)?

    Does one have a "sense of arrival" when one comes to this focal point?

    Do vistas help extend the presence of the focal point out into the community as an extended unifying elements?

    Is a "focal point" essential to good urban planning and a "sense of place?"

    Does anyone have some good examples of town focal points to show?

  2. #2
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    The Community Experience is more important than a focal point.

    I can think of many towns/cities with a focal point but the best ones have more than that. The town square in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a focal point and you can go there and find Native Americans selling their artworks, great museums and interesting stores. But the full experience in Santa Fe is much richer and not concentrated all in that one location. I live in Fort Collins, CO, and the big investment locally is Old Town. It is distinctive, but it is a place and not an experience. There is much to do that makes Fort Collins great that is not focused on Old Town. Sense of place has become our way of describing unique communities but I really think sense of place is some rich combination of the place, the cultures, and the community experiences, some accidental and some planned. I lived in Austin, TX, awhile and it's known for Sixth Street's music venues, but anyone who lives there is going to describe experiences that make it a very rich place to live that take you out along the river, over by the Congress Ave. bridge and out into the hill country. I think of Keep Austin Weird as a theme and it fits. Folks who live there love its uniqueness and diverse experiences compared to many surrounding communities.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    A focal point can be significant. It can define a district or a community. Often, that focal point will play a role in the success of the district/community by establishing a sense of place or even defining its patterns. And then, sometimes it is just a thing that sits there. Another Colorado town, Boulder, is known for the Flatirons. These iconic outcrops are often the first thing people see when approaching the city from the plains, they are on the city logo, and you will see them drawn or referenced throughout the community. Yet they are a view, and not a gathering place. Many communities without such defining natural features will try to create something man-made instead. They often fail for a variety of reasons, including poor site choice, a lack of history associated with the feature, a poorly defined idea of how/whether people will use the space, or simply poor design. Many parks and starchitect-designed buildings fall into this category.

    I was actually thinking of this some time ago as I drove through western New York and made a point to stop in many of the small towns along the way. One of these was the little town of Angelica. The east end of its small downtown is anchored by a square, and the road has been built as a large circle around it. There is a strong sense of entry and the square itself, ringed by churches, the post office, town hall and library, and large victorian homes, is itself used as the community park and gathering place. The downtown has several shops and restaurants catering to visitors, likely drawn by the experience of place the square provides.

    http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&ll...01104&t=k&z=17
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  4. #4
    Cyburbian UrbaneSprawler's avatar
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    A focal point can certainly be significant. So much so that I keep wondering why planners in government throughout the course of human history continue to implement gathering focal points such as city squares, when it's those same city squares that end up being the meeting places where people gather to overthrow their governments.

    This urban design concept seems to do nothing in the name of job security. Perhaps it's in the DNA of a planner, much like lemmings going off a cliff, to ensure the need for new blood in the profession continues.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Streck's avatar
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    Here is an example of a "focal point," the town square in Canton, MS:

    http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&ll...01104&t=k&z=17

    It shows the courthouse square, which is the focal point of a regional Flea Market, which is held for one day, twice a year. The vendor booths spread out mainly to the east for about five or six blocks in addition to completely filling the square.

    You will notice that even though the square is the center of activity, there is no vista to the square as you approach. A main highway runs north-south along the east side of the square, and a secondary highway runs east-west along the south side of the square. Neither highway provides a "vista" of the square and courthouse during approach until you get to the intersection at the square. The two story buildings surrounding the square are too tall for you to see the courthouse dome, trees, or flag pole, etc.

    You are not visually drawn to the square. You can not see a focal point as you approach as an anticipation. The square is finally reached, but it is off to the side.


    There are many thriving businesses and strore fronts that face the square. There is adequate diagonal parking on both sides of all four streets around the square for normal daily use.

    However you can also see that several businesses off the square have interior parking lots in their blocks off the square, because street parking is inadequate there and the streets (of normal width) are too narrow to accommodate the needed parking volume. Some of these off-street parking lots are used for the tour buses that come to the flea market. The market is held on a Thursday, and the town virtually shuts down. Much parking is provided in residential front and back yards within about ten blocks to the east and south of the square.

    What could be done to give this town a vista to their focal point? I don't know. It is probably too late here, and the interstate runs by about 10 blocks to the west. Not much of a focal point there . . .

  6. #6
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by UrbaneSprawler View post
    A focal point can certainly be significant. So much so that I keep wondering why planners in government throughout the course of human history continue to implement gathering focal points such as city squares, when it's those same city squares that end up being the meeting places where people gather to overthrow their governments.

    This urban design concept seems to do nothing in the name of job security. Perhaps it's in the DNA of a planner, much like lemmings going off a cliff, to ensure the need for new blood in the profession continues.
    Maybe our job is to foment unrest and provide space for discourse and change?

    Nonetheless, one of the things I liked to do when I lived in Yurp was to find the small town's central square if I needed directions or a place to eat - you knew locals would be in the square and I wanted an establishment where the locals went to.
    -------
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  7. #7
    Cyburbian Streck's avatar
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    Has anybody created a new town center?

    Has a new town center been created within an existing town on their watch? Results?

    How about a new town center in another town that worked out well?

    How about a new secondary town center? What worked out well, and what should be avoided?

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Streck View post
    Has anybody created a new town center?

    Has a new town center been created within an existing town on their watch? Results?

    How about a new town center in another town that worked out well?

    How about a new secondary town center? What worked out well, and what should be avoided?
    At a fairly large scale I can think of two examples of new town/city centres that are being created in my neck-of-the-woods.

    1. Markham Centre in Markham Ontario has been in the planning stages for at least a decade, but it is now starting to take shape. (http://www.markham.ca/wps/portal/Mar...hamCentreStory). It is intended to be a high density mixed use urban core. Presently the Town of Markham is comprised largely of low density suburban development. For decades (1960s to 1990s) the lands Markham Centre are on were protected from development by the Province as part of a major for a transportation corridor, which came to fruition with the construction of Highway 407. This land is in effect an undeveloped hole in the middle of a suburban ring so while most towns start in the centre and grow out, Markham started with the edges and has grown into the centre, which means it can create a new high-density urban core from scratch. This is a Google streetview of what it looked like a few years ago: http://maps.google.ca/maps?hl=en&ll=...,54.9,,0,-13.2 . Eventually this street will be one of the main commercial streets of the Town.

    2. Mississauga City Centre is another example of a suburban community trying to establish an urban core. In the 1980s the City decided to build its new city hall next to a major shopping mall. This was the seed for their new downtown. Their second step was to eliminate almost all height and density zoning requirements from the lands around the mall which has resulted in some very tall buildings; however the street level character still leaves a lot to be desired. The most recent step has been to create a new plan for the city centre that encourages pedestrian scaled buildings and streets with active retail uses along the street edge. http://www.mississauga.ca/portal/residents/downtown21

  9. #9
    Cyburbian UrbaneSprawler's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    Maybe our job is to foment unrest and provide space for discourse and change?
    I don't see that anywhere in APA's Mission, Vision and Values.

    Nonetheless, one of the things I liked to do when I lived in Yurp was to find the small town's central square if I needed directions or a place to eat - you knew locals would be in the square and I wanted an establishment where the locals went to.
    Maybe that need has changed for that now, as with any need in society: there's an app for that. Yelp for Yurp.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Streck's avatar
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    Should planners encourage additional "town centers" or focal points, or vistas (visual links) or as the city grows, renews, expands, or improves?

    Should these be indicated in the Comprehensive Plan or the Public Facilities section of the Comprehensive Plan?

    Has anyone already done that as recommendations (in planting a seed of thought and as an encouragement to developers)?

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