Sorry that this post is in eight parts, but I wanted to show you more than 20 pictures.
The current revival of interest in small town life manifests itself in movies (The Majestic, The Cider House Rules, The Truman Show, et al.) and in New Urbanism, which is just as successful at bringing back small town life as you would expect from exact replication.
So new towns have started to spring up here and there, spurred by persistent developers and a growing legion of architects and planners. These now collaborate to build communities the tried-and-true way, which-- being free of theories-- is guaranteed to produce a replication of the old pattern of life (including probably a certain small-town intolerance) that we now so nostalgically romanticize. Function follows form.
But in most places, the road to Small Town America is full of obstacles, of which the most entrenched and obdurate is zoning. This is the natural tool of the NIMBY, for zoning and NIMBYs share the goals of control and prohibition.
As a designer of buildings or communities, you are deputized by the state. This means having to enforce some perfectly idiotic laws, especially some provisions of the building code, and most especially, zoning.
If you are the architect of a project in the suburbs you no longer design the relationship between your building and your lot; you look it up. There are so many provisions in a typical zoning code, and they are so meticulously prescriptive and inflexible that, given a particular configuration of a building, there is usually only one solution to a site plan. Your job as an architect is to find it by looking in the zoning code. Your colleague, the other architect, will come up with the same solution. It is like a problem in mathematics, not like a commission in art.
This explains the numbing uniformity and the visual chaos of the suburbs. It explains why there is no sense of place and why there is no variation or specificity in the relationship between building and site. It explains why there is no delight to be found anywhere, no matter how diligently you search. There is none to be found, for it has been inadvertently banished by good intentions that are supposed to ensure environmental virtue by codifying it. Standardized virtue. Uniform virtue. The same virtue in all places. No wonder all places end up as the same place, and that place is no place.
In fact, architects of suburban buildings no longer visit the sites of their suburban buildings. This is why they can design buildings in distant places without site visits; everything they need to know is on paper. The design of the site is the mathematical intersection of the site survey and the provisions of the zoning code. All that is left for the architect is to look it up.
The town that has been called “Heaven-on-Earth” is different from other places in America, for it displays no outward evidence of zoning. There is zoning, of course, but it makes a completely different set of statements from the usual load of crap that you have in your suburban community, and I have in mine.
Heaven-on-Earth is different. And everywhere in the USA except where it is located, Heaven-on-Earth is illegal. So is Beacon Hill (but you knew that!), and so is San Francisco, and so is…fill in the name of any place you really like.
After decades of creeping suburban zoning, you can again do nice things, like Celebration or Seaside, but not as of right; your first step always is to insulate yourself from the zoning by getting a special zoning district declared. This process generally consumes several years, and gives the NIMBYs plenty of opportunities to torpedo your project.
HEAVEN ON EARTH: The Most Beautiful Town in America
Go ahead and ask me, I’m just dying to tell you:
The most beautiful American town I have seen is in California. It is Carmel-by-the-Sea. Some people who live there regard it as heaven on earth.
It is the outcome of a unique collaboration between God and man.
This Image Copyright 1999-2002 Bruna Odello
Peculiar Carmel has no streetlights, no mail delivery and outside downtown, no sidewalks. Carmel is free of parking lots; parking is on the street.
Everyone in town goes to the post office daily to pick up the mail; eventually you will bump into everybody, and maybe get to know them. As at Seaside and Poundbury, residential streets have no sidewalks. Consequently, pedestrians walk in the street, and everyone drives at about 6 miles per hour.
Monterey County, California
The town is named for the Carmelite Friars, who founded the Carmel Mission of San Carlos Borromeo (1771).
The Carmel area is a haven for the artistic community and has been since before the turn of the century (1900). Famous residents have included poet Robinson Jeffers, authors Lincoln Steffens, Jack London, and Upton Sinclair, photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, architect Charles Greene, and more recently Doris Day, Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt and Clint Eastwood, who was elected mayor in 1986.
From a travel website:
“Carmel, California is nestled between the world famous Pebble Beach golf course to the north and the spectacular Big Sur coast to the South. Featuring Northern California's finest wines, lodging, dining, and recreation, it is the gateway to the famous 17-mile drive.
By carefully guarding the natural beauty of the area, Carmel has created a European style retreat away from all the headaches of everyday life. Carmel's rural setting and leisurely pace help you relax, and its small elegant inns, restaurants and shops make sure your stay is five star.”
Location: Near the city of Monterey and Monterey Bay, 120 miles south of San Francisco. Carmel-by-the-Sea is positioned 36.55 degrees north of the equator and 121.92 degrees west of the prime meridian.
Population (2000 Census): 4081.
Land area: 1.087 square mile
Density: 3754 per square mile
Elevation: 0 - 220 feet above sea level
The climate for Carmel-by-the-Sea is extremely mild. It is never hot and never cold. Average temperature is 57 degrees F. Average annual rainfall is 25 inches per year.
There is no smog. Fog occurs mainly during the summer months.
Here is Carmel.
It will be presented by two voices:
1. Once [in plain type above images] by the starry-eyed enthusiast of wild and crazy beauty and a full, rich life.
2. And again [in italic boldface beneath images] by the reasonable voice of zoning, and other experts that plan for our environmental well-being.
Carmel is laid out on a grid. The permissive grid means there is about the same amount of traffic in all places (except Downtown, which has more). There is, as in New York, more than one way to get from any one place to any other. The main street (cardo) is Ocean Avenue, and the principal cross street (decumanus) is San Carlos Street.
Residential streets have cut-through traffic—more than if they were cul-de-sacs. Either block off some of the streets or put in speed bumps. Collect traffic onto feeder roads, for that hierarchy recommended by traffic engineers, and widen the feeder roads to accommodate the heavier traffic they will bear. That way everyone can drive faster.
Ocean Avenue, Carmel’s main street. This is an early morning photo before the cars arrived to line the roadway/sidewalk interface. One traffic light, otherwise stop signs. We are looking up from the ocean and beach in this view, with Greene and Greene’s war memorial visible in the median. This functions as an informal city gate.
Where are the street lights? Where are the crosswalks? Where are the No Parking signs? Where are the loading zones? Where are the handicapped spaces and signs? Where are the parking meters? Where are the turning lanes?
Ocean Avenue streetscape is small-scale and varied. Shops below, offices or small apartments above.
How do you handle the fire egress?
Ocean Avenue has no street lights. Beginning at dusk, light spills cheerfully out of the festive shop window displays, which beautify the night. Many shopkeepers provide supplementary sidewalk lighting attached to their storefronts. These fixtures are invariably decorative and put out beautiful pools of incandescent light, much cozier than the gaseous glare emitted by conventional street lamps. Besides, you can see better, because there are no glaring point sources that cause your pupils to shut down. Finally, you can see people clearly silhouetted against the storefronts.
Foot-candle (lumen) levels do not meet Illuminating Engineering Society of North America standards for illumination of streets and sidewalks. Hazardous conditions need to be rectified in order to get State of California street-maintenance funds. Install street lighting of a historic character that will not compromise the streetscape, such as sodium vapor fixtures in the shape of gas lamps. Hire a licensed consultant to accomplish this.
Commerce spills over onto side streets and some of the streets parallel to Ocean Avenue.
It gradually fades out, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile, as you get further from Ocean Avenue and into the residential wilds-- just the result you would expect market forces to produce naturally. Is there zoning here, where houses and businesses mingle? Who could will or foresee such a delightful mix?
The street line is not respected, the Normandy Inn front door is clearly not wheelchair-accessible, and diverse uses are housed in flammable light wood-frame construction without intervening firewalls or side setbacks.