Urban Spaces Worth Caring About

A few thoughts on sprawl, development, and the uglification of the American city. Can we do better?

The architecture of despair

Why do so many people love New Orleans’s French Quarter, New York’s Greenwich Village, and Savannah, GA? Because they don’t look like the above photo. They look like the ones below, with reasonably-scaled buildings abutting sidewalks, active street life, and public spaces people actually use.

The Big Easy…on the eyes—my favorite U.S. city

Shops, sidewalks, humans, trees, and non-hideous buildings

A public square that people actually use

In contrast, sprawling, car-crazed places like Atlanta, Houston, and the outskirts of Nashville can best be described by James Howard Kunstler (urban design critic and author of The Geography of Nowhere): “The immersive ugliness of our everyday environments in America is entropy made visible.” He calls these hellscapes of concrete and commerce “places that are not worth caring about,” places that “generate despair.”

Check out his 2004 TED Talk about how to create urban spaces that encourage rich public and civic life. Despite several moments of crazed hyperbole, he makes wonderful points about the folly of American urban design, and he’s quite an entertaining speaker.

We don’t have thousand-year-old cathedral and market squares in America, he points out, so we have to create our own versions of livable public space…and we haven’t done such a great job. His point is this: in order to create quality spaces where people will enjoy gathering, builders have to think carefully about how to define space with buildings.

In my own neighborhood, this question is about to become a heated one. The main commercial corridor, 12th Avenue South, is in the throes of several big demolition and development projects. I sincerely hope that the guys drawing up blueprints have thought carefully about how to create a public space where people will want to walk, shop, ride bicycles, eat, drink, and be. Because we are most likely going to live with the ramifications of their decisions for the rest of our lives.

A friendly note to local developers: To whatever degree you may care, I’ve given some thought to what I believe makes a place pleasant, lovely, walkable, and generally human-friendly. Here are a few criteria for what, to my mind, constitutes development that doesn’t completely &%$# up the area it’s supposed to be improving. A few requests:

1. Retail/commerce with windows that abut the sidewalk.

2. Includes restaurants with outdoor seating to improve street life.

3. No blank walls facing the street.

4. Parking hidden in rear; no surface parking lots or garages facing the street.

5. Non-hideous, interesting architecture, to scale with surrounding neighborhood. Choose a material and use it. Please: no patchwork of 17 different building materials on the facade!

6. Anything of value that’s demolished must be replaced with something (arguably) better.

7. Retail space that small local entrepreneurs can afford.

8. NO. NATIONAL. CHAINS. If you lease to Starbucks or Chipotle, expect a big-@$$ boycott and some egg on your facade. “You gotta break some eggs to make an omelet,” you say? I’ll break some @#$%!&* eggs. And that @#$% is impossible to scrub off a building.

Of course, no two people agree on what constitutes “progress.” I invite readers to respectfully disagree and post their preferences in the comments section. Meanwhile, this being my blog, representing my opinions, let’s take a drive around Nashville and explore a few neighborhood mixed-use developments that I like and dislike, to discuss the passes/epic fails of each:

1. 12South Tower: Where’s the store?

There may be a shop up there somewhere. But I’m not sure.

Fail. I don’t mind the architecture—the brick is OK, and I like the iron railings. But when I walk by it, I feel the death kiss of masonry instead of human activity and shop windows to ogle. Doors and windows are a story above the street, and are thus useless and lifeless.

2. 12th and Paris: Vibrant Street life

Walk by on a summer Saturday—people & popsicles galore

Pass. I know. Plenty of folks don’t like the Paris Building—nearby merchants are mad about parking, etc. But I like it. It fulfills the majority of my criteria: Parking is hidden, local merchants are thriving there, folks sit outside to eat on nice days, and on sunny Saturdays, the block is bursting with human activity. I love to walk by and absorb the life and laughter. It’s why I moved to 12South instead of Brentwood.

3. Fifth and Main. WTF? 

Design by committee. Or possibly a student design contest.

Epic fail. I have to hand it to anyone who has the guts to attempt a mixed-use project on the potholed ribbon of blight that is Main Street. Unfortunately, it did not succeed. Nice try on the windows, but it’s still mostly concrete in my face…if I for some reason decided to actually become a pedestrian on this nefarious stretch of Main. And I have a hunch this edifice is going to age like a meth addict’s teeth.

4. The Hill Center: Anything is better than Green Hills Mall-landia.

Cool! My favorite chains! Is this in Pasadena?

Pass, barely. This meets the criteria visually: buildings, sidewalks, outdoor seating. But there’s absolutely no charm, and nothing local about the place. Am I in Pasadena? Or Kansas City? Chock-full of chains, and the few locals have gone out of business. However: this development did not cause the demolition of anything worthwhile. It’s in Green Hills. Any attempt at “urbanism” there is better than what preceded it. A college try, at least, to scale back the heinous strip-mallization of Nashville suburbs.

5. Germantown infill: Havens for local business.

Local businesses thrive in this architectural oasis

Pass. To my mind, Germantown does just about the best job of to-scale development of any neighborhood in Nashville. Excellent local businesses thrive here—places like City House, Germantown Cafe, Cocoa Tree, and Lazzaroli’s—alongside some of the best historic architecture in town. And the newer residential development, in my opinion, fits in well. (See below.) It looks more like urban high-density brownstones than the horrible Post gated apartment compounds that proliferate in monstro-cities like Atlanta. And density, in the urban landscape, is good. To a point.

Germantown: Urban high-density residential, with taste

6. East Nashville—A Real Neighborhood with Big-City Zoning

East Nashville—Mecca for artisanal small business and charming lunatics

Pass. East Nashville, love it or not, has charm oozing out its cracked-out pores: psychotic dudes dancing in downpours, gorgeous old houses interspersed with meth lab duplexes, a crazy-loyal cult fan base that embraces full-on the idea of Us and Them. East Nashville’s biggest advantage is the variety of low-cost, zoning-appropriate retail space scattered throughout the neighborhood, instead of only on a few linear main thoroughfares. Which makes it possible and affordable for all sorts of creative small businesses to spring up—Mas Tacos, Silly Goose, Marche, Holland House, and Ugly Muggs, to name a few. And for that, I have neighborhood envy.

Some of these businesses occupy or re-use old buildings. Others do quite well in new developments like the one above. It’s not bad looking, there’s retail on the ground floor, and I quite like it.

7. Urban Grub, 12South: Huh.

Nothing good had to die for this to exist. But what is it?

Incomplete. I’m giving this an “I” and withholding judgment for now. It could be fantastic. It could be a visual freight train pileup. Hard to say at this juncture. The critical point for me is: nothing excellent got torn down to make way for it, so it’s most likely a net gain for 12South.

Rumours of Demolition Are Not Exaggerated

Which brings me to what’s prompted this series of posts in the first place: For the first time in my 10 years in the neighborhood, something I really care about is going away in the name of development. When the bulldozers come, I am going to weep shamelessly. And that means that suddenly, the stakes went way up for me. Consequently, I’m going to judge what rises from my favorite wine bar’s ashes much more harshly than all previous building projects here. It’s going to take a whole lot for what comes next to be a net gain for me, an improvement in my quality of life. And that’s kind of a big responsibility, You Developers. Please do well. And do good. Don’t make our little corner of the world worse.

Something lost, uncertain gains

Related post: Rumours Wine Bar Closing Soon

Related post: Surveyors at Rumours…So Soon?

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13 thoughts on “Urban Spaces Worth Caring About

  1. Great post kim. Awesome video. I think about where Ken giang is located and how depressing that area is though i guess that is an example of reclaiming the old models. (large retail shops with huge parking lots) Another example is Haywood lane where Your Choice restaurant is. That area is a blight on the eyes and soul. Notice all the restaurant references.

    • So right, Mike! All the best ethnic places are in hideous strip malls on depressing thoroughfares like Murfreesboro Rd. and Charlotte. I doubt that Kien Giang or El Manjar could afford to lease space in the Gulch—and I doubt that the Gulch clientele would appreciate their fare. Whereas in NYC…sigh. I’m not even going to start.

  2. Thanks for posting this comment on urban bight and sprawl, Kim. A walkable neighborhood with local shops, bistros, galleries, and restaurants would be self-sustaining, it seems to me, but of course I’m no economist. It just seems like such a good idea and makes sense.

    • Maybe if it were the norm instead of the exception, these kinds of walkable urban places wouldn’t be so rare and in-demand, and maybe the retail spaces would actually be affordable for the Mas Tacos and Kien Giangs of the world. Here’s hoping.

      Clearly some people want this kind of living. Just look at real estate prices in 12South.

  3. <3 Thanks for writing this! All so true! Urban Grubb is looking the way I imagine a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co might, which is concerning. But hopefully it's massive proportions are in no way a reflection of the quantity of butter and fries they intend to serve in each food basket. Time will tell!

  4. Disclosure: I am the husband of the lovely Greenery blogger. My opinion is, by definition, biased.

    My long time friend and architect, Kristifer Dillehay, posted the following to Facebook: “Good criticism involves establishing a reasoned criteria, and then using that criteria to measure something. Great job Kim.”

    I think this is one of the most well reasoned and well articulated positions I’ve heard regarding the pending development in our fair hood. Thank you Kim for taking the time and energy to put your thoughts into words. Thank you for being reasonable. Thank you for your wicked sense of humor. Remember, #%(^ ‘em if they can’t take a joke.

  5. What an awesome post! So often how a building meets the street is overlooked in urban design. There is nothing more powerful in activating the public realm. Having spent a little time in Nashville there is so much more of a unique identity there than in so many other cities. No doubt your post shows that no city is exempt from the mind-numbing “sameness” of heartless development…I’d love to see a follow up of great examples in the city!

  6. Nashville will never be Chicago or New York.
    This city has developed around the automobile for almost a century. Roads like spokes in a wheel leading to the next suburb, first it was here in the Sunnyside area, next to Green Hills, then to Bellevue and so on. A few of these older areas survived and thrived over the years, Hillsboro Village in particular, while most had to wait for a renaissance.
    On our street it started with the re-purposing of the old buildings and homes, as it has in the Village, 5 points, Germantown and so on. People moved here because of it, not because they hoped someone would build a Panera Bread on the corner.
    Now that 12 South has become the hottest real estate market in the area, the developments will come. The neighborhood turned down the idea of a protective
    overlay years ago, and now it has no recourse against what would be considered unsightly design.
    After checking the web sites for both the developers, I must say if what is in the gallery sections are showcases of their best work we might be in trouble. Lots of square boxes with steel and glass. I would say the Hill Center is the most attractive thing they have done.
    The best we can hope for in any of the projects to come is that builders give a nod to historic designs of the early 20th century, use a healthy dose of the golden ratio, and have a grasp of how important scale is. Any designer worth his salt would consider this a lesson from Architecture 101, right?
    My fear is that these things are very much at odds with maximizing revenue per square foot while keeping construction costs to a minimum so that the land owners make as much money as possible.
    Tell me I’m wrong Mr. Granberry. You can reach me anytime at worriedon12th@gmail.com

  7. “Can we do better?” I shudder to think we can do worse!

    Great overview of good urbanism. Your points of what makes something well planned or not say it all, except I would add access to mass transit (within a quarter mile of a stop) because so much bad planning stems from the car’s dominance.

    That 5th and Main building looks like a child built it out of legos and it probably will have as much permanence.

    I loved the JHK TED Talk. I agree with most of what he had to say except his idea that urban landscaping must be strictly regimented because it is on the city and must me bent to the will of Man. Yes, landscaping composed by humans is not the same as wild nature, but if it can create at least somewhat of an illusion, It will create an appreciation for wild nature and keep plants from being viewed as utilitarian outdoor decoration.

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