Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Tale of Two Parks

On two successive, sunny weekends we visited two neighborhood parks of similar scale, with similar amenities, but strikingly different characters - to me responsive to the different characters of their surrounding neighborhoods.

Forest Hill Park in Southside Richmond was built along with the trolley car suburb, where I now live, in the early part of the last century. Henrico County's Deep Run Park is located in the "third ring," which is a car oriented suburb, built toward the end of the last century. Both have man made lakes with waterfowl (and apparently stocked with fish at Deep Run,) well kept and well used playgrounds, athletic facilities, picnic shelters, open, grassy areas for sunbathing, and wooded areas for strolling. Both have buildings which house community functions. At Forest Hill, its the old stone house which sits near the western edge of the open lawn area: a small facility, residential in scale (formerly a farm house,) which now houses events such as the neighborhood's art sales, and community group meetings. At Deep Run Park thiere is a significantly larger, contemporary Recreation Center, which we did not explore.

Good numbers of people were out enjoying the day at each park during our visits - relaxing, taking some exercise, catching some rays and people watching. Families with young children occupied every available piece of play equipment, and walked around the lakes at both parks - children getting a little too close to the Canada geese, and 'fishing' with fallen branches.

Both parks would have to be called successful to my eyes, and demonstrate a common desire for sunlight, fresh air, water and trees, but convivially rather than with the isolation of true wilderness. The primary difference was the place of the car in each.

We usually walk to Forest Hill- a good 20 minute walk one way to the playground ( with young children it can be much more.) We walk on neighborhood streets and can enter directly into the park from among the houses, or walk along busy Forest Hill Avenue which bounds the park to the south, but is still lined at that point with residences and sidewalks at that point. There is a parking area to the northwest corner of the park, and a road which parallels the adjacent street to access that lot, one pull in at the Stone House where some people park, and roads for maintenance vehicles that also serve pedestrians. Other than that, parking is on street parking.

Realm of the Car in (top) Forest Hill Park and (bottom) Deep Run Park

At Deep Run, the parking areas were within the park, and adjacent to amenities, with a busy access road cutting through the center of the park - passing closely and visibly the northwest corner of the lakes. We drove to the park - apparently could have walked, but thinking about two guys with three small children and a dog crossing Gaskins road was none too appealing, so we didn't even ask. The act of driving made it seem like quite a venture - we stocked up on supplies for our voyage, packed the kids, stroller, bags, dog, etc. into the car and set off. We were far from alone because there was a wait for spaces in the parking lot (alright, a short wait; but a wait.) As I mentioned, both parks were pleasant and enjoyed by plenty of people, but the thought of all of us driving to get outdoors and walk struck me as funny.

Monday, March 22, 2010


A balmy springtime Friday evening and a stunning Saturday found several dozen architecture aficionados within a dark movie theater, engaged in a dialog about An Architecture of Necessity, the 2010 Virginia Design Forum sponsored by the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architecture. Aside from a leisurely lunch at the Water Grill, beside an open window, we had to rely on the words and images as our light for the day.
Four architects provided a varied perspective on the practice of architecture with a social consciousness. Philip Freelon presented a number of recent works, most notably projects related to African American culture, culminating in the upcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. Julie Eizenberg spoke of the responsibility of architects to challenge the status quo with activism, even to the point of civil disobedience. She also inverted the Forum's theme by asking, "Is architecture necessary?" Andrew Freear presented a compelling picture of the current state of Auburn University's Rural Studio, convincing the audience that the program is continuing to do good work in a post-Samuel Mockbee world. ("Sambo" Mockbee is the subject of a new documentary with a world premier at SXSW and an early screening on April 1 at Virginia Tech.) Finally, Teddy Cruz made the case that architects should be designing "systems of interaction," to effect change, challenging the natural instinct to design a project (object) to address a perceived need.
It is worth noting that all of these talks were given in Richmond's Byrd Theater, a historic movie palace (complete with pipe organ) renowned for its dilapidated seats. Leg stretching breaks were important. Also, it was a little surreal to have the constant aroma of buttered popcorn present, even at 9:00 AM.
Text Color
Byrd Theatre seats Originally uploaded by Banjo Eyes

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Community Design Center

For some time now, an idea has been percolating to start a community design center in the Richmond metropolitan region, an organizational entity intended to serve the community by connecting design resources with those who need them. For example, the City has a number of Old and Historic Districts that require a fairly rigorous approval process for changes to the exterior of the buildings. The Richmond Community Design Center could conceivably assist homeowners, contractors and neighbors in these Districts to gain a better understanding of the expectations of the Commission for Architectural Review and the process for gaining approval.

The RCDC is still in the infancy of a visioning process. However, having gained some attention from Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille, the Richmond City Council Representative from the 7th District, the effort may be gaining momentum.  The RDCD is currently envisioned as having three Mission Elements:

 To serve as a forum for the promotion of Good Design in the Richmond Metropolitan Region.

To foster connection between design resources (e.g. professionals, organizations, product information and reference materials) and the people who need them.

To provide an independent liaison between property owners (and other project stakeholders) and the regulatory environment that governs design decisions.

Obviously, there are a number of key concepts within these mission elements that demand definition to be meaningful in any consensual way, but it's a start.  It is also supposed that the RCDC has at least six "essentials" that have been part of the discussions to date. They are:

Concierge: a person or a process that is tasked with forming the connections between resources and needs.

Physical presence: the RCDC should be public, centrally located and visible. Ideally, the RCDC should be in a literal storefront.

Resource library: the physical location should house literature, samples, case studies and other information to support the center's mission.

Emphasis on sustainability: this should be implicit in Good Design, but we still live in an era where the distinction is important and, unfortunately, necessary.

Facilitation of professional consultations: one of the richest resources available are the design professionals that are willing to contribute to the center by meeting with those who need design assistance. These consultations would be provided at little or no cost to the center's user.

Education and outreach: the center should actively promote Good Design and provide educational opportunities about the "how's" and "why's" of making our physical environment a beautiful place.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

More Powerful than Vitamin D

A Beautiful Saturday in Raleigh, NC – the first one in quite some time to bring a hint of spring; couldn’t I find anything better to do than spend the daylight hours in a darkened room in Raleigh’s impressive new convention center, listening to a succession of presentations on urban design?

Actually the Urban Design Forum program “Creating Value: Designing for Resilient Cities” was well worth its opportunity cost in potential Vitamin D.

To some extent, the program was an exercise in rebranding – ideas long trumpeted in the sustainable design movement (transit oriented development, urban agriculture, walkable cities, etc.) were recast in terms of value in today’s economic Hard Times. But there was value and clarity to this new conceptualization, and for me the notion of an urban system’s resiliency, or capacity to adapt to new conditions as it was defined by one speaker, was compelling.

Several themes emerged for me throughout the day. First was the need for openness, clarity and even honesty from the inception of any project about the nature of the local situation. The current Hard Times and collapsing, an-urban structure were largely the result of policy and finance decisions not grounded in sound analysis, but too often chasing an attractive vision with cheap money. McDuffie Nichols, Economics Principal at AECOM, suggested that clearing out this bad investment will take at least the next 5 to 10 years, and that will still leave the physical detritus – abandoned strip malls, uncounted square miles of pavement and a hyper extended, costly infrastructure. His suggestion was to analyze the economic milieu of a place even before the site analysis, and definitely before drawing out the vision of a project; grounding the vision in reality.

A description of projects for resilient cities might be as follows: smaller scale, locally specific, diverse, and connected. There is currently a nationwide (or greater) model for development of moving outward to cheaper land (ignoring or subsidizing the unseen costs of getting there,) until the people catch up, land becomes more expensive, and outward pressure is felt again. The cost of the infrastructure to get out there is subsidized – dispersed until the people paying it don’t notice. Banks have been supportive of this model because of a history of success (narrowly calculated.) This model has collapsed, and banks are no longer so interested. But according to Nichols, banks are not in the business of searching for new models- he suggests compiling a set of successful precedent case studies to bring to the banks when looking to finance different types of projects. Several presenters mentioned the necessity of bringing an increasing number of stakeholders in early, and for the duration of project design, with the designer’s role to facilitate these discussions with drawing tools present to discover the vision of the project.

Third there was discussion about what these places might be like. Dean of the College of Design Marvin Malecha reminded that “architecture begins with the measure of the first human step.” That should indicate the scale of how we develop our cities. NY City’s Alexandros Washburn pointed out that there is really nothing new about all this – the Greeks had found an aesthetic language to represent civic virtues in their built environment, and that was what we are seeking to do. The virtues he pointed to were all timeless: Prudence, Thrift and Creativity. These he correlated to design activities of Adaptation, Mitigation and Generation, what he spoke of as the principles of design grounded in Urbanism and Ecology.

In his keynotes address, Architect, former Mayor of Charlottesville, and most recently Director of Design for the NEA Maurice Cox spoke of the need for the design community to engage with the politics of crafting our cities, and to inculcate an engagement on the part of the citizens. This was a necessity, he felt, to bring about “design excellence” in our places. The afternoon was capped by a Q& A session with four Triangle area journalists – the gist of which was that the ideas presented would “go over with a resounding thud,” if presented that way to the general public. That leaves open ended Mayor Cox’s challenge to engage the citizenry, which he called “creating a constituency for design excellence.” It is incumbent upon designers to find the language, both visual and verbal to make these ideas real to the citizens, and also to find the will to engage with the people on their own level, and where they live.