Jun 13, 2010

New Urbanism is Old Urbanism - A Case Study

Marblehead, Mass: doing it right by leaving it the way it is

My politically conservative friends (yes, I have few) all tend to have an infatuation with real estate, thinking that housing is the primary driver of economic growth and that the whole world revolves around that mistaken assumption.

Community development, then, is treated as nothing more than code speak for the engagement of government's support in the buildout of the available and desirable land in any territory and the subsequent ongoing enhancement of those parcels with ever more financially valuable upgrades. Attempts to add other objectives under the community development umbrella -- restrictive zoning or historic preservation, for instance -- tend to be viewed as obstructionist, bringing about the popular "standing in the way of progress"rallying cry.

Those of us with a clearer and more progressive (as opposed to liberal, thank you very much) point of view tend to look at the concept of communities a bit differently. Namely, as places where people live. Community development, then, should strive to enhance the human experience, and significant building projects in any given locale should be subject to a "how does this enhance or detract from?" just that.

Hence the rise of the so-called New Urbanists. Tired and disdainful of the socially and ecologically damaging effects of ever-growing suburban sprawl and equally concerned about the given-up-for-dead condition of American cities, a movement was born with a goal of reversing both of those trends.

We've harped upon this "everything old is new again" concept repeatedly in this forum, with an obvious bias in support of its general framework. More of the same is not needed at this time. But, my new camera had me itching to kick out the jams the other day and let the shutter fly, so I strolled around the neighborhood of one of my base camps for some initial runs of the SONY 35mm digital. As I started snapping some pics, it dawned on me that I was creating a scrapbook of sorts of an excellent example of a 'new urbanist' community , up close and personal. But this one isn't new, it's actually one of the originals!

Marblehead, Massachusetts is a North Shore harbor town above Boston. Settled all the way back in 1629, it was your typcial New World port-side community, strongly and directly linked to the water. As the population grew, Marblehead's street grid expanded from the water inland, up the gently rolling hills and into the western woods. Given the times, individuals in the community relied heavily on one another for survival, which resulted in their living in densely-packed neighborhoods on narrow streets, with their work, trade and socializing needs all met within a very small radius. There werent no striving eager beavers living 30 miles away becasue a m,an;s castle is his castle and the school's are just soooo good out there. Sound familiar, doesn't it? There's Old Urbanism / New Urbanism at work.

Remarkably, Marblehead has retained at least the physical aspects of that world. Today, a stroll through the old town section reveals side-by-side, streetside residential homes marked with plaques, educatiing passers-by to the original build date of the structures and the name and profession of the first residents. Many of the buidlings date back to the 1700's.

So, here you go: some snaps of Marblehead taken last week. Yeah, I know I'm no Annie Leibowitz here yet, but there sure are a whole bunch of controls to this thing to master! Just get a look at the streets, homes, bay--and even the famous (infamous?) Maddie's Sail Loft!

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