Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Dissolving Border Vacuums, Part 10

We've examined many kinds of border vacuums over the last year – parking lots and arterial roads, trenches and viaducts, institutional facilities and superblocks, antiurban utopian experiments, “green spaces” and campuses – so let's conclude the series with Jacobs' thoughts on vacuum-inducing neighborhood “turfs” and the “great blight of dullness.”

Some border vacuums, like large cemeteries and prisons, are particularly challenging to deal with. We can't exactly encourage cross-use between a prison and its adjacent neighborhoods, so is there any other way to address its border vacuum?

Eastern State Penitentiary presents a blank wall to Fairmount Avenue...
In cases like this, Jacobs suggests using “extraordinarily strong counterforces” to confine the vacuums to small areas: “Population concentration ought to be made deliberately high near such borders, the blocks close to them should be especially short and their street use extremely fluid, and mixtures of uses should be abundant. This may not bring much intensity right up to the borders, but it can help confine their vacuums to small zones (268-269).”

The stretch of Fairmount Avenue across from Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary employs just such a counterforce, and it could be deployed around Baltimore's prison complex as well. Fairmount Avenue's mix of shopfronts, rowhouses, small apartment buildings, and offices helps confine Eastern State's border vacuum to the sidewalk next to the prison's blank wall (but even there the prison's architecture offers some visual interest).

 ...but Fairmount Avenue counters the border vacuum with a mixed-use street wall.
I'll counter the anticipated skepticism – “But Eastern State Penitentiary is a museum, whereas Baltimore's prison complex is still active!” – by pointing out that the mixed-use street wall across from Eastern State was already there when that prison was active!

If (1) the Metropolitan Transition Center’s interesting architecture was extended to enclose the entire prison complex, (2) an intensely fine-grained, mixed-use street-and-block fabric was introduced to extend the Johnston Square, Oldtown, and Jonestown neighborhoods right up to the prison walls, and (3) the border vacuums around the JFX and the nearby housing projects were also dissolved, then I think the complex's border vacuum would be successfully confined.

In short, I don't think it's necessary to move the prison complex out of central Baltimore at all. After all, even though its prisoners can't interact with surrounding neighborhoods, the complex's employees can enliven those neighborhoods with cross-use.

Greenmount Cemetery is ringed by a vacuum of vacant lots.
What about cemeteries, like Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery? A quick glance at an aerial view of Greenmount Cemetery reveals that the decay gets worse the closer one gets to the cemetery.

Save for two portals to Greenmount Avenue, the cemetery presents nothing but blank walls to surrounding neighborhoods. But these neighborhoods in turn present nothing but rapidly-built-up blocks of uniform, single-use rowhouses to the cemetery, and as discussed in the previous post, the resulting border vacuum isn't surprising.

It's possible to deploy “extraordinarily strong counterforces” around Greenmount Cemetery too - the recently-built City Arts Apartments attempt to do this, though they offer a relatively-bland frontage to Greenmount Avenue.

Greenmount Cemetery could be activated with cross-use.
But Greenmount Cemetery actually contains numerous architectural and historical assets, and these could be leveraged to activate the cemetery with cross-use and transform it into a recreational centerpiece for central Baltimore. For example, new Gothic portals could be added to the cemetery's corners and t-intersection streets, which would allow pedestrians and cyclists to use it as a shortcut between surrounding neighborhoods.

Furthermore, if Greenmount Cemetery was enclosed with mixed-use infill, this infill could foster cross-use by supporting recreational amenities placed strategically along the cemetery's perimeter: “An example would be a skating rink brought immediately up to a park border, and across the street on the city side, a cafe where skaters could get refreshments and observe other skaters across the way (166).”

There isn't room for a skating rink inside Greenmount Cemetery, of course, but even though most of its area is dedicated to gravestones and monuments, the cemetery's peripheral grounds offer pockets of space for smaller recreational amenities. (It may even be worth moving some peripheral gravestones to accommodate these amenities.)

Lest anyone think it obscene to turn a sacred resting place into a place of recreation, I hasten to insert that cemeteries like Greenmount were originally conceived as recreational amenities: “Here [in Greenmount Cemetery] were reserved acres of rolling, landscaped ground where visitors could stroll on Sundays and contemplate the meaning of mortality (The Baltimore Rowhouse, 57-58).” Only in the last century or so have we treated them as inert warehouses for the dead!

Jacobs stresses that border vacuums are most problematic where they carve cities into helpless fragments: “The trouble arises when districts are bisected by borders such that the neighborhoods sundered are weak fragments and a district cannot functionally exist. Frequent borders can in this way tear a city to tatters (264-265).”

This city-carving is also a symptom of the “turf” phenomenon, which in turn is a symptom of the feel-good notion that cities are mere collections of putatively “self-sufficient” villages:

“Planning theory is [even today!] committed to the ideal of supposedly cozy, inwardly-turned city neighborhoods. To see why this is a silly and even harmful ideal for cities, we must recognize a basic difference between town and city life. The connections among the people in a town keep crossing to form cohesive communities, but a population in a city has no such innate degree of cross-connections, nor can neighborhood planning change this fact. If it could, the price would be the destruction of a city by converting it into a parcel of mutually-suspicious and hostile turfs. City people aren't stuck with the provincialism of a neighborhood, and why should they be – isn't wide choice and rich opportunity the point of cities? (115-116).”

Bolton Hill retreats from Reservoir Hill...
Unfortunately a large swath of central Baltimore has already been converted into a collection of mutually-suspicious turfs:

“Under the turf system, a gang appropriates as its own territory certain streets, housing projects, and parks. Now consider the “islands within the city” and “cities within the city” redevelopment projects in cities. The technique here is also to designate turf and fence other gangs out. At first the fences weren't visible, but now they have become literal – perhaps the first was the fence around a Radiant Garden City project adjoining Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore (47-48).”

As Jacobs discusses in Chapters 6 and 20, some neighborhoods deliberately induce border vacuums to maintain their turfs, but the resulting pyrrhic victory stabilizes a handful of enclaves at the expense of a city's cultural and economic interaction (116). Eventually the city stops functioning as a city and devolves into a collection of isolated enclaves surrounded by a sea of helpless decay – and why bother sticking around in those enclaves after that point?

 … and Reservoir Hill does the same. Both are mutually-suspicious turfs.
Save for the Charles Street corridor (where Mt. Vernon, Midtown-Belvedere, Station North, Old Goucher, Remington, and Charles Village are gradually stitching together) and the waterfront (where Patterson Park, Highlandtown, Brewer's Hill, Canton, Fell's Point, Harbor East, Little Italy, the Inner Harbor, and Federal Hill are gradually stitching together), there is relatively little unification in central Baltimore.

Too many border vacuums divide this area, and the notion that the city is a collection of self-contained villages only reinforces these vacuums.

Jacobs argues that any single use spread over a large area is prone to border vacuum formation. These struggling “gray areas” tend to be characterized by (1) a large and rapid increment of development, (2) a limited range of building types, and (3) a problematic “in-between” density:

“At any particular place and time, under the given circumstances of regulations, technology, and financing, some particular way of packing dwellings onto the land is apt to be most efficient. In some places and times, for example, rowhouses were the answer for maximum efficiency [as in Baltimore]. Where these crowded out all other dwelling types, they brought a pall of monotony. No one way is a good way to house a city neighborhood. Standardization is fatal, because diversity in types of buildings has a direct connection with diversity in population and enterprise (212-214).”

Unfortunately Baltimore's single-use rowhouse belt suffers from this predicament, and it did not go unnoticed by Jacobs: “The Kostritskys live in inner Baltimore, but Mrs. Kostritsky must commute via car – nothing else is practical – to get her children to school, to do grocery shopping, to use a library, to see a show, and like any mother out in the suburbs, this inner-city mother must drive to a suburban shopping center to buy children's clothing. “I have lost the advantages of living in the city,” she says, “without getting the advantages of living in the suburbs.” In-between densities – too low for cities, too high for suburbs – are as impractical for transportation as they are for other economic or social purposes. The common fate of such districts nowadays is to be abandoned by people with choice (356-357).”

Vast swaths of Baltimore offer neither suburban comforts nor urban amenities.
That last part is important: If I valued suburban living, why would I settle for a rowhouse neighborhood? Likewise, if I valued urban living with its mixed uses and street life, why would I settle for a single-use rowhouse neighborhood either? It may be uncomfortable to admit, but vast swaths of inner Baltimore, having outlived their original industrial dormitory function, are now stuck in Jacobs' “in-between” predicament.

Fortunately the situation is hardly hopeless, and demolition certainly isn't required! Zoning and taxation reforms would give entrepreneurial residents – and there are many of them! – the opportunity to convert gray-area rowhouse blocks into fine-grained districts like Mt. Vernon. This incremental transformation has happened before, and merely needs to be legalized again.

Cities will continue to host transportation corridors and institutional facilities/districts, but their accompanying border vacuums need not be inevitable. For example, although American cities have historically done a poor job integrating their waterfronts into the urban fabric, we need only look abroad to see that most cities manage to integrate waterfront recreation with commerce.

I think Baltimore actually comes closer than most other American cities in matching these cities' waterfront integration. There's legitimate debate over the financing tactics used to revitalize the Inner Harbor, but in terms of form I think the revitalization beats similar efforts in Boston, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia.

Fell's Point offers casual openings for glimpsing the working waterfront.
For example, rather than buffering the waterfront with vacuous “green space” setbacks, the city brought the urban fabric (i.e. people!) right up to the water's edge, ensuring an extraordinarily strong counterforce to what previously had been a desolate backwater of derelict piers. At the same time, the city incorporated a continuous public promenade from Canton to Fort McHenry, ensuring cross-use.

Fell's Point is consequently a perfect example of the waterfront seam Jacobs describes in Chapter 14: “The usual rescue for a decayed waterfront vacuum is to replace it with a park, which only moves the vacuum inland. Let's grasp the problem where it originates, at the shoreline, and make the shore a seam. Waterfronts should be penetrated by casual public openings for glimpsing work and water traffic (267-268).”

We shouldn't expect cities like Baltimore to conquer their other border vacuums in one fell swoop – the process quite understandably takes time – but I do hope cities stop sacrificing long-term stability for an endless parade of vacuum-inducing, feel-good stunts, because these stunts always age poorly: “In spite of much experiment, planned and unplanned, there exists no substitute for lively streets (120).”

- Marc Szarkowski


  1. Great series on border vacuums. Where can I find your bibliography?

  2. Hi Graham - I should have clarified this at the beginning of the series, but all quotes are from Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities unless another title/author is cited immediately before or after the quote.


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