Creating Places: A Citizen Observer's Look at Nashville's Built Environment

Writer's Note: William Williams' interest in the manmade environment dates to 1970, at which point the then-young Williams started a collection of postcards of city skylines. The collection now numbers 1,000-plus cards. Among the writer's specific interests are exterior building design, city district planning, demographics, signage, mixed-use development, mass transit and green/sustainable construction and living. Williams began his Creating Places column with The City Paper in February 2005. The column in its original form was discontinued in September 2008 and reinvented via this blog in November 2008. Creating Places can be found on the home page of the website of The City Paper, at which Williams has worked in various capacities since October 2000.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Birmingham Offers Key Sign of Urban Form

Within Birmingham's central core — a roughly 360-block mass comprising the city's Central Business District and Southside (and the fringes of those two districts) — there is a defining characteristic of a traditional built fabric. Very simply, this massive sea of B-Ham urbanity contains few, if any, buildings that are sited with their sides "facing" streets. It's almost stunning to see this, as the central cores of most Southern cities have various buildings positioned in this manner, often when such a physical arrangement was not even necessary. For a Nashville reference and a comparison, mentally visualize the siting of the Wachovia Bank Building, located on West End Avenue between 17th and 18th avenues. The developer could have opted to position the building facing and straddling the sidewalk. Instead, the building seemingly "turns its side" to West End, its facade facing east and overlooking asphalt. And there are other examples of this in Midtown, which is the equivalent (and only very modestly so) of Birmingham's Southside. In fairness, sometimes tight geographic constraints render such a site arrangement necessary for a building. Often, however, the developer wishes to maximize ease of motorist access, thus harming the attractiveness and urban functionality of the structure. Somehow, Birmingham's core has managed to avoid this example of non-urban design.

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