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October 13, 2011 / Robert Ross

urban authenticity

Former Street transformed into pedestrian plaza!

I was having lunch with a interior designer friend of mine the other day. While we were discussing what was going on in our lives and businesses, she brought up her upcoming trip to Serenbe.  For readers not familiar, Serenbe is a planned development south of Atlanta based on new urbanist concepts combined with sustainability. We both commented that while it seemed to be a nice place to visit, it was just that. The reality is that it is merely a superbly marketed suburban enclave that has a definite entry price point. As my friend said “you don’t see the gardeners or cleaning people living there”. Let alone the artists who’s mecca the website would like you to believe it is. Its just not an “authentic” experience.

This chance conversation echoed an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with another friend, a self described “urban traveller” and kitchen designer. We have been meeting biweekly for coffee in a shop in Glenwood Park, another new urbanist development in Atlanta. Like Serenbe,  Glenwood Park is a new development combining residential, live/work spaces with a retail district based on an earlier lifestyle pattern. It is an excellent concept, and well executed, but somehow misses the boat. Now entering it’s fifth year, the retail district is still fairly inactive and lacks activity. It has a few restaurants, but no distinctive retail identity. The few spaces that have been leased have been service oriented. Any retail that has attempted to open, quickly fades away. Many of the spaces have never been leased.  It has an over designed, stage set quality to the public spaces that is frequently characteristic of a development planned at once. This quality is also a predictable outcome given the developmental controls that are in place.

Public Bocce Ball court at center of Glenwood Park retail area

In both of these examples, what is missing is the authenticity of a place that has developed naturally over time. Part of this is the result of their both being created as a piece to meet a developer’s vision of what should be.  Contrast this with a center that evolves naturally to meet an actual need. Places that develop over time have their own character. Part of this is due to the fact that there is no single entity in charge of design. Each parcel is an individual reaction to a perceived need. To a large extent this character is created by the individual needs of the owner or user of the space.  On a more subtle level, it is defined by what is created in the “leftover” spaces. Those unique corners where two adjacent and distinct visions don’t quite mesh. The offset stagger of two facades that become a place for a cafe table or pocket garden. Maybe a place for a piece of public art or a simple bench to sit and observe. These are the happy accidents that really define a place. They are where human ingenuity and creativity merge and create something special. In planned developments happy accidents can’t exist, there isn’t any room for them.

Saturday afternoon Glenwood Park Retail District

Juxtaposed against these examples are two others, also in Atlanta. Little 5 Points and Virginia-Highland. Both are historic neighborhood retail centers that once housed everything the surrounding neighborhoods needed. Groceries, movie theaters, drug stores, etc. With the rise of the suburbs and strip center shopping in the 1960’s these neighborhood centers severely declined. An intown renaissance of the surrounding residential neighborhoods combined with a major effort by local business owners enabled both these districts to reemerge as the vibrant areas they are today.

Little 5 Points has become a destination for those seeking out an urban bohemian experience. It is an artsy, edgy enclave of restaurants, shops and live theater. It’s storefronts are vibrant, exuberant and exhilaratingly discordant. It is home to one of Atlanta’s oldest and best Natural Food Groceries. It has actively developed and embraced an alternative and expressive culture, celebrating it to success.  As a result it is busy day and night- without any large scale daytime office or hotel component nearby. It has become a destination in itself.

Another equally popular Atlanta destination, Virginia-Highland, developed as a slightly more upscale but equally vibrant district of restaurants, shops and music venues. It’s street scape is perhaps less exuberant and more “tasteful” than Little 5 Points, but each shop retains it’s individual character expressed through signage and displays. With an increase taste level comes the requisite increase in price point. The striking thing is that these neighborhood centers are within 2 miles of each other and revived almost simultaneously as their surrounding neighborhoods were rediscovered as desirable places to live. They were an organic outgrowth of the surrounding communities.

Liitle 5 Points Shops

Color - storefront material of choice.

Another commonality is that they each developed a clear identity. It was that readily identifiable personality that attracted other like businesses and consumers to explore a previously abandoned infrastructure. They each celebrate individuality and from that celebration emerged a distinctive “place”. Through their renaissance they have introduced several generations of Atlantans to a more traditional and unique retail experience, an authentic experience not replicated in the typical Mall or “planned” development. In a Mall or “planned” development, there are design guidelines or controls in place that reinforce the Mall or Development identity over the individual shop owner.  In most instances the overriding identity is bland and indistinct. The resulting  space is one that has literally been designed to death!

Does this mean I think new urbanism is a failed concept? No, I think it has a great deal of validity. Now that there are several communities that have been designed to those guidelines, perhaps it is time to critically examine what has been built to determine what actually works and what doesn’t. What is necessary is perhaps a fresh look at how those visionary principles can be applied to create a more authentic experience. To my mind that means more emphasis on creating a total human experience and perhaps a little less time on facade design. After all that can and should take care of itself.

All parked up, nowehere to shop- Glenwood Park Saturday



Leave a Comment
  1. jeff / Oct 13 2011 7:18 am

    Great article, Robert ! Makes me think of Christopher Alexander’s teachings.

  2. Life Should Be 3D / Oct 13 2011 12:27 pm

    Thanks — interesting post. Organic vs. synthetic development.

  3. Beth Shorthouse / Oct 13 2011 3:13 pm

    Loved this post, Robert!

  4. Robert Ross / Oct 16 2011 8:10 am

    Thanks All! It is amazing to me how well meaning marketers can keep a project from developing- guess what if you build it….they don’t always come!

  5. John R. Paddock, Ph.D., ABPP / Oct 20 2011 12:19 pm

    Thoughtful analysis, Robert, and one that demonstrates an acute and connected understanding of the primate in us. Yes, you read that correctly. Humans are social, relational beings, and the “new urbanism” attempts in a “planned” manner to orchestrate interpersonal contact in a staged, artificial manner. The problem with the execution of this concept is that it feels disconnected from what people need and actually lands as arrogant presumption.

    From my standpoint, it seems to me that humans naturally prosper (in the broadest sense of the word) when their surround:

    (1) gently encourages them to naturally congregate (rather than receiving a non-verbal, architectural message that conveys, “this is where you will play . . . this is where you will sit . . . this is how you will BE in this space”),

    (2) supports and encourages creative expression, and

    (3) either has a history (e.g., 60 years) and is naturally morphing (like one would see in any ecosystem) or is a fertile space that fosters natural human connection and creativity, that fosters imagination, that fosters play, and that fosters the opportunity to learn the fundamental dance steps of life, start dancing (albeit somewhat stiffly), and then with practice and encouragement allows one freely to discover one’s own expressive style. Little 5 Points and to a lesser extent Virginia-Highland capture this organicity, I believe. In contrast, Atlanta’s own SIM City (Atlantic Station), which surprisingly you did not mention, does not!

    Finally, your post reminds me that architecture is so much more than bricks and mortar. Thoughtful design understands human ecology, human and biological systems, the hard-wired need we have to express our thinking and feelings in creative ways, and embraces the concept that architecture can both reflect current political consciousness and encourage the expression of alternative views. It seems to me that your implicit message is that architecture can and must play a much more active and important role in intervening to unlock the so frequently thoughtless, rigid, stereotyped, polarized, and histrionically hyperbolized social/political culture of our time, lead us away from synthetic SIM City-like experiences, and foster genuine human relatedness and connection.

    • Robert Ross / Oct 20 2011 2:16 pm

      Thanks John! Atlantic Station was avoided because it is a topic unto itself…..and one that probably deserves several posts. They will be coming! For the moment lets just say that the experience rivals the astroturf posing as green space!

  6. leecalisti / Oct 31 2011 10:15 am

    This is very thoughtful and poignant. We have similar poor examples in Pittsburgh and I have heard similar stories of other redevelopments that are basically used by outsiders coming in to visit. It doesn’t create a new neighborhood, it creates a ‘show’. We all agree the New Urbanists have the right motivation but somehow we can’t plant ‘neighborhood’ seeds and expect them to grow into a fun, vibrant neighborhood overnight. When I come to Atlanta someday I know where to go!

    • Robert Ross / Oct 31 2011 10:34 am

      Feel free to get in touch when you make it here!

  7. Karen Schwarz / Jan 8 2012 11:53 am

    Just sent this entry, which I have, enjoyed read and cited before, to a friend with an interest in local urban development.

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