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Thursday, May 2, 2013 02:32 am

Cakes on a plate

Building walls and street spaces in Springfield

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Sixth Street between Monroe and Adams exemplifies the “books-on-a-shelf” model of development that pedestrians find pleasing.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

In a recent column (“Keeping Springfield weird,” April 25, 2013) I tried to explain why Springfield’s built environment strikes so many visitors as off-putting. I mentioned as likely causes parking lots and incoherent zoning practices and tawdry construction. I also mentioned ill-defined streetscapes, which can induce confusion and unease in the first-time visitor.

So much for the what. The why is interesting, and important. Humans experience city streets not as objects on the landscape but as spaces within it. That space is created by the “street wall” composed of the buildings adjacent to it. The proportions of that space have a lot to do with determining the experience of being in it.

People shun urban space in which the ratio of height to width is excessively high. Many a Springfieldian feels intimidated in Chicago’s Loop, and not merely because of the cost of parking. There, buildings seem to loom over the street. Instead of the street space enclosing pedestrians in a protective way, it seems to be confining, even entrapping them.

Conversely, if the street wall is too low relative to the pavement’s width, or so distant from the pavement edge that visitors’ peripheral vision cannot take it in, the street feels too open. Early travelers to this part of Illinois complained constantly in journals and letters that the wide open spaces of the prairies were so wide and so open that they feared  getting lost, or rather feared having no way of knowing whether they might be lost.

When a street wall is two or three times taller than the street is wide, the human eye can encompass the boundaries of the street space instantly and automatically. This is the Goldilocks sort of streetscape – not too open, not too enclosed, but just right. Springfield’s best example is Sixth street between Monroe and Adams, the capital’s best-by-far surviving example of 19th century commercial streetscape. There’s plenty to divert the eye, but the buildings’ height as much as their appearance make it a pleasant experience. That stretch of Sixth Street is just about exactly twice as wide it is tall. However different in absolute scale they might be, a great many of the places that people happily congregate, from the narrow byway of a medieval city to the grand ceremonial boulevard and the posh shopping street lined with boutiques, share these proportions.

It is not necessary that all buildings be connected to form a street-defining wall, as they are along Sixth, as long as their foundations more or less line up, although if they are unconnected the distance between them can’t be much wider that any one structure or one’s sense of a wall dissolves. Many of Springfield’s new commercial major thoroughfares have not even this kind of street wall.  Here the buildings sit too far back from the street. There they are too low in proportion to that distance. Along that street adjacent buildings sit at different distances from the street. On that one they are separated from each other by parking lots that create visual gaps.

The formlessness that you see along older stretches of a Wabash Avenue or Dirksen Parkway owes much to their history. When they were developed they were  highways out of town and were only patchily urbanized. Not so New Springfield, but the development there has all the same traits. Take a drive along the new streets such as Robbins Road south of Wabash and west of Veterans. The buildings are the same height or lower than those on Sixth Street, but the distance from one building to the others across the street often reaches 300 feet, compared to the 50 on Sixth Street. No sense of shelter here. Not much sense of a city either.

Springfield looks this way not because of oversights or lax enforcement of municipal codes that specify the bulk, setback and density of buildings according to their use.  It looks the way it does because those codes are enforced. The City of Springfield never officially encouraged the books-on-a-shelf model that created the 19th century commercial streetscape we see today on Sixth. That streetscape was produced by developers responding to land costs and transportation constraints. Today’s cake-on-a-plate model for commercial development is, however, an official construct. It dates (in the U.S.) from the 1920s, more or less, and while it has been refined since it remains fundamentally unaltered.

The  planning rules that govern development in Springfield, in short, are a generation out of date. They survive because of assumptions about the ways cities ought to look and work that are way older than that – a topic I might take up in a future column.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at krojr@comcast.net.

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