Date of this Version
About one year ago I first heard about the New Urbanist urban planning paradigm and the powerful effects it could have on society and the environment. This urban design movement calls for “compact, mixed use, walkable, and relatively self-contained communities.”1 I searched the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Web site to find neighborhoods influenced by New Urbanist principles in Philadelphia and learned about the Martin Luther King Plaza—four demolished public housing high-rises replaced by mixed-income, mixed use, low-rise housing units. This development struck me as an unusual opportunity to study a planned community in the urban core that included affordable housing.
At first I wanted to research how New Urbanism affected the community in terms of social cohesion. But when the rubber met the road, my ideas were too large to be accomplished in one semester. At the drawing board again, I decided to concentrate on how people used and interacted with the built environment compared to how the architects of MLK Plaza intended for the space to be used. I would research the plan and the planning process and observe the area to discern the architect’s intent for the space versus how the community was using the space. This would provide an assessment of New Urbanism in practice, revealing how the community’s behavior was in fact shaped by the built environment.
As the data came in, I struggled to make sense of it all. I was trying to isolate the work of the architect and the response of the community, when in fact MLK Plaza development is part of a greater context of multiple public and private players, and includes not only the project site but the surrounding area as well. I began to understand just how many forces were working to create this neighborhood, this place. The residents, the businesses, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the developers, the architects, the Avenue of the Arts, the neighbors, the councilman, the displaced. I had been trying to confine my research to the architects and the current residents without seeing the rest of the equation.
Though many questions remain, through my research, observations and interviews, I have been able to draw some conclusions about the impact this public development is having on the neighborhood and its future. I give special thanks to those who made time for interviews, and to my cousin Cheyenne who first enlightened me about New Urbanism and set me down this fascinating path.
Date Posted: 28 July 2010