One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward

By Timothy Hullihan

Taking one step forward and two steps backward is the same as moving backward.  Even though the steps forward are publicized as progressive and the steps backward swept under the rug, the reality is still the same.  Such is the City of West Palm Beach’s commitment to New Urbanism and the creation of a world class, walkable city.  Our city has lost its way.

Many of the lessons of New Urbanism, that are re-energizing urban centers across America, come from the study and appreciation for the philosophical notion of place making. The places we are most comfortable in and, therefore, most desirous to spend time in, have a strong sense of place that connects us spiritually or existentially with it.  For many of us, we can understand this notion through the context of our primary residence, especially if it is a home that we have lived in for many years.  We are happy and content there surrounded by memories and familiar things.  When we are away, we have a strong desire to return.

Geographer and philosopher, Edward “Ted” Relph, coined the term “existential insideness” for the places we are deeply connected to and most comfortable in.  His landmark book, Place and Placelessness, help many architects and planners understand that place making is an important role for them; a role that was less important before the automobile; ignored during the Modernist Period; but embraced by New Urbanist over the last 30-years.  We now know, or at least have ample resources to learn, how to create place significance and foster similar feelings of comfort and a desire to return to the urban centers we impact through design.

Bringing a high-speed rail connection to downtown is a big step forward in the maturation process of West Palm Beach’s emerging urban core.  The rendering of the project looking south down Quadrille Boulevard shows why it is also 2-steps backward.  Look closely and you will see several pedestrians making a harrowing walk along a narrow sidewalk between Quadrille and the high-speed rail line.  This is the quintessential negative


pedestrian experience New Urbanists warn us against creating.  Pedestrians feel unsafe walking so close to vehicular traffic.  Those pictured here are apparently panic stricken or in a disoriented haze caused by the familiar streets that once connected east to west being closed.  They are lost and searching to find how one now walks to City Place or the new train station from the east.  This is not how one creates comfortable additions to a city that hopes its visitors will be anxious to return.

The station’s architecture is also a step backward for our city.  It is futuristic and cool and evokes the energy and power of a high-speed rail connection, but it speaks only about itself and the enterprise that is arrogantly pushing its way across South and Central Florida and into the lives of tens of thousands of people who would prefer it not come at all.  It ignores its civic obligation to be a beautiful landmark structure with rich connections to the city it serves.  Instead of presenting an image for a West Palm Beach train station, it presents a neutral image that is symbolic of its purpose but not its place.  Like a 2-year-old’s tantrum in a grocery store, it is loud and concerned only with self.  It cares not for the place it is in; the appropriateness of its actions; or the people affected by its selfish cries for attention.

Philosophically, such an approach to urban planning and architecture creates what Relph calls “objective outsideness.”  High quality place making is not possible there because its design process abstracts the object (train station) from the place it will reside.

Having a high-speed rail connection in downtown is an exciting step forward; it is unfortunate we have to take 2-steps backward to get there.

Timothy Hullihan is an architect and freelance writer living in North Palm Beach

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5 Responses to One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward

  1. WalkableWPB says:

    This reblog expresses the discontent well from the All Aboard Florida station ‘reveal’. What should have been a celebratory moment was an unfortunate letdown. Many in the WPB community have expressed their disappointment with the initial design, and Tim captures the essence of that disappointment.

  2. WalkableWPB says:

    Reblogged this on Walkable West Palm Beach and commented:
    This reblog expresses the discontent well from the All Aboard Florida station ‘reveal’. What should have been a celebratory moment was an unfortunate letdown. Many in the WPB community have expressed their disappointment with the initial design, and Tim captures the essence of that disappointment.

  3. A trip down to Boca can remind us of Mizner’s vision for Mr. Flagler’s railroad. The historic Boca rail station is not that dissimilar to the proportion and scale proposed by All Aboard. Introducing some of the great architectural heritage of the Palm Beaches could really tie this station into the City.

    Check out the station:

    • Tim says:

      Dear Restless: Thank you for your reply and the reminder the beautiful architectural history behind Flagler’s railroad. As important as that history is to remember and preserve, I believe a pastiche approach to the train station design would be equally disappointing as the abstract and place-neutral design presently proposed. Connection to place and time are equally important. West Palm Beach is a beautiful place because of many things that lace together to make it unique and comfortable. Our beautiful historic buildings are only one part of that.

      They main failing of the present design, in my opinion, is its site plan. As I have said in previous articles, The train station needs to be centered on Evernia Street. This would close only one street and allow a civic monument to be in focus from both ends of Evernia. The architectural style could very well be a Frank Gehry masterpiece, but bringing it into focus with excellent urban planning and aggressive City leadership is the big idea we need to rally around.

      Please follow this link to see how this can happen.

  4. seftalt says:

    This entire AAF is such a disapointment. I agree with you

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