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