Everyone has an opinion on architecture, what’s yours?
By Spencer Lepler
Like many Americans, I decided to take a trip for Memorial Day; In my case, I drove to Atlanta, Georgia. Like most people, I tend to be a “grass is greener” kind of guy, and usually spend most of my vacations dreaming about living in the city I am visiting. Which is why my conclusions were so shocking to me. In spite of trying to see myself living in Atlanta, I kept finding reasons why I preferred DC.
As most people are aware, DC is a planned city. The L’Enfant plan creates an ordered grid and overlaid on a spoke and hub system which imprints a sense of order and logic to the landscape. There area very few places where this is not true, for the most part the natural terrain is either overlaid with a grid or worked into the series of skewed avenues. Much of this is owed to long term vision.
DC was planned to be a city of half a million people long before the first senator came to town. This vision was not achieved until public health advances allowed for a year round occupation of the former swamp and until the New Deal brought a demand for more Federal workers in the early twentieth century. While only half a century younger, Atlanta seems to have no sense of planning or order to the street layouts. Much of this is due to its start as a railroad town with no major geographic features to anchor its location. In addition, while the destruction of the city during the civil war and extended rebuilding through the later half of the nineteenth century provided an organic identity, it was not until the mid twentieth century and the industrial Boom of World War II that Atlanta truly boomed
Due to the layering of history and a city grid reminiscent of the cow paths of Boston mixed with the urban sprawl of Houston. Roads wind and curve around hills and meet themselves on the other side. It is only when I was at the corner of Peachtree Street, Peachtree Street SE and West Peachtree Street NW did I truly appreciate the simplicity of the DC quadrants and grid. In addition, Atlanta is peppered with development of Post War low rise mid density detached wooden housing. While the tree-lined streets of front and back yard do provide a respite from the hustle and bustle of downtown they don’t have a cohesive urban identity the way the bricks facades of the DC row houses do. Instead, I felt like I was driving through endless pockets of dense suburbia.
Speaking of sprawl, while parts of DC (outside of the L’enfant Plan) are distinctly part of the garden city suburban movement, is remarkably pedestrian and bicycle friendly. In many cases it takes less time to walk, ride the metro, or bike somewhere than it does to drive, and once you get there parking is always limited and usually expensive. Atlanta, like LA and other twentieth century boom town cities is very car centric. While curbside parking abounds, the typical 1 hour time limit restricts its practical use. In addition, a large number of business are set up in the suburban model with parking lots out front, but threatening to tow all but their current clients. I moved my car between three different parking lots on the same intersection to avoid being towed while shopping and eating. Now, of course there are areas that break this rule like Little Five Points, but even in this hip mainstream counterculture haven there are big parking lots and no direct MARTA access. This is a stark contrast to DC area shopping districts like Columbia Heights, Gallery Place, and Courthouse in Arlington which allow for an urban commercial experience, but discourage constant car access in favor of parking structures.
The last thing really struck a chord with me is the placement of the Highways in Atlanta. Interstates 75, 85 and 20 provide the major arteries of the city. in fact they are the center of the city. While it is possible to get around Atlanta on surface roads alone, the highways are the main method of movement. This is a sharp contrast to DC where surface arteries like Massachusetts Avenue, Connecticut Avenue, and North Capitol Street still figure heavily into the cross city traffic patterns. Except for the Southeast Southwest Freeway and interstate/DC 295 east of the Anacostia River, there are no major cross city highways in the district. Imagine if 66 did not fuse into Constitution Avenue, but instead became a bisecting artery through the heart of the federal district. The trip between Arlington and College Park would be cut in half, but so would the city. Just as the Freeway isolates southwest from the rest of the city, the individual quarters would be much more distinct and the cohesive identity of downtown would be lost. The is the major travesty of Atlanta. The arteries act as walls dividing the city into distinctive separate parts. In DC, major traffic arteries act as unifying elements and help define the identity of neighborhoods. The new H Street Corridor and U Street are prefect examples of communities built around a major traffic arteries. In addition streets like 14th street help link disparate parts of the city while still providing pedestrian access and working within the urban context.
There is some truth to the overused quote “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Though I enjoyed my vacation, and the new understanding I developed, It has helped me to understand some of the underlying reasons I enjoy living in the DC Metro area.
Spencer Lepler is an architectural designer nearing the end of the architecture licensing process. He has lived in the DC metro area since 2005. He posts on a semi-regular basis to his blog – selophane.com. In addition to blogging he is currently engaged in pursuing freelance design work.