Saturday, January 10, 2009

Lost in Space: Analysing Downtown via the Black Plan

The black plan is a more poetic way of saying figure-ground diagram. More on that later.

One of the complaints about downtown is how "empty" it is, or feels. That there is nothing between things. There are two reasons for this and they both have something to do with perceptual pyschology.

I had first thought the reasons felt so empty was the excessive amount of suface parking (and that this was recent thing).

It turns out surface parking goes back into the 1920s, and by the early 1950s there was aready lot of surface parking downtown, and a lot of it was fairly close to the heart of downtown.

Taking this areil from the early 1950s Harland Bartholomew study as the basis for what was surface parking during that era.

And coloring the pavements...streets, alleys, and surface parking (as best as can be made out from the aeriel), results in a black plan of downtown vehicle pavements (more ore less)

Using the same aeriel, but a modern layout of surface pavements, suprisingly things don't change super much. What's interesting is that large areas of surface parking are in both plans, but they shift location downtown. I think there is more parking or paved areas today, but areas that probably seemed more "open" (like Second Street, which had a lot of surface parking) is more built up now.

What is noticeable is the interiors of the blocks between Jefferson and St Clair get hollowed out.

If surface parking per se isn't the issue what about space, the space between buildings? Vehicle surfaces like parking and streets is just a subset of this. Space would be sidewalks, yards, plazas, any open space between buildings.

The Harland Bartholomew plan has this helpful map of downtown building heights for which to base the anaylses. The buildings will be colored in, resulting in a black plan, a figure-ground diagram of downtown circa early 1950s.

And there it is. This is a bit different than parking as one can see the remaining old houses and individual buildings like the post office, Engineers Club and Conservance District buildings set back on their lots. One can also see the back courts behind buildings where Dave Hall Plaza & the Transportation Center is (among other locations).

Taking the negative of the black plan, rendering the space as black the character of downtown really pops out. Streets read as streets, and one also gets a sense of granularity, how fine-grained downtown space was at the time, particularly in the mid-block areas and blocks were there still was some houses.
The modern downtown, after over 50 years of urban renewal and demolitions/replacements, rendering the buildings in black....

Then taking the negative. One can see things become more "open" and the granularity is lost to large degree.

Comparing the two negative black plans, with space in black,, one can see how downtown is both eroding and changing character, becoming less granular more "blocky", with individual buildings tending to be floating in space vs. defining space (though that was the case in the 1950s, too, at the fringes of dowtown).
I'm not sure if this really is precieved as such by observers or visitors of downtown, but perhaps this level of perceptual pyschology operates at the subconcious level: we sense the character of the space but can't really articulate why it doesn't feel right or as a city should be. Which brings up the issues of cultural baggage regarding expectations of downtown as a type of urban space.

Perhaps also, downtown space become uncomfortably liminal, in transtion between the fish of a traditional downtown, with defined streets and granular space and the fowl of "suburban space" , with blocky buildings floating in a void.

Sort of like the midrange of this Escher woodcut:

Yet black plans only go so far as an analytical tool. Whats missing here is the verticle element and the character of the street walls.

(for more on figure-ground click here)


Anonymous said...

Yes, downtown has become more blocky, I have noticed that. But one issue with this type of analysis is that is doesn't accurately represent large buildings that have multiple street level operations. There may not be a lot of it in Dayton, but it is there.

Jefferey said...

Yeah, the verticle plane and the street walls is the missing piece of this, which in design-theory-speak is how the space is articulated and activated.

You dont catch that with a simple figure-ground look. Maybe the subject of a future post.