Category Archives: Town Planning

Raleigh Plan

Figure Ground Raleigh

The previous Figure Ground Philadelphia is important to North Carolinians because the capital of Raleigh was modeled after it.

Raleigh Sketch

Raleigh Sketch

William Christmas, also a Senator from Franklin County, surveyed the area and developed the town plan based on Thomas Holme's 1682 plan for Philadelphia, although at about half the scale.

(As an historical aside, the actual site for the capital involves numerous interesting political wranglings over the course of 22 years. The North Carolina General Assembly was determined to move the state's center of government from Tryon Palace in New Bern on the coast to a less British and more secure location inland and central to the state. Beginning in 1770, Joel Lane1 lobbied the Assembly to create Wake County and it was established in 1771, named for Governer Tryon's wife, Margaret Wake. Lane's plantation became the location for the Assembly ten years later in 1781. Then in Hillsborough in 1788, the Assembly resolved to set the capital in Wake County. Through a series of meetings at Isaac Hunter's Tavern2 in 1792, it was finally decided to purchase a thousand acres from none other than Joel Lane himself on which to incorporate the capital city.)

Raleigh is one of few cities designed from the beginning as a capital. Like Philadelphia, it is organized in a grid. Raleigh's grid was bounded on all four sides with streets named for the cardinal directions.

Figure Ground, Raleigh

Figure Ground, Raleigh

Also like Philadelphia, Raleigh's plan included four outlying squares around a central one. Of the original five squares, four still exist today. They were named for North Carolina political leaders of the day:

  • Union Square is in the center, now called Capitol Square.
  • To the Southwest is Nash Square, named for Abner Nash, the state's second governor.
  • To the Southeast is Moore Square, named for NC Attorney General and US Supreme Court judge Alfred Moore.
  • Burke Square is to the Northeast and is now occupied by the Governor's Mansion. It was named for the third governor, Thomas Burke.
  • Caswell Square is the missing Northwest corner park currently occupied by a number of state buildings.3 It was named for the first and fifth governor, Richard Caswell.

One more interesting parallel to Philadelphia's plan are Raleigh's four central streets radiating out from the capitol. In Philadelphia, these central streets are on the grid. But in Raleigh, they bisect it, creating short nearly half width blocks on either side. Each street was directed to a cardinal direction and named for an important North Carolina town in that direction:

  • To the north, Halifax was the location for the Halifax Resolves calling for independence in April 12, 1776, the lower of the two dates on the North Carolina flag.
  • To the south, Fayetteville was the settlement newly named for the French general and hero of the American Revolutionary War.
  • To the east, New Bern was the largest city in the state and had served as North Carolina's capital up until Raleigh.
  • To the west, Hillsborough was the site of several North Carolina congressional and General Assembly meetings, as well as a pre-revolutionary Regulator revolt between 1768-1772.

Notes and References

1. Joel Lane's house and museum still stands today one block south of Saint Mary's School, south of West Morgan Street.

2. Isaac Hunter's Tavern was originally located where the North Raleigh Hilton now stands on Wake Forest Road. Mark Turner's search is the original discussion I found that spurred his final conclusion.

3. Caswell Square is shown on the famous 1872 map of Raleigh as occupied by a large school for the deaf.

4. Historical Raleigh From Its Foundation in 1792, by Moses N. Amis of the Raleigh Bar, 1902. Accessed at Google Books on 2015-12-09. Share: FacebooktwittermailFacebooktwittermail Follow: pinterestrssinstagrampinterestrssinstagram

Figure Ground Philadelphia

(Previously, Figure Ground Manhattan.)

Philadelphia Sketch

Philadelphia Sketch

Thomas Holme's 1682 plan for Philadelphia was based on William Penn's interest that the city be organized on a grid between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. Four squares around a central square were intended as open public parks. The central square was to be surrounded by governmental and public buildings. The plan was intended to evenly and comfortably spread development evenly between the rivers with gardens between.

Figure Ground, Philadelphia

Figure Ground, Philadelphia

As so often happens in with town plans, Penn's interest was not well respected by the citizens. The developing city of Philadelphia grew chiefly along the Delaware riverfront for almost two hundred years because of the trade and commerce advantage it offered. Eventually, growth reached the opposite Schuylkill river and in 1871, the central Penn Square was filled with the historic Philadelphia City Hall. It was the tallest building in the world at the time and was topped with a 27-ton bronze statue of William Penn.

Care to venture a guess why a North Carolina architect would present a quick study of Philadelphia? Answer: Figure Ground Raleigh.

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Figure Ground Manhattan

In the Introduction to Figure Ground, we saw how this tool can understand the relationship of buildings to streets. But it can also be helpful to understand the structure of entire towns and cities. At a larger scale we can quickly understand the form of a city by contrasting the streets from everything else.

Manhattan Sketch

Manhattan Sketch

In the famous map of New York City's Manhattan Island, we can clearly see its growth pattern. The irregular 1624 settlement of New Amsterdam is at the south end of the island. It was served by a highway in Dutch called Breede weg, literally translated in English to what is now called Broadway. You can easily pick it out, because 200 years later, Broadway remains the lone exception to the regular cartesion grid applied over the remainder of the island by the 1811 Commissioner's Plan.

Olmsted and Vaux's 1857 plan for Central Park carved out 843 acres in the center of Manhattan as a natural relief of urbanity for the citizens, seen in the graphical relief of the long dark rectangle in the figure ground.

Figure Ground, Manhattan

Figure Ground, Manhattan

My little five minute sketch is hardly able to do justice to Manhattan, one of the most popular figure ground urban studies. Many detailed hardline ones are widely available online if you Google image search "figure ground manhattan".

Next we'll take a look at Philadelphia. Share: FacebooktwittermailFacebooktwittermail Follow: pinterestrssinstagrampinterestrssinstagram

Figure Ground

I learned a tool way back in school that still guides much of my design process. I'll present this in a series of short snippets with the goal of applying this to the site and design of a new house. But first, cities...

Figure Ground, Urban

Figure Ground, Urban

If we shade the buildings on a city map, we can analyse the physical context with a figure ground study. The streets look like rivers of space through the buildings.

Streets act as the rooms of a city in which the public activities of the citizens live. Small alleys and yards beside or behind individual buildings allow more private spaces beyond the public.

Reversing the colors can accentuate a different context. In this case, the intersections at each street crossing seem to be more obvious.

Figure Ground, Reversed

Figure Ground, Reversed

Notice the one lone building adjacent the top intersection does not "hold the edge" but retracts a bit from the intersection? It seems to have it's own small yard in front rather than behind. This simple physical move from the public street retracts the building from the public realm in our minds, too. From the street, the ambiguity between public and private space here causes us to pause. The building seems more aloof than the others. Is the public allowed to walk through this yard? Or is it only for the building's occupants or visitors?

A great deal has been written on this shift in urban design beginning in the 1950's. Many towns and cities have now reversed this trend through maximum and minimum setback requirements in their town planning guidelines, including Apex, Cary, and Raleigh.

The point of a figure ground study is to highlight the nature of building edges and the relationships between buildings and the spaces around them. Next, I'll show some examples at a different scale, starting with Manhattan.

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