“From Scratch” for a Firm That’s All About Context

How do you design a city from scratch? When the City of Villa Hills approached us earlier this year, we got the opportunity to find out. Their goals were pretty straightforward: help Villa Hills realize its potential by increasing density and commercial amenities in the otherwise sprawling suburban city, and creating a stronger city “center”.

Designing without any constraints or existing urban fabric can be a little overwhelming; we could do anything we could imagine! The site in question is a huge tract of land, almost entirely undeveloped, that belongs to the Benedictine Sisters of St. Walburg. It is surrounded on three sides by residential development and on one corner by River Ridge Elementary School. The north property line abuts a steep slope down to the Ohio River, creating the opportunity for beautiful vistas.

Most cities grow densely out of necessity and over long periods of time. They start from a central point, like the Cincinnati riverfront, and expand outward. This project is an undeveloped field surrounded by subdivisions, lacking that central and incremental driver. We found that the answer to designing a city without any adjacent context isn’t actually to design a city at all. Instead, we designed a community. We focused on the spaces and interactions that connect people to resources and to each other. Here’s what we thought about:

1.       Make it accessible for everyone.

Access became a driving force behind the community’s layout. There is a main entrance from Amsterdam road and a secondary point of access from the Prospect Point neighborhood. The larger boulevards connect these points to each other and to the main commercial center while smaller roads lead to individual residences. Some people think that newer development lacks that sense of community if it’s built all at once, but we think that the mixture of housing types – detached houses, row houses, step-down bungalows, and lofts will bring in people of all stages in life.

2.       Encourage people to walk.

One of the anxieties that the city and its citizens shared was the increase in traffic and density this might bring to the very-residential Villa Hills. But, we think that the development can reduce congestion by increasing walk-ability and mixed-uses. More people walking means fewer cars on the road. By including businesses and restaurants in the community, we decreased the distances between residences and amenities and services. Wide, comfortable sidewalks with trees to provide shade allow more people and families with strollers to comfortably walk from their homes to the corner markets and coffee shops without having to rely on cars. In addition to the ease of walking we also created destinations by interspersing the neighborhoods with a system of small, convenient "pocket parks", giving those families a place to take children, and pets. And last but certainly not least; we relocated driveways, garages, and parking to the rear of houses to increase pedestrian safety.

3.       Give people places to come together.

Without large garage doors on the front of houses, there is more room for porches where neighbors can say their hellos. Pocket parks provide spaces to interact with other dog-lovers and pick-up soccer players. Central commercial and public spaces keep people close and lessen the number of trips and the distance residents must travel beyond the city limits to reach resources such as stores, restaurants, and recreational facilities. All of these spaces create a network of interaction. This allowed us to take the Villa Hills city “center” idea to heart. We focused entertainment in two locations anchoring a welcoming, bustling boulevard in between. The pocket parks and businesses lets walkers to browse the shops, stop in the restaurants, and stroll through the greenery from one end of the avenue to the other. This creates many different places for gathering and camaraderie which form a community.

We’re not the first people to try designing a city from the ground up, but it is a unique prospect for this region. Many cities and neighborhoods around the country are taking an accessible, “New Urbanist” approach and are thriving because they have access to everything they want without ever being too far from home. Norton Commons in Louisville boasts a lively growing Town Center with over 60 businesses and 150 acres of parks, squares, plazas, trails and recreational and civic amenities. Suwanee, GA contains an amphitheater that holds up to 1,000 audience members, and its Town Center Park has a large, interactive fountain that uses recycled water. Seaside, FL is touted as being one of the first cities in America designed on the principles of New Urbanism and has streets designed in a radiating street pattern with pedestrian alleys and open park spaces throughout the town.

Just because a city is suburban doesn’t mean it has to act that way. The City of Villa Hills approached us with the idea to grow the city, to increase density and diversity of housing without building large apartment complexes and to create central, mixed-use spaces. This new development allows the residents of Villa Hills to enjoy the benefits of urban living in a suburban environment. The whole design concept supports personal contact, intentional or otherwise, to help support and build a stronger community for NKY. It’s been an amazing opportunity/test for us. We look forward to the next steps in bringing these ideas to fruition.