Monday, December 19, 2011

Harbor Town (Part 1)

With less than a week until Christmas, it’s a good time to look back over the year, especially of travel that included new urbanist tourism.

In May, I took my widowed mother on a week-long trip to Tennessee.  Our primary goal was baseball.  She has season tickets for the Sacramento River Cats and enjoys seeing her team on the road.  But I folded in a couple of new urbanism site visits.

A day before we departed, a professional acquaintance reminded me of Harbor Town, a new urbanism project in Memphis.  Ground was broken for Harbor Town in 1989, at the beginning of the new urbanist movement.  Visiting it was a chance to look back over to the beginnings of the concept.

It’s easy to think of new urbanism as three- or four-story residential units over retail near the urban core.  But new urbanism spreads further.  The key elements of new urbanism can be defined as sufficient density to encourage bicycle or pedestrian travel, destinations for daily life than don’t require a car, good access to transit, and enough housing options to create a community with a broad demographic.   Harbor Town meets most of those standards.

Harbor Town is on an island in the Mississippi River near the north end of downtown Memphis.  We visited the week of the peak springtime floods.  There were a number of road closures on the island, but we were allowed to access Harbor Town.   The river was dramatically present, covering much of the riverside park.  But the skies were blue and the residents were taking walks as if all was normal.

As we drove around the community, we noted the same response.  Behind a school building, a small shed that might have been used for gardening supplies was inundated to its eaves.  In other places, decorative water features had covered paths that were normally safely back from the water.  And yet life went on normally.

Flood sightseeing complete, we walked several of the Harbor Town streets.   I was impressed.    Broad, pleasant boulevards that would be comfortable for walking or bicycling.   Nicely detailed bridges and other elements that made Harbor Town seem like it was built well before 1989.

There were occasional homes that were overbuilt to point of being jarring, but most of the streetscapes were nicely balanced, with an architecture that reflected Southern history.   The homes were sufficiently close together that there was a sense of neighborhood cohesiveness and walkability.

On a Friday morning, there weren’t many people on the street, but we saw couples walking on gravels paths, men bicycling, and a woman sitting on her porch, reading and watching the world pass by.  They all felt like they belonged, unlike some recent greenfield subdivisions in which a face on the street can seem out of place.

Also, although I didn’t have enough time to grasp the full community layout, there seemed to pockets of higher density housing, both broadening the demographics of the community and increasing the number of people with a short commute to downtown Memphis.

On Friday, I’ll finish up our tour of Harbor Town with a look at the retail area and some overall observations.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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