The former industrial metal yard located four blocks north of downtown Conway’s (population: 65,000) main commercial street is reimagined as a neighborhood square surrounded by a mixed-use residential district. The design approach exemplifies Place Network pattern language calling for geometric relationships among well-defined places in the form of outdoor rooms. This “living transect” scales from square to street, building frontage, shared housing court and patio to interior space—all articulated as a series of rooms.
Despite having three colleges, Conway, Arkansas retains a strong economic base in manufacturing and needs affordable downtown housing options. The new square and surrounding street network feature “wilded” landscapes for stormwater runoff management in a downtown prone to flooding. Proposed multifamily housing with distinct building frontages—two-story screened porches, balconies, terraces, patios, and courtyards—line the edge of “green” streets incorporating stormwater treatment landscapes. Shared streets featuring pedestrian-friendly amenities are combined with the square’s landscapes to create outdoor rooms extending the interior living spaces of dwelling units. The proposal connects street and square as a continuous civic sponge for both stormwater management and social exchange. The goal is to incent living downtown by structuring an imageable mixed-income neighborhood for a downtown that lacks a tradition of multifamily housing.
Besides correcting for ecological dysfunction, the Markham Square Housing District is a mixed-income neighborhood addressing racial and income segregation. Porches and other building frontages that function as outdoor rooms facilitate the possibility of social exchange and conviviality indispensable in creating high-quality civic environments. All housing units, including the stacked triplexes, are fronted by outdoor rooms, including screened porches, balconies, terraces, decks, or roof gardens. These exterior living rooms add significant value, at a low cost when compared to construction costs for indoor conditioned space, plus they extend the modest living space of interiors. Building frontages are complemented by green streets and shared streets—living streets— which promote greater pedestrian activity throughout the right-of-way. Living streets are designed to be destinations rather than traffic arteries, and they compel motorists to behave socially. Living streets are designed to keep traffic speeds under 17 miles per hour, the threshold up to which pedestrians and motorists can maintain eye contact and socially negotiate their shared use of the right-of-way.
The Square and the Hillocks
One block west of Markham Square a proposed forested Hillocks features housing built into the artificial landform. While housing units front urban streets, their rear terraces and decks face a heavily vegetated tree stand for storing, pumping, and evapotranspiring stormwater to alleviate flooding. Groundwater and stormwater are absorbed by deep-rooting phreatophyte trees (e.g., poplars, cottonwoods, willows, and ash) and transferred to the air. One acre of this tree type can transpire over one million gallons of water annually, making phreatophytes excellent evapotranspirators. Unlike Markham Square, the dense tree stand populating the Hillocks’ interior is reserved for housing residents who favor a more retreating residential environment. The Hillocks extends the square’s effects to the old warehouse district on Front Street. Markham Square and its spatial inverse—the introverted Hillocks—provide unique landscapes for ecological and social repair.
Housing and “Fuzzy Urbanism”
Invoking Christopher Alexander’s pattern language to design the front edge of the building as a place, building frontages create a “fuzzy urbanism”. Thick building edges accommodate a variety of social activities through urban building frontage or liminal spaces like stoops, porches, balconies, patios, roof gardens and galleries not entirely specific to one housing type. The project recalls affordable walk-up residential typologies—rowhouses, bungalows, triplexes, courtyard housing, and townhouses—that have not been built since the hegemony of suburban policy in the 1950s. Now these affordable types are key to revitalizing mid-sized downtowns without the population dislocations accompanying gentrification. Housing types ranging between 900 square feet (83.6 m2) and 2,100 sf (195.1 m2), with a median of 1,500 sf (139.4m2), were designed to accommodate a walkable mixed-income neighborhood, particularly for workforce populations lacking transportation options. Housing types focused on pairing economy of means with targeted construction costs between $110-140 (USD) per sf with frontage strategies to create high-quality interior spaces. Frontage + Type create “prospect and refuge”, a spatial formula that adds value to both housing investments and the public realm.
The University of Arkansas Community Design Center is an outreach center of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, and one of a few university-based teaching offices in the United States dedicated to delivering urban design work. Originated in 1995, the center advances creative development in Arkansas through design, research, and education solutions. Nationally recognized in public-interest design, the center has its own downtown facilities and 5-6 professional design/planning staff, some who also teach. Beyond the focus on urban projects, UACDC has developed eight place-making platforms to shape civic design and public policy at state and municipal levels. These interdisciplinary platforms include 'missing middle housing,' 'agricultural urbanism,' 'transit-oriented development,' 'context-sensitive street design,' 'watershed urbanism,' 'big box urbanism,' 'smart growth,' and 'low impact development,' vocabularies which are locally articulated but hold universal currency.
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