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Gifts to the Street?

Occasionally, in the life of an Architect, we get to travel for business. At Allison Ramsey Architects we are a bit spoiled and regularly design and draw for places all over the country. There are, of course, the typical travel hassles, but you are almost always able to experience places you can learn from. Recently on a trip to Charlotte North Carolina I was reminded of a very simple element of design that most people don’t think about, and to be truthful, we don’t implement enough in our projects. This realization came after seeing multiple examples while walking downtown through a few older neighborhoods. The “Gift to the Street” idea was widespread, and I could not help but note how great they were and took a few pictures. This small epiphany may have been the highlight of the trip.

Gifts, who doesn’t like a gift?

The Gift to the Street is a small physical gesture by a homeowner or building owner that makes the pedestrian experience a little better. These can be as simple as a grouping of potted plants, an artwork, or anything that is focused on making the walk just a little more interesting. Many will go even a bit further. Benches and Fountains are classics. Sometimes a bench or a niche will be worked into the building or the Garden wall on the public sidewalk. This is super exciting for nerdy Architect types. These little elements may tell you something about the owners. Maybe the sculpture of a dog lets you know they love their pets, or their kids, or where they came from. Maybe a dog water fountain is your gift to dog walkers!


So, how can I participate?

As was said in the beginning, this is not a complicated idea. It can also be very easy to implement at your home. Maybe you will inspire someone to walk a little further or you will give a shady seat on a hot day. Perhaps a neighbor may stop on their dog walk to appreciate your fountain and a quick conversation may lead to a new friendship.

Although only a small part of a great neighborhood, the Gift to the Street is a sign of much bigger things that are happening. The effort and sometimes extra expense are an indicator that the residents and/or businesses really care about their neighbors. These also create a more intricate and more interesting street experience. This is what is supposed to be the core of a neighborhood. The neighbors, and the relationships that are formed when you live among other people. This is becoming more and more rare but our work in New Urban neighborhoods reinforces that this is not only possible, but people are missing and craving this type of living.

On a bigger scale, the development level, we will often use green spaces, folly buildings, or even a road that splits around a grand tree to not only enrich the street experience but to also handle other issues like traffic calming or wayfinding, or something as un-sexy as water control or utilities.  When designing or helping implement new neighborhoods we will always push to have a Post Kiosk or a Mail Pavilion for the same reasons. If everyone must come to a central location for one of their daily needs the chances of positive neighborly interactions significantly improve. If the Post has benches or seats people will often sit and read the mail or chit-chat with a neighbor. This is crucial stuff when trying to make a “Great Place.” The other plus is less “Street Clutter”. A street with 20 houses and 20 mailboxes can become visually unpleasant and take away from the community experience.

I suppose there is much social engineering and psychology to back these ideas up but we don’t know a lot about that. We do know a great street or a great neighborhood when we see and feel it though. We have learned this in our architectural educations, but the real proof comes from almost 30 years of Allison Ramsey Architects designing and working to create great places.

Your input, ideas and additional topics are always welcome, it does not hurt my feelings if you have feedback. I love to hear. It makes me a better designer and a better Architect. Maybe even a better person!
Thanks for reading.

Bill Harris
Architect – Principal, Allison Ramsey Architects, Inc.
[email protected]

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