The city of Worcester, Mass., has adopted a set of design guidelines for developers and business owners seeking the city’s assistance to rehab old buildings or construct new ones in New England’s second-largest city. The purpose of City of Worcester Design Guidelines is straightforward: “[T]o protect and enhance the existing building stock while ensuring that new construction fits into and complements the surrounding setting.”
This is not exactly revolutionary, but it is contrary to conventional wisdom in planning and design in most cities today. Providence has similar language in its municipal code, but it is honored mainly in the breach. It has no design guidelines that set standards as directly as those of Worcester. The introductory text to the Worcester guidelines continues:
These Guidelines seek to minimize the reliance on highly subjective, individual tastes and preferences of permit granting authorities to consistently apply a clear, professional policy informed by the most up-to-date thinking on urban design and development.
And the guidelines have an exception:
In some cases, new civic buildings may be designed as an exception to the Guidelines, allowing these unique buildings to stand out within the urban fabric due to their role as landmarks for the community.
Still, that does not necessarily mean that exceptions must contrast with their setting, only that such contrast is permitted. A new building considerably more robust in its attention to the guidelines might also be considered such a permissible contrast.
The important thing is that Worcester has decided that part of government’s function is to guide the city back toward the beauty that once was a natural characteristic of its streets. Some may detect in such guidelines a whiff of the authoritarian, but political leaders there clearly see that the hodge-podge of new and old in the past half century has done little to promote the growth of Worcester. In the absence of a natural design civility, or neighborliness, on the part of developers, guidelines are as appropriate in civic design as in every other facet of government, where they are ubiquitous.
It is the quality of the guidelines that is important. There is extraordinary flexibility in Worcester’s guidelines. Creativity is not barred at all; rather, a more subtle and elegant form of creativity is encouraged. Following the guidelines is, moreover, not mandatory for applicants not seeking city government assistance – though the city certainly must hope that they will nevertheless provide a beneficial influence.
Mayor Walsh of Boston has undertaken to apply a guiding hand to civic design in the Hub, although he has urged developers to embrace architecture that flies in the face of Boston’s brand – if its brand may still be considered to be embodied by its famous old districts such as Beacon Hill and Back Bay, the places Bostonians and their guests think of when “Boston” comes to mind. But the mayor at least understands the value and the propriety of the bully pulpit in matters architectural.
Mayors of Providence and other Rhode Island municipalities, not to mention Governor Raimondo, should consider offering such friendly advice. If this takes the form of design guidelines, that would be good, but it may be late in the game for that in Providence. At the very least a personal phone call from the governor to developers is in order, urging them to build projects that strengthen rather than weaken the Rhode Island brand.
The idea, in Worcester, Providence and elsewhere, is not to revive a lost past but to engage the principles that produced historic beauty as part of the design strategy for a more attractive future. Is this too much to ask?
Hats off to Nancy Thomas, of Tapestry Communications, for sending the Worcester guidelines my way!