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Righting the ship of good urban planning: Newport News rediscovers the wisdom of its street grids

Little known outside the US, Newport News was once one of the world's largest shipyards and a pioneer in sustainable suburban development. After decades of shipyard expansion, suburban sprawl and segregation, the city is doing its best to learn from its original street grid and reintegrate its neighbourhoods, as Andy Carr relates.

Cities: Newport News

Topics: Integrated planning, Poverty and inequality, Architecture and urban design

The Chesapeake and Ohio railway terminal in the port of Newport News, depicted as it was first constructed in a postcard
Newport News circa 1910
Post Avenue in Hilton Village, Newport News, looking towards Warwick Boulevard
The christening of the submarine USS North Carolina at the Northrup Grunman yards in 2007. Photo: Marion Doss (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford under construction in the Huntington Ingalls yards. Photo: Ricky Thompson/US Navy (CC BY 2.0)
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More than 50 years after the first wave of post-war American urban renewal projects (such as the flawed "renewal" of Boston's West End during the 1960s), the pace of suburbanisation and population flight from metropolitan areas is slowing. As Veterans United wrote, "for the first time since 1920, most large American city centers are growing faster than their suburban counterparts."

It is interesting to ask what was happening before 1920, during the previous phase of central urban growth. A historical account of one US city's decline, suburbanisation and renewal offers several insights for today's urban planners and developers.

A master-planned city

Newport News, Virginia is a city of 180,000 near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, the largest inlet on the east coast of the US and whose tributaries stretch to Washington DC and Baltimore. The city was carved out of Warwick County in 1880-1991 upon completion of the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) rail line, which connected West Virginia's vast coal reserves to the new deepwater port built around Newport News.

The city was first and foremost a master-planned city. Following the model implementation of Manhattan's comprehensive street grid (the Commissioners' Plan of 1811), the original plan for Newport News by the Old Dominion Company¬†called for a grid network where the "principal avenues, with one exception, extend nearly north and south, are all 80 feet in width, with plans for 18 foot side walks and a roadway of 44 feet. … All of the numbered streets … extend nearly east and west; they are 60 feet in width with plan for 15 foot sidewalks and a 30 foot roadway." The uniformity of the grid provided for lots "of a uniform size of 25 feet by 100 feet", and by late 19th-century standards, "the widths of the streets and avenues were considered to be in excess of the general average or standard."

With the completion of the C&O railway and the layout of the original grid, Newport News quickly established one of the world's largest shipyards, which today still builds aircraft carriers for the US navy. By 1915, the city's population surged to 30,000. Major avenues were lined with department stores and specialty retailers, the landmark First National Bank building, and a streetcar network. Continuing development into the 1930s and early 1940s followed the original plan's intentions, gradually extending the dense grid northward along the banks of the James River to meet the needs of the growing population.

Interestingly, Newport News presents some of the earliest and most successful examples of sustainable suburban development in the US. Hilton Village, a suburban main-street-styled development in present-day Midtown, extended the grid along the James River's banks upon its initial construction between 1918 and 1921. Providing a combination of single-family and multi-family housing options, along with commercial and retail spaces (along Warwick Boulevard and Main Street), Hilton was the US' first wartime housing development and one of the earliest known examples of a modern planned suburban community. Unfortunately, midcentury development efforts throughout the city failed to uphold this model for sustainable, intelligent suburban planning.

Wandering off the grid

Several economic, demographic and political forces collided during the middle of the 20th century, effectively ending the perpetuation of the Old Dominion Company plan. During both world wars, the city served as one of the preeminent mobilisation centres for US military operations in Europe. The city's population grew more than 76% between 1910 and 1920, and more than tripled between 1940 and 1960, as military servicemen returned through the Newport News terminal and, often, settled in the region. And in 1958, the merger of Warwick County with the city of Newport News brought two dramatic growth areas together.

Absorbing this enormous population influx while integrating the formerly independent political jurisdictions presented initial planning challenges. National political realities however added further pressures. Desegregation of public institutions, the dawn of widespread automobile use, and concomitant "white flight" fueled suburbanisation-dominated growth patterns nationwide.

Downtown saw the clearance of swathes of land formerly containing architectural riches, in part to accommodate expansions of the shipyards and coal terminals. Although expansion of the shipyards aimed to further economic development in the city, the transition to automobile-dependent travel necessitated massive surface parking lots, accelerating the demolition of downtown buildings and removing entire blocks from the downtown street grid. Most of the grid below 25th Street, the former heart of the city, was completely removed west of Jefferson Avenue. At the same time, the Old Dominion grid plan was thoroughly abandoned to piecemeal suburban street layouts north of 80th Street.

Renewal or segregation?

Along with many other cities, Newport News concurrently pursued urban "renewal" in the development of low-income public housing projects, overwhelmingly concentrated in the neighbourhood known as the East End. The housing was built in several waves in the 1950s and 1970s.

From the 1950s through to the early 2000s, the area became notorious for gang violence, drug dealing, and extremely depressed socioeconomic conditions. Current conditions in this neighbourhood can only be described as bleak, with median household incomes over the last decade as low as $20,000 - $30,000 annually. and unemployment between 10% and 20%. Current vacancy rates are as high as 50% on some residential blocks, homeownership remains uncommon, and a majority of residents still fall well below the federal poverty line. Demographically the neighbourhood is overwhelmingly black (80 - 90%), highlighting a development approach (that dominated many American cities) reifying segregation along racial and class lines. Since many civic services are funded via property tax receipts, notably including school systems, the neighbourhood has been starved of the resources to develop, and a cycle of poverty and truncated upward mobility has been cemented.

Repairing "renewal"

Repairing the damage of such "renewal" programmes dominates ongoing public policy debates. In the East End, the city is pushing ahead with a combination of new civic and infrastructure projects to revitalise the neighbourhood. The multimillion-dollar project includes extensive reconstruction of the street grid, with millions poured into streetscaping and improved lighting.

Newport News is also working to diversify and modernise housing options in the East End, concentrating development along major existing arteries. Another key component is the provision of rent-to-own options for current tenants. The city hopes that increasing the number of homeowners in the neighbourhood will bring former residents back and further increase its socioeconomic diversity.

The wider picture

The challenges facing Newport News extend well beyond the downtown and East End neighbourhoods, necessitating a city-wide approach in concert with neighbouring cities and counties. For one thing, the city's transportation infrastructure and regional mass transit network are at best inadequate. Hampton Roads Transit (HRT), the wider region's bus network, reports a dismal average of only 1.4 - 1.7 riders per mile, though the new Tide light rail line in neighbouring Norfolk is performing above projections.

Three hours to the north, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC, the Tyson's Corner area of Fairfax County has instituted a sweeping master plan including extensive use of transit-oriented developments (TODs) along the expanded silver line of the DC metro, "gridding" of the area's street network, improving walkability and biking trails through the currently car-dominated neighbourhood, and a particular emphasis on mixed housing options.

Unlike Fairfax County however, Newport News and the Hampton Roads region cannot rely upon leveraging rapid population growth or existing densities to implement such ambitious planning. Indeed the region's overall development pattern — dominated by the continuing push outward of low-density suburban tract developments to the north and west — is simply shifting large numbers of existing households further from urban centres. Failure to contain or otherwise concentrate these developments will only reify the problems that led to the original decline of the inner cities, including Newport News.

Like many other American cities, Newport News cannot address all its development challenges through re-gridding and massive public investments in promoting TODs alone. Nevertheless, concentrating development along existing major transit routes, increasing comprehensive planning coordination with other localities, and focusing upon even minor improvements for pedestrian safety and visibility offer some helpful first steps in the right direction. The city may never recover the original master plan that guided its initial development, but Newport News would do well to restore what it can and learn from these tough lessons.

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