Beyond Atlanta

Tybee Island Provides Useful Examples of Good Urban Design

It’s summertime and many urbanites are headed to coastal destinations all over the country. Back in 2013 we posted on the many ways in which Tybee Island, Georgia embodies desirable urban planning principles, whether by design or accident. We’ve posted a revised version of the article below.

On a recent trip to Tybee Island I began to think about all the things that make being there enjoyable.  Obviously the beach is the main attraction and the predominant reason that people visit or live there.  Those that are just visiting are likely on vacation, having left their worries behind them in some other less sandy town.  These two elements can’t generally be replicated in other cities (unless it’s Dubai or China, in which case you just build a beach in the city). Yet two other features of Tybee that foster this sense of enjoyment are its inherent walkability and its overwhelming connection with the natural environment.

The City of Tybee Island lies about 15 miles east of Savannah and serves as the easternmost point in the State of Georgia.  Its population of about 3,000 residents swells in the summer as tourists from across the Southeast visit the laid-back island community.  Tybee, like many other small beach towns, contains many of the features of a denser, urban community, yet causes much less harm to the environment in which it resides.  Though we can’t replicate the inherent relaxed mindset produced by small towns centered on leisure activity, we can create a higher standard of living by bringing some of the design features of such towns to larger communities .

Tybee Island

Tybee Island

The ability to simply step outside and stroll to your destination without the aid of a vehicle is enjoyable and relatively stress-free. Tybee is a small island so everything should be easily accessible by foot or bike and, for the most part, this is the case. Walkability in such circumstances sounds easy to achieve, but design flaws have serious impacts on people’s desire and ability to walk to things (see this amazing example and my post on Atlanta’s 8th and Monroe development).  Driving tends to make us too goal-oriented in that we focus only on the destination and lose the ability to appreciate the journey; we become desensitized to our surroundings and frustrated when our travel time is extended by traffic.  While walking slows down the pace, it allows us to observe so much more.  This could be in the form of an interesting architectural feature of a building, a store you never noticed, fascinating wildlife, or even your neighbor!  Though sometimes we need the convenience of driving, there are clearly many advantages to a slower more relaxed pace.

Residential Street

Residential Street

Aside from being a geographically small city, Tybee creates walkability through a grid network of narrow, shared streets.  Additionally, most streets on Tybee eschew the implementation of sidewalks.  The narrow streets encourage slow driving and the lack of sidewalks requires pedestrians to be in the street.  The shared street concept requires drivers to be more cautious, which produces a more relaxed street atmosphere that increases accessibility for walkers and cyclists.  Sidewalks are confining and allow drivers to pass through quickly, which ultimately increases vehicular traffic and makes walking a less attractive option.  Now ripping out sidewalks, or not provided them in the first place, generally only works when people could reasonably walk somewhere and the convenience of walking outweighs the convenience of driving.  This works on Tybee because in most parts of the city, the beach is relatively close by foot or bike and parking is limited.

Shared Street

Shared Street

In larger cities destinations are made closer by increasing density.  Tybee’s convenient walking atmosphere can be replicated by simply making things so close that driving doesn’t make much sense.  As I mentioned in a previous post, more formalized shared streets are used throughout many large cities to induce and protect a walkable environment.  Now this obviously can’t be adopted on every street in every city, but it should be when appropriate.  For Tybee, this is almost every street except for its main street, 1st Street/Butler Avenue.
Corridors should be strategically divided to efficiently move vehicular traffic, but bigger cities can create the relaxed, collaborative atmosphere of Tybee in their neighborhood streets by adopting a shared policy.

The other aspect of Tybee that can be replicated is its strong connection with its natural environment.  Sure we can’t put a beach in every city or suburb, but we can design for more naturally landscaped open areas and encourage practices that are sensitive to native ecologies as opposed to covering them in asphalt and manicured, monoculture lawns. Tybee is relatively ungroomed, and that makes it more interesting and more sustainable.  All sorts of plants and trees are growing in yards and public areas, which makes walking more enjoyable and people that much more likely to choose to do so.  Cities can replicate this by providing more frequent opportunities to experience nature that aren’t just limited to parks; include native vegetation along streets, throughout neighborhoods, and among buildings. We can’t bring Tybee’s dunes or marshlands to Atlanta, but we can preserve our natural landscapes and build in a way that is similarly sensitive to the natural environment.Where it is no longer possible to preserve our original landscapes, we can attempt to replicate those benefits through restoration and intelligent design.

My critiques of Tybee are simply that they should consider strengthening existing features.  Though many of the streets are seemingly shared streets, they aren’t officially shared streets.  Tybee still designates bike lanes (though these are completely indiscernible except for sparsely implemented signage); this implies that bikes have protection in some areas, but not in others.  The city either needs to clearly mark bike lines everywhere or formally adopt shared streets.  The same goes for pedestrians.  Though everyone readily uses the streets for transportation, as a walker you still feel threatened every time a car passes.  Legally the car still has the right-of-way, but we have informally adopted a shared streets policy. This creates confusion; either designate separate pedestrian paths or declare a formalized shared street where cars can no longer legally fly past pedestrians.  For most residents and tourists who stay on the island almost everything is accessible without the use of a vehicle so it makes sense to adopt a shared streets policy that encourages comfortable walking and biking.

TybeeZoningSnipFurthermore, Tybee should consider rezoning parts of Butler Avenue. Contrary to my belief, Tybee does have a zoning code, and it’s a rather extensive one for a community of 3,000.  The city is divided into a number of generally use-exclusive districts, including several designed to protect marine and marshland areas.  One interesting aspect of the zoning code is that the main thoroughfare, Butler Avenue, is zoned residential until around 14th Street where it transitions to commercial.  Confining more of the heavier commercial uses to one zone at the end of the beach is fine, but the rest of Butler Avenue should be rezoned to allow limited commercial use.  It doesn’t make sense for the main arterial road to be largely confined to residential uses.

Interestingly a similar type of zoning that should be used is already envisioned in the zoning ordinance, yet unless I am looking at an outdated map it doesn’t seem to be implemented anywhere. The “Transitional Business-Residential” (TBR) district calls for the mixing of certain commercial properties with residential properties around the area zoned C-2, which is in place along 1st Street before it turns into Butler Avenue.  I don’t see the TBR zoning currently being used, but it should be amended to nix the requirement that it be used around the C-2 zone and to better define what commercial uses can be implemented in the zone. There is no reason why TBR should be restricted to one area of the city if it makes sense in other parts. Perhaps a new district should be created that isn’t based on transition, but on the general mixing of commercial and residential uses with the overall idea being the protection of residential qualities. Butler Avenue should then be rezoned to this new district so that residential and commercial spaces can be used. Right now, the majority of Butler Avenue is residential, which means people that live there have little reason to casually stroll along it. Adding some more commercial space could create a more vibrant street environment that encourages people to walk or bike from the north end of the island to the south end.

Not all qualities of Tybee and similar beach towns can be transferred to more urban areas, but many of the design features of such towns could be replicated. Decreasing the scale of streets to make them more friendly to pedestrians, incorporating more shared spaces, and restoring native vegetation can go a long way in making residents of larger urban areas feel more inclined to leave their cars behind and traverse and explore their communities .

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