An urban planner reimagines downtown Greensboro
by Brian Clarey/ photos by Caleb Smallwood
The railroad trestle running below Elm Street, connecting Davie and McGee, is either the best piece of urban engineering in the city or the worst.
Urban planner Patrick McDonnell, who’s been in Greensboro for six months now under the auspices of Elsewhere living museum, thinks it’s both.
“Of course it’s bad,” he says, standing underneath the trestle as a soft rain begins to fall on downtown. “It cuts off connectivity between the north and south. The tracks are a physical barrier that separates the two sides of downtown. But this trestle is the literal and metaphoric gate to the Gate City.”
Besides presenting a not-so-elegant solution to the frequent freights and passenger trains that block car and pedestrian travel on the city’s central thoroughfare, this railroad trestle is the first piece of reactive urban planning in the city, an accommodation to the car culture that would come to define the layout of the whole place.
The streets came first: Elm, Davie and Greene, planned in 1808 around the Guilford Courthouse, which was to be the central spot in the new city. The North Carolina Railroad began construction of its statewide track in Greensboro in 1851, with the first stretch — 130 miles between Greensboro and Goldsboro — up and running by the end of in 1855. Cars didn’t start using city streets until after the turn of the 20th Century.
By then the city was spreading out; automobiles further enabled the sprawl. All street design that came afterward did so with the car in mind.
Like the downtown streets and the outer loops that feed into them: “Their function is to calm traffic,” McDonnell says. “The closer you get to downtown, the less and less arteries you have, so it squeezes [out] traffic, and that’s why it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of traffic downtown. It was designed that way.
“We call them ‘road diets.’”
McDonnell, a native Texan, cuts a small figure on Greensboro streets, where he walks three to five miles a day with a backpack and water bottle, reading the currents of the city. He’s an urban planner along the lines of Andrés Duany, the discipline’s most noteworthy adherent who critiqued the hell out of High Point in 2013, but at 34 he’s much younger.
Elsewhere brought him here to shepherd the South Elm Projects — a dozen or so urbanization efforts designed to fill sprawl, beautify and add an element of artfulness to that once forgotten end of Greensboro’s main strip.
“There is an urban-planning question at the core of the South Elm Project art experiment, which is how do we support more creative and connected communities through civic and social infrastructures,” says Elsewhere Executive Director George Scheer. “It is nice to have someone on the team saying, ‘I get the art concept, but how is that actually going to improve walkability, public participation, small business need, livability, or social equity in downtown?’”
McDonnell dove in by buying a car — “I never think of public transportation in Greensboro,” he says — and making friends in city hall to provide him with maps and stats. In six months he’s built a working model of the city in his brain, cradles [cradled?] by shoulder-length curls just starting to show strands of gray.
“I like Greensboro because it’s legible,” McDonnell says. “I can walk around and figure it out.”
It was important that the hopscotch pattern make a pass through this spot.
The sidewalk hopscotch was the first of the South Elm Projects that McDonnell undertook with Elsewhere and a team of a dozen artists in from around the world for this specific purpose.
It begins with No. 1,693, continuing a long chain that left off in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and ends at 3,082. Tile 3,083 is in Denver, where artist Augustina Woodgate has been commission by the city to continue the run.
The Greensboro segment winds through all of the South Elm area, beginning over by the old Daily Bread Flour Mill on the corner of Gate City Boulevard and meandering along the slim sidewalks of South Elm. It ducks under a sewer grate and pops up again here underneath the train tracks.