How do basic urban patterns affect a city’s ability to become more coastally resilient? One area that may provide some insight into that question is Newport, Rhode Island.
Though Newport is often associated with old money opulence, few would consider it a model urban community. However, after visiting this area during Sea Grant Week, a biannual gathering of Sea Grant scientists and policy experts, I started to discern some fundamental urban patterns, which may be relevant to coastal cities today.
From an environmental resilience standpoint, Newport is unique because it signifies a coastal resort town that was developed almost exclusively in the age before urban sprawl. For that reason alone, Newport is a useful model for modern coastal development due to its use of traditional urban patterns to strike a balance between preserving character and catering to visitors.
One of the most remarkable features of Newport’s urban development is the considerable range of density within the city. Maps from the city’s comprehensive plan indicate that in the city center and adjacent blocks, density generally varies between 9 and 20 dwelling units an acre. In the southern part of the city though around Ocean Drive, density generally averages 1 unit an acre or less.
This type of urban pattern might seem happenstance to some, but this urban arrangement is key to maintaining Newport’s character. The traditional city center was not only the historic focus of economic activities within the town; it also offered protection from the elements as it abutted a naturally sheltered harbor. As development within the city progressed, density also increased in the city center to take advantage of the collective security the harbor provided. It was not until the town’s emergence as a seasonal getaway that development started to move further down the coast. Even as development of Newport’s shoreline continued though, full-service hotels still opted to locate near the town center or on prominent avenues with easy access into town.
In areas such as Ocean Drive though, where the existing shoreline did not offer the same degree of natural protection from inclement ocean conditions, a different urban pattern was created. Development in this area was modeled after the curvilinear street pattern found in American neighborhoods during the late 19th century, which put a great emphasis on preserving natural vegetation and the existing contours of the land.
When platted out for development, the lots were shaped in an irregular manner, so as to take advantage of the sloping, rocky terrain. Likewise, the main road through the area, Ocean Drive, was also designed to correspond to the existing contours of the land. Public access to the area is ensured by a state park and numerous different beach access points are strung along the length of Ocean Drive. The end result is an exclusive residential retreat for the wealthy that still retains much of its natural beauty and is accessible to the public.
It should be noted that while a single urban vision never guided the whole city of Newport, a pleasing order and harmony exists nevertheless. One visitor to the area by the name of Henry James declared Newport an “accidental work of urban art,” which certainly seems to be as apt a description as any.
Through carefully refining existing urban patterns and understanding where to employ them, Newport successfully balances the needs of causal visitors and seasonal homeowners. It is this balancing act that makes Newport a valuable model of study for coastal planners and a powerful illustration of why urban form and patterns are so important in crafting places that endure across the ages.