Cautionary tales in urban design

National Harbor sits on a sloping tract along the Potomac River in Prince Georges County, Maryland. It's "national" in the same way that it's a "harbor," which is to say, by the power of suggestion. The development follows the currently fashionable model of a "town center," with mixed upper-income residential stacked on top of mostly chain businesses. These types of quasi-urban spaces are an improvement over old strip-malls, but there's a uniformity to them that often makes them feel sterile. 

National Harbor has a lot going for it. A wide, tree-lined central street runs down the slope to the water, ending in two terraces that look out over the Potomac. At the river's edge, there's The Awakening, a marvelous sculpture that has haunted the dreams of visiting children since 1980 (it was once located at Hains Point in DC, but was sold to the developers and moved here). There's also a new gondola-style ferris wheel, because that's a thing now, too. The terraced river view creates the main public space of the development, its heart.

We'd been here once before, but on this visit we found that the developer had introduced a new feature: a looming TV screen that dominated the vista and blocked the one thing that provided character and life to the space: the river.

On the higher terrace. The designers included some nice touches, like mosaics and this inlaid map of the Potomac and DC region.

On the higher terrace. The designers included some nice touches, like mosaics and this inlaid map of the Potomac and DC region.

Looking out at the lower terrace, which once enjoyed an unencumbered view of the river and the sculpture, now hidden behind the screen.

Looking out at the lower terrace, which once enjoyed an unencumbered view of the river and the sculpture, now hidden behind the screen.

A still photo can't convey how the blinking, ever-changing screen draws the eye from anywhere else in the plaza. It advertises the price of the ferris wheel rides, flashes weather reports, throws up news updates, and does its best to distract your from the "harbor" from which the whole area took its name. It was one of the ugliest decisions I've ever seen in urban design. 

It's easy to fall back on judgemental attitude when it comes to aesthetics. I hate the intrusion of screens into everyday life, but I may be a grouchy minority, and younger visitors who are inured to the omnipresence of screens may not find it so objectionable. But you don't need to dislike TV screens to object to this change. 

What really amazes me about the decision to drop a screen into the plaza was that it seals visitors off from the one thing that might give the entire development a measure of uniqueness. The movement of water and the slow progress of boats once created a mesmerizing and peaceful backdrop to the layered terraces. Now the eye is hijacked by the intrusive, rapidly-changing graphics and video from elsewhere, which serve no purpose and add nothing to the experience. 

Well, it probably adds one thing: a venue for advertising. Is it too much to ask that people consider factors other than maximizing profit in the decisions regarding the places we live, socialize, and enjoy the world?