By Tad Stoner
As architecture, “new urbanism” relies on so much more than a designer’s drawing board, desk lamp and T-square. It is underpinned by an entire philosophy of community living; buildings are only its physical expression.
Founded in the US in the 1980s, new urbanism instantly resonated with town planners, and made an enormous impact among residents of traditional metropolitan areas, “cookie-cutter” shrubs suburbs and even upmarket neighbourhoods that nonetheless isolated families in their homes, leaving them cut off, almost imprisoned, without an automobile.
Calling for close-knit walkable communities with a distinct centre and reduced motor traffic, the philosophy appealed to a range of social and community instincts.
The concepts, however, rarely found the same latitude for expression as that given to the small army of landscape, building, lighting and community architects that designed and executed Camana Bay.
The challenge: Take 500 “greenfield” acres, virgin land undisturbed by any structures, and design an enormous and environmentally sensitive community that supports residential, commercial, recreational, educational and office facilities in a low-rise environment that responds to both the pleasures and problems of a Caribbean climate.
Build a waterfront Town Centre widely and comfortably accessible by foot, bicycle and wheelchair, and replete with family-friendly facilities, restaurants, shops, a cinema, shaded seating and quiet courtyards. Oh, and can you make sure it’s all wired for internet access?
On 7 December, after more an a decade of design – which included such attention to detail as the placement of trees to cast the most summertime shadow; and the waist-high, muted street lighting tucked behind beds of reflective white flowers – the first results will go on show. The fruition of an April 2005 groundbreaking, the Town Centre will open its initial facilities – including the first non-US outlet of Florida-based Books & Books and the 902-seat Hollywood Theatres multiplex cinema.
While a still-limited view of the overall plan, Camana Bay’s Town Centre will offer intriguing hints at the wider development, which ultimately joins Seven Mile Beach with North Sound, a sort of “sea-to-shining-sea” concept.
A walkable street, Camana Way, will trace a narrow green corridor from West Bay Road through the wide square of land that supports the discreetly designed housing for the central chilled-water air-conditioning plant and future development.
Crossing the Esterley Tibbetts Highway, the corridor widens into the Town Centre, initially passing between Jasmine Court and Gardenia Court, which shelter retail and upper-storey offices around secluded courtyards and gardens.
Crossing a narrow, traffic=controlled street, a pedestrian will move between Cassia and Canella courts, and two more piazzas, before arriving at The Crescent, Camana Bay’s ultimate waterfront destination.
Taking up almost one-quarter of the designed space, the four courtyards and associated gardens of the Town Centre have been created as small havens, sheltered behind native flora bred in Camana Bay’s own nurseries. Colour-coded to match surrounding walls, walks and mosaics, each piazza has a distinct look and feel.
Gardenia Court, for example, offers lush planting, a lawn for reclining and a nearby coffee shop. Cassia Court, in yellows and oranges, and Canella Court, in active reds, connect the public parking at the perimetre of the development with the retail and restaurant outlets at its heart.
Jasmine Court surrounds the cinema, and is projected mostly for pre- and post-film evening use. Bubble Benches encourage adult conversation while an interactive fountain encourages children to run through its spray.
The Crescent is the culmination of “the community”, intended as a place to gather, to stroll, to meet friends, to pause and to talk. Semi-circular Restaurant Row backs up against the bordering buildings, its seating shaded beneath a cantilevered upper storey in the style of traditional Asian shophouses.
Beyond the bistros and cafes are open spaces, gardens and the canal front; two 15-foot-deep artificial watercourses from North Sound converge at the town’s harbour where the man-made Island has 20 public boat slips and an esplanade provides additional mooring.
The Island and esplanade enable boats to disgorge their passengers for an evening of dining, recreation, shopping, cinema and periodic events such as concerts, fireworks and celebrations. The harbour is set against the backdrop of what will become the residential island when the first homes are built in 2009.
None of Camana Bay’s 1,38 parking spaces are more than a two-minute walk from the Town Centre, enabling occupants of the offices and banking outlets at 62 Forum Lane to gain quick access to a meal and waterborne transport. Ernst & Young, Cayman National Corporation and London and Amsterdam Trust have already taken space in this new “intelligent” building, fully wired for satellite communications and broadband.
Streets designed to limit the speed and volume of motor traffic intertwine with bicycle paths and pavements to create a fluid transport network scaled to individuals and contributing to an overall sense of a user-friendly community.
The textures of tiles, walls and glazing; the choices of vegetation and colour; and the myriad visual cues designed into Camana Bay’s exteriors shape visitors’ responses to the environment. And that, of course, in its turn, will shape their responses to Camana Bay’s interiors; and that is the living definition of “holistic”.
After completion of the Town Centre sometime in winter 2008/9, planners will dig into design details of Camana Bay’s larger residential phases. As the community grows and fresh needs emerge, the development must retain flexibility. The architectural challenge is to structure greater physical forms that can both guide and respond to the demands of its occupants, delivering the essence of new urbanism.