Monday, September 6, 2010

#879 - Cotati Downtown Plaza

Most cities are laid out on a grid. Cotati has California's only hexagonal city plan, which is its claim to fame. You might be thinking, as I did initially, that a hexagonal city plan is a ridiculous idea. It turns out, however, that hexagonal city planning was at the forefront of city planning theory in the early 20th century.

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Hexagonal neighborhood unit,
Barry Parker, 1928.
Source: Hexagonal Planning in Theory and Practice.
There is, I think, scholarly work on almost any topic -- in this case hexagonal city planning. Thanks to Google, I found a nice paper in The Journal of Urban DesignHexagonal Planning in Theory and Practice. It turns out that there is much to recommend a hexagonal plan. In a standard grid based city, diagonal movement is difficult, but a majority of trips within a city require some diagonal movement. In a hexagonal plan, almost all movement is diagonal. Traffic intersections are safer as they are always three-way intersections with better sight lines and fewer possible collision points than a typical four-way intersection. A hexagon also required "10% less length of roads and utilities and allowed a substantial central green space in each block." In addition, "if the hexagonal grid was oriented so that it pointed due north, there would never be buildings with a northern exposure," providing all rooms with sunlight every day.

The rise of the cul-de-sac model of residential urban planning put an end to hexagonal ideas. In the 1930s, the cul-de-sac model was codified as the preferred FHA approved layout for new sub divisions and since then millions of homes have been built in subdivisions based on the cul-de-sac model.

The hexagon may have been a theoretically beneficial urban design, but it does have some negative points. In particular, the lots are triangular and tend to have large front yards and small, wedge-shaped backyards. In contrast, "the corner lots in a cul-de-sac were all the wedge-shaped 'pie-lots' valued by homeowners, because they had a small (public) front yard and a large (private) backyard." More fundamental questions also arise for hexagonal plans such as "How would streets be named or dwellings numbered?" and "How would strangers navigate the streets?"

In the end, the authors of this journal article make the excellent point that "what happened to hexagonal planning illustrates the futility of street and block planning as the sole concept behind city planning." This rings true on a visit to Cotati, where the hexagonal plan radiates for only two blocks before it is subsumed into a more traditional grid-like plan.

Things to do in Cotati
Cotati's hexagonal plaza plays host to an accordion festival every summer. If you don't visit during the festival, you can still see a statue of the late accordion musician Jim Boggio in the park.

The Marker
Cotati Downtown Plaza 
Cotati's hexagonal town plan, one of only two in the United States, was designed during the 1890s by Newton Smyth as an alternative to the traditional grid land planning. The six-sided town plaza was designed for founder Thomas Page, and each of the surrounding streets was named after one of Page's sons. "Cotati" derives from "Kotati", a local Pomo indian chieftan.
 California Registered Historical Landmark No. 879
Plaque placed by the State Department of Parks and Recreation in cooperations with the City of Cotati and all organizations. June 7, 1975.