One of the quirkier pieces of American Western folklore is the “jackalope”. This mythical creature – a jackrabbit with the horns of antelope, deer, or goat – is based on a real virus that causes rabbits to grow horn-like growths. A small industry has grown from this legendary creature, including postcards, hunting licenses, mounted heads, National Jackalope Day in Douglas, Wyoming, and a 10-foot high fiberglass sculpture at Wall Drug, a South Dakota roadside attraction.
The jackalope is an appropriate analogy for urban areas and, in particular, downtowns. Since they were developed over a century or two and reflect changing design preferences and policy strategies, downtowns have seemingly incongruous elements right next to each other (for example, a Victorian-era house adjacent to a postmodern office building or a long-time local restaurant next door to a national chain café). These incongruities separate traditional downtowns from contemporary mixed-use development projects.
Charles Wolfe uses the term “urban juxtaposition” to refer to the interacting cultural, economic, and physical forces that define urban environments. Juxtapositions can serve as a positive element of place, creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Hybrid physical environments such as Chicago’s Michigan Avenue function as a cohesive whole. Other jackalopes are more inharmonious.
Planners often struggle to provide strategies to unify a physically diverse downtown environment. Options include:
- Public art. Themed sculptures are an example of public art that can physically bring a downtown together. Organizers took a common white fiberglass sculpture (e.g., a cow in Chicago, a pig in Seattle, and Peanuts characters in Santa Rosa (CA)), had artists paint different designs on them, and then placed them around the downtown. Each white fiberglass sculpture had some significance for the city: the importance of cows to the early Chicago economy, the brass piggy bank in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and Santa Rosa being the home to the late cartoonist Charles Schulz.
- Compatible uses. Compatibility between uses, such as restaurants, bars, and movie theaters in adjacent blocks, frequently masks physical incompatibility. Zoning and incentives can encourage compatible uses.
- Design guidelines for new development and rehabilitation. Design guidelines are important long-terms tools for developing cohesive urban environments, a place where these urban juxtapositions can succeed. Corners are particularly important in providing a unifying element since they are where different streets and different buildings meet.
- Facade improvements. Facade improvements, particularly on the ground floor, can provide harmony between otherwise disparate buildings. Residents and visitors rarely look up; their focus is – and thus the planner’s focus should be – on buildings at eye level.
- Streetscape improvements. Streets occupy most of the public space within a downtown. Paving, trees, lighting, street furniture, directional signs, and banners can serve as common features for a street, neighborhood, or downtown.
Herding jackalopes can be challenging, but planners can employ a broad set of tools to manage them.