Village of Mariemont Cincinnati, Ohio
Enduring Model For Compact, Sustainable Neighborhoods
When a motivated philanthropist and visionary planning team created the Village of Mariemont in Cincinnati 80 years ago, their goal was to create a community for working class Americans that exemplified the benefits of housing choice, integration with the surrounding landscape, and self-sufficiency.
Today this wooded hamlet, based on the English Garden City, continues to reflect that vision at the same time it provides opportune lessons about the planning, design, and development of compact and sustainable neighborhoods. Mariemont accommodates automobiles but doesn't require residents to depend on them exclusively for commuting, errands, and short-distance trips.
The American Planning Association (APA) is designating Mariemont one of 10 Great Neighborhoods for 2008 given the village's unique character, compact and walkable design, and strong citizen participation and engagement.
Here mature trees line broad streets that radiate axially from the center of the neighborhood, transitioning into informal curvilinear lanes that fuse with the surrounding landscape. The automobile is a consideration, not a focus, in Mariemont. In fact, the original traffic-calming design of U.S. Highway 50 — which bisects the village — remains in place, allowing pedestrians to confidently and safely navigate the entire town. Streets in Mariemont are not just conduits for vehicles, but serve as integrated space that accommodates pedestrians and bicyclists as well as cars.
Encompassing 650 acres, the park-like setting of Mariemont has just over 3,000 people yet includes schools and recreational space, and is centered around a town square and commercial district featuring small shops and a theater. The village offers a prospect of 1920s American architecture, comprising styles from art deco to colonial revival to English Tudor revival — a juxtaposition that orients visitors in another time and place.
During the early 1900s, Mary Emery, a beloved philanthropist and widow of a wealthy Cincinnati real estate developer, began to envision what would become Mariemont — a project to improve housing in the city by relieving crowded, unsanitary conditions fomented by industrial expansion and a late 19th century population explosion.
Emery enlisted the services of John Nolen, the town planner of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a prolific designer whose work would shape hundreds of suburban communities throughout the U.S. With the assistance of Charles Livingood, a college friend of Emery's late son, Nolen began in 1923 to transform a tract of farmland near Cincinnati into a walkable, verdant community.
Mariemont's enduring worth stems in equal measure from Nolen's thoughtful planning and the community's ongoing commitment to the values his plan represents. Ingenious yet subtle visual touches — such as burying utility lines and punctuating prominent vistas with prominent buildings and features — compliment the village's collection of residential structures that range from modest rental units to single-family homes designed by nationally recognized architects.
Mariemont residents have long appreciated the magic of the place and are actively engaged in maintaining its quality. When storefront vacancies and a slip in residential construction standards threatened Mariemont's vitality during the 1940s, the village obtained Certified Local Government status. This allows Mariemont to elect a mayor and town council through New England-style town meetings. Such self-governance enables the village planning commission and architectural review board to focus on stewarding Nolen's vision.
For instance a recent renovation of the town square, guided by a public charrette, enabled the village to address traffic, pedestrian circulation, seating, aesthetics, and safety concerns while staying true to Nolen's plan. Mariemont Towne Center, an eccentric Tudor-revival commercial block, also has been recently renovated and expanded, accommodating commercial growth that respects the community's unique character.
Another avenue for community engagement is through the Mariemont Preservation Foundation, founded in 1980. The organization, which helped the village secure National Historic Landmark designation in 2007, has programs and events that foster the village's unique planning and architectural principles.
While Mariemont has grown and changed over time, today's residents continue to enjoy the quality of life originally envisioned by John Nolen and Mary Emery. Mariemont is both a prized artifact and a vital, living embodiment of the value and benefits that sound planning principles return to multiple generations and lifetimes.