Urbanism

NEW IDEAS, NEW URBANISM

Seaside 3The other day a visiting Polish architect asked me what I thought of the new urbanism movement. It is a good question. On the one hand, the continued expansion and growth of the Congress for a New Urbanism is impressive. I recall the first meeting, in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1993. Barely filled a small room. Today the annual conventions attract halls full of enthusiastic members. New urbanism  was jump-started by Seaside, whose celebrity and undoubted success—financial as well as architectural—encouraged real estate developers, community and neighborhood groups, city planners and architects, to take a long hard look. Many liked what they saw. But while new urbanists have attempted to shed their small town/suburban/Truman Show image, they have had no similarly successful and exemplary big-city project. No High Line. No Disney Hall. No Fifteen Central Park West. What are the important ideas that have affected American cities in the last 20 years? The development of waterfronts. The renaissance in constructing urban parks. The move of genXers and retirees into downtowns. High-rise urban living and Vancouverism. The popularity of urban bicycling and bike-rental programs. Ditto for Zipcars. Urban farmers markets and community gardens. Urban charter schools. The dramatic expansion in attendance of urban cultural institutions, especially art museums. Urban tourism. Downtown trophy buildings. The emergence of influential big-city mayors. Have any of these been the result of the new urbanism movement?

 

THE WRIGHT STUFF

BroadacreI saw the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art last night. The show is titled “Density and Dispersal” which, as far as I can make out, adds up to the fact that Wright designed Broadacre City, whose model was on display, and also designed tall buildings. That some of these buildings were to be in New York, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco, while others were in small towns, was not addressed. In fact, their context was ignored altogether, and characteristically, MoMA treated the buildings as art. But ignoring the intellectually slim conceit behind the exhibition, it was nice to see the drawings and models. The Broadacre model (which I had never seen), is a surprise because it is such an artful object, a sort of tapestry. It also remains a powerful tool to communicate Wright’s idea, which really has little to do with sprawl or suburbanization, except to the extent that it recognizes the automobile (but it also includes a monorail link). It was interesting to see so many students in attendance (it was Free Friday Night), being introduced–I suspect for the first time in many cases–to the old magician. I hope they took away a lesson. Wright and his collaborators produced striking drawings: axonometrics, cut-away perspective views, the breathtaking taaaall section of the Mile-High skyscraper (much more poetic than The Shard, by the way). And all using T-squares and colored pencils—not a computer or laser printer in sight.

 

BE IT EVER SO HUMBLE

Sharecroppers on porch, Missouri, 1938 (Russell Lee)

Sharecroppers on porch, Missouri, 1938 (Russell Lee)

The Atlantic’s website “Cities” argues that some urbanist buzzwords should be retired, including placemaking, gentrification, and smart growth. A good proposal, even if the Atlantic is itself responsible for the proliferation of many the self-same buzzwords—the website is subtitled “Place Matters.” Buzzwords are everywhere. Trouble in the Iraq war—what we need is a surge. No sooner did Obamacare falter than we learned that there were navigators, who would fix the problem. The right buzzword comes first; reality will follow. Buzzwords seem to emerge from two considerations: marketing and media. If you have an untested idea or hypothesis, such as smart growth or creative class, providing a label, preferably a catchy label, gives the idea an air of legitimacy. After all, if it has a name, it must be real. In our Twitter culture, a colorful name also saves time in lengthy explanations. This appeals to the media, since a new name can stand in for actual news. Would Occupy Wall Street, or the Tea Party, have gotten as much coverage without a colorful name? Which brings me back to the Atlantic list. Placemaking is a term often used by architects and urban designers, and it implies that a sense of place (obviously a good thing) can replace a sense of placelessness (a bad thing), if only the design suggestions of the self-styled placemakers are followed. But is a sense of place really a function of design? It may be for the tourist or the stranger, who experiences places briefly. Nothing is as disappointing to the tourist as visiting a place that looks like other places, and most of the American built environment is superficially similar. But as the late J. B. Jackson long ago pointed out, that environment is full of meaning, for those who use it. A strip mall may not look like much as you drive by, but for someone who attends the Judo school, or goes regularly to the beauty salon, it is a real place. Conversely, most attempts to instill a sense of place through physical design end up looking like themed restaurants with ersatz “mementos” on the walls. (The most blatant of these is the “Cheers” airport pub chain.)  I shop in a banal Pathmark, but I recognize some of the staff, I know where things are, it is familiar. The supermarket has a small place in my life, among the stirring places (the concourse of 30th Street station), the lyrical places (the Wissahickon), and the cherished places (our house). In other words, a “sense of place” is less a physical attribute than an individual experience. The old folk adage puts it well: Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home.

MONTRÉAL

Facade1-I haven’t lived in Montreal for twenty years, but it’s the city where I passed my twenties, thirties, and forties, so it is a place full of memories. But like all North American cities, it is in constant flux; the city of today is not the one I left in 1993. The view of Mount Royal outside my hotel window is comfortingly familiar, but the downtown is undeniably different. It appears oddly both more prosperous and more provincial than I remember. The Ritz Carleton, the first Ritz hotel in North America and the grande dame of Sherbrooke Street, is now two-thirds condominiums, and Daniel Bouloud has opened his thirteenth–or is it his fourteenth?–restaurant on the ground floor. In fact condominiums are springing up everywhere in the city. Are there so many Quebecers that suddenly want to live downtown? Unlikely. Montreal is succumbing to the phenomenon of the globe-trotting homeowner, who owns pieds-à-terre in London, New York, and Paris. If terrorism, or global warming, or civil unrest threatens where you live, what better place to park some of your wealth than placid Canada. Toronto and Vancouver are still the first choices based on urban amenities in Toronto and climate and natural setting in Vancouver, but Montreal is a cheaper, though colder, alternative. Of course, there is simmering Quebecois separatism whose latest manifestation has been dubbed “pastagate”–an Italian restaurant received a government warning for using “pasta” and “calamari” on its menu, instead of their French equivalents. And students occasionally demonstrate in the streets in proper Gallic fashion. But if you are a Russian oligarch these are small irritations. That, at least, was my impression as we walked down Sherbrooke last evening, glancing up at all those darkened apartment windows.

TOTTERING ON

Detroit, Wodward Avenue, 1915

Detroit, Wodward Avenue, 1915

An editor with a national monthly magazine contacted me recently. He had read my Bloomberg View op-ed on shrinking Detroit, and had a proposal for an article. “Let’s say it is stipulated that Detroit has downsized, the economy is booming, and the tech world has moved in with a vengeance,” he wrote. “How should the city reimagine itself and how would it look and feel in 25 years. Who would live and work there? Are postwar Dresden, Warsaw, Pittsburgh, Montreal, or London valid precedents? Anything to be learned from the way the modern Rome is layered over the ancient Rome? Is post-Katrina New Orleans a model?”

It can be stipulated that Detroit will become a high-tech hotbed, but I can’t believe it. The work force just isn’t there. Henry Ford’s great invention was the assembly line, which allowed him to produce inexpensive automobiles. Unfortunately, simple, repetitive tasks also had the effect of reducing work skills. Very different from what was required to build a Boeing airplane for example, which is why Seattle attracted such industries as Cray and Microsoft, which did fuel a tech boom. But why would tech companies relocate to Detroit? It’s not very attractive, it’s cold, and it’s bankrupt.

Bombed cities like London, Berlin, even Warsaw, don’t offer useful lessons since their physical damage was sudden and had nothing to do with their urban viability. So they bounced back. As did Chicago after its Great Fire. You can’t keep a good city down. In any case, many of the European cities damaged in the war were national capitals–they were going to be rebuilt no matter what. The Montreal economy took a hit in the 1980s thanks to the excesses of Quebecois separatism, and if it has partially recovered (it has been far outstripped by Toronto as the prime Canadian city), that is because it is the metropole of a French-speaking province, and like Paris it is buoyed by its cultural hegemony. Pittsburgh has succeeded in remaking itself because of strong civic leadership. I don’t see that in Detroit. Also, Pittsburgh is a much smaller city, whose problems are more manageable. A large city like Detroit is another matter altogether. Scale counts.

As for post-Katrina New Orleans, the struggle that the Crescent City has had to recover after the hurricane has most to do with the poor situation before the hurricane. New Orleans has been declining for years; during the economic boom of the 1990s, metropolitan New Orleans was the only metro area in the US to actually lose population.

Much of the damage to Detroit is the result of how the city was unable to react to the changing economy after 1950. Some of this had to do with its deplorable administrations, especially that of Coleman Young, which lasted two decades. As James Q. Wilson wrote, “Mayor Coleman Young rejected the integrationist goal in favor of a flamboyant, black-power style that won him loyal followers, but he left the city a fiscal and social wreck.” Much of Detroit’s problems rests on its troubled racially-charged history.

I am convinced that downsizing is a prerequisite for a city like Detroit, but it will not solve the problem of economic stagnation, the lack of a skilled work-force, and decaying urban infrastructure. “Blow it up and start over” as Boston Mayor Thomas Menino recently suggested?  Much too drastic. Tottering on is the most likely scenario. (PS I didn’t write the article.)