Is America’s Civic Architecture Inherently Racist?

I personally don’t think that it is. However, Denver Post Fine Arts Critic Ray Mark Rinaldi gives the opposite impression to thousands of readers via a recent opinion piece called “Did Diversity Miss the Train in Union Station Architecture?” The Union Station in question is Denver’s newly refurbished central rail hub, originally built in 1881 with some alterations in the 1890s. Mr. Rinaldi suggests that the station’s “neo-classical mix of styles” is off-putting to ethnic minorities, and hence discourages them from using this most central of Denver’s public places. Reader reaction was swift and abundant, numbering over 300 online posts. Respondents overwhelmingly condemn Mr. Rinaldi’s argument as uninformed, illogical, ridiculous, bizarre, crazy, idiotic, asinine, moronic, and in itself divisive and racist. Mr. Rinaldi himself is diagnosed as suffering from liberal stupidity, liberal self-loathing, liberal educational indoctrination, liberal superiority syndrome, and several other mental disorders associated with liberalism. Some readers liken the piece to a parody from The Onion.

Union Station, Denver (D. Saitta)

Denver’s Union Station (D. Saitta)

Assuming that Mr. Rinaldi’s article is on the level, his particular critique of Union Station redevelopment, combined with the apoplectic reactions of his readers, derails a potentially important conversation about the extent to which urban built environments are meaningfully constituted and interpreted by citizens, and the degree to which cultural diversity should matter in urban placemaking. More on this below, but first some additional background:

Denver’s Union Station is a mash-up of Romanesque, Classical Revival, and Beaux-Arts architectural styles. Located at the end of a terminating vista in Lower Downtown, the building is a marvel to behold. Mr. Rinaldi spent some time one weekend counting patrons and discovered that the user population for the station’s bars, restaurants, and other amenities is overwhelmingly white. This should come as no surprise for veteran observers of Denver placemaking. Upscale development rules in this part of the city, aided and abetted by the Downtown Denver Partnership’s interest in attracting Millennials. Mr. Rinaldi is certainly right that Union Station is “programmed” for people with money. And although Denver has a “growing middle class of minorities,” including “plenty of blacks and Latinos” who can afford to go there, Mr. Rinaldi goes a bit further to speculate that the station’s architectural renovation repels this demographic. The building’s “symmetry, arched windows, and ornate cornice and stacked stone walls” evoke European colonial empires fueled by slave labor. The rewired gilded chandeliers and polished marble symbolize an Old World that was elitist and exclusive. The whole scene harkens back to an early 20th century America rooted in ethnic segregation and class exploitation.

Mr. Rinaldi notes that there’s nothing in the station’s update that “nods” to an increasingly diverse and multicultural present. For example, there are

 …no interior walls in the bright colors of Mexico, no Asian simplicity in the remix. There are no giant sculptures by African-American artists bonused into the lobby, no murals on the basement walls.

There’s also no explicit nod to Native American (specifically, Cheyenne and Arapaho) people and cultures on whose ancestral land the station sits and whose ancestors were brutally displaced to clear the way for railroads in the West. Mr. Rinaldi doesn’t mention that particular omission, but he continues with this:

There’s no traditional Mexican restaurant, no soul food restaurant, no sushi bar, as if no one noticed that the Mexican-American, African-American, and Asian-American families that operate those places across the city are also our best food purveyors.

Denver's Union Station, Interior (D. Saitta)

Denver’s Union Station, Interior (D. Saitta)

Mr. Rinaldi rightly notes that there are many choices that the station’s owner, the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD), could have made in rehabbing and programming the venue. He laments that none of the choices respect RTD’s diverse ridership, which is largely minority-based. He suggests that other choices—like a recreational facility, playground, day-care center, farmer’s market, cultural facility (e.g., museum), and some affordable dining options—might have made the place more appealing to a broader demographic. Mr. Rinaldi concludes with a couple of dramatic rhetorical flourishes: RTD has “created a monster of separation” that has “defined us narrowly, darkly, negligently.”

To his credit Mr. Rinaldi recognizes that this is a “dangerous” discussion. He acknowledges the risks associated with racially categorizing people based on skin color (coincidently, the subject of a special exhibit now showing at Denver’s History Colorado Center). If Mr. Rinaldi was looking to enter dangerous territory he certainly succeeded, as evidenced by the hundreds of overwhelmingly negative online responses to his column. He clearly struck a nerve. Interestingly, the 13 reader responses published as letters in two different print editions of the Denver Post (see here and here) are, in stark contrast to the online reactions, much more balanced in their evaluation. It seems as if Post editors were intentionally looking to reclaim and reset a potentially useful conversation that was never established online. The published letters are evenly split between six people who excoriate Rinaldi for his crude stereotypes about culture and his cluelessness about the purpose of historic preservation (e.g., it should be “authentic” and faithful to original construction), and seven people who compliment him for provoking thought or agree that the station’s renovation is a missed opportunity to create an inclusive, energized public space in Denver’s Lower Downtown.

I’m inclined to accentuate the positive. Mr. Rinaldi’s piece is certainly clumsy in several regards, e.g., dropping ethnically themed restaurants into a public space does not an intercultural city make. His rhetoric is a tad overheated in places. His overall framing of the key issues with Union Station development could have been better. Still, I admire the courage it took to write something that makes such an inviting target for the trolls and troglodytes among us. As mentioned at the top of this post, at the very least Mr. Rinaldi challenges us to think about the meanings that public buildings and places have for people of different cultural backgrounds and life experiences. I would add public parks and other designed landscapes to the mix, as well as historic monuments and memorials. Humans are, as any anthropologist will tell you, meaning-making and meaning-detecting animals. We read visual cues of inclusivity and exclusivity in all of our cultural products. Even the most seemingly benign design choice can be loaded with positive or negative associations depending on the personal background and lived experience of citizens. We don’t need white people to point this out. Even non-white people, among them distinguished architects and planners, will tell you as much (e.g., see here and here). The planning and design stakes are especially high when it comes to urban places that are intended to be public. If, as some researchers suggest, there’s a correlation between racial equity and overall urban prosperity (for a sampling of scholarly views, see here), then it’s certainly reasonable to worry about racial inequities in access to, and use of, public space. The sooner that planners, developers, architects, and builders of all ethnic backgrounds realize this and achieve—as one Denver Post letter writer enlightened by Mr. Rinaldi’s piece put it—a “diversity awareness,” then the better our urban built environments are likely to be.

This essay was originally published at Planetizen. It was re-posted from here to Sustainable Cities Collective.

Learning From the ‘White City’

It’s not the White City that would likely come to mind first, i.e., Daniel Burnham’s spectacular grouping of neoclassical buildings at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, made famous by Erik Larson’s book. Rather, it’s a white canvas tent colony that appeared 20 years later and about 1,000 miles to the southwest, near the railroad depot (now a ghost town) of Ludlow, Colorado. Given the average American’s knowledge of Western history, Ludlow might as well be Nowheresville. The Ludlow Tent Colony was a striker’s camp of 200 tents occupied by coal miners and their families (about 1,200 people) during the 1913-14 Colorado Coal Field War. This episode of industrial conflict is arguably the bloodiest example of labor unrest in American history. The violence culminated in the deaths of two women and 11 children on April 20, 1914 when an armed force of coal company guards, professional strikebreakers, and hired mercenaries stormed the colony and set it ablaze. The women and children were trapped in a tent cellar and suffocated to death. Dozens of other people died in the 10 days of open warfare between striking miners and company men that followed. On April 30th President Woodrow Wilson called in federal troops to disarm both sides and restore some calm.

Top: Chicago's White City; Bottom: Colorado's White City (Wikimedia Commons)

Top: Chicago’s White City; Bottom: Colorado’s White City (Wikimedia Commons)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the “Ludlow Massacre.” Although not widely known or taught in school the anniversary has provoked some significant national interest. Stories in The Nation and The New Yorker discuss the details and why the event still matters. Because I was one of the scholars who led the first-ever archaeological excavation of the tent colony I can’t let the anniversary pass without mentioning Ludlow’s relevance for contemporary urban planning and governance.

Ludlow Tent Colony (courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection)

Ludlow Tent Colony, Street Level View (courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection)

In his award-winning book Killing for Coal, Thomas Andrews reports documentary evidence suggesting that Colorado strikers nicknamed their settlement the White City because of the “gleaming canvas facades” of the tents, and “as an ironic reference to the dreamlike buildings that had housed the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.” Alternatively, the moniker could also refer to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, whose name translates as “White City.” The striking coal miners at Ludlow spoke a number of different languages, primarily Eastern and Southern European. The resident population included Serbs, Croatians, Poles, Sicilians, Tyroleans, Tuscans, Cretans, Macedonians, and others. In America some of these immigrants would come to be lumped together as “Italians” and “Greeks.” Mexicans, Spanish Americans, and even African Americans contributed to the ethnic mix. Life in the tent city for these people was far from ideal. They occupied the colony for 15 months, under extremely difficult economic conditions and through one of the worst winters in Colorado history (many historical photographs show the snow piled head high around the tents). The miners were striking because of low pay, dangerous working conditions, and non-enforcement of Colorado mining laws. Simply taken at face value there’s much to learn from this history that’s relevant for today. America’s coal miners (as the articles linked above demonstrate) are still struggling to deal with issues around workplace safety, fair compensation, entitlement to medical benefits, and other rights.

Detail of Tent Colony showing Medical Tent (courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection)

Detail of Tent Colony showing Medical Tent (courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection)

At a deeper level, Ludlow’s history may also have something to teach us about intercultural urban planning and design. We explored several key questions in our research, including one about how the citizens of Ludlow used space, place, and the built environment as tactical resources in the conflict between Labor and Capital. Our investigation—which triangulated between historical sources, oral testimonies of descendant family members, and archaeological findings—established that the canvas tents were arranged to maximize security and impede surveillance of the interior by passers-by, especially coal company officials and professional strikebreakers. Camp layout, with its named streets, numbered tents, and prominently placed hospital, paymaster, and community facilities signaled a concern for personal health, family relationships, and civic order. Thus, the striking miners made a concerted effort to present a “civilized” face to the outside world as a way to combat early 20th century stereotypes about immigrants as unclean, ignorant, and naturally violent. We suspect that the colonists didn’t live in ethnically segregated areas of the camp. This is most directly evidenced by the surnames of the 13 individuals trapped in the tent cellar on the day of the attack: Costa, Pedregone, Petrucci, Valdez. The fact that these people died together in very close quarters almost certainly indicates that they lived together in very close quarters. Moreover, it’s almost certain (and this is suggested by archaeological findings) that that the social and economic networks that helped sustain the tent city extended well beyond it, and cut across other divisions of culture and class.

Ludlow Monument Inscription and Plaque (photographs by D. Saitta)

Ludlow Monument Inscription and Plaque (photographs by D. Saitta)

Archaeological work at the Ludlow Tent Colony helped win National Historic Landmark status for the site in 2009, a significant accomplishment. A 2013 Colorado Historic Preservation Award honored our work and the heroic efforts of our partners, the United Mine Workers of America and the National Park Service. Pooling expertise to enhance our understanding of American history is one thing. Producing lessons for contemporary urban planning, however, is quite another. What can excavation of a 100 year-old tent colony located on a 40-acre piece of remote, sunbaked and windswept Colorado prairie possibly teach us?  It’s a challenge for sure, but this is how urban historians have to think if they’re to wring as much contemporary relevance as possible out of their subject matter. Even granting the significant scale differences between Ludlow and, say, Denver, socially integrative principles are socially integrative principles no matter what the settlement scale. How those principles shaped the built environment at a culturally diverse community like Ludlow under very difficult political and economic circumstances is, in my view, a fascinating research question. It’s one that demands a lot more work: only 5 percent of the colony has been systematically investigated by archaeologists.

Coal Field War Project Staff and Students within Excavated Tent Location, 1998 (photograph courtesy of Colorado Coal Field War Project)

Coal Field War Project Staff and Students within Excavated Tent Location, 1998 (photograph courtesy of Colorado Coal Field War Project)

Still, at the very least Ludlow provides a useful foil for discussing several aspects of the contemporary urban condition that are of scholarly and popular interest: spatial segregation of ethnic groups, gentrification, racial profiling, and the cultural values and practices that reproduce these conditions. The Ludlow strikers overcame their social and ethnic differences to maintain a long strike in a makeshift community under conditions of serious economic deprivation, systematic corporate harassment, and uncooperative weather. When Colorado State Senator Helen Ring Robinson visited the colony during the strike she was impressed by the spirit of cooperation and camaraderie she observed among the colonists.  She noted that:

Among the women, particularly, and many of the children…this long winter had brought the nationalities together in a rather remarkable way . . . I saw the true melting pot at Ludlow.

What particular shared values and identities allowed Ludlow’s diverse immigrant groups to come together in that “rather remarkable way”? What sort of “tactical urbanisms”—including the symbolisms and meanings associated with colony organization, the distribution of community amenities, and signage—reinforced these shared values and identities and promoted cross-cultural solidarity? What does Ludlow teach us about the ideologies and materialities required for planning and managing an inclusive, sustainable city in an Urban Age plagued by ethnic unrest and environmental distress? Is there anything here that our modern day politicians—especially mayors and city councilors—could stand to learn? This blog is centrally committed to the idea that an understanding of city building in the past can (and should) inform city building in the present. In this cause, as in every other realm of human endeavor, we are limited only by our individual and collective imagination.

Another version of this essay is posted at Planetizen.

Debating Starchitecture: A Mile High View

Witold Rybczynski started the latest go-round with a piece for the New York Times Magazine. Rybczynski laments the globalization of civic architecture by a handful of internationally known practitioners or “starchitects.” He asserts that architecture is a social art rather than a personal one, and thus should serve to reflect a society’s values rather than a particular individual’s aesthetic taste. Accordingly, he calls for more “locatecture”: works by local talent whom we might expect to have a better grasp of the particular environmental, historical, and cultural characteristics of place.

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Starchitecture: Daniel Libeskind’s Frederic C. Hamilton Building, Denver Art Museum (D. Saitta)

James S. Russell responds in Architizer by suggesting that the debate perpetuated by Rybczynski is “stupid.” While this is a bit extreme, he nonetheless makes some good points. Russell argues that architecture is less a social art than a public one. It is firmly situated in the group life of human beings. It is developed by people working in teams, shaped by the demands of clients, and subject to wider civic approval and buy-in. Moreover, architecture inevitably reflects a society’s values because building anything requires wealth and, for Russell, “wealth will build what it wants” in today’s societies where the 1 percent rules. Finally, architecture is surely a medium of individual expression. It strokes big egos, but it can also advance the state of the art. Russell’s claim that people “like urban spectacle, theatricality, expressiveness, and grand gestures” is certainly substantiated by what we see around us today and what we have learned from the archaeological record.

Debating starchitecture is a no-win proposition, but the debate is still a useful one. I explain why, with reference to my home city of Denver, over at Planetizen. But if you want to cut to the chase the two most important takeaway messages of that essay are these:

  1. Global Big Names can play key roles in building at the local level. We need all the visually stimulating, conversation starting buildings that we can get. But given increasing urban ethnic diversity, it would be so much better if “starchitected” buildings resonated with local histories and cultures, as well as with the missions of their institutional occupants (e.g., museums charged with representing human histories and cultures). They tend to fall far short in this respect. It’s also clear that we need a broader and deeper discussion of how buildings can be designed to produce a variety of cultural meanings, and maintain the capacity to be “read” differently by citizens of different cultural backgrounds, across time and changing circumstances.
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Locatecture Meets Starchitecure. Left: Curtis Fentress’s Jeppesen Terminal. Right: Santiago Calatrava-inspired Hotel and Transit Hub, under construction (D. Saitta)

  1. While starchitects in Denver have both enhanced and eroded the quality of our built environment, the same can be said of our “locatects.” There’s no lack of architectural talent at either of these scales, but we still see relatively little exciting work in the sweet spot where Russell’s interest in boldness and innovation meets Rybczynski’s interest in local environment, history, and culture. The sweet spot is rarely hit for big civic and corporate buildings and—tragically—almost never hit for the buildings in which we conduct most of our lives: apartment houses, markets, department stores, schools, libraries, community centers, and other spaces of everyday social exchange. In this respect, there’s plenty of blame to go around for what James Howard Kunstler famously calls “the immersive ugliness of our everyday [built] environment in America.”

Read the whole essay here.

This essay was re-posted to Sustainable Cities Collective.

Taking Stock of Denver Placemaking

Denver is earning a reputation as a city to watch for 21st century placemaking. Its Lower Downtown (LoDo) historic district—a mixed-use area now 25 years in the making—is a revitalization success story. The city is making major investments in transit-oriented development, highlighted by its FasTracks light rail system and newly refurbished Union Station. New Urbanist retrofits of the old municipal airport (Stapleton) and dead suburban shopping malls (e.g., Belmar) are much-discussed examples of how to get it right. Denver has an active Tactical Urbanism movement. Amenities to attract the coveted target population of Millennials and other cultural creatives are popping up left and right…though not always with flattering results. These efforts are propelling Denver to the top of city rankings for livability including—astonishingly enough for the sprawling “Queen City of the Plains”—walkability.

Union Station and its new Train Shed (D. Saitta)

Denver’s Union Station and its new Train Shed (D. Saitta)

Lately there has been some stocktaking to critically evaluate Denver’s progress. Last April Confluence Denver—the city’s “online magazine for entrepreneurs and creatives”—convened local developers, planners, and architects for an open public conversation about “Place and Why it Matters.” Last May Politico Magazine visited Denver to talk about transportation with Mayor Michael Hancock as part of its national “What Works” series. I discuss both of these events, and some particular Denver placemaking projects, over at Planetizen. The story I tell is one of hits, misses, and open questions.

Among the most persistent of these open questions is what will happen at the site of the former University of Colorado Health Sciences Center (UCHSC) campus at 9th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard in east-central Denver. Only passing reference was made in the Confluence Denver discussion to this project. Jesse Adkins of Shears Adkins Rockmore Architects had this to say about the challenge of developing the former Health Sciences Center campus:

“That’s a tough one to solve…”Lots of issues and big problems. These buildings have been there for 100 years. The street grid exists. There are ingredients you can pull into it. It’s one of those nodal opportunities that could continue to fill in gaps around the city.”

University of Colorado Health Sciences Center campus (D. Saitta)

University of Colorado Health Sciences Center site (D. Saitta)

Adkins is right, especially his point about the campus site presenting a “nodal” opportunity. In fact, the site is pretty much smack dab in the middle of Trent Gillaspie’s cheeky “Judgmental Map of Denver” that, along with the Judgmental Maps of other cities, has been getting a lot of run on the internet. Although it’s not entirely evident from Gillaspie’s map the UCHSC site is located at the nexus of multiple neighborhoods that, according to the most recent census data, are sharply divided by class and culture. According to the research of Richard Florida and colleagues (see here and here), Denver ranks #9 in income segregation among large American metros. It’s running neck-and-neck with Dallas for last place among major American cities with the smallest percentage of homes available for purchase (around 15 percent) in the least expensive tier of housing. Denver’s cost of rental housing is also among the highest in the nation. Thus, the UCHSC site development offers an excellent opportunity to both socially de-segregate and spatially re-connect this portion of a fractured city. It’s positioned to address multiple citizen needs and perhaps accomplish some beneficial mixing of people and ideas. Because of this potential the UCHSC site is, for my money, the most important placemaking exercise to watch in the entire city of Denver.

Google Maps

Judgmental Map of Denver, by Trent Gillaspie

I’ve been chronicling the history of the UCHSC development elsewhere on this blog. Unsurprisingly, this history is one of controversy and conflict because of the site’s location, a volatile economy, a steady parade of would-be developers, conflicting developer visions, and citizen disagreements about what should fill the site. In my view the biggest obstacles to development are (1) citizens from wealthier adjacent neighborhoods whose obstructionism was catalyzed by a plan to include a Walmart store in the retail mix, and (2) city councilpersons who are much too invested in serving this well-heeled demographic to the exclusion of all others. Rather unimaginative New Urbanist conceptions of architectural design also don’t help. The site begs a plan and an architecture that respects both its spatial “nodality” and its 100-year history as a hospital and medical research facility. The dearth of exciting design ideas is perplexing given that Denver has one of the highest densities of architects in the entire nation. However, there’s still cause for optimism. The latest new developer (the same developer who gave us Belmar) is looking to preserve additional historical structures and to workshop with neighborhood kids about their desires for the site. Whether this developer will build creatively, and for a diverse demographic, remains to be seen.

A story published just today at Confluence Denver notes that placemaking in the city has been about taking “incremental steps”, the big projects like Union Station notwithstanding.  Downtown Denver Partnership president and CEO Tammy Door says that the city has been “bunting” with small projects year after year in addition to hitting the occasional “home run.”  I’d add that other forms of “small ball” (to stay with the baseball metaphors) like short-term public art and architecture projects, among other tactical urbanist interventions, have also been important for illustrating what’s possible in Denver placemaking. But such interventions can never address the most compelling structural issues around urban social and spatial inequality that affect American cities.  Thinking inclusively has to extend beyond the Millennials and cultural creatives that Denver, like many other cities, is going out of its way to attract. We need to harness urban diversity in all of its forms, and embrace residents both old and new, in order to make good places and thereby realize the city’s “diversity advantage.” Civic Leadership at multiple levels is crucial to achieving this goal.

This essay was re-posted to Sustainable Cities Collective.

Does the Aspen Ideas Festival Offer Any Compelling Ideas for Improving City Life?

The ideas at issue are presented in the short video featured in this recent CityLab story. Several “Leading Voices” in today’s conversation about cities were asked this “Big Question”: What’s the Number One Thing We Could Do to Improve City Life?

AspenFestPicGeoffrey West says it’s time to recognize the prominence of cities and urban life in the future of the planet. Alissa Walker says we need to make cities more walkable. Jeff Speck says we need to “restripe” cities to make them more “equitable” for cars and pedestrians. Jennifer Pahlka says we need to get cars out of cities altogether and develop better mass transit. M. Sanjayan says we need better ways to connect city-dwellers back to nature.

None of this is all that inspiring on the face of it. However, embedded in the video are a few excellent observations that might generate more creative thought about what’s needed for urban improvement beyond what we’re already investing in the area of transportation. For the punch line, please visit my Planetizen blog.

This piece was re-posted to Sustainable Cities Collective.

The University and The City: Location, Structure, Culture

This week Jeff Selingo writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education that location is becoming increasingly important as a factor that can determine a university’s success or failure. He argues that institutions located in cities enjoy a strategic advantage by providing a higher density of off-campus opportunities for students to apply their learning in real world settings (e.g., through internships and community-engaged research projects). Selingo references a recent Moody’s Investor Service report showing that “market leading institutions” are primarily located in urban areas. He advises institutions in urban areas to strengthen partnerships with local employers, and those in rural areas to develop student exchange programs with institutions located in the city.

Selingo’s piece provides an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between cities and universities. Location is important to an institution’s success, but so too are qualities like institutional structure and culture. Ten years ago Susan Frost and Rebecca Chopp wrote an article for Change magazine showing how urban theory and history can offer some useful metaphors for analyzing and changing the structure and culture of educational institutions. Specifically, they suggest that in these challenging times for higher education a successful institution may have to function less like metropolis and more like a cosmopolis. For the full skinny on their perspective and my analysis please visit my Planetizen blog.

Manifesto for an Intercultural Urbanism

I’m pleased to have been invited to write for the urban planning website Planetizen. In keeping with the theme of Intercultural Urbanism my inaugural essay briefly describes the philosophical and practical commitments of an approach to urban planning and design that’s sensitive to cultural diversity in ways of being and building. The essay is inspired by the “diversity deficit” in contemporary  thinking about urban planning that’s been noted by several influential mainstream urbanists. There’s already a strong literature that can serve as a guide for addressing this deficit.  I argue that we need to renew the conversation about cultural diversity and its implications for planning theory and practice, a conversation that’s fallen off a bit in the last 5 years.  Casting widely across cultures, histories, and disciplines for planning concepts and precedents is essential if we desire a more comprehensive agenda for dealing with the many urban challenges that currently bedevil us. You can read the complete essay here.

Has Urbanism Lost All Meaning?

On New Year’s Eve 2013 the staff at Atlantic Cities (now City Lab) ran a story about “Urbanist Buzzwords to Rethink in 2014.” These buzzwords included popular favorites such as “placemaking”, “smart growth”, and even “gentrification.” Readers were urged to use some of the concepts much more carefully and reject others altogether. Why? Because they lack meaning or are too “jargony”, “wonky” or—god forbid—“academic.” Halfway through 2014 it doesn’t appear that much of the advice from the vocabulary police and translators of “academic-ese” at City Lab has been heeded. I think that’s a very good thing.

1. City labTopping City Lab’s Rethink List is the “worst offender” of all: “urbanism.”  Sommer Mathis opined thusly:

At first glance, this word might seem utilitarian: urban is a perfectly fine word, and -ism, meaning a “distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement,” a frequently helpful English language suffix. But this particular combination never fails to makes me cringe when I hear it spoken aloud. Not only does it imply that there exists some universally accepted ideology of the best way to construct, organize, and manage any given urban area, it’s frequently misapplied as a term for the study of urban issues…or the basic interaction of people and things within an urban environment. Deploying this word should be undertaken with extreme caution, and always with the understanding that it almost never carries real meaning.”

In an earlier City Lab piece from 2012 Kaid Benfield anticipated Mathis’s argument by likewise suggesting that the concept of “urbanism” had exhausted its utility. He also opined that the word was stifling creative thought about cities and their planning. Benfield said:

…as a lover of words and language, I am always thinking about their meaning and best use. And I now believe it may be time to send “urbanism” to the same literary retirement as “vibrant.” [e.g., see here]…My first problem with urbanism is that in some circles it has taken on the air of a cult, providing a verbal badge of identification. The word carries an assumption not just that adherents love and promote cities but also subscribe to a growing code of written and unwritten precepts and rules about how our built environment should be organized – starting but not ending with density, gridded streets, mixed uses, priority to pedestrians rather than drivers, and so on…Just as the principles of smart growth have gotten stale, so have the overlapping principles of urbanism. Overly familiar vocabulary can lead to overly familiar thinking.

But perhaps an even bigger problem with “urbanism” is that the word is ridiculously overused…It comes in a bewildering variety of forms—old, new, sustainable, tactical, landscape, pop-up, accidental, adaptive, emergent, Latino, recombinant, magical, integral, green, military, “true,” everyday, postmodern, guerilla, mobile, even an oxymoronic “agrarian” strain, and more [emphasis added]. Various versions of the label are used to justify everything from illegally spray-painting public property to development in places that no sensible person would honestly consider “urban” unless they have drunk gallons of metaphorical Kool-Aid. I could define urbanism in my own way and probably be perfectly comfortable with the result. But communication is about using words in ways that are not just personal but understood in common, and this one has now splattered all over the map, including in ways that I find troubling.”

I appreciate aspects of Mathis’s and Benfield’s arguments. I agree that vocabulary is important and that we need to be precise and vigilant in our use of words. I also agree that inter-subjective agreement about the meaning of words has value given that city building is a collective undertaking. But both Mathis and Benfield push things a little too far. Benfield’s complaint (and perhaps Mathis’s as well) appears to be with a particular strain of urbanism; i.e., New Urbanism.  The word urbanism itself doesn’t imply a single “ideology” or “set of principles” for city building. Indeed, I find the various versions of urbanism that Benfield identifies in the highlighted part of his quote above to be quite meaningful, useful, and even liberating.

YuriUrbanThere’s nothing ridiculous about the variety of urbanisms that compete for the hearts and minds of city-lovers today (see Yuri Artibise’s engaging book for one attempt at stock-taking).  They privilege different entry points to understanding the city. They alert us to different causal powers or forces that shape the city.  In so doing they help explain why the city looks the way it does. They implicate different structural barriers to change and improvement. Comparing urbanisms allows one to critically evaluate their underlying epistemologies, theories, practical consequences, and ideologies (plural!). Comparison helps clarify their distinguishing features and emphases, their irreconcilabilities, and the possibilities for synthesis. Comparison identifies contradictions and blind spots in our thinking and inspires new thought about how to resolve the contradictions and fill the blind spots. Particular concepts of urbanism can usefully serve the purpose of pointed social criticism. They can also serve the interests of minority urban cultures. Jarrett Walker at the Human Transit blog suggests that “dominant cultures routinely co-opt and corrupt the words that the minority needs to think about itself and its situation.” We’re currently seeing this, I think, with the term gentrification. And as David Diaz explores in his book Barrio Urbanism, today’s New Urbanism very much co-opts the values and language of a much older, more widespread, and vastly underappreciated urbanism. Such alternative urbanisms—and the critiques of conventional “ways of doing” that inform them—are more important now than ever before.

The concept of urbanism is also essential to our vocabulary if it’s understood as a process rather than a product. If we’re looking for words to jettison, then urban planning—a word that neither Benfield nor Mathis nor other City Lab staffers recognize as problematic—might be the better choice.  I’m struck by the distinction between urban planning and urbanism that’s made by Barcelona architect Itziar Gonzàlez. Jeb Brugmann describes Gonzàlez’s distinction in the chapter on Barcelona’s Gràcia District in his book Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World. For Gonzàlez, urban planning:

…starts from the premise that “we want to reach this goal.” Urbanism, in contrast, asks “how do we reach this goal?” [Gonzàlez] draws a picture of a boat on a large sheet of paper. Then she shows the boat being buffeted by strong winds, just like the pressures a city faces during its redevelopment, which threaten to push its vision off course. “To reduce the pressure of the winds on the boat,” she argues, the planner makes the boat bigger and bigger. In other words, the project becomes less responsive to local values and priorities. It increasingly focuses on the needs of the boat. In contrast, she explains as she continues her paper illustration, ”urbanism is adding and developing solutions for all the different interests.” She draws each interest as a little boat. “Urbanism is getting lots of little boats moving in a similar direction.”


Street in Gràcia District, Barcelona (Wikipedia)

At the time of Brugmann’s writing Ms. Gonzàlez complained that urban planning was still substituting for urbanism in Barcelona. It likely continues to substitute in many other cities worldwide. The challenge to urbanists working for positive change in the city is to get an accurate assessment of “little boats”—or, the interests of community stakeholders—and their implications for designing the built environment. Interestingly, “stakeholders” and “built environment” are two other buzzwords identified by City Lab staffers as needing rethinking or replacement. The cynicism of their arguments is palpable, and their critiques unpersuasive. That’s why I like the work of folks who champion urbanisms that put cultural diversity and difference first in our re-imagining of the built city. They focus on identifying and working with different interests instead of assuming they don’t exist, ignoring them, caricaturing them, or declaring that they don’t matter because they’re outnumbered by a dominant majority interest. We need to understand, accommodate, balance, and integrate majority and minority interests if we’re going to build better, more livable, and more sustainable neighborhoods and cities. I think we already have some pretty good concepts for achieving that goal, and these include the many variants of “urbanism” that currently surround us.

It’s in that more charitable spirit that I’ll give the last word of this essay to the final commenter on City Lab’s New Year’s Eve story, John Anderson. Mr. Anderson provides a thoughtful, optimistic, and convincing position on language use that simultaneously legitimizes an “academic” perspective on the urban issues that currently bedevil us:

I can understand why folks who wordsmith for a living would want to overhaul the lexicon every year. Over exposure to some terms probably causes irritation—a buzzword rash perhaps. The discussions of the built environment that take place at the level of the neighborhood, the corridor, the municipality, or the region are already dumbed down significantly for lack of a common technical vocabulary. [City Lab] does a good job of writing about these issues with a little more depth than say, USA Today, but there is plenty of room to do more with the words that are available.”

Sadistic Urbanism

The New York Times just ran a story about the steps that Honolulu is taking to crack down on the homeless in an effort to shore up its tourism industry. Homelessness is up 32% in Honolulu over the past 5 years. This has produced aggressive panhandling and frightened tourists. The city’s response includes seizing the property of homeless persons, fining them for public urination, prohibiting lying or sitting on sidewalks, closing public parks at night, and banning tents and lean-tos in public spaces. There’s some set-aside money for building low-cost housing, but that’s a longer-term goal. Honolulu’s mayor Kirk Caldwell describes this set of strategies as “compassionate disruption.”

Honolulu Homeless (Elyse Butler, New York Times)

This story appears at a time when other kinds of strategies for disrupting the lives of the homeless—strategies of a more direct, material nature—are back in the news. These include the tactic of placing spikes or studs in doorways and ledges to prevent sitting or sleeping by homeless persons, and furnishing public spaces with uncomfortable benches that have the same disruptive and displacing effects.

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Metal Studs on Southwark Bridge Road, London (Andrew Horton, Worldviewmedia)

The spikes in the London case (above) were removed after great public outcry, including criticism from London’s mayor, Boris Johnson. But they remain widely used in other cities.   Also widely used is the “bum proof bench”, whose variants are most recently catalogued by Georgia Tech’s Robert Rosenberger.  The Guardian‘s Ben Quinn describes these tactics as “hostile architecture.” He reminds us that sound can also have a hostile effect, such as the use of classical music, birdsong, and mosquito devices to discourage loitering by teenagers and other undesirables. Aurelian Bouayad refers to such tactics as “disciplinary architecture.” Bouayad’s piece does an especially nice job of directing readers to the seminal literature that demonstrates the power of urban materiality to shape, constrain, and regulate human behavior. This includes Langdon Winner’s famous 1980 article in Daedulus called “Do Artifacts Have Politics?,” and Mike Davis’ terrific 1990 book City of Quartz that’s indispensable for understanding sadistic street environments in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

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Tubular, Stainless Steel Bench in Ikebukuro West Park, Tokyo: Hot in Summer, Cold in Winter (Yumiko Hayakawa)

“Hostile” and “Disciplinary” architecture are apt terms for describing much of the contemporary built environment of cities. Other observers use terms like “Defensive”, “Aggressive”, and “Fortress” architecture. However they’re described, these material interventions are perhaps most usefully classified—following Mike Davis—under a broader category of Sadistic Urbanism that would also include the socio-legal interventions that Honolulu’s Mayor Caldwell proposes as solution to the problem of homelessness. The alternative to Sadistic Urbanism is not the “compassionate” disruption championed by Mayor Caldwell but rather a humane urbanism that provides safe and affordable housing plus the other amenities that we citizens ought to reasonably expect in any city that’s planned and designed for use by multiple publics: comfortable street-side seating, widely accessible parks and other common spaces, safe and reliable mass transit, value shopping and healthy eating alternatives, and a critical mass of free public restrooms.


Retrofitting the Bum-Proof Bench: “Archisuit”, by Sarah Ross

There are some clever, tongue-in-cheek proposals for how today’s increasingly sadistic street environment might be reclaimed by citizens via architectural counter-interventions. These include inflatable benches that convert to homeless shelters and suits that allow a wearer to fit into, or onto, structures designed to deny them (above). At the end of the day, however, we’ll certainly need solutions that are more substantive and democratic. They will only be found in the area where participatory planning, humane design, and political will intersect.


How We Ought to Live: Bench in Peter Minuit Plaza, Manhattan (Jabin Botsford, The New York Times)

This essay was reposted to Sustainable Cities Collective.


Kerfuffle Up in Buffalo

The dust-up exemplifies a wider fuss among urbanists, and the Buffalo front is just the latest one to be opened up. Colin Dabkowski of the Buffalo News started it, with an “open letter” to New Urbanists who had just completed their 22nd annual conclave in the city (disclosure: I’m a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, but I didn’t attend the Buffalo meeting). Dabkowski took aim at Jeff Speck’s CNU speech advocating “urban triage”, which Dabkowski understands as a call for investing in the development of a city’s most prosperous neighborhoods and then hoping for some positive trickle down effects to others that are less prosperous. For Dabkowski this strategy is a reflection of New Urbanism’s general “lack of concern” for the disadvantaged residents of blighted areas. He pulls no punches in criticizing New Urbanism for failing in its expressed commitment to develop more diverse “mixed income” neighborhoods. He labels as “juvenile and regressive” New Urbanism’s tendencies to celebrate the “good old days” of a traditional, small town America that, in his view, never really existed. New Urbanism’s architectural preferences reflect an “aesthetic blandness” that is similarly regressive. In short, for Dabkowski New Urbanism is “deluded, myopic, and dismissive of the actual problems faced by American cities face today”: poverty and income segregation. These problems beg for broad-based economic development and a “convincing or coherent strategy” for creating social equity on large scale.


This is strong stuff, and fightin’ words. Accordingly, Charles Marohn of Strong Towns quickly struck back on behalf of New Urbanists everywhere. Marohn takes Dabkowski to task for fundamentally misunderstanding the concept of urban triage. Urban triage is not about privileging rich neighborhoods over poor, but about prioritizing infrastructural investment where resources are limited so that you get the biggest bang for the buck while serving the greatest good. Rather than sprinkling what Speck calls the “fairy dust” of compactness and walkability everywhere, we’re better served by seeking out places in the urban fabric that have the greatest promise for achieving New Urbanist goals, and making those places better. Thus, urban triage is about thinking and acting strategically. In other talks (like this one in Phoenix) Speck references downtown Denver as a model of how urban triage can work. Denver’s Lower Downtown is generally heralded as an urban redevelopment success story. Speck notes that Lodo’s renewal wasn’t “district-wide.” For Speck it was one street, and really just one block, that got it right (which one, he doesn’t say). When people saw how well that one block did, they began replicating its success throughout Downtown Denver.

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“Urban Triage” at 20th and Market Streets, Denver. The legendary El Chapultepec, left, and LoDo’s Grill with rooftop bar, next door and center (D. Saitta)

Online comments by the readers of both Dabkowski and Marohn (as well as contributors here and here) are instructive in that they appear about equally divided in their support of each viewpoint. Supporters of Marohn agree that Dabkowski mistakes Speck’s point about urban triage and misses some important nuances in his argument. Others point out that New Urbanism’s charter is explicitly concerned about social equity and welcomes diversity in architectural form. On the other hand, supporters of Dabkowski suggest that the New Urbanist manifesto has fallen far short in producing equitable communities and visually interesting built environments. Even Marohn has to admit (in a response to one of his readers) that New Urbanism has a certain “pretentiousness” about it. Just about everyone on both sides agrees that civic officials don’t generally think strategically or holistically about what cities need. More often than not they will pander to constituents, especially the more vocal and better heeled. As for New Urbanism here in Denver, if it hasn’t exactly produced an aesthetic “blandness” it has certainly produced an aesthetic sameness that may not inspire much love among a rapidly diversifying urban population. And it’s pretty clear that strategic investments in Denver’s urban fabric haven’t stemmed the tide of displacement and gentrification. A spatial structure of haves and have-nots persists, and thus the jury is still out on Denver’s experiments with socially equitable urban triage. This also appears to be the case in Buffalo.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the back-and-forth between the respective supporters of Dabkowski and Marohn is the preservation of an opposition between New Urbanism and the old urbanisms that produced “Sprawl.” Where Dabkowski misses in his understanding of urban triage he hits in recognizing the “false choice” between New Urbanism and Sprawl. This report on CNU 22 notes that the Buffalo conclave offered up a variety of alternative urbanisms, among them “Good Urbanism”, “Better Urbanism”, “Tactical Urbanism”, “Lean Urbanism”, and “Situational Urbanism.” I either know or can guess what each of these mean, and it’s almost certain that they’re all rooted in that one urbanism that has long been considered “New” and, for many, our best chance at creating a walkable, sustainable city.  However, other urbanisms exist (see here and here) that begin with cultural and class difference and prioritize social equity. They too seek a more sustainable urban order.  Dabkowski intended his piece to provoke a conversation among the adherents of different urbanisms. Marohn suggests that the conversation needs to be more “substantive” and “adult.”  Both are right, and thus both do good service in promoting a broader dialogue. Participants in this dialogue should be less defensive about the particular urbanisms to which they adhere and more open to taking a warts and all look at each. Along the way we might consider other kinds of strategies that can usefully triage our contemporary urban condition, including working at the boundaries of different neighborhoods and not just in the centers. In so doing we might begin knitting back together that which the Age of Inequality is rapidly tearing apart.

This essay was reposted to Sustainable Cities Collective.