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.

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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.

Multicultural Planning, Citizen Activism, and the Lived Experience of Urban Place

My title identifies three powerful themes in contemporary urban thought that were highlighted at last fall’s biennial conference of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History held in Toronto, October 4-6, 2013. What follows is a lightly revised report on the conference that was just published in the International Journal of E-Planning Research. A pdf of the original IJEPR report is also available free of charge here.

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The Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH) held its biennial conference in Toronto on October 4-6, 2013. I was invited by incoming SACRPH President Joseph Heathcott to chair a session on “scholarship blogging” and thereby contribute an anthropological perspective on urban planning history. Below is a review of the conference based on sessions I attended over the course of three days. These sessions spoke to my particular anthropological interest in the relationship between urban planning and cultural diversity.

The conference began with an opening address by the outgoing president of the Society, Lawrence Vale, entitled “Twice-Cleared Communities: The North American Struggle For (and Against) Public Housing.” Vale discussed two prominent examples of public housing projects that were built in the mid 20th century, and then demolished 50 years later once the projects came to be regarded as “slums.” One was the Techwood/Clark Howell Homes in Atlanta, and the other was Cabrini-Green in Chicago. “Twice clearing”, however, is a widespread phenomenon. Sean Purdy of the Universidade of São Paulo discussed Vale’s presentation with respect to Regent Park in Toronto, the host city’s best example of a twice-cleared community. The provision of adequate public housing remains a planning challenge across North America. People still want access to public housing despite its checkered history and the associated social stigma. Boston and Buffalo were identified as cities that are doing better than most in providing affordable housing without displacing residents.

Yonge Street, Toronto (D. Saitta)

The conference’s plenary session considered the question of “Toronto: An American City?” Four participants addressed the distinctive elements of Toronto’s urban landscape, the immigrant impact on neighborhoods, how those neighborhoods have come to reflect growing social inequality, and the challenges of urban sprawl. Over the course of its history Toronto has exhibited less formal planning than most American cities. Historically this “light zoning” had a number of virtues. It allowed new immigrants to form welcoming enclaves in the city center while keeping consumer markets close at hand. It also kept housing affordable and minimized spatial inequalities of income. However, things have been changing in the post-World War II period, in keeping with broader American trends. Slab apartment towers—identified as a quintessentially Canadian form of suburban housing—came to dominate the metropolitan landscape. In the 1970s suburbs began to replace the city center as the primary reception area for immigrants. Despite efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to maintain mixed housing in the center the “ethno-spatial” divide has been increasing, with black citizens especially segregated. Since 2006 New Urbanism has become the dominant approach for regenerating suburban communities, given that high-rise suburbs are not conducive to immigrant business building. All of these trends are paralleled in the United States. Thus, Toronto is, and isn’t, an American city. The plenary session was extraordinarily helpful in contextualizing a city that is often celebrated as one of the world’s most progressive and multicultural.


Slab Apartment Tower, Jane and Finch, Toronto (D. Saitta)

A session on “Multicultural Landscapes and Planning in Toronto Since 1970” zeroed in on issues of planning and ethnic diversity, especially in the suburbs. Toronto’s suburbs are not only growing and diversifying faster than the city center, but the immigrants themselves are different. They are coming from a much greater array of countries and they are highly skilled. Mohammad Qadeer reprised his important argument that planning for cultural diversity is not a distinct genre of planning. Instead, multicultural placemaking is best evidenced in the routine practices of planners, specifically where they make “reasonable accommodation” for ethnic differences (e.g., in the siting of religious houses, in the provision of different types of housing, and in street names and signage). Qadeer noted that the common critique of urban planning as technocratic and value-neutral is shopworn. One can find examples of multicultural planning if one looks for reasonable accommodation. Thus, progress is being made.

Monument to Multiculturalism, Toronto, by Francesco Perilli (Wikipedia)

A particular highlight of the conference was an all-day Roundtable on “The Physical City: Social Change and Urban Space.” The morning session considered “Historical Narratives” while the afternoon considered “Learning from the Recent Past.” A clear unifying thread was Henri Lefebvre’s “Right to the City”, including the degree to which it is exercised in the suburbs. Presenters sought to turn conventional wisdom on its head. Suburbs were identified as potentially emancipatory spaces, while public spaces in city centers can be disciplinary and authoritarian. Multiple examples showed how citizen activism and protest can break out anywhere, at multiple spatial sites. The Right to the City can be asserted from the top-down as well as the bottom-up. A participant asked if there is a set of “best practices” for exercising the Right to the City. Answer: we might generate one by finding commonalities in the histories of how different groups have experienced urban and suburban space.

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A session on “Everyday Urbanism: Seeing and Making the City” also channeled Henri Lefebvre, and the concept of “lived experience.” Margaret Crawford, with whom Everyday Urbanism is associated, spoke about American garage sales. These weekend events turn the front yard of the suburban house into an inclusive, public space. In so doing they become “heterotopia”: spaces with multiple functions and meanings. Garage sales help reproduce an alternative, bargaining economy. They serve the cause of sustainability by recycling goods across households. They undermine zoning laws by transforming the private recesses of houses into commercial public spaces. In short, garage sales have “transformative potential” to make suburbs different, more social places. Another paper analyzing the front yard garden as a public “commons” communicated the same message. Listening to both papers I found myself thinking about how Latinos and Latinas in American cities have, for quite some time, been transforming yards and streets into social spaces (the equivalent of Latin American “plazas”) where economic and other transactions can take place. Are Everyday Urbanists simply re-discovering a “Barrio Urbanism” that has existed in other cultures for centuries? Minimally, the Everyday Urbanism session nicely illustrated the need to incorporate lessons learned from the lived experience of ordinary spaces into our planning discourse.

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Big Data Bus (Wikipedia)

One of the more compelling discussion topics that percolated throughout the conference was the relative merits of “Big Data Generalizations” vs. “Particular Narratives of Place” as ways to understand the life of a city.   Aggregated Big Data (e.g., individual transactions gathered from smart phones, credit card purchases, and other sources of information) invite all sorts of interesting studies of consumer choice and human behavior as they relate to urban planning. Still, the crowd’s sympathies seemed to lie with place-based narratives. Many participants championed the importance, for planning purposes, of accounts that detail city life in all of its sensory glory: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feels, the chance encounters, the brushes with human difference. This theme was also picked up in a session on “Teaching the Built Environment Outside of the Professional Box.” Participants explored innovative classroom strategies for teaching urban planning and design. The most compelling of these pedagogies directed students to gain a sensory experience of cities via fieldwork. For example, Dan Campo’s assignment at Morgan State University asks students to walk between two places in Baltimore and then tell a story about that experience that references particular sights and sounds. Margaret Crawford’s assignment at Cal-Berkeley assigns students the task of experiencing the city by playing five different roles: as tourist, flâneur, detective, somnambulist, and bricoleur. These calls for incorporating participant observation and other ethnographic methods into planning education would warm any anthropologist’s heart.

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The Roundtable on “The Physical City” noted the important role that online blogs played in sharing information, building community, and promoting the Right to the City during New York’s Occupy Wall Street insurgency. The session I chaired on Scholarship Blogging: What? Why? considered how blogs can accomplish many other goals. It brought together scholars from history, sociology, and urban planning.   Participants demonstrated the utility of blogs for archiving original research material, disseminating scholarly research to the public, creating and nurturing an online scholarly identity, and achieving other outcomes. The session succeeded in sponsoring a fruitful discussion of academic blogging—its possibilities and, for younger scholars, its potential pitfalls—across academic disciplines. A journal article co-authored by session participants is currently in preparation.

This was my first SACRPH conference. I was impressed by the interdisciplinary quality of the presentations and discussions. It was useful to have the ideas of Big Names like Jane Jacobs, Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, Marshall Berman and others both re-interpreted and problematized. The various efforts to demystify suburbs were provocative. An anthropological sensibility was clearly in evidence. In addition to championing anthropological methods, panelists noted the role of culture in shaping the questions we ask about cities and anthropology’s utility in drawing larger meaning from individual narratives about city life. There was a clear concern to unify planning theory and practice, and to engage the public in participatory planning and design. Many presentations were concerned with how to incorporate the humanities into planning education while remaining mindful of professionalization and accreditation constraints. All of this was intoxicating. I’m hooked, and I look forward to attending the next SACRPH conference in two years time.

This essay was reposted to Sustainable Cities Collective and the World Architecture Community.

Race and Equity in Urban Nature

My title is that of a session at the recent Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute’s (RMLUI) annual conference, in which I was privileged to participate. The session was among those in a featured conference track on “Conservation in Metropolitan Regions.”  Other sessions in the track featured topics like “Framing an Urban Agenda for Nature”, “New Frontiers of Land Conservation”, and “Coalitions to Advance Urban Nature.”  An opening conference address by former Secretary of the Interior and Colorado US Senator Ken Salazar set the stage for the conference and for discussions within the various sessions.  Among his many good points Secretary Salazar emphasized the need to “put ideologies and jurisdictions aside” in creating an agenda for urban conservation that can be implemented in the United States and perhaps serve as a model for other countries.

1 Track PicParticipants in the Race and Equity session (myself excluded) were a group of charismatic, minority-culture conservation leaders.   Belinda Faustinos, Principal of BVF Consulting in Los Angeles spoke to the “nature deficit disorder” in minority communities. The relatively few parks and open spaces in these communities contribute to serious human health issues like childhood obesity. Belinda identified some successful, sustainable models for creating equity in access to urban nature, such as the San Gabriel Mountains Forever Coalition.  Roberto Moreno, Executive Director of the Alpine Mountain Sports Foundation, spoke about the overnight mountain experiences provided by his “Camp Moreno”, a collaboration with the National Park Service that introduces kids from minority cultures to public lands. An overriding aim of the initiative is to show inner city kids that public lands are welcoming, rather than dangerous, places.  Jo-Elle Mogerman, Vice President of the Chicago Zoological Society, spoke to the successes that she and her colleagues are having in increasing minority group visitations to the Chicago Zoo via more inclusive planning and marketing strategies.

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The annual RMLUI Conference is always a well-organized, informative, and inspirational meeting.  I was invited to participate in the Race and Equity session because of my involvement here at the University of Denver with our Interdisciplinary Research Incubator for the Study of (In)equality (IRISE), in particular an initiative to study race and class-based inequality in access to open space along Colorado’s Front Range.  My contribution to the session was predicated on the notion that even where access to parks and open space is relatively equal, and conditions relatively safe, these places can still be unwelcoming to minority groups depending on how they are designed.  There is a significant literature suggesting that members of minority groups experience parks and open spaces in different ways in keeping with different cultural values and needs. My favorite texts include books by Setha Low and Julian Agyeman, and some useful studies of particular parks like Chicago’s Lincoln Park (e.g., see here).  The risks of cultural stereotyping notwithstanding, this work identifies different preferences among ethnic groups with respect to park attributes (e.g., water, trees, scenic vistas, etc.), developed vs. undeveloped (“wild”) space, and patterns of use (as individuals vs. in larger groups, for recreation vs. relaxation, with vs. without food, etc.).


Minimally, what emerges from this work are some important questions for planners and designers concerned about the cultural inclusivity of urban parks and open spaces.  Given a diverse user population, is there spatial sufficiency for different kinds of activities?  Is there sufficient differentiated or bounded space for accommodating cultural groups having, say, proscriptions against genders or ages mixing in outdoor settings?  Are there culturally appropriate facilities and amenities, especially around food?  Is there sufficient parking for minority groups who must rely on automobile transportation to get to a desirable park?  Encouraging car use in an agenda for sustainable urban living is problematic, but it could be the price we have to pay for parks that are truly culturally inclusive.

Minority groups can read other visual cues of inclusivity and exclusivity in a park’s landscape. Is minority group history appropriately recognized with monuments and other historical markers?   Less than 3% of all US National Landmarks are designated for women, Latinos, African Americans, or other members of minority groups.  That’s a pretty significant historical sites deficit.  Do place names and signage reflect, where appropriate, multicultural histories?  Even the quality of park vegetation is fraught with cultural meaning and significance.  Julian Agyeman notes how replacement of non-native short rye grass with native long grass wildflower meadows in a Bristol, England park discouraged use by Asian and African-Caribbean people because it provoked what Agyeman describes as a “residual fear of snakes in long grass.”  Thus, hewing too closely to a sustainability agenda that prioritizes native vegetation over “alien imports” can work against cultural inclusion.

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Intercultural Garden near the River Rednitz, Germany (click on image for credit)

Where can we turn for design models and practices that promote minority group interactions with nature? One source is the Intercultural Garden movement, which is geared toward better integrating immigrants and political refugees into European cities (for a detailed overview and analysis, see here).  Initiatives within the European Intercultural Cities Network provide other models and practices, such as installing specific plants and landscapes that resonate with members of particular cultural groups, zoning park space to meet the needs of particular groups (which can include hardscape surfaces without water features and greenery), and networking green spaces with infrastructure and amenities that connect different ethnic communities. Some urbanists (e.g., here) are now examining what appears to be a pan-human need for nature as shaped by evolved psychological predispositions (see also here), presumably in the interest of making urban parks better for everyone.  To the extent that Africa, and not Europe, is the continent where humankind’s psychological love and fear of nature first evolved, I often wonder what Africa can teach us about good intercultural placemaking and landscape design. Is there anything embedded in the planning and design of African cities and other built landscapes of both present and past that’s transferable to other contexts?

Insensitivity to cultural difference in mainstream design and planning practice is perhaps the second biggest threat to public space after neoliberal privatization.  Changing urban demography will almost certainly force us to better accommodate cultural difference.  In the RMLUI Conference’s conservation track session on “Framing an Agenda for Urban Nature” Bob Ratcliffe of the National Park Service rightly noted that the United States will very soon be a “majority minority” nation.  We will have to think about what this means for the land conservation movement, including practices for locating and designing open spaces.  Even the coveted Millennial generation that’s migrating to cities is more ethnically diverse than all previous generations.  If planning and design are not sensitive to cultural difference then we will not only exclude large numbers of people from public space but also limit opportunities for intercultural interaction and, by extension, the creativity and innovation that such interactions can foster.

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Three suggestions for planning intercultural urban nature follow from the above:

  1. We should think not only about the locational and political factors that impede equitable access to urban nature, but also about the culturally exclusionary aspects of design;
  2. We should focus on communities that need access to urban nature the most, and experiment with alternative, non-traditional forms of community outreach and consultation in acquiring information about cultural values and needs;
  3. We should cast widely across geographies, cultures, and disciplines for models and practices for doing urban nature equity work, where “best” practice means “culturally appropriate” practice. We might triangulate between ethnography, evolved human psychology, and archaeology to arrive at new models, and seek the right balance between designing with particular cultural uses in mind and more flexible uses that encourage spontaneity and intercultural interaction.
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RMLUI Conference Plenary Lunch Panel on “Planning the Future of the Rocky Mountain West” (D. Saitta)

Culturally inclusive planning for urban nature would also likely benefit from more diverse leadership in metropolitan planning departments.  The RMLUI Conference’s Plenary Lunch Panel discussion on “Planning the Future of the Rocky Mountain West” was striking for the lack of gender and ethnic diversity of participants, all of whom were leaders of planning departments in major cities between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.  Given the homogeneity of this color palette it’s only reasonable to wonder how sensitive metro planning departments are likely to be to issues around cultural inclusivity in access to urban nature.

Finally, Bill Fulton, president of The Civic Canopy, suggested in the RMLUI Conference’s conservation track session on “Collective Impact: A Model for Collaborative Problem Solving” that it might be time to shift the premise for social action in conservation from an individual rights paradigm to a community rights paradigm.  An individual rights paradigm nicely served national independence movements in the late 18th century. But it has perhaps exhausted its utility in the current context where sustainability of the larger whole is in serious question.  Julian Agyeman nicely describes how the “transcendental” ecological sensibility received from that earlier era turns on problematic distinctions or binaries between humans and nature, native and alien, individual and society, “us” and “other”, etc.  Alternatively, an intercultural ecological sensibility that rejects prevailing binaries will better serve cultural difference in urban nature planning for an increasingly cosmopolitan 21st century world.

This essay was reposted to Sustainable Cities Collective.