The following articles were authored by Dean Saitta

New Urbanism in Comparative and Intercultural Perspective

Denver is well-known nationally as a city dedicated to New Urbanist development.  Several projects in the city—most notably Belmar, Stapleton, and Highlands Garden Village (HGV)—have received lots of prominent press and some significant praise.  The Congress for the New Urbanism has visited Denver twice, most recently in 2009.

Denver’s New Urbanist projects have had a number of years to mature.  Accordingly, I sent students in my Culture and The City course to compare and contrast two of them.  Specifically, their task was to (1) discuss how each project conforms to New Urbanist goals and ideals; (2) critically evaluate their prospects for success in light of current ideas about urban ecological and cultural sustainability; and (3) identify the development that they would most like to live in, and explain why.

The class was an interdisciplinary and international extravaganza.  I had majors from across the Arts and Sciences, plus six foreign exchange students from Italy, Britain, and the Czech Republic.  Rounding out the class were one Hispanic-American student and an African student from Liberia. Of the 28 enrollees 5 were Sustainability minors.   Four were anthropology graduate students working in the field of museum and heritage studies.

I previously reported the lessons learned from assignments that asked the students to play the BMW-Guggenheim Lab’s Urbanology game and analyze  Civic Center Park.  I couldn’t very well let them get away without dissecting the urban phenomenon for which Denver is arguably most famous. The assignment takes on added interest in light of Christopher Leinberger’s recent New York Times piece suggesting that the “Millennial” generation of current college students is increasingly being drawn to compact, walkable cities like those promoted by New Urbanism (for some reader responses, go here).  Thus, the assignment was an opportunity to learn what kind of New Urbanist development most interested a group of international Millennials.

Students were required to visit Belmar  because it has been comprehensively described by Dunham-Jones and Williamson in chapter 8 of Retrofitting Suburbia.  They could choose one other project, either Highland Gardens Village, Stapleton, or The Streets at SouthGlenn. Next year I will likely give students carte blanche to compare any two projects of their choosing, with Central Platte Valley, Curtis Park, and Lowry also thrown into the mix.

In addition to the Belmar reading students were assigned The Charter of New Urbanism, an excerpt from chapter 7 of Phil Wood and Charles Landry’s The Intercultural City,  Jeb Brugmann’s chapter on  “Building Local Culture: Reclaiming the Streets of Gràcia District, Barcelona” in his Welcome to the Urban Revolution, and Mike Davis’s chapter on “Fortress LA” in City of Quartz.   They could also dip into a previously assigned classic from Jane  Jacobs. I steered them to some concepts in this body of work that struck me as especially relevant.  Foremost among these was Wood and Landry’s notion of “cultural literacy” and how the “basic building blocks of the city”—street frontages, building heights, set-backs, public space, etc.—look different when viewed through “intercultural eyes.”   I wanted students to consider the extent to which New Urban projects exemplified the Barcelona urbanist’s particular concept of espai public—defined as a distinctive “third territory of streets and squares where private interests and public uses are vitally interwoven.”   Davis’ book is a veritable cornucopia of useful and provocative concepts.  I wanted students to attend to his notions of “spatial apartheid” and the “archisemiotics” of built form–the latter broadly understood to cover the meanings conveyed by a project’s architecture, advertising images associated with the project, and other features of the designed environment.

The vast majority of students chose to compare Belmar and HGV.  Their analyses made for interesting reading.  There was a strong convergence of opinion as regards the virtues of these projects.  All students appreciated their commitments to building green and especially Belmar’s investment in harvesting solar and wind power. Belmar’s public square and restaurant patios—combined with the “Big Windows” of retail spaces that maximized the intervisibility of private and public space—were identified as the best examples of New Urban espai public.   A smaller number of students appreciated the significance of Belmar’s Block 7 Arts and Design district while expressing

Retail Space, Patio, and Street at Belmar

concern that there wasn’t more public art on Belmar’s streets (as promised by its development plan).  The Community Garden at HGV drew a lot of favorable comment. Europeans in particular liked the way that HGV’s winding roads and pathways broke up the older street grid. Americans and Europeans alike appreciated the preservation of historical structures dating to the site’s use as Elitch Gardens Amusement Park: the old 1891 Theatre building and the 1926 Carousel Pavilion.  The former is destined to become performing arts center and the latter is already serving as a site of

Community Garden at Highlands Garden Village

various community events such as concerts and farmer’s markets.  One graduate student who analyzed The Streets at SouthGlenn identified its branch of the Arapahoe Public Library as best exemplifying the “spaces of day-to-day exchange” that Wood and Landry have found to be among the most popular for intercultural populations in Britain.

Library (right) and Pedestrian Promenade at The Streets at SouthGlenn

Despite these virtues students were unsparing in their criticism.  Belmar was often described as a “packaged” experience, with students using words like “commercial”, “artificial”, “inauthentic”, and “branded” to make their case.  Some likened Belmar to an “outdoor mall” and the kind of downtown that’s more befitting an alpine ski resort than a Denver suburb that’s looking to become more urbane. One graduate student  wondered if Belmar’s Lily Pad Lane—a pedestrian path with rainforest motif and piped-in nature sounds—was inconsistent with the commitment to build a “real” downtown for Lakewood.  A similar sentiment was expressed with respect to the music that’s piped into The Streets of Southglenn—the feeling being that these should be chaotic, cacophonous spaces rather than clinical ones akin to the old indoor shopping malls that they’ve replaced.  A British student remarked that Belmar’s “High Street” was curiously empty on a lovely Saturday afternoon in autumn. American and European students alike commented that, at the time of their weekend visits, there was more activity in Belmar’s  “Big Box” store parking lots than on its streets.  Indeed, for all students the Big Boxes compromised the scale and intimacy of the Belmar and SouthGlenn developments.

Lily Pad Lane, Belmar

Students noted that investments in ethnic and cultural diversity  at Belmar were lacking aside from the annual Festival Italiano and the sprinkling of ethnic restaurants.  No one mentioned it, but Wood and Landry’s use of the term “cultural cross-dressing” to refer to these (superficial) indicators of interculturalism would have been appropriate.  One student was struck by the police presence at Belmar, contrasting it with the “eyes on the street” that would be the most important security feature of Jacobs’s “two-shift” city.  Several perceptive comments were made about the semiotics of built space at both Belmar and SouthGlenn.  Retail advertising in both places is targeted to white people, especially young, middle-class women. One student noted that the array of medical services available at HGV (where dedicated housing for seniors is one component of the residential complex) signaled not only something about generational makeup  but also the class and discretionary income of residents (e.g., a chiropractor’s office).  “Neighborhood Watch” signs at HGV did not escape notice.

Advertisement at The Streets at Southglenn

A large number of students focused on the Charter for New Urbanism’s call for developments that seamlessly connect to their surroundings.   Most students didn’t see it.   At Belmar the broad, six lane avenues that  border the project to the north and west were seen to function as de facto “gates”  separating it from the adjacent (and largely Hispanic) neighborhoods. HGV was seen to blend a little

Alameda Avenue, Belmar’s Northern Boundary (Belmar is to the right)

bit more into its context, but students still commented on how even here the project edges are a bit jarring.  One European student who visited HGV, Belmar, and Stapleton commented that the trip to these places by public transport (from their flat at the university) took about three times as long as by car.

View to the Northeast Edge of Highlands Garden Village

The other Charter ideal that drew comments was housing.  Many students noted the diversity of housing options available at both Belmar and HGV.  Affordability, however, was seen to be  another matter.  Some students provided comparative data suggesting that housing prices were likely prohibitive for people who weren’t urban professionals, and questioned whether people working at retail businesses in these projects could also afford to live there (a key New Urbanist ambition).  One student sought an answer by interviewing a (non-white) person working at a Belmar Information Desk. This woman had been a resident at one time, but now lives elsewhere.  Interestingly, she reported that Belmar is being increasingly occupied by aging Baby Boomers and college-attending Millennials. This observation is consistent with the realtor survey data reported by Leinberger in his New York Times piece.

Student preferences for the development in which they’d most like to live were interesting and, to some extent, surprising. American student opinion was decidedly mixed, favoring Belmar by 58% to 42%.   The case for Belmar turns on it being viewed as a livelier place, with access to a greater variety of activities and services.  American Millennials  also preferred Belmar’s modernist architectural aesthetic over the more traditional pitched roof and front porch aesthetic of HGV.  Conversely, European Millennials favored HGV over Belmar by a decisive 80% to 20%.   Key to the European students’ evaluation was HGV’s location and surroundings.  Although HGV has an older demographic young Europeans liked the easier bus access to Denver’s downtown, the project’s fit with other parts of the renewed Highlands area, and the overall greater feel of community. Some liked the pastel colors and “folk” character of  HGV architecture that reminded them of small towns in Europe.  One liked HGV because the Carousel Pavilion reminded her of the gazebos to be found in many city centers in the Czech Republic. Apropos the “wider context” consideration, one British student very perceptively said of Belmar that “I don’t feel that the local area understands it well enough to welcome it properly” and that it lacks an identity (the subtle attempts to “brand” itself reported by Dunham-Jones and Williamson notwithstanding). Finally, my four graduate students expressed four different preferences (opting for Belmar, The Streets at Southglenn, HGV, and Stapleton, respectively).   My Hispanic American student reluctantly threw in with Belmar.  My Liberian student refused to make a choice, as he was put off by both alternatives (I’ll be posting something about African Urbanism very soon).

Theatre Viewed from the Carousel Pavilion at Highlands Garden Village

The main lesson of this exercise is that Denver’s New Urbanism is decidedly mixed in its appeal to a diverse group of Millennials.  The European result suggests that New Urbanism is on the right track in terms of appealing to at least Western Anglo and Continental intercultural tastes and values.  It also enjoys some success in meeting its goal of fostering community. Attracting diversity is another matter altogether.  Denver’s New Urban projects still signal–to Americans, Europeans, and ethnic “Others” alike–homogeneity and exclusivity.  This gives one pause to wonder whether New Urbanism can really succeed in accomplishing, at the same time and within the same program, its diversity and community goals.  Wood and Landry challenge architects and planners interested in intercultural city-building to either structure space so that different cultures might see and use it in a variety of ways, or create more open-ended spaces to which a broad variety of intercultural “Others” can adapt (perhaps along the lines of an entropic urbanism).  Some students wish to challenge New Urbanism in the same way.  Alternatively, one student questioned whether New Urbanism is capable of producing an intercultural city at all.  As she put it, perhaps an intercultural city already exists in the urban fabric and just needs some poking and prodding—using other varieties of urbanism as a guide—to draw it out.

Peak Water, Urban Sustainability, and the ‘New West’

Water is a key resource constraint in urban development, especially here in the West.  Because of projected population growth—anticipated to double to 10 million people by 2050—Colorado is predicted to have a municipal and industrial water gap by at least 2030.   The gap is already emerging.   Climate change and the significant probability of drought add uncertainties that further complicate urban hydro-sustainability.  Moreover, aging infrastructure  will need replacing if the water that’s already available is to be efficiently delivered to its intended destinations.

Collaboration between state entities that deal in water will be key in meeting future water needs.  A major step in this direction was taken in 2005 with the formation (courtesy of Colorado HB 05-1177) of the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC).  The IBCC broadens the range of stakeholders actively participating in the state’s water decisions and creates a locally driven process where the decision-making power rests with those living in the state’s river basins.  The committee is committed to working with four strategies for creating a sustainable water future, encapsulated by a “4 legged stool” metaphor: (1) local projects involving  already developed water, (2) consumer conservation initiatives, (3) tapping of new water sources, and (4) agricultural-urban transfers.  Sustainability will depend on how well these strategies are mixed and matched. Other state bills like HB-08-1141 mandate that developers receiving building permits provide local government with better and more complete information regarding adequacy of the project’s proposed water supply.  Finally, earlier this year 35 water providers, towns, and ski resorts signed a historic Colorado River Cooperative Agreement to partner on a holistic approach to responsible water development that will benefit both the western and eastern slopes of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

As reported elsewhere in this blog, Business School colleagues and I have a research grant from DU’s Institute for Enterprise Ethics  to examine urban hydro-sustainability along Colorado’s Front Range.  Our team has been combing the literature and interviewing subject matter experts as a way to get a handle on the issues, and with the ultimate aim of making policy recommendations from a particular interdisciplinary perspective that integrates anthropology and real estate.  In deference to our sponsor we’ve also been thinking about the ethics of water management as it pertains to the four strategies identified above. Are some strategies better ethical choices than others?  To organize our research and reporting we’ve established a website called Peak-Water. Although describing Colorado’s current situation as “Peak Water” is perhaps overly alarmist given the current supply (which by some estimates is capable of supporting the basic needs of three times the current population) the concept is nonetheless useful for reminding people about the importance of careful water planning and collaboration.  As several interviewed experts have noted so far, too often there’s a serious disconnect between planning for people and planning for water.

My personal interest in our project focuses on the relative merits of different urban design and built environment models for supporting hydro-sustainability.  Western cities are known for sprawl, and we’ll likely see more of it in the future given the tenacity of the particular cultural values that have driven it in the past. As the  Center of the American West reported in 2005:

…there’s reason to believe that a lot more development is coming. The West has grown faster than the country as a whole for much of the last century, and is likely to outpace national growth for the foreseeable future. The “New West” [emphasis added]  is increasingly attractive to migrants and to investors. Western land owners will certainly continue to respond to market forces, and to their own preferences, by transforming lower value land uses, like agriculture, into more financially-rewarding options like subdivisions and shopping malls. Finally, Westerners will continue to buy homes in suburbs distant from city centers and to build second homes in the forests and on ridge tops. They will demand highways, water systems, and other utilities. They will also continue to complain about the sprawl, traffic, interrupted views, and lost sense of community that growth brings.

In other words, people captivated by what David Brooks has called the “Paradise Spell” will continue to seek freedom and fortune in the American West.  The result may not be your granddaddy’s sprawl, however.   We’re beginning to see planning for exurban development that is much more environmentally conscious and water-wise.  The project at Sterling Ranch located southwest of Denver is foremost among them. The plan for Sterling Ranch is akin to what Ebenezer Howard described as a Garden City.   It’s nearly identical in size (around 30,000 people) and broadly similar in form.  A dense, mixed use town center will softly transect outward into tightly knit villages and end in rural, hillside ranchettes.


Howard’s Model of the Garden City

Sustainability is the explicit design principle at Sterling Ranch.  The development will employ pioneering  water conservation measures, including rainwater harvesting (as per Colorado HB 09-1129), to support its 12,000 housing units and 31,000 people.  The estimate of water use per household is approximately one third of that traditionally required by Douglas County (.22 acre feet per household per year compared to .75).  At present Sterling Ranch developers are partnering with Denver Botanic Gardens in a “Community Supporting Agriculture” test case for evaluating whether the community’s fresh produce needs can be met locally instead of bringing fruits and vegetables in by truck.  In keeping with New Urbanist commitments local landscape and history will be respected in the project’s development, and a range of housing types and prices will be available (35% of the house product will be priced below $200,000).  Promotional material for Sterling Ranch riffs on a New West theme:

The New West retains the rugged personality, and natural beauty of the Old West, but has evolved to suit the lifestyles of today’s Westerners. Sterling Ranch provides plenty of opportunities to ride, run and play in natural settings, along with the sense of community that was once necessary when neighbors survived by working together. At the same time, it offers conveniences of modern life and a community that reflects today’s society and real-world conditions.  From a comprehensive water plan that ensures enough water for all; housing options that meet the needs of today’s buyers; public spaces that bring communities together; schools that teach skills the next generation needs to succeed; and Community Supporting Agriculture that grows food for our tables–Sterling Ranch creates a vision for the New West.

Sterling Ranch Conceptual Drawing

Sterling Ranch represents a noble vision and is an experiment worth monitoring.  Other Front Range developers certainly will be watching.  Assuming some success, the question will arise of  how many Sterling Ranch-style garden cities can the Front Range accommodate?  And, will this land use pattern promise any greater long-term environmental and social sustainability than, say, mid-to-high rise densification projects in the urban core, especially those that choose to experiment with vertical farming?

Front Range urban hydro-sustainability prospects are also complicated by the fact that water isn’t the only relevant variable affecting Western development. Peak Oil suggests, at least to some, that efforts to preserve our current way of occupying the landscape through technological innovation are doomed and that urban contraction is the only sustainable planning choice.   If there’s no significant energy savings associated with  transporting water horizontally to a population distributed in exurban Garden Cities as opposed to one that’s distributed in a high rise (Radiant City?) urban core, then contraction and vertical densification would seem to be the better bet.

There’s also the matter of Peak Population, especially as concerns ethnicity and age.  Sterling Ranch will undoubtedly attract a particular demographic that is white, middle-class, and nuclear family-based—and that’s OK.  But Colorado is clearly becoming increasingly diverse in terms of ethnic makeup.  As recently reported by North Forty News, Colorado’s Hispanic population increased by 41% over the past decade.  The African-American population rose by 19%.  The Asian population is up 45%.  In contrast, the white non-Hispanic population grew by 10%.  These increases occurred throughout the state and not just in metropolitan areas.  Will domestic minorities be drawn to communities like Sterling Ranch, or any other urban development, if cultural diversity is not a central planning and design concern?

We’re seeing the aging of Colorado’s population as well. The number of people over age 65 is predicted to increase 78% over the next 15 years, with the proportion of the total population moving from 9.8% to 17.4 %.  According to a survey by the National Association of Realtors that was reported in a recent New York Times op-ed, this aging “Boomer” population (born between 1946 and 1964) favors walkable urban downtowns, suburban town centers, and small towns.  Interestingly, the Times piece reports that the coming-of-age “Millennial” population (born between 1979 and 1996) appears to be favoring (by about one-third, according to various estimates) precisely the same kinds of settings for lifestyle reasons and for the convenience of not having to own cars.  These data suggest that we’re witnessing a major structural and demographic event: “the convergence of the two largest generations in American history” in preferring walkable, mixed-use, and centrally-located neighborhoods.

Thus, Peak Oil and Peak Population, insofar as Colorado is concerned, may be recommending a future that is traditionally urban and Old European, rather than exurban and “New Western.” It remains to be seen whether Peak Water is pointing in the same direction.  If it is, then urban planners and architects are facing a significant planning and design challenge for a Peak Planet age: how to make a time-honored, traditional form of settlement much more environmentally and interculturally attractive and sustainable.

Citizen Input on 9th and Colorado: Connectivity and Public Space

At its meeting on November 10th the Colorado Boulevard Healthcare District (CBHD) Board gave its blessing to Sembler Company’s latest conceptual plan for developing the infill site at 9th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.  Some details were reported here, with a more complete report filed by Rory Seeber for Life on Capitol Hill.  The plan has been discussed with and approved by most relevant neighborhood associations (the Congress Park vote is still pending).  The November 10 Board meeting summarized the project’s guiding principles and community outreach efforts.  The Board Chair, Mary Nell Wolff, suggested that this outreach has made for a better plan than the one that was initially proposed.

9th and Colorado Conceptual Overview (Sembler Company and Davis Partnership)

There’s a lot to like in the revised plan.  The emphasis is clearly on making active, pedestrian-friendly streets and spaces.  The latest plan has one-third the vehicular density of the original plan developed by Shea Properties.  There will be much less surface parking than when the site was occupied by the Health Sciences Center.  Fifty percent of the total parking will be below grade.  The plan reflects great sensitivity to “view corridors.”  Screen walls and landscaping will make it almost impossible to see internal surface parking lots from anywhere on the perimeter of site.

A new feature is a mid-block plaza between 9th and 11th avenues (upper left on the map). This will serve as an enhanced “front door” to the site when entered off of Colorado Boulevard.  The plaza will front a 100,000 square foot “large format” store.   The mature grove of trees along 9th Avenue will be preserved.  The annex to the historically-designated Nurse’s Dorm will be removed and thereby expand the size of the Quad.  The Quad is the primary element of an open space plan that exceeds the 10% required by law.  Interestingly, the Quad contains the oldest black walnut trees in Colorado.  I like the allowance for a twenty foot wide, north-south pedestrian alley that breaks up the line of retail buildings located to the west of the Quad.  This narrow thoroughfare strikes me as being akin to the small, unnamed alley at Belmar in Lakewood that connects the Belmar plaza to West Alaska Drive.  The narrowness gives a bit of an “Old European” flavor to that site.

Alley at Belmar, Looking from Plaza to West Alaska Drive (D. Saitta)

A natural foods grocer will occupy the building south of 9th Avenue on Colorado Boulevard.  It’s about the right size for a Sunflower Market, although the tenant has not been identified. The tenant for the large format store has also not been identified, but according to the developer it will be “something like a Target.”  The original proposal for a second floor movie theatre has been ruled out, for logistical reasons.  A fitness center is still a possibility.  As previously reported, the plan is to include 450 residences in buildings at the southeast corner of the site.  These will all be multi-family rentals but they could become condos later.

In the question and answer period Board members and citizens raised a number of concerns.  One citizen questioned the overall reduced footprint of this latest plan compared to earlier ones.  She suggested that small is not necessarily better if all we’re looking at is retail and residential space. She suggested that the “urban grain” would benefit from more office space above and beyond what’s already designated for the historic Nurse’s Dorm.  Other questions were raised about bicycle connectivity and the energy efficiency of buildings.  The site will be sensitive to “multi-modality” but there is no set-aside for new bike lanes.  Existing bike routes may be enhanced and there will likely be bike racks in the Quad.  All buildings will be of “green” design given that it is pretty much de facto these days.  All the building contractors will be local.

The main concern is about traffic volume and flow, especially congestion on the already-busy 8th Avenue.  The three story parking deck located just south of the Quad was identified as a potential problem-maker since it would receive and discharge cars onto 8th.  To address this problem one citizen made an interesting suggestion; specifically, he proposed flipping the parking deck with the retail building located catty-corner to the northwest.  This adjustment would feed cars onto 9th Avenue, which has long been underused as a traffic thoroughfare.  The developers responded that the deck is located where it is in order to serve visitors to the “Restaurant Row” planned for the 8th Avenue edge.  Plus, the developers pointed out that they expect the number of cars visiting the site to be approximately one-third the number that visited when the Health Sciences Center was in full operation.

During this exchange I found myself thinking that this is a relatively small site so it doesn’t seem that having such close proximity between parking deck and restaurants is really necessary. After all, the site’s top priority is walkability.  No one mentioned it, but another virtue to flipping these structures would be to more fully enclose the Quad on its south side with retail space.  The Quad is  designed to be the site’s beating heart.  It seems a shame to have it bordered on one whole side by a parking deck.  Full enclosure unencumbered by parking is an element shared by many of the great public plazas and squares of the world.   Populating at least a few of these commercial spaces with tenants dedicated to various arts—visual and/or healing—would be a nice touch aimed at better connecting the site to its history.  Flipping the structures would compromise the quality of the alley discussed above, but it would invite construction of another alley between the relocated retail space and Restaurant Row.  The Row is already planned to have entrances on both its north and south sides, so squeezing some alley space in here would perhaps enhance the “urban grain” desired by some citizens.  Restaurant Row was described a couple of times by Mary Nell Wolff as “New Urban” in spirit. However, it might benefit even more from a conscious effort to add a touch of “Old Europe.”  If there’s an absolute need to stay with the parking deck then it might be fronted on its north side with spaces akin to those that comprise the arts-and-design focused Block 7 at Belmar, a line of studios that also front a parking deck.

Block 7 at Belmar (D. Saitta)

Sembler Company hopes to close on the property in late spring or summer 2012. Demolition is planned beginning summer 2012 and is scheduled to last about 15 months.  An opening is envisioned for summer/fall 2014.  The next CBHD Board meeting is scheduled for December 1 at 4:00 PM in the Molly Blank Conference Center on the campus of National Jewish Hospital.

Eminent Domain and Economic Development: An Admirable Colorado Example

(Speaking of Pruitt-Igoe and “urban renewal”, a version of the following appeared in yesterday’s Brighton Blade, co-authored with Kyle Cascioli and Ron Throupe)

The Metro Wastewater Reclamation District (MWRD) recently paid for 84 families and businesses to relocate in order to make way for the district’s new $470 million dollar wastewater treatment plant in Brighton, Colorado.  MWRD District manager Catherine Gerail was quoted as being very pleased that the city was able to help all parties move to new homes—including a colony of feral cats that now occupies a new space at the Brighton Animal Shelter.  We’re pleased too!

We were among those shocked when, in 2005, the US Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London (Connecticut) that municipalities have the authority to exercise their power of eminent domain and legally transfer property from one private owner to another in order to further economic development as a remedy for urban blight.  New London used its authority to transfer 115 residential and commercial lots encompassing 90 waterfront acres adjacent to a Phizer Corporation research facility to a local developer.  The city defined “blight” to include single family homes with one car garages—which happened to describe just about all of the middle class bungalows and historic homes located in the 90 acres desired by the city.  However, the developer was unable to finance the project and redevelopment of the site never occurred.  Today the razed 90 acre site stands vacant, a symbol of failed redevelopment, eroded property rights, and municipal economic greed.

By all accounts, the MWRD’s negotiation with 84 families living at the Sylmar Manor Mobile Home Park and the Seven Sons Auto Salvage operation in Brighton appears to have been conducted with far more sensitivity than the one in New London.  The MWRD’s commitment to negotiate and settle with the displaced families and businesses is exemplary given their available options under Eminent Domain.    We also believe that the MWRD’s  decision to acquire these private lands “at arms length” for a legitimate public use and not for speculative economic development—in a way that respected the citizens who would be adversely affected by the decision—was the most humane approach.  The resulting satisfaction on all sides seems to bear that out.

The City of Aurora, Colorado—whose council voted last summer, above citizen objections, to designate 125 vacant acres near the Denver International Airport as “blighted” in order to clear the way for a private corporation to build a hotel and conference center—could take a lesson from the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District.

Has Pruitt-Igoe Been Demythologized?

The short answer is Yes and No. Details ahead…

Last week I finally had a chance to see the much-heralded film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History at the Denver Starz Film Festival.  I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a powerful and visually stimulating piece of work.  I learned several new things about this failed experiment in post-war “urban renewal” from both the film and the talkback with filmmaker Chad Friedrichs who was on hand to discuss his work.

The Wendell O. Pruitt and William L. Igoe housing blocks were originally drawn up in 1952 as two racially-segregated, “modernist” high rise developments in St. Louis.  Pruitt was for blacks on the north side of town, and Igoe was for whites on the south side.  Failure to secure the south side parcels of land in a timely manner led to the developments being combined on one 57 acre site to the north of the city. There were some whites who lived at Pruitt-Igoe when it opened in 1954.  However, that year’s US Supreme Court’s decision forcing desegregation effectively transformed Pruitt-Igoe into an all black community.

Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project, St. Louis

The film successfully debunks one of the myths that I completely agree surrounds Pruitt-Igoe—that black culture and the absence of proper middle-class values were responsible for community’s disintegration.  Although the sample is very small, interviews with former residents reveal the pride and love that people had for the place.  One describes her 11th floor apartment as a “poor man’s penthouse.”  Others fondly (and even tearfully) recall the buildings being illuminated by hundreds of lights at Christmas time, the appealing aromas of many dinners being prepared, and the lively “block party” atmosphere created by record players being pulled to doorways and windows.

I confess to using Pruitt-Igoe in my teaching in the second “mythical” sense that  Katharine Bristol, in a 1991 article in the Journal of Architectural Education, sought to debunk: that modernist architecture was to blame for the community’s disintegration.   I’ve always found something pedagogically useful in Charles Jencks’ famous equating of the controlled (and nationally-televised) implosion of Pruitt-Igoe’s first tower at 3:00 PM on March 16, 1972 with “the death of modernism.”   The issue is whether this is overstating things.  Friedrichs’ film does not really address Pruitt-Igoe’s architecture one way or another, treating it more as a setting and backdrop for behaviors that are better explained in other ways.  But it clearly channels the essence of Bristol’s argument.  In his talkback Friedrichs pulled no punches in dismissing the role that architecture played in the housing project’s disintegration.  He noted that modernist high rises for poor people were constructed in many other American cities throughout this period and most of those didn’t suffer the same fate as Pruitt-Igoe.

The Death of Modernism: March 16, 1972, 3:00 PM

The alternative explanation suggested in the film, and reiterated by Friedrichs in his talkback, invokes a complex mix of economic and social factors that brought many American cities—especially St. Louis—into crisis after World War II.  De-industrialization produced dramatic job losses in urban cores.  Federal housing and highway policies incentivized white flight to suburbs.  Projected increases in urban population size did not pan out as cities were rebuilding, and overbuilding, their centers.  St. Louis hit its population peak of around 850,000 people in 1950 and it was all downhill after that.  The St. Louis Housing Authority planned Pruitt-Igoe’s construction but failed to plan for its maintenance.  Upkeep money had to come from tenant rents, but as occupancy declined, poverty deepened, and costs escalated the money just wasn’t there.  St. Louis Housing Authority policy also prohibited able-bodied adult males from inhabiting the apartments of women receiving welfare assistance. This contributed to the break-up of families and frayed the community’s social fabric.  Police stopped coming to the projects when the muggers and drug-dealers moved in.  Racial discrimination, including institutional racism, complicated the lives and life chances of the residents.  Pruitt-Igoe’s undoing was, as one interviewed expert opined, a “slow motion Katrina.”

I certainly agree with the importance of these economic and institutional forces—also nicely detailed in Bristol’s article—in determining Pruitt-Igoe’s fate.  But given the importance of architecture in human affairs and, especially, its role in transforming built space into owned place  it seems short–sighted—and inconsistent with any explanation that invokes “complexity” of cause—to rule it out completely.  Even Bristol notes that architectural design was one factor in Pruitt-Igoe’s disintegration, albeit not the most important one.  Mention is made in her article, and also throughout Friedrichs’ film, of how various design elements conspired against residents.  These include deliberately small apartments, undersized kitchen appliances, inadequate plumbing, and other cheap furnishings.  Undersized elevators that “skip-stopped” on every third floor increased the personal risk to women and children (especially when things started deteriorating after 1957) by forcing them to reach their apartments through long corridors and narrow staircases.  The elevator stop “galleries” themselves—intended to support community association—came to be described by residents as “gauntlets.”  The open, park-like spaces around modernist towers have never been particularly inviting or well-used areas no matter where they’ve been built, and Pruitt-Igoe was no exception.  The standardized, non-human scale of the towers—nicely captured by the film’s compelling aerial and ground level photographs—gives off a decidedly sinister vibe when viewed from particular angles and in particular lights.

Pruitt-Igoe Corridor

I’m also tempted to suggest that the small apartments, and perhaps even the shared spaces, were incompatible with the social values borne by migrants coming into St. Louis from the south who, ultimately, traced their heritage to the strong communal cultures of West Africa.   Some reviews of the film (e.g., here) note that the nearby Carr Square Village—a low rise, lower density development with a comparable demographic makeup that was built in 1942—did not suffer from the vacancy and crime that afflicted Pruitt-Igoe. Interestingly, Pruitt-Igoe was originally designed as a mix of buildings of varying heights and densities rather than the 33 eleven-story high-rises that were eventually built. We’ll never know if the Pruitt-Igoe story would have been different had the original design plan been approved.

Carr Square Village (from Oscar Newman, Creating Defensible Space)

Bristol rightly notes that failure to acknowledge wider political and economic conditions too often leads us to blame the people who’ve been victimized by those conditions. She notes that architects can’t be blamed for Pruitt-Igoe either, given their powerlessness to change the wider structures, practices, and attitudes that governed its construction. In another sense, however, architecture is the most important causal factor in Pruitt-Igoe’s story because it’s the one variable that was always under some sort of direct human control.  Pruitt-Igoe’s architects were clearly working under strict constraints imposed by the St. Louis Housing Authority.  But the design team consciously opted for the modernist program when other choices were available, and even Bristol notes that they were “insensitive” to the consequences of their choices.  Erring too much on the side of structural causality risks absolving these agents of too much responsibility.  There are times when the debate about Pruitt-Igoe should be diverted to what Bristol calls “the question of design.”  Today architects are increasingly taking advantage of their power of choice—and improved intercultural literacy—to design affordable housing that’s more livable and lovable (e.g., here and here).  Perhaps the most important lesson of Pruitt-Igoe is that we should always and everywhere see the life and death of buildings as complexly overdetermined in ways that encourage us to take greater responsibility for those things in life that we can, in fact, influence and control. In that sense Pruitt-Igoe hasn’t been, and doesn’t deserve to be, demythologized.

Postscript: Carr Square Village has been replaced with even lower-density single family housing. The site of Pruitt-Igoe remains a ruin.

Update: The subject of Pruitt-Igoe is revisited here.

Civic Virtue, Civic Vice, and Civic Center Park

Civic Center Park. North is to the left; Numbers refer to monuments mentioned in the text (courtesy Justin Henderson)

Denver’s Lincoln Park—ground zero for the Occupy Denver protests—is part of a larger public space called Civic Center Park.  Civic Center Park is a classic City Beautiful composition. The Occupy Denver protests coincided with a required visit by my Culture and the City students to analyze the park’s  built environment and its contemporary use.  Armed with a reading by City Beautiful pioneer Charles Mulford Robinson and Spiro Kostof’s ideas about the “Grand Manner”, students were asked to explain how Civic Center Park conforms to City Beautiful ideals. This is pretty easy, as the park’s order, symmetry, classical architecture, and vista-enhancing “scenography” speak for themselves.  The more difficult challenge was to use Kirk Savage’s categories for describing urban monuments, Camillo Sitte’s recommendations for locating monuments in public space, and Dolores Hayden’s call for an inclusive public history to analyze the park’s commemorative landscape.  Because Civic Center is, for some, badly in need of renovation (a proposal solicited from Daniel Libeskind back in 2006 ended up being rejected) I also asked students for their thoughts about what could be done to improve the space.  I was especially interested in the opinions of my international exchange students from England, Italy, and the Czech Republic.

I was impressed with, and learned a lot from, the student analyses.  They clearly recognized that the commemorative landscape was biased toward white, Western culture.  Two thirds of the monuments in Civic Center Park (67%) valorize important people and events related to war and territorial expansion. These include the Colorado Veteran’s Memorial (#5 on the map, a tall obelisk located on the park’s central East-West axis) and the Pioneer Monument (#1, a gaudy Beaux Arts composition featuring life size cast bronze sculptures of a pioneer woman, a trapper, and a prospector, all topped off by an elevated Kit Carson pointing the way West).  Given their soaring figurative and symbolic forms such monuments are usefully described, in Savage’s terms, as “heroic.”  Many fewer function as Savage’s “agents of consciousness”, designed to provoke quiet reflection about the nature and meaning of history.  Perhaps the best example of the latter is the understated monument to former Governor Ralph Carr and his interventions on behalf on Japanese American internees during World War II (not numbered, but located just to the south of monument #9).

Ralph Carr-Amache Memorial

The other third (33%) of the park’s monuments speak either to women (there’s really only one other example, a monument to Sadie Likens, #2) or the ethnic “Other”, especially Native Americans.  However, students found representations of the latter to deal in stereotypes: an Indian hunter standing over a buffalo (#9, a sculpture entitled “The Closing Era”, thereby explicitly illustrating Savage’s point about how many figurative monuments serve as “instruments of historical closure”), and an Indian with spear on horseback entitled “On the War Trail” (#14). One student accurately described these as “Noble Savage” representations that fail to address the complexity of native history and risk sending the unfortunate message that Native Americans are no longer with us.  There’s only one monument to Hispanic heritage (#4, Medal of Honor recipient Joe Martinez) and nothing to commemorate African Americans.

“The Closing Era”

Students made a number of especially astute observations about the Civic Center monumental landscape that came as pleasant surprises.  A small plaque attached to the Civil War Monument (#6) on the front steps of the state Capitol is dedicated to the victims of the Sand Creek Massacre. Several students used this addition to illustrate Savage’s point that “the world around a monument is never fixed.”  The plaque essentially corrects the characterization of Sand Creek as a “battle” on the original monument.  In correctly describing the altercation as a “massacre” the state takes responsibility for the U.S. Army’s killing of men, women, and children at Sand Creek.

Civil War Monument with Sand Creek Massacre plaque at base in foreground

One student–Michael Swan–suggested that the concept of meaningful adjacency(which we discussed as a naming convention for the September 11 Memorial in New York City) is applicable to at least two sets of cardinally-located and intervisible monuments on the Civic Center landscape.  One set includes a monument to The Ten Commandments (#3, carved on a stone tablet) and The Liberty Bell (#11, a facsimile of the one in Philadelphia), and thus can be taken to represent the constitutional separation of church and state. Another set opposes the “On the War Trail” (#14) and Christopher Columbus (#17) monuments, thereby capturing the tension between indigenous and colonizing cultures.  Of course, the meaning here is not self-evident, but must be constructed in the viewer’s mind and imagination.

“On the War Trail” (background) and Christopher Columbus (foreground) Memorials

One of my  Italian students—Antonio De Rinaldis—was especially  creative in using a notion of symbolic geography to interpret the placement of monuments as you move from East to West on Civic Center grounds.  He noted that as the sun rises and sets over Civic Center Park it illuminates, in sequence, monuments dedicated to the aboriginal period in American history (#9, “The Closing Era” sculpture of Indian and buffalo), a period of deep internal conflict and struggle (#6, the Civil War monument with its plaque commemorating Sand Creek), and finally the modern period’s negotiations over history’s meaning (#s 14 and 17, the “meaningfully adjacent” memorials to the War Trail Indian and Christopher Columbus).  This placement is almost certainly not intentional, but the pattern–and Antonio’s insight in detecting it!–is provocative nonetheless.

Charles Mulford Robinson was big on aesthetic harmony in the classical vein as a defining feature of the City Beautiful.  But he also appreciated architectural variety provided it didn’t upset the essential harmony.  So I asked students to comment on the architectural variety of the public buildings that surround Civic Center Park.  For some students City Beautiful harmony is disrupted by Michael Graves’ postmodern Denver Public Library, Gio Ponti’s brutalist Denver Art Museum (DAM), and Daniel Libeskind’s recent “deconstructivist” addition to DAM.   Certainly, this skyline is pretty different from the one associated with Civic Center Park. For others the Civic Center’s classicism is only enhanced by the contrast with these adjacent buildings. No one mentioned the exclusivity of this skyline in terms of privileging white, western tastes; there’s nary a sign of the ethnic or syncretic vernacular in sight.  Still, I found myself persuaded by the argument for enhancement.  It’s marvelous to stand at the center of Civic Center Park and view, in one field of vision, several examples (like ‘em or not) of the major architectural traditions that have shaped urban experience over the years.  Even if this isn’t quite the “aesthetic progress” imagined or desired by Charles Mulford Robinson it’s certainly an impressive catalogue of aesthetic change.

Buildings (left to right) by Graves, Libeskind, and Ponti

Finally, I asked my students to comment on who’s in the park and how it’s being used.  Several noted that Civic Center Park is clearly a contradictory space. City Beautiful design was intended to produce civic virtue—engaged citizens filled with a sense of civic pride—but the evidence of civic vice is everywhere in Denver’s civic center.  This is manifested as homelessness (understood by the students as a societal, rather than individual, pathology), drug dealing and drug use, and a powerful stench associated with the park’s use as a public urinal by homeless people and Occupy Denver protestors alike.  All saw Occupy Denver as a legitimate public use for the park, but some raised the question of how much right the occupiers have to  disturb the experience of other users.  Just about everyone suggested that the space is essentially fine as is and wouldn’t benefit from the addition of the starchitect’s avant-garde forms or soaring wings.  Simple restoration to former glory would work, along with improved pedestrian access across Broadway and Colfax Avenue, and some new monuments that acknowledge the contributions to Colorado history that have been made by a wider variety of cultural groups.

Occupy Denver and The Right to the City

I’m interested in the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement for several reasons, not least how it relates to the idea of The Right to the City and what we might learn about using public space to secure such a right for disenfranchised and marginalized people, groups, and cultures.

Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan has been congenial to New York’s Occupy Wall Street protestors because it falls into a unique category of “privately-owned public space” that’s a legal gray area. Zuccotti is open 24/7 with no codified rules that regulate its use except for prohibitions on skateboarding, rollerblading, and bicycling.  This condition reflects a concession made by real estate developers who constructed the park (actually more of a “hard plaza”) back in the 1960s as a way to gain more rentable space in adjacent buildings. The park’s current owners—Brookfield Properties Inc.—recently updated park rules to include prohibitions on camping and the use of sleeping bags.  Copies of the rules have been distributed to the park’s occupiers, but the ploy was too transparent for anyone to take it seriously.

Zuccotti Park (David Shankbone)

Lincoln Park in Denver—up to now the spatial focus of Occupy Denver—is another story.  Although occupiers gradually filled the state-owned park with tents over the last three weeks and were allowed to violate established rules banning camping, the other shoe dropped early yesterday morning.  With the consent of Governor John Hickenlooper and Mayor Michael Hancock police moved into the park at 3:00 am and instructed people to move out.  Although the hour of the wakeup call borders on inhumane, even the occupiers testified that they were given wide berth and lots of time to vacate the park—an approach informed by lessons that the Denver Police learned during Democratic National Convention unrest in 2008. Nonetheless, 23 arrests were made on misdemeanor charges of unlawful conduct.  I checked out Lincoln park this morning—a little over 24 hours later—and there was still a significant police presence. The park was closed but the officer who stopped me from entering said that it would reopen later for a “veterans event” that I’m not sure ever took place.

Police Cruisers in Lincoln Park, October 15, 8:38 AM

I wondered what would become of the Occupy Denver movement now that key territory had been yielded.  I haven’t found much on the internet that explicitly links Occupy Wall Street to The Right to the City via the use of public space (but see here), or that suggests a Plan B once Plan A has played out.  However, Peter Marcuse discusses OWS prospects for New York (and by implication other cities) thusly:

Will the Occupy Wall Street movement continue to grow? I think that is the wrong question. It cannot “grow” in the sense of enlarging the area it occupies, staying longer and longer and refusing to leave. There is simply no space available where it is now in New York, the weather in winter will make it simply a test of endurance… But there are alternative forms by which it can show its strength: marches, timed occupations, rallies, continued effective solidarity and networking. And refinement of claims, clarification of interpretations, pin-pointing of objectives and targets of non-violent action and exposure.

As if on cue, Denver OWS activists responded to the loss of Lincoln Park by mobilizing this afternoon for a march through downtown, targeting the Federal Reserve Bank and other high rise banks on 17th Street before ending back at Lincoln Park.  According to The Denver Post, at least 2000 people marched peacefully with the majority dispersing about 2:00 pm.  However, a small “splinter group” took to blocking Broadway and other streets around Lincoln Park and sought to re-pitch dining tents in a corner of the adjacent Civic Center Park. Long story short, police cleared Lincoln Park and surrounding streets by 5:30 and by evening’s end 24 people had been arrested—a case of déjà vu all over again. According to The Post many protestors have pledged to have another go at Lincoln Park tomorrow.

Denver Police officers secure Broadway from Occupy protesters on Saturday (Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post)

Given this most recent development and the very low probability that occupiers will, as Marcuse suggests, win a battle of physical endurance with police it might be time for Occupy Denver to adopt a different strategy. Marcuse again offers some food for thought [with editorial comment in brackets]:

One possible alternative might be for Occupy to replace a physical locational focus with a more temporal one: to meet, to occupy only during specific hours or days of the week, perhaps not always at the same location, with other locations strategically chosen….Another logical possibility might be finding locations that locally can be occupied consistently regardless of weather [or other factors]. That would be an entirely different approach, looking, for instance at Convention centers as spaces where General Assemblies might be convened, or other public halls or meeting places. Perhaps marches to strategic destinations, rather than focus on a single stable place of occupation, might work: marches to the headquarters of specific banks, specific firms, specific institutions, specific agencies…might be effective. But those decisions must be made by the participants themselves, and made with the same imagination and resourcefulness [at least as evidenced in New York] that has characterized their actions thus far.

And perhaps most importantly, this:

The growth and effect of the movement will depend, not on how many bodies occupy a specific place for a specific time, although where feasible that can help, but on the imagination with which it takes up the task of exposing the ills of which it complains, formulating the claims it makes, and developing strategies to move towards their implementation. Its allies [academics, professionals, writers, artists, intellectuals], in a supportive role, can be a big help.

Why Not Save the Historic 9th Avenue Bridge?

In this series of posts (for earlier ones see the “9th and Colorado” category) we’ve been chronicling Sembler Company plans for developing the old University of Colorado Health Sciences Center campus at 9th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, and also editorializing as the spirit moves.  I couldn’t attend last Wednesday’s Colorado Boulevard Healthcare District (CBHD) Board meeting because of another commitment, but my colleague Kyle Cascioli went and wrote up a few notes.

The plan reported here was apparently preceded by another developed over the summer that was deemed unacceptable by CBHD Board Chair Mary Nell Wolff.  This led to cancellation of the public meeting scheduled for September while the development team (including Davis Partnership Architects) went back to the drawing board. The plan discussed last week was described by Wolff as “greatly improved.”  Key elements of the revised plan include the following:

  • Creation of a more consistent “urban edge” to the project.  The perimeter visibility of retail space and signage has been reduced—apparently this was the major rub of the earlier plan—so as to better integrate the development into the existing fabric of the Colorado Boulevard corridor.   Screen walls and planters will also be used to better conceal the backs of retail buildings.
  • Improved pedestrian access to the site.  This is a major emphasis of the new plan.  This includes creating several pedestrian “islands” for 9th Avenue and more below grade parking.
  • Expanded footprint for the old campus quad that’s adjacent to the preserved 1920s Nurses Dorm. The quad will serve as the “cultural center” of the development. The center will be filled with some sort of physical feature; e.g., a sundial or a water fountain (alternatively, some sort of historical marker recognizing the site’s medical history, or associative statue akin to a three dimensional Vitruvian Man, or some relevant, specially-commissioned piece of public art would also be appropriate). The Nurses Dorm will have offices on the second floor and upscale sit-down restaurants on the first floor.
  • Elimination of the 1965 bridge over 9th Avenue that linked the old hospital and research library.  The first developer (Shea Properties) had targeted this bridge for multi-story rental housing.

Quad is at center, just right of L-shaped structure; 9th Avenue bridge is center left.


There are still no details about the identity of the Big Box or “Large Format” anchor tenant.  Sembler has letters of intent from a diverse group of restaurants and other soft and hard goods retailers that will populate the site.

During the Q&A one citizen asked whether certain mature flowering trees will be preserved as part of green space.  Sembler will be looking at that.  Another questioned whether anything in the development’s architecture will reflect  the diversity of housing styles (Art Deco, Spanish Colonial, Tudor) that characterizes the adjacent neighborhood.  Shea’s original plan stipulated creation of a “new architecture” that would create spaces and character to tie the site together and complement the surrounding community.  However, it’s not clear that such a commitment is in the cards with Sembler.  Conceptual renderings of the site continue to represent the buildings in a generic neo-modern style.

1965 Bridge over 9th Avenue, Looking east from Colorado Boulevard (D. Saitta)

Apparently elimination of the 9th Avenue Research Bridge has been widely applauded.  However, preserving something of its structure and form—if only a hint on whatever new buildings will rise on either side of the road at that location—would be a nice touch especially since the louvered windows on the 1965 hospital and bridge suggest a commitment to “green” building before it became fashionable.  There’s some suggestion that the materials used to rebuild throughout the project will reference the site’s medical school history, but there are no details yet.  There’s also the matter of what the development will be called, but nothing has been formally proposed.

The next CBHD Board meeting is tentatively scheduled for November 10. At that time various neighborhood groups will be asked to voice their approval of the new project in its current proposed form.

Mr. Kimmelman’s Mission

Michael Kimmelman

New York Times commentators have always figured prominently in my urban studies reading lists, whether its Paul Krugman advocating Old World urbanism, David Brooks explaining American exurbanism, or the extant architecture critic opining about the latest addition to the global skyline.  So, I was excited last Monday when Caitlin Barrett, one of my students, alerted me to a front page article about architecture in that day’s edition of the Times.  I wondered if this might be the first piece by Michael Kimmelman, the person appointed to replace Nicolai Ouroussoff as Times architecture critic. I was delighted to find out that it was.  And I was even more delighted to discover that Mr. Kimmelman’s inaugural subject was Via Verde, an affordable housing project in the South Bronx. Affordable housing and homelessness is a territory into which this blog has ventured a couple of times (see here and here).

Mr. Kimmelman’s review of Via Verde hits many good notes.  He serves notice on (1) the inter-effective relationship between people and buildings; (2) the civic value of architecture; (3) America’s calamitous history of “urban renewal” in the name of creating affordable housing; and (4) and the “binge culture” of recent years in which “advances in new digital technologies and materials coincided with unprecedented private wealth to cause architecture to join the conga line of fashion and art.”  Of course his review also detailed the particular design virtues of the Via Verde complex, including its many green features, built-in incentives to outdoor living and walking, and rooftop gardens and other common areas.  Importantly—and refreshingly—the review ends with a promise to keep tabs on the building to see how it’s actually used by residents and whether it accomplishes its social goals.

Via Verde (Phipps, Rose, Dattner, Grimshaw)

I was impressed that Mr. Kimmelman (and his Times editors) paired his print piece with an online bit about Mr. Kimmelman’s “mission” and an invitation to converse about the social context of architecture: who benefits from buildings, who doesn’t, and what makes them succeed or fail.   The resulting reader commentary is pretty much uniformly positive about Mr. Kimmelman’s inaugural piece and mission statement.  The most impassioned commentators played off of the “binge culture” riff.  One agreed with the need to “drive the conversation away from luxury developments by starchitects and towards sustainable construction.”  Another urged that we “shift the discipline’s radar from form-based aesthetic evaluation to a broader social-based evaluation.”   A third wished Mr. Kimmelman good luck in nudging the conversation “towards a more comprehensive evaluation of the built environment and away from the breathless adulation of the latest big name architect, or the branding of the latest green trend.”

Perhaps the most trenchant comment, however, challenged Mr. Kimmelman to carry through on his commitment to turn criticism and conversation in this direction.  As this reader noted, global travel to exotic locales and company kept with Pritzker Prize winners can have seductive effects and derail even the best laid plans to re-focus the critical agenda.  The accusation is that Mr. Kimmelman’s predecessors in the Times architecture critic’s seat too easily succumbed to these temptations.  I’m not so sure.  Mr. Ouroussoff had his moments writing about housing for the poor, although he may have gone a little over the top writing about Koolhaas.  Only time will tell if Mr. Kimmelman will make good on his promise to sustain a focus on the social context, redemptive qualities, and long-term history of urban architecture and design.

Urbanology 101

Kaid Benfield’s recent post about the BMW-Guggenheim Lab’s Urbanology game inspired me to play the game a few times myself.  Then I asked my University of Denver Culture and The City class (which met for the first time last week) to have a go at it to see where it would take us.

I played the game a total of 20 times. Three cities showed up 65% of the time as being consistent with my personal values and priorities about what the “Good City” should look like. These include Shanghai (25% of the time), Berlin (20%), and Toronto (20%).  Six other cities—Abu Dhabi, Beijing, London, Houston, and San Francisco—rose to the top the rest of the time.  My most frequent high priority was Sustainability (investments in “greening” the city) which showed up 30% of the time.  Lifestyle (investments in arts, sports, culture, and tourism) was a close second at 25%.  My most frequent low priority, by a fairly wide margin, was Wealth (making the city safe for business investment), at 35% of the time. This was followed by Innovation (investing in education and entrepreneurism) at 25%.

Nanjing Road, Shanghai

As Benfield and others note, interpreting game results is difficult.  The questions force tough choices–not a bad thing–but usually fail to reflect the complexity and nuance of the issues facing contemporary cities.  And, as Benfield discovered, sometimes the same value shows up as a high priority and other times it shows up as a low priority.  This didn’t happen too often in my experience. However, in one trial where sustainability prioritized high it was matched with Houston (strange bedfellows to be sure!) and in the one trial where it prioritized low it matched with Toronto (again, a bit puzzling).   Lifestyle never showed up as the lowest priority in any trial, which was somewhat comforting given the way this value is defined by the game.

Cathedral and Concert Hall, Berlin

I think the results make some sense in my case, given that I’m an anthropologist interested in sustainability—albeit of a more intercultural than environmental sort—and the difference that culture can make in shaping urban experience.  But I’m also interested in education (obviously), which means the relatively frequent low prioritizing of Innovation threw me for a loop. That Berlin and Toronto rose to the top as two of my ideal Good Cities is no surprise given the former’s reputation for arts and culture and the latter’s reputation for accommodating social diversity and multiculturalism. Both cities also tend to rank very high in the various annual surveys that track the World’s Most Livable Cities. However, Shanghai’s status as my most frequently identified good city is a surprise, mostly because I know much less about it and because it tends to rank much, much lower in Livable City surveys (for what they are worth).  In any event, this result has certainly inspired me to learn much more about Shanghai in preparation for our discussion of Asian urbanism later in the course.

The results achieved by my game-playing students provide some interesting comparisons and contrasts. Culture and The City is an anthropology elective that can be used to satisfy requirements of our interdisciplinary Urban Studies and Sustainability minors. This term I have 23 enrolled students plus several auditors. Most of the enrolled students are majoring in disciplines located across the traditional liberal arts.  Four are graduate students in anthropology’s Museum and Heritage Studies track.  Five are international exchange students from England, Italy, and the Czech Republic who are studying at the University of Denver for the fall term.  These students add a very nice intercultural flavor to the class.

“Gay Village”, Toronto

The list of “good cities” most frequently mentioned by the students mirrors mine, but in a slightly different order. Berlin  enjoyed most favored city status with 30% of the mentions, followed by Toronto with 27% and Shanghai with 26%.  From there it’s a fairly significant frequency drop-off to Abu Dhabi, Chicago, Singapore, Houston, London, San Francisco and a host of others.  The students note the same inconsistencies and disconnects as the blogging urbanologists.  In terms of urban values their low priorities matched mine, with Wealth the most frequently identified low priority (47% of the mentions by students) followed  by Innovation as a very distant second (9%). Interestingly, the high priorities for students were two different ones than mine: Livability (investments in security, recreation, and individual comforts) at 38% and Health (investments in general physical well-being) at 26%.  For students sustainability was the third most frequently mentioned value, at 22%.  I’m tempted to attribute this difference to generational factors: at this point in my life I’m much more interested in the quality of the urban community that’s to be inherited by my middle-school aged son, and much less interested in the individual personal comforts and amenities we might reasonably expect to be of great interest to college students.

The game’s simplicity notwithstanding, I think Urbanology has some distinctive merits as a pedagogical tool.  The game nicely frames some of the pressing issues facing the contemporary city. It highlights the difficulty of the choices confronting citizens engaged in community action—an engagement that our university actively seeks to promote.   The game gets us thinking about personal values as they apply to city-building, and general characteristics of the Good City.  It should also foster research interest in the qualities of those particular cities that Urbanology reveals to be instructor and class favorites.