Archive for August 2011

Three Urbanisms Revisited

A recurring theme in the urban studies literature and blogosphere (including this blog) is critical comparison of  different approaches to city-building.  Such an exercise can have practical utility in the street and also pedagogical utility in the classroom.  Although any typology of urbanisms is inevitably reductive (but see here for a particularly informative and engaging perspective), typologizing can help clarify distinguishing features and emphases, points at which alternative approaches converge, and viewpoint differences that are irreconcilable.

With that in mind, I want to examine Douglas Kelbaugh’s comparison of the three paradigms of New Urbanism, Everyday Urbanism, and Post Urbanism. In at least four essays over the last 10 years (e.g., here and here) Kelbaugh has usefully compared the values and outcomes of each, along with what he sees as their respective merits and liabilities.  He has also identified the one that he believes offers the best framework for improving the American city.

Denver’s New Urban Stapleton Community (from Kelbaugh’s “Toward an Integrated Paradigm: Further Thoughts on the Three Urbanisms”, courtesy of Calthorpe Associates)

Three Urbanisms

New Urbanism is the most well-known and widely practiced of the three urbanisms.  Its commitment to designing compact, mixed-use, transit-friendly, and walkable cities overlaps with that of many competitors.  However, New Urbanism strives more than most to cultivate community in urban design via investments in public space. It is also distinctive in emphasizing a very particular neo-traditional or “pitched roof and front porch” aesthetic that has proven its appeal to a broad swath of the American population.

Everyday Urbanism eschews a unifying urban plan and aesthetic.  It is more cognizant than most of the manifold cultural differences that citizens bring to urban place-making.  It is keen to let differences in space use and built form proliferate in keeping with these cultural backgrounds and interests.   It celebrates spontaneity in place-making and, famously, the design elements of “ephemerality, cacophony, multiplicity, and simultaneity.”

Post Urbanism is Kelbaugh’s term for the work of urban designers and architects like Koolhaas, Libeskind, Hadid, Gehry, and others.  Like Everyday Urbanism, Post Urbanism rejects formal design orthodoxies and principles.  However, there’s a shared commitment to experiment with new designs that make bold, dramatic statements within the urban fabric.  These forms occupy a continuum from broken, fractal designs to sweeping arcs and curves.  In contrast to New Urbanism’s traditional forms and Everyday Urbanism’s vernacular forms, Post Urbanism’s forms are sensational, and clearly designed to “wow.”


Kelbaugh is admirably even-handed in identifying the pros and cons of these paradigms.  He likes the aesthetic unity of New Urbanism but worries about its normativity; i.e., the way it romanticizes a particular past.  He appreciates the populism of Everyday Urbanism but is troubled by the absence of a larger, unifying design aesthetic. Everyday Urbanism risks place-making “by default rather than by design.” Like most of us Kelbaugh is excited by Post Urbanism’s experimentalism (it eyes the future while New Urbanism mythologizes the past and Everyday Urbanism privileges the prosaic present), but worries about its tendency to produce buildings that out-scale humans and disconnect from their surroundings.

At same time Kelbaugh recognizes that each urbanism can have its virtues depending on urban context.  He suggests that Everyday Urbanism is the best choice for squatter cities of the Global South where immigrants and refugees struggle to create for themselves an urban identity and niche.  On the other hand, Post Urbanism is the best choice for European cities where a radically new building can offer welcome relief in a mature, high density urban fabric.  New Urbanism offers the best hope for the “typical” American city that lacks density but has the economic capacity to achieve coherence.  It represents a “middle road” that’s less glamorous than Post Urbanism but more ambitious than Everyday Urbanism.

Urban Epistemologies

While Kelbaugh’s typology could be updated and/or expanded to take stock of some recent entries into Urbanism’s battle for hearts and minds—e.g., Waldheim’s Landscape Urbanism or its close kin, Mostafavi’s Ecological Urbanism—it remains a useful way to grasp how different approaches deal with a number of urban design variables.  One analytical dimension that Kelbaugh does not fully pursue is implicated by his use of term paradigm to describe these different approaches to urbanism. This dimension is the epistemological one—the understanding of professional design knowledge that underpins each approach.

New Urbanism can be described as broadly idealist, to the extent that it is informed by a codified set of ideals and principles about what urbanism should look like in order to best serve the interests of human community.  New Urbanists are confident about the ability of their principles to produce the good city.  They also trust that alternative approaches are commensurable and that different ideas can be assimilated into a single, coherent vision of urbanism (i.e., their’s).  Post Urbanism is broadly relativist, dedicated to exploring brand new forms of architectural and design knowledge.  The attitude is “anything goes,” which is perhaps most apparent in those forms that have been widely criticized for out-scaling humans and disconnecting from the street.   Finally, Everyday Urbanism is broadly pragmatist.  It respects different, culturally-specific ideas about city-building and arguably is more concerned than the others about the consequences of design acts for everyday life, for how people live.  I think Kelbaugh hints at these epistemological orientations where, in this particular piece, he suggests that New Urbanists see themselves as urban design “experts”, Post Urbanists fancy themselves as “lone geniuses”, and Everyday Urbanists engage with community members as “co-participants” in the design conversation.

In Defense of Everyday—and Intercultural—Urbanism

Viewed from this perspective, I think that the contemporary American city is best served not by New Urbanism, but rather by Everyday Urbanism.   Contributors to Everyday Urbanism, especially John Kaliski, explain why.  In so doing I think they also neatly articulate a pragmatist epistemology and ethos. For Everyday Urbanism—as for Intercultural Urbanism—the “primary element” and “most salient fact” of everyday urban life is difference.  Not only ethnic difference but also class difference.  Andres Duany admits that New Urbanism seeks to connect to the American middle class, and Douglas Kelbaugh admits that Post Urbanism succeeds best where you have a wealthy, sophisticated consumer citizenry to support it. Certainly American cities are becoming increasingly diverse in terms of ethnic and class make-up.  Some are even taking on “squatter settlement” characteristics as America’s homeless problem deepens.  It’s thus becoming increasingly important to design or “script” spaces in ways that serve diverse urban cultures, including their histories and memories.  Interestingly, advocates of Ecological Urbanism are also aware of this reality and its design challenge.  Meeting the challenge of designing for diversity must include the scripting of spaces that can accommodate spontaneity, unpredictability, new opportunities, and unforeseen possibilities.  Although Everyday Urbanism is reluctant to articulate a particular design aesthetic, planners and designers don’t disappear.  Rather, they enable conversation with stakeholders, work to achieve consensus through what pragmatists call “unforced agreement”, and help co-author the urban script.  The epistemological test of an Everyday or Intercultural Urbanist script is not whether it reaches new levels of “wow” or can neatly assimilate the best ideas of alternative urbanisms, but whether it succeeds in weaving together cultural differences in place-making.

Sensibility vs. Hegemony in Urban Design

In his concluding chapter to Everyday Urbanism John Kaliski addresses Kelbaugh’s “design by default” criticism by defending Everyday Urbanism as a paradigmatic “middle ground” that’s “truer” than the one that Kelbaugh claims for New Urbanism.  I don’t think we need to go there.  Middle ground-ism is as potentially hegemonic as singular vision-ism, middle road-ism, or synthetic alternatives such as cityism.  Interestingly, both Kaliski and Kelbaugh suggest that urbanism, at its deepest level, rests on a particular set of sensibilities. So too does Mostafavi.  The future of the American city is best served by debating the substance and consequences of these sensibilities, not paradigmatic hegemony.

Will the Development at 9th and Colorado be Kid-Friendly?

The Colorado Boulevard Healthcare District Board was scheduled to meet last week to receive an update from the 9th and Colorado developer and architect, but when I showed up at the designated place no one was there except another confused would-be attendee.  Apparently we both missed the memo cancelling or moving the meeting. However, The Denver Post ran a story about the planned development on Wednesday the 17th that basically reports what we posted here last month.  Accompanying the story is the following conceptual rendering of the project’s Bellaire Street entry:

9th and Colorado (Sembler Co.)

Three Post readers commented on the article. One was hoping, obviously tongue-in-cheek, for a “big roller coaster and water slides through the old hospital”, but then offered a more sober hope that a place will be created “for teens to gather and have fun.”  Another reader speculated that the development will “reflect new urbanism and be slick and sophisticated.”  That’s probably a sure bet, in which case teens and other young folk might be out of luck.  Although New Urbanism prides itself on family-friendliness—witness the many parks, playing fields, and outdoor amenities at the Stapleton development in Denver—there’s no guarantee that this will happen.  The New Urban retrofit at Belmar in Lakewood (a Denver suburb), for example, caters to young urban professionals and adult consumers.  The Belmar Plaza is intentionally designed to be skateboard unfriendly (although there was nothing that would have precluded constructing something for kids adjacent to, and inter-visible with, the plaza), and the sign detailing the limits on use of the Belmar Square clearly signals that this is closely monitored and regulated space.

Belmar Square Limits of Use Sign (D. Saitta)

Ninth and Colorado is certainly small as infill projects go and it obviously can’t cater to every need.  But two important people—City Councilwoman Jeanne Robb and Mary Nell Wolff, Chairwoman of the CBHD Board—have expressed desires that the development will “blend into the neighborhood” (Robb) and “allow the neighborhoods and the property to work together again” (Wolff).  If that sentiment is shared by the developer, architect, and merchants then thought should be given to kids.  Kids haven’t yet appeared in any of the project’s conceptual renderings, including the one above.  Bringing them into the picture and the conversation would also be in keeping with a vision of the Inclusive City.

There’s a small literature dealing with kids and urban design that can inform infill development that’s sensitive to the youth demographic of surrounding neighborhoods.  Much of the current work plays off of Enrique Peñalosa‘s idea that all urban planning should start with children; that they are an “indicator species” for evaluating the livability of a city. Peñalosa is the former mayor of Bogota who initiated, among other things, the ciclovías described in our last post. Extending Peñalosa’s argument, Lisa Weston specifies that the target audience or “prototypical citizen” for building cities is 11-15 year olds.  The rationale is as follows.  Environmental psychologists and neuropsychiatrists suggest that the human brain is developing its spatial knowledge and competencies between 11-15 years of age. This is also the age at which kids are independent enough to interact with the urban environment in ways that hone these skills and competencies.  To maximize such interaction kids must have greater freedom to navigate urban space. A city that challenges and incentivizes kids to develop their spatial competencies by moving around also addresses America’s child obesity problem and the reality that kids made overweight by a sedentary existence usually become overweight adults.  Where kids are free to move and learn they also gain in self-esteem, which can improve their social interaction skills.

As noted above, New Urbanism very often produces built environments that encourage the development of spatial competency by virtue of its emphasis on compact, dense, walkable, and mixed use communities allowing easy access to a variety of public amenities like parks and playgrounds.  Variety should also characterize neighborhood architecture. This is arguably a more elusive goal given that New Urbanism tends to trade in a very traditional, small town America architectural style that, though appealing to a large chunk of the American middle-class, is for many critics becoming far too commonplace on the American landscape.  If identifying and naming landmarks is important for cultivating powers of spatial thinking (as Weston seems to suggest), then architectural diversity beyond that offered up by the New Urbanism might better serve the cause of childhood cognitive development.

New Urbanist Architecture: Highlands’ Garden Village, Denver

Many other aspects of the built environment can also serve this cause. Researchers say that apartment houses no taller than four stories incentivize a child’s interaction with their friends.  Any greater distance between floors or between floor and street gives kids excuses to stay inside and play video games.  Rooftop play areas and the kinds of qualities that would be at home in Latino Urbanism—courtyards, shared backyards, and wide sidewalks—further benefit cognitive and social development. Interactive pieces of public art and water features are always huge attractors for kids.  Multifunctional street furniture like gazebos accommodate sitting and a variety of other activities that allow self and small group expression.  Failing that, there are always bushwaffles

Finally, a pedestrian bridge over Colorado at 9th Avenue–if not precluded by the General Development Plan or some other legal or logistical obstacle–would neatly thread the new infill development into the adjacent Congress Park neighborhood and, indeed, offer a straight shot westward into the eponymous park via the connecting 9th Avenue.  This one feature alone would greatly expand the size of the urban environment through which children of appropriate age can independently move and learn.

Congress Park Neighborhood

Scenes from a Ciclovía

Last Sunday (August 14) Denver held its first ciclovía, known locally as “Viva Streets.”  A two mile stretch of East 23rd Avenue in my neighborhood of Park Hill was closed to motor vehicles. For four hours bicyclists, skateboarders, rollerbladers, joggers,

Denver Viva Streets Map, 2011

pedestrians and assorted others filled the street to celebrate, according to the event’s organizers, “an active lifestyle.”  There was music, fun-and-games (including ping-pong), and the Denver Nuggets Dancers.  Grilled food was available on the sidewalk at Dexter and 23rd, the neighborhood’s heart.

Downtown Park Hill

Celebrating an active lifestyle is an easy sell in these parts, mostly because we do it just about every day.  Denver routinely shows up in the middle of America’s “Top 10 Fittest Cities” lists.  Alternatively, other cities have used ciclovías to encourage social interaction, civic pride, and community building across diverse groups of urban dwellers. I’m not sure how much of that was accomplished at the Denver event, covering as it did only two miles of cityscape.  More would almost certainly be gained by using our ciclovías to link multiple neighborhoods across a broader swath of city.  Bogota, Columbia—where the idea of ciclovía was originally conceived, and where the event is now valued less for its promotion of a healthy lifestyle and more for the opportunity it presents for social integration—opens a 70 mile route each Sunday.

New York City closed almost 7 miles of roadway for ciclovía Saturdays in 2008 and 2009. Splitting the difference between 7 miles and 70 might be a good target for future ciclovías in Denver, perhaps along a stretch running from East Colfax to West Highland via Capitol Hill and Five Points.  That would obviously take more planning and incur greater expense, but it would aim a little higher by making social mixing just as important a goal as outdoor recreating.

23rd Avenue, Looking East

Why is London Burning?

Criminologists offer up an array of usual suspects, including social exclusion, poverty, racism, and cultures of violence combined with weak policing.  In an inspired move, The Architects Journal asked a group of architectural thinkers and urbanists whether architecture could have anything to do with it.  This produced an interesting variety of responses.   Some see the rioting as purely sociological in origin, linked to volatile divisions of power and class that, inevitably, have spatial consequences.  Others see a more direct causal role for architecture by appealing to historical precedent: the many examples from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s in which dystopian “towers in the park” housing—like Broadwater Farm, located in the same area of Tottenham where the current unrest was ignited—certainly had something to do with inhabitants rebelling against the alienating conditions in which they were forced to live.  Today many urban regeneration schemes in London and elsewhere privilege commercial development and conspicuous investment in iconic buildings in ways that displace the poor, herd others into “high rise reservoirs of social aggression”, and impoverish public space generally.

Broadwater Farm Riot Wreckage, Tottenham, 1985

But even those who appreciate architecture’s capacity to influence human behavior (e.g., here) are willing to take Winston Churchill’s observation that “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” only so far.  This week’s riots also touched more inclusively regenerated areas. Indeed, they cross-cut a vast range of urban conditions (inner city, suburbs, rich areas, poor areas) and a broad demographic of age, race, and class. Those in the especially hard hit borough of Hackney drew uninvited rioters from all around London as well as some locals who were, according to a story in The New York Times, particularly well-heeled.  As Sam Jacob wrote for the website Domus the London riots have an “incredible spatiality”, suggesting a very different kind of riot from those that cities have known in the past.

Hackney Riot Wreckage, 2011 (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

The accounts of rioting coming out of Hackney (see also here) got my attention because when I taught a study abroad term in London in fall 2008 one of my students conducted independent, self-directed fieldwork in the borough to fulfill a major class assignment. The assignment was to write an “urban biography” of a London neighborhood with special attention to the built environment, along the lines of the little vignettes that fill Peter Ackroyd’s wonderful London: The BiographyKiley Dowling, my only African-American student, chose Hackney because of its diverse ethnic makeup and because it was undergoing major changes in advance of the 2012 Olympiad, which would hold some events in the borough. Her study detailed many of the tensions associated with urban regeneration that result from officials and citizens holding different viewpoints about what makes a good city.   For example, Kiley described the new council housing managed by Hackney Homes as “dull” and “redundant”, and suggested that the buildings seemed more intended to create an image of civic order than provide housing that would nurture the human soul.  Her person-in-the-street interviews and analysis of citizen reactions to official presentations of regeneration plans disclosed—as one would expect in a neighborhood of great ethnic diversity—a populace either taken with, ambivalent about, or horrified by the proposed changes.   With many others in Dalston (a Hackney district) she lamented the “municipal vandalism” that erased the built legacy of 30+ years of Black art, music, and culture in favor of unaffordable private flats. In short, she described a context that made me wonder if the urban improvements promised by London’s “Regeneration Games” would be doomed to ephemerality or destined to turn Hackney into a poor man’s version of The City.  While Kiley Dowling didn’t exactly predict riots in Hackney (as Mike Davis famously did for Los Angeles in City Of Quartz), she did establish that the area was a bit of a tinderbox.

Hackney Housing Group Banner, July 2010

The takeaway lesson here is that testimony from professional experts and inquisitive undergraduates alike persuade me that it would be a mistake to abandon the working assumption that the built environment can be a significant influence in shaping human behavior.  How much of a role architecture plays (or can play) is an open question given that the experts themselves are deeply divided on what makes for good urbanism.  Still, thinking about the “post-riot city” in Britain has already begun. The most compelling argument for an alternative British urbanism identifies a critical need for what Ash Amin has called “urban plenitude”: a collective domain of public spaces, local facilities, well-functioning infrastructures, and shared experiences. This will take some time to develop, but meanwhile noble first steps toward community recovery are being made by architects involved in efforts such as Riot Rebuild.

What’s also disturbing to me at the moment–aside from rioting in a city that I’ve walked from top to bottom and that I truly love–is that I’ll likely have to track London’s progress toward a state of urban plenitude in an academic context that doesn’t involve working, on the ground, with exceptional students like Kiley Dowling.  In a recent decision of questionable wisdom my university unceremoniously eliminated extended-stay, faculty-led study abroad programs as a way to cut costs within our expensive but still expanding international education enterprise.  This will deny students a particular kind of academically-robust and civically-engaged fieldwork experience that was the centerpiece of the London course, and deny faculty a unique opportunity to enrich their own professional development as scholar-teachers. I’m sure there will be other opportunities in the months ahead to say more about how faculty-led study abroad can nicely serve the project of a comparative, intercultural urbanism.

Icons, Pop-Ups, and Corporate Branding of Urban Space

This week the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation—widely known for creating iconic buildings to house its museums, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s classic spiraled ribbon on Fifth Avenue in New York City and Frank Gehry’s twisted curves in Bilbao, Spain—joined the “Pop-Up Urbanism” movement.  Pop-Up Urbanism (aka Tactical or Temporary urbanism) refers to projects that reclaim vacant or unsightly urban space for active, but temporary, use.  Pop-Up projects provide low-cost amenities that improve neighborhood life and/or function to test concepts before making big financial commitments to develop them.  They include sanctioned initiatives like cafes, markets, playgrounds and parks, unsanctioned ones like “guerrilla gardens”, and quasi-sanctioned ones like urban forests.

With sponsorship from Bavarian Motor Works, the BMW Guggenheim Lab is a two-story black carbon fiber and mesh structure open at both ends that sits in a narrow 2000 square foot space separating two tenements at Houston Street and Second Avenue in the East Village.   Designed by the Tokyo architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow, the structure will serve as a combination think tank/community center capable of

BMW-Guggenheim Lab, New York City (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Paul Warcol)

accommodating up to 300 people.  The Lab will host a variety of programs (lectures, workshops, film screenings, and other performances) organized around the theme of “Confronting Comfort” in the context of urban environmental and social responsibility.  Two other labs designed by different architects will follow, and will address other specific themes.  All three labs will travel to nine cities around the world over the next six years.

Sarah Goodyear, writing for the website Grist, attended the opening program held on August 4.  She’s keeping an open mind that conversations at the Lab will produce concrete action that improves urban life instead of “just a lot of academic theorizing in a beautiful corporate-sponsored space.”  That’s always a reasonable worry.  A commenter on her Grist piece turns rather more cynical, however:

Hmm… let’s see now: Huge corporations making tons of money, paying low or now [sic] taxes, and partly tax-funded arts institutions threatened everywhere, BUT a big one “partners” with a manufacturer of elite vehicles for private urban transportation… and Grist mentions none of this.   Whether there is editorial control or not, it does not really matter because branding is all, and keeping people driving personal cars in cities is the priority for BMW, and looks like a lot of normally clever people are falling for it…

Alternatively, we might consider Rebecca Choi’s analysis of another corporate-sponsored temporary structure that, from 1995-2000, filled an empty space near Potsdamer Platz after the demolition of the Berlin Wall.  Choi argues that the Info Box—although “tethered to corporate development” and criticized by some as a “marketing tool intended to benefit big new investors in the area such as Daimler-Benz and Sony Corporation”—helped to not only guide development but “engaged the public in an important healing process.”  This healing process was required by the emotional

Info Box, Berlin (by Christian Pohlert)

association of the building site with “broken livelihoods and severed connections.”  The structure  contained a number of exhibition spaces that educated the public about Berlin’s redevelopment plans.  From a roof-top terrace the Box allowed people to view rebuilding efforts in Potsdamer Platz.  In so doing it provided an interactive forum for people to discuss the urban landscape and a “responsive, participatory environment that communicated a message of progress and hope.“ Choi nicely contrasts this urban intervention to the lack of any such physical (architectural) intervention at New York’s Ground Zero after 9/11, where “a sense of emptiness remained as reconstruction efforts lagged.”

It seems to me that the piece of pop-up architecture at Houston Street and Second Avenue—corporate-sponsored or not—has a fighting chance of accomplishing some of the same redemptive goals.  Actually, I think there’s very little downside to any experiment that seeks to promote more and better civic conversation given the problems facing today’s cities.  The BMW-Guggenheim project also prompts me to wonder whether, and how, more formal approaches to urban design—i.e., the various competing “urbanisms” that we’ve written about on this blog—might hardwire into their final plans more accommodations for the experimental use of space so that cities might better respond to the changing needs of their people and cultures.  As many urban observers and historians have suggested, cities work best when allowed to develop incrementally. That’s a concern that overlaps with the territory of Everyday Urbanism, and will be the subject of another post.

BMW Guggenheim Lab Lot (Guggenheim Museum)