How do You See the City?

Urban Design, Urban Planning

I see every city for how it was built when it got rich. Economies move around, cities rise, fall, and some rise again, reinvent themselves, die off, or sit stagnate waiting for its revival. But, at some point every major city got really rich, and that’s when its public streets, parks, buildings, and private buildings set the bar/tone for the next century or so.

grayscale photo of high rise buildings

Photo by Ross Richardson on Pexels.com

For example, in San Diego, it got rich in the early 1950’s, when its population double as military R&D rose/located near its military installations. High wages, lots of jobs, and land for suburban growth with great state/fed spending on highways and our pending car culture. Spending its money during our mid-century modernist era has formed/shaped the context for the city of today and beyond.

It was a trip to Buffalo, and seeing its turn of the century opulence, that showed me how to ‘see’ a city.  Every great American architect of that time, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Frederick Law Olmsted, were building in Buffalo at that time and it generated two Presidents. This view translates to seeing our old European cities, such as Venice and its well-preserved mid-millennium opulence still valuable today, as well as in seeing our Asian cities, such as ShenZhen and its booming wealth (with every architect in the world, Steven Holl, BIG, and Gensler working there), and so on…

Vancouver got rich as Hong Kong shifted hands from English to Chinese rule 20+ years ago. That era’s neo-conservative ‘free market’ architectural expression of almost urban, but not quite, townhouse wrap of a small footprint, single-core tower was urbanism-lite at time when suburbia ruled our west coast north American landscape. And, it was the right architectural form for transitioning from suburbia back to urbanism… but, its already dated and in transition again, and towards a more urban pattern.

assorted labeled signage

Photo by Arnie Chou on Pexels.com

This new era is beholden to the ‘got really rich’ era in Vancouver and will still be subservient to that context, which wasn’t true 20+ years earlier when that great flush of wealth easily overwhelmed its past and context. Meaning, the wealth generated today in Vancouver is simply the by-product of yesterday’s economic boom. Same with Venice and its tourist value today for preserving its past opulence.

We’re watching the political anxiety in the face of this urban shift playing out across the world as the last throes of that 80/90s neocon intellectual culture are desperately holding on to the last of their structured power. Those  neocons who are voraciously holding onto power today also hold the counterculture of the 1960s in great disdain as their political radicalism and animus against authority, custom, and tradition is rising and an obvious threat to the old leaders. I believe this disdain is one of the reasons for the angry, resentful, punitive political furry expressed in Washington, DC and beyond… because the neo-counterculture is being repeated by today’s younger generation but this time with their own value system/context.

The millennials are choosing to spend their money in cities that are getting rich right now. These are San Jose, Oklahoma City, and in rebound cities, such as Austin, Seattle, and maybe Detroit (an anomaly in this group of relatively ‘new’ towns as it got very rich in the 1940s and may keep its Art-Deco patterns) will be reshaped with their values. I’m looking forward to ‘seeing’ how these cities express themselves as they grow rich over the next decade (with Vancouver’s ubiquitous point towers with a townhouse wrap in mind).

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