In designing our cities towards economic, environmental, and social equilibrium, we are able to achieve an ethical and sustainable approach to city building. The next few posts will be an exploration of the history, present, and future role of urban design in building regions, cities, towns, and neighborhoods towards a more sustainable city. As North America transitions towards more human-scale urban development patterns in its post-industrial society, and more rapidly in response to the urgency of the global pandemic, urban design is able to incrementally guide cities and neighborhoods towards more sustainable global outcomes. Our built environment’s acute response to the pandemic has prepared our society to respond immediately to forthcoming climatic calamities. The late 19th to mid-20th century of industrialized modernist era designed development, suburban sprawl most notably, are complicit in the scandalous emission of greenhouse gases that have rapidly changed our climate and resulting environmental and social malaise our world is experiencing today. The three pillars of sustainability, environmental, economic, and equity, provide a structure for measuring or testing North America’s design trajectory today.
The United States historical values, attitudes, and prejudices that built our 20th century traditions, culture, cities, and buildings are being re-examined and deconstructed in today’s social equity and justice moment. We acknowledged the environmental pillar in the 60s and 70s. We learned to understand the economics of sustainability in the 90s and 00s. And this past decade we are immersed in a meaningful and healthy understanding of Social Equity. Depending on local context, the next urbanism will move our urban design processes towards achieving an equitable balance between these three pillars as the the most appropriate urban design response to social justice and economic issues is to build towards environmental, social, and economic stability or equilibrium.
This Covid year has accelerated development patterns that have been shifting over the past decade, and as originally formulated by New Urbanists 20 years before. Do you support transit-oriented development? Participating in charrettes? Reforming your zoning with form-based codes? Then thank a New Urbanist. There are many prominent patterns emerging right now, including less commuting; more home/work balance; less industry expansion; and more technology-based business growth in a post-industrial economy.
These shifts are changing the way we work, just like the industrial revolution changed our world 130 years ago by creating new building types and city-making technology with the invention of steel. In response to that revolution, our cities were reconfigured with skyscrapers, blocks of offices/factories, highways, and cars.
Many cities were reconfigured during that time, but Detroit is our nation’s most dramatic shift to and from industrialization patterns in the 20th century.
Now, as we shift into our post-industrial age—and deeper into the age of climate calamity—we are able to measure both its successes and failures. For example, classicism works best at the human scale, but it failed us at the industrial scale when it became an ornament/style and a fascist/authoritarian tool. The international style failed us at the human scale but is ubiquitous because it’s faster, easier, and cheaper to build. And modernism was a disaster at every scale (Google Léon Krier; he was right).
We are once again entering a brave new era with the opportunity to create a balanced approach to architecture, building types, and city-making techniques that are intended to civilize and modify the best and worst of our industrial advances with the best of our human-scaled buildings and places. By using a full spectrum of 21st century placemaking tools, the Next New Urbanism is able to advance the human condition toward a more sustainable future.
Industrialization via the internal combustion machine changed the world (or the Dynamo as described in the great autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams) when it created steel that created new industrial scaled building types. The factories, offices, and skyscrapers were invented in the late 19th century. And because this invention happened during our western civilization’s Neoclassical era, this familiar classical architecture was applied and used to ‘humanize’ these new buildings. However, because the building forms were new, the classicism was applied as a façade, and thereby is ornament… or this mismatched scale made classicism more of a style than a building technology.
The technology of building at the human scale was obliterated by the modern industrial materials, energy, and resulting scale. Along with these new engines and buildings, new forms of mobility rose as well, trains, streetcars, and then automobiles transformed with the age. The industrial scale of car production created another mismatch in our traditional city environment. Industrialized suburban sprawl was fueled by this auto production.
Modern architecture formed in a parallel track. Le Corbusier’s 1923 book, ‘Towards a New Architecture‘ responded to this new scale w/an industrial design aesthetic post WW1. And until post WW2, cities used both classical and international styles on modern scaled buildings and places. And I am writing this next sentence as carefully as possible because it is an extremely volatile subject… it was the WW2 fascist Axis power’s adoption of classicism as an authoritarian tool at an industrial scale that shamed the use of classicism almost out of existence for generations in both academia and society’s elite. For such, classicism was rightfully deemed a failure. Leaving us limited to only one architectural tool, the untested International Style/modernism, to integrate industrialization into our cities over time. And it eventually failed too.
Classical style failed us architecturally at the industrial scale. It had worked fine for thousands of years pre-industrial age and scale. And the International Style failed us urbanistically when applied to the pre-Industrial city. And I dare say the Industrial scaled city (suburban sprawl) has failed use urbanistically as well. This was a lesson Frank Gehry’s ‘Bilbao Effect’ taught us. That the traditional city works great and modernist architecture fits in it well in juxtaposition to it and its classical architecture… adding complexity and excitement to the same old classical buildings set in the same old traditional streetscapes.
The following are general lessons learned. Modern architecture works fine above the traditional city as long as it doesn’t meet the street/ground. And, classical/traditional architecture works well at the human scale when it touches the ground, but it has to be at the small block and up to mid-rise scale (not at an industrialized size). The traditional city pattern works best to make urbanism. Modern architecture works well when set in natural spaces.
Using all of these tools today allows us to build better cities, places, and experiences. A century and change later, we no longer need to censor one while villainizing the other. They both work fine in certain situations and not so well in others. These are just tools that can work together if we understand how to use them.
We are unfortunately in a new climatic calamity era and are thereby fortunately free of the surly bonds of mid-20th century style wars. I find it maddening that designers and urbanist still argue over style when industrialization is the root cause of our current climate/social calamity! We industrialized work and segregated our society. We industrialized our food and have put our health at risk. We used industrialized machines to emit coal and oil carbon particles into our atmosphere and are heating up our finite planet. We industrialized our health care and extended our lives and increased our population, so it has its merits too. What we need to address is that most people still see industrialization as the only tool to fix what originally caused these calamities… truly, a modern day Aesop’s fable.
In our new 21st century post-industrial/climate calamity era, we are now able to use every tool available to us to build more sustainable cities and places that range from More Industrial to Less Industrial / More Traditional to Less Traditional depending on its context.
I was intrigued by an intelligent comment on Twitter, by @EricsElectrons, who put this nugget of truth out there and I got all excited about its process of intellectual elimination:
Everyone discusses problems.
Very few can come up with practical solutions.
Even fewer can objectively weigh all costs and benefits of all proposed solutions and then put into practice the best tradeoffs to correct for current problems.
Then I realized that he’s doing a great job describing the decision-making process cities go through when making city making decisions. This process of elimination is a form of subsidiarity enabling those few elected decision-makers to determine how we fix problems. the steps are:
First, a problem is identified, because everyone discusses problems. Let’s say for this post the problem is not enough middle-income housing in San Diego. How to solve for building more middle income housing in an economically hot coastal city is difficult and there are few practical solutions as most are complicated and convoluted that take time to realize. We understand the problem and we state a vision, “We need more middle-income and affordable housing in San Diego!” We’ve done this for many years with our city council declaring a ‘housing crisis’ annually.
And, because these complicated policy and long-range time fixes in need of multiple groups to enable, very few can come up with practical solutions. So, we need a plan that starts with the vision stated above, as well as practical solutions listed by planning scenarios that illustrate the costs and benefits (CEQA is a state law that is supposed to simply disclose the costs of new development) with objective-based data, such as this much VMT, GhG, number of housing units, retail, and so on. These plans codify the road map to get from problem to solution. The value of plans is to avoid duplication and waste of public investments, unite citizens to work towards a common vision/future, and show us practical, sensible ways of providing a place for everything we need to live in a more sustainable city.
Third, our elected and appointed leaders, we only have a few (zoning administrator, planning commission, city council, mayor, city attorney – why – and, county supervisors and commissioners opine on city making decisions) who are allowed/enabled to objectively weigh all costs and benefits of the planned solutions and then approve/put into practice the best tradeoffs to fix our stated problems. For middle income housing, the city of San Diego is choosing to use tools in our our Affordable Housing program and Complete Communities program in an attempt to solve our oft-stated problem. So, Eric is right… and rational.
The steps to solve for identified problems that affects everyone stats with understanding the problem, making a vision statement for our intended outcome, and then making codes and plans for ways to fix the problem. This direction is then decided by a select few who weight the costs/benefits using objective data.
I’ve been thinking and working on this original idea lately and will use a series of slides to illustrate the points:
What do you think?
Streets have a mix of uses. Streets needs to be viewed in terms of a series of layered uses and speeds and be designed appropriately in relationship to the buildings that front onto the streets. The following are a list of uses per layer from building edge to centerline:
1) Ground floor Layer – The building fronting onto the street. Hold long-term Commercial, Residential, and Civic uses.
2) Encroachment Layer – Holds signs, less than public seating, dining, displays, deliveries, doorway zones. Holds more longer-term Commercial, Residential and Civic uses.
3) The Sidewalk Layer – <5 mph pedestrian travel lane with walkway, ADA access, on a clear path.
4) Furnishing Layer – Street Tree planters, more public seating, street lights, signage, parking meters, newspaper stands. Holds longer-term Commerce uses.
5) Parking Layer – Public parking stalls (angled/parallel/perpendicular/reverse angle), painted stripes, handicap stalls, transit stops, loading/commercial zones, drop off/delivery, and short/long-term car storage. Holds more shorter-term Commercial, Industrial, and Residence uses.
6) Cycle Layer – <10 mph zone between stopped parking cars and transit/travel lanes for various cycles ridden by various aged people.
7) Transit Layer – <25 mph zone between pulling in/out of Parking Layer and into the Driving travel through lane(s).
8) Driving Travel Layer – <25 mph zone (because any more than that kills most people)
All of these layers are mostly interchangeable and not every element is on every street. The big idea here is to introduce to the Furnishing and Parking Layers permanent Parklets, and movable/temporary Tiny Mobile Units in place of private car storage. These facilities can be rented and used for metered time periods as shops, hotel, and short-term residences. This is a shorter than permanent building Live-Work mix of uses that sit in the public right-of-way and reclaim the street from primarily auto flow use to a more livable and complex area that prioritizes the speed and scale of people. The image is an unfinished draft.
A forthcoming Mixed-Use Street PROPENSITY Map will illustrate where the more to less mix of uses on the streets are located. Think of it like a land use plan map for our streets. And, finally, for cities and places with overly scaled streetscapes, this is a way to reclaim public space for private commerce and housing (some public). A link to the ratio of public to private space discussion is here. What do you think?
As we find safety and comfort in telecommuting during this pandemic, we are rightfully questioning the need to live within proximity to workplaces, office parks, and large city employment centers. We aren’t sheltering-in-place as much as we have been sheltering-in-our-neighborhoods, and we’re recognizing that walkability, bikability and an active, healthy lifestyle is easier to achieve without wasting time in a car commuting for our every daily need. With small towns and gateway communities being seen by upper middle class families as ‘livable’ places again, folks are relocating to small towns in close proximity to national parks and wilderness recreational areas to live a more outdoor recreational and lifestyle. This Fast Company ‘Zoom Town’ story alludes to one of the many lessons being taught by Covid-19… the value and pleasure of an active lifestyle (replacing the time spent commuting).
Another lesson is that individual ‘jobs’ are now mobile and families are more free to relocate, which is similar to retirees with a only few differences. My experience in planning for new residents in the small gateway towns of Taos, Joshua Tree, and Borrego Springs (adjacent to Anza Borrego Desert State Park) is to carefully balance the need for long-term local resident economic stability (that funds small town local amenities) with the value and disruptions that high visitor demand brings to national park seasonally. This tradeoff is precarious to manage and zoom/boom towns need useful planning tools to avoid being a bust.
This balancing act is artfully told by Stephen Spielberg in the horror movie, Jaws. Except that COVID-19 is the shark, and the little town of Amity is a gateway town to the beach, with the overwhelmed sheriff trying to balance the safety and needs of the locals with the mass of summertime visitors that help the town survive the rest of the year. The Sherriff’s solution was to blend local knowledge (Quint) together with outside expertise (Hooper). There are several new toolkits online to provide that outside expertise to help towns adjust to new realities. In addition to the Gateway and Natural Amenity Regional Initiative toolkit referenced in the Fast Company article, friends and colleagues, PlaceMakers, have released their small town and cities Pandemic Toolkit, here, in response to these new challenges imposed by COVID-19.
“We need to be grounded in that feeling of being around friends and family… Home. Being home is the idea that goes to the heart of what makes food (neighborhoods) great.
It is an approach to cooking (urban design) that is rooted in respect. Respect for the ingredients (people/places), respect for tradition. It gives the fancy innovations and clever deconstructions a heart and a soul.“ – Anthony Bourdain, 2008 (Spain – No Reservations)
He said this at the end of an episode describing why the best restaurants in the world were found in Spain. And it encapsulated succinctly how I see urban design, as noted by my parentheses mixed into his quote above. From the intended designed experiences, ingredients and elements, to the reliance on traditions for innovation.
The above photo of Anthony and President Obama eating noodles and drinking cold beer in Hanoi reminded me of my time living in Korea and Singapore in the ’90s. I traveled everywhere, designed a few interesting places, and surfed some exotic spots. It was wonderful. But when I was feeling too foreign and out of sorts with everyone around me, I would go eat at McDonald’s, seek out ex-pat friends for beers, and sit down to watch any American football/basketball/baseball game in order to ground myself in that feeling of home.
The places we inhabit should be purposely arranged and cultivated to bring both the delight of the new and unexpected along with a recognizable structure and traditions to our neighborhoods and homes. Anthony mentioned that too…
The featured Spanish chief in 2008 said he simply wanted to bring joy and order to his guest’s experiences. And to avoid being boring or too serious, because ultimately, we have to be happy.
[Our nation’s old values, attitudes, and prejudices that built our traditions, culture, and homes are being deconstructed today. This is meaningful and healthy, for we can pick and choose what is useful and move forward towards a braver, more just world rather taking the extraordinary risks of having reinventing everything with more failures than successes, especially with most of us living on the razor-thin economic margins. Do Well, Doubt Not!]
An answer to our demands to end systematic racism will be found in reforming our role and structure of governance. Rick Cole, former Santa Monica City Manager, made some solid points about how our government system of today is a turn of the 20th century Progressive Era construct, a response to industrialization, in an era of racism. Racism was prevalent throughout that political movement comprising mostly white, small-town, Progressive voters grabbed the reins of power from business elites, government anti-trust policies shifting power from the elite robber barons.
As Thomas Leonard writes in, Illiberal Reformers, Princeton University Press, 2016, “The industrial revolution and the rise of big business after 1870 dramatically increased American living standards, but the era was plagued by recurring financial crises, violent labor conflicts, and two deep economic contractions. In response, progressive economists sought to regulate the American economy through a new administrative state based on scientific management principles. They established economics as an academic discipline, while promoting and helping build regulatory and independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve (1913), the Federal Trade Commission (1914), and the International Trade Commission (1916).
Unfortunately, their policies were based on social Darwinism and eugenics and excluded groups deemed inferior — including women, Southern- and Eastern-European immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and blacks.”
Red Lining and resulting zoning were born from that era, which I have spent a career focusing on reforming. However, I only just now realized that this advocacy for zoning reform was a very limited view and that I should be advocating for government reform in the same way.