The phrase Transit Oriented Development is now sufficiently familiar that it is often known by its acronym alone, TOD. There are many websites devoted to TOD, including one prominently featuring plans by the US High Speed Rail Association. Here is a bit of enthusiasm from the Transit Oriented Development webpage:
TRANSIT ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT is the exciting fast growing trend in creating vibrant, livable communities. Also known as Transit Oriented Design, or TOD, it is the creation of compact, walkable communities centered around high quality train systems. This makes it possible to live a higher quality life without complete dependence on a car for mobility and survival.
Earlier on my other blog, in Industrialized Space and Time, I discussed the ways in which TOD sometimes goes a little off the rails, if you don’t mind me saying so. The areas that I discussed and photographed for that piece are all within walking distance of my office (where I am now writing this), and in fact I often walk through these neighborhoods on my evening constitutional. This is a part of Beaverton (southwest of Portland) with which I am well familiar.
Beaverton, however, is now a town of nearly 100,000. It could be called a suburb of Portland, or it could be called an “edge city” in Joel Garreau’s sense. Beaverton covers a substantial part of Washington County, and there are parts of it that are much less familiar to me (such as at the southern end of Beaverton bordering on Tigard) than those portions that I visit almost every day (such as the northern end). One of the areas of Beaverton where I rarely go is sometimes roughly referred to as “Murray-Scholls” because two of the through streets in the area — Murray Blvd. and Scholls Ferry Road — cross here.
One of the reasons that I rarely visit the Murray-Scholls area is its poor freeway connections. However, recently when I was in the Murray-Scholls area I realized that its relative suburban isolation has led to interesting consequences that seem to fly in the face of the contemporary TOD model. Now, most strip malls are not in the least bit theoretically interesting, but I have noticed two strip mall developments in the Murray-Scholls area that are theoretically interesting, and I find them theoretically interesting precisely because of their implicit rejection of the TOD model. If ever there were an example of transit disoriented development, the Murray-Scholls neighborhood would be it.
The whole point of TOD, its raison d’être, is to reduce reliance upon highways and cars, so there is a sense in which it is irrelevant that the Murray-Scholls areas has poor freeway connections, but it doesn’t stop there. The area is not only inconvenient to reach by road, it is also poorly served by mass transit. Of course, there are buses, but we all know that when people talk about TOD they aren’t talking about dingy buses and their half-indigent, half-mad riders. When people talk about TOD they are thinking about shiny new trains, like the Portland area’s MAX train, which is a commuter rail system that the upwardly mobile can ride without a sense of embarrassment (and whose clientele probably will not vomit on you).
The Murray-Scholls neighborhood has its primary origins as a “bedroom” community serving the greater Portland metropolitan area. There is a lot of housing here, including apartments, single family homes, and more recent common-wall row houses. A lot of housing means a lot of people, and because of the quality of the schools in the area there are many families with children. Because of the distance to any city center proper, and because of the poor freeway and mass transit connections, those who live in the neighborhood tend to stay in the neighborhood except for specific purposes like (obviously) commuting to work. Young adults who do not yet have a car or a license are more-or-less stuck in the neighborhood.
There are two large strip malls in the Murray-Scholls area of Beaverton, Murray Scholls Town Center and Progress Ridge TownSquare, the latter being the newer and more sophisticated conception. Both were built by Gramor Development (headquartered in Tualatin, OR), and you could probably walk from one to the other in about 15 minutes (I drove between the two). Here is what Gramor says about Murray Scholls Town Center:
Murray Scholls Town Center is a 240,000 square foot mixed-use center located a short distance from Washington Square Mall at the busy intersection of Murray Boulevard and Scholls Ferry Road in Beaverton. This quality built center constructed almost exclusively with brick is home to more than nine restaurants, Starbucks, 24 hour Fitness, and several quality retail and office tenants.
Murray Scholls Town Center is a mixed-use project with a balance of retail, restaurants, office and service uses. The Town Center has a scenic pedestrian pathway that follows the perimeter of the adjacent man made lake. It has become a popular destination with over 9 eateries, 2 of which are located lakeside; Cafe Murrayhill and Ruby Tuesday.
And here is what they say about Progress Ridge Town Square:
Progress Ridge TownSquare is nestled between the affluent neighborhoods of Bull Mountain and Murray Hill, straddling the city line between Tigard and Beaverton. This 200,000 sf TownSquare is anchored by New Seasons Market, one of the finest specialty grocers in the business, and Cinetopia, a Luxury Theater. Alongside New Seasons and Cinetopia is a collection of fine retail, restaurants, and service businesses. The scenic area provides a beautiful backdrop to what will be one of the nicest built centers in the Portland Metro Area.
As soon as I saw these malls, and saw the level of local pedestrian traffic that they were generating, I said to myself, “These malls are going to be successful.”
Not every strip mall is a success. There any many small strip malls that are not large enough to generate their own foot traffic, so that an isolated strip mall is simply a place that people drive to for a particular errand, and leave as soon as the errand is completed. A mall must achieve a certain size before it becomes the kind of place that consumers visit for the experience of shopping, and not for a particular errand. In additional to critical mass in terms of sheer size, it must also have, or create, a sense of place. I have noticed that both Murray Scholls Town Center and Progress Ridge Town Square have significant water features and walking paths, and these contribute to their functionality as quasi-public spaces.
Failed commercial and pedestrian developments are not at all uncommon, and their distinctive features include spaces built for the purpose of lingering where no one does in fact linger. Elsewhere I have called spaces for lingering non-transient spaces. When a non-transient space is employed exclusively or almost exclusively for transient purposes, then this constitutes a failure in planning and design. Similarly, if transient spaces are employed exclusively nor almost exclusively for non-transient purposes, then this also constitutes a failure in planning and design.
The essential idea of a strip mall is automotive convenience. There is plenty of parking, you pull in close to the store, run in to do your shopping, then run out to your car again and drive to the next stop along our daisy-chain of errands. That’s how the strip mall is conceptualized, and that it how the strip mall often functions. Strip mall development is fed by, and in turn feeds into, suburban sprawl. But the critique of non-TOD, non-urban conventional development — i.e., suburban sprawl — is both more comprehensive and more radical. Strip malls are said to make us reliant on our cars, and our cars make us reliant on imported hydrocarbons. Moreover, our reliance on cars has reduced the walking that we do, and contributed to our unhealthy sedentary lifestyles.
In urban design circles such strip malls are treated with disdain, and rightly so, for these and other reasons, but some strip malls can come to serve very different functions in their communities, and I believe this to be the case with what I am here calling transit disoriented development. I propose to call such transit disoriented development island developments, because they are like islands of consumer retail in a sea of suburban housing. Because people tend to stay in their neighborhood that is poorly served by any transportation infrastructure, and especially adolescents and young adults who have money to spend and a desire to pass their recreational time with their friends and outside the house of their parents, one sees a significant amount of foot traffic, i.e., pedestrians, in and around these strip malls. In such areas, de facto “captive” consumers become shopping locavores. Here, the strip malls are not necessarily or primarily focused on automobile traffic.
It is important to recall the role of consumer culture in the US. Consumer spending is a large part of the economy in the US, and this is driven by a culture that engages in shopping as a recreational activity. It has long been a matter of comment that large shopping malls have replaced the traditional town square as a place to gather, and this has political implications because shopping malls are privately owned and the owner can control who is allowed inside, how they are to behave, and what they are allowed to say while on private property. Such policies are enforced by security guards.
This political discussion has, so far as I am aware, been focused on large malls with internal spaces, rather than strip malls. Enclosed malls tend to be developed by different developers and placed in different areas than strip malls. Strip malls had appeared adventitiously, wherever space permitted, but now with larger strip malls this is changing and one is more commonly seeing large, unified strip mall development on a scale commensurate with enclosed malls.
Another major change in mall development is that enclosed malls are giving way to strip malls. I am not going to discuss this in detail here, though it is an equally interesting commercial phenomenon from a sociological standpoint; I believe that there is something of interest here, something of theoretical interest like strip malls serving a pedestrian population as a quasi-public space, but I can’t yet formulate this concisely. Even if I can’t yet formulate it, I can certainly see it. Today I drove past the Janzten Beach Mall in north Portland, which is one of the oldest and one of the least successful malls in the Portland area. It is being torn down. Some years ago an enclosed mall at Tanasborne, very close to my office, was torn down and replaced by several strip malls. Structurally these developments were perfectly sound; we must conclude that property owners believe that they can extract more money from a strip mall than an enclosed mall.
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Twentieth Century Urbanism on a Grand Scale
We do not know who it was that incised the city plan of Nippur into a clay tablet, but we do know that it was some particular individual who wielded the stylus, because generalities and abstractions do not draw plans (or inscribe them into clay). City planning is an art for the urban masses, but it is also highly individual, if not idiosyncratic. Particular planners and architects have left their personal imprint upon the public works that they have overseen.
Among the most visionary products of the twentieth century were the cities that were built from scratch on the basis of grand plans drawn for the purpose. This exemplifies what Edmund Bacon called, “The City as an Act of Will,” and serves as an antithetical counterpoint to the organic cities that had their origins in classical antiquity or the middle ages. (In The Rational Reconstruction of Cities I cited Nordlingen as an example of an organic city, while in The Exaptation of the City I cited medieval Split, which grew in and around Diocletian’s palace as an example of organicism sprouting up like weeds amid a planned structure.)
In his Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, Antonio Sant’Elia proclaimed, “Every generation must build its own city.” In this spirit the architects and urban planners of the twentieth century sought to build their own cities. Twentieth century urban planning has a certain quality about it that might be called (and I don’t recall where I first encountered the term) “Stalinist gigantism.”
As implied in the Edmund Bacon quote pictured above, the city as an act of will has about it a Nietzschean dimension (or perhaps you would prefer that I call this Promethean) — a kind of self-assertion that risks being grandiose and impractical if it goes wrong, but which can also be visionary and transformative if it concretely realizes what it seeks to achieve. This Nietzschean dimension of urban design was particularly evident in the twentieth century.
Washington D.C. is a wonderful example of urban design, but Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s 1791plan is a perfect 18th century, Enlightenment-era plan, as Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s reworking of Paris is the perfect 19th century embodiment of city planning. The Haussmannization of Paris is not only a fascinating design, but was also singularly influential in the reconstruction of Europe’s medieval cities on the model of a plan more consistent with the emerging modern reality of industrialized urbanism. However, I am going to here focus exclusively on twentieth century urban design and its intellectual context.
A lot of urban planning is painfully pedestrian. Redevelopment, urban renewal, and even dreaded “gentrification” can all be pursued with little imagination, and with results that I find to be uniformly dreary, but which others apparently find to be quite congenial. (I have several times cited the example of Orenco Station, which is close to my office where I am now writing this, and which is admired by many, but which I find to be rather hideous in its artificiality.) My selection of twentieth century planned cities is intended to constitute the antithesis of the pedestrian. You can find a (fairly extensive) list of planned cities on Wikipedia, so there are plenty of examples from which to choose. I chose what I considered to be the most spectacular examples.
The dates given below are somewhat (though not entirely) arbitrary. I have tried to select the beginning date as the date upon which a design was selected or approved, and the ending date as the date upon which the city began to meaningfully function as intended, but these are of course open to debate. So the dates should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt; ultimately they are only important to establish sequence, hence precedent.
The Griffins and Canberra
Chicago architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin won a 1911 contest for the design of Canberra, being one among 137 entries. Their design was selected in 1912, and in 1913 Walter Griffin traveled to Australia to survey the site and initiate construction. The work of the Griffins, however, was repeatedly stalled and frustrated. Eventually the Australians themselves admitted that the Griffins had been supplied with false data and that those involved in some of these shenanigans had been appointed to oversee the further construction of Canberra. Understandably, Griffin resigned his position as Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction and refused further participation. Thus whether we can say that the Griffin plan was realized in the building of Canberra is open to question. Certainly the Griffin plan left a decisive imprint on Canberra, but whether or not it conforms to the Griffins’ vision of, “…an ideal city — a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future,” is problematic.
The Griffin plan for Canberra was ahead of its time in its respect for the natural features of the land upon which the city was to be sited — it might even be considered the spiritual ancestor of landscape urbanism (though this title ought probably to be reserved for Sir Ebenezer Howard). In this sense, the Griffin plan, while visionary in the best grandiose twentieth century style, also constitutes the antithesis to the grandiose tabula rasa city plans that were essentially conceived as universally applicable to any site with bare ground, as with the case of Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris.
Le Corbusier and the Voisin Plan for Paris
Le Corbusier never got to build his Voisin Plan for Paris, but he worked on it on and off throughout his life, and it has been said that the Voisin Plan has exercised a kind of subterranean influence over city planners since it was first proposed. In fact, many of Le Corbusier’s ideas have exercised a continuing influence, and some of them have been influential because of the reaction against them. Perhaps Le Corbusier’s most notorious pronouncement was, “A house is a machine for living in.” Here Le Corbusier shows himself to be a prophet of the Machine Age, and when the Machine Age has been presented in this way, it has provoked a reaction. But the reaction against Le Corbusier’s conception does not call its validity into question, only its popularity. And if a house is a machine for living in, then a city is a vast collection of such machines — in other words, a city is a factory for living in.
Le Corbusier was prepared to turn Paris into a factory for living in. This would be an apt description of his Voisin Plan. Anyone who has walked through the area of the Rive Droite that was the intended site of the Voisin Plan will find Le Corbusier’s vision rather shocking, but there are those who think it would have been beautiful. After all, was Paris not already substantially rebuilt in the nineteenth century by Haussmann? Why not rebuild Paris once again, but now on the model of the most advanced ideas of the twentieth century, just as Paris had been rebuilt according to the most advanced ideas of the nineteenth century?
May’s Brigade and Magnitogorsk
Ernst May and several Frankfurt associates that collectively came to be called the “May Brigade” arrived in the young Soviet Union and rolled up their shirt sleeves to begin the work of constructing the built environment of the worker’s paradise — hopes were high and anything seemed possible. May’s team had made its reputation in Frankfurt during the Wiemar period, where they were instrumental in addressing the housing shortage in the midst of political instability. This was exactly what the Soviet Union needed. But while May’s work in Frankfurt has been described as, “one of the most remarkable city planning experiments in the twentieth century” (and for this reason I might have included this effort in this present list), it was most notable not for its visionary quality but for its egalitarianism. Many were housed at a reasonable price. This is an admirable accomplishment, but it lacks the elements of hubris and gigantism that Magnitogorsk and other Soviet-era cities possessed.
Magnitogorsk was to be a Soviet show piece, exhibiting the triumph of socialist industrialization under Stalin. Ironically, the socialist showpiece was modeled on the successful strongholds of American capitalist industrialism. It might seem odd to us today, in an age of post-industrial rust belt urban depopulation, that the planners of Magnitogorsk should look to American industrial cities like Pittsburgh as their model, but it was industrial production that Soviet planners fetishized, rather than any modern fetish like livability or sustainability, and the American industrial cities of the first half of the twentieth century were symbolic of industrial and commercial productivity. Relevant documents for this period of Soviet architecture can be found in the book Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution, by El Lissitzky; an extract from this book can be read at The Charnel-House blog, Ernst May, “City Building in the USSR” (1931).
Speer and Welthauptstadt Germania
I hesitated to include Albert Speer in this list of twentieth century city planners, as I would not want to associate any of the other planners and architects mentioned here with Speer, but there is no question that the plans to rebuild Berlin as the “World Capital Germania” (“Welthauptstadt Germania”), presumably after the victory of the Third Reich, falls unambiguously into the category of grandiose, visionary, and gargantuan urbanism. I urge the reader to see the film Undergångens arkitektur (“The Architecture of Doom: the Nazi Philosophy of Beauty Through Violence”) as well as Jonathan Meades’ excellent documentary Jerry Building, both of which explore the Nazi fascination with architecture (and enormity).
Because of the Nazi fascination both with architecture and bombastic public display, the plans to rebuild Berlin as the world capital Germania were suitably megalomaniacal, and a great deal of documentation remains regarding these plans for Berlin. Welthauptstadt Germania would have been not merely the city as an act of will, but the city as triumph of the will. Hitler was quite explicit that the rebuilt Berlin should be so grandiose that London and Paris would pale by comparison, and Hitler and Speer not only were thinking big in structural terms, but also in temporal terms: the buildings of Germania were to be constructed according to the “theory of ruin value” (“Ruinenwerttheorie” or “Ruinengesetz”): buildings were to be constructed with the purpose of retaining their imposing and monumental character even after they are abandoned and fall into ruin.
Costa and Brasília
Best known for his collaboration with Oscar Niemeyer, Lúcio Costa also worked with Le Corbusier, and the latter’s influence is clearly visible in some of the most famous works of international modernism in Brazil. Despite the obvious influence of Le Corbusier, Brazilian international modernism has a uniquely organic character that employs sinuous lines that immediately remind one of the famous pavements of Rio de Janeiro along Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. I’ve written several times about Brasília, which is certainly one of the most interesting examples of macroscopic urban planning in the twentieth century, and the grandiose, visionary plan for which Costa is remembered.
Brasilia could be called a tabula rasa town plan (in a way like Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan, mentioned above), and it represents the antithesis of the Griffin’s plan for Canberra, which made a prescient effort to be sensitive to the lay of the land where the city was to be constructed. Le Corbusier literally would have flattened an historic district of Paris in order to construct his Voisin Plan on its intended site. This is one kind of tabula rasa plan for a city. But a city’s history is not no easily banished (or replaced). Wittgenstein wrote, “The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes.” We could say as much of a city, or a district of a city, cleared for rebuilding. But Brasília was built de novo, on vacant land, and there were no ashes and no hovering spirits. Even the “natural” features of the city, like Lake Paranoá, are artificial. This artificiality gave freedom to the planners, but came at a cost. Critic Robert Hughes called it a “ceremonial slum,” and one person has called it, “the folly of man on a metropolitan scale.” Such quotes could be multiplied at will.
Doxiadis and Islamabad
Constantine Doxiadis (Κωνσταντίνου Α. Δοξιάδη) was a man with a theory. Like Costa, Doxiadis had a reputation for wide humanistic scholarship of which architecture and urban planning were but one expression. Doxiadis’ theories of urbanism (which he called Ekistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements) grew out of his wider reflections on the nature of human society. For a time, Doxiadis was one of the most famous urban planners in the world, an architectural celebrity (sort of like Rem Koolhaas today), his office was involved in projects across the world. Today, his books are (mostly) out of print and there are new theories of planning and other celebrity architects to advocate these newer theories (though there is an online archive of his life and work available).
Islamabad not only sought to do justice to Doxiadis’ theory of Ekistics, it also sought to conform itself to the site — the already existing city of Rawalpindi (in all its unplanned, organic squalor), Rawal Lake, and the Margalla Hills — as well as to provide the benefits of a modern, orderly, planned city. To combine these diverse and sometimes seemingly incompatible planning imperatives in one unified urban area is no small accomplishment. To Doxiadis’ credit, and making a concession to the economic reality of Pakistan, the design of the city included low income housing, which, however humble, included the necessities of life:
“In Islamabad no house has less than two rooms and a kitchen, W. C., and a shower room. Sufficient space is left for outdoor living. Each house has closed, semi-covered or open living spaces, necessary for comfortable living in a country with cold winters and very hot summers, is supplied with running water and electricity, and connected with the sewage system.”
While I doubt that this plan has been rigorously adhered to as Islamabad has grown and filled itself in by way of the ordinary business of life in a humid sub-tropical climate, it is a realistic and admirable ideal in a part of the world in which many of these conveniences are lacking.
Nicoletti and Fontvieille
Manfredi Nicoletti either studied under or worked with Buckminster Fuller, Pietro Belluschi, Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, the studio of Walter Gropius, Sigfried Giedion and Minoru Yamasaki. You can go a long way with a resume like that, and this resume took Nicoletti to Monaco, where he worked with former Prince of Monaco, Prince Rainier III, sometimes called the “Builder Prince,” to create a new suburb of the tiny principality of Monaco.
While this is still urban planning on a grand scale, Fontvieille represents the sober pragmatism of the later twentieth century — international modernism disciplined by pragmatism, possessed of sufficient resources, but not yet informed by post-modernism or the spectacular non-naturalism of the Frank Gehry revolution. Despite the size of the project, built almost entirely on reclaimed land, it does not give one the sense of Stalinist giganticism that some of the other planned cities above exhibit so effectively. In this sense, Fontvieille represents the end of the era, coming at the end of the twentieth century.
Note: I haven’t included Dubai in the above even though it exhibits many of the crucial features of visionary urban design, since Dubai is still very much a work in progress, and many of its distinctive structures (like the Burj Khalifa) were completed in the twenty-first century. The ongoing rebuilding of Astana (where Nicoletti, above, has an enormous and remarkable concert hall built) is another example like Dubai — thought clearly a product of twentieth century urban design thought, it is too recent to figure in this list.
Another Note: For this post I attempted to do some research on Naypyidaw in Burma, but couldn’t find enough information. Does anyone know who drew up the plans for Naypyidaw? Similarly, I looked into Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, but couldn’t find the name of a planner associated with its development. Does anyone know who drew up the plans for Petaling Jaya?
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One of the most interesting urban spaces I have ever visited is the city of Split in Croatia, on the Dalmatian coast. The distinctive feature of Split is that the Roman emperor Diocletian had a palace built here for his retirement, incorporating his mausoleum, and this both sturdy and beautiful Roman construction has survived the centuries remarkably well, with the city of Split growing within, through, around, and on top of the surviving structures of Diocletian’s palace.
The palace itself, as befits a palace of a Roman emperor, was easily as large as a small town, and this is precisely the function that it served in the Middle Ages. When life became desperate and dangerous, and Roman power no longer kept the peace, the local peoples retreated within the walls of the palace, bricked up the openings, and turned in into a fortress. What had been a purpose-built structure aggrandizing a Roman emperor became a symbol of Roman imperial decline.
In the following centuries, every kind of medieval structure was interpolated into the ruins of Diocletian’s palace, so that there are stately patrician houses in the Gothic style, as well as every kind of shelter cobbled together from bits and pieces of stone, entablature, column base, or what have you — that is to say, portions of the ruined palace used to rebuild some small corner of that same palace for a contemporaneous use that had nothing to do with the retirement of a Roman emperor or the safeguarding of his memory in an elaborate mausoleum.
Everything about Split within the area of Diocletian’s palace is about Bricolage, about exaptation, about the city as kluge, about making-do and getting by — and, I might add, doing so rather elegantly at times. The stately peristyle courtyard now serves as a pleasant open-air cafe, and the gray stones of the Roman masonry are contrasted to colorful umbrellas of vendors making a living within the ancient walls, much as the interpolated structures make a kind of living for themselves within these walls.
I was reminded of my visit to Split and Diocletian’s palace today when I was reading about “tactical urbanism.” This recent grass roots movement of tactical urbanism, in so far as I understand it (and I am by no means well-informed on the subject, only having learned about it today) emphasizes immediate and low-cost measures to make urban spaces more usable and more human. This idea of tactical urbanism corresponds to what I have identified as the bottom-up, constructive aspect of urbanism, in contradistinction the top-down, non-constructive urbanism of urban planning and design. The idea of tactical urbanism takes urban constructivism another step by emphasizing the constructive agency of urban actors.
When Diocletian’s palace was built it was built to a grand design if anything ever was so built — there was a plan and a purpose, and an execution of this plan in accordance with the purpose. This lasted a little longer than Diocletian himself. It was not long that Diocletian had been installed in the mausoleum he had built for himself that his palace, tomb, and memorial become something else entirely. The palace survived, but only by ceasing to be a palace. This is not merely a poetic metaphor, but also a lesson.
We cannot call the original plan of Diocletian’s palace an instance of urban design, because it was not conceived or designed as an urban space (and the Romans were very experienced in the design and construction of urban spaces de novo), so although I would like to coin the term “strategic urbanism” in contradistinction to “tactical urbanism” (if the term has not already been coined) this doesn’t quite fit Diocletian’s palace (though we could call Brasília an instance of strategic urbanism). However, we certainly can call Diocletian’s palace strategic architecture, and we can contrast this strategic architecture with the tactical architecture of the structures that adventitiously infilled the interstices of the palace.
The history of a city is a process of urban succession, precisely analogous to the ecological succession of habitats. The mature climax urban ecosystem is a result of many cycles in urban succession, and central to this process of urban succession is the very real dialectic, played out across the built environment, of non-constructive top-down initiatives and constructive, bottom-up initiatives. One of the truly interesting things about Split is that it enjoys the unusual circumstance of beginning with a top-down, non-constructive, even strategic construction, that has been followed over the centuries by constructive interventions in the exapted urban fabric. I think that this is very much the exception to the rule, and that most cities begin their urban lives as a bottom-up, constructive initiatives.
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One of the great weaknesses of urban design is to act as though (and, not incidentally, to plan as though) a particular way of life follows from the built environment in which that life is lived.
Initially, the exact opposite is the case: a built environment follows from a way of life; indeed, a built environment is built in response to better accommodating a particular way of life.
Note that above I wrote “act as though” and I did not say that urban planners actually think that a way of life follows from the built environment. However, it is sufficient to observe that designs are proposed and are intended to shape a particular way of life. (I wrote about this in Industrialized Space and Time.)
In fact, this idea of shaping life has become rather popular lately in the ideas of choice architecture and soft paternalism, which are intended to give a theoretical formulation to the well-known intuitive phenomenon what individuals can be guided toward particular existential choices by the context in which a choice is made, which latter can be engineered. In this spirit we can think of urban design as embodied choice architecture.
Note also that I said that the built environment follows from a way of life initially, and by emphasizing “initially” I mean to say that after the first emergence of urban environment emerged from a particular way of life. Since the time of initial urbanism ways of life and urban building programs have been involved in a continuous feedback loop — a process that has continued for more the ten thousand years, and is therefore now a deeply entrenched feature of the human condition (and will only increase its influence as we become more and more an urban species).
Despite this feedback loop that has allowed for at least limited causality from urban design to a way of life, the initial causality from a way of life to urban design remains primary. The way of life is primary, even if that way of life is shaped by the built environment in which it is lived.
Because of this primacy, the attempt to create an urban design that will paternalistically shape the lives of those who live in this context has strong limits. Communities are designed, structures and built, and yet the way of life that goes on accommodates only those designs and structures that are already consonant with that way of life.
Despite the fact that urban designers design urban structures (and even the “urban fabric” at its most extensive reach) they have not yet come to grips with the facts of life of urbanized industrial-technological civilization. The structures designed reflect an ideal of urban life much more than the facts of urban life. This remains the strength of Jane Jacobs’ work, which, for whatever limitations it may have, is firmly rooted in the facts of urban life.
Will there come a time in the future, when humanity is almost exclusively an urban species, when this primacy is reversed and urban design is primary and shapes the way of life more than the way of life shapes urban design? We cannot reject the possibility. As yet, however, it remains a possibility and is not an actuality.
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I’ve just started to listen to the book on CD version of Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City, which I wrote about shortly after starting this second blog, since I had just read a review of this book. I am happy to say that the book is much better than the review, which just goes to show that one ought never to give too much credence to reviews.
I particularly enjoyed this quote:
“Many of the ideas in this book draw on the wisdom of the great urbanist Jane Jacobs, who knew that you need to walk a city’s streets to see its soul. She understood that the people who make a city creative need affordable real estate. But she also made mistakes that came from relying too much on her ground-level view and not using conceptual tools that help one think through an entire system.”
I have many times referenced Jane Jacobs in my own ruminations, so it was interesting to see that this is one of Glaeser’s important influences. I was even more interested in Glaeser’s characterization of Jacob’s perspective as “ground level,” as this touches on what I recently wrote in Nazca to Ica:
The two perspectives offered on the Nazca lines by the tower and an airplane flyover also reminded me of a point that I imperfectly attempted to make in my post on Epistemic Orders of Magnitude, in which I employed aerial photographs of cities in order to demonstrate the similar structures of cities transformed in the image of industrial-technological civilization. This similarity in structure may be masked by one’s experience of an urban area from the perspective of passing through the built environment on a human scale — i.e., simply walking through a city, which is how most people experience an urban area.
Now, in light of what I have subsequently written about constructivism, I might say that our experience of a built environment is intrinsically constructive, except for that of the urban planner or urban designer, who must see (or attempt to see) things whole. However, the urban planner must also inform his or her work with the street-level “constructive” perspective or the planning made exclusively from a top-down perspective is likely to be a failure. Almost all of the most spectacular failures in urban design have come about from an attempt to impose, from the top down, a certain vision and a certain order which may be at odds with the organically emergent order that rises from the bottom up.
One could say, then, that Jacobs accepted the intrinsically constructive “ground-level view” of urbanism without supplementing that point of view with a non-constructive view from on high, which Glaeser suggests can be attained through the use of “conceptual tools.”
Glaeser also worried aloud about, “Why do so many smart people enact so many many foolish urban policies?” This immediately made me think of the book to which I just finished listening, Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind by Gary Marcus. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Marcus’ book, in partial answer to Glaeser’s rhetorical question:
“Put the contamination of belief, confirmation bias, and motivated reasoning together, and you wind up with a species prepared to believe, well, just about anything.” (p.57)
This is all too true, but, of course, natural selection puts a brake the scope of belief, since if a belief becomes too maladaptive it will contribute to negative selection pressure — something that Marcus knows well, as the book is very much imbued with the spirit of evolutionary psychology, though he makes several explicit criticisms of the discipline throughout his book.
But if the human mind is a kluge, haphazardly assembled, with layers of functionality stacked on top of older layers sometimes at cross-purposes to that which is built on top of it, certainly the city is the ultimate kluge. I have observed many times that planned cities are usually the result of utopian schemes that in implementation all too often become dystopian nightmares. The healthy, thriving, successful city is a kluge — as is the economy that drives it.