Saturday, July 30


On the Urban Edge

In response to Andy's post: This started as a comment in the box but got too long.

Urbanism, and The New Urbanism popular in the architecture school here, is complex and messy, and the theories which explain it are often too simplistic. Urbanism is the study of city growth and city development, and New Urbanism is a philosophical and practical attempt to work out a way to bring back suburbanized America to a more classical European model. I was a fervent New Urbanist when I began school here, but of late I've developed a more nuanced, and to some degree, skeptical view of the theories in vogue in the Traditional Architecture community. At the same time, I am very sympathetic and supportive of most New Urbanist efforts. You've touched on a very good question here, Andy, as it's something which often comes up round the School.

I think the major difference is that Americans attach a lot of value to owning land, however small a plot. Hence suburbia, the estranged stepdaughter of Little House on the Prairie and Sir Ebeneezer Howard's peculiar nineteenth-century book Garden Cities of To-Morrow. Europeans are content to live in row-houses or apartments over shops in the urban hive. One way of explaining this is the Transect, which suggests a continuum of building types from the extremely rural to the extremely urban, a sort of progression from country houses to city apartment blocks. This is useful in some regards, though it shouldn't be taken as holding true in all cases. In the case of small Italian cities, and most traditional cities, you see a desire to hold the 'urban edge' against the farming hinterland that lasted up till around 150 years ago with the sprawl of the Industrial Revolution.

It is, on the whole, a rather attractive impulse, and results in these delightful little toy cities set amid green meadows and hills like jewels on velvet. This seems the result, less of aesthetics than a more practical problem, as city walls had persisted to demarcate the edge until that time. Even then urban defense works did not always mark the city-country edge: many cities, such as Salonica under the Ottomans, had large cultivated fields inside their walls, to feed the urban population in case of a siege. Plague, famine and a fairly low population rate did the rest. There was sometimes a self-conscious desire to keep cities small--in some Greek city-states, once the population reached a set number, people were encouraged to go out and found a new colonial city--hence the Greek towns of southern Italy, Paestum, Naples and so many others that stood in Magna Graecia, as it was once known.

Urban sprawl is, however, a pretty old phenomenon. It's just it has been handled in the past in a way which looks tasteful to our untrained early-twenty-first century eyes. The new neighborhoods of belle-epoque Rome, such as the enormous barracks-like flats that blot out the sun in the Lateran, were hideous to the aesthetes of the time, while great cities such as London are the result of a collection of villages that urban-sprawled into one gigantic super-city. Many of London's neighborhoods are just old outlying villages that got eaten up by the growing metropolis. Time has covered the gaucheness or ugly sadness of some parts of the past with a patina of romantic decay. See A.W.N. Pugin's Contrasts, for a good example of an earlier, and explicitly Catholic, critique.

Of course, sometimes in the past urban sprawl was handled well. The main tenent of the New Urbanism, the movement spearheaded by the existentialist Leon Krier and currently much in vogue in certain circles, is that rather than sprawl we ought to have duplication--rather than letting urban quarters get too big, build a new urban quarter, walkable and human, on the edge, with new restaurants and new shops and grocery stores. Ideally, such a neighborhood ought to be able to be crossed in about five or ten minutes on foot, a figure which works out to the size of Rome's own neighborhoods. This isn't the first time such a solution has been proposed. The nineteenth century developed the railroad suburb, a walkable, village-like urban quarter with a small town center and railroad station to connect it to the urban center, with picturesque and very humane results. (This is a nicer variation on its modern cousin, the 'edge city,' in which suburban developments spur the construction of strip-malls and Borders clones.) Either model is doable, and certainly there's been a lot of interest in the New Urbanism since the founding of communities like Seaside, Rosemary Beach and Windsor, all in Florida, and around ten others, scattered round the country. Their urbanism is based on European and traditional American models, encouraging walking rather than driving, harmonious architecture, mixed-use zoning permitting apartments over shops--thus avoiding the dead zone which commercial quarters become at night--and greater density than most suburban neighborhoods.

I like the idea of the New Urbanism, I really do, but part of me wonders if it's too good to be true, a William Morris dream with a touch of self-destructive loveliness to it. Jolly Leon Krier's faintly morbid existentialist streak also puts me on guard as a Catholic; for him a church seems like just another piece of meaning-making urban furniture, less a place of prayer and liturgy than a vague symbol of transcendence on par or even less important than, say, the town hall, gymnasium or one of those (quite wonderful, yes) landmark towers he is so fascinated by. Most of the developments built according to its tenets have been too successful for their own good; only rich people live in Seaside, Florida, now; rather than bicycling to work they commute in for the weekend in their beach-house. And I don't begrudge them that, it's their money and their right to do with it as they wish. Without them, there would be no New Urbanism here, even in fragmentary form. But Seaside and such other communities can't be considered proper working models of the philosophy.

There's also the small fact people seem to like suburbia. I don't want to fall into the fallacy of simply dismissing it as the tastes of the booboisie but legislating life through urbanism and architecture--the massive worker hives of the Soviet Union, for instance--has a slightly collectivist edge which sits poorly on my stomach. I'm indifferent to suburbia myself, neither loving nor hating it, as I realize my own suburban experience is vastly different from the way other people grew up. I grew up in a quiet, forested neighborhood where they didn't cut down the trees and name streets after them, but kept them and let them grow, and in the early days sometimes we even saw deer bound through our yard. I wouldn't say it was an ideal, workable system as humane as Seaside is or ought to be, but it wasn't the soulless dystopia people like to make it out to be. We made it work.

I still want the New Urbanism to work, but there's several things that will have to happen if it's going to make it in the U.S., for real.

1. People have to live and work in the same place. It can't be a vacation getaway. Otherwise, the stakes aren't high enough, and the New Urbanism is simply not doing what it proposes to do--creating a walkable, humane environment where people stay close to home rather than commuting for hours at a time.

2. A variety of income brackets should be present. In the urban neighborhoods which still work, or which have revived of late, the working poor, the middling and the rich all live in close proximity, within a few streets of one another sometimes. The rich have a interest in keeping their neighborhood safe, thus protecting their own interests, and those of the poor and middle class at the same time. This also introduces a measure of democratic reality into the situation. This will prevent such communities from being too successful for their own good, as well, and lapsing into sprawl, like what is currently happening with Disney's peculiar experiment in New Urbanist design, Celebration.

3. We can't expect to drop European towns fully-fledged in the middle of America. Seaside and other New Urbanist centers have with some success revived both European and traditional American paradigms of planning. This needs to be encouraged as expecting all Americans to go for apartments over shops is simply unrealistic, and given our long romance with the land, a little unhealthy for our national character. While greater population density has some advantages and may in fact (within reason) be a very good thing, one should not expect Americans to pack into Italian-sized bathrooms overnight, or ever.

4. We need to find ways to make peace with suburbia and the automobile. Neither are going to go away; rather, we need to find ways to apply the principles of traditional urbanism to the automobile suburb (by, say, encouraging the development of traditional-styke urban centers within walking distance of suburbs) rather than hope, disdainfully, it will quietly slink away in the night, or that petroleum reserves will dry up and everyone start bicycling to work. Both propositions are unrealistic and also unnecessary, and earn us no credit with the average Joe. We mustn't be snide, snobbish or alarmist. It's best to accentuate the positive side of New Urbanism rather than the dark side of suburbia. The key lies in expecting more out of mass culture rather than defaming it. I admit that Starbucks has nothing on Italian coffee, and Borders is no Loome's Theological, but they're a lot better than the usual horrible coffee places and understocked bookstores that were the norm before the nineties. The multiplication of chain places is a cause for worry about the extents of the national imagination but to solve the problem, we ought to seize it as an opportunity to take the good fruits that have come from it (higher standards of quality, however homogenious, and a greater accessibility for a wider range of products, for instance) and combine it with the lessons of European urbanism. There's no reason to hate the automobile; Americans just need to get out and walk a little more sometimes. This is not to say that this idea can't backfire: shopping malls were an effort to export European cafe culture to America.

5. Last but not least, we must remember that the New Urbanism is not the be-all and end-all; it's one means towards a civil society, rather than the reason for its existence. I say this, in part, because some New Urbanists are existentialist or indifferent to religion: we need to evaluate the whole of the movement from a Catholic and historical perspective before signing up to all of its tenets. We can't be too dogmatic about it, in the face of practical realities. Architecture cannot give meaning to life without directing it towards God and the heavenly city. And some have begun to do this--my friend David Mayernik's book Timeless Cities, for instance, is fine evaluation of Italian city life, and the humanizing Catholic impulses that lie at its heart.

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