The ABC’s of Urbanism

One of the pervasive trends in contemporary urban studies is the dramatic growth in terms ending with ‘urbanism.’ It seems like every urban thinker has come up with his or her own urbanism. Indeed, Jason King at landscape+urbanism has described this phenomenon as [Fill in the Blank] Urbanism and come up with his own lengthy list of urbanisms gleaned from a single Google search.

Some of the urbanisms are fanciful and esoteric; others are basic and rudimentary. But all have been seriously considered by at least one person. Indeed, if a term or concept is even remotely connected to a city, simply add ‘urbanism to the end and you’ll have a new theoretical construct to explore.

Over the next 26 posts, I will be exploring an urbanism associated with each letter of the alphabet. 26 posts covering 26 urban constructs. At the end of each post I will list other urbanisms associated with the letter in question.

 

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!

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Where Data Meets Urban Form

“The streets are now alive with data, invisible but all pervasive.” —Dan Hill

Meaningful community input in urban development is a common rallying cry, but is rarely achieved.  Power, and more importantly, information, remains tightly controlled by cities and there agencies. It is usually only shared in controlled public meetings and charrettes. Recent advances in technology and social networks offer an opportunity to change this.

Open source urbanism works to develop intersections where a cities urban form connects with information to directly inform and shape our urban environment. In doing so it is changing the way we think of our communities and city life in general. It is rooted in the idea of open source, most commonly associated with free computer programs that can be shared, adapted, and further developed by anyone with the ability to contribute.

Cities are a logical extension of the open source movement. The city is both a product and a generator of immense amounts of data. Much of this information—including temperature, light rail delays, population density, accident locations and stock prices—can be mapped, recorded and shared in real-time through the Internet.

Some early success in open source urbanism are Portland’s TriMet transit system map and the closing of Times Square to traffic. Based in part on these early successes, cities such as PortlandVancouver, B.C.; and San Francisco passed sweeping policies requiring departments to use open source software and open data. In addition, the White House has set a high standard for federal agencies to adopt. As more cities and civic agencies see the benefit of sharing their data, such successes will multiply.

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!

The New Orthodoxy?

New Urbanism is an urban design movement, which promotes walkable neighborhoods that contain a range of housing and job types. It arose in the United States in the early 1980s and continues to reform many aspects of real estate development and urban planning.

While new urbanism covers issues such as historic preservation, safe streets, green building, and redeveloping brownfield land.  If the movement were to be boiled down to a single concept, it would be creating walkable neighborhoods. New urbanist developments are more walkable, offer a more diverse range of housing options, encourage a richer mix of uses and provide more welcoming public spaces than traditional suburban developments.

Although many well-known new urbanist projects are “master planned communities” its ideas are also incorporated into existing city cores and even in suburban and exurban neighborhoods. These neighborhoods can include measures such as traffic calming, pedestrian improvements, parking management, and commercial and residential infill.

New urbanism has also inspired a new approach to building codes, called form-based codes. These codes are an important tool for implementing urban enhancements. Rather than dictating  the uses of land parcels, form based codes provide guidelines that define the types of development desired in a particular area. This provides greater design flexibility and coordination than conventional, land use based codes.

While once on the fringe of the urban planning field, new urbanism has risen in prominence in recent years, with new urbanist related initiatives like LEED and Smart Growth becoming common staples in the arsenals of urban planners and developers alike. This has led Andres Duany—one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism—to label it a ‘new orthodoxy’ and calling for a ‘jolt’ to renew the movement to face the challenges of the next century.

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!

Diversity in Disorder

Often architects, developers and city planners try to sell their redevelopment’s with glossy brochures and vibrant mock ups. However, more often than not, these place turn out to either be dead, or sterile places. The problem isn’t always a lack of uses or diversity; rather it is that these places are often planned to the last window awning or flower bed. They lack the ‘messiness’ that make a city livable.

The most vibrant cities I’ve lived in or visited share one thing in common. They are messy. This is a difficult concept to accept—most people’s idea of a beautiful city that looks something like Paris or some other city with a continuous urban form. But these types of cities are rare. Most memorable places have a less-than-manicured quality to them.

Part of the appeal of messy urbanism is that it leaves room for future improvements in other words, it leave creates space for people to contribute to their neighborhood. In great urban cities, you’ll find deteriorating buildings sitting next to sleek modern 20-story condos. small businesses at home next door to luxury boutiques. Tree-lined streets of stately houses (some restored, many not) running into bustling commercial boulevards. Streets packed with busses, bicyclists, cars and food trucks. Coupled with a diverse population such messy cities ends up feeling kinetic and exciting, but in a practical and walkable way.

In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs points out that the most economically vibrant cities are usually inefficient and impractical. It’s this messiness that enables a community to adapt quickly to change. Rather than seeing messiness, disorder or clutter, urban leaders should instead see the social and commercial interactions of a lively city. Indeed trying to clean up and remove the ‘clutter’ of the city is to throw away the lifeblood of the city itself.

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!


L is for Landscape Urbanism

Posted: February 22, 2011 in ABC's
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Recognizing Nature in the City

Landscape Urbanism is an evolving field of study and practice that views landscape rather than architecture as the basis of contemporary urbanism. For landscape urbanists, a city’s landscape is both the lens through which the contemporary city is viewed and the method through which it is created.

Harvard’s Graduate School of Design has become the epicenter of the landscape urbanism movement, with three of the four ‘founders’ of the concept, Charles Waldheim (who coined the term), Alex Krieger, and Mohsen Mostafavi working there. The fourth, James Corner, teaches at UPenn, and principle of Field Operations, the notable for the design of High Line Park in Manhattan.

Instead of taking built volume as the determining characteristic of the city, landscape urbanists looks at cities as dynamic process characterized by fluidity, spontaneity and randomness. By doing so, they are breaking down the traditional disciplinary and cultural opposition between natural and city spaces. They recognize that nature exists in densely built-up environments and affects not only the current well being of inhabitants, but also the long term prospects of the built form of the city itself.

By restoring nature’s restorative cycles in urban areas, landscape urbanists hope that society will be better able to deal with the exploding urban growth around the world. Some also see promise for helping shrinking rustbelt cities like Cleveland and Detroit.

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!


Activity over Architecture

Closely related to informal urbanism, kinetic urbanism views the urban condition as flexible; less a grand vision than a series of small adjustments occurring over time. Often times, the frenetic quality of city life does not allow most formal planning or political systems to keep pace. Kinetic urbanism bridges the resulting gap by focusing on activity, not architecture. It views events and changes in time as more important than buildings and places in space.

Rahul Mehrotra, Associate Professor of Architectural Design at the MIT School of Architecture + Planningdeveloped the idea of the kinetic city. According to Mehrtra, the static city is “the buildings and structures that architecture deals with.” On the other hand, the kinetic city is the part that is “making and remaking” urban spaces and is “in opposition to the static city.” He also states that in a kinetic city, “events and changes in time are more important than monuments and places in space.” While Mehotra was specially focusing on the informal urbanism taking shape in Mumbai, the concept are applicable to almost an urban area.

When urban leaders look at activities such as busking or street vendors on their city streets, they should not automatically seek to control it through zoning or permits. This activity is often times not evidence of lack of regulation but rather an unmet need being fulfilled in a innovative way. Indeed it is what makes urban living so vibrant and exciting. Rather than seek to remove or regulate these activities, Urban leaders can embrace this entrepreneurism by looking, not at what ‘should work’, but at what is actually occurring day to day and season to season. They should include these patterns of activities in their plans so they can thrive in greater comfort and safety for all residents.

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!


J is for Jacobsean Urbanism

Posted: January 28, 2011 in ABC's

Jacobsean Urbanism: Building on the Observations of Jane Jacobs

Jacobsean urbanism is named after Jane Jacobs, an urban writer and activist who championed the interests of local residents and pedestrians over a car-centered approach to planning. Its foundations were first laid out in an essay entitled “Downtown is for People” that ran in Fortune magazine in April 1958. This led to a Rockefeller Foundation grant to write what became her defining book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” This book is perhaps the most influential 20th century text about the inner workings and failings of cities and has inspired generations of urban planners and activists.

Jacobsean urbanism is more than simply a critique of the urban renewal policies of the second half of the 20th century. It reaches beyond her written work and extends to her grassroots efforts to preserve local neighborhoods. Jane Jacobs believed strongly that local residents understood best how their neighborhood works, and how to strengthen and improve them. As such, her legacy is rooted in the idea of creating strong and resourceful community, instilling belonging and encouraging civic leadership.

Jacobs had no professional training in the field of urban planning. She often contested the formal urbanism approach that depends on outside experts, noting that the prescribed government policies urban development are usually inconsistent with the real functioning of city neighborhoods. Instead, she promoted local expertise as being better suited to guiding community development, relying on her observations and common sense to illustrate why certain places work, and how to improve those that do not. In this way, Jacobsean urbanism is closely related to the DIY urbanism and Everyday urbanism and the antithesis of Big urbanism covered earlier in this series.

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!

Informal Urbanism: Invention Born out of Frustration

Informal urbanism focuses on communities’ ability to absorb, recycle, offer services, set up networks, celebrate, work and play outside the structures imposed by formalized rules. It stems from the need or want to correct or compensate for the shortcomings in existing (or formal) urban plans, whether it be expressed as a worn shortcut through a park that is off the paved path, food trucks, or shanty towns in Caracas.

Whereas traditional urban planning tends to follow a formal, top-down approach, informal urbanism is about invention born out of frustration with the status quo. It views the city not as a grand vision to be imposed but as gradual adjustments to be revealed based on need. As a result, informal urbanism creates environments that are versatile and flexible—and usually more robust that their formal counterparts.

Instead of viewing informal urban interventions as conditions that needs fixing, they should be viewed as learning opportunities. Urban leaders can embrace their robustness by looking, not at what ‘should work’, but at what is actually occurring from day-to-day and season to season around their city. The informal patterns that emerge from such observations will often lead to more sustainable urban interventions.

 

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!

Healthy Urbanism: A Holistic View of Urban Design

Healthy urbanism advocates for a holistic view of urban design that considers health, the environment, social relations, political processes and the economy as part of the development process. It posits that neighborhood design elements including land use, design character, transportation systems, sustainability, and density impact a neighborhood’s health, environment and quality of life.

The connection between health and urbanism goes back almost as long as cities themselves. It was health concerns in many industrial-era cities that drove people out of polluted and unsanitary urban cores and into the first suburbs. Now the tables have turned. Evidence is mounting that the suburban lifestyle is causing health problems. Many chronic diseases—including obesity and diabetes— as well as premature mortality, cardiovascular disease and poor mental health are associated with the sedentary and isolated populations exacerbated by our sprawling, auto dominated urban form.

One of the leaders of the healthy urbanism movement is Dr. Howard Frumkin, dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health and co-author of Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing, Planning, and Building for Healthy Communities. Dr. Frumkin notes that “Well-designed communities can be interventions for public health. How we build and maintain our communities’ transportation systems, infrastructure, and public spaces can either exacerbate or reduce obesity, chronic diseases, injury rates, poor mental health, and the adverse effects of climate change.”

An increasing body of evidence backs up this statement. The doubling of driving nationally between 1983 and 2007 on auto-centric streets designed for speed has coincided with skyrocketing injury and mortality rates, exacerbated mental health problems for isolated non-drivers, and decreased air and water quality. Additionally, suburban neighborhoods—dominated by low density, poorly connected street networks, and limited access to shops and services—have lower levels of walking. This, in turn, is connected to increased obesity. On the other hand, well-designed urban neighborhoods generate fewer vehicle miles and result in more walking and lower obesity rates than their suburban counterparts.

“Community design and building design have impacts both on mental health and on social capital. Social capital in turn is a very important determinant of overall health.”

—Dr. Howard Frumkin

Another impact of urban form on health relates to social capital and mental health. The WHO estimates that by 2020, mental ill health will be the third leading cause of disability life-adjusted years globally. Some research indicates that there are higher levels of social capital in more walkable neighborhoods suggesting that urban form is important. High levels of social capital decrease the risk of social isolation, a social determinant of health linked to increased risk of premature mortality, cardiovascular disease and poor mental health.

It is clear that the quality of our cities impacts the quality of our healthy and life in general. Hopefully, this renewed interest in healthy urbanism will be maintained with doctors researchers working with planners and architects to design places that are healthy on both a personal and community level.

 

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!

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Generic Urbanism: Creating Cities without Qualities OR Quality

The term generic urbanism rose to prominence with the book S M L XL by Rem Koolhaus, Bruce Mau, Jennifer Sigler, and Hans Werlemann. The book contained an essay by Koolhaas, a Dutch architect and urbanist, titled “The Generic City.” This essay declares that progress, identity, architecture, the city and the street are things of the past. Koolhaas writes: “Relief … it’s over. That is the story of the city. The city is no longer. We can leave the theatre now…”

Generic urbanism describes a non-specific, identity-lacking urban landscape. The generic city has no specific reference points, either to its history or its residents. Rather it responds to urban stereotypes. In doing so, it turns cities into yet another commodity, interchangeable from one another. We can see the result before us as city after city converge in a pastiche of undifferentiated cityscapes.

Generic urbanism appears to have started in the American suburbs when developers creating interchangeable developments. Over the past half century it has crept into our urban cores, where the truest expression of civic identity were once found. This is, in part, a result of the effort by city governments to attract suburbanites (and their tax dollars) downtown—not by offering then something unique or different—but rather safe and familiar.

The concept is an oxymoron. A generic city resists urbanism and its inherent qualities of diversity and culture. All the qualities normally associated with a great city: iconic architecture, vibrant but messy streetscapes, unique neighborhoods, etc. become subsumed by global trends. Public space becomes formulaic; there’s nothing to notice to except stoplights. According to Richard Pouly, in the generic city “the paradigmatic urbanite will no longer be a latte-sipping hipster but the weary sales rep who never completely unpacks his suitcase” forgetting if he is in New York or New Dehli.

Koolhaas declared the generic city to be “a city without qualities,” I would add “A city without quality”

 

 

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!

Fine-Grained Urbanism: Opportunities for Discovery

Urban fabric is the physical form of towns and cities. Like textiles, urban fabric comes in many different types and weaves.  For simplicity’s sake the multitude of urban fabrics are divided into two typologies: coarse grain and fine grain. Fine-grained urban fabric produced what is can be refereed to as fine grained urbanism.

Fine-grained urbanism promotes small blocks in close proximity, each with numerous buildings with narrow frontages, frequent storefronts, and minimal setbacks from the street.  Also, as there are more intersections, traffic is slower and safer. There are virtual no vacant lots or surface parking. This fine grained approach to cities offers many opportunities for discovery and exploration.  Like high count egyptian cotton; fine grain urbanism feels luxurious and makes people want linger in or around it.

Street patterns must be easily navigable and lattice like, with blocks that are not too big and intersections that are not too far apart. —Roger Lewis

Fine-grained urbanism is not imposed on a community like it’s coarser cousins. Rather, it evolves over time in a piecemeal way, responding to what came before it, and adapting to what comes next. This evolutionary process creates places that are not frozen in the era when they were built. Instead, they are dynamic and reflective of a neighborhood’s changing needs.

The resulting urban fabric seamlessly evolves over time from lightly developed residential areas to mixed used retail to dense urban core—if that’s what the community desires. In this way, fine-grained urbanism is far more resilient than mega-projects that, when they lose a single tenant, often fail.  Just as the tiny gestures of everyday urbanism can makes a huge difference in the vibrancy of a community, so can the multitudes of options offered by fine grained urbanism.

Check out the full ABC’s of Urbanism in this handy e-book!