Archive for January, 2011

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!

Everyday Urbanism: Celebrating Ordinary Life in the City

Everyday urbanism celebrates and builds on the ordinary life and reality in a city. It doesn’t envision an ideal urban environment. Rather it explores ways to improve what already exists in incremental ways. The term first gained prominence with the book, Everyday Urbanism by Margaret Crawford, John Chase and John Kaliski in 1999. The book notes that the city (and its planners) ongoing quest to incorporate “the elements that remain elusive: ephemerality, cacophony, multiplicity and simultaneity.”

Every day urbanism builds on the concept of adaptive urbanism and looks at urban planning as a process of perpetual engagement and reiteration. It views cities as a conversation between and among its residents. This leads to a dynamic urban form that evolves not from outside pressures or plans dropped from above, but from activities that occur within a neighborhood.

If you have spent anytime in a city, you no doubt have witnessed small, understated, often ratty spaces that are teaming with life and vibrancy next door to large master planned developments that look like ghost towns. This is the impact of everyday urbanism. Vibrancy can not be planned in a board room, it needs to evolve on the street level trough regular ‘everyday’ interactions.

But unlike DIY urbanism, everyday urbanism isn’t simply a bottom up, grass roots approach. Rather, it is a mixture of the residents’ bottom-up expression of their economic, political and social preferences and the top-down decision-making process of developers and city governments. Vibrancy may no be able to be planned, but it certainly can be encouraged. Developers and city governments can help everyday urbanism survive and thrive by ending their quest for the ‘big urbanist’ mega projects and understanding that often times tiny gestures make the biggest different a difference.”

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

DIY Urbansim: City Building from the Bottom-Up

‘Do it Yourself’ (DIY) Urbanism provides a counterweight to traditional top-down urban planning processes. Even before the the “great recession” in 2008 many cities struggled with reduced public resources. This has left various urbanists, artists, and public space advocates to fill many of the voids left by the cutbacks.

In addition to participating in official processes, such as writing letters to the city or attending public meetings, DIY urbanists take public outreach one step further. Rather than simply seeking public input, DIY urbanism empowers residents to make the changes they seek and are create their own positive urban interventions. It is the DIY ethic on the community scale.
The result has been innovative do-it-yourself projects ranging from activating stalled construction sites, to constructing temporary public plazas and parks at street intersections, to designing pop-up storefronts. They can even include more bizarre ideas including guerilla painting, urban campgrounds and street pianos.

The possibilities are limitless. Although many DIY initiatives may often be temporary, the impact is often substantial. In some cases DIY interventions have acted as pilot projects that improve the chances of city government officials eventually buying in and supporting the changes in an official way.

Regardless of the type initiative, or their permanence, DIY efforts should not be viewed as disruptive violations, or frivolous novelties, but as signs of true urban vitality. With a can-do attitude and a bit of playful mischievousness, these urban pioneers are illustrating that another type of city is possible.

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

    Collaborative Urbanism: The Secret is Sharing

    Our urban society is undergoing a substantive shift from the hyper-consumerism and the resultant sprawl that defined the second half of the 20th century. Forces such as social technologies, a renewed belief in community, increased environmental awareness, and cost consciousness have us rethinking our old top-heavy and centralized forms of consumerism. In its place, a ‘collaborative urbanism’—based on sharing, aggregation, openness, and cooperation—is emerging.

    The trend towards increased collaboration is explained in-depth in the newly published book, What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers. Collaborative urbanism takes their concept a step further; not only is collaborative consumption reshaping how we consume, it is transforming how we interact with each other and the spaces around us. In other words, it is changing how we live in cities.

    Read the full post here.

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

    Big Urbanism: Not the Answer

    Americans like to think ‘big.’ Urbanism is no exception. Ever since architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham uttered his maxim “Make no little plans,” nearly every urban plan continues to be modeled on it.

    Despite a generation of planners brought up guided by Jane Jacobs and her crusade against the big urbanism of Robert Moses, large-scale redevelopment projects continue apace. Indeed, they appear to be regaining prominence. From Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn to CityCenter in Las Vegas to the various uber- developments in Dubai, city officials and developers continue to think ‘big’ when reshaping our cities.

    However, as we previous learned in the post on adaptive urbanism, big urbanism is not necessarily a good thing. Indeed, these mega projects leave little room for flexibility, and as such are not responsive to shifting economic, environmental or political trends. As a result several big urbanism projects are viewed as relics even before their doors are open.

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

    Adaptive Urbanism: A Process of Perpetual Engagement

    For many urban observers, and especially urban planners, the design of the city as an ‘end state—a vision to be first created and then fulfilled.

    Adaptive urbanism takes a contrary position. It looks at urban design as a process of perpetual engagement and reiteration. In an adaptive approach, cities are dynamic ecologies that take immersion and collaboration to re-shape, not from outside or above, but from within. The concept of adaptive urbanism is often attributed to New York urbanist Brian McGrath.

    McGrath’s approach is a significant shift from how we current plan and manage cities. It is important to consider though, especially in our current economic and social upheaval. If cities develop the flexibility and capacity to respond to shifting demands and external pressures, they will be better able to deal with future economic, environmental or political crises.


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