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A Blog About Urbanism

This blog presents the views and insights of the author on urbanism in the Americas and Europe. Reviews focus on the analysis and history of the places we call home.
The reader is invited to use the Themes sidebar to see material classified by several areas of interest:
  • local activism to change and improve your neighborhood;
  • learning about urbanism as a experience-based discipline;
  • using the information as a travel guide when visiting featured places.
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Contact the Author

Lewis N. Villegas
lewisnvillegas@gmail.com
twitter: @lewvil
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The Principles of Urbanism

In the last decade of the 20th century attention among the city design professionals in the west returned to issues of quantifying or coding urbanism and community design.
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In the U.S. the first steps gave shape to the Ahwanee Principles. 
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In western Canada we are still lost at sea, seeming oblivious to the direct link between good places and good governance.
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In matters of cities it is important to recognize that Europe and the regions in the Americas settled before 1850 march to a different beat.
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A rapid set of technological innovations started to change the way we experienced the places we call home during the Industrial Revolution. First canals, then railways, freeways and cars have stretched the urban footprint away from its original conception. The brake-neck pace of technological change itself has influenced how we think about the permanence of places, and we can only expect the pace of change to pick up speed.
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Prior to the industrial revolution, and the mechanization of transportation, cities were designed according to the principles of Human Scale. In other words, the places we made were shaped to resonate with the mechanics of human sense perception. Thus, the Mission bell established a radius of sound more or less congruent with the ability of the human ear to hear it. Likewise with the 120 acre|50 hectare urban footprint set by a walking radius of 5 minutes from the central place.
By the middle of the twentieth century, automobile scale had taken over at precisely the same time that cities were expanding at a break-neck pace to accommodate the Post World War II boom. We started conceiving our sense of place by how far we could travel in 20 minutes, and how many trips we had to make in a day. The standing-still rush our parking lot, or congestions on the freeways, soon followed.
It seemed by the 1970s as if the modernist dream was at an end. Modernism had consumed it.
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Thus, the challenge that confronts city builders today is how to update the automobile and transportation function in order to effect a kind of ‘return’ to Human Scale urbanism—to cities built for people, not just cars.
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While historical conditions make it so that there can be no direct comparison between the urbanism of the western provinces and states, for example, and the early settlements in Eastern North America, Western Europe and the rest of the pre-industrial world, there is an underlying condition common to all urban sites.
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What works and is most enjoyable for people to experience in one place will likely feel completely out of place in the other until the underlying conditions are coded, and well understood.
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In the words of Claude Lévi-Strauss, quoted by Milanese architect and town planner Aldo Rossi in the early 1960s: Urbanism is the defining characteristic of human consciousness (la chose humaine par excellence).
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We build the places we inhabit, and in turn they condition our social norms.
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Thus, it is my view that is possible to identify common elements in the making and meaning of urban places the world over, even across the barriers of time, when we try to understand them through the lens of human and social functioning.
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Cities present consistently with functional and experiential facts that are concrete and measurable, that resonate across time and geography. Maybe even across cultural divides.
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The lessons in urbanism can be gathered everywhere. In the ancient streets of the Plaka, in Athens, as well as in a tattered strip mall on the outskirts of Victoria, British Columbia.
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Bridging across these great distances in time, culture and place shapes a captivating area for study: Can we discover common elements linking cities and towns across culture, time and place in the shared, human experience of place?
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Beginning from the simple, demonstrable facts of urbanism, it will be possible for any community to gather together enough information, enough concrete and verifiable facts, to forge a consensus vision, then map a course for building together a better future.