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 an experience-based discipline;
- using the information as a travel guide when visiting featured places.
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Lewis N. Villegas
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.
In the U.S. the first steps gave shape to the Ahwanee Principles.
In western Canada we are still lost at sea, seemingly oblivious to the direct link between good places and good governance.
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.
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, all in quick succession, 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. With the dawn of the digital age, the pace of change only picked up speed.
Prior to the industrial revolution, and the mechanization of agriculture, transportation and communication, cities were designed according to the principles of Human Scale. In other words, the places we made were shaped to resonate with the functioning of human sense perception. Thus, a Mission bell established a radius of sound congruent with the ability of the human ear to hear it, and this radius defined the footprint of a community. Likewise with the 120 acre|50 hectare urban footprint established by a 5 minute walking radius. A neighborhood or village was defined by all the building sites located a 5 minute walking distance from the central place, a square or piazza.
By the middle of the twentieth century, automobile scale had taken over. Shopping centers characterized by wide open expanses for parking became the piazze. For example, a ‘Panorama Plaza’ announced itself as a privately owned, commercially focused people place. ‘Neighborhoods’ were given over to developers of large tracks of single family housing. Each house on a single lot, fitted with a driveway and a garage. The turning radius of the automobile, and how far it could travel in 5 minutes became the new measure of place, the Automobile Scale. Walking became pointless. There was nowhere to go. And anywhere one might be interested in going was too far away. The car moves 10-times faster, or further, than a human being.
Thus, at precisely the same time that cities were expanding at a break-neck pace to accommodate the Post World War II boom, a fundamental change took over. We started conceiving our sense of place by how far we could travel in 20 minutes, and how many trips were necessary everyday. The standing-still rush hour parking lot, or congestion on the freeways and street, soon followed. ‘Gridlock’ was a word coined in New York City by a traffic engineer at the by the 1970s.
TOWERS AND SUBWAYS
Thus, by the 1970s the gulf that had opened between the dream of being modern and Modernism had infected our cities and towns. Its origins, however, lay elsewhere.
In New York City, Wall Street had been growing by fits and spasms since the end of the American Civil War (1865). The need to move workers into the southern tip of Manhattan first caused the construction of four elevated railways cutting through neighboring districts that were quickly filling with tenement houses. Thirty five years later (1904) a subway opened connecting Wall Street to City Hall. Six years later the magnate owner of the Woolworth five and dime discount store chain began construction of what would be ‘the tallest building in the world’ until it was surpassed by a tower built at 40 Wall Street 17 years later.
What is important to understand about towers is that they are designed for one purpose, and one purpose alone: collecting rents. The Woolworth building changed height, grew taller, three times during construction in response to growing demand for space. It may have gone higher, had the engineers been possessed by the foresight to design oversized foundations. The Woolworth business itself only occupied the lower one and one-half stories. The rest of the building was a real estate venture. Thus, a new revenue generating machine, a new modernism, was created: build up, not out.
The methodology could not be more precise. The capitalists are only involved in one building plot, one site, at a time, and will negotiate for the best terms they can obtain from government. Government, henceforth, takes on the responsibility of servicing the capitalists and their towers evermore. The capitalists will negotiate terms of payment with government (taxes) from which government will finance its operations.
The concern with the livability of place will likewise fall to government. Thus, the very people who are courting the tower developers are left in charge of shaping the city for the benefit of the people. Needless to say, it has proven to be an untenable bargain.
THE RETURN OF THE MODERN
We have laid before us the challenge of differentiating between what is ‘modern’: the here and now, made for the benefit human kind and the preservation of the natural—and—’modernism’: the capitalist venture of isolated individuals and corporations looking to maximize profits either for themselves or their shareholders, as dictated by a board of directors.
Since the 1980s in North America, and the 1960s in France, the return to a modern condition has been further challenged by the rise of ‘post-modernism’: a thin ideological veneer applied to modernism. A rebranding of modernism to make it buoyant in the capital markets all over again.
Thus, the challenge that confronts urbanists today is miscast as the challenge to update the automobile and transportation functions in order to ‘return’ to making cities for people, rather than cars.
However, since the economy of most western cities in the first decades of the 21st century have been taken hostage by international capital flows, the real challenge is how to wrest away the control of cities from developers finance by ‘off-shore’ capital, keep their contributions out of political campaigns, and return political power to the people of the place.
The urban science, what is most enjoyable for people to experience as part of the day to day unfolding of their lives, has been coded, and well understood, by continuing tradition of urbanists going back to Renaissance times.
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). We build the places we inhabit, and in turn these places condition our existence. Our social norms.
Thus, in my view, the common elements making and meaning of place in urban sites all the world over, even across the barriers of time, have been identified and coded. However, the project has not been completed, and save for some places in Northern Europe, governments have not taken up the challenge of using the urban science in the construction of the cities they are charged with administering.
Thus, in the west, failed to engage in the understanding of the places we call home as seen through the lens of human and social functioning.
Cities present consistently with functional and experiential facts that are concrete and measurable, resonating across time and geography. Maybe even across cultural divides.
Lessons in ‘good’ urbanism can be gathered everywhere. In the ancient streets of the Plaka, in Athens, and in the tattered strip mall on the outskirts any city in the west.
Bridging across these great distances in time, culture and place shapes the outlines of our challenge: What are the common elements linking cities and towns across culture, time and place in the shared, human experience of place?
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 from which to map a course for building together a better future.