Monday, June 16, 2014

The New American Urbanism

Lance Jay Brown, David Dixon, & Oliver Gillham, Urban Design for an Urban Century: Shaping More Livable, Equitable, and Resilient Cities

The years from 1950 to 2000 saw massive increases in America’s suburban infrastructure. While our inner cities withered from neglect, anyone who could afford to leave, fled to spacious towns, many hastily erected, where every house had large lawns, and zoning regulations separated housing, work, and commerce. Americans embraced the Levittown model, aided by cheap petroleum and generous government assistance.

But in 2010, for the first time since the Depression, America’s largest cities grew. They outgrew an infrastructure unprepared to handle them, and they grew faster than urban designers had any plans for. For the first time in three generations, Americans want the urban life, and will accept close quarters to achieve it. But America’s urban leaders need to design cities amenable to young, upwardly mobile residents, a semi-lost skill.

Suburbanism, this book asserts, has always been an essentially American phenomenon. Where European and Canadian cities built compactly after World War II, and poorer countries never had resources for car-dependent suburbanism, America embraced spacious postwar utopian ideas regarding space use. That’s why Americans burn nearly a quarter of Earth’s petroleum: because without it, our diffuse cities, with their single-use neighborhoods and looping street layouts, are just too damn big.

Early on, this book quotes Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, whose influence primarily echoed in America, and who championed spacious semi-urbanism’s “towers in a park” model, on why people hate built-up urban streets: “Our hearts are always oppressed by the constriction of its enclosing walls.” But fifty years of history have disproved this claim. Close-build urban streets give public life definition. Shapeless suburbanism alienates people, turning every household into a fortress.

But the Millennial Generation has rejected this suburban pattern. Propelling themselves around cul-de-sacs in hermetically sealed, carbon-burning cars has lost its appeal. Educated young Americans want to live in neighborhoods where home, work, commerce, and recreation co-exist within a few minutes’ walk. And cities which provide this quality of life have unique ability to attract and retain young innovators and knowledge industry workers. Briefly put, young Americans want city life.

Our authors note that a substantial shift in perception happened around 2008: the number of people signing massive suburban mortgages dropped off, while urban downtowns began a measurable resurgence. Owning land matters less than owning opportunity. They avoid assigning reasons, but the conclusion seems inescapable: when housing markets tanked, Americans decided tying their net worth to housing values was foolish. Essentially, the banks torpedoed a half-century of rambling suburban sprawl.

Those communities which build spaces where people want to live, will see economic growth, cultural abundance, and environmental healing in coming years. Those which don’t, won’t. This means rehabilitating existing urban cores, building new cores where none previously existed, and keeping fingers on society’s pulse. Our authors quote the designers behind recent renovations in Pittsburg: “Strengthening and protecting physical characteristics that support identity should be an integral purpose of zoning.”

This move inward will create significant dislocations very soon. Our authors quote statistics that urban neighborhoods will face a shortfall of sixteen million housing units by 2030. New demand will boost prices, driving “urban poor” into suburbs, where housing prices are already collapsing. This reverse ghetto-ism will lock American poor into car-dependent poverty. Unless governments, private developers, and voters act soon, we’ll see a radical realignment of American poverty.

But we have an opportunity, unseen since the Eisenhower years, to realign American society. Our authors provide examples, lushly illustrated, of cities which have rebuilt for pedestrians and mass transit. Former commuter towns have narrowed roads, inserted streetcars, and become desirable destinations. This book offers practical primers on how public-private partnerships, activists, and preservationists are actively reshaping American cities into places people really want to live, right now.

This book isn’t for everybody. Its squarish, two-column format and $85 MSRP reflect that it was written as a textbook. People encountering urban design principles and the necessities of public space use for the first time will find this book intimidating. For those readers, I recommend Jeff Speck’s Walkable City, which this book quotes approvingly. It recasts these authors’ admittedly dense principles in plain English for non-specialists and neophytes.

But for readers already familiar with the debate, this text provides up-to-date statistics, lavishly illustrated examples, and a thorough explication not just of how we could address these problems, but how some cities already have. Architecture students, city councils, and public advocates should familiarize themselves with this book. It provides important keys to building environmentally secure, economically stable cities where people actually want to live.

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