Wednesday, December 28, 2005
The Congress for the Continuation of Sprawl views disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands andwilderness, and the erosion of society's built heritage as the preferredmethod of development in America.
We stand for the deterioration of existing urban centers and towns within incoherent metropolitan regions, the continuation of sprawling suburbs as opposed to communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the destruction of natural environments, and the collapse of our built legacy.
We recognize that our physical solutions may not solve social and economic problems; neither do we promise long lasting economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health.We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles:
neighborhoods should be ethnocentric in use and population; communities should be designed with the automobile in mind, with a lesser emphasis on the pedestrian; cities and towns should be shaped by laissez faire growth and amenities should be sufficiently separated, so as to facilitate reliance on the automobile; sub-urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that disregards local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.
We represent a broad-based citizenry, composed of public and private sector leaders, and multidisciplinary professionals, who are reaping the temporary benefits of sub-urban sprawl.
We are committed to clear-cutting forests and replacing them with asphalt and standardized "big box" buildings, despitethe loss of local identity and community.
We dedicate ourselves to the decline of our homes, blocks, streets, parks,neighborhoods, districts, towns, cities, regions, and environment.
Friday, December 23, 2005
Though leaving for Boston for the Midwest was low on the priority list, I was more than excited to finally dive head first into pursuing a masters degree in urban planning. Moreover, I assumed that the University of Michigan would be a good fit, and that Ann Arbor would be a good place to live. I am happy to say that both of these assumptions have held true. However, I have not had blinders on, and I would like to make a few definitive statements regarding Ann Arbor, the state of Michigan, and my planning education thus far.
The City of Ann Arbor is a great place to live. However, I will start by saying it feels much more like a town, rather than a city. In fact, the City of Portland, Maine with half the population feels a lot bigger. But from a planning perspective, Ann Arbor is walkable, compact, has some great traditional neighborhoods, and has three vital downtowns. Yes, three. Two of these serve the University and one of them the greater Ann Arbor region. There are plenty of delicious restaurants which serve any type of food you could want, and there is a healthy mix of chains and independent stores/restaurants. However, I will say that the bars in Ann Arbor leave a lot to be desired. Either they cater to the plethora of undergraduate students, or they are just plain lame. Moreover, dive bars don’t even exist here. Perhaps the east coast just holds the bar as a great third place in higher esteem. Here in Ann Arbor, coffee shops reign supreme. I have found one good place, called Goodnight Gracie’s, which is an urbane and intimate jazz club on the bottom level, and a larger funkier bar/ live music venue on the second level. This is the only place in Ann Arbor where I feel as though I am in a city. Too bad I only discovered this place recently. I shall patronize it more in the coming months for sure.
Perhaps one of the great strengths in Ann Arbor is the park system. The City decided a while ago to create a green ring around the City, and for the most part it has been very successful. Moreover, the park system is well connected, mostly following the Huron River which snakes around the north side of town. It is nice to see a City that embraces such a natural feature as an asset. I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring these places by foot and by bike. If there is one thing that Ann Arborites like, it is their parks. This was made abundantly clear at the public downtown visioning sessions that have been lead by New Urbanism stalwarts, Calthorpe and Associates.
As for the urban planning program, I have been very happy with it. The professors that I have had thus far have been challenging, passionate, and very engaging. I consider this a blessing because I know that at many graduate schools the professors merely teach so that they can research. New urbanism is definitely not the focus of the program here at Michigan, but it has plenty of support through various professors. Students on the other hand do not seem to know much about its central tenets. I have done my best to begin this dialogue and help educate my classmates about what new urbanism means, and why it is important. As always, this is an uphill battle.
Most recently, I have decided to pursue a dual degree in urban design, as well as a certificate in progressive real estate development. I have no intention of ever getting involved in real estate, but to learn the language of the developer is a very important skill. Moreover, to learn from NU specialist Chris Leinberger is an opportunity that one should not pass down. I think that this should make me a more complete planner, and allow me to achieve my dream job of being an urban designer within a multidisciplinary firm. Yes, things are good here, and I am staying uber busy. I miss Boston and the rest of the east coast, but 2-3 years in the mid-west will only strengthen my love for my home, as well as provide me with invaluable knowledge about life outside of New England. Happy Holidays ya’ll.
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Reacting to NYT Seaside Article
This article is evidence that after 25 years, Seaside is starting to be "broken in." Robert Davis and DPZ know this. Urbanism happens over time. The criticism of many new urban projects is certainly valid, but many forget that most NU developments are extremely "young." Ever see pictures of Back Bay Boston in the early 1860's? How about the Champs Elysees shortly after Haussman worked his magic? They both looked pretty contrived and stale. Let these places evolve, gain some grit, grow into themselves, and we will see that Traditional Neighborhood Developments and traditional urban forms hold up much better in the long run than other current alternatives. As for Seaside's affordability (yikes!)...if we built more places that mattered then we might see a depression in prices as demand is met. There are only a few places that that provide the amenities that many crave (think San Francisco,Portland OR, Boston, NYC, even Ann Arbor etc..) As it stands now, supply of good urban form in this country is so sparse that those places that have created, or maintained it, see so much demand that most of us can't afford to live there. I am not equating Seaside with either Boston, or Paris....just that urban form needs time. We often forget that.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Towards an Environment of Freedom:
Lewis Mumford and the Pursuit of the Human Scale
Lewis Mumford’s The City in History is an utterly remarkable assessment of humankind’s greatest invention, the city. This seminal text proves that Lewis Mumford was not only a true scholar of urban history, but that he was also completely enamored, if not obsessed with urban form and its intrinsic relationship to the culture of its time. To this end, Mumford frequently posits that though humans often communicate their most sincere social, political, economic, and cultural values through the intentional ordering and design of their own surroundings, the social core is actually of more significance than what he calls the container, or the physical manifestation of the city. After all, “…if we lacked the written documents, the stones of Athens would not tell the story.” (Pg. 148) Variations of this principle are repeated throughout the text and serve as the crux for Mumford’s historical criticism, hope for a better future, and a constant pursuit of what he calls an environment of freedom.
Throughout The City in History Mumford episodically shares his strong, yet sometimes capricious opinions on the symbiotic relationship between urban design and the evolution of culture through history. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Mumford explicitly chronicles the deterioration of culture and the rise of what he calls ‘post-historic man’, who is not a favorable character in his eyes. Nonetheless, Mumford’s open writing style allows his variegated views on urbanism to be very accessible to the reader. Thus, if one has any trouble wading through Mumford’s miasma of praise and damnation, he or she will at least be able to comprehend that in its totality, The City in History is more than a linear survey of urban history in the Western world. It is a powerful critique of cultural values through space and time, and it is an attempt to define the ideal city form, both culturally and physically. This is no small task.
Not surprisingly Mumford, who was forever flummoxed by the ephemeral nature of what he considered to be good urbanism, begins the book by asking a very large question.
“Can the needs and desires that have impelled men to live in cities recover, at a still higher level, all that Jerusalem, Athens, and Florence once seemed to promise? Is there still a living choice between Necropolis and Utopia: the possibility of building a new kind of city that will, freed of inner contradictions, positively enrich and further human development?” (pg.1)
This very pertinent issue drives the book, and implies that his ideal city would indeed exist in a permanent state between Necropolis and Utopia, and not fall prey to the waywardness of time. Did Mumford not see that such a permanence in and of itself is a rather utopian concept?
Yet, despite the impossibility of maintaining a city locked into a social and physical state of Mumfordian virtuousity, the main principles of his cultural idealism are noteworthy. In fact, my own goal of contributing to the production and maintenance of a more robust human habitat has much in common with Mumford’s own conception of the environment of freedom.
Throughout the text Lewis Mumford champions a human habitat that would first and foremost evolve organically, and not be forced into a predetermined social and physical form ala post-World War II suburbia, which is the home of ‘post-historic man’ and all of his deplorable mechanizations. To continue, Mumford’s environment of freedom would operate at the human scale by placing the human experience of movement throughout the city as paramount. Such an environment would be emotive and breed a high level of consciousness for one’s own humanity, an idea that is very dear to Mumford’s heart. Furthermore, Mumford’s ideal city would naturally create and maintain social structures that nurture the arts, foster human ingenuity through several forms of education, maintain democracy across all social strata, promote a widespread peace, and preserve an ecological balance between the built and natural environment. Perhaps most importantly to Mumford, this environment would be built for the ages, and would be capable of nourishing the requirements ideal human habitat. In short, urban form of beauty would follow a society of Mumfordian magnificence.
Interestingly, as Mumford takes the reader through all of the fascinating stages of human culture and the cities that housed them, he explains that imperfect and incongruent versions of this model living environment have actually occurred momentarily in Western history. Not surprisingly, he uses these temporary historical moments, like the strength of democracy and the importance of the public realm in Athens, the socio-economic structure and organic design of the medieval city, and the scale and charming nature of the garden city suburbs, as the inspiration for his own pursuit of the environment of freedom.
However, Mumford struggles to accept that the social, political, and economic forces that help push history forward inevitably thwart the perpetual design and maintenance of his favorite cities in history. Moreover, he undoubtedly grapples with the loss of the unique socio-political patterns that made places like Athens possible in the first place. Mumford’s effort to reclaim these places dominates his method of critique, and governs his opinion of what will truly create the ideal living arrangement in the future.
This is when the reader understands that the very connection Mumford delineates between culture and design can actually hinder the development of his ideal city, rather than contribute to its creation. This is because human culture is by nature a fluid entity and therefore susceptible to change via a plethora of uncontrolled variables. Yet, unlike many other utopian urban theorists, at least history, albeit rather briefly, has produced the apple of his eye!
To make his arguments, which there are many, Mumford utilizes a multidisciplinary approach that includes history, culture, politics, economics, architecture, urban planning, and of course, urban design. As one who believes that interdisciplinary studies are essential to the study of urbanism, this method of inquiry is extremely relevant to the complicated social problems that Mumford valiantly strives to overcome. And regardless of the fact that many of his views on urbanism are contradictory, he writes with an eloquent strength that, in my experience, is only matched by his friend turned foe, Jane Jacobs. And as I mentioned previously, I find myself to be in agreement with most of Mumford’s philosophies. I am attracted to the organic, the human scale, the ecologically balanced, the long-lasting, and the equitable. I too find Baroque planning a bit troublesome, Coketown to be a frightful human habitat, and all the furnishings of suburban American culture to be a great cause for concern. (Mumford wrote The City in History in 1961, I truly wonder how scathing his critique would be of our current situation in 2006!)
However, this is my second reading of The City in History, and like the first reading, I am struggling with Mumford’s prescription for the future. This is because for all of his incisive criticism, his ability to create a solution is severely weakened by the sheer weight of his concerns. It almost reminds me of a great fireworks show that has no grand finale. I say this because Mumford brings the reader through the entire history of urbanism with such a righteous fervor, but then leaves us with such a general feeling of anguish for the prospects of the city. As he sees it, there is no happy ending in sight, and his environment of freedom will not be conceived. Though that is rather disheartening, I guess that we should all be glad that we have yet to experience nuclear holocaust! Moreover, for now large scale urban renewal seems to be a thing of the past! Unfortunately, Mumford didn’t have the luxury of this hindsight.
I also believe that throughout many of his critiques, he fails to truly understand that with incredible cultural and technological advances came a certain level of sacrifice. Sure, he may severely dislike ‘post historic man,’ but I would wager that if Mumford were stricken with pneumonia, he might thoroughly enjoy modern medicine and proper sanitation. This begets the question of whether or not Mumford himself would actually want to live in Athens or the medieval city. I don’t think that he would, as he has several criticisms for these, his favorite city forms. Such contradictions are made throughout the book, and unfortunately he has no real practical solution to what ails him.
Regardless, I believe that Lewis Mumford’s struggle with the current state of society in post war America is rather axiomatic. It is only natural for someone like Mumford to look ahead to what they cannot control and feel some level of despair. Therefore, I think it is much wiser to avoid dwelling on all of our current cultural misgivings, which there are many, and instead focus on integrating an urban (re)development strategy that is wholly inclusive, is flexible enough to maintain its integrity over time, and most importantly responds with grace to an ever-changing cultural topography. Our inability to do just this is in my opinion where we have gone wrong in post-World War II America. Much to Mumford’s probable dismay we are still a culture that is exceedingly entrenched in the vapid automation of the one size fits sprawl machine. However, I do believe that we are slowly beginning to awaken from this coma of entropy. There are signs of hope.
Though Lewis Mumford is incredibly adept at understanding the flaws of urbanism through all of its historical iterations, he fails to fully admit that past, present, and future urban form have never been, and never will be a static entity. Athens couldn’t last forever! It is like he loses his grip on the history that he so proficiently recounts, and in doing so reveals his tendency to move fluidly between pragmatic historian and utopian theorist. A role he assumes throughout the entire text. With this fluctuation in mind, it is not surprising that he struggles to produce a full prescription for the future of the city. The reader knows that he has his theories, but towards the end of the book the reader also understands that Mumford is not as confident in his ideals as he might have once been. It is an interesting duality for sure, and in my opinion proves to be the biggest flaw within The City in History. Yet, despite the futility of Mumford’s history based search for future clarity, The City in History is the most passionate and exacting work on urban form that I know, and I thank him for that.
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
Wrigely Monument at Night. Spectacular.
I had no idea how I was going to feel about Cloud Gate, or "The Bean" as it is called. It is just a giant reflective sculpture in the middle of rather bland and windswept plaza. Yet I was completely engaged. It's a totally interactive piece of art. You could approacht his thing every day of the year and I am sure you could get a different view of the city in its reflection. It's incredible, and so is Millenium Park.
Gold Coast - Traditional Row Houses. Too bad the road is so damn wide.