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A Fourth Urbanism, Part 4: More on the "Why" of Cityism

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"Cityism" has not yet become common parlance, but my piece last week did get around. Planetizen picked it up, as did some other blogs. As one might expect inasmuch as the concept is in its definitional stage, questions are being raised, and I hope that trying to answer them moves the ball forward.

The most fundamental question was why bother with defining Cityism. This came mostly from New Urbanists, who believe the principles of Cityism fit within the parameters of their movement. My view is that as a matter of priorities, it would make sense to define Cityism as a separate phenomenon even if it were identical with New Urbanism.

The reason is that the destruction of American cities starting after World War II and continuing today overwhelms any other calamity that hit the landscape. People may not like conventional suburban development, and building it caused devastation to rural areas near cities, but for actual devastation of massive amounts of investment, and the social problems that went along with that devastation, nothing compares to what happened to cities. (A few years ago, not long after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, Tom Gilmore, one of the important re-developers of downtown Los Angeles, gave a presentation where he showed photographs of the parking lots that had taken the place of good buildings there. He called it "Hurricane Suburbia.")

Because the rebuilding of cities is so important, the effort to do so, if that effort is based on recognizable principles, deserves recognition as something special. If by giving these principles a different name, they can bring together urbanists with different views about, for instance, building new towns, then simply for political reasons it's worth doing.

Cities are worthy of their own movement.

While on the subject of New Urbanism and Cityism's relationship to it, I'll mention that I have received contrary feedback, which was neatly encapsulated in the first two comments that Huff Post readers made to the article. The first comment was from "Greg111", evidently a New Urbanist, who wrote that what I defined was simply "urban infill" and squarely within New Urbanism, because the Charter of the New Urbanism advises metropolitan regions to "develop strategies" to encourage infill development. Presumably because Cityism is such a strategy, it's part of New Urbanism.

Other urbanists, however, don't want to be lumped in with a larger movement parts of which they don't care about. The next comment was from "graflandscape," clearly not a New Urbanist, who wrote that: "Many architects, or designers who work in cities - I mean those working in existing urban centers (not the 'new urbanist' greenfield- strip mall rehab-) consider themselves urbanists. In any case - you have clearly articulated your 'cityism' as distinct from new urbanism. That is a refreshing realization."

As I wrote in the articles from the Congress of New Urbanism meetings in Denver that preceded this series, I respect the work that New Urbanists do outside of cities. I'm tired, however, of the arguments that go on between them and their critics, regardless of who's "at fault." New Urbanists believe that their "big tent" helps create harmony, but in practice that's not the case. Cityism is an attempt to articulate a strategy that can be replicated to redevelop cities; participants can check their labels at the door.

One cannot discuss these disputes between New Urbanists and their critics without mentioning architecture, because they often argue about the role of architecture. One New Urbanist on a listserve questioned whether Cityism had "an exclusive, modernist architectural dimension" and therefore would "have the problem of modernist exclusivism again, in the face of significant popular rejection of its tenets." This point illustrates that although critics of New Urbanism often paint it as being dominated by traditional architecture, and thus out of touch (or not "authentic"), New Urbanists often say their critics from the world of contemporary architecture are out of touch (or not "contextual") because they are still thinking like (discredited) modernists when it comes to urbanism.

In my opinion, both criticisms reflect vast generalizations. In any case in my definition of Cityism, architecture is one of the less important factors -- the last of my list of six. (The list wasn't necessarily hierarchical, but it was to some extent.) I said that Cityism was "characterized" by contemporary architecture, but even in that I probably went too far.

At the time, I was thinking about the Cityism I had seen in Santa Monica, Vancouver and Barcelona, but there are projects that would likely qualify as Cityism that evoke more traditional architecture. Logan Nash, a blogger on the Congress of New Urbanism site, in an entry about last week's article, included a link to the Columbia Heights redevelopment in Washington D.C. that the New Urbanist firm of Torti Gallas and Partners designed in a neo-traditional style. I have never been to Columbia Heights, but from the look of it, it could well be Cityist.

It's not that the quality of architecture is not important, but architecture in the city has to function in (not mimic) the circumstances. One of the Santa Monica firms that has been most important in developing the ethos I'm writing about is Koning Eizenberg Architecture; the title the firm chose for a book of their work is revealing: Architecture Isn't Just for Special Occasions.

In an introduction to a section of the book called "Fit," Julie Eizenberg concluded with this:

Adopting a loose fit mind-set might be more useful for designing in established places. It would allow for more thoughtful readings of context and more flexible approaches to building new; at the very least, it would make for a more tolerant debate. The extreme positions might work well for Monticello or the Pompidou Center, but the communities where we have workedare filled with nuances that are not always detected by an overly sensitive contextualism or an insensitive authenticity.

[Note: Some readers have asked how to find the earlier articles in this series. The easiest way to do is to click on my name above to reach my Huffington bio page, where the articles are listed in reverse chronological order.]

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, has just been published by City Image Press.