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Frank Gruber

Frank Gruber

Posted: July 31, 2009 05:38 PM

A Fourth Urbanism, Part 6: Limitations on Urbanism


The idea behind my last article on Cityism was that it requires that parking be dispensed with or hidden, so that masses of parked cars don't interfere with a congenial urban structure.

Since the builders of new buildings can only dispense with parking -- or are only allowed by zoning to dispense with parking -- in the context of large investments in public transportation (as is the case in only a few cities in North America), and since the cost of hiding parking underground or in appropriately scaled and designed parking structures is also large, Cityism can only happen in cities that have held onto the wealth generated by urban efficiencies.

This reality has raised in my mind a broader issue, which is whether by talking about "urbanisms" -- whether Prof. Douglas Kelbaugh's three urbanisms, or my or anyone else's fourth -- urbanists avoid the deeper and more important questions about cities. Do we, by defining cities or towns largely in terms of design, slight or even ignore economic and social factors that have a bigger impact?

If a city -- let's say Detroit -- has lost so much population and economic production and asset value that there is not enough money to run government or the schools, let alone enough money, public or private, for investment in infrastructure or for real estate development, how much impact will the physical form of a city have? The history of the past 60 years shows that when decline hits a city, it does so with little regard to how the city was built. Beautiful urban districts of sturdy brownstones or brick apartment buildings have become slums, modernist housing projects have become slums, and neighborhoods of single-family homes have become slums (think South Los Angeles).

Right now, for example, we're seeing, all through the Midwest, the abandonment of neighborhoods of single-family homes.

Urbanisms that depend on investment in development or infrastructure may be relevant only when the public or private investors have choices to make -- which may explain why the practice of New Urbanism became so associated with new developments outside the urban core. It may mean that in the context of cities in decline, Everyday Urbanism -- with its attitude of "the people will make do" -- will provide the most relevant toolbox.

When investors have choices, what they choose can have impacts, but not always in the most apparent ways. In the post-World War II environment, a host of social forces unrelated to the form of cities sent a large migration of poor African-Americans who had no history of living in cities from the rural south to the urban north and west. These factors included agricultural mechanization, racist Department of Agriculture lending practices, racism in general, and industrial development in northern and western cities during and after the war.

At the same time, other factors starting in the '30s resulted in a federal housing policy that subsidized white flight (specifically white, because of F.H.A. mandated redlining) to new suburbs designed around the automobile (itself a social phenomenon that arose independent of urban design -- and which had an unfathomably huge impact on it).

Tremendous investments were made both in the cities, to house the poor black migrants, and in the suburbs, to house the white exiters. And choices were made involving physical form: the government built housing blocks, usually in various Modernist formats, in the cities for the newly-urban poor, and the government subsidized single-family homes for the formerly-urban middle-class.

A big deal is often made of these choices by architects and urban designers, but it's important to keep in mind that, (i) tower block developments for middle-class families in the same period (such as various cooperatives in New York City) did not have the social problems so often attributed to Modernist public housing, and (ii) poor formerly rural migrants living in old buildings had the same social problems as their friends and relations living in public housing.

But the choices -- or, rather the choices not made -- did have this effect: if governmental policies had favored cooperative apartments in towers within the city, or other forms of housing in the city for the middle-class, instead of single-family homes in the suburbs, the history of the post-war city would have been different.

What this means for Cityism is that as its proponent I don't want to be unrealistic. While the tenets of Cityism describe a course that has been used and could be replicated to build congenial cities, those tenets would have less impact in most situations than making the public schools good, or in general creating a sense of good order in what can now seem to be chaotic environments. Bad schools and even the perception of disorder drive people from the city more effectively than bad urban form (although bad urban form can contribute to a sense of disorder), and keeping people in the city is more important than the form the city takes.

[This article may be my last on Cityism for a little while. I'm going on vacation for three weeks and I don't know if I'll be able to post much during that time. Thanks for paying attention so far.]

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.