In Search of a Fourth Urbanism

07/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It's been two weeks since the annual New Urbanism Congress in Denver, giving me time to reflect on what I learned there and on what's going on with urban design and planning. To begin with, the signs indicate that we are at a turning point; it could be true that, as President Obama said in February, "[T]he days where we're just building sprawl forever, those days are over."

The numbers, as Peter Calthorpe might put it, tell the story: both as they relate to demographics and as they relate to money (i.e. financing). The only contra-indicator is that there are so many cheap houses out on the fringes that repopulating foreclosure-land may absorb growth that might otherwise occur in cities.

If conventional suburban development (CSD) is our civilization, it has had its discontents for a long time. Criticism of the postwar suburb arose along with it. Initially this critique was more cultural than based on urban form, but architects and urban designers began to articulate their criticism once the concurrent destruction of the existing city became apparent and the environmental movement arose to decry the loss of farms and nature.

Anti-CSD, or pro-urban, design theories have always, at least until now, fought a rearguard action against both sprawl and continued urban disinvestment (which in many industrial cities and towns has now become massive abandonment). The social/economic/political forces favoring sprawl have been overwhelming, and the factors disfavoring the city -- many of them resulting from the fact that cities have been where generations of poor and undereducated rural migrants both domestic and foreign have encountered the modern world -- have also rendered insignificant whatever benefit can be realized from what might constitute "good design."

But now the balance in favor of CSD may shift, and it's worth considering what the alternatives are, or at least what alternatives are being talked about. One must keep in mind, of course, that as was the case with CSD itself, urban form in America does not necessarily or even typically follow any theory.

Indeed many urbanists refuse to identify themselves with any big ideas, and for several reasons. Many if not most planners and architects consider themselves practitioners first, and prefer to approach each project on its own merits. Many still suffer from a hangover from the fiasco of Modernist urbanism, and they hesitate to associate themselves with anything that smacks of a comprehensive view.

For nearly a decade, however, Douglas Kelbaugh, an intrepid professor at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, has proposed that there are in fact three schools of urbanism currently viable, and many others have accepted Prof. Kelbaugh's terminology at least for discussion purposes. Two of the urbanisms have accepted names: New Urbanism and Everyday Urbanism. The third has a name of Prof. Kelbaugh's devising: Post Urbanism.

(Note: Another purported urbanism came out of Prof. Kelbaugh's work in Michigan; it's called "ReUrbanism" by its proponents and reflects a rediscovery of traditional urban form. But the term hasn't gained much traction and to my mind ReUrbanism is too close to New Urbanism to be considered a separate theory. Just to confuse matters further, the word "reurbanism" is also used to describe the repopulating of American cities in general.)

New Urbanism is the best known of Prof. Kelbaugh's three urbanisms, and as discussed in my prior Huffington posts from Denver, it works both with broad principles and with local projects. Like Modernist urbanism, New Urbanism is an idealistic movement, but its idealism is based on recovering old urban forms rather than creating new ones. Although New Urbanists typically feel besieged, others outside the movement describe their success in terms like "near hegemonic." (I'm quoting John Kaliski, an "Everyday Urbanist" (as described in the next paragraph), who actually was being complimentary to New Urbanism when he used those words to describe its success.)

Everyday Urbanism is a much smaller but still influential theoretical framework that arose from the work of three urban planners all then based in Los Angeles: Margaret Crawford, John Chase and John Kaliski. In their 1999 book Everyday Urbanism they celebrate vernacular architecture and the coping tactics of street life. The Everyday Urbanists deny having a specific urban design practice that determines any particular results; they focus instead on process -- the involving of local residents in design decision-making -- with the goal of creating an inclusive, democratic, non-dogmatic urbanism that would improve the quality of neglected urban environments.

The third movement Prof. Kelbaugh has defined is what he calls "Post Urbanism," but which I believe can be more descriptively (and accurately) labeled as "Spectacle Urbanism." This is the city-building around the world associated with "star" architects (or "starchitects" if you want to be negative about it) who have designed mega-projects in such places as Beijing or Dubai. The ideas of Post Urbanism are most associated with Rem Koolhaus, who writes as well as designs. If Post Urbanism can be summarized in one thought, it would be that context doesn't matter.

My problem with these three urbanisms is that they do not describe what I see as the best examples of city building occurring today. Nor do I see the good examples of urbanism today arising simply from an ad hoc response to circumstances. In Part 2 of this piece I'll go in search of a fourth urbanism.

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.

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