Monday, January 4, 2010

Voila! Cities in Seconds!

One of the catchphrases I heard for the first time at CNU 17 in Denver was "instant urbanism". People used it constantly, especially in the NextGen discussions and presentations, and I think it is an important topic for us to mull over as urbanists if we step back from ourselves for a moment.

You can probably imagine what instant urbanism is even if you have never seen the phrase before. We have instant everything in the U.S.A. - instant coffee, instant oatmeal, instant internet, instant cosmetic surgeries, you name it. Instant urbanism is just like these notions - a development, neighborhood, or even city that pops up bewilderingly fast.

At Notre Dame for example, we now, rather suddenly, have our own "city" just south of campus. Within the span of three years, the site now known as Eddy Street Commons morphed from decrepit parking lots and homes to a vast construction site to, voila, an entire "Main Street" and multiple side streets of homes and businesses. Retrofitted malls, greenfield developments, and many other New Urbanist projects have sprung up over the past ten years at the same light-speed rate.

There is definitely an air of excitement among traditional urbanists about these places; here we have production builders who have suddenly "converted" away from sprawl, a public that really digs urban environments, and even serious attempts at good traditional architecture.

So what gives me pause? Once past the initial excitement over these places, I find them somewhat discomforting. Like everything else in our culture, buying ourselves brand new cities and applauding them as traditional feels like a cheap, fleeting, and disingenuous solution. It rings awfully close to adjustable-rate mortgages, derivative trading, Cash for Clunkers, and all the myriad other "quick fixes" that have come to characterize today's society.

For starters, there is an air of phoniness about these places. They are uncomfortably similar to Main Street USA at Disney World, where the false fronts all back up to one large, flat-roofed warehouse building. In many cases, this is in fact true, as multiple facades actually mask one continuous building or a parking garage.

Secondly, there is a perennial scale issue. At Eddy Street Commons, practically every building is a full four stories tall, and worse, they all seem to line up at the same exact height because floor-to-floor heights are standardized across the project. The same was true at the redeveloped Belmar Mall in Denver.

Perhaps my main criticism of championing these New Urban projects is how they turn their backs on the places we already have. Eddy Street, for example, is a beautiful project, but a similarly sized investment for South Bend's struggling downtown would have down the city wonders and gotten a lot more bang for the buck. Why? Because for all its awfulness, South Bend is a place, and by place I mean it is a long-term, continuous, enduring physical location and human institution. Despite all of the urban erosion, the crime and other issues, and the bad attempts at urban renewal, the echoes of what South Bend was and what it can be in the future are still there, in the fabric of the city and in the fabric of the people.

And this brings me to perhaps my main point: the only way to reinvent ourselves with true sustainability at heart is to build from the places we already have, not to try and make new ones. The latter pursuit is what doomed every form of 20th-Century Utopianism, from Radburn and Le Corbusier right through suburban sprawl. In every case, the designer thought his vision of how cities should be was right and set off to build it from scratch, each time with little or no success. In every case, these projects were built outside struggling, dirty, never-quite-perfect cities that, lo and behold, continued to thrive and still remain the places where we want to live and visit.

So why think greenfield New Urbanism is the complete opposite? Why are the Habershams and I'Ons, the Stapletons and the Celebrations any different than Radburn? Sure, they are a thousand times more respectful of good urban design, of walkability and tradition, and of what people actually want. But the zeitgeist that drives them is eerily similar to every other failed planning movement: we can make place overnight, by design.

The biggest irony? I'd wager that in fifty years, we'll still be looking at the South Bends of the world as real places we want to improve, while the Celebrations slip into obsolescence and unimportance like their Utopian forerunners. Maybe there's a derivative I can trade based on the future success of our cities...

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