We’d rather live in a faux city than a genuine, certified, authentic suburb. But then, that’s just us. The author of this piece on Salon.com takes a critical look at new approaches to placemaking. The ones that distinghuish themselves with a recognition of the need for improvements to liveability and atmosphere over traditional suburbia through walkability, higher densities, access to transit, sustainability, less car dependence and better aesthetics. Many jurisdictions in North America have adopted such approaches, or at least the language of New Urbanism or Smart Growth. Will Doig calls out recent attempts at placemaking as simply a gussied up version of the original exodus to the suburbs after 1945. He looks past the pleasant-sounding, positivism of contemporary urban planning and placemaking and finds “shiny new cities, set in the suburbs.” Seems a little harsh, …but this discussion is extremely important.
After the 80s crash, again in 1992 and after the dot-com crash of 2000 or so there was reason to question the sustainability and necessity for returning to high-levels of global economic growth. The persistance of the Great Recession sees reasoned arguments emerging again for managing advanced economies on behalf of something other than whacky, destructive boom-and-bust cycles. If capitalism is to be the dominant economic structure a new approach will be adopted in some form, sooner or later. Why not take it on now by choice, when there are still some resources and some leeway left? Thoughts from Germany…
photo: Adam Crowe via Flickr
Easily placed on suburban-poverty.com’s “buy this book” list, Walking Home shares the fruits of an enviable career working to help save cities, make them meaningful places. Greenberg is an architect/planner schooled early in the value of real cities during an era in which they were abused and derided, mainly on behalf of the automobile. Walkability, mixed uses, respect for historic precedent and the enhancement of the public realm and the taming of the car were the stuff of Greenberg’s career. His book touches on Amsterdam, Copenhagen, New York, Boston, Paris, Detroit, Washington DC, Saint Paul, San Juan (Puerto Rico), Quebec City, Toronto, Ottawa, Mississauga, and Prince Albert (Saskatchewan) and other places.
Greenberg allied with Jane Jacobs during his time in Toronto, Canada, where he found a progressive city genuinely open to progressive urbanism and enjoying a heyday of liveability and growth. Like Jacobs, a transplanted American, Greenberg built experience in a number of Canadian cities and in Europe. The United States proved resistant to progressive urbanism but in time Greenberg built significant experience there with the growth of interest in New Urbanism and the emergence of the sense that all was perhaps not so well with car-centric, zoning-driven suburban sprawl and the neglect of major city centres. All good and interesting reading at suburban-poverty.com where the link between the physical reality of suburbia, its design and character has been established as a source of its emerging poverty. Here’s how we resist that poverty – with a maximum application of brain power to our environment.
Because of the slow acceptance of the kind of change advocated by the New Urbanism, smart growth and similar schools of thought, tracing themselves, like Greenberg to the influence of Jane Jacobs, we often encounter improvements to suburbia as nothing more than conceptual schemes, pie-in-the-sky ideas that are attractive enough on paper or in student design charettes but that are scarce-to-non-existant in the real world. The world where we find ourselves driving past the same old strip malls to return a DVD about Peak Oil to a library surrounded by a parking lot. How good it feels to encounter someone who has actually been making it real out there for decades.
Greenberg’s experiences in Canada were welcome reading. Greenberg found a laboratory here where he was able to exploit differences in the system and social consciousness of Canadians in the 1970s and 1980s that gave him practical experience. He laments the changes wrought here with the adoption of miserable and misguided neo-conservative ideology since. Greenberg’s take on how Toronto lost its position of leadership is depressing reading. A similar hint of tragedy and the squandering of opportunity was found in a recent posting, a review of Taras Grescoe’s book Strap Hanger.
One of Toronto’s massive suburbs, Mississauga, also appears in Walking Home. Even there, money and committment are finally being attached to the idea of a better built city. Also, the home of suburban-poverty.com this is heartening to see. At one time the old, downtown, preamalgamation City of Toronto offered a positive model to the headless monster of a high growth Mississauga. We now find both places struggling to do better. Toronto to keep what it has in terms of new/smart urbanism. Mississauga to get its hands on some of that magic after decades of unoriginal, low density development.
Without the best possible design human communities will flounder, become unsustainable, unpleasant places where living and doing business will be retarded. A failure to really grasp how to build proper cities will impoverish their residents as quality of place is a major selling point. The value of quality of place is undeniable, either as a selling point within a growing global economy or in the retreat from the chaos and disorder of the global economy. Greenberg’s project work and philosophy offer powerful arguments in support of quality of place. This book should have very wide appeal to nearly any kind of political view, to voters, citizens, taxpayers, activists and students alike.
One fault, so small in comparison to the rest of the book we hate to bring it up, but… We wish Walking Home had better illustrations or a URL for a purpose-built web site. So much of the matter of city-building is visually-driven that the text would have been powerfully complemented by better imagery. This is the Internet age and the delivery of such material is neither costly nor complicated.
Ken Greenberg Talks Flexible Urbanism in New Book
Review on Spacing Toronto site
Meet St Barbara. Until Rome demoted her a few years ago she was the patron saint of architecture …and also those who work with explosives. Kind of an exciting job description. We hope she’s looking out for us in these precarious times. Given the built environment and economic uncertainty many are stuck with we are gonna need all the wisdom with architecture and explosives we can get our hands on.
Who doesn’t idealize the artist, the architect, the engineer, the designer their ability to go from nothing to something, that is to create, to bring a thing into existence? It makes sense then that in attempting to comprehened suburbia we turn to the creative class? Almost since they were invented suburbia has provoked a diversity of critique and brought forth those with a desire in their hearts for something better. Is it possible that even the growing social difficulty facing suburbia is a design problem?
Allison Arieff thinks so. She has been professionally involved in design and architecture in America and last year gathered some of her thoughts in the opinion piece linked in this posting, making it dynamite to read. Ms. Arieff sees people with very low expectations of houses. People willing to accept boring, unimaginative, sometimes downright shoddy, drywall boxes cranked out and marketed by an innovation-resisting industry that produces something like half of all solid waste in the country. Acording to Ms. Arieff the commercial building industry is capable of producing a better product than the residential construction industry. This all seems like a disservice to American consumers and their communities.
Unfortunately the American suburban paradigm is not going to be changed any time soon because it will be too busy being dead. A couple of postings back we learned that the number of unwanted monster homes in America is in the tens of millions. Kinda tough to think the industry that produced that is going to set aside its hucksterism and conservatism for a design-ey new approach to everything. Still, just as the dinosaurs were replaced so too will the homebuilders of America be replaced. Ms Arieff provides a survey of several builders going in the right direction in terms of energy efficiency, construction methods and cultural value in homes. Hers is a call for change and action, that of a new Saint Barbara?
Shifting the Suburban Paradigm NYT Opinionator
This article has nearly 170 comments at the time of this posting, including some very thoughtful ones.
That’s a picture of Solar House 1, an MIT project built in, wait for it …1939! As it happens, knowledge of how to optimize a building to make use of solar energy is downright ancient. Among the ideas we need to get reacquainted with in a hurry has to do not with digital or analogue technology but simply with the way houses, entire neighbourhoods, are sited within a “solar envelope.” We’ve come across the idea that cycling, walking and public transit can affect one’s quality of life positively. After getting to a built structure you want it to be heated, cooled, and illuminated in ways that are equally cheap and sensible so that resources (especially money!) are not wasted, are kept available for other things. Again, we find the actual physical mechanism of the suburbs a huge potential influence on the poverty found there!
The solar envelope: how to heat and cool cities without fossil fuels
Low Tech Magazine
A person earning twenty-five grand a year who can walk to work is richer than the person making thirty-five a year who drives to work? Yes? No? Maybe? Would the money saved in this proposition be enough to help someone avoid or reduce social exclusion?
Going forward, communities really need to be doing all they can to support walking. Even here in wintery Canada walking already makes a difference to those with lower incomes. Supporting walking only makes sense, really. Here is an item on walking from Slate.
photo: Eadweard Muybridge (via Wikimedia Commons)
The pleasure is all suburban-poverty.com’s to make mention of Copenhagen’s new dedicated bicycle super-highway. The route from a suburb called Albertslund into Copenhagen is 11 miles/18 kilometers in length and the first component of a serious national network of routes. What a fantastic real world precedent for just about any fossil fuel-using community looking for alternatives!
Cycling is healthy and cheap and empowering. Bikes are sensible tools for fighting suburban poverty. Here in North America, compulsory automobile ownership enslaves working people, drawing their resources into a matrix of requirements for gasoline, insurance, repairs, tire replacement, maintenance, tickets, parking fees, interest payments, depreciation, accidents and injuries, noise and pollution. Something has to change.
The New York Times item covering the cycling superhighway has been picked up in blogs, by the Toronto Star, and in many other places. It’s hard not to envy infrastructure like this and we hope to see more everywhere.
photo: Copenhagen via Wikimedia Commons
Retrofitting seems to be the suburban-poverty theme of late. Here is a link to an article describing the benefit of changes to Plessis-Robinson. An outer suburb in southwest Paris, France. What is referred to as “smart growth” or “new urbanism” in North America was put in place there beginning in the 1990s. The article, like much discussion of suburban futures, is mainly about built form and resource usage. Again, who would argue with attractive buildings that conserve energy, greenspaces, walkability, public safety, advanced recycling, water saving efforts and so forth? Well, only an idiot. What is it then that retards such development in one place but not in another? See the results for yourself in the six minute video available at the link below.
It would seem to us that improvements to sustainability and general aesthetics might make a suburb more expensive and harder on those with less income. On the other hand, denser, more economically diverse places with better public transit and a variety of types of housing would make life easier for working people and those in social difficulty. How late is it to be putting in place a process of working out such issues in North America?
At the Museum of Modern Art in New York CIty there is an exhibit featuring conceptual retrofitting schemes for seven US communities battered by the recession. The exhibit is called Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream. Wonder what Mr. Lloyd would make of the proposals on display in his building?
Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs
Ellen Dunham-Jones & June Williamson
John Wiley & Sons
We’ve been wanting to mention this book for a while and now that there is an updated edition available, here it is. Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs is a big, detailed, serious take on just what can be done with aging, unattractive suburban sprawl. With the text you get maps and colour ilustrations of real world improvement projects aimed at making suburbs more walkable and connected, more transit friendly, more aesthetically pleasing, more economically varied and more attached to the realities of the environment. Who wouldn’t want these things? And surely retrofitting suburbia would ameliorate poverty there, enhance employment, prevent the suburbs from sliding into deeper obsolesence if not full on ghettohood. The approach here is rational and advocates a technical, investment-orientated approach to improving suburbia. Absolutely these ideas should be on the table, many are already in existence and working well. On getting acquainted with this book you will look at suburban communities as opportunities, not just as a set of mistakes or doomed to a Mad Max kind of future.
Ellen Dunham-Jones TED Talk 19:24