New Urbs

Words on the Street

“Words on the Street” highlights the best NewUrbs content we’ve encountered this week:

Train Horns Are in Question | Jen Kinney, NextCity

Colorado lawmakers in particular have been dogged in pressing the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to reconsider mandatory train horn blowing at street intersections, saying the constant noise in city centers is discouraging urban development. At their urging, this spring the FRA opened up a public comment period on possible changes to a 2005 rule. It’s a formal channel for a debate that’s been raging in cities large and small, particularly venomously in East Nashville. There, a group of residents who want to establish a no-train-horn “quiet zone” are facing another group that’s vociferously opposed, in a debate that’s become bigger than noise, encompassing issues of disinvestment, gentrification and neighborhood change.

Under Armour’s Owner Wants to Transform Baltimore | Rachel M. Cohen, Slate

As part of an effort to grow the company’s HQ staff—from its current headcount of about 2,000 employees to 10,000—Plank is seeking to redevelop some 260 acres of mostly empty industrial land on the south Baltimore peninsula. In addition to a new Under Armour headquarters, Plank hopes to create what would amount to an entire new waterfront neighborhood, complete with shopping, dining, office space, parks, and nearly 14,000 residential units. It’s a real estate development project that could transform the city.

Unfair “Fair Housing” | Howard Husock, City Journal

What’s at stake goes beyond Westchester County. Through its expansive “fair housing” policies, the Obama administration wants to ensure that poor minorities, who have historically clustered in low-income urban neighborhoods, can avail themselves of the better schools and greater safety of high-income suburban locales. As HUD puts it: “No child’s ZIP code should determine her opportunity to achieve.” Support for “deconcentrating poverty”—that is, reducing the percentage of poor people within specific localities by relocating them elsewhere—has gained additional momentum from a recent Supreme Court decision and new social-science research.

How Regular Citizens Beat Bureaucracy to Reshape Philadelphia | Jim Saksa, PlanPhilly

Randolph wasn’t a power broker or government official, but an architect. Although the idea for a riverside park had been kicked around since at least Ed Bacon’s 1960 citywide comprehensive plan, it hadn’t advanced. What was new about Randolph’s approach was citizen-driven change. Like Randolph, neighbors and advocates have used perseverance, public pressure, and the power of imagination to build coalitions and draw political support, advance their visions for great urban spaces, overcome pinch-points, and move from dream to reality. They have played a long game, by parochial rules, and have slowly changed expectations.

This Autonomous, 3D-Printed Bus Starts Giving Rides in Washington, DC Today | Tamara Warren, The Verge

It’s a boxy, far-out concept that may be the first of its kind, but that’s the point for a company that isn’t focused only on making vehicles — it’s about remaking the car manufacturing business. If all goes according to plan, Olli will be giving autonomous rides at the company’s introductory event on the new National Harbor campus today. The facility, located less than 10 miles from Washington, DC, is part 3D printing demo lab and part inventor playroom, including a new STEM program for kids that demonstrates recycling of printed cars. Local Motors also plans to open new facilities in Knoxville and Berlin this year.

Dallas-Forth Worth High-Speed Rail Plan Draws Worldwide Interest | Gordon Dickson, Star-Telegram

But local leaders in Dallas-Fort Worth, where traffic congestion is a near-universal concern among many of the region’s roughly 7 million residents, want the world’s biggest passenger rail operators to know that if they’re willing to build the super-fast trains in North Texas they will find a more-than-receptive audience.

Posted in . Post a comment

Seek the Good of the City, Not Its Growth

Democracies like the United States, a clever man once said, do best when the only questions they have to deal with are essentially trivial. How then does a democracy avoid squabbles about such important issues as the division of wealth, as justice?

By means of economics, said America’s founding philosopher, John Locke. Larger disputes over justice, Locke said, can be safely ignored so long as society’s wealth is steadily growing and so long as private property is secure. As long as a rising tide is lifting all boats, and brigands aren’t robbing banks, for all practical purposes justice has already been done. It is hardly surprising, then, that the problem of growth is always at the top of the agenda for American politicians.

The problem of growth remained at the top of the agenda at a recent forum discussing urban growth strategy held this May in Montgomery County, one of the largest and wealthiest DC suburbs. (The county’s Silver Spring downtown was one of the earliest new urbanist projects.) The forum was organized by maverick council member Marc Elrich and economist Michael Shuman for the purpose of critiquing the County’s economic development plan, the product of expensive consultants.

As the forum transpired, I found myself increasingly struck by an unspoken conflict of assumptions about what the word “development” refers to. One side—represented by Shuman and Elrich—saw development as concerned with the good of the city. They asked qualitative questions about how to create as good a city as possible, and how to make the economy serve the interests of that good.

The other side—represented by the consultants who came up with the growth-focused plan—saw the economy as the thing that needed to be developed. The difference between these two views is the difference between classical and modern politics generally.

Politics, Classical and Modern

Classical politics was the attempt to define, through an ongoing conversation, what a particular community meant when it said that it was a good community; more precisely, what it meant when it said it was aiming at becoming the best sort of community. It required a shared understanding of what is meant by words like “good” when we say we are building a “good city.” Modern politics believes that such a shared understanding is impossible to achieve and sets aside such weighty debates for more practical concerns, which is why the methodology and mentality of economics so dominates modern thinking.

Economics, as we learn in college, is a non-normative science. It doesn’t ask questions about what is good, or, for that matter, about what is kind (so long as contracts are obeyed), or beautiful (for whom?) or fair. In the classical world, by contrast, these qualitative matters were the very stuff of politics, because politics concerned itself with virtue. Fearful of raising such imprecise and unscientific matters, modernity cast such concerns out of the public realm, leaving them to the private world of autonomous individuals.

The modern world differs from the classical world in one more crucial sense. Modern politics has no well-defined location, not any more than the global marketplace has a location. Classical politics, by contrast, takes place in the city. The city is what classical politics is about.

Return to that development forum in Silver Spring, and see if these distinctions provide any clues for how to further and deepen that well-started conversation.

Two Developments

Elrich started the Silver Spring forum by asking everyone to think about what is the best kind of city. What are the kinds of cities people like to be in? Places “that work,” he said, tend to have a lot of small shops and a good mix of older buildings. (I found myself imagining places like Annapolis, or M Street in Georgetown, or any number of American small towns as they looked 50 or 60 years ago.) The right sort of development plan, from Elrich’s perspective, would serve to create the quality of cities we want. It would help “fill the small spaces” in our town centers and help people already living there learn to become entrepreneurs.

To create such cities, Elrich asked, is Montgomery County using the right economic development strategy? As Elrich explained, the County had commissioned a study, which led to a plan, the point of which is to stimulate economic growth. That plan emphasizes looking for “big fish”—big corporations in favored industries—to move to Montgomery County. Elrich isn’t necessarily against that goal, but he wonders whether such a strategy, in itself, will serve to create the quality of cities we actually want. Will it fill the small spaces in our town centers? Will it create entrepreneurs?

The hired consultants asked none of those qualitative, place-based questions. They suggested that the County grow its economy by attracting outside, globally-competitive corporations who will bring with them high-wage jobs in industries such as computers, health care, and bio-tech. Although no one said this at the forum, if past is precedent, the headquarters of these imported businesses will be plopped down somewhere along a highway (in Montgomery County, most likely highway 270) that is easily accessible by car.

Michael Shuman, for his part, felt that the consultants simply missed the whole point of economic development. True economic development, for Shuman, consists of applying four rules:

  1. Maximize the percent of local industry and trade that is locally owned.
  2. Emphasize local self-reliance, not as a means of becoming disengaged from the wider (including global) economy, but so as to engage with it from a position of strength.
  3. Maintain high labor and environmental standards.
  4. Create, or maintain, a social, institutional and investment framework that fosters a sort of local entrepreneurial eco-system.

Clearly, Shuman’s strategy makes sense if one’s focus is on the cities and concrete communities being “developed.”

If, however, the point of development is to adapt the County to the global economy, does the consultants’ strategy make better sense? Shuman says no, it doesn’t even work on narrowly economic grounds.

The consultants focused on attracting to the County specialized, high-tech corporations. But specialized industries, when they move, bring along with them (from wherever they were before) their own specialized employees. Rather than developing an existing community, their approach is to shift people around. And, I might add, by placing those people out in an office park somewhere, even their purchasing power does less than it could to help locally owned restaurants and service businesses struggling to survive in town centers.

What is more, Shuman continued, the consulting report recommended hand-picking—“out of the 1,100 different productive economy sectors operating in the U.S.” only five favored industries that will be the beneficiaries of government largess. But “all the data tell us,” Shuman said, “that this strategy is the way to kill an economy.” Actual growth in per capita income is strongly correlated with a high density of diverse, locally-owned businesses. In other words, from the Shuman perspective, economics über alles fails even in economic terms compared with the city-based approach.

If “all the data” say the approach of diversifying the local economy produces better economic results, and I agree that it does, why is Shuman’s strategy still at the margins, while the consulting group’s approach remains front and center? One reason is that we are simply philosophically unprepared to wade into the qualitative, ethical, and aesthetic judgments demanded of us if we walk away from economism. Or, to put it differently, and more optimistically, we cannot arrive at a sufficient consensus on any of these “imprecise” but crucial questions unless we consciously choose to do so, by means of a continuing conversation.

Conversation Starters

What concerns me is the development of cities, as I agree with the likes of Aristotle, Simone Weil, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Jane Jacobs that the city is the purpose and goal of economics.

From the perspective of classical political thought, the city is the optimal scale for organizing political life because it is a scale that is sufficiently complex to allow for human flourishing, but not so huge that the crucial questions can’t be addressed by means of reasoned debate. Scales larger than that—such as the national or the global scale—are so vastly complex that such a conversation can no longer be concrete and to a purpose.

What can conversation actually accomplish? At the scale of Montgomery County, certainly not everything necessary. Numerous impediments to a city-focused development strategy—everything from taxation and agricultural policies to international trade deals—currently reside at the national level. All the same, there are some steps that do seem doable at the local level.

We know, both from experience as well as from authorities on the subject such as Jane Jacobs, that creating living city centers requires a mix of old and new buildings. We also know this same goal requires putting in place the right amount of small (in terms of square footage) spaces for small businesses. Zoning rules, even if they tried, cannot mandate the correct proportion of ages and sizes, because it depends on the history of a particular place, on existing structures and how adaptable they are, to say nothing of the wishes of residents and property owners. But a conversation between political leaders, planners, architects, business owners, residents, etc., in any given city, can find a modus vivendi that respects the general rule that all of these elements need to be considered and placed in a reasonable balance. A general rule can be legislated, even if not the details.

We also know a lot about what kinds of architectural forms make walking a pleasure instead of a burden. Jane Jacobs advocated for intricate connectivity and small blocks, among other reasons to provide lots of corners (for corner stores) and for simple aesthetic variation to movement through urban space. Rome presents the classic example of good connectivity, and of course of much else besides. A form-based code, then, can be one good tool among others if it is part of a political conversation within the city, even if it involves a series of aesthetic judgments about form that cannot be purely legislated.

And we know that, if varied work places exist in the right relation to housing, this creates urban places where family members including children can easily interact throughout the day. Such a ‘right relation’ depends not just on formal and aesthetic elements of the city: it also depends on the diversity of work available, and indeed on how we understand the meaning and purpose of work.

But by what method can we implement such a vision—assuming agreement about such matters, many of them qualitative and “imprecise,” can be reached? Perhaps a kind of legislative technique can be developed that writes rules of the sort: “The city architect [yes, there should be city architects!] and planning board will approve projects that most closely approximate the best existing models of good cities.”

To achieve any of these results, to be sure, the economy needs to be genuinely varied at the urban scale, something that is only possible if the urban economy itself is also sufficiently self-reliant. (By ‘urban scale’ I mean, as did Jacobs, the city and its region, and local farmers.) Otherwise a city becomes, as is usually the case now, a play-thing of the global economy with its gun-to-the-head version of so-called comparative advantage.

Here is the clincher, though. Shuman’s crucial second rule, emphasize local self-reliance, will only be implemented by a polity that recognizes the good city, and not “growth” in the abstract, as its proper goal.

Paul Grenier is an essayist and translator who writes regularly on political-philosophical issues, and a writer and editor at Solidarity Hall. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


Words on the Street

Each week, New Urbs collects the best content we’ve read each week that we didn’t publish—but would have. Read something you think should make the cut? E-mail Jon Coppage or tag @NewUrbs with the link on Twitter.

“McDonalds: You can sneer, but it’s the glue that holds communities together.” via The Guardian

Most importantly though, McDonald’s provide many with the chance to make real and valuable connections. When faced with the greatest challenges, with a personal loss, wealthier Americans turn to expensive therapists, others without the resources or the availability, turn to each other.

“How ‘New Localism’ Is Democratizing Urban Growth” via Brookings

The focus of the new American localism on unlocking the latent capacity and creativity of public, private, and civic networks differs markedly from the focus of traditional federalism on relationships between levels of government, particularly the federal government and the states.

“The Trouble With Terminators” via Places Journal

At the core of the disagreement between landform building and historical replication is a dilemma. Has the rupture of the Modern forever broken any possibility of continuity with the past?

“When Architects Smiled at the Future” via the Washington Free Beacon

Oh, arrogance shouted from every bit of its installation. The future would be all plastic and aluminum, you see. The future would be white as eggshells and curved in aerodynamic waves. The future could forget the useless past, the thousands of years the human race spent learning how to build, because… because the future would be electric, man, and cool as low-key jazz.

“Design for the One Percent” via Jacobin

Architecture is unique for its inherent social and utilitarian value. No one lost a home when Dylan went electric. No one became an indentured servant to print the latest Franzen. Yet ordinary people, whether they like it or not, must live with the consequences of architecture’s creations.

“New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

Posted in . 4 comments

What New Urbs Is About

newurbslogo small

This week, instead of our usual roundup of outside links we are providing a starter guide to “New Urbs” for CNU attendees who may be encountering us for the first time. Anyone in Detroit this week is welcome to reach out to @JonCoppage who would love to connect.

“New Urbs” is going on two years of writing at the intersection of politics and place, and we’ve had the great fortune to publish some of the best writing on urbanism over that period. This post is a good introduction to our purposes and context: Why Conservatives Must Engage Urbanism”:

That’s what New Urbs is here for. Not to save the planet in 30 years, or to save the economy in 10. We’re here so that the built environment our great-grandchildren inherit will give them the best chance to live in flourishing communities.

To get a greater sense of what we’re about, here is just a taste of our interests and writers.

Benjamin Schwarz – “Building an Underclass”

Nevertheless, the solutions that architects, city planners, real estate developers, civil servants, and local officials—what Kynaston calls the “activators”—imposed upon the population, while sometimes humane if suboptimal, were regularly devastating and often monstrous in their consequences.

Chuck Marohn – “The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs”

Where Kotkin sees a ‘forced march towards densification and ever more constricted planning augurs,’ I see the unwinding of our great suburban experiment. As government’s ability to subsidize this artificial pattern of development wanes, a return to more traditional living arrangements is inevitable.

Jonathan Coppage – “Put a Stop to Stoplights”

With auto industry support, modernist planners’ fantastical ideas for remaking the American city were suddenly given the financial muscle to become possible and even mandatory. Highways would be brought into the heart of the city, people would be cordoned from the streets, and everything would be separated into its own gleaming sphere. Cronyist central planning bent well-meaning engineers to its ambitions and shut out ordinary citizens.

Matthew Robare – “How to Bring Back Southbridge”

A boyish, bespectacled 21-year-old, Hunter Foote entered the world of real-estate development as soon as he graduated college at the age of 17. Foote studied business at UMass-Amherst and found he was different from his classmates, who typically looked at a business career as a ticket to a lavish lifestyle. “I looked at business as creating value,” he says. “By creating value, the business is rewarded with profit. Profit is the method, not the goal.”

Rod Dreher – “New Urbanism of the Soul”

Having settled comfortably in my suburban present, I hope for the sake of my children and grandchildren that Bess and his disciples find success connecting the architectural past to the architectural future. Amid the chaotic geography of nowhere, they are building bridges to somewhere.

Bonus: Austin Bramwell’s 2011 remembrance of Jane Jacobs, “Cobblestone Conservative” and the accompanying symposium on the 50th anniversary of Death and Life of Great American Cities drawing on James Howard Kunstler, John Norquist, Philip Bess, and more.

“New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

Posted in . Post a comment

Family-Friendly Cities Start With Schools

[The American Conservative’s New Urbs project asked experts to respond to Benjamin Schwarz’s May/June 2016 cover story critiquing adult urban playgrounds. This is the second of two comments on “Cities Without Children.” You can find the first response, from Bradley Calvert, here.]

Are cities doomed to become temporary playgrounds for the young and unattached?

While many city planners cite Jane Jacobs as a primary influence, the neighborhoods they shape today fail to live up to her ideal. Jacobs espoused principles of diversity for living neighborhoods, including diversity in income, rental rates, and types of households. The neighborhoods that planners laud today look more like Richard Florida’s Vibrant Urban Neighborhoods than Jacobs’ living cities, as Benjamin Schwarz explained. As these neighborhoods tend to be playgrounds for young adults with high incomes and expensive rents, they lack the diversity in income and ages that Jacobs identified as crucial for creating safe neighborhoods and strong civic societies.

But where I depart from Schwarz is that public policy, not economic forces or renter preferences, is largely responsible for the lack of children in American cities. Specifically, education policy.

Jacobs’ diverse neighborhood was an ideal place for children to play and to assert their independence in a safe and lightly supervised environment. Urban neighborhoods functioned like small towns because residents and business owners had close ties and could depend on each other for help with childcare. But children are conspicuously absent from today’s VUNs.

Few craft cocktail bars and expensive shops–the markers of VUNs–operated in Jacobs’ diverse neighborhoods because such businesses didn’t serve the working- and middle-class residents. A casual observation of a neighborhood’s evolution to a VUN creates the impression that placeless millennials with high disposable incomes have crowded out families by driving up prices. However, the data doesn’t match this narrative.

On average, four-person households make nearly three times more income than one-person households. Of course, children come with many costs, especially for families that require childcare, but this statistic indicates that plenty of families with children can afford to spend at least as much on housing as singles who are purchasing housing for one.

Rather than being pushed out of cities by housing costs, families are pulled out by suburban amenities, in particular public schools that tend to be substantially higher in quality. Urban neighborhoods with good schools are actually retaining and attracting families. Data from the Furman Center shows that since 2000, New York City neighborhoods with the best public and private schools have seen 5 percentage-point increases in the share of households that include children.

However, even those urban neighborhoods that house significant numbers of children lack the sense of community that Jacobs describes. Starbucks has replaced the local diner, and designer shoe stores have replaced hardware stores. Fewer retailers provide the setting where neighbors linger over daily errands, developing the types of relationships that allow mothers to let their young children roam city streets under communal supervision.

While the loss to community is real, the changes in American retail have also come with social and economic benefits. Small neighborhood groceries, butchers, and fishmongers have gone out of business in part because as women have entered the workforce, few people have the time to devote to running errands that shopping at these types of retailers requires. Most people no longer have a close relationship with their grocer, but enabling mothers the time to work outside the home has undeniably been a boon to both civic society and economic growth.

A return to midcentury Jacobsian diversity may be unlikely, but education reform could encourage more families to live in center cities. The people who live in Vibrant Urban Neighborhoods are not a separate class of people who are driving wholesome family life out of American cities; rather many of them are future suburban dwellers who haven’t had kids yet.

Jacobs makes a persuasive case for the benefits of growing families staying in diverse, urban neighborhoods, both for providing children with a real-world education and for strengthening social capital for people of all ages. The data shows that parents locate their children near the best schools they can afford, meaning the key to keeping families of all income levels in cities is an education system that doesn’t provide huge incentives for families to move to the suburbs.

Education reform that makes urban living a reasonable choice for more families will not only improve schooling for the children who live in cities. It could also create an urban environment that facilitates stronger social capital for people of all ages.

Emily Washington is a policy research manager at the Mercatus Center and writer for Market Urbanism. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


Rescue Cities for Families

[The American Conservative’s New Urbs project asked experts to respond to Benjamin Schwarz’s May/June 2016 cover story critiquing adult urban playgrounds. This is the first of two comments on “Cities Without Children.”]

Our cities are entering a defining moment. The young professionals lured into dense, walkable neighborhoods have resurrected our urban cores and many of their adjoining neighborhoods. But with this success has come the perception that cities are back, and that we have undone decades of damage from poor planning policies and urban sprawl.

The reality is that city streets may be teeming with activity, but they are deficient in diversity and sustainability. Planners or elected officials have failed to create urban communities that are made for everyone, which as Benjamin Schwarz detailed, betrays a central principle of the very Jane Jacobs we often cite as our precedent and inspiration.

The resurgence of cities was founded on the pursuit of hipness. Now there was an alternative to the suburbs, which had begun to show their wear and tear and were no longer enchanting to an emerging generation, one that valued place over material objects. Later this growth continued on a more complex set of principles, that urban revitalization benefits the health, economics, and environment of both the city and its inhabitants. Living in the city became less about being cool, and more about taking better care of the environment, our wallets, and our well being. And we, planners and city officials, have elected to exclude a very large segment of the population from these benefits.

We focused on a single demographic, enamored by their ability to fill a coffee shop or a public plaza, while giving little thought as to how they could remain in our cities as they age, change, or grow. Nearly every city in the country, large and small, entered into the bidding war for young professionals, seeking short-term wins while they failed to consider the long-term investment that these citizens actually represented.

We are not likely to lure very many families from their suburban homes into our urban centers. That would require a substantial lifestyle change that many would not be comfortable making. But resident retention should be a vital strategy for all cities, particularly as the millennials age and their household compositions evolve. Recent birth trends have shown that the oldest of millennials have begun to have children, and the younger members of the largest cohort in American history will follow suit. With costs rising, and housing options limited, it is reasonable to believe that many of these households, those who helped resurrect our cities, may very well leave just as they are hitting their peak earning years and seeking neighborhood stability.

The needs of these young households are complex, but it is clear that their presence strengthens communities. Everyone benefits from good schools, which attract top talent, improve property values, and provide a valuable community resource. Diverse housing options, those including more than studio and one-bedroom apartments, can create a natural lifecycle in a neighborhood that allows residents to remain and invest in their community. Quality parks provide more than just paved plazas or green space to walk dogs, they create recreation opportunities for everyone. And ultimately, all of these resources are more efficiently distributed and provided in a denser, walkable environment. We may find that if cities take down the “18+ only” sign that exists in our urban neighborhoods, we can reclaim the type of neighborhood vitality, investment, and character that Jane Jacobs describes and that so many people still long for.

Given the complex needs of families, and the lure of inexpensive suburban housing, it will take good public policy to establish the true urban vibrancy that cities, urbanists, and planners pursue. This does not mean an axe-wielding set of policies that drive every family household to the city. That is how we established the suburbs and all but eliminated the option of families living in cities.

Rather, we need a carefully constructed set of incentives that creates opportunities and options. Incentives should encourage diverse housing options and functional design that satisfies the “missing middle” emerging in every city across the country. Means should be sought to encourage collaboration between cities and school districts to properly manage siting and shared resources. Cities must market themselves and educate families that urban neighborhoods are an economically efficient, safe, healthy, and viable living alternative—the inverse of traditional thinking.

The fastest growing birth rate is occurring amongst the oldest millennials, and ultimately most will choose to have children. Maybe later in life, and maybe fewer, but the largest generation in America will produce a significant number of children, and providing them with living options that benefit the health of cities and families should be a priority. As a result, planners and city officials may just end up with the level of urban vitality that they have been pursuing so strongly. Otherwise cities will see a surplus of empty one-bedroom apartments and a commercial market that becomes less and less relevant.

Creating living options in urban, walkable neighborhoods for families, particularly those in the middle class, is not about satisfying a unique market niche or a particular political agenda. Several surveys have indicated that families would be willing to make sacrifices in order to remain in urban neighborhoods or believe that having a family should not require leaving the city.

We should create opportunities for families and children to enjoy the benefits of cities in the same way that we market them to young professionals. Our existing policies have eliminated this option.

Bradley Calvert is a city planner in the Seattle metropolitan region and is a parent living in Downtown Seattle. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


Words on the Street

Each week, New Urbs will be regularly collecting the best content we’ve read each week that we didn’t publish—but would have. Read something you think should make the cut? E-mail Jon Coppage or tag @NewUrbs with the link on Twitter.

“Appreciating Small-Scale New Urbanism” via Public Square

Philadelphia is a study of how revitalization is taking place on a 19th Century street grid, shaped by regulations that, while imperfect, at least recognize the importance of walkability and the public realm. With its rowhouse and warehouse neighborhoods, Philadelphia may be particularly friendly to small urbanism and mid-range densities. Yet this kind of mix is happening in cities and towns, to a lesser or greater degree, all across America. While we write about the larger projects, let’s appreciate how much small-scale, infill development is helping to transform our cities.

“As Cars Return to Main Street, ‘Difference is like night and day’” via Buffalo News 

In the early 1980s, the downtown stretch of Main became a pedestrian mall and a free-fare zone for the new Metro Rail system, which arrived two years later. But instead of reversing downtown’s fortunes, the removal of cars may have hastened the decline. The long construction period doomed many of the street’s businesses, and the restricted access to Main Street contributed to diminished occupancy and development, especially for first-floor storefronts.

“Learning Virtue Through Public Transit” via Strong Towns

Sharing bus seats with strangers thrusts me into a form of the public square, which can be uncomfortable and ripe for opportunity all at the same time as I encounter a diversity of people. It strips me of my (perceived) independence. It forces me to rely on and trust other people and others’ schedules in order to get to my destination. It is humbling. Virtue is not usually one of the benefits touted by supporters of public transit, yet it can be a valuable outcome of the system.

The urbanism of Trump the Father in “The Tudor Plain” via Urban Omnibus

[Fred] Trump’s houses were cozy, well made, and — more than anything — affordable even to working-class families. He reduced construction costs by using the same economies of scale that made the Model T automobile so inexpensive. Known in the industry as “the Henry Ford of housing,” he applied techniques of mass production to home construction a full decade before William Levitt became famous for doing so at Levittown. Levitt’s subdivisions were studiously suburban and designed for motorists. Trump’s row house developments accommodated cars — most had garages tucked below grade in front or rear — but not at the expense of a picturesque, pedestrian-friendly streetscape. Trump was a city builder first and foremost, and his largest works were always close to rapid transit.

Posted in . Post a comment

When University Architecture Aims Nowhere

The David M. Rubenstein Forum at the University of Chicago. (Diller Scofidio + Renfro)
The David M. Rubenstein Forum at the University of Chicago. (Diller Scofidio + Renfro)

The University of Chicago was founded in 1896 with the support of John D. Rockefeller in order to give the Baptists a worthy rival to the Ivy League’s prestigious East Coast universities like Harvard and Yale, not to mention England’s ancient Cambridge and Oxford. It was fitting, then, that the school was built in an ivy-strewn neo-Gothic style, using a special limestone that Rockefeller himself picked out to age in appearance much more quickly than normal rock. Today those original main campus buildings sport a weather-hewn visage comparable to those of schools centuries its elder, paying homage to a university that became known for its dedication to the Great Books tradition and curriculum.

Mr. Rockefeller’s aesthetic choices have not exercised terribly strong sway over the school’s more recent additions, however, and the newest addition provides a perfect symbol of why. Established deviations from the plan stretch from the brutalism of the main Regenstein Library (appropriately used for a dystopian prison in the YA blockbuster Divergent), to the multicolored Lego blockland of Max Palevsky dormitory, to the concrete blight of the central administrative building, which sits squarely on Rockefeller’s original quad. (The university website notes that “Gothic designs for the building were floated, but progressive critics were quick to deride the medieval template as obsolete.”)

Now the university’s latest building project has been announced, and the “post-post-modern” architectural firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro has unveiled its design (see above). It is, in short, clutter.

While the Gothic architecture of the original campus was expressly developed over centuries to communicate order, beauty, and orientation to the divine, and even the midcentury modernism that followed had a certain appreciation of symmetry, the David M. Rubenstein Forum is a disordered stack of boxes jutting out, one over another, in order to provide a vaguely defined collection of meeting spaces.

While, as mentioned, the Rubenstein Forum is not unique to the campus in garishness and departure from the Gothic core, it does serve as an apt culminating symbol of how universities abandoned education for buildings.

As I recalled in a fall piece, last winter Patrick Deneen delivered a lecture on how university architecture had gone “From Sacred Space to the Bunker and the Spaceship,” in which he detailed how the change in university purpose over the past century had been reflected in its buildings. When universities were first and foremost places of learning in which the accumulated wisdom of the ages was to be transmitted to a new generation, they followed classical forms. Gothic architecture pointed to heaven, the source of ultimate wisdom to Christians and Platonists alike. Libraries facilitated serendipitous encounter with books, students, and scholars alike, bringing the various sciences into dialogue with each other on the shelf and in the halls.

As John Dewey’s ideas took hold in the classroom (fittingly at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School), and Le Corbusier’s in the architectural journals, the orientation turned away from learning as it had classically been understood and toward a fusion of personal development for students and research accumulation for professors. Libraries were built to store “publish or perish” books that would never be read, and classrooms to become plastic spaces of generic creativity. In time, classrooms would fade from focus altogether.

So appears to be the case with the Rubenstein Forum. The university is replete with lecture halls and auditoriums of all sizes, several in the same Gothic buildings and lending a sense of excitement and authority to visiting guest lecturers. The university administrators, however, called “for a flexible space for intellectual and educational exchange” that “can be devoted to a small, intimate academic symposia [sic] or combined for larger conferences or meetings.”

The Rubenstein Forum stands across the park from Rockefeller Chapel, John D.’s final bequest to the university. The Chapel is a stunning Gothic achievement, built entirely out of stone with no reinforcing steel, sporting the second-largest bell carillon in the world. Kriston Capps finds the Rubenstein’s cantilevered upper levels to echo the Chapel’s transept tower, which emerges out of the Chapel’s foundational cruciform footprint; this echo was so clever as to have been duplicated in an early draft by a rival New York firm for a performance venue built down the street. Crucially, as Deneen noted, the Chapel tower points upwards, while the Forum caps itself with a horizontal deck that provides a nice view of Lake Michigan.

Towering above the university’s campus, the Chapel serves as a convening venue for each incoming class of undergraduate students, who gather before a faculty member to receive an address on “The Aims of Education,” an address which will then be discussed and debated with their new residential house community. The full pews and grand chamber summon hushed attention, while the stone statues around the entrances orient one to education, faith, and philosophy.

If the Rubenstein Forum were to one day host an Aims of Education address, what would its hodgepodge of boxes orient its students towards? Likely nothing. There is no coherence, no direction towards ideas either noble or base. But Mr. Rubenstein got his starchitect, and the university administrators kept the capital rolling in.

How post-post-modern.

Jonathan Coppage is senior staff editor of The American Conservative. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


Words on the Street

Each week, New Urbs will be regularly collecting the best content we’ve read each week that we didn’t publish—but would have. Read something you think should make the cut? E-mail Jon Coppage or tag @NewUrbs with the link on Twitter.

“A very bad sign for all but America’s biggest cities” via Washington Post

The changes also reflect a fundamental shift over the past two decades in which workers and industries power the country’s economic growth. That shift advantages highly educated urbanites at the expense of everyone else. Polling suggests it is one of the driving forces in the political unrest among working-class Americans — particularly rural white men — who have flocked to Republican Donald Trump’s presidential campaign this year.

“High Population Turnover in Neighborhoods Undermines Parent-Child Relationships” via Child & Family Blog (h/t Eve Tushnet)

Research shows that unstable residential neighborhoods tend to have weaker communities, with less mutual support. Parents miss out on the trust, cohesion and sense of social control that develop when local populations are less transient. They can’t draw as much on help with day-to-day needs

“The Duck-Billed Platypus of American Cities” via City Journal

Most important, as an interior city, Chicago has a heartland state of mind. It draws even its upscale population base heavily from other Midwestern cities and towns. For the most part, Chicagoans hold degrees from Big Ten schools, not the Ivy League, and the city’s civic mindset reflects that. Its culture is more conservative than that of the coastal cities, and less cosmopolitan and ambitious.

“WWJJD: What Would Jane Jacobs Do About Zoning?” via Strong Towns

Density-and-use zoning is the metaphorical hammer of urban land use: every potential problem ends up looking like a nail, and gets hammered to smithereens. It doesn’t matter if the problem has nothing to do with density or land use, and it doesn’t matter that density and land use are (as the Kings show) pretty darn incidental to the grand scheme of things. The only tool that we have is the wrong one, but we’re going to use it anyways.

“The Storefront Index” via City Observatory

Clusters of these quasi-private spaces, which are usually neighborhood businesses, activate a streetscape, both drawing life from and adding to a steady flow of people outside. In an effort to begin to quantify this key aspect of neighborhood vitality, we’ve developed a new statistical indicator—the Storefront Index (click to see the full report)—that measures the number and concentration of customer-facing businesses in the nation’s large metropolitan areas.

“New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

Posted in . Post a comment

Tower Block Dystopia

"High-Rise" Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures.
"High-Rise" Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

The xkcd cartoon “Logic Boat” shows the familiar problem of the man who has to carry a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage across a river. The problem: “The boat only holds two, and you can’t leave the goat with the cabbage or the wolf with the goat.”

There’s a logic-puzzle solution here. There’s also the xkcd solution: “Leave the wolf. Why do you have a wolf?”

High-Rise is a dystopian science-fiction flick about an experimental skyscraper in an alternate-history ’70s Britain. Eccentric architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) designed the place so that every floor represented a rung on the socioeconomic ladder, like a vertical Snowpiercer train: rich folk in the penthouse, with a rooftop garden where Royal’s caricature wife rides horseback dressed as a shepherdess; maids and whatnot probably in the basement, not that we get to know any; everybody else precisely placed on the appropriate level in the middle.

We’re told, “Most people don’t care about what happens two floors above or one floor below them.” You can tell that that’s true, because in real life, when the cities started to go Charles Bronson, rich people left. Why don’t they leave the high-rise once the class war starts? Why do you have a wolf?

High-Rise is based on a J.G. Ballard novel, and its most striking characteristic is how much of a throwback it is. The ’70s aren’t just setting and costume. The whole emotional tenor of the movie is redolent of the disco era–and of Britain’s “winter of discontent.” The casual sexism, ecstatic violence, and casual ecstatic sexual violence are filmed pretty much exactly as they would have been in-period; you can bring your own critique if you want to.

These days we talk about globalization and the flight of manufacturing jobs. High-Rise recalls an earlier narrative, where social breakdown is linked with moral decadence. The ’70s are one long party that got out of hand. All the usual signs of decadence eventually emerge: wife-swapping, adults eating cereal, blood-spattered clothing, fires.

This isn’t a good enough movie; its plot is tangled, and it’s both overstuffed and thinly-sketched. It’s disingenuous to make a movie about society-wide class conflict where the lowest class we get to know is the educated professionals. (See Jamie’s comments here on the rhetoric of the “1%.”) Tom Hiddleston, whom I enjoyed in Crimson Peak, is wasted in a role where he mostly wanders around looking tormented. The final stages of societal breakdown happen in a muddled montage. By the movie’s final stretch the audience was so frustrated and confused that even very good lines (“This is my party… and I decide who gets lobotomized”) got zero laughs.

That said, there are some great images–the dentist’s Terry Gilliamesque flak jacket covered in dentures, the overbalanced cake plate–and some unexpected insights.

When the movie starts we know things will go horribly awry. Dr. Laing (Hiddleston) roasts his dog on a spit in the burnt-out, powerless building and muses that in some ways he likes it here in the post-apocalypse. Then we flash back to when the high-rise was new, a huge gleaming angular monster surrounded by parking lots, far from any city.

Royal says he “conceived this building as a crucible for change,” and the tenants were apparently carefully curated. (In one of the best lines of a movie with unnecessarily good dialogue, one of the inhabitants notes that Laing’s “tenancy application was very Byronic.”) Royal’s idea of literal and explicit class hierarchy + forced proximity seems so crazy that maybe he always intended the plan to fail. Yet he seems surprised when power outages prompt the building’s descent into anarchy.

Violent anarchy starts as a party, in fact a clash of two parties: a raid by middle-class children on a private pool party. Nobody is pursuing anything other than fun. I sincerely loved the way partying is used in this movie, as a kind of synonym for oppression and resistance: “We’ve got to show the lower floors that we can throw a better party than them!” It implies an ironic, amoral vision of politics which in our relentlessly moralistic age we find hard even to remember. And it makes sense when you notice that none of the adults have parents. The closest thing we get is Royal, who begat the building; they are all the building’s adolescent children, raised by the society Margaret Thatcher (more or less) said didn’t exist.

Lucien Steil’s presentation “Architecture Which Hurts, Architecture Which Heals,” underscores the ways Royal’s choices shaped his building’s eventual collapse. There is a parking lot wasteland instead of a courtyard, for example, and a lack of truly public spaces. (“I recognize you,” a higher-floor man says to a lower, “from the foyer.”) There’s a supermarket for consumption and a pool for leisure–that pool party encapsulates a lot of the movie’s themes. Parents organize as an interest group because children aren’t wanted: “The women round here would help the planet more by keeping their legs crossed.” (And yet there’s a kindergarten built in. Why do you have a wolf?)

The high-rise has no library, no place of worship. (Royal’s private penthouse includes art taken from museums.) It has no history–preserving a place’s history would open up imaginations, allowing the possibility of a life unshaped by the engineers; and it might lead to mixing income levels.

It has rules (you can’t put diapers down the garbage chute) but no responsibilities. There are no institutions to allow the practice of citizenship. For 10 years I lived in a block-long big box apartment hellscape and we at least had a tenants’ association, although I suspect the largest voting bloc was cockroaches. In Royal’s high-rise, parties are the only thing anybody organizes: the sole native form of leadership. So it shouldn’t be surprising when the final words of the movie are a radio broadcast from Lady Thatcher herself, as the voice of Judgment Day: “Where there is state capitalism, there will never be political freedom.” I suspect this is meant to be ironic, but it works without irony: Royal as capitalist head of state offered no options for political freedom; his tenant-subjects didn’t want it, so why include it in the lease?

The rich folk in the high-rise fled the city to live anonymously. The movie, which is shot entirely from within the upper middle-class POV, will never tell you why on earth they don’t flee the high-rise to live in a place with toilet paper. But if you’re willing to take it as fairy tale, its message is simple: You may no longer share a city with the wolf, but as long as you share a polis with him he is in your home. And one day he will open his jaws and vote you right up.

So maybe it’s not so retro after all.

High-Rise is a weird movie that hides its insights under a wrack of violent incident. It’s dumb in a lot of the ways that matter for audience interest, and unexpectedly smart in a lot of the ways that don’t. If you want a tower-as-microcosm movie with Reagan-era anxieties, though, you’re probably still better off watching Candyman.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

“New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

← Older posts