New Urbs

When Universities Abandon Education for Buildings

University of Cincinnati Campus Recreation Center, Thom Mayne, $110 million Paul Schmizer/Flickr
University of Cincinnati Campus Recreation Center, Thom Mayne, $110 million Paul Schmizer/Flickr

Last weekend’s New York Times Magazine featured the University of Cincinnati’s ambitious building boom, a budget-busting architectural bender that has employed “a murderers’ row of architects—Frank Gehry, of course, along with Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, and Thom Mayne” to further the school’s “decades-long bid to turn a quiet commuter school into one with a global reputation.”

Cincinnati is merely one the most prominent examples of a national explosion in debt-fueled collegiate building binges ushered in along with the new millennium. A 2012 New York Times report asked for the numbers and found that, “Overall debt levels more than doubled from 2000 to 2011 at the more than 500 institutions rated by Moody’s, according to inflation-adjusted data compiled for The New York Times by the credit rating agency.” What’s more, “In the same time, the amount of cash, pledged gifts and investments that colleges maintain declined more than 40 percent relative to the amount they owe.”

In total, Moody’s found those institutions to have amassed over $200 billion in debt, $122 billion being held by public universities, $83 billion by private institutions. The University of Cincinnati, with its lavish gambit for international prominence, now holds over $1.1 billion of debt, approximately $200 million of which was spent on construction in the past 10 years.

Cincinnati administrators are happy to defend this spending, as they told the Times in 2012 that “The institution has profited mightily from the changes that we have made,” for “We have gone from a second-choice institution to a first-choice.” And indeed, university enrollment increased approximately 30 percent over the past decade.

However defensible individual capital investments may be when deployed to expand a university’s enrollment or periodically maintain its facilities, though, University of Cincinnati’s reliance on the star architect model left its campus as a hodgepodge of slants and odd angles, along with the all-too-common signature of experimental architecture, imminent decay:

Peter Eisenman’s Aronoff Center for Design and Art at the university had cheap cladding slapped on during its construction from 1989 to 1996, and over time it began to rot and peel away. Repairs and renovations on the $35 million building cost $20 million, and the university borrowed $19.25 million to help pay for them.

On a snowy evening this past March Patrick Deneen lectured on the architecture of university libraries, highlighting how,  over the past century, they had too frequently gone from (in the title of the lecture) “Sacred Space to the Bunker and the Spaceship.” Deneen’s argument, as summarized by JuicyEcumenism’s Matthew Maule, was that universities abandoned building libraries in keeping with classical forms and understandings of how to organize knowledge, light, and people, and instead exchanged that wisdom for concrete brutalism and glass-and-steel sci-fi modernism. What’s more, “the shift in form parallels the change in function from a focus on educating students to assisting the university’s research faculty whose output is often only read by a few of their peers.” A research library organized merely to contain faculty work that would never be read was necessarily built differently than a teaching library aiming to bring knowledge, students, and scholars together in serendipitous encounter and reverent transmission of wisdom.

Deneen pointed out that the classical architectural forms had been tested by hundreds of years of cold, rain, heat, and all kinds of inclement weather, and had survived the stress test of the centuries. Likewise, the classical educational model relying on great texts had been tested by the millennia of Western civilization, and had that civilization to testify to their passing grade.

What does the starchitectural building boom of University of Cincinnati indicate about the aims of contemporary education? It would seem to be a debt-fueled consumerism, a highly leveraged sensationalism, where institutions of higher education represent not institutional transmitters of wisdom, nor even organized laboratories seeking to let knowledge grow from more to more, but rather marketplace actors competing to attract student-customers by way of lazy rivers and gigantic gymnasiums. As Nikil Saval worried in the Times, “the university will turn into a luxury brand, its image unmoored from its educational mission—a campus that could be anywhere and nowhere”

Those students will then be saddled with the bills for the building booms through soaring tuition or swelling student loans. And the university administrators will take home the salaries and the credit due to those running such a successful scheme.

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Kentucky’s Conservative Urbanism

All images courtesy John Sanphillippo
All images courtesy John Sanphillippo

All the talk about urbanism these days is dominated by places like Brooklyn, Portland, Vancouver, and San Francisco because they’re prosperous and fashionable. It’s so easy to dismiss them as anomalies. Defenders of suburbia are quick to say (with some justification) that, “Most ordinary people don’t live in places like that.” So let’s look at a supremely middle-of-the-road small town in Kentucky.

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This is the historic Main Street in Bellevue, Kentucky. The buildings are close together, they tend to have a mix of uses with shops downstairs and apartments upstairs. The business district is walkable and bikeable. It’s easy and safe for older people as well as children to navigate. The majority of the shops are locally owned. And notice that not a single building is more than three stories tall. Downtown Bellevue is… charming.

It also happens to embody all the tenets promoted by the Smart Growth “coastal elite”. Except Bellevue was founded in 1870 by some profoundly conservative market oriented families. Bellevue isn’t New Urbanism. It’s just plain old fashioned regular urbanism like every other town built before World War II. Its form was dictated by practical considerations based on what worked well on a tight budget. From the beginning there was a good balance of taxable private property relative to the public cost of providing quality municipal services.

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The majority of the homes in Bellevue are fully detached single family houses with front and back yards. Bellevue happens to have de facto “affordable housing” in the form of those apartments above the shops downtown and modest single family homes mixed in with the grander places in the same neighborhood. Landlords are likely to live in the same building or very nearby and to attend the same church and shop in the same stores as tenants. There’s simply no need for subsidized housing or government “projects”.

And Bellevue is a NORC – a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. People just automatically like living in town in their later years. Why move to a segregated village for the elderly in Florida or Arizona with a shuttle bus to the mall on Tuesdays when you could live close to family and friends in your home town?

Yet Bellevue is also an excellent place for young families with children. In short, Bellevue is a complete place and an excellent example of really good urbanism that’s every bit as solid as the trendy places that get all the lime light these days. Not coincidentally, its a highly sought after place to live.

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Here’s something else you see in a lot of older places. Some of the best land in town along the river has been set aside as a public park. In part this is a response to the fact that the Ohio River floods periodically. Having a park take the brunt of the damage is more cost effective than building and maintaining a massive levee. But the riverside park does something else. The public park raises the collective value of all private property in town, not just expensive homes right on the water. This isn’t some communist redistribution of income. It’s a pragmatic capitalist technique to take a little strip of public land and passively leverage it to create much larger private value.

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These photos are also from Bellevue, Kentucky. These were taken in the modern, post World War II suburban section of town next to the Highway. The needs of motorists are paramount here. The streets are extra wide and there’s plenty of free off street parking. The shops cater to people who drive. The gas stations, auto parts store, car wash, supermarket, and drive-thru restaurants are all exceptionally welcoming and useful to folks in cars.

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Some people like living in a walkable neighborhood. Other people prefer a driveable suburban living arrangement. It’s a big country so there’s room for everyone to find a place they really love and want to call home. But there are inherent benefits and drawbacks to each kind of development. Notice that everything that makes the old part of Bellevue pleasant for people on foot makes it less conducive to people in cars. The opposite is true in the newer part of town. The more a place is made effortlessly driveable the less it works for pedestrians or cyclists.

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Bellevue has a grand total of 576 acres and serves a population of 5,900 people. It’s contained on all sides by other municipalities as well as the river. Horizontal expansion isn’t an option. Bellevue has a fixed amount of capital stock in the form of land. That’s all there is to work with.



Here’s how the suburban auto-oriented development pattern uses that scarce resource. A handful of one story, single use, semi disposable buildings are scattered across a vast landscape of mostly empty parking lots. And nearly every one of these businesses is an out-of-town corporate chain that sucks money directly out of the local economy in exchange for a tiny sliver of sales and property tax. No one in Bellevue will ever see the owner of Kroger or McDonald’s at church on Sunday or at the local PTA.

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In contrast, here’s a section of Bellevue’s historic business district. The traditional development pattern delivers far more value per acre while requiring infinitely less public infrastructure. These small mixed use buildings from the late 1800’s are as solid as ever. Because they’re small and lack giant parking lagoons they tend to repel national chains that need more space and have very specific design parameters. That’s actually a good thing since it creates a niche for local merchants who are far better at recirculating money within town.

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Let’s go back to the riverfront again. Here’s a stretch of Bellevue that uses the post war land use pattern. A good deal of the land right up against the water has been turned in to a Burger King parking lot. People living directly across the street just one block from the river actually have lower property values because of this form of development. That translates to less tax revenue for the town with more ongoing maintenance expenses for the oversized car oriented infrastructure.

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Here’s another modern approach to riverfront development. This cluster of mid-rise condos is built on a giant fortified plinth in the floodplain in order to sell water views at a premium. In exchange, all the neighbors get a view of the parking garage and trash dumpsters. I’m pretty sure no one pays extra to live next door to this place even though it’s only a block from the river. This is a winner-takes-all approach. The more locals try and access the river near this private complex the more the condo residents will complain to the authorities about trespassing. Bellevue gained some taxable revenue from the condos by devaluing all the surrounding property. That’s not a great economic plan over the long haul.

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Most municipalities and states (and the federal government for that matter) are consistently spending more than they collect in revenue. A majority of towns are already deep in debt and servicing that debt is becoming a larger and larger portion of the budget. The usual conversation of, “Teachers are paid way too much” and, “We just need to entice a big employer to our town” or, “If we widened the highway the new Target and Walmart will arrive to provide tax revenue” has entered an era of diminishing returns. This approach isn’t going to fix what’s broken. In fact, this set of policies is what’s slowly destroying our towns.

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The idea that compact, mixed use, pedestrian friendly development is somehow alien to American families or productive capitalism is so strange. It’s exactly this type of building that made America financially and culturally strong from the very beginning. It’s actually all the low grade scattershot construction smeared across the landscape that’s concentrating wealth into fewer and fewer distant hands and impoverishing ordinary towns and families.

John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. This post was originally published at his blog, Granola Shotgun.

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Brad Pitt’s Rotting Post-Katrina Modernism—and Ours

Ten years ago this past weekend, Hurricane Katrina swept across the Gulf Coast, destroying over 300,000 homes, over 100,000 of which were in the long-beleaguered but even-longer proud city of New Orleans. The images of an iconic American city under water, which many of us revisited over the past week, still haunt. The rebuilding of New Orleans, it was apparent even then, would be more than a disaster-relief project; it would tell us how much we still understood of our traditions.

That’s when Brad Pitt decided that the birthplace of jazz needed a Hollywood soul infusion. As Peter Whorlskey recounted at the Washington Post Friday, Mr. Pitt founded the Make It Right Foundation to import the world’s greatest architects into New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward and bestow the hardest-hit victims of Katrina with world-class branded houses that incorporated LEED-platinum environmental consciousness. Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Shigeru Ban were all brought in to offer Lower Ninth Ward residents their visions for post-Katrina residential life. The only hitch? According to Whorlskey, “the designs proved to be too clever to be built on a budget—that is, in reality.”

Mayne proposed a house that could float, in case the levees gave way again. A useful contingency plan, but prohibitively expensive to implement. Ban required too-costly carpentry. The famed Gehry did manage to technically approach the budget by building a $350,000 duplex—but could not tempt any natives into actually wanting to live in it.

What’s more, the unbuilt budget-busting houses may have been some of the modernists’ best contributions to the recovery of the Lower Ninth Ward. For the houses that were built by other high-flying architectural artists relied on experimental materials that have proven very prone to molding and even severe rotting in the muggy New Orleans climate—less than 10 years after they were built. Many of the others showed off their sleek, flat rooves—to which the natives reportedly responded, “you know it rains a lot here, right?” Several of the architects seemed more taken with the hurricane than the residents, Justin Shubow recounts, as they designed one home with an aesthetically “damaged” roof, another “that looked like a trailer broken in two, and another one that looked like a house piled on top of a house.”

Responding to these modernist failures, “one of the 21st century’s architectural power brokers” Aaron Betsky wrote, “The fact that buildings look strange to some people, and that roofs sometimes leak, is part and parcel of the research and development aspect of the design discipline.”

Michael Mehaffy captured the modernist Make It Right ethos well in his recent, excellent essay, “What We Didn’t Learn From Katrina”:

Let us not learn from the successes and delights of New Orleans itself, they suggest. Let us not empower local people with local solutions. Instead, let us bring international architects to craft novelty inventions, and bestow them upon these lucky denizens. If these novelties happen to perform poorly—if they rot quickly, or have other problems—well, who knew?

Mehaffy goes on to note that “New Orleans has the embodied knowledge of how to make an exquisite street, a delightful house, a durable and enduring piece of the city. But we are in the bad habit of ignoring it.” New Orleans in fact has one of the most distinctive architectural identities of any city in the country, and a large part of that is due to it being specifically adapted to its environment. What’s more, the people of New Orleans are famously attached to their identity. You don’t stick around through “the hurricane before the hurricane” of urban dysfunction and decay because the climate is nice. You stay because the city has a soul, as Rod learned helping Crescent City native Wendell Pierce with his memoir.

Thankfully, Pitt included at least one local firm in his project, and the Billes Partners prototype is sure enough the most popular design ordered by the actual residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Elevated and LEED-certified, the house still draws on New Orleans style. What’s more, Billes himself notes, “We did actually listen to what the neighborhoods folks might like in a house… They were looking for a porch, and they were were looking for a protected area to drive their car into. And they wanted something that looked familiar.” Steven Bingler of Concordia, another involved local firm, notes that “A lot of features of our design come from our knowledge of the New Orleans community—for example, an eight-foot-deep front porch. The community has commented that four-foot-deep front porches aren’t big enough for their rocking chairs.”

The modernist marvels of Gehry and co., with their clean absence of context and experiments in high-speed housing decay unfortunately reflect the state of architecture more widely. As Bingler noted in a New York Times op-ed, “we’re trying to sell the public buildings they don’t want, in a language they don’t understand,” because “we’ve taught generation of architects to speak out as artists, but we haven’t taught them to listen.”

As Mehaffy reflects,

New Orleans is a marvel of informal order. Its older neighborhoods are loose jazzy improvisations of buildings and details and quirky outdoor spaces, all exquisitely human scale and aimed at pedestrian delight. A walk down one of its streets reveals the layers of human activity and change that have grown up there, re-organizing, and transforming neighborhoods bit by bit. It is a marvel of durable livability.

As New Orleans begins another decade of post-Katrina life, this massive project of reclamation and rebuilding is a strong lesson in localism. Watching his city come back to life around him, Bingler noted that “it was the citizens of New Orleans who saved New Orleans. If you ask around, there is no shortage of politicians and businesspeople who will take the credit. It’s interesting that, for the most part, those people tanked and failed. Some of them are in federal prison as we speak.”

New Orleans is still struggling to retain its character amid the hurricane-imposed population changes, but the city’s strength is built into its streets, into its buildings, and into its people. Where one of those components falters, the others can reinforce, but context-less modernism would cut another of the supports out from under the community.

We can hope that New Orleans has a clear enough sense of its own identity to fend off those threats. We might need to be more worried, however, about the creeping decay of our own neighborhoods and cities under the gradual pressure of an architecture without a soul.

Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor at The American Conservative.


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Why Walkability Matters

Pavel L Photo and Video / Shutterstock

The ability—and perhaps, to some extent, the desire—to walk is largely disappearing from America, says Antonia Malchik. In an Aeon Magazine piece, she considers the ways we’ve undermined walking through modern urban planning, and through our obsession with cars:

For decades, Americans have been losing their ability, even their right, to walk. There are places in the United States – New York City, for example – where people walk as a matter of habit and lifestyle, commuting in ways familiar to residents of London or Paris. But there are vast blankets and folds of the country where the ability to walk – to open a door and step outside and go somewhere or nowhere without getting behind the wheel of a car – is a struggle, a fight. A risk.

In 2013 more than 4,700 pedestrians were killed, and an estimated 66,000 injured, in what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls ‘traffic crashes’. That’s a bite-sized phrase for what is, essentially, people in cars killing and injuring people on foot.

Kate Kraft, the National Coalition Director for America Walks, an advocacy organisation for walkability, says that, ever since towns began removing streetcars, we’ve undermined transit systems that would support the walker and planned instead for the car. Walking is an impediment to the car culture we revere, an experience we’ve intentionally designed out of our lives.

It is true that if you’re watching the Super Bowl, say, it’s the car commercials that are stuffed with patriotism and references to good ole “Murica.” On a larger scale, the car (regardless of its size or make) seems to reference the ideals of individualism, autonomy, and privacy that many Americans hold dear. It’s a piece of privately-owned property that you can bring with you, wherever you go.

In a sense, Malchik’s piece makes me wonder whether the decline in home and/or property ownership has only made the car more important to Americans: because at least traditionally, it’s the home that we would associate with these feelings of pride and autonomy. But fewer Americans own property—and of those who do, fewer regard such ownership with the same sort of long-term allegiance. Owning a home is often a commercial endeavor, a rung on the ladder to bigger dreams and more square footage elsewhere. Thus, cars often help us express our sense of autonomy and personality in a way home ownership may have in the past.

Yet in the decline of walking—and correspondingly, in the decline of walkability—there are certain elements of community and culture that we may lose. Because despite its inefficiency or tediousness, walking provides several goods that the car cannot.

First, walking helps to cultivate community. Driving is an isolated mode of travel: it separates us physically from those around us, be they drivers, walkers, or bikers. Driving also promotes a desire for speed and efficiency: it spurs us to get somewhere fast, rather than urging us to enjoy the journey. When we drive, we usually have the end destination fixed in our minds. When we walk, we have time to stop, linger, and notice—perhaps even to say hello to passersby. Walking encourages us to take part in the fabric of the place we inhabit: it forces us to pay attention, and to acknowledge the others surrounding us. We have to share the sidewalk. We have to stop for cars or bikers, for strollers and dog walkers. It forces attention, and correspondingly, can foster relationships.

Second, walking provides space for the carless. There are many who either cannot afford an automobile, or who are more comfortable walking. For some, it may be a matter of principle: they believe biking and walking, taking public transportation when necessary, are healthier for them and better overall for the environment. For others, driving may be impossible due to health or financial reasons. I know a woman with brain cancer who is not allowed to drive—but she’ll often still try to walk to church or the grocery store when she cannot get a ride. Having safe sidewalks and intersections provides her an essential means of transportation.

Such services not only offer space for the carless—they also foster a safer environment overall. A society with walkers is a slower-paced society. Some view this as a bad thing—they prefer being able to get from point A to point B with the greatest amount of speed possible. But speed and efficiency often curb community closeness—and they can be lethal for the carless, who are left with no choice but to cross busy intersections or navigate narrow sidewalks alongside highways. Providing space for walkers encourages drivers to slow down and pay attention. It forces them to be present, and conscientious, of those around them.

Correspondingly, walking should teach mindfulness to pedestrians, in how and where they walk. It should force them to pay attention to their environment and teach them to be prudent. (Though the walker’s prudent decisions are often impeded or negated by the space they are given, and/or by drivers’ carelessness. The burden of responsibility is on the driver—owner as they are of the faster, heavier, more isolated vehicle—to be aware of their surroundings.) Thus we see that walking and walkability can teach prudence and responsibility, to both drivers and walkers. It encourages both to be mindful of the other, and fosters an environment in which speed is secondary to safety, efficiency to wellbeing.

Finally, walking is important because it breaks down insular barriers that keep us from knowing and appreciating our place, our moment. Matthew Crawford spends a lot of time talking about this in his recent book, The World Beyond Your Head:

… The design of automobiles has tended toward insulation, offering an ever less involving driving experience. The animating idea seems to be that the driver should be a disembodied observer, moving through a world of objects that present themselves as though on a screen. … The wealth of information presented by an older, harder-edged, and lighter car elicits involvement; you have the palpable sense that it is your ass that is going sixty miles an hour. Such existential involvement demands and energizes attention. This is why driving a light, primitive sports car is so exhilarating.

… Roads are tacitly pedagogical, as are cars. They can foster circumspection—literally, looking around for others and regarding oneself as an object for others in turn—or a collection of atomized me-worlds. In the latter case, we tend not to encounter others unless we literally collide with them.

The more we insulate ourselves from those around us, the less safety and community we are able to enjoy. Crawford points out that cars weren’t always this way—but it is largely what they have become, through modern automobile engineering. The question, thus, is whether we should hold up driving as an emblem of American individuality and expression, or whether we should, cognizant of cars’ limits and dangers, also make room in our society—and on our roads—for the walker, who also embodies important American ideals: those of neighborliness, self-sufficiency, and responsibility (to name a few).

Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor of The American Conservative.

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New Urbs Returns from Dallas

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Welcome back.

A couple weeks ago, we were privileged to attend the 23rd Congress for the New Urbanism in Dallas, as the first year of our New Urbanism Initiative reached its culmination. TAC National Editor Benjamin Schwarz and I were in attendance for the full week of festivities, attending panels and events around Dallas. Now that video for most of the sessions are available, commentary and reflection will be forthcoming.

We were also very fortunate to have the opportunity to host a panel on “Bipartisan Placemaking: Reaching Conservatives,” in which the TAC crew was joined by New Urbanism icon and founding father Andrés Duany and Strong Towns president and New Urbs regular Charles Marohn for a fascinating discussion about the intersection of conservatives and new urbanist thinking. That video is now available below:

Just before going on stage, we had a dynamic discussion with Chuck Marohn on his podcast (which I linked to previously), describing the arc of the New Urbs project and our hopes for the future of conservatives and cities (or in Schwarz’s case, his natural conservative pessimism).

And after our panel wrapped up, we moved to D Magazine’s offices, where Wick Allison held court on the devastation Dallas wreaked upon its own downtown by building highways straight through them, as well as the work that he and the Coalition for a New Dallas are doing to reverse that damage and recover their city from the well-meaning follies of corporate titans and central planners. We are still waiting for the pictures to come back, but expect a post on that soon.

Yesterday, Robert Steuteville of the essential New Urbanist publication Better Cities & Towns (which I understand will transform into a new CNU publication this year), was kind enough to profile our panel, and the work that we have been doing here, in a post titled, “A New Right Hook for New Urbanism.”

Steuteville relates,

For nearly a year, The American Conservative, a right-leaning national magazine, has been running well-written, informed, and positive online articles on the New Urbanism. Two of its editors joined a panel discussion at CNU in Dallas titled “Bipartisan Placemaking: Reaching Conservatives.”

This is newsworthy for two reasons:

1) No national magazine that covers general political topics has ever devoted this much coverage to New Urbanism.

2) Coming from a mainstream conservative source, such writing has been as scarce as hen’s teeth. For close to two decades, conservative pundits like Wendall Cox, Randal O’Toole, and Joel Kotkin have relentlessly bashed this trend. The Heritage Foundation, the Tea Party, and the American Dream Coalition are among the institutions of the right that have attacked new urban planning and development. Goaded by Glenn Beck, the Tea Party equates density and mixed-use with an anti-American, world-government agenda.

We will continue to hear from Kotkin, Cox, O’Toole, the Tea Party, and other critics from the conservative side. Now we also have a new generation of conservative intellectuals making cogent, well-informed arguments for human-scale design and development. Right field is no longer owned by the pro-sprawl folks.

One thing I am very confident about is that there is indeed a new generation of conservatives moving into the urbanism discussion, and that the right’s future includes a strong population of city dwellers and walkable neighborhood lovers.

Stay tuned for the next year of New Urbs, as we have a lot of exciting plans underway. And keep coming back.


The New Urbs-Strong Towns Conversation

Greetings, all. New Urbs is now back from Dallas after the Congress for the New Urbanism, and we have a lot of exciting things that will be coming out of it, both in the next week and hopefully over the next year. While I gather the rest of our coverage, I wanted to thank Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns, a name that should be familiar to New Urbs regulars, for having myself and Ben Schwarz on his podcast.

I listened to the episode on my flight home, and think it turned out great. We talk about The American Conservative, what makes us such a unique publication, New Urbs and the New Urbanism, as well as really digging into the connections between conservatives and urbanism. I hope you listen to it, and then go on to subscribe to the podcast, it really is one of my favorites.

Strong Towns Podcast – Jonathan Coppage and Benjamin Schwarz at CNU 23

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New Urbs Goes to Dallas

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The American Conservative and our modest project here at New Urbs are hitting the road next week, and will be joining the Congress for the New Urbanism in Dallas for its 23rd annual convention of panels, events, and good urbanism appreciation.

I’ll be bringing you coverage and highlights of CNU23 throughout the week (so stay tuned), but for now I’d like to highlight events that The American Conservative itself is very pleased to be holding.

Friday will be official New Urbs day down in Dallas, as we will be hosting a panel from 3:45-5:00 on “Bipartisan Placemaking: Reaching Conservatives”:

Community building, placemaking, traditional neighborhood design. Good urbanism should hold a deep appeal across the political spectrum, but too often gets roadblocked by unproductive stereotypes. The American Conservative magazine joins CNU co-founder Andres Duany and Strong Town’s Chuck Marohn in a discussion on how to bridge the urbanism divide and how to engage community-oriented conservatives at the local and national levels.

If you will be attending CNU, please come and join our discussion. TAC national editor Benjamin Schwarz and I will be joined by frequent New Urbs contributor (read his new article from the print magazine here) and StrongTowns president Chuck Marohn, along with one of New Urbanism’s true icons, architect and NU pioneer Andres Duany, for a fast-paced, free-flowing conversation about overcoming the conservatism-good urbanism divide.

Each panelist has a unique background working at the intersection of politics and placemaking, and I, personally, am extremely excited to learn from Andres and Chuck’s wisdom and experiences.
After the panel, for any readers in the Dallas area who won’t be attending the Congress (and for those who are!), New Urbs will be hosting an evening reception from 5:00 to 7:00 at D Magazine’s gorgeous downtown offices, overlooking the cityscape from the 21st floor as the sun starts to set.

Amid the Texas BBQ appetizers and beer and wine from Dallas’s own Sonny Bunch’s Smokehouse, Benjamin Schwarz will sit down for a brief conversation with a man who should be very familiar to long-time TAC readers, Wick Allison. In addition to being the chairman of our board now, formerly our president, Allison is the chairman and publisher of D Magazine and a driving force between the Coalition for a New Dallas, a PAC formed to champion the revitalization of Dallas’s downtown neighborhoods and the necessary tear-out of I-395.

Ben will ask Wick about how he has sold Dallas conservatives on Jane Jacobs, and how a former publisher of National Review came to see the essential connections between conservatism and good urbanism.

If you are anywhere near the area, please come out and join us, for the food, drink, and conversation. TAC‘s editorial and leadership team will be out in force, so it’s a great opportunity to get to meet the people behind the scenes of this peculiar project of a magazine. 

And please, please, register at this page to tell us that you are coming, so we will be sure to have enough food and drink for all.

Finally, if you are around CNU, look for Ben Schwarz and I the rest of the week as well (rumor has it that TAC executive editor Maisie Allison may even grace the Congress with her presence on Wednesday); we hope to meet as many people as possible at CNU. My e-mail is jcoppage[at], feel free to reach out.

I hope to see many New Urbs and TAC readers soon!

Register for the Friday reception here.

Reception2 Invitation

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Why Shared Space Scares

Drachten, Netherlands Fietsberaad
Drachten, Netherlands Fietsberaad

Can shared space work in the United States?

Surely not, was the response of many to my recent article describing the movement seeking to de-engineer and re-design our streets. For some reason this is the objection that immediately emerges everywhere the idea of shared space is raised: the British think ‘that may work for those upstanding Dutch, but not for us,’ Americans think ‘that may work for those nice Brits, but not us.’ Even in-country, you will often hear, ‘that may work in a small town, but not Jersey,’ ‘not Boston,’ ‘not where I’m from, have you seen these crazy people?’

I’m still sufficiently traumatized from my past experiences on Boston’s roads that I’ll bracket Beantown for the time being, but this is a very understandable, even desirable reaction. For shared space, the idea that pedestrians, bikes, cars all have equal claim to the street and should navigate the common space socially rather than hewing to the dictates of century-old traffic engineering, is intentionally scary.

Hans Monderman, the father of the shared space movement, made his name with the 2001 redesign of the Dutch town of Drachten’s town square. A town of 45,000, Monderman saw accidents fall from eight annually to one, yet was pleased to hear “that residents, despite the measurable increase in safety, perceived the place to be more dangerous. This was music to Monderman’s ears. If they had not felt less secure, he said, he ‘would have changed it immediately.'”

The rapidly growing English town of Ashford recently implemented a shared space design, so that “Without street signs, pavements, road markings or traffic lights, Ashford’s Elwick Square is confusing. Pedestrians cross from all angles, and some cars stop at the sides, while others make U-turns even though there is no roundabout.” The Financial Times reported, “In the three years before the scheme opened in November 2008, there were 17 accidents involving injury on this stretch of ring road. Since its creation, there have been just four.”

The FT also interviewed “Rebecca Skinner, a cleaner who crosses the road every day,” who said, “‘It looks nice, but I don’t feel safe at all. What makes drivers stop is making eye contact, but they might not be looking at you.'”

Ms. Skinner’s reaction is what every Monderman acolyte dreams of hearing. Under the influence of Prof. John Adams of University College, London, shared space designers recognize the influence of a “risk compensation effect,” whereby the comfort provided by a network of signs and lights relaxes the natural alertness one would carry into an environment shared with 2,000 pound steel machines. The discomfort induced by the alien shared space environment helps keep a pedestrian’s head on a swivel, and encourages active negotiation of the space, with eye contact and hand waving.

Now a few scattered projects are bringing shared space back to American shores. Chicago is implementing a near-shared space design on a four-block stretch in Uptown, with no sidewalks, stoplights, or crosswalks, and minimal signage, and FastCoExist notes that “shared streets exist in Seattle, Washington and Buffalo, New York.” It quotes Seattle Parks and Rec project manager Patrick Donoue as declaring, “Naysayers said, ‘People are going to get hit’ … Well, it just hasn’t happened.” Bombastic British car presenter Jeremy Clarkson declared about the Ashford scheme before it was built, “Someone is going to die, you idiots.”

Ben Hamilton-Baillie, Hans Monderman’s shared space heir, told me in an interview that he sees shared spaces working across the world, extending to Latin America, because the principles involved deal in human nature, not the particular hospitality customs of a few bike-happy Euro cultures. Such a claim can be overstated, but it is important to recognize that “shared spaces” were not a branded innovation but the almost unanimous state of the street across the world until the engineering interventions that accompanied the ascendancy of the car.

If we have been sharing spaces from the beginning of organized human settlements, then we may very well find latent hard-wiring ready to ease our transition in ways deeper and more complex than a traffic engineer could imagine. As Prof. John Adams says, “Road safety is not rocket science—it is much more complicated!”

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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New Article on Shared Space & American Streets

From the newest print edition of the magazine, my look at the history of American street engineering, and why Hans Monderman’s shared space movement is a reform that conservatives should be able to embrace.

The removal of signs, signals, and markings from a street inverts the logic that has governed our roadways for almost as long as automobiles have been mass produced, as doing so moves decision-making from the engineer who designs the street back to the people who use it. The absence of speed-limit signs means a driver must read his environment and modulate his speed appropriately. The absence of stop signs and stoplights means neither driver nor pedestrian is told when to go or when to stop; each must instead make those decisions spontaneously in response to conditions on and around the road.

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.

When European countries began encountering significant traffic congestion five to 10 years after the United States, they sent their own engineers to learn from the Americans and implemented similar standards, including the now ubiquitous traffic light and stop sign. “By 1938,” Norton relates, “the sociologist Louis Wirth could name ‘the clock and the traffic signal’ as the two symbols ‘of the basis of our social order in the urban world.’”

This stands in stark contrast to the standardization of roads according to the rules of conventional traffic engineering. When a road is totally divorced from its context, when an identical stretch of asphalt runs through a hundred towns across the country, “when you removed all the things that made people know where they were, what they were a part of, and when you changed it into a uniform world … then you have to explain things,” Monderman argued. A clutter of signs and directional arrows is an attempt at technocratic compensation for the destruction of place.

Read the full article here:

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When Fascists Tried to Remake Ethiopia

Picture of Benito Mussolini and Fascist Blackshirt youth in 1935 in Rome.
Picture of Benito Mussolini and Fascist Blackshirt youth in 1935 in Rome.

When Mussolini’s army invaded and ultimately occupied Ethiopia, the Italian fascists did more than expand Italy’s African empire; in their eyes, they obtained an opportunity to build a capital from scratch.

As Rixt Woudstra details at Failed Architecture,

The idea of Ethiopia as a tabula rasa—a blank slate—was omnipresent in the writings of architects and urban planners occupied with the designs of the colonial capital between 1936 and 1939, who considered the country devoid of any structures of architectural significance. Contrary to the fascination of Libyan whitewashed courtyard house – their simplicity, colours and volumes perfectly in tune with modern taste – the round houses of the Ethiopians were regarded by Italian architects as irrational and unhygienic.

Modernist architecture’s obsession with rationality and supreme planning looked askance at a city even as relatively new as Addis Ababa for not proceeding out of the geometries and ideals en vogue in Europe. Within months of the Ethiopian capital’s conquest, no less an architect than Le Corbusier, one of the icons and pioneers of modernism, composed a sketch to accompany a letter he sent to Mussolini instructing “how a city for the modern times is born,” and offering his services as a midwife.

Woudstra writes,

Le Corbusier’s sketch shows Addis Ababa literally as a tabula rasa: the rigorously superimposed plan cleared the land of all signs of humanity and centuries of urban culture. In his letter, Le Corbusier described his drawing perfectly by writing that he was attracted by ‘…models so severe, that one might think the colony was a space without time, and therefore, without history, and without any particular geographical meaning.’ Further in his letter he added: ‘…the city is direct dominion; the city becomes the city of government, in which the Palace of the Governor must stand overall…’

Not for nothing, as Matthew Robare recently noted here, did Theodore Dalrymple compare Le Corbusier to Pol Pot, saying “he wanted to start from Year Zero: Before me, nothing; After me, everything.” Le Corbusier had found himself frustrated by the long-standing architectural patterns of Europe, whose age and complexity resisted his cutting pen. As Woudstra notes, the Addis Ababa proposal was completely in line with Corbusier’s ideal city, theorized independently of tradition or conditions. Corbusier’s plan for Paris, for example, razed the city of its low complexities in order to produce this:

Plan Voisin for Paris, 1922-1925. photo: Fondation Le Corbusier

Plan Voisin for Paris, 1922-1925. photo: Fondation Le Corbusier

As Robare explained the other week, these grand rational plannings have not died with their blackshirted allies. China’s construction of cities out of whole cloth may sometimes be painted with green sustainability, but they neither have the human appeal nor the natural sustainability of an incrementally grown, walkable city.

Addis Ababa was spared a Corbusier-inspired revamp by a combination of bureaucratic foot-dragging and rapid British troop movements that eventually freed the capital from fascist control. The grand colonialism would proceed apace, however, back in the very Western countries that had previously so frustrated Corbusier and his followers.

After World War II, both the United States and Britain turned over much of their own cities to the hands of experts and engineers who, channeling the Corbusierian vision, would level working-class neighborhoods in order to build large, modern towers in the name of urban renewal. The social devastation that process wreaked upon the already economically disadvantaged is explored in painstaking detail in TAC National Editor Benjamin Schwarz’s cover story in our latest issue. The organic neighborhoods, slums though they often were, were dynamic social environments. The tower blocks atomized and individualized the families and communities they replaced.

The ugly philosophies of central planning and Corbusierian modernism have not been defeated, but as Justin Shubow explained at Forbes, the architectural profession it has been fueling is now nearly exhausted. When an architect’s response to a Katrina rebuilding contract is to assemble experiments with artistically “damaged” roofs, one would hope that the absurdity of the architectural profession has brought it close to the bursting point.

Unlike Addis Ababa, however, we will not have British tanks to save us from Corbusier. We will have to demand buildings at a human scale, and refuse to let the professional guilds defend 50 years of failure.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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