Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
SOUTH BEND, Ind.—A year and a half hence, about the time the leafy Notre Dame campus begins to display brilliant autumn hues, budding architects and their mentors will move into a new building near the ceremonial entrance to the sprawling university. Though it will be the newest addition to this 175-year-old institution, built atop a former parking lot, the classically inspired edifice will appear to passersby as if it has been there for generations. Its physical form will symbolize what this unique school aims to bring to our built environment—classical tradition, respect for cultural heritage, and authentically sustainable and beautiful places.
To be dedicated as the Walsh Family Hall, the building will be a living monument to a movement in architecture and urban planning that was planted here almost three decades ago. Presented as a series of interconnected buildings arranged around a central plaza, the small campus within a campus designed by British architect John Simpson would look right at home in the Old World splendor of Oxford or Cambridge. There’s a chapel-like Hall of Casts that will be used to present student designs, as well as Notre Dame’s extensive collection of architectural ornament and statuary. Outside, a tower presides over what is less an Anglo-American quadrangle than a continental piazza, a feature that will no doubt console students returning to the Midwest from the school’s required year abroad in Rome.
From the standpoint of architectural critics—at least those fancying themselves in the avant garde—this wasn’t the way things were supposed to turn out. The last time Notre Dame dedicated new classrooms for architecture, in the 1960s, Pietro Belluschi, one of the inventors of the glass-box office tower, had been on hand to offer his blessing at a school that once welcomed the most progressive architect of his time, Frank Lloyd Wright. But then in 1989, that fateful year when some erroneously declared an “end of history,” the university hired the relatively untested Thomas Gordon Smith to be the new chair of its architecture program. Once described by the New York Times as a “young old fogey,” Smith was a committed classicist, and immediately began to shake up what had heretofore been a place that—like most contemporary schools of architecture—had little room for traditional building design. Architectural history had reasserted itself at Notre Dame.
Smith quickly brought in several new faculty to help him transform the curriculum. Having no living model for such a school, and trained in the reigning modernist orthodoxy, Smith and his new deputies created something entirely new by recovering a lost world. While the centuries-old classical approach of Paris’ Ecole des Beaux Arts had once been the gold standard, by the late 20th century the tradition was essentially extinct.
“All the people here are autodidacts,” architects variously “disenchanted with the modern world’s built environment,” explains Dean Michael Lykoudis, an early Smith recruit who now heads the school. The new classicists were initially regarded by their academic peers as at best interesting curiosities, at worst annoying cranks. Shortly after Smith’s changes to the curriculum, a visiting accreditation board remarked in its report that “it remains to be seen whether the classical experiment in the school of architecture will blossom into a full-blown branch or remain a quirky twig.”
Lykoudis recalls that he and other new faculty of the early 1990s faced resistance from students as well. They quickly realized that “teaching classicism by teaching columns first was not the way to do it.” They had to understand the traditional building blocks as parts of a whole—the city—and recognize that good architecture and good urbanism go hand in hand.
Making the case to new disciples required going beyond slideshows, maps, and textbooks. It meant bringing students—most of whom had grown up in dull postwar suburbs—to an example of a vibrant urban place. The faculty naturally preferred to find one with classical bones. “Urbanism, until very recently, has not always been seen in America as a good thing,” explains Lykoudis. “But Rome is such a positive place … The sensory experience of space—noise, taste, smell—turns students on to cities.”
Thanks to the foresight and gumption of a previous department chair, who in the 1960s purchased a building near the Pantheon—and according to legend only told university officials about it after signing the papers—Notre Dame architecture students had been studying in Rome for decades. But the new classical regime made the Italian capital a mandatory destination for third-year students in what is already an intensive five-year undergraduate program.
In the eternal city, students are encouraged to put down their cameras and smartphones, get out their sketchbooks, and through direct observation focus on understanding the qualities of the city that are difficult to quantify. So much “decision making in the modern world is about tabulation,” laments Lykoudis, while understanding what creates really timeless, beautiful places like the piazzas of Rome requires something more—what he sums up as “becoming cultured” or, less snobbishly, “knowing stuff.”
Thus what is perceived by some outsiders as an anti-technological posture—students don’t touch computer-aided drafting software until at least their fourth year, after they return from Europe—is ultimately aimed at creating a sense of humility in people who will be shaping our built environment for decades to come. Cultivating this sense of virtue and care for place requires more than technical skills and training in the use of particular tools. It is about contemplation. “Classicism is an architecture which is built on the idea of rest … it’s not in tension” with the environment around it, argues Lykoudis. “Some people might argue that’s why it has this sense of tranquility.”
Its underlying humility imbues the school with a posture that is neither ideologically progressive nor reactionary. Rather it is formed by something resembling practical wisdom as defined by Aristotle—a capacity for human action that is ordered toward the good, the true, and the beautiful. The relationship between classical architecture and this Aristotelian but ultimately Catholic tradition has been articulated by Notre Dame professor Philip Bess in his book Till We Have Built Jerusalem. As Rod Dreher explained in a 2014 American Conservative profile of Bess, he “concedes that most New Urbanists are secular progressives. But they are ‘implicitly Aristotelian,’ because they affirm that there are certain design forms consonant with human nature.”
This classical but prudent approach, it turns out, is remarkably well-suited to addressing the challenges of the contemporary world. “There’s an ecological perspective in why we pursue our craft….Classicism is about conservation and investment rather than consumption and waste,” says Lykoudis. The prevailing approach to environmentally sensitive architecture and urban design relies heavily on technology-driven and often expensive solutions, with the LEED certification of the U.S. Green Building Council seal of approval sought by most of today’s most high-profile building projects. But Notre Dame professors argue that authentic sustainability comes primarily from paying attention to the form of the building and materials used. Today’s standard-issue office buildings with floor-to-ceiling glass walls, for example, may perform well in computer models. But often these sleek structures have a shorter lifespan and thus are ultimately more costly than traditional buildings, which have operable windows that allow for natural ventilation in milder weather.
Despite the reluctance to let students rely too much on technology during their initial formation, there is an emphasis among faculty on using advanced research methods to make the case for a classical and human-scaled approach to architecture. Some are creating databases offering performance information about a greater variety of traditional building materials than are typically used by modern buildings. Others systematically study the deleterious effect on human health wrought by inhumane architecture and neighborhood design. Another project uses digital 3D mapping to measure World Heritage Sites, enhancing historic preservation efforts. Dennis Doordan, associate dean for research, describes this nod to the scientific method as “expanding our arsenal to be able to engage in the discourse….We live in a world where some of the decision makers are not swayed by eloquence, but they are swayed by numbers.”
The most important number for many is the bottom line cost, and Notre Dame professors aren’t shy about confronting this issue head on. After the 2008 housing crash, much of the large-scale New Urbanist development was put on hold, but of course some individuals still wanted to build new homes of the kind often found in neotraditional communities. The 6,000-square-foot McMansion on a one-acre parcel was decidedly out of fashion. Professor Marianne Cusato saw the collapse of the market as an opportunity to adapt traditional design principles to the emerging demand for smaller, more flexible living spaces.
Cusato’s “New Economy Home” made plans available for a two-story, 1,771 square foot, four-bedroom house that can fit on a compact lot compatible with a walkable cityscape. Its simple but attractive style is reminiscent of the Cape Cod and American Foursquare traditions, and features front and back porches. By using standard-sized lumber and other materials, Cusato estimates that these homes can be built for around $200,000, excluding land costs. But beyond their affordability and traditional design, the home’s primary appeal is the adaptability of its floor plan. The rear of the house contains a small suite with its own outside entrance that can be used as a rental unit, in-law apartment, first-floor bedroom for a senior or disabled family member, or simply extra living space.
“We used to build this way,” says Cusato, arguing that her plan is less a new innovation than a restoration of an older way of thinking. She reports that there are already streets with several of these homes in the same block, each featuring different living arrangements, ranging from young families to single retired people. The home is thus designed so that its owners can remain in it throughout the various stages of life, avoiding the need to “trade up” or “downsize” in response to changing family and financial circumstances over the years.
Responding to the critique that repeating such a plan in a new development is “cookie-cutter,” Cusato suggests that such variations on a theme often create really vibrant, high-value neighborhoods. “There’s nothing wrong with repeating a house….All of the great cities … Georgetown, the West Village, San Francisco [have] the same house down the whole street.” Cusato is quick to point out that she is not advocating outlawing sprawling postwar subdivisions. “I’m not saying don’t live in a McMansion—if it fits your lifestyle and is where you want to be, go for it. But so many people are forced into that.” She and other New Urbanists simply argue that developers—and their architects—would benefit from opening up new markets by catering to many people who want to live in places guided by traditional, authentically sustainable patterns of building.
Amidst all the distinctly American rhetoric about choice and technological advancement, there remains a sense that Notre Dame promotes a set of values that stands in opposition to the still dominant postwar pattern of development. Behind the beautiful drawings of arches and architraves that line the halls here, the principle that seems to animate everyone—faculty and alumni alike—is that place matters. It might first sound to some like an easy cliché, a truism, but this pithy formulation is what guides and brings together new classicists and New Urbanists.
As Dean Lykoudis explains, faculty try to emphasize to students “how important being committed to a place is. The idea of the individual searching for his or her perfect happiness outside of community is kind of a red herring.” For architects, this means designing buildings that respect their surroundings and community, including their future inhabitants. In contrast, near-celebrity “starchitects,” with their abstract forms that seem the epitome of self-expression, appear to disregard this imperative.
At a school such as Notre Dame, it helps that the emphasis on place is reinforced by Catholic social teaching on subsidiarity, the idea that political decisions should be made at the lowest practical level of association. This principle is built into the way that architects trained here tend to practice, often holding workshops known as charrettes, in which community members are invited to take part in the planning of a new development. (The term fittingly comes out of French Beaux-Arts tradition, in which a “little cart” was wheeled around a drafting room to collect ideas.)
In recent years, Notre Dame has attempted to live out this commitment to localism by engaging with the citizens of South Bend, home to the university but long disconnected from its civic life. Like many other small Rust Belt cities caught in postindustrial decline, South Bend’s downtown had become hollowed out, a place where, with all the growth happening in neighboring towns, nobody wanted to be anymore. “It was tearing itself down,” says Dean Lykoudis. The school of architecture brought students to work downtown, while encouraging the city to draw on its heritage to reimagine its core as a vibrant place. South Bend, Lykoudis argues, should not try to be “world class,” seeking along with many other struggling places its own starchitect-designed signature concert hall or museum, but should instead focus on preserving and sometimes re-creating buildings that showcase its unique Midwestern identity.
Another manifestation of this turn away from the universal zeitgeist and toward an approach that allows communities to be themselves is found in the school’s role in restoring churches to their traditional form. After the Vatican II council in the 1960s upended millennia of liturgical tradition, newly constructed Catholic churches lost most of the classical design elements that served to reinforce their place in Western civilization. Some thought it impossible to ever again build sacred spaces with the kind of symmetry and ornament that had defined them for centuries. Then came architects such as Notre Dame’s Duncan Stroik, who has shown that classically-proportioned churches can still be built in places as diverse as New York City, southern California, and South Carolina.
Of course such restorative work might be less necessary today if more of the past hadn’t been destroyed by bulldozers, most notably by misguided 1950s and 1960s city planners driven by “urban renewal.” Professor Steven Semes, who leads the school’s historic-preservation program, argues that unless we respect heritage, communities can lose their sense of identity. When altering or adding to historic fabric, he argues, architects must ask “What does the place want you to do … so that it stays that place?” Catholic social thought not only demands solidarity with the wider world but also a respect for the past and the future, especially when the next generation yet to be born cannot advocate for preserving its patrimony. In addition to saving buildings themselves, says Semes, there also is the overlooked “intangible heritage”—the skills and craftsmanship that go into traditional building, what the school seeks to preserve by educating students in the classical tradition.
For almost three decades, the architects of Notre Dame have toiled away at their mission of giving new life to an intellectual tradition that was once dismissed as sentimental nostalgia. It has surely grown beyond that predicted “quirky twig,” with classicism reinvigorating what Lykoudis says was formerly considered “a kind of backwater program.” But it remains to be seen whether this movement can affect a full paradigm shift in the world of architecture and urbanism—or whether it will remain merely a monastic endeavor, maintaining ancient knowledge and bringing light to dark ages.
Certainly there are hopeful signs, perhaps most notably in the fact that most Notre Dame architecture graduates find employment relatively easily. And new scientific research is making it hard for progressives to deny that traditional design promotes human flourishing. Other academic outposts of classicism are emerging in places such as the College of Charleston, South Carolina; the University of Colorado at Denver; and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Some fellow travelers in this movement, notably the provocative intellectual James Howard Kunstler, predict that a future societal cataclysm, possibly environmental in nature, will jolt us back toward classicism and away from the dominant development patterns of sprawl and the formlessness of techno-optimistic modernism. Others, seemingly anticipating an emperor-has-no-clothes moment, argue that modernism is intellectually bankrupt, with even most modern architects eschewing cutting-edge buildings to live in traditional townhouses and apartments.
But a few are convinced the moment is already here. Professor Douglas Duany avers that Notre Dame has entered a “golden age,” although the most prominent evangelists of classicism and New Urbanism may not realize it yet. Some of his long-embattled colleagues may demur on that point, but the institution built by the visionary Thomas Gordon Smith and his colleagues seems to gain confidence with each passing year. As Duany argues, “Why should architecture shut down the past? … The ‘future’ keeps on failing.”
Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative. This article was made possible with support of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
The urban-rural divide in this country is real and growing. The economic recovery from the Great Recession has been largely limited to a handful of metropolitan areas, especially the Boston-Washington corridor and the Pacific Coast. Cities like San Francisco, New York, and Boston continue to set records for housing costs, according to The Economist, while Riverside, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, among others, still haven’t recovered from the crash. Moreover, according to Scott Beyer of Forbes, rural parts of the country are losing population and jobs. As Vishaan Chakrabarti pointed out in his book A Country of Cities, in 2012, 90 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product came from the three percent of the country inside metropolitan areas.
Moreover, according to Robert Leonard, resources within states are increasingly being directed to cities and state services are being centralized in them. This was certainly my experience growing up in Rutland, Vt., where it seemed like all the state’s money was spent on the Interstate 89 corridor between Burlington and Montpelier—to say nothing of now living in Boston, with the same spending complaints from rural Massachusetts. (Of course, I now appreciate that it may be a better use of state resources to spent $20 million rehabilitating a bridge between Boston and Cambridge that sees millions of trips a year as opposed to a bridge in Zoar, Mass., that sees a few hundred trips a year.)
Much worse for these places is the ongoing economic centralization of this country. Local businesses are absorbed by regional ones, which get bought by national ones, which get taken over by global ones. While supposedly delivering benefits from economic efficiency, this process limits innovation and competition while depriving communities of the benefits of ownership and exacerbating regional inequality.
Yet a glance at the writing on the rural-urban divide suggests that most of the people thinking about these things haven’t read their Santayana or even looked out the window recently. In Commonwealth magazine, Larry DiCara and Matt Waskiewicz suggested buying more food from Massachusetts’ farms, sending more urbanites to western Massachusetts as tourists, and establishing regular rail service between Boston and Springfield so people from the former can go live in the latter but continue to commute.
There’s nothing particularly bad about any of these ideas in and of themselves, but they have a glaring flaw as a solution to rural economic woes: They wouldn’t work. Vermont, upstate New York, northern New Hampshire, and Maine have been promoting themselves as tourism, agriculture, and bedroom communities for decades, to no avail (except coastal southern Maine, which is close enough to Boston to serve as a suburban bedroom community). The fact is, increases in agricultural productivity would mean that more purchases from in-state farms wouldn’t necessarily result in more jobs. Tourism-related jobs are seasonal, low paying and dead end.
Becoming a suburb is a similar dead-end economic strategy: The impact of comparatively wealthy Boston renters and buyers on the Springfield market would likely be catastrophic for Springfield natives. According to Governing, in 2012, 61.2 percent of renting households paid more than 30 percent of their income in rent and are considered cost burdened. According to Zillow (and it must be remembered that their data comes from people using their service), the median home price in Springfield is $139,900 and the median rent is $1,325. In Boston, the median home price is around $670,000 and the rent is $2,800—and fewer households are considered cost burdened, according to Governing. Springfield becoming a suburb of Boston would just move Boston’s gentrification and displacement issues west.
Another idea was recently offered by Ross Douthat in his New York Times column, arguing that “We should treat liberal cities the way liberals treat corporate monopolies—not as growth enhancing assets, but as trusts that concentrate wealth and power and conspire against the public good.” Douthat advocates redistributing federal agencies, universities, non-profits and businesses to the “poorer states and smaller cities that need revitalization” using a combination of confiscatory taxes with business credits. Unlike DiCara and Waskiewicz’s ideas, which were not bad in and of themselves, but would not produce the effect desired, Douthat’s could inadvertently lead to an economic death spiral.
If simply redistributing wealth and factories could make poor states wealthy and revive declining cities, one would expect it to have happened already. Poor, rural states have been heavily subsidized for decades, through agricultural-price supports, pork-barrel projects, military bases and other federal-works projects. But an economy is not simply a collection of discrete elements that can be rearranged at will, like furniture in a house. If that was the way things worked, the Soviet Union would still be around.
In Britain, central planners in the years after World War II thought along the same lines as Douthat. The Midlands city of Birmingham was a major industrial center, but it was more like Silicon Valley than Detroit. An ecosystem of small-industrial enterprises developed where new ones were constantly being started. Successful ones would, it is true, transplant themselves outside the city.
But after the war the planners looked at Birmingham’s 200-odd years of small business creation and forced businesses and people to move to poorer places and cities in need of revitalization. But all those small firms needed each other to survive. Birmingham was left dependent upon the automotive industry, which then collapsed in the 1970s.
To address the problem of the rural-urban divide, we have to understand what drives it. Why can some coastal cities seemingly do no wrong, while interior cities can’t seem to do anything right? Why do people and businesses pay huge amounts of money and endure massive tax bills, long commutes, a high cost of living, and the Yankees to crowd into the New York City area when they could move to places like Kansas—where land, taxes, food. and labor costs are cheap and the freeways empty?
Every New Urbanist has read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, but few have read the books she wrote afterwards: The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations. In these two books she argued that the first cities did not simply grow out of early farming villages, but have unique economic characteristics of their own. According to Jacobs, the driving forces of a city economy are trade and a process she called import replacement, where goods imported into the city are first copied and then improved upon by entrepreneurs, who proceed to export to other cities and settlements in order to acquire more imports. The process also helps develop the symbiotic ecosystem of flexible small producers that makes starting entirely new enterprises possible. In Cities and the Wealth of Nations she explored the implications of city economies for national economies, concluding that cities and the regions they generate are the drivers of all national development.
(It’s important to note that import replacement is different from the mercantilist notion of import substitution. Import replacement is a process of a city economy that applies to all goods, even ones imported domestically, while import substitution is a policy imposed by national governments.)
Even if one is skeptical of the import-replacement theory, economists like Ed Glaeser have demonstrated that clustering and startup rates play a huge role in economic growth. Or just remember Chakrabarti’s statistic: 90 percent of U.S. GDP comes from the three percent of land in metros. According to the American Enterprise Institute, in 2015 New York had a larger economy than Canada and the 20 largest metros produced twice the GDP of Japan.
What this means, according to Jacobs, is that rural places and regions experience real economic growth only insofar as they are connected to city economies. The distance doesn’t matter—farmers in Massachusetts can send their produce to restaurants in Boston or supermarkets in China. Cut off from city economies, a rural place will eventually decline into subsistence agriculture, losing the memory of many technologies. Then comes near hunter-gatherer status as subsistence exhausts the soil and results in bringing marginal land into production.
Even when connected to city economies, rural places can become economically unbalanced if they are outside city regions. Jacobs wrote that import replacement in cities “unleashes five great economic forces of expansion: city markets for new and different imports; abruptly increased city jobs; technology for increasing rural production and productivity; transplanted city work; city-generated capital.” But these can affect rural places separately and with catastrophic results. Changes in city markets can leave rural communities producing commodities no one wants; increases in city jobs can just depopulate rural places; increased productivity can result in massive unemployment; the arrival of transplanted businesses from cities can make rural places overly dependent upon one type of work; and city capital transferred to rural areas can subsidize them, but only for as long as the subsidies can be maintained.
All these forces are at work across the country today. Young people able to go to college leave because they can’t get jobs at home. Often there are just one or two factories left and people anxiously watch the news for signs of the future while local farmers meet with their member of Congress about price supports for their crops. To make matters worse, cities already are not producing enough work for their own residents, much less enough companies that can transplant their work. More worryingly, new business creation is at a 40-year low, according to CNN, which could indicate that time is running short, even for currently successful cities.
The best way to save rural places is to reactivate our cities, not destroy them.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
In October of 1976, a massive hundred-year flood hit Frederick, Maryland, causing upwards of $25 million in damages overnight. Ron Young, then mayor, took to a helicopter to survey the extent of the damage to the small city about 45 miles north of Washington, DC. He feared that he was looking at a devastating setback to the work he started two years earlier to revive the economically-depressed downtown area.
As he flew above the 20 acres of flooded nineteenth-century buildings that comprised his historic hometown, he could not have imagined that these same waters would eventually help more than hinder the recovery.
At first, Young just wanted to rein in Carroll Creek, the little stream that provided waterpower to the mills and tanneries that formed the center of town in the eighteenth century. The creek had always flooded periodically, but suburban sprawl developing on the west side of town was making matters worse. In addition to draining the downtown of economic vitality, new shopping centers with their expansive parking lots had reduced ground permeability. Heavy rains were resulting in heavy runoff flowing directly into the creek from all the newly paved surfaces.
In a Frederick Post article dated April 24, 1974, an engineer warned that without a plan to control the creek, the city could face severe flooding every five years. But even as that doomsday prediction became reality two years later when a storm brought 7.5 inches of rain in a single night, the will to solve the problem was overcome by a lack of reasonable options.
“We commissioned a study that came back with several solutions,” Young said in a recent interview. “The first goal would have been to hold the water to the west so it didn’t flood downtown, but there was no place to hold it. The second alternative was to remove everything from the floodplain, which would have eliminated downtown. A third alternative … would have been a 150-foot-wide concrete ditch, which would have divided the town in half and been as ugly as all get out.”
Facing the possible end of their downtown, the city introduced an ambitious and expensive proposition. They wanted to build four concrete tunnels, each large enough to accommodate a Greyhound bus, that would carry the bulk of the creek water underground from Baker Park in the west through the center of town out to an undeveloped area in the east. Above and between the tunnels would sit a false creek, a concrete canal about thirty feet wide and four to five feet deep that would always maintain the same water level no matter the severity of weather.
Initial estimates for the plan came in around $45 million, about four times the city’s annual operating budget at that time. To make the project work, the city would need a buy-in from the state.
“The big thing we sold [to the state] was economic development,” Young said. “There was money for economic development. There wasn’t money for flood control.”
The economic boost was to come from a planned linear park built along the canal with a mix of retail and office space next to public walkways, fountains, picnic areas and event spaces on both sides of the canal, connected by new pedestrian and car bridges. Not only would the new park area generate revenue, it would clean up the eyesores and pollution left along the creek by the town’s collapsed and abandoned industrial infrastructure, which had been out of commission since World War I.
While not included in the initial estimate, the promise of economic development enabled a deal to start building the flood-control project with joint funding from the city, county, and state. After traversing environmental impact studies and the federal and state bureaucratic morass, the project broke ground in October of 1985, but there was a long way to go.
The proposed park was met with loud objections from the start. Long-time residents worried that it was designed to benefit tourists and investors more than locals, and that the entire thing was already too expensive and full of unforeseen costs. The term “white elephant” was thrown around in regard to planned parking garages near the creek area.
Young’s original plans for the park were nearly as elaborate as the San Antonio River Walk that served as his inspiration, and they relied heavily on proposed but uncertain private/public partnerships. A quick perusal of local news headlines from the first 20 years of the project shows private investors becoming hot and cold on development plans as they gauged changes in the market.
The mayor’s case with critics wasn’t helped when the negotiating rights to build a major commercial complex on the creek were granted to a private firm whose principal partner chaired the city commission formed by Young to guide the development of the linear park.
In June of 1989, the state prosecutor’s office released a report of their investigation into the matter that concluded without criminal charges, but Young lost the mayoral election later that year, ending his 16-year tenure and leaving the fate of the heavily-criticized park project in doubt.
The flood control aspect was completed shortly after Young’s departure, but the development of the park overlay was put on hold, leaving the area along the new canal almost as aesthetically offensive as the rotting industrial district it had replaced.
Kara Norman, the president of the Downtown Frederick Partnership, which formed in 1990, said the pathways along the canal looked like “airplane landing strips, just these big, vast strips of concrete.”
It was unclear what role, if any, this desolate area would play in the economic rejuvenation of downtown, especially since more traditional urban regeneration efforts had already led to great improvements from the low point of mass retail abandonment in the late 1960s.
Young maintains that the downtown was always safe, but was widely perceived as a high-crime area—and he worked hard to change that perception. He ordered over 1,000 trees to be planted along the sidewalks, added street lamps, buried the power lines underground, and stepped up building-code enforcement.
He also successfully campaigned to keep county government offices from moving out to the suburbs and oversaw the construction of a new courthouse, bringing with it a cadre of private law offices and a resulting lunch crowd for local sandwich shops.
Slowly, people from the suburbs felt more comfortable spending time downtown. By the early 1990s, the seedy bars and greasy spoons had been replaced by sit-down restaurants, clothing shops, antique stores, coffee shops, and art studios. It wasn’t the same town anchored by big department stores that old-timers remembered, but it was a town again.
Young feels that because the linear park plans were halted following his ouster, the creek project didn’t have much to do with town improvements beyond removing Frederick from the floodplain. He said it didn’t begin contributing to the city economy until the mid-2000s when his original plans for the park were implemented on a reduced scale, and even now he believes that the creek’s contribution will remain modest until it is further developed.
But the Downtown Partnership began to see fruit from the creek area in the mid-to-late 1990s. Even ugly public space was still public space, something that the business district had never had in its tightly built eighteenth-century street grid, which didn’t even include a small square in front of the old town hall.
The Partnership now had a place to host special events that drew massive shopping crowds downtown for the first time since the retail heyday of the 1950s. When the bare concrete canal was lined with tents showcasing local businesses, art, and agriculture, it became possible to forget that the space had been relegated to the realm of teens on skateboards during the workweek.
Around the same time the business community was getting a boost from the new event space, a prominent local artist saw all of that concrete as a blank canvas. William Cochran, who has major public art installations in cities throughout the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, wanted to get his hands on the plain concrete bridge that carried cars over the creek near the city’s new nonprofit visual arts center.
Dubbing the project the Community Bridge Mural, Cochran created a massive trompe l’oeil mural which, when viewed from a distance, gives the illusion that the bridge is constructed of old stonework. On closer inspection, one can see symbols of the community embedded among the stones. The work received national attention, drawing tens of thousands of visitors to an area of town seldom seen by local residents.
The nationally-recognized artwork, combined with the increasing number of special events along the creek, generated renewed interest in the linear park concept among the public and at City Hall.
In the summer of 2004, the city began work on what would become the central section of the linear park. By the following year, the bare concrete sections between Market Street—the town’s main traffic corridor—and the bridge mural were covered in brick. Then came two elaborate pedestrian bridges, three new fountains built into the canal, a 350-seat amphitheater, and little green spaces with big shade trees and flowers.
Then a large commercial building was opened by a private investor along the north side of the creek and leased out to a variety of eateries that included outdoor seating. A four-story condominium complex was placed on the south side, immediately across the creek from the eateries.
In October 2006, thirty years after the flood, the city held an official dedication of the linear park. It didn’t have the canal islands, gondola boats, massive picnic areas, ice skating pond, or as much commercial development as Young planned. Indeed, a large section of the project east of the bridge mural was still just bare concrete.
But according to Norman, the new attraction downtown helped take Frederick “to the next level” by giving the city one more thing to advertise to visitors and investors. She credits the new park with ending a period of stagnation in the downtown business community.
Trendy foodie restaurants supplied by local county farms now joined the quaint family diners and sandwich shops. The coffee shops were joined by loose-leaf teashops. New distilleries, breweries, and wineries sprang up. Celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio, a town native, opened a high-end restaurant in an old Frederick mansion. Zoe’s Chocolate Co., a tiny confectionary on Market Street, became the official chocolatier of the 2013 Academy Awards after just a few years in business.
After investors and city officials saw ten years of sustained growth and the public came to enjoy the linear park, money was budgeted to finish the section east of the bridge mural. The canal was expanded to include a large pond with dancing water resembling a miniature version of the Bellagio in Las Vegas. The concrete was bricked over and lined with street lamps and park benches. More green space was added. An industrial-style pedestrian bridge now connects the two sides of the creek on the eastern half of the park.
By the 40th anniversary of the flood, a 1.3 mile-long park sat atop the creek that nearly destroyed the town. And more development is still in the works. Over $150 million in private investment is planned. Including a hotel and conference center, a new tech startup with a creek-front café for the public, and an expansive park between the terminus of the flood control project and Monocacy River.
It’s impossible to say whether the struggling downtown would have ever recovered from a trajectory of decline without the 1976 flood and the resulting linear park. But it’s also difficult to look at the downtown today and call the linear park anything less than a complete success.
With its historic architecture and trendy business district, Frederick is now frequently compared to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. But it has managed to largely avoid the displacement of working and middle-class families normally associated with gentrification. Family homes in the heart of the historic district start as low as $250,000 and apartments for singles can still be found for under $1,000 per month. The city has even recently invested in building several low-cost housing options that conform with the historical architectural character. Somehow, the simple addition of pleasant walkable public space vastly improved the overall quality of life for everyone in the town—all without pricing out economic diversity.
Ironically, it’s now the suburban areas on the western side of town that need help. Fifty years ago, the word “customer” became synonymous with “motorist.” Today, the vast parking lots that flood the town creek with dirty runoff water stand largely empty. The Frederick Towne Mall shut its doors in 2013 after a painfully slow death, and many of the other strip-mall anchors along the western corridor have low patronage and high turnover.
A special committee of suburban business and property owners has been formed to revive the sprawling area locally called “The Golden Mile.” So far, few major changes have been implemented, but most of the proposed solutions involve making the sprawl more like the downtown that it nearly destroyed.
Erik Anderson is a freelance writer from Frederick, Md. who covers local history, arts, features and entertainment. His work has appeared in The Frederick News-Post, The Journal (Martinsburg, W.Va.), Find It Frederick, and the Montgomery County Sentinel.
American malls are on the decline. Payless ShoeSource is the latest victim, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month and announcing the immediate closure of 400 stores in the United States and Puerto Rico. A few months ago, Forbes cited a U.S. Department of Commerce study finding that sales at U.S. department stores—which have served as traditional mall anchors—declined from $87.46 billion in 2005 to $60.65 billion in 2015. Macy’s has announced it will close 68 stores by mid-2017, while Sears has declared its intention to shut down 42 stores by the end of the year.
Many who view malls as the paradigm of soulless suburban culture will say good riddance, though to the extent that these places are replaced by e-commerce distributors like Amazon, their disappearance may be worth mourning. To clarify what we Americans are losing, consider a comparison to malls in Thailand, where I’ve lived for almost three years.
It seems most of the malls in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, cater to the upper-class elite. “Hi-so” Thais, members of the country’s “high society,” find everything they could possibly want to validate their nouveau riche status at luxury shopping centers like Emporium, Em Quartier, and Central World. Wealthy Thais and expats can find every high-end designer brand there, including Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, and Tiffany & Co. The places are packed—a place to see and to be seen.
What is perhaps most strange about these malls is that they exist in communities surrounded by poverty. One has only to walk out onto the street to find scores of people hawking cheap food and various other bric-a-brac, people who exist somewhere between poverty and lowest of the lower-middle class. You’ll never see such people actually coming inside the Thai malls: the extensive security, frequently dressed up in the most ridiculous old-school European-style costumes (think Windsor Castle meets the Nutcracker), ensure that only those who can actually afford anything inside actually make it in. The malls serve to reinforce the severe stratification of Thai society.
This isn’t to say that America doesn’t have boutique malls oriented toward the most affluent of society. As a suburban Virginian, I grew up near Tysons Corner and Tysons Galleria, centers that also cater to the upper and upper-middle class. But this is not the typical experience in the U.S. For most of us, malls, for better and worse, represent one of the most plebeian, if also egalitarian, aspects of American culture.
The malls my family frequented were places where rich and poor alike rubbed elbows. The mall closest to my home in Virginia featured not only higher-end department stores but also the kind of cheap vendors populated by teenagers with only five bucks in their pocket. Indeed, in the local Chick-fil-A one was just as likely to see an older, moneyed southern couple, wife decked out in her Sunday best, as one was to see the redneck family of six with the father sporting camouflage and a John Deere baseball cap. Sure, some few rich folk might visit a custom tailor for shirts and suits, but the rest of us were renting our tux from the Men’s Wearhouse or Joseph A. Bank at our local mall.
Moreover, malls were the place where people hung out. They were, in their own weak, terribly imperfect way, a humanizing factor in what were in other respects disconnected, soulless suburbs. I remember in high school every other Friday one of my best friends and I would stop by the country club where we did maintenance work, pick up our checks, drive over to the mall to drop our money on CDs from our favorite bands, and pick up some Wendy’s for dinner. Maybe we’d check out a movie. Along the way, we were bound to see some friends, or if we were lucky, some cute girls—maybe from a different school, so that we wouldn’t feel so self-conscious about saying “hey.” So much suburban “coming of age” transpired in those air-conditioned monoliths.
I was reminded of the strange importance of these malls a few years ago when I was inspired to volunteer at a tutoring center located within walking distance of a suburban mall. One of my students was a first-generation Pakistani teenager—bright, energetic, and totally surrounded by bad influences. Yet we would walk over to that mall, grab something to eat and wander around, talking about life. I encouraged him to find work: he got his first job at the mall selling those cheap plastic wristbands then so popular among teenagers. The mall, oddly enough, was central in this kid’s upbringing—albeit not an ideal one, by any means.
As malls continue to die in America, what will take their place? As more and more people buy online (with, I acknowledge, many good reasons), there is an unfortunate side effect: we spend even less time wandering around in public spaces where we connect with people in our neighborhoods, both seeing people we recognize but also encountering new faces, new ideas, and maybe even new cultures. The echo chambers online are showing that the web falls far short of the kind of interconnected pluralist society that it fashions itself to be. Check out most website comment sections, and you’ll get a flavor for how online conversation is weakening, not strengthening, social bonds. Would two kids at a mall record store who disagreed over their favorite artist curse each other like they now do via YouTube?
Yes, malls reflect a certain societal degeneration from the old Main Street culture of Leave It to Beaver, where residential and commercial spaces so fluidly intersected, where most every store was family-owned, and where folks were caring neighbors whom you knew and who knew you. But at least malls maintained many of the positive social aspects of that more classic America. Indeed, as one Washington Post article argues, the loss of “anchor stores” like Macy’s and Sears leads to a decrease in foot traffic and the closure of smaller, family-owned businesses. As we move further into the digital age—and deeper into stratified sub-cultures where we have so little knowledge of “how the other half lives”—we may find ourselves wishing to return to something like the American mall.
Casey Chalk is a writer living in Thailand.
Perhaps we can agree with George Washington University’s Christopher Leinberger and many others: “walkable urbanism” is a worthy goal. Indeed, let’s simply declare that pedestrian-rich street life, flaneur-friendly walkability, and nice cafés and shops are a key to improving the quality of life in cities and towns.
But there’s just one thing: we must avoid being run over. And unfortunately, in the last few years, we’ve discovered something quite horrible: in the hands of a terrorist, the familiar four-wheeled vehicle can be a frightful weapon.
Nobody has forgotten the April 7 attack in Stockholm, when one Rakhmat Akilov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, hijacked a brewery truck and drove it onto the sidewalk and then into a store, killing four and injuring 15. According to one report,
The truck mowed down pedestrians along Drottninggatan, a busy pedestrian shopping street. The truck, stolen just blocks away earlier in the day, came to a stop after slamming into the entrance of the Ahlens department store. Photos from the scene showed a billowing cloud of black smoke rising from the store. “I saw hundreds of people running. They ran for their lives” before the truck crashed into the department store, [said] a witness.
In the wake of the carnage, a former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter:
Steal a lorry or a car and then drive it into a crowd. That seems to be the latest terrorist method. Berlin. London. Now Stockholm.
In fact, the dolorous list is longer than that. Perhaps the best known such incident occurred in Nice, France, in July 2016, killing 84. Meanwhile, “ram raiding” has been happening in Israel for years. Indeed, in 2014, an al-Qaeda video celebrated the tactic.
In the bloody-minded eyes of a would-be terrorist, it’s easy to see the appeal of vehicular terrorism: who needs an elaborate conspiracy when one can just get behind the wheel? If the authorities are tracking guns and explosive materials, as well as monitoring travel and airports, why not simply turn on the ignition and start killing? After all, there are plenty of “tools” available; it’s estimated that the U.S. is home to 264 million cars and trucks, and another billion or so vehicles inhabit the rest of the world.
So what to do? How to stop such attacks? Obviously, improvements in homeland security, including immigration vetting—extreme or otherwise—is one answer.
In addition, some will argue that driverless cars are the answer, since they could take away the volitional capability of the motorist to kill. That might all be true in theory, and yet we can point to a few practical problems:
First, according to even the most optimistic scenario, driverless cars are years away—and as we have seen, there are more than a quarter-billion “traditional” vehicles on American roads.
Second, even with driverless technology, do we really expect that the “driver” will have no control of the vehicle whatsoever? Do even the techiest of us think that the computer will control every last movement of every last car, everywhere? And if not—if the driver has any sort of latitude or autonomy—then, in the wrong hands, the potential for mayhem is perpetually present.
Third, speaking of computers and mayhem, we have learned by now—or at least we should have learned—that between Murphy’s Law and malevolent hacking, no cyber-technological solution comes without its own passel of problems, including the problem of deliberate homicide.
So maybe a better way to defend against ram-raiding is, well, defense. That is, a wall, or the equivalent of a wall. As we know, good walls have been making for good neighbors for eons—so why not keep a good thing going?
We can put a wall, or barrier, in the category of “passive defense.” That is, as opposed to “active defense.” Passive defense is just what it sounds like—it’s just there, always on guard. Admittedly, active defense sounds cooler, but by definition, it’s more complicated and thus prone to glitches. And of course, active defense is likely more expensive.
Yet in the meantime, in the wake of the Stockholm attack and all the others, the pressure on public officials and building owners to “do something” will only increase.
Indeed, we might add that here in the litigation-happy United States, there’s an additional prod to take steps. After all, it’s only a matter of time before someone who has been hurt in a vehicular incident, terroristic or accidental, files a lawsuit on the theory that the relevant authority has had plenty of “constructive notice” that such a calamity was coming.
In response to such dangers, this author has no doubt that human creativity and techno-exuberance will produce all sorts of defense mechanisms, including traps, pop-up barriers—and maybe even kinetic projectiles and force fields.
Yet here’s a bet: in the end, when all costs and practicalities are factored in, the most commonly deployed solution will be the humble bollard. That is, those stubby vertical posts that have been used forever to guide traffic and, more recently, to protect buildings.
In fact, we already see bollards, as well as other kinds of barriers, in front of buildings and monuments that we really wish to protect, such as the White House and the Capitol in Washington, DC, as well as other prominent structures, public and private, in Manhattan and elsewhere.
We can’t pull walls around every building, or along every sidewalk, but at least we can put up bollards. Of course, bollards won’t stop every threat, but they will stop a car or truck, and that’s something.
Moreover, bollards, simple as they are today, can be improved. That is, they can be made temporary, or mobile, or self-aware, springing up only when told to do so by a sensor. Thus we can see that bollards could prove to be a hybrid of passive and active.
To be sure, the bollardization of streetscapes, low-tech or high-tech, will not be uncontroversial. By our current reckoning, bollards are ugly and obtrusive. Indeed, we might compare the process of bollard-building to the process of bar-building—that is, the protective bars and grates we often see on domestic windows. To be sure, there’s a tradeoff between aesthetics—and, in some cases, zoning or other kinds of regulation—and safety.
Of course, if bollards prove their value at saving lives, people will likely start to become accustomed to their squat and stalwart visual presence. That’s something we have learned about human nature: if something serves a good purpose, we come to like it, even love it. The little fellas will grow on us!
Still, without a doubt, it’s a shame that it’s come to this. It’s sad that the “sidewalk ballet,” as Jane Jacobs called it, needs new guardrails. But then, of course, even ballet dancers need their barre. As noted, if something is necessary, we soon learn that we can’t live without it.
James P. Pinkerton, a Fox News contributor for 20 years, served as a domestic-policy aide in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Words on the Street highlights the best writing on cities we’ve encountered recently at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
We tend to think of the postwar period as the era of highways and suburbs. But construction has continued apace: Urban interstate lane mileage doubled from 48,000 to 94,000 miles between 1980 and 2015. And it’s not just expansions of existing roads; total urban road length also doubled in that time from 629,000 miles to 1.2 million miles. Some of those new urban roads are former rural roads that have been reclassified as they are absorbed in expanding metro areas. But the changing ratio of roads to people in metropolitan America is still dramatic. In and around cities, road mileage has grown at exactly twice the rate of population. In 1980, there was a mile of urban road for every 273 residents. Now, there’s a mile of road for every 215. That means fewer people responsible for the money that keeps that mile of road in good shape. That frenetic pace of expansion has created a maintenance crisis, among other problems. Old miles still outnumber new ones 99 to 1 every year, but states spend more money making incremental additions to the road network than taking care of the rest. [More…]
—Henry Grabar, Slate
The [postwar] emphasis on single-family detached housing reinforced the idea of nuclear family living, and in practice, has given us “what may well be the lowest-density settlements in the history of the world,” according to Sonia Hurt’s “Zoned in the USA.” Our zoning laws have grown ever more restrictive, and many folks who want some sort of accessory dwelling on their property have to bend or break the law in order to do it…. Our zoning laws may have made sense back in 1950. But as the American family changes, and housing affordability shifts, perhaps the ADU will become increasingly common. Whether it’s an aging relative, struggling millennial, visiting friend, or homeless family, many Americans want to provide shelter to the placeless in their lives. They just need a means to do it. [More…]
—Gracy Olmstead, The Federalist
As with so many stories that rely on fragments of migration or population data, the narrative that some people are moving out of cities implicitly assumes that they are choosing to leave because they don’t want to live in cities. In fact, the growth of city population, and the rising price of homes in cities is a sign that more people want to live in cities than we can currently accommodate. Our failure to increase the supply of housing in cities is increasingly becoming the constraint on urban economic growth. You’ll know cities are failing when you see house prices and land values dropping. That will be a sign that consumers have rejected urban living. But that’s not what’s happening in New York City today. [More…]
—Joe Cortright, City Observatory
The College of Charleston is to be congratulated for instituting the first classical program of architectural education in the South…. The C. of C.’s new [Community Planning, Policy and Design] program joins a recent spate of new classical and traditional coursework within existing university design departments. The University of Colorado, Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning has its new Center for Advanced Research in Traditional Architecture (CARTA), directed by Christine Franck, one of the classical revival’s leading impresarios. Catholic University in the District of Columbia has just added a classical concentration to its master’s curriculum in architecture and planning. Only Notre Dame among universities in the U.S. boasts a full-fledged classical program offering a master’s and doctorate; it ousted its modernist program in a palace coup almost three decades ago. [More…]
—David Brussat, Architecture Here and There
WASHINGTON—It’s late morning on a Saturday in March, and I’m at the corner of 3rd and H Streets NE, waiting for the streetcar. Behind me, on the ground floor of the new corner condo building, there’s a craft-beer store and a daycare center for dogs. Next to them is a big hole (formerly a vacant lot) where a 112-unit mixed-use building is about to go up. Across H Street is a new Giant supermarket, on top of which are more condos with prices in the high six figures. This is the west end of H Street’s 12-block stretch of recent—and if you’ve lived in the city for a while, it can seem like instant—gentrification. I don’t even notice the streetcar line’s slim overhead wires until I remember to look for them.
The first leg of the city’s new modern streetcar line—its six trains, 2.4 miles, and eight stops have cost over $200 million so far—runs from Union Station (where the subway stops) to Benning Road and Oklahoma Avenue NE. There’s no subway station there, just a golf course and a park. But if the city has its way, the line will soon connect to a subway station across the Anacostia River.
Most of the passengers heading east—and on the way to the terminus at Oklahoma Avenue, the two-car tram nearly fills up before emptying out again—appear to be shoppers who live on the eastern part of the route. With its level entry and open cabin, the streetcar is a lot easier to hump shopping bags around on than the bus.
The contrast between the two parts of the 2.4-mile route is stark. On the west, along H Street, it’s new condos and bistros and mostly white faces on the sidewalks. East of 15th, along Benning Road, it’s mostly black and aging buildings and low-rent garden apartments and fast-food joints and chain-discount stores. A few years ago, H Street (damaged during the riots of the late 1960s) looked like this.
On the ride back—and on the way the tram nearly fills up again—I ask Tony, a graphic artist who says he’s looking for work, how often he rides the streetcar.
“Seven days a week,” he says, before pointing out that there are no ads inside the cabin.
He wonders if the streetcar is, or might be, privatized. (It’s owned by the District but operated by a state-owned French firm, RATP Dev.)
Unlike the bus, it’s still free. It was supposed to cost a dollar a ride. But for the time being, the free teaser rate has become permanent.
Are streetcars relatively permanent? Like many American cities, DC has had streetcars before, between 1862 and 1962. A few pieces of that original system remain: tracks in two cobbled lanes in Georgetown, an abandoned station under Dupont Circle, a few power poles on the Klingle Valley Bridge. But apart from those relics and the borrowed (from the streetcars) numbers of a few bus routes, today there is little sign that the capital ever had a streetcar system. By the 1960s, cars, city buses, and suburban sprawl were killing off America’s streetcars. At the same time, under President Kennedy, a federal backlash against highways and sprawl had developed. Washington’s busy subway system (which was handed a gift in the form of the oil crises of the 1970s) was being hatched.
In the late 1990s, when a streetcar was being developed in Portland, Ore., former Mayor Marion Barry’s administration laid out a transport plan that included a streetcar. (Barry later became a critic of the streetcar.) In the 2000s the District began working on the system, importing cars from the Czech Republic and laying track. A second line through Anacostia, over the river, was constructed and then abandoned after right-of-way problems and homeowner resistance. Finally, in February 2016, after a Portland-esque seven years of delays, the line opened. By then the urban development the streetcar was supposed to help catalyze—a new theater, bars and restaurants, condos and apartments—was already largely in place. Proponents and critics continue to debate the degree to which this development, like that of other streetcar cities, had to do with the streetcar.
One year later, how is DC’s streetcar doing? At about 2,500, weekday ridership has been better than the city’s projected 1,500. Total ridership reached the half-million mark in late 2016. As U.S. streetcar systems go, DC’s ridership per mile is middle-of-the-pack. On Inauguration Day 2017 and the day after, the system saw its heaviest use so far. And the city says the streetcar hasn’t cut into local bus ridership. Of course, the rides are still free; Atlanta saw streetcar ridership fall by more than half when it began collecting fares.
Proponents say that streetcars, like other kinds of “premium transit,” add to the transit ecosystem and fuel urban development. Critics say they’re poor value for the money, beneficial mainly to the companies who design, build, and operate them. The District’s system has also been accused of bloat: according to the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, for example, the city spent nearly $175,000 on the streetcar website alone.
Several dozen other U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Dallas, and Kansas City, have built modern streetcar lines, and several dozen more are actively planning them. However, just across the Potomac River, a proposed streetcar line for suburban Arlington, Va., was recently cancelled after taxpayer backlash. And DC’s current mayor, Muriel Bowser, has scaled back next-step planning and budgeting of the envisioned $1 billion-plus, 40-mile network to a cheaper 7.5-mile crosstown line.
Back on the streetcar, Tony, headed to Starbucks, says he’s enthusiastic about expansion. But he’d prefer the route go farther west, into downtown, rather than across the Anacostia. (Bowser wants to do both.) He says the buses that run the route we’re on are often overcrowded and that sometimes the people on them “don’t want you to sit next to them.” And he says that even if they start charging a dollar to ride it, he’ll still use the streetcar.
Nathaniel Koch is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.
Words on the Street highlights the best writing on cities we’ve encountered recently at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
The thousands of tourists trooping down into St. Mark’s Square from their dozens of levels of staterooms on a colossal cruise ship might be shocked to hear that they and the others of Venice’s eight million tourists a year are killing, not aiding, Venice. But in fact tourists spend little in Venice, and officials until recently allowed as many as thirteen such ships every day to sail into the lagoon, Venice’s main waterway, “staring the city down, polluting its waters.” All in the name of one reward: money for the cruise ship owners. Just along the Grand Canal, “the last fifteen years have seen the closure of state institutions, judicial offices, banks, the German consulate, medical practices, and stores to make way for sixteen new hotels.” The population of Venice’s historic center has fallen from 174,808 in 1951 to 56,072 in 2015. Tourists outnumber Venetians 140:1. Venetians must move away to find work outside tourism …. Settis’s book, as he rightly insists, is not just about Venice. It is a passionate call to nourish low-lying, walkable Venice as an alternative urban model to skyscraper-dominated, automobile-clogged Chongqing. Beyond Venice, it is an account that can inspire everyone, especially in historic cities all over the world, who loves traditional city life and who cares for homo sapiens as a political animal. [Read more…]
—Mary Campbell Gallagher, New Criterion
Maybe it flies. How else to explain the $1.9 billion that the Oakland Raiders and Clark County, home of Las Vegas, have committed to spend on the new stadium that lured the team to Nevada? … Stanford economist Roger Noll said it was the “worst deal for a city” he had ever seen. [Read more…]
—Henry Grabar, Slate
Of all the urbanism specialists with tunnel vision, fire chiefs, fire marshals, and traffic engineers are probably the most dangerous. And by “dangerous,” I don’t just mean that they’re a threat to good urbanism; they also get people killed, which is exactly the opposite of what they are commissioned to do. A classic example of their silo thinking is playing out right now in Celebration, Florida, where the proposed measures of eliminating on-street parking spaces and eliminating street trees will almost certainly leave Celebration a less safe place than it is today. [Read more…]
—Steve Mouzon, CNU Public Square
[Some residents of a Florida town] are endorsing a local plan to train job-seeking residents in home construction through the rehabilitation of abandoned, working-class cottages known as shotgun homes. There are dozens of them in an Apalachicola district called the Hill, where black fishermen and mill workers have lived for more than a century. The shotguns are historically significant because they are among the first examples of African architecture in the United States.“The original affordable housing here was the shotgun,” said Creighton Brown, a recent transplant from New York who devised the plan. [Read more…]
—Christine Negroni, New York Times
Few could have foreseen the explosive growth in Raleigh-Durham over the past two decades, especially not in Durham’s downtown, which was mostly abandoned by the moneyed class until recently. In 2001 my nephew, then a high school senior from Pittsburgh, was picked up at Raleigh-Durham airport by Duke undergraduate admissions staff—he was visiting for an interview—and as they motored past Durham’s downtown on the freeway, he was told, “Don’t worry about what you see there, it’s a place you’ll never go.” People argue over how to describe what’s happened since then. Pick one—revitalization or reinvestment or gentrification or serial displacement—or all. Three new boutique hotels have opened in the past two years in downtown Durham. Hip restaurants and bars proliferate. Hipsters follow. I recently came across my first Portland-like twentysomething white couple presenting themselves as homeless in downtown Durham. Condos are sprouting up all over. Ground was broken in 2016 on a 27-story building, the city’s tallest by nine stories. [Read more…]
—Sam Stephenson & Ivan Weiss, Public Books
PROVIDENCE, R.I.—On a cold weeknight last month, several dozen residents congregated inside a local school to review the latest plan for one of this city’s busiest local highways. The conversation lasted two hours and reflected a debate taking place in dozens of cities across the nation. As an increasing number of highways reach the end of their design life, city officials are confronted with an important decision: repair or replace? While some cities like Oakland, Calif. and Syracuse, N.Y. have embraced the option of replacement with enthusiasm, others like Providence are reluctant to rip out the infrastructure that has shaped their city for decades.
At the Providence meeting, city officials revealed the future of a highway known as the 6-10 Connector, pointing to several large poster boards arranged around the front of the room. Titled the “Compromise Plan,” it’s an effort to strike a balance between New Urbanist ideals of walkability and neighborhood cohesion—and what Rhode Island’s governor says is an essential emphasis on public safety. The highway will remain a highway, but with a few tweaks: 1.4 miles of new bike lanes, an improved connection between the 6 and the 10, and five new acres of land for development. Officials have estimated that it will cost $400 million to repair the highway over four years, but have not yet released a final budget or construction timeline.
The reception from the community seems mixed. At the meeting, some locals seemed excited about the additions, but raised doubts about budgeting, timeline, and community involvement. In an interview, Seth Zeren, one of the spokesmen for the group Fix the 6-10, raised other concerns. Why spend $400 to fix aged infrastructure that might later prove unsustainable and that encourages high-speed travel? Why were other options not fully vetted? If the highway is unsafe, why has it not been closed? More than anything, he questioned the assumption that the highway must remain a highway. “If you set project constraints that are only achievable by a highway, you’ll only get a highway,” he explained. “Some people think highways are like physics,” he added. “They’re more like sociology….[they’re] a political choice.”
Like many urban freeways, the 6-10 arrived in Providence in the 1950s. It enabled high-speed trips through the city, easier access for commuters, and access for trucks. But it also cut off various neighborhoods from other areas, disrupted the local street grid, and suppressed the economic potential of nearby communities. The conversation about its future has touched on all of these aspects, especially the underlying tension between suburban commuters and city locals. This tension is one that any city opting for replace over repair is prone to experience. In Dallas, for instance, tear-down advocates have met fierce resistance from critics who point out how heavily commuters rely on the highway to get to work.
Every day, there are nearly 100,000 one-way vehicle trips on the 6-10, causing many to claim the road is essential to the city’s economy. But transportation expert Ian Lockwood says cities should reexamine this assumption. “There comes a point, from a policy perspective, where it makes sense for the community to have regional commuters traveling on [the community’s] terms, and not on some kind of long-distance commute terms,” he told attendees at one of Providence’s public forums.
Focusing on fast commutes to and from the suburbs, he explained in a later interview with TAC, is problematic on three fronts. First, it holds cities back from activating the economic potential in their cores. “Suburbs don’t add value to the city’s core,” he said. “It’s the other way around. The value of the suburbs is created by exporting value from the city.” Second, from a safety perspective, building highways through cities encourages even more high-speed travel. “It’s in [commuters’] self-interest to want to go faster,” Lockwood said. “But…it’s bad public policy. If everyone were to drive fast everywhere, then the city would be dangerous and unpleasant; a classic tragedy-of-the-commons outcome.”
A more urban, locals-centric option for the connector emerged in 2014 when Providence local and transit activist James Kennedy suggested replacing the connector with a multi-modal boulevard. Inspired by what he had seen in his hometown of Philadelphia, where infrastructure enables multi-modal transportation, he and other activists at Move Together Providence presented a vision of a walkable boulevard. As in many cities, the potential benefits of removing the connector were numerous. A boulevard would have unlocked up to 80 acres of land for development, reintegrated several neighborhoods currently divided by the highway, and improved local travel by connecting streets now truncated by the highway.
City residents and even some officials voiced enthusiastic support for the idea. But at a press conference last September, Governor Gina Raimondo steered the conversation back towards repairing the existing road, citing public safety and the need for swift action. “Like so many of the problems which I’ve inherited, if someone had taken action five, 10, 15, 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have such a big, urgent problem now,” she told local press. “I know this is the right thing to do with respect to public safety, and it’s time to make that decision and take action.” Raimondo and (a hesitant) Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza collaborated on a new design and released the current version in December.
A spokeswoman at Tuesday’s meeting said the plan was designed to improve the lives of people who already live in the highway’s shadow, but tensions between the needs of locals, business interests, and commuters are already emerging.
Gregory Stevens, a local business owner whose shop is less than a mile from the connector, claims that part of the design will actually do more harm than good for the community. He told me that he supports most of the plan except for one part: the closing of an on-ramp not far from his shop. “It’s a huge mistake,” he said. Closing the ramp, he explained, would cut off an entire part of the neighborhood from the highway, disrupt travel patterns, force traffic into the heart of the business district, and possibly prevent future investment. Stevens told me he and other local business owners have hired an engineer to conduct an independent traffic count. He plans to present his protest to the mayor’s office and the city planning department and depending on their response, is prepared to take legal action. He argues the change will create “a catastrophic traffic nightmare.”
Ultimately, Lockwood hopes that all parties will realize that designing transportation around the desires of suburban commuters and drivers is antithetical to the purpose of a city: “Cities were invented to bring people together, to maximize social and economic exchange.” Transportation designers could support that, he said, by emphasizing close proximity over inefficient, high-speed, long-distance highway trips. “If we really want our cities to succeed, then we have to get our fundamentals right: proximity, transit, and most of all, walkability.”
Tiffany Owens, a journalist currently based in Providence, R.I, is a New Yorker at heart.
This article has been updated to correct highway statistics. The 6-10 sees nearly 100,000 one-way vehicle trips per day, not necessarily commuters.
Words on the Street highlights the best writing on cities we’ve encountered this week at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros is a long time critic of the architectural establishment…. [He writes] On the disconnect between our bodies and our buildings: “It occurred at the beginning of the 20th Century, in a deliberate break with the past, breaking away from our own nature. Mechanization following violent social revolution required that we disown our biological nature, so the buildings of the future were meant for machines, not humans. Once the Second World War ended, the industries producing glass, steel, and cars threw their enormous weight behind this new vision of the world. Our society inherited and continues to abide by that worldview.” [Read more…]
—Nikos A. Salingaros, Common Edge
Georgetown Heritage, a nonprofit organization formed to rethink the one-mile, nine-acre portion of the canal in Georgetown, has hired the architect of Manhattan’s High Line in hopes of creating an equally buzzy, reimagined urban park along the now-staid industrial strip of land. It’s part of a broader plan to once again make the historic neighborhood a leading destination in the city amid competition from other booming neighborhoods…. “It is a little like the High Line in New York in that it’s an overlooked place,” said Corner, founder of James Corner Field Operations, which designed the High Line in the Chelsea neighborhood. “The whole idea of the High Line is to amplify what is already there.” [Read more…]
—Perry Stein, Washington Post
Like Boston’s last citywide plan, released in 1965, Imagine Boston 2030 proclaims Boston a “City of Ideas.” But virtually everything else about the new plan is different, because so much has changed in Boston, in cities generally, and in the way planning addresses urban challenges. The last Boston plan was completed at the peak of urban renewal, an era of city-making and un-making fueled by federal programs for highway building and “slum clearance.” That muscular approach to city-making didn’t end well — and the rise and abrupt fall of Boston 2024 [Olympic bid] brought back awkward memories of this top-down style of planning…. Urban planning, as we once knew it, is over. The current urban revival happened with no master plan and no national urban policy framework, mostly through the “invisible hand” of market forces. An amalgam of development approvals, incentives, and exactions has arisen in the past several decades, largely in place of planning, to harness this private initiative to serve public policy goals. Imagine Boston and other recent urban plans acknowledge this change. These plans express an attitude toward growth, rather than fostering the illusion that cities can or should just decree what’s going to happen where. [Read more…]
—Matthew Kiefer, Boston Globe
[T]he Green Line is the most popular of the Twin Cities’ two light-rail lines, carrying 40,000 people on weekdays, smashing ridership forecasts by almost 50 percent. It carries college students and immigrants, professional and retail workers, and links college campuses, hospitals and the Minnesota state Capitol (in St. Paul) to both of the downtowns. Less than three years since it opened, it has already helped to revitalize stretches of University Avenue, an aging, formerly car-dominated thoroughfare, as new businesses open near the stations and longtime businesses there attract new customers. Transit-dependent low-income and working-class people are commuting to jobs across the metro area, while new housing for professionals is springing up in an old industrial area. And the Twin Cities aren’t done. Planned expansions would more than double light rail’s reach, taking the Green Line and its counterpart, the 13-year-old Blue Line, straight through Minneapolis to the western suburbs and beyond. [Read more…]
—Erick Trickey, Politico Magazine
Bicycling through Boston’s twisting, traffic-clogged streets may seem more about self-preservation than spiritual enlightenment. For the Rev. Laura Everett, her daily 6-mile commute is a way of connecting to her adopted city, its residents, and her sense of community and vulnerability. Instead of hopping on the subway and popping up in another part of town, Everett said, bicycling has exposed her to the warp and weft of Boston’s neighborhoods and the people who animate them. It’s also led her to a new sense of spirituality and inspired her to turn her experiences into a new book, “Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels.” [Read more…]
—Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press