Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.
The July 4 heat waves that swept much of the U.S. might have had you wondering how people ever lived without air conditioning. For others, the frigid air that flooded offices and homes in response served as a reminder of our overuse of air-conditioning. Online, the annual battle royale over the use of air-conditioning has rekindled and the debate has fallen along familiar partisan lines. With new calls for a ban on air conditioning, things are heating up.
After all, it’s an important question. How—and to what extent—should we keep our buildings and cities cool in a world that’s getting hotter? With the world’s rising temperatures, a growing dependence on air-conditioning alone doesn’t seem especially sustainable. But before we rush to ban AC, we ought to first consider legalizing shade in our cities.
In a way, shade is nature’s air-conditioner. In the shadow of a leafy tree or a tall building, temperatures can fall by as much as 20 degrees. For walkers and bicyclists, this drop can make even the hottest city pleasant. Indoors, a shadow cast over an exposed window could help to mediate temperatures indoors—lessening the need for artificial cooling.
Sadly, shade is becoming increasingly sparse. Outside of a few legacy cities, we increasingly allow the midday sun to beam directly onto the windows of homes and offices and leave public spaces like sidewalks and bus stops totally exposed to the elements.
It wasn’t always this way. Cities used to be designed from the bottom up to tame extreme temperatures, especially in warmer regions. In Yemen’s Old Walled City of Shibam, the “Manhattan of the Desert” combines narrow streets with tall buildings to trap cool air. Similar design elements shape modern cities in warm regions, such as Shenzhen, China, where extreme heat drives demand for units inside “handshake buildings,” densely-packed apartment buildings designed to shield windows and public spaces from the sun.
Closer to home, vernacular architecture in the U.S. was often designed around natural climate control. In the humid Southeast, large windows and central corridors encouraged airflow. In the arid Southwest, thick facades and small windows kept cool air inside. In both cases, most houses were packed tightly together to cast shadows over streets, with awnings, balconies, and roof overhangs used to protect indoor spaces from direct sunlight.
These design elements survive and thrive in cities built before air conditioning, like New Orleans, but are conspicuously absent from most modern Sun Belt metros. With houses sitting squat and far back from the street, and most commercial spaces sitting behind a veritable desert of parking, shade in cities like Phoenix and Atlanta is few and far between.
In these cities today, people generally drive everywhere—and they usually say the heat is the reason. But causation may work in reverse: if the urban design makes it so needlessly uncomfortable to walk or ride a bicycle, is an air-conditioned car really a choice?
The irony here is that the cities that most need shade are the least likely to have it, leaving more and more Americans dependent on air-conditioning to stay cool. Older, urban cities with mild summers—think Boston—have shade in spades, while our newer Sun Belt cities —think Las Vegas—have virtually no shade at all, resulting in an unhealthy dependence on air conditioning.
Why did this happen? A big reason is the way we started planning cities in the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1910s, planners declared a war on shade as a means of responding to slum conditions and high-rises. As described by researcher Sonia Hirt, early land-use planners were inspired by the vision of the detached single-family house on a large lot—a development pattern that’s fine for cloudy Massachusetts, but spells trouble for sunny Florida. Assuming no shade as the ideal, the framers of modern zoning set out to design a system of regulations that make many naturally cooling design elements practically illegal.
Despite rising temperatures and a shift to warmer climates, these rules live on in the majority of cities today. In most suburbs, for example, houses are legally prevented from sitting close to the lot line by setbacks, which prevent any shade from being cast on sidewalks or neighboring homes.
Strict rules surrounding building heights and density cap most suburban buildings at a standard height of 35 feet, well below what could potentially cast a cooling shadow. And shadows from high-rises are treated as an unambiguous evil in planning hearings, even in otherwise dense urban environments like San Francisco.
The criminalization of shade goes beyond land-use regulations; it extends to the way we design public spaces. Despite more and more cities encouraging street trees as a valuable source of shade, many state transportation offices continue to ban them, privileging ease of maintenance over outdoor comfort. Down in Celebration, Florida—Disney’s new urbanist town—an overzealous deputy fire chief recently tried to have all the trees along the town’s main corridor removed in a strained appeal to fire safety.
The nebulous nature of the distance between private and public space makes solving this issue even trickier. Traditional cooling features like awnings and balconies, which may partly cover public spaces from private buildings, are often subject to strict permitting and raucous public hearings. In Chicago, the installation of an awning can require city council approval, entailing months-long processes and thousands of dollars in compliance costs. Rules like these are common across the country, rarely proportionate to the real risks of adding a little shade to the street.
Shade, like air-conditioning, is complicated. The ideal amount of shade will always vary—from city to city, month to month, person to person. But if there’s any room for agreement in the ongoing air-conditioning wars, it’s clear that we need to find ways to stay cool and provide for human comfort—without destroying the environment. There’s room for common ground on the natural cooling offered by shade. We would do well to return to allowing it to play a role in designing our buildings and cities. Or maybe we’re just doomed to fight out the same air-conditioning battles over Twitter and office water coolers, until the sun flames out altogether.
Nolan Gray is a city planner in New York, senior contributor to Young Voices, and regular contributor to Market Urbanism.
Are today’s new motorized electric scooters an epidemic terrorizing American cities? In the New York Times, Nashville writer Margaret Renkl argues that the shared vehicles known as e-scooters are often abandoned in inappropriate places—such as in front of doorways, in the middle of the sidewalk, and on street corners. Renkl presents this as an inconvenience that outweighs all the benefits she mentions, including convenience, ease of use, affordability, reductions in urban heat and pollution, and less street congestion.
Renkl is certainly not alone in her skepticism. Her home city Nashville has decided to ban e-scooters after the tragic death of a rider who was struck by a car. Elsewhere, cities are cracking down on how e-scooters can be used. A proposal moving through D.C. Council, for instance, would establish speed limits on e-scooters and ban their use between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.
Yet as with any backlash against new technology, a narrow focus on the costs of e-scooters misses their potentially enormous benefits. In addition to helping ease congestion, e-scooters increase options for poorer communities with less access to cars and public transit. To facilitate increased access, for example, many cities require companies to place certain numbers of e-scooters in low-income neighborhoods and offer discounted rides.
This new policy is paying off. A recent study by Populus found e-scooter riders are more diverse across gender, ethnic, and income groups, and from neighborhoods that are traditionally underserved.
Whatever issues e-scooters raise about sidewalk obstruction and tripping hazards, cities with mature scooter programs in place have demonstrated that education and public-private collaboration can alleviate these concerns. Some e-scooter providers now require that riders snap a picture of where they park, in order to verify it is in an appropriate parking spot. If it is not, a fine is levied against the user’s account.
The second problem highlighted by Renkl is more serious: danger to riders. A recent Center for Disease Control (CDC) study of Austin, Texas found the injury rate on e-scooters to be 20 per 100,000 rides, and that only 1 of the 190 injured wore a helmet. This lack of safety equipment and misunderstanding of traffic rules can lead to devastating injuries. Yet often these problems lie not with the scooters themselves, but with those riding them.
Of course, accidents often occur even when the injured party has been following the rules. But if the argument against e-scooters is simply that adults cannot handle them safely because they don’t wear helmets and obey traffic laws, the solution is to increase enforcement. A Portland Bureau of Transportation survey shows e-scooters are already having an impact on reducing car trips and ownership. Given e-scooter, pedestrian, and bicycle fatalities most frequently occur when a motor vehicle is involved in the accident, banning a device that takes cars off the road is simply not a smart way to make our streets safer.
Renkl also expresses concern that the infrastructure needed for e-scooters can take years to build, noting “protected bicycle lanes don’t appear overnight.” She’s not wrong. Yet at the same time, cities across the United States are devoting millions of dollars to expand both protected and unprotected lanes for small micro-mobility devices. According to peopleforbikes.org, protected bicycle lanes have doubled every year since 2009. There are now more than 550 protected lanes across 82 cities in 34 states, and with many more in planning and construction stages.
The intense demand for transportation options like e-scooters has even caused cities that initially banned their operation to reverse course. Dozens of cities are now working with e-scooter companies and the public through pilot programs to find solutions to safety, operations, and enforcement concerns that strike an appropriate balance. As a result, e-scooter rides are far outpacing ride-hailing (such as Uber) in their speed of uptake—in part because they appeal to a broader class of users. This is just the beginning of a micro-mobility revolution. A host of new electric devices are primed to hit the market in the next few years, including those with built-in driver-assistance technology.
Innovation is driving policy, rather than the other way around, and that’s a good thing. But as with any new technology, there is an adjustment period in which users, providers and the public learn by doing. Fortunately, notwithstanding the political backlash, the broader public is responding with cautious optimism, both for the technology itself and the ability to address valid concerns through collaborative policy design. As these technologies and the policies governing them continue to prove themselves, the day will come when e-scooter riders and mobility curmudgeons alike learn to stay in their lane.
Lauren McCarthy is a Google Policy Fellow at the Niskanen Center. She is pursuing a PhD in public policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and researches the role of emerging technology in urban development.
QUEENS, N.Y.—The appeal of airport hotels rests firmly in the realm of last resorts, an inviting place only compared to a night on a concourse floor. Until this summer, that is, when the new TWA Hotel opened at New York’s JFK Airport—likely becoming the world’s only hanger-side accommodations that make it worth taking a flight in its own right. Architect Eero Saarinen’s staggering 1962 TWA Terminal, unused since 2001 and having survived multiple threats of demolition or mutilation, has been reborn in a state of tremendous polish.
Ironically, this modern icon was outmoded almost as soon as it was built. Scaled to accommodate a smaller range of planes (such as the Lockheed Constellation L-1649A, now turned into a stationary bar outside), the terminal was overwhelmed by the leviathans of the jet age, which strained its capacity both inside and out.
Prior commercial airliners generally carried about 100 passengers—today, jets routinely quintuple that. While cars have grown larger, they occupy basically the same amount of space that they did in 1950. Imagine the nightmare of retrofitting every single road and driveway for cars many times their size.
Even with plane sizes a bit more stable since then, airports tend to be terrible: human-scaled places seem to become almost impossible with requirements of moving masses of passengers remotely efficiently between structures that are as high as a six-story building (the Boeing 747 tail) and about as long as the Statue of Liberty. When that’s rarely achieved, it’s usually soon torn down for something else.
The haphazard additions and repurposings that were part of the effort to keep the TWA terminal useful in the jet age have now all happily been shorn, in an exceedingly elegant renovation by architects Beyer Blinder Belle. It’s good that the building is being asked to do less in its second career; the former ticket counters had literally buried the terminal’s wonderful conversation pit, and a former baggage room is now a ballroom.
The renovation was also eased by the fact that the programmatic functions of hotels resemble airports, only at lower voltage. The “Arrivals” area is now the check-in desk, the former “Paris Cafe” is now run by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and the “Lisbon Lounge” is still for lounging. The duty free shop has given way to hip retailers such as Warby Parker and Shinola, and even a Phaidon bookshop.
Carpeting colors are impossibly crisp, legendary designer Raymond Loewy’s timeless TWA logo is everywhere, and furnishings by Saarinen, Noguchi, and Lowey fill the space. (Some chairs were purchased at the Four Seasons restaurant auction.) There are elements of time-capsule kitsch, including stewardess uniforms that might try the patience of those who aren’t devotees of the era, but the structural accomplishment is tremendous.
TWA, for years a white elephant, or more of a white cormorant, has long defied easy description, largely due to its singular vault, 6,000 tons in four wedges, varying between seven and eleven inches thick, and supported only at four points. The concrete, when poured, took weeks to harden. Avian analogies are most popular, and Richard Southwick, restoration architect at Beyer Blinder Belle turned to one in explaining the feat of this massive structure’s slender foundation: “Birds have two very thin legs but they’re in perfect balance—half the weight forward and half the weight back. Saarinen himself denied that birds ever entered his thinking: he in fact likened it to a more prosaic inspiration—a halved grapefruit, pressed such that the rind splayed. (I’m not sure if grapefruits are on the menu but hopefully so.)
In any case, the terminal roof is captivating, as is the orchestration of all ramp and stairway-laden space beneath. The vault, and just about everything else about the terminal, are emphatically excess to mere functional requirements. It’s as far from ascetic modernism as you can get: the concrete structure swirls between the Gaudiesque magmatic and delicacy and back again with an ease that can only be the product of intense design (and mind-boggling engineering calculations).
But where in this new hotel, you might ask, are the rooms? These have been exceptionally skillfully placed in two new structures flanking the original terminal, designed by Lubrano Ciavarra Architects. These are designed to be demure, creating a stable backdrop to the direct view of the terminal (and blotting out the JetBlue Terminal that partially encircles it) without obscuring any view from within. Anne Marie Lubrano noted that “It was an effort to be as quiet as possible so you respect the legibility of Saarinen’s sculptural form.” These also provide an additional wrinkle of appeal, with intensely thick (four-and-a-half inches, triple glazed) and intensely reflective glass with aluminum mullions, an unmistakable nod to other Saarinen office projects. The word is that airport noises don’t register inside.
The new TWA Hotel has made what might seem a braggadocious claim that it will achieve 200 percent occupancy—you won’t find a stranger in your room, but you will find stays available for four-hour blocks for briefer refreshment. Just a stroll through Saarinen’s vaults will revive anyone’s spirits—now as easy as an AirTrain shuttle ride away—in an oasis among the bustle of one of the world’s busiest airports.
Anthony Paletta is a journalist based in New York.
Like it or not, the “Yes In My Back Yard” movement for more affordable housing is gaining steam. Last year San Francisco Mayor London Breed won a special election in part of support from organized Bay Area YIMBYs. Minneapolis abolished single-family zoning. The Sightline Institute reports that similar bills are in the works at the state level in Oregon and Washington. Not everything is going the YIMBY way, as California State Senator Scott Weiner can attest after a recent defeat there, but the movement is making progress.
But as Joe Cortright and Daniel Kay Hertz have pointed out, both providing widespread affordable housing and building wealth for future retirees are contradictory goals. As Hertz wrote in City Lab, “Possibly the only thing worse than a world in which housing doesn’t work as a wealth-building tool is one in which it does work as a wealth-building tool.”
Around 62 percent of a median homeowner’s total assets are tied up in their house, according to Arun Muralidhar. So while a successful YIMBY movement will necessarily reduce home values, it will also need to mitigate the effects on people whose retirements were planned around their home equity.
Moreover, another path to middle-class stability will need to be found for immigrants and minorities historically shut out of the housing market—since credit is cheap when homes are at their most expensive and scarce when homes are cheapest, according to Cortright. A new approach should not rely on a massive forced transfer of wealth from young people to old.
The use of housing as a wealth-building tool and eventual retirement is dependent upon the next generation being populous enough—and wealthy enough—to buy the homes older people have been sitting on. In Boston and San Francisco, this has worked too well, with the result that few young people can afford to buy homes and median prices are vastly out of whack with the median income.
Yet in many other parts of the country, home values have not recovered from the 2008 financial crisis in either nominal or real terms. According to Cortright, for the country as a whole, “Between 2006 and 2018, housing values haven’t kept pace with inflation, meaning the real value of housing has declined.”
Writing in Forbes, Zillow’s Svenja Gudell points out that in these areas—such as Las Vegas, Nevada; Hartford, Connecticut; Orlando, Florida; Riverside, California; Baltimore, Maryland; and Miami, Florida—less than 10 percent of homes had recovered their pre-Recession peak values by the end of July last year. In Baltimore, around 14 percent of all mortgages were in negative equity.
In a future YIMBY revolution, where a given city where large-scale upzoning has vastly increased the housing supply, it won’t look quite like Baltimore. If building lots of apartments wreck some home values, it will still increase land value near those apartments. Still, for areas unaffected by the building boom, like autocentric suburbs, we can anticipate home and land values declining. Some distant sprawl may be abandoned because it will be easier and cheaper for some to live closer to the city. Unlike contracting Rust Belt cities where declining home values result in falling tax receipts, building more homes in cities like San Francisco will grow the tax base.
But many people once dependent on home equity to fund their golden years will be stuck in a hole—and subsequent generations will no longer have rising home prices to fall back on. As we look to a bygone era of low-interest rates, fiat currency, and quantitative easing, thrift is less about saving money and more about putting money to work the right way. Prices rise more than interest pays and so one’s savings get inflated away. Risk and return are directly correlated, so finding an investment that is both low risk and has a higher rate of return than inflation is a real coup. So much so that in retrospect it’s surprising little was suspected about the risks of a housing bubble.
Things will be simplest for those people not really on the property ladder yet. They will be able to take the money they don’t spend on housing and invest it in the stock market or diversified financial instruments, or even ploughing more into their IRAs. For people who bought homes at $150,000, have seen them rise to $700,000 and financed them accordingly, building more affordable housing is going to be more complicated. Earlier this year, the housing wealth of homeowners aged 62 and up topped $7 trillion for the first time, according to Reverse Mortgage Daily. For comparison, this is roughly one-third of the United States’ entire economic output, and bigger than the GDPs of every country other than the United States and China, according to the World Bank.
Other new possibilities could include a government-run pension fund or perpetual bond, like the consol bonds the British government used to issue.
There is simply no way that getting rid of that wealth and compensating for it. Maybe some needy homeowners can be bailed out for pennies on the dollar, but other people will have to transition out of home equity before they lose it.
Then again, it might be too late to cash out anyway. There’s some evidence that a lot of housing wealth is overvalued already. According to The Wall Street Journal baby boomers and retirees who built million-dollar dream homes already can’t sell them for more than what they paid for them. If trends favoring smaller homes in walkable areas continue, a large part of that housing wealth will be wiped out without anyone building anything.
Squirreling away money in housing, where it doesn’t earn much, and moving it into equities and consumer spending, would likely be a good thing for the economy as a whole. Lower income people won’t have to choose between rent and food, while middle-class people might be able to afford quality goods made in America. Banks will have more money to lend at lower interest rates, families will need less debt for education, and wages will go further. State and local governments will subsist on lower tax rates to maintain the same levels of service. That $7 trillion will be in the economy and not buried in a hole in the ground.
It’s sad that the housing market has become what The Atlantic calls “intergenerational warfare.” But presumably some wiser, older folks should have been more prudent—before mortgaging future generations by making an easy buck and enjoying a sprawling backyard at their expense. The YIMBYs aim to sober up Americans and restore economic sanity before the middle class shrinks forever.
Matthew Robare is a journalist based in Boston.
BOSTON—Nothing sticks out quite like a new building in an old city. It can be subtle, like the difference between brick, stone, or plaster that has been weathered, exposed to air pollution—in contrast with that which is clean and new. But new architecture can also be more radical: very often neighboring new buildings are made with different materials and constructed using new methods.
Similarly, even when flawed architecture is not falling into the same old problems—for being out of scale or made out of stained, crumbling concrete, for example—the quality of urbanism is still lacking. When people notice new design, it either seems too forced and inauthentic, or completely absent, as in the case of many suburban landscapes.
“It goes back to Jane Jacobs,” says David Andreozzi, an architect and president of the New England chapter of the Institute for Classical Architecture and Art. “The importance of a house or a piece of architecture, relates to the entire community. Her argument is that a single individual streetscape in New York is like a smile and the minute you lose one tooth, that tooth needs to be replaced. What happens is that street ends up getting eroded from that one tooth if that building’s not replaced . . .”
“Rot sets in,” says Eric Daum, a fellow architect and board member of the New England ICAA chapter. Andreozzi agrees: “Then, all of a sudden that street starts to go down and that street relates to another street and so, in a way, you look at architecture as part of that urban fabric. To have organization through design on a larger level keeps a city alive, just like we’re looking at it on a more finite level.”
These issues are present in many cities, but are more apparent in older ones. In Boston, for example, the traditional neighborhoods, such as Beacon Hill or the North End, rub shoulders with the results of typical post-World War II urban renewal schemes. The West End is now a grouping of towers in a park and the brutalist Government Center, as well as the pseudo-historicism of Quincy Market.
Across the Fort Point Channel from Downtown Boston is the city’s newest neighborhood, the Seaport District. Most of its buildings were constructed in the last 20 years and as such typify contemporary modernist architecture and urban design. Glass and steel towers soar skywards from the waterfront in a variety of angles and curves made possible by computer-aided design. The Seaport’s buildings do not form a street wall, but are surrounded by “green space.” Burnished chrome and milled aluminum, bright LED lights, and the signage of international corporations reward developers with high rents—and developers can even afford to build on expensive sites, create landfill, and endure Boston’s lengthy bureaucratic delays. Still, the combined approach makes the Seaport pedestrian feel that he is akin to an ant wandering through the Apple Store.
The ants can work there; they can rent apartments or buy condos there; they can go to the movies; they can get expensive drinks in outrageously loud restaurants; they can visit a contemporary art museum or enjoy sponsored programming in assorted civic and cultural venues. However, they cannot send their children to school there and until this year they couldn’t go grocery shopping there. Getting around is also difficult, since the neighborhood largely lacks transit and the wide streets encourage fast driving.
The Seaport presents a palpable contrast to the North End, which is perhaps the closest thing to a medieval city that exists in the United States: streets are narrow and tangled. Just about anywhere there was space to put up a building, one was put up. Now primarily residential with a lot of restaurants, in previous days the North End was part of Boston’s port, with warehouses and other industrial facilities. Nowadays the warehouses and wharves are condos. But the streets remain packed with people and the cannolis continue to be delicious.
Despite lacking amenities like grocery stores or much in the way of a mixture of uses beyond its residential and restaurant milieu, the North End is still full of vitality that is unmatched in the region. Curiously, even on streets that are empty of people or are now purely residential, the sense of place, of living, remains.
“For two thousand years the language of classicism was the common architectural language of the Western world, and it was adapted and modified as required, as building program needs determined, or as local building methodologies were adapted to classicism,” Daum says. “So these buildings all sort of worked together with a common vocabulary, but they addressed local and temporal differences.”
For these sympathetic urbanists, an enduring mystery remains: why are modern people unable to produce humane architecture and urban environments, even when they do little but imitate the past and should benefit from today’s knowledge and technology? At least some new technologies are enabling researchers to examine how people interact with their cities empirically. One group doing this kind of work is Create Streets, based in the United Kingdom. Founding director Nicholas Boys Smith says that he started the organization because he was unsatisfied with the results of planning in London.
“Lots of urbanists in the UK, lots of architects in the UK, argue that all that matters is density,” Boys Smith says, explaining how good streets are essential. “This is an ‘and’ feature, not an ‘or’ feature.”
Create Streets’s research showed that the way a building looks matters to people. Symmetry was the most important design element, according to their research. Also important is what’s known as fine-grained urbanism, where storefronts and facades change quickly and vary as one walks by them. “The things that seem to matter are variety and vitality,” Boys Smith says. “Materials seem to matter a lot. Shiny materials are disliked.”
The ICAA’s Daum says that the work of researcher and architect Ann Sussman has shown that people need a visually stimulating environment. Sussman’s ideas are based on studying the unconscious eye movements of people looking at buildings (or pictures of buildings). Her key insight is something salespeople and advertisers have known for years: people respond to faces and smiling. Interestingly, the architectural term “facade” derives from the word “face.”
“We’re looking for fine detail, which is a projection of greater detail and I think this is all somehow tied to fractal geometry,” he explains. “People can look at a building and by the choices the designer makes in determining what was omitted, what was added and also the other kinds of ornament which can be deeply symbolic, whether they represent for instance, fertility or the harvest or death—all the things that we human beings have to deal with. That potential for symbolism exists within classical architecture and it doesn’t in modern architecture.”
Create Streets also works with Sussman, although Boys Smith says their interest is more on symmetry than faces. “Our brains do appreciate some level of complexity,” he says.
Writing in Aeon in 2015, psychologist Colin Ellard came to the same conclusion. He conducted experiments in New York City where people wore devices to monitor physiological signs of alertness and answered questions about their emotional states. Next to a blank facade, people were bored and miserable; next to a more lively one, they were happier and more stimulated.
“The real risks of bad design might lie less in unhappy streets filled with unmotivated pedestrians, and more in the amassing of a population of urban citizens with epidemic levels of boredom,” Ellard wrote. “Now the reason for the dismal recordings of happiness and arousal in participants standing in front of blank facades is clear. At a psychological level, these constructions fail us because we are biologically disposed to favor locations defined by complexity, interest, and the passing of messages of one kind or another.”
“Architecture, especially on an urban, downtown level, is for the people,” Andreozzi says. “It’s not for artistic individual expression.”
He adds that there were architects deliberately designing buildings to scare people, throw them off guard, and debate everything that’s wrong with society. “That’s a very egotistical, offensive thing,” Andreozzi says. “That’s why I think the majority of that work will be replaced within a hundred years.”
According to Daum, the deconstructivist architect Peter Eisenman decided in the 1980s that the threat of nuclear war meant there was no point to building anything rational.
“We’re destroying our world by creating spaces that no one wishes to be in,” Daum says. “If you work in traditional styles and are working in a traditional cityscape, you don’t have to be a great architect to make a building fit in and which contributes to the whole. But if you’re a mediocre architect and you do a modern building, we’re stuck looking at that thing and it’s always going to be the gap in the teeth.”
“In terms of creating a humane and habitable cityscape; a place which gives people comfort; a place in which people can feel they belong, that classicism offers a way to make people more connected to the place in which they live,” Daum says. “If you throw out tradition, you basically leave people uneasy, uncertain, anxiety-ridden—not really sure how they’re supposed to behave or what they’re supposed to do.”
The importance of vibrant places—and the technique in urbanism known as “placemaking”—is one of Boys Smith’s biggest concerns, as well.
“A lot of the high density development in London doesn’t work,” Boys Smith says. “It’s too ambitious of density, [there’s] not nearly enough of the human and sympathy in the architecture.”
Yet perhaps more useful than arguing about architectural style or the economics of development is simply contrasting Boston neighborhoods like the North End and Seaport District. In the North End, typical buildings are only about 20 to 25 feet wide, so facades change frequently. The buildings change height, the patterns built of bricks change, and the level of detailing changes. The pattern is so established that even the occasional breaks in it—the buildings that are longer and less activated, the few parks or even the surface parking lots—end up being welcome contributors to variety. By contrast, the Seaport has no pattern to it. Every building site is an island unto itself. Although the stores within them change, the glass facades are unbroken except for roadways and strips of green space that exist purely to separate one building from another.
These considerations also help explain some of the problems New Urbanist developments experience. Just north of Boston, a 2012 Somerville development known as Assembly Row is a mixed-use assemblage of offices, apartments, and retail that included a new rapid-transit station. Aesthetically, the buildings are decent, and on nice days there can be quite a bit of activity on the main street. Unlike the North End, however, the neighborhood’s vitality drops off as soon as one turns a corner. The likely reason? The development is a kind of latter-day Potemkin village: some happy facades have been designed to disguise all the parking garages, with all the blank, boring architecture those structures have.
It’s an example of what Michael Huston, writing for the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Public Square, called it the “McMain Street”: “Like the McMansion that attempts to mimic the complex roof massing of an entire French village in a single building, the McMain Street attempts to mimic the fine-grained, vertically proportioned facades of the traditional American Main Street—all in a single building. And, more often than not, like the McMansion, the end result appears contrived and inauthentic.”
“We need to be respectful of what’s around us and the history around us when we design new and when we renovate,” Andreozzi said.
“I think you can do traditionally-based work with a certain kind of authenticity that is not making it a stage set,” Daum said. “It is being respectful to local traditions, to the local vernacular; it’s understanding the language of classicism and applying it in a rational way.”
There are successes out there, though. In Britain, traditional architecture and urbanism have a very influential patron in the person of Charles, the Prince of Wales. In 1987 he told a group of London planners, “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe. When it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that.”
At the time, Prince Charles was putting his money where his mouth was, working with the English town of Dorchester to develop an extension called Poundbury. New Urbanist architect Leon Krier was hired to do a master plan, and construction began in 1993.
“For years derided as a feudal Disneyland…this supposed ghost town feels increasingly like a real place,” wrote The Guardian’s architecture critic, Oliver Wainwright. “Strip away the fancy dress and you find a plan that far exceeds the sophistication achieved by any modern housebuilder.”
According to Wainwright, Poundbury has “genuine mixed use.” Not only are there the usual high-end retail stores and professional offices that tend to be what’s meant by mixed use, but there is also industry, including an aircraft component factory.
“Even though [Wainwright] didn’t like it, he was forced to concede it’s worked,” says Boys Smith.
He adds that it would have been more successful with a clearer High Street (the British equivalent of a Main Street) and that Nansledan, a similar, though larger, project near Newquay in Cornwall, was being built with lessons learned from Poundbury. Greater attention is being paid to the local vernacular architecture and as many local materials are being used as possible.
And yet one must still wonder about the role of time in allowing people to get used to architecture. Victor Hugo hated the broad, straight avenues Baron Haussmann built in 19th-century Paris, now regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Guy de Maupassant led a large group of artists and writers in decrying the Eiffel Tower in terms recognizable to contemporary architectural debates. The book The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn is replete with contemporary accounts of how ugly everyone thought the brownstones were. In Boston, The North End was once regarded as a slum incubating criminality and disease.
Still, one can look past taste and popularity to the principles underlying architecture and design, which buildings rely on. Daum compares the elements of traditional architecture to a language: “If I understand the language and the grammar of classical architecture well enough, I can write poetry in it,” Daum says.
As no less than poet T.S. Eliot explained in a 1919 essay on “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” these related lessons of architecture and urbanism are just as relevant a century later: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and for comparison, among the dead.”
The architect, Daum, ultimately sees this common grammar as central to what makes good urban design work throughout the ages: “If all these different styles are essentially speaking the same language, they are able to relate to one another . . . We’ve lost that common language.”
Matthew Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
The one constant about World’s Fairs and Expositions—from Chicago’s White City to the several Expositions Universelles in Paris to the New York World’s Fair of 1939—is that you cannot in any meaningful sense go to see them. It’s not merely that the midways are empty, Buffalo Bill dead, the dancing girls clothed, and “Forbidden Tibet” forbidden. The physical imprint of almost every single exposition of the golden age from the 1870s to the 1930s has been almost completely effaced, with remnants typically constituting one or two relics and some landscaping.
There are very few exceptions. But your best bet for immersion today is in Dallas’s Fair Park, a stunning time capsule from 1936 with 26 buildings remaining from the Texas Centennial Exhibition. Fair Park has been and remains the host of the Texas State Fair since 1886, so a spectacle persists every fall for three weeks. Many decades later, the difficult problem is what to do with these stellar grounds the other 11 months of the year. And the question is how Dallas can enliven this huge urban monument today—even as there is no question that the 1936 legacy of Texas should be both celebrated and preserved.
Though Fair Park’s landmark exhibition was not technically a “World” exposition, it drew on a very considerable range of national and international talent, and lived up to Texas’s reputation for gigantism in all of the best ways. As Jim Parsons and David Bush write in their book, Fair Park Deco: “In 1936, most of the United States knew little about Texas. If Americans thought of the state at all, they probably imagined it as a vast frontier filled with cowboys and oil wells. Centennial publicists, armed with a $500,000 allocation from Austin, were perfectly happy to use those misconceptions to their advantage, spinning them into decidedly sentimental symbols of the Lone Star State.”
You can no longer see Cab Calloway or Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic Base Camp recreation, Judge Roy Bean’s Courtroom, “Midget City” (featuring “the miniature Mae West”), a crime prevention exhibit (with mock electric chair executions), or Orson Welles’s Macbeth, but yesterday’s dreams of tomorrow are available in this magnificent art deco ensemble.
The espanalade is a dazzling sight: a Beaux-Arts vista executed in art deco form, with murals and statues lining the whole of the fair’s ensemble around the reflecting pool. The overall design was done by Texas architect George Dahl, with input from notable Philadelphian Paul Cret. The exhibit drew on talents of Texas and far beyond. Carlo Ciampaglia’s murals at the 1939 World’s Fair are gone but are plentiful here. Raoul Josset’s sculptures at the same are gone but present here. Donald Barthelme Senior (father of the novelists Donald and Frederick) designed the ensemble’s crowning Hall of State.
The trouble is what you do with a fair when it’s over. E.L. Doctorow’s youthful alter ego goes to the New York World’s Fair twice in his novel of that name. Most don’t attend even that regularly. A fair is intrinsically an occasional thing.
The question of Fair Park’s future came to the fore in a recent decision by the city of Dallas to transfer management of the property to a non-profit group. Fair Park First, which has arranged with Spectra, an entertainment management group, will run daily operations of the park in a 20-year contract.
Fair Park is home to several museums and institutions that fill original buildings, and a few constructed later. These include the African American Museum of Dallas, a Children’s Aquarium, the Texas Discovery Gardens (descended from the Centennial Exhibition’s horticulture garden), and a variety of performance spaces, including Cotton Bowl Stadium, a bandshell, a coliseum, and a music hall.
Fair Park is host in some form or another to 11 of the 20 biggest events in North Texas.
The main trouble has been filling the park when events are not occurring, which speaks to problems typical of spaces oriented around large events whenever those events have shuttered as well as some problems very specific to a priceless cultural ensemble.
Some have argued that this is due to the grip of the State Fair, demanding that much of the soil lie fallow for all of the year save when their crops are planted.
A 2017 report by the Foundation for Community Empowerment, a local non-profit, argued this at length, and if their conclusion seems overstated, elements of their argument nonetheless resonate: “For most of the year, Fair Park is a tragedy of vast underused or deteriorating space. It certainly does not reflect the original vision as a ‘park for the whole people, for the whole time.’” It notes that almost 75 percent of the space is occupied by asphalt, with an additional 70 adjacent acres owned by the State Fair used overwhelmingly for parking. It asks: “How did this happen? How did a 277-acre park near downtown, in South and East Dallas, once the high ground of city culture, become a decaying relic?”
Ken Smith, president of the Revitalize South Dallas Coalition, points to a decades-long flight of core institutions from the park as a source of general etiolation. The Dallas Museum of Art relocated in 1984, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 1989, the Dallas Opera in 2009, and, most recently, the Museum of Science in 2012, which made occasional use of its former Fair Park facilities but has gradually been phasing out their use. All of these relocated to precisely the same neighborhood, Dallas’s Arts District.
As Smith observes, “We made a conscious political decision to take those institutions that were keeping Fair Park vibrant and we started putting all of our money into the Arts District. Then we say why aren’t you doing better, Fair Park? Is it their fault that our city chose to take the arts and leave it as a carcass?”
One restaurant, the Old Mill Inn, which previously operated seven days a week, shifted to a limited schedule after the Science Museum’s departure. The African American Museum and the Texas Hall of State, containing a tremendous selection of murals, are open every day. The Aquarium and Texas Discovery Gardens are popular destinations. Other museums have opened and closed: the Dallas Women’s Museum shuttered in 2011.
Some of these issues have related to the Fair’s requirements for space. Willis Winters, director of the Dallas Parks Department and author of a book on Fair Park, points out that “a lot of the large exhibition halls that the State Fair uses can’t have permanent tenants because the city’s contract to the State Fair gives them full rights during the fair.” He notes, “We had an automobile museum of classic cars that had to move out. They gave up because it didn’t work for them.”
The State Fair has been one attraction that hasn’t left Fair Park and remains a valuable source of revenue. Mitchell Glieber, president of the State Fair of Texas, notes that the fair has contributed $18.5 million in revenue to Fair Park over the last four years, and has conducted other improvements of benefit to Fair Park when it is not in operation.
There have been varied suggestions about achieving a better balance of uses or somewhat shifting the Fair’s footprint or altering its set-up and tear-down time, but the fair is a vital part of the park to most observers. Glieber noted that preparation and removal of fair facilities are complicated undertakings, pointing out that “there are literally dozens and dozens of events that take place during fair setup.”
Most of the institutions in the park experience their largest attendances during the fair.
The struggles of Fair Park are not unfamiliar to other American fairgrounds, many of which are empty almost all of the year, or sporting or concert facilities. It’s a problem not far removed from Olympic facilities, which Matt Wood, head of the non-profit group Friends of Fair Park, appreciates, given his prior involvement with Dallas Olympic bids.
“You have to look at not what just happens for an event,” he says. “What’s its five-year, 10-year, 50-year impact? What’s its impact on the community?”
Wood noted that there are limits to the recreational aspect: “It was designed to be a festival space. It wasn’t designed to be central park.”
If the park was undeniably more active with more cultural institutions and could benefit from more, then museums alone are inadequate, he suggests: “Museums don’t make great primary draws; they’re great secondary activities, which is why many of the museums moved downtown because there’s Monday through Friday activity nearby.”
A majority of the great fairs of yesteryear were intrinsically evanescent, built to be destroyed, with many of the most seemingly opulent sharing a material foundation of staff, a compound containing some cement, but much larger amounts of plaster of Paris, often strengthened by fibers or literal sackcloth. It wouldn’t last, and was torn down before it would decay in Paris in 1878 and 1889, Chicago in 1893, Buffalo in 1901, St. Louis in 1904, and elsewhere. This was relative material luxury; later fairs such as Chicago’s Century of Progress were built largely out of plywood—possibly not much progress!
Fair Park was an exception, building structures out of more durable materials. Some were subsequently demolished and many decayed greatly. Much of the art adorning these buildings was painted over. Despite a number of much larger threats over time, the considerable majority survived and restoration efforts beginning in the early 1980s have restored many of their original 1936 features.
Part of the trouble is that, for all of the varied urban sobriquets applied to large expositions and fairs, from Chicago’s White City to Buffalo’s Rainbow City (a common nickname for The Pan-American Exposition of 1901) and onwards, they’ve more often been a vision of fantasy urbanism than the real thing, even beyond their temporary construction. Sometimes their sites are highly central, such as Paris’s Champ de Mars, but more often they are located in fairgrounds or used as schemes to improve or create parkland on the urban periphery. Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens is not exactly well connected to its surroundings. Balboa Park in San Diego, host of the California-Pacific International Exhibition (and the most substantial surviving complex in the U.S. beyond Fair Park), consisted of a simulacrum of a dense urban core in the middle of a park.
Even better connected events, such as the World’s Columbian Exhibition, share a highly anti-urban feature: ticket gates. Walkable and visually appealing urban landscapes behind gates, poorly connected to any street grid, is the story of, well, Disneyland: it’s no surprise that Walt’s father, Elias Disney, worked as a carpenter on the World’s Columbian Exposition. Walt visited others and constructed attractions for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
The situation in Dallas, in terms of the Fair’s connection to the city surrounding it, began poor and became very deliberately worse over time. Ken Smith notes that in the past, “Fair Park was trying to keep the nearby community out.” The Fairgrounds pursued a purposeful strategy of acquiring and demolishing land in nearby largely African-American neighborhoods, not for expansion of facilities but for expansion of parking. One 1966 report on the Fairgrounds cited “intense emotional discomfort in middle-class white residents” concerning the area around the park.
There seems to be no one who isn’t intent on trying to change this at present. All concerned want to forge a better connection with surrounding neighborhoods, with a park (or more than one park) on its periphery a declared aim of Fair Park First. In earlier plans, the full south side of the site was to be converted to a large park. This may not happen, but something will. As Wood explains, “There’s a misconception that the neighborhoods aren’t welcome. We’re trying to create corridors. Come over here; this is your park; come in here!” Smith notes that “the fence needs to come down.”
Willis Winters, who agreed with the necessity of better connections to the surrounding community, noted that there are still some practical constraints: “We’re interested in taking that barrier down as much as we can but we still need to maintain control for events in the park.”
The park is free every day that events are not occurring, but this may not be easily perceived. A recent Saturday visit saw mainly empty grounds.
Culture and recreation may not be adequate to populate Fair Park. Wood mentions a former proposal for the Dallas Community College to locate their culinary school in the former Women’s Museum as the sort of solution that could guarantee regular circulation: “Rather than a museum which has to attract a new visitor every day there are 500 students coming in every weekday.” He brings up other prospects for filling the buildings, spaces for dance and theater that “would literally just involve putting in a stage” or other arts and arts education events. He suggests that it would prove an ideal site for the Dallas International Film Festival or for other film shoots.
There are real problems of deferred maintenance, which is estimated to hover in the realm of $250 million. Some buildings lack a certificate of occupancy.
Smith recounts some realities of lengthy neglect: “If you go into the Hall of State when it’s raining there are literally buckets catching the water. In the springtime the auditorium can’t be used because it floods.
Smith argues that a prime trouble has been the “variety of fiefdoms” that constitutes Fair Park. “We think that bringing in new management is the answer but the new management is still in the same bureaucratic convoluted straightjacket that the old one was. We have not eliminated the straightjacket.”
He remains hopeful that Fair Park First might devise a solution, suggesting that coordination between the Park’s constituent elements was essential and that “each resident institution needs to operate on all cylinders as a standalone entity.”
Other examples of this type of built environment are relatively rare. Balboa Park in San Diego has a more robust set of tenant institutions, including the city’s main art museum, natural history museum, and science center (with a total of 16 museums) but struggles with some similar issues. Exposition Park in Los Angeles, which is a somewhat smaller version of the same with stronger resident institutions, houses Los Angeles’s major league soccer team, their principal Natural History Museum and Science Center, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and will soon be host to George Lucas’s Museum of Narrative Art.
More recent exposition grounds suffer from fewer preservation burdens but similar difficulties just staying tenanted and busy. Hemisfair Park in San Antonio has a number of unused pavilions and has built a hotel and is adding apartments and commercial space. At the site of the 1962 World’s Fair of Space Needle fame, the Seattle Center grounds are relatively vibrant, but some spaces sit empty and unused.
Many of these spaces are of a scale that echoes Jane Jacobs’s criticism of another megaproject, Lincoln Center, as an unnatural isolation of culture from ordinary activity of the city—though the scale of these fairgrounds can make Lincoln Center look positively modest. In any case, when cultural facilities are spread across the urban fabric, they are obviously more easily integrated with their surroundings or repurposed. There is no arguing with a fundamentally unique treasure such as Fair Park, however, and we can only hope that it devises a formula for success.
Fair Park draws widespread plaudits as an institution not merely academically but personally important to the citizens of North Texas. As Willis Winters observes, the place is “so central to our city. My first college football game, my first professional football game, my first opera, my first symphony visit, my first fair—all were at Fair Park. It’s been so important to my life and so important to many residents of this city.”
Anthony Paletta has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Guardian, and numerous other publications. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
Few are immune to the architectural charms of Eastern Europe. Prague’s winding streets and medieval towers are a testament to the city’s enduring commercial vitality. The gothic imprint of German settlement can be seen as far east as Romania, where a distinctly Teutonic cathedral looms over the Brasov town square. The architectural signature of the Habsburgs—pastel colors and baroque ornamentation—remains from Krakow and Lviv in the north, to the Adriatic port of Trieste, to Budapest and Bratislava, even as languages change and national borders interpose themselves. In Sarajevo, the baroque style gives way to the minarets and narrow streets of the Islamic old town, reminding visitors that Bosnia was once part of the Ottoman Turkish heartland.
Not all of the region’s architecture is charming. Belgrade and Warsaw were flattened during the Second World War. Ugly apartment blocks and squat concrete buildings are grim reminders of the Soviet era. Newer glass-and-steel hotels jostle uneasily with older structures. Lacking in resources, many historic buildings have gone from charmingly ramshackle to completely run-down.
Still, the variegated architecture of Eastern Europe puts lie to the notion that in matters of taste, anything goes. Residents and tourists alike flock to old squares and charming historic districts. Newer buildings are functional but unloved. In the wake of the tragic Notre Dame de Paris fire, debates about design in the public square have re-emerged along political fault lines. Instead of turning architecture into another front in the culture war, we should ask ourselves a simple question: Where have all the beautiful buildings gone?
In the United States, the major flashpoint is brutalism, a post-war style that marries imposing concrete-and-steel design with stripped-down functionalism. Left-wingers darkly warn of the alt-right “infiltrating” architecture twitter under the guise of criticizing brutalist buildings. Others defend brutalism as a symbol of our lapsed commitment to public housing and economic justice.
Though brutalism is defended on both aesthetic and political grounds, the two arguments are difficult to reconcile. To a certain type of critic, brutalism represents “heroic architecture,” the realization of an individual designer’s vision in concrete and steel. Mid-century pioneers of brutalism like Le Corbusier and Ernő Goldfinger were minor celebrities. Le Corbusier’s architectural vision was uncompromisingly individualistic, unmoored from tradition or conventional ideas about form and beauty. It is no accident that Howard Roark, the fictional protagonist of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, was also an iconoclastic architect. (Roark’s aesthetic sensibilities were closer to Frank Lloyd Wright than Le Corbusier, and the Swiss architect probably would have bridled at Roark’s politics, but the parallels between the two are unmissable.)
To a few intellectuals, brutalist buildings are heroic achievements, but the public has never warmed to them. When Naples’ notorious Gomorrah housing project was recently torn down, the loudest naysayers were professional architects. Actual residents had long complained about the buildings’ conditions. But if you’re not willing to defend the aesthetics of brutalism, ideology will suffice. So says today’s leftist journal Jacobin, trumpeting “Save Our Brutalism,” and lauding the great mid-century brutalist buildings as potent symbols of our now-forgotten commitment to equality.
Defending brutalist buildings on ideological grounds only highlights the divide between design and the lived experience of a building’s residents. As James C. Scott points out in Seeing Like a State, there is a profound gulf between the God’s-eye view of architects and policy-makers and the ground-level view of actual inhabitants, who have to live with brutalism’s unforgiving sterility. From the air or from a distance, Oscar Niemeyer’s vision of Brasilia is a striking achievement. To the city’s inhabitants, however, the Le Corbusier-inspired design is artificial and alienating. Brutalism proposed to strip buildings down to their barest functions, yet it fails at the basic task of providing a welcoming, visually-appealing space for residents and passers-by.
Ascribing a single ideological message to a diffuse architectural movement is also mistaken. Perhaps Jacobin subscribers equate brutalism with public housing, but the meaning is more sinister in Eastern Europe. The tiered design of the Gomorrah housing projects bears a marked resemblance to the resorts built for Communist apparatchiks on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Your average Latvian is more likely to associate these buildings with Soviet-era repression and mismanagement than left-wing nostrums about equality. Enver Hoxha’s Albania produced some striking examples of brutalist architecture. Hoxha, not coincidentally, was a notorious tyrant.
Design fads come and go and political sensibilities change, but the technocratic, top-down worldview that undergirds brutalism persists. In 2011, the Dutch celebrity architect Rem Koolhass was quite open about his preference for “the generic city” over architecture rooted in local culture or history:
The traditional city is very much occupied by rules and codes of behavior. But the generic city is free of established patterns and expectations. These are cities that make no demands and, consequently, create freedom. Some 80 percent of the population of a city like Dubai consists of immigrants, while in Amsterdam it is 40 percent. I believe that it’s easier for these demographic groups to walk through Dubai, Singapore or HafenCity than through beautiful medieval city centers. For these people, (the latter) exude nothing but exclusion and rejection. In an age of mass immigration, a mass similarity of cities might just be inevitable. These cities function like airports in which the same shops are always in the same places. Everything is defined by function, and nothing by history. This can also be liberating.
Technocrats once spoke the language of socialism and central planning; Koolhass and his ilk are more likely invoke markets, openness, and globalization. But the underlying impulse is the same: Society can be cataloged, organized, and ultimately shaped from the top down through the design of its cities and buildings. Beauty, tradition, and culture are secondary considerations.
Even if we dismiss brutalism as a fad perpetrated by blinkered technocrats and egotistical architects, ugly buildings expose ugly truths. Pervasive ugliness seems to impose an unconscious psychic tax on the great mass of people, even if most have no interest in the finer points of architecture or design. So why have we lost the ability to construct beautiful buildings? There are no easy ideological answers. Socialism may have birthed brutalism, but capitalism has given us barren strip malls, cookie-cutter exurbs, and Koolhaas’s “generic city.”
By contrast, Notre Dame de Paris was a communal undertaking, built by generations of craftsmen and artisans. The names of several of its earliest architects are lost to history. Crude historical revivalism is also unsatisfying. Warsaw’s ersatz Old Town, rebuilt in the wake of World War II, is an impressive testament to Polish national will, but it lacks the authentic charm of Krakow’s beautifully-preserved historic district. Budapest’s Fisherman’s Bastion, a restored medieval structure, pales in comparison to the city’s old baroque neighborhoods. And Huawei’s “European” campus, plopped down in the middle of Southern China, is the architectural equivalent of the uncanny valley: The closer it hews to historic European buildings, the faker it looks and feels.
Blackened and diminished by fire, Notre Dame de Paris still inspires awe. Even among non-Catholics, the cathedral’s beauty resonates because it can be appreciated by everyone, from tourists to locals to architects. Despite decades of calamity and neglect, many of Eastern Europe’s old buildings evoke similar feeling. Such structures have always been rare, but we seem to have lost the ability, or the ambition, to even attempt them. Brutalist architecture is a historical footnote. The disappearance of beauty in our public spaces will be with us for far longer.
EUCLID, Ohio—Before so many bedroom communities were created after World War II, this Cleveland suburb was once a summertime vacation spot. With four miles of Lake Erie shoreline, it neighbored an amusement park and well-to-do holiday cottages. And if you were driving from Cleveland out to Geneva-on-the-Lake for putt-putt golf, skee-ball arcades, and big band music halls, you might have stopped in Euclid to pick up burgers and beer at Stevenson’s.
In these earlier years, Euclid was more of a sleepy travel crossroads than a bustling factory town. In 1920, the population was only 3,300, but by 1970 it had grown to an astounding 70,000. Since then, Euclid has contracted and now counts around 47,000.
Euclid was also very different racially in the old days. As late as the 1970s, African Americans represented only one half of one percent of Euclid’s population. It now numbers about 60 percent African American.
Today, Euclid is a classic inner-ring suburb, and is stuck in a tough place. Much of the original housing stock was poor quality construction then—and is only decaying. The economy in the Midwest has stalled, and Euclid’s current residents are more likely to be poorer and renters. Politically, the suburb is caught in a no man’s land: it’s not urban enough to be hip and cool and Democratic, not exurban enough to be rich and powerful and Republican.
Euclid is not dominated by crime and poverty. But neither is it any longer a bedroom community of comfortable, middle-class homes. That picture started to unravel with the foreclosure crisis, which began to appear in the early 2000s. Jobs left and the houses aged—and the people became older, too.
“In some ways our housing is outdated by today’s standards, and it is something we work on continually,” says Euclid Mayor Kirsten Holzheimer Gail. “We are sort of stuck in the middle. We work hard to maintain what we have, but the sprawl mentality of housing development makes it harder for us, and it will be a huge issue down the road if the country doesn’t figure out what us and other suburbs are dealing with these days.”
The plight of these inner-ring suburbs has been misinterpreted by politicians and some urban planners for decades. Some blame white flight and the lower income levels of those new residents; others point to the lack of fiscal responsibility by local governments. Still others think the market will take care of the decay if you just leave things alone.
Unlike central cities, inner-ring suburbs are neither poor enough to qualify for many federal and state reinvestment programs nor large enough to receive direct federal or state grants. To add to those problems, the housing industry in most urban areas is constantly looking to build at the far edges of exurbs, even as some inner suburbs hurt existing home values. The lack of economic growth in the region compounds the issue, including in the Cleveland area.
“Politically, these inner-ring suburbs are in no-man’s land, not big enough to get attention and not small enough to handle their problems themselves,” says Tom Bier, an urban planning professor at Cleveland State University. “And no one in state or federal government really asks the question, ‘Well, what is supposed to happen to a community once it starts to get old?’ Instead, they seem to be intent on figuring out how to build new homes further out.”
Last December, Bier testified before the Ohio General Assembly on the problems facing these older suburbs: “The state has a constitutional responsibility to ensure ‘equal protection and benefit’ of its citizens. It readily promotes the development of new communities, which is fine. But that promotion fuels movement from, and weakening of, established communities. The state then holds the weakened places solely responsible, or nearly so, for their condition by providing scant support for renewal and redevelopment.”
Bier explains how Euclid and other municipalities are left alone. The mentality is: “‘You have home rule; it’s your problem, you fix it,’ even though the state greatly exacerbates the problem.”
Federal and state governments can’t merely claim they are bystanders that have nothing to do with this decline, as Bier and others emphasize. These inner-ring suburbs, and all the attendant issues, were originally created by the state and federal governments themselves, a reaction to the post-World War II baby boom and the need for new housing.
From 1929 until 1946, the United States built very little housing. Of course, the Great Depression and the war left little money for new homes, and in the 1940s there was no material left to do it. For almost 20 years, the U.S. economy—especially the housing industry—was put on hold.
The data shows this very clearly. In the 1920s, the U.S. built about 800,000 new homes every year before the bottom dropped out in 1929. In 1933, there were only 93,000 new homes built, and in 1944, just 142,000. When the war ended, the soldiers came back home and found their new families stacked on top of each other in old, central cities. Immediately after the war, Cleveland’s housing occupancy rate was 95 percent.
So the federal and state government knew that they had to bust open the long-neglected homebuilding sector of the economy. They found smaller towns like Euclid, built interstate freeways to connect them, and gave the soldiers home-loan guarantees. Then they got out of the way.
New housing construction jumped through the roof in the postwar years. Between 1946 and 1970, new homes averaged about 1.5 million a year nationally—10 times higher than in 1944. Homes were being built largely in these inner-ring suburbs, creating a vast new suburban market. At the same time, urban policymakers promoted large swaths of teardowns of inner-city housing, the “urban renewal” projects of the 1960s and 1970s.
Yes, white flight was part of suburban growth. But a big part of the demand came from families that now had cars and wanted a backyard. New houses in new suburbs fulfilled those postwar yearnings.
In Euclid, 11,747 new homes were built from 1946 to 1969. In 1949, Cleveland’s region surrounding Cuyahoga County saw $130 million in new building construction, $100 million of which was in the suburbs. Seventy-three percent of Euclid’s homes were built in that critical period of 1946 to 1969. The big suburban buildout all over the Midwest happened when local governments were trying to make up for the lack of building in the 1930s and 1940s. And it’s not hard to find them in the Midwest similar to Euclid: Calumet City, Illinois; Norwood, Ohio; Hamtramck, Michigan; McKees Rock, Pennsylvania; Ferguson, Missouri; to name a few.
But even by 1954, Euclid could tell it was adding too many homes, too fast. “Homes are very desirable, but they cause additional demands for service by the city and for additional schools,” the Euclid Sun Journal wrote. “No home pays enough in taxes to cover the services required. At the rate homes are being added, the balance is slipping.”
By today’s standards, these houses are small, averaging about 1,300 square feet, and on small lots, too. Real estate experts have long said that most homes need a big tune-up after about 70 years—that means new plumbing, heating and air conditioning, kitchen, and bathrooms. Most of the housing in Euclid—and by extension, in most inner-ring suburbs around the country—is either in need of serious rehabilitation, or close to being there.
“What has happened in these inner-ring suburbs is a challenge,” says Aaron M. Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. “I don’t believe these suburbs are intrinsically doomed to decline, but it all depends on the housing market they’re in. Cleveland is now a low-demand market. But at the same time it has low demand for housing, it is still building new housing in the outlying suburbs. That’s the real issue.”
Metro areas across the country face unique problems—and “inner-ring” is defined differently across the country. For example, the metropolitan Los Angeles suburb, Lakewood, has been designated an inner suburb with all the problems that entails. But Lakewood’s city’s home values average $445,000, along with a median household income of $82,000. In contrast, Euclid’s average home value is $81,000 and median household income is $37,000.
With profound disparities between the Midwest and the big coastal cities, inner-ring suburban decline is even more pronounced in parts of the Rust Belt such as Cleveland.
Every inner-ring suburban mayor TAC interviewed for this story talked about the same problem. What incentives do potential homebuyers have to fix up these houses?
For example, if the value of the house has declined to $30,000, then it will likely need about $50,000 of upgrades to make it livable for a family buying a home. A lot of low-value homes are on the market in inner-ring suburbs. But banks aren’t offering this type of loan, since the renovated home won’t be worth $80,000 afterwards.
The experts call this a “credit gap.” Some have suggested that inner-ring suburbs should be designated as “special districts,” where homeowners might qualify for an income tax break or the suburb can dispense state or federal grants. Or perhaps regional or state funding might need to support declining municipal services.
“Redlining in some communities still exists, and we are finding very few mortgage loans are written for homes under $70,000,” says Georgine Welo, mayor of South Euclid, an adjacent city of 21,000. “That is always a financial issue with us. It can be solved by having some state or federal government programs or regional planning groups to monitor the banks and see how many loans they issue in certain areas. But we’re seeing that there is little political will to do that right now.”
About 88 percent of the homes in South Euclid were built in the critical 1946-1969 period, and their average value in 2017 ($85,000) was only 66 percent of what it was in 2005 ($128,500).
Continued racial issues cannot be avoided, either. As William H. Frey, a demographer who specializes in urban planning wrote, “The classic image of an American metropolis was that of a polyglot city surrounded by mostly white suburbs—the ‘chocolate city/vanilla suburbs’ of the 1950s and 1960s, when white-dominated suburbanization left largely black minority populations stranded in many of the nation’s largest cities. That paradigm has almost entirely broken down.”
Maple Heights, another inner-ring suburb near a major interchange just south of Euclid, faces the same problem—a lack of funding for fixing up old housing. The city is near some healthcare institutions and nursing homes, and many healthcare workers have salaries in the range of $25,000 to $35,000. About 40 percent of them are single mothers, says Mayor Annette Blackwell.
“These are people that need affordable housing, and we have that type for them, but they are very leveraged in their finances, and often they can’t get banks to back them so they go into renting in other cities,” Blackwell says.
“This housing was needed after World War II, and we found ways publicly to pay for the loans and the construction…. But they still need that same type of help as when they were created, and I find it very frustrating the country is avoiding the issue.”
Some have suggested merging these older suburbs with central cities (such as Cleveland), or regional property taxes that share programs between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” “Governments have tried to do this, and when they have done it—like in Minneapolis/St. Paul—it does work, but getting regional cooperation between the big cities and the troubled suburbs has always been tough to do,” says Cleveland State’s Bier.
And then there is the national perception issue. “The problems that the inner-ring suburbs have in these old industrial parts of the country are very different from housing issues in New York and Boston and even Chicago,” says Bier. “The economies in places like Cleveland and Detroit are limping along, and we aren’t paying attention because what happens in Brooklyn, New York gets attention, but what happens in Euclid, Ohio doesn’t.”
It comes down to money, explains Bier. In Cuyahoga County, the home of Cleveland and the smaller communities mentioned in this story, the 18 inner-ring suburbs that shared a border with Cleveland lost a combined $4.8 billion worth of property taxes between 1994 and 2017. The remaining suburbs that don’t border Cleveland gained $2.9 billion in property taxes.
And if that’s not enough of a disparity, the six adjacent counties to Cuyahoga County—the outer suburbs—added $16.6 billion in revenue from new housing built in that time period.
“At the end of the day,” Bier says, “the local government officials don’t understand this is a serious financial issue if left alone. The inner-ring suburbs aren’t going away, but they will cost their neighbor cities a lot of money if we don’t come up with solutions to what has happened to them. Building expensive housing further out doesn’t solve it.”
“We are good at dealing with big cities that get old,” says Bier. “But we need to learn how to come up with plans that alleviate suburbs getting old. Lots of options to consider, but to avoid it is going to make it a lot worse.”
Daniel McGraw is a freelance journalist and author living in Lakewood, Ohio.
Just over a month ago, my hometown of Altoona, Pennsylvania, was briefly in the national spotlight in the New York Times. Describing the tenth largest city in Pennsylvania as a place with “deep working-class roots, conservative social values and nearly all-white population,” the Times correctly characterized the city as an example of where Donald Trump received over 70 percent of its votes. But it did not go far enough in describing why he received those votes.
Altoona is an illustration of the industrial heartland’s decay; what President Trump referred to in his inauguration speech as “American carnage.” A city once envied for possessing one of the largest railroad repair and construction facilities in the world, its biggest claim to fame these days is being the corporate home of Sheetz, the convenience store.
The city of Altoona has a poverty rate of over 23 percent, with surrounding Blair County experiencing an overdose death every week due to drugs like fentanyl. Its people feel undervalued, and shut out by the growing, diverse metropolitan progressives in the Eastern cities. As Pat Buchanan requested of then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008, “Let him go to Altoona and Johnstown, and ask the white kids in Catholic schools how many were visited by Ivy League recruiters handing out scholarships for ‘deserving’ white kids.”
In the past decade, however, Altoona began efforts to curb its general decline and find homegrown solutions to the problems plaguing so many cities like it in the Rust Belt. Sometimes old rot can provide the best soil for growth. In January, Mayor Matt Pacifico sat down for an interview with The American Conservative about the situation in Altoona and its revitalization efforts.
Matt is the scion of a well-known local family who has operated the Pacifico Bakery (where my dad buys fresh bread every week) since 1947. Before becoming mayor in 2013, Matt worked as the bakery’s operations manager alongside his brother and cousin. “I was never interested in politics prior to becoming mayor. Somebody came to me that year and said, ‘Hey there’s no Republicans on the ballot for mayor, you should consider running.’ And I kind of laughed and said, ‘I don’t know anything about politics or government.’” But weeks later when someone else made the same proposal, Matt decided they couldn’t both be wrong, and submitted his paperwork and ballot signatures the day before the cutoff.
What followed was a crash course in local administration. “I started googling what a mayor does because I literally had no idea. I did a lot of reading, after I got elected I started reaching out to other elected officials across the state,” recalled Pacifico. “I spent some time down in Harrisburg, at the capitol, picking legislators’ brains to come up with some ideas. And just building friendships and connections with those legislators. So I kind of found my way when it comes to that, but I still continue to learn and find new ideas so that we can be a better city.”
“Altoona was founded by the Pennsylvania Railroad because of its location and the resources that were around the city. Everybody who lived in Altoona, after it was built up, were employees of the railroad,” explained Pacifico. While once one of the busiest transportation hubs in the Northeast, as technology changed, so did the city it was built on. “After the decline in the railroad, like most other cities that heavily relied on one industry, the population declined and Altoona, probably for a few decades, was stuck trying to find its new identity.”
That new identity included diversifying the local economy and moving away from the idea that the industrial base, like the age of the locomotive, was coming back. “I would say, while we’re still proud of the strong railroad heritage we have here and it being a major part of our history, I think now with UPMC [University of Pittsburgh Medical Center]’s presence here and Penn State growing that our identity is now an Eds & Meds type city.” Between sixty and eighty trains still run through Altoona’s tracks every day.
The first problem to solve was the city’s finances. In May 2012, just before Pacifico’s election, the city was designated under the Municipalities Financial Recovery Act of 1987, known colloquially as Act 47, where localities experiencing severe financial difficulty come under the coordination of the state government. “The employees of the city made sacrifices for the good of the city, trying to find new ways to cut costs and find new sources of revenue,” said Pacifico, who emphasized that small fixes add up. For instance, they saved $500,000 just by changing the city’s insurance plan. By September 2017, Altoona had eliminated its annual operating deficits, reduced or refinanced its debt obligations, and its projected revenues are sufficient to fund its pension obligations. “There’s a lot of good things happening here and we’re really kind of blessed to be able to get out of Act 47 when we did. We were the fastest city to ever do that.”
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Once the city was no longer sinking into the pits of financial default, it could start moving towards sustainable growth. Downtown Altoona is doing that based on concepts familiar to readers of New Urbs: livability on a human scale, appropriate economic incentives, utilization of natural resources, and perception management.
Altoona is only a 45-minute drive southwest of Pennsylvania State University, one of the largest colleges in the country, and is the location of one of its branch campuses. “I think making sure that you have amenities in place for young people is key,” said Pacifico, who has an idea to make travel easier and affordable for this group. “One of the things I’m looking to do with Penn State is a bikeshare program. Like they have in the big cities where you can go up on the street corner, there’s a bike there, you scan it with your phone, go out and ride it. I thought that would be a good feature to bridge the gap between the campus and the downtown campus, to have students be able to ride back and forth. But not just for students, it’d be for anybody that wanted to use it.”
“We’re looking to incorporate some more multi-modal features in the planning we’re doing for roads,” continued Pacifico, “adding some bike lanes, bike paths, etcetera. People want to live in an area where they can walk, they can ride their bike.”
Wanting more small businesses, human services, and affordable housing to move downtown, Altoona used its tax code to reflect that desire. “A few years ago we worked with the school district and the county to make downtown a LERTA [Local Economic Revitalization Tax Act] zone,” explained Pacifico.
“How that works is the taxes that would be paid on new construction and improvements on a building that you buy, the first year would be zero percent. You wouldn’t pay anything on that. The second year would be twenty percent. Forty percent the next year. And so on, until the sixth year where you’re at one hundred percent taxable. I know a couple projects that did happen downtown…[where] people took advantage of the location because they had access to that LERTA.”
The mayor recounted one man who converted an older building into higher end, market-rate apartments. The project would not have been possible without the tax relief provided by the city.
Pacifico encourages other communities to take advantage of their surroundings, whether that’s to promote tourism, recreation, or beautification. “We experience all four seasons here in Altoona. We have access to mountains, and rivers, and lakes, and you kind of get a combination of all of it when you’re living here…You can live in the city and a quick fifteen-minute drive and you’re in the mountains and you can go hiking or biking on trails or whatnot,” he says. “They’re there and they’re free, so you might as well take advantage of them and promote what you already have and what’s already there.”
The mayor said that besides being a cheerleader for the local renaissance, Altoona was responsible for helping itself. “I would like to be able to take credit for everything that’s happening,” laughed Pacifico, “but I think a lot of it is happening organically…[T]here’s a lot of people who work in downtown, but after five o’clock most of those people go home and downtown is not as busy. But what we’re seeing though is after business hours there’s still an increase in foot traffic on the sidewalks and on the streets…That’s really awesome to see. There’s no reason for people to be here after five, but people are still finding a reason and wanting to be here after the business day.”
This new breath of life isn’t just affecting pedestrians, but the local business community as well. “We don’t have a lot of people living in the downtown area yet, so there’s really no reason for the businesses to want to be here other than being in downtown is cool again. And we’re seeing a lot more businesses that maybe would have looked out in the boulevard area…looking for buildings in downtown to relocate.”
When asked what advice he’d give to other middle American towns suffering the same consequences of deindustrialization experienced by Altoona, Mayor Pacifico was straightforward: keep it simple and don’t be afraid to look in a new direction. “I would encourage them to reach out to other mayors, look at what other cities are doing. Sit down and see if that’s something that would work there. A lot of times there’s no point in trying to reinvent the wheel. If something is working somewhere, try to figure out how you can make it work in your town or city.”
“Also keep an open mind about things and don’t be afraid of change,” said Pacifico. “A lot of people are scared of change happening, but it’s good not to get locked into one thing for life.”
“Those aren’t the end-all-be-all that will solve all problems and make young people want to live here. But I think if you keep putting key pieces like that in place it starts to add up and you have a more livable city that people will want to come to.”
Hunter DeRensis is a reporter for The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.
Resilience is a hot topic in urbanism today—and understandably so, given the increasing prevalence of storms, floods, fires, heat waves, and other potential disruptions to urban well-being. But we might consider another level of organization beyond resilience—what has been termed “antifragility.”
The term was coined by the Lebanese-American author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a rather colorful, sometimes controversial theorist and author who became prominent for his 2007 book The Black Swan. Taleb is currently Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University. No mere academic, Taleb made a fortune as a derivatives trader, applying his own theories to profitable results.
In his 2007 book, Taleb argued that our lives are deeply shaped by relatively rare, mostly unpredictable events: financial crises, natural disasters, and other chaotic disruptions. (And some rare positive events too.) By definition, these events are not predictable as specific occurrences—but they are predictable as general phenomena, for which we can prepare and even benefit. Specifically, we can prepare for the inevitable occurrence of such unpredictable events by developing structures that, when these events occur, tend to “have more upside than downside.”
For Taleb, the essence of “robustness” (or resilience) is that we have structures that can withstand these “Black Swan” events when they are damaging. For example, the 2011 Japanese tsunami revealed that the Fukushima nuclear reactors were not robust; they were in fact “fragile.”
By contrast, Taleb uses the term “antifragile” to describe structures that not only withstand such events, but gains benefit from them. Taleb points out (in his 2012 book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder) that this characteristic is everywhere in nature, and especially in biological systems. Muscles endure the strain and damage of exercise, and actually become stronger. The body gets infected with a small dose of an infectious agent and develops immunity. Indeed, evolution itself, as a cumulative process, relies on this “antifragility.” By contrast, insulating these systems from shocks actually makes them weaker over time—lack of exercise, or lack of exposure to immunity-generating pathogens.
Key to this antifragility is the ability to fail in small doses, and to use that failure to “gain from disorder” over time—paradoxically producing a greater order. Muscles get very small tears and strains, resulting in strengthening; a few cells get infections and die, but not before sending out markers that identify the invaders to many other cells. So keeping things “small enough to fail” (as opposed to “too big to fail”) is key. So is the ability to transmit lessons from these small failures, so that the structure can develop new strengths.
But getting “too big to fail” is precisely what’s going on in too many places today. The 2008 financial crisis, and its “too big to fail” banks, was a case in point. Modernity, Taleb says, is dominated by a culture of specialists who are rewarded for excessive intervention, and for predictions that are routinely inaccurate. The big reward for them is not in creating antifragility or even resilience, but stability—or rather, the temporary appearance of stability. Then, when disaster strikes, these specialists, who have very little “skin in the game,” pay a very small price, if any.
The result of this dynamic is that there is very little learning within the system, and we go right back to making structures that are more unstable over time. In evolutionary terms, we are not advancing into greater resilience, but lesser resilience.
Thus, instead of creating a world in which the most destructive Black Swans are more survivable, all the emphasis is on preventing such Black Swans, and creating an unsustainable state of normality. The inevitable result is that these Black Swans come anyway—with ever more catastrophic results.
A forest ecosystem provides a good illustration of Taleb’s point. Often there are numerous small fires that play key roles in the health of the ecosystem, taking out undergrowth, allowing new species to thrive, and consuming fuel before it accumulates to dangerous levels. But the “modern” practice up until recent times has been to suppress the fires—and of course, the result has been that the fires come eventually anyway, and then they’re much bigger and more catastrophic.
There is a relation to resilience theorist C.S. Holling’s distinction between “engineered resilience” and “ecological resilience.” The Fukushima reactor did indeed have resilience, but only up to a specific engineered point that was able to be anticipated by its designers. But a rare “black swan” event (the 2011 tsunami) exceeded those specifications, and the result was a catastrophe. By comparison, a forest ecosystem has a more robust form of “ecological resilience” that emerges and in effect “learns” from stresses to its ecological system—but only if those stresses are allowed to do their work.
For Taleb, there is an obvious corollary in economics. The more we suppress economic volatility, and the more we inject cheap credit (and debt) into the system to prop things up—and especially, the more we let institutions get “too big to fail,” effectively socializing risk and privatizing profit—then the more we are setting ourselves up for a kind of global Ponzi scheme that is bound to collapse, even more disastrously than before. Taleb thinks 2008 was such a collapse—in fact he made millions anticipating it—and he thinks we are now headed to an even bigger global collapse.
More broadly, Taleb sees a potential collapse of a range of human systems, under the management of their tunnel-visioned specialist-planners. They are not trained by failure, have no “skin in the game,” think reductively from the wrong models, and are biased toward intervention to prevent black swans rather than prepare systemically for them. The examples he cites take up much of the book, including medicine, economics and politics.
There are obvious lessons for planning and architecture too. The promoters of this kind of planning are what he calls “fragilistas,” making strategic plans to avoid Black Swans instead of assuring that the Black Swans are smaller and more survivable—and even beneficial, as the result of their evolutionary process. The dominance of fragilistas across many disciplines is symptomatic of modernity, a problematic era of “humans’ large-scale domination of the environment, the systematic smoothing of the world’s jaggedness, and the stifling of volatility and stressors.”
There is a short but entertaining section on architecture specifically. “We are punished with the results of neophilia” in cities, he says. “The problem with modernistic and functional architecture is that it is not fragile enough to break physically, so these buildings stick out just to torture our consciousness.” By contrast, the “improved caverns” of traditional environments offer “fractal richness” that he finds makes him feel at home.
I would take that line of reasoning farther, and consider traditional cities and buildings as embodiments of “ecological resilience”—or of antifragility—with a remarkable complexity and durability. By comparison, our large-scale engineered and artistically packaged buildings are remarkably fragile, and in effect “throwaway” structures. Yet we have the hubris to suppose that these stripped-down bits of packaged engineering are somehow more “modern” than the more complex, more fine-grained, more beautiful and more sustainable buildings—the ones that have in fact sustained—to which we fragilistas are encouraged to turn up our noses.
Taleb points out, as Jane Jacobs did throughout her career, that our “modern” model of planning and design is fundamentally broken, and worse, demonstrably incapable of learning from its mistakes. We try to “plan” in a rational, linear, predictive sense, and the inevitable result is spectacular failure. Indeed, most of what passes for such planning today is pseudo-science, bureaucratic turf-building, and fragile clutter. The result is that it makes our entire civilization more fragile.
What we can do, Taleb says, is to learn from nature, and develop structures and processes that can evolve and get smarter. Intelligence is not just in the individual, or in the individual’s planning or design, but in the overall evolutionary processes that we adopt. (And in the historic patterns that they embody.) That’s why real-world experience is much more valuable than theory: it can evolve, whereas theory is mostly a static rational process of deduction, translated into rigid enforcement of policies. It is fragile, and it breaks too often. When it does break, there is very little learning, and the system often goes back to the same prone-to-fail modes. When it doesn’t break, it only forestalls an even larger kind of collapse. This is where humanity is headed, he thinks, if we don’t adopt major systemic reforms.
To be sure, Taleb says, theory is important—IF it’s philosophical theory about useful decision-making. “Wisdom in decision-making is vastly more important — not just practically, but philosophically — than knowledge.” That’s essentially what Taleb is sharing in his books—a theory of how nature works, and how we had better work too, if we want to survive.
Some will note the similarity to Jane Jacobs’ last book Dark Age Ahead, and to the idea that we need another kind of planning entirely, and another kind of design. We need a design for the process more than the product, and a “design for self-organization.”
Again, there are implications for the embodied wisdom of traditional patterns and practices, which now appear as evolutionary processes that confer antifragility. His description appears remarkably close to what Andres and Douglas Duany call the “vernacular mind”—the collective skill in producing beautiful and well-adapted habitat, which is evident throughout human history.
We need to embrace and empower such a capacity, surely—instead of regarding its genetic treasury as a modern design taboo. Moreover, we need to embrace a different kind of design, and a different kind of planning—less about designing or planning the product, and more about designing the best, most antifragile possible process, incorporating the best genetic material, and getting the obstacles out of the way.
This is the best way—perhaps the only way—to assure that the result is stronger, smarter, better.
Michael Mehaffy, Ph.D. is an urban designer, consultant, and senior researcher at the Ax:son Johnson Foundation in Stockholm. He is also director of the Portland-based think tank Sustasis Foundation.
This piece originally appeared at CNU Public Square, and was republished with permission.