Few artists have captured the essence of America’s industrial urbanism with the precision of Edward Hopper (1882-1967).
His images depict an intricate landscape shaped by factories and railroads, and by the collision of traditional European forms with the novelty of American, electric-lit night. His human subjects manifest a pervasive sense of alienation among individuals of a unique time and place. And for these reasons, the haunting nature of much of his urban imagery has led some to interpret Hopper’s work as being biased against cities, themselves. But this is not quite right.
In a 2002 article, “Fear of the City: 1882-1967: Edward Hopper and the Discourse of Anti-Urbanism,” Tom Slater, now a scholar at the University of Edinburgh, made the case. He argued that much of Hopper’s imagery carries forward a deep American tradition of anti-urban sentiment, which “began with the pastoral musings of Thomas Jefferson and was furthered significantly by the transcendental contemplations of Ralph Waldo Emerson. [It] grew stronger and became embedded in social life through powerful representations of urban malaise in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature, art, and social theory.”
Such a strain certainly exists in American thought. Well before Hopper’s time, the prevailing transatlantic Romanticism of the mid-19th century converged with reactions to the excess of industry and the uniquely American frontier ethos. Together, these threads helped forge a lasting American identity that saw salvation as always being over the next horizon. In this optimistic view, cities (especially large, eastern industrial ones) were places to be escaped. Rather than representing the boundless promise of America, the old coastal cities represented a kind of domestic version of the very European confines many Americans had meant to leave behind: crowding, competition, class, tribalism, and other factors that circumscribed individual lives. As recently at the late 20th century, back-to-the-land movements of both the left and right represented the continuing life of this idea.
Yet while Hopper was himself a small-town native (hailing from the boat-building village of Nyack, in New York State’s then-rural Hudson Valley), and was also the product of a traditional religious upbringing, he would find success and choose to live out his life in New York City—the most antithetical of American places. Like most settlements along the eastern seaboard, New York City was built out from the urban forms of European colonial ports, giving its region a typical eastern bias toward settlement values—as opposed to frontier ones—in the late 19th century. But unlike the other great East Coast metropolises, New York City also teemed with an endless stream of immigrants from the Old World whose lives layered the customs of contemporary Europe into a density that exceeded even the greatest cities of the continent.
Thus, Hopper’s adopted home represented a striking counterpoint to the vast frontier that animated the American imagination. Quite unlike the Lake Poets, or even the painters of the Hudson River School (who had adopted Hopper’s native region a generation earlier), Hopper’s life also contrasted with the ideals of transatlantic Romanticism. An urban artist who focused on the richness and intricacies of human settlement, his subject matter was notably different from that of the traditional Romantic who saw nature as a source of spiritual renewal; a counterpoint to a corrupting and inherently political human world. But this is not to say that Hopper was unmoved by the negative qualities of industrial life — only that it did not, precisely, turn him against cities.
Of the artist’s immediate living environment, Slater wrote:
[He] lived through a time of continuous changes to the cityscape, and changes in the neighbourhood where he lived, Greenwich Village, were as profound as in any area of the city. Hopper was dismayed by the ‘crushing of Washington Square’ by the erection of tall buildings around the park which he saw as ‘huge coarse and swollen mounds—blunt, clumsy and bleaching the sunlight with their dismal pale-yellow sides’ (citation omitted). Such signs of unruliness and dislocation were serious violations of all that he had been brought up to believe, that humans should be in harmony with nature and situated away from anything which would disrupt this most Victorian, even puritan, way of existence.
If Slater is right, then it seems notable that by the late Victorian period, when Hopper was growing up, some of the once-countercultural touchstones of early 19th-century Romanticism—especially, the idea “that humans should be in harmony with nature” —had calcified into a set of bourgeois notions of propriety, in somewhat the same way the countercultural values of the 1960s have today been repackaged into the predictable platitudes of Whole Foods advertising. Yet these notions, while perhaps still viable in certain agrarian settings, had been pushed to the margins of the industrial world in which more and more of Hopper’s American contemporaries made their lives. Indeed, the Victorian landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted made a career of providing America’s city-dwellers with beautiful substitutes for the Romanticist’s connection to nature.
Hopper’s urban landscapes depict the unique product of a 19th-century collision between the traditional building-block forms of European urbanism and the gargantuan upscaling that was forced upon Western cities by the explosion of heavy industry —especially railroads —and the long mass migrations that took place from the country to cities (including, in America, migrations from the Old World to the New). Shaped in the period before modern zoning, the Victorian cities that lasted into Hopper’s era were dense and harsh, with a cacophony of activities and lifestyles layered atop one another. Yet, even in their chaos and discordance, these cities, in their late Victorian heyday, expressed the iconic forms of a world still infused with the cultural symbols and classical proportions of Europe’s pre-industrial past.
So, while some see Hopper’s haunting imagery of dark, foreboding, and lonely urban scenes as part of a long (and presumably unwarranted) tradition of city-hatred in American thought, there are reasons one might hesitate to assign Hopper’s work to that thread. Most significantly, his city scenes are empathetic. Though sometimes dark and anomic, his richly layered settings are also mysterious, enchanting, and beautiful. His New York is essentially a neon-lit update to what remained an essentially Victorian city. The extant landscape is a form to be reckoned with, not invented. And while his inhabitants frequently seem conflicted, or unfulfilled, or stoic – they are not necessarily miserable. These internal contradictions remain true of large cities and their inhabitants today. To acknowledge them, and their poignance, is not to malign the city. It is simply to be an honest reporter.
Edward Hopper’s New York, a 2005 curation by Avis Berman, collects the disproportionate number of the artist’s images that are set in the city. In doing so, Berman’s text focuses on the personality of Hopper’s adopted city, and its role as the setting of so many of his works. And we see that Hopper had unique criticisms of New York City, in contrast to cities writ large. Discussing the content of some of Hopper’s letters from his early career, Berman writes:
Hopper harps on [the insight] that in New York and its environs, the grim business of living, particularly the grinding impact of commercialism, blinkers people and encases them within themselves…. His understanding that New York was essentially a commercial city in which everyone was bent on business, confirmed by his unhappy [early] years as an illustrator, makes itself felt in his art via the state of relations he portrays among men and women. Materialistic pressures harden people, and they become estranged or indifferent to survive them. Hopper probed this Darwinian theme at its most literal in Office at Night (1940; citation omitted) and Conference at Night (1949; citation omitted), which show white-collar workers in impersonal, drably furnished offices. (Berman, 37)
It is hard not to concede the reasonableness of Hopper’s moral and spiritual skepticism—if that’s what it is—about many of the circumstances he observed and depicted in New York City. More than most urban settings, this city embodied in Hopper’s time an unusual combination of the failings of both industrial cities and raw capitalism. The early urban planning movement was made up of people whose biases were quite the opposite of anti-urban, and who were nevertheless driven by precisely the same visceral and moral reactions that Hopper seems to have experienced, in New York and other centers of industry and trade.
The heyday of industrial urbanism produced a society whose excesses are not tempered by humane concerns. This is a point that radical, reformist, and conservative thinkers alike observed in the 19th century in response to the so-called march of progress. Though often dismissed in its time as mere sentimentality or temperamental conservatism, skepticism of rapid change has proven to be an abiding theme of the modern world. To acknowledge the paradox of industrial modernity—its riches and conveniences, but also its expedience and nihilism—is hardly the hallmark of an anti-urban mind. Examined in all its context, the object of Hopper’s disapprobation is not urbanism, per se, but the heavy industry and constant disruption by economic forces that pervaded even the oldest and most settled of American cities during his lifetime. These conditions persisted well into the 20th century and were the driving impulse behind both the advent of zoning laws and post-World War II middle-class flight to suburbia.
The rapid change that waves of industry and their attendant migrations imposed on those in their path had a particularly devastating impact on those individuals and traditions that required – and had come to expect, from the patterns of preindustrial life— a high degree of stability and patience to thrive. Neighborhoods shaped by generations of careful refinement, such as those described by Camillo Sitte in The Art of Building Cities, were one of the phenomena that suffered most immediately from the speed and scale of industrial change.
Perhaps this is the real tragedy of the industrial age—not the disruption that one could readily see, but the haunting sense of lives and traditions that could have been lived more fulfillingly, and more sincerely, in another setting; plans that were cut short by the stupid, unchallengeable power of sudden disruption. Though not mentioned in Slater’s piece, or included in Berman’s collection, House by the Railroad is one of the most haunting and tragic of all Hopper’s works. Without words, Hopper gives voice to this reason for pause. Notably, though it contains many of the sad themes that have been associated with Hopper’s city images, it is set not in a large city, at all, but in the small Hudson Valley town of Haverstraw. The dark force in Hopper’s imagery is not urbanism. It is the disruptive march of industry.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban-planning projects, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. He blogs at legaltowns.com.
When I was a teenager, in the late 1990s, Asbury Park, New Jersey had fallen on hard times.
The kinetic energy of the small shore city—Ferris wheels and carousels, breezy counters with young people selling waffle cones and hamburgers to beachgoers in the salty air—was largely gone. Six Flags and shopping centers, situated on highways to nowhere, had taken the wind out of its aging sails. Gone, too—or neglected beyond recognition—were the compact blocks of attached storefronts and ornate, 19th-century homes that had once given form to a traditional seaside urbanism. In place of its storied past was a myriad of empty lots, empty stores, failed projects, and tired rooming houses, many of which looked more like Halloween than summer vacation.
Today, Asbury Park is coming back—in a way. Over the past decade, the fresh gleam of new construction has filled in vacant canvases, and small investors have renovated much of the surviving stock of old houses, hotels, and storefronts. Cookman Avenue, which links the Boardwalk with an active train station, is once more a vibrant, traditional downtown. Ocean Avenue, which runs parallel to the Boardwalk, has a mixture of old and new sites. The grit has faded, but it is not all gone. Across the train tracks, in the neighborhoods away from the beach, poverty grinds on.
Meanwhile, the blocks closest to the waterfront retain a high proportion of parking lots and post-war sprawl, where the draw of the ocean, and rising property values, could sustain a more intricate, richer urbanism. The recent changes in Asbury Park offer hope, but also highlight a need for caution.
In its first heyday, Asbury Park was the crown jewel in a long string of late-Victorian urban gems along the Monmouth County coast that also included Ocean Grove, Avon-by-the-Sea, and Long Branch. Here, block after block of compact, detailed houses, with towers and turrets, stood against the pastel Atlantic coast. Developed by James Bradley on land purchased from the nearby Methodist co-op at Ocean Grove, Asbury Park combined the best instincts of the traditional building practices of the late 19th century with a near-perfect location. The text of a 2002 waterfront redevelopment plan describes Bradley’s 1873 vision for the new city’s layout:
His plan sets a grid of traditionally scaled blocks and streets between four natural open spaces: Wesley Lake, Sunset Lake, Deal Lake and the oceanfront. Streets, which are perpendicular to the ocean, flare open as they approach the waterfront. By widening the east-west streets at their ends, Bradley increased the views of the ocean from the City, facilitated the movement of sea breezes into the city and provided space for landscape and parking improvements adjacent to the beachfront.
Asbury Park prospered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and its surviving urbanism reflects the architectural patterns of those times. Along with neighboring communities (most notably, Ocean Grove), it retains many fine examples of late-Victorian urbanism, including spacious, detailed houses, a traditional downtown, a wide, wood-planked boardwalk, and a rich mix of complementary activities along its streets.
Its urban fabric is also sustainable. Its street pattern is walkable, built around a railroad station (still active) and streetcar lines (long gone). The sea breeze and the shade created by street walls, combined with pre-air-conditioning architecture, keep the pedestrian space somewhat cooler in the summers, and the short proximities between homes and businesses minimize car travel. Small, urban parcels, by nature, require less maintenance than subdivisions of more recent vintage. Places like Asbury Park still manifest the wisdom of practical and more sustainable building customs.
By the end of the 20th century, however, the raison d’être for this particular strand of traditional urbanism had begun to fade. The ubiquity of air travel and climate control had taken vacationers further afield, and in the path of suburban sprawl, the beach towns of Monmouth County began to divide into two groups. The more urban ones, like Asbury Park and Long Branch (having apartment houses and old hotels), began to absorb the poorest portion of residents from the encroaching tendrils of New York City’s metropolitan region. Meanwhile, towns with larger lots were reinvented as year-round suburbs.
Today, a new shift is underway. A growing appreciation for urban neighborhoods, combined with long-term economic and demographic patterns, has fueled an unprecedented affordability crisis in many of our old, first-order cities. This has been particularly true at the core of the New York region, where dozens of erstwhile working- and middle-class neighborhoods have become very expensive in the space of just one generation. A similar trend may now be gaining steam around Philadelphia.
At the same time, new appreciation of the value of community has sparked a newfound interest in the virtues of smaller places, while the rising number of Americans who can work remotely has made housing options at the metropolitan fringe more viable for those who remain attached (but not tethered) to specific regions. Accordingly, livable, attractive, and humanely-scaled towns situated at the affordable frontiers of metropolitan housing markets have a special combination of advantages in the current real estate environment. Those places with natural beauty to offer, as well, are poised to be in the catbird seat.
Situated roughly halfway between the more famous boardwalks of Coney Island and Atlantic City, Asbury Park has benefited from the convergence of these trends. Its proximity to two of the largest and most dynamic cities of the American Northeast allows it to be easily rediscovered. As it was in the elegant days of the late Victorian era, and in the cool, modern 1920s, Asbury Park is but a day trip from Midtown or Center City. But today, its comparative affordability, combined with its traditional, humane scale, have joined the Atlantic Ocean as major selling points.
Asbury Park’s renaissance has benefited from the wisdom of its late 19th century builders. Significantly, recent development has largely followed established patterns. This inherently conservative approach means that new buildings promote a continuous fabric of traditional urbanism. Street walls have been extended, building lines that approach sidewalks, and foot traffic and physical coherence are maintained through the resulting density. Where new development departs from established patterns, it is concentrated in the right locations – along the beach itself, and around the traditional downtown blocks. These sections define the city’s present chapter.
Ocean Avenue and the Boardwalk
Ocean Avenue runs parallel to the Boardwalk and has several surviving historic buildings. Most significant is arguably the combined Convention Hall and Paramount Theater, designed by Warren & Wetmore and built on the cusp of the Great Depression, between 1928 and 1930. The theater faces Ocean Avenue, Atlantic Square, and Sunset Park; the Convention Hall stretches east onto the wide sandy beach. In a unique turn of design, the coordinate, east and west parts of the complex are joined by an enclosed arcade, through which the Boardwalk passes on a north-south axis.
The New Jersey Historic Trust describes the entire structure as “an eclectic mélange of Italian and French designs with detailing in several different architectural styles incorporating nautical motifs.” Today, the Paramount Theater has been meticulously restored, but the Convention Hall – the largest piece of the complex – is disused and in need of significant restoration.
Just north of the Paramount Theater, the Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel has stood for more than a century and continues to offer elegant rooms with ocean views. To the south, the Stone Pony, at Ocean and Second, has been a consistent destination since the 1970s, with nightly concerts in the warm months. The music club has long been the hub of a vibrant local scene, helping launch the careers of Bruce Springsteen, the Asbury Jukes, and others.
Nearby, the Wonder Bar, at Ocean and Fifth, provides another stop on the music tour, and is visually notable for its large reproduction of Tillie – a smiling, toothy cartooned face that has become Asbury Park’s de facto mascot, having long branded the façade of the now-demolished Palace Amusements.
On the Boardwalk, the Silverball Museum contains a dense collection of dozens of colorful, clanging, vintage pinball machines – a refreshingly tactile and mechanical diversion from the ubiquitous touchscreens of liquid modernity. Nearby, a miniature golf course gives way to a water park comprising a cluster of gigantic, bright-hued garden tools. At the southern end of Ocean Avenue, where the Boardwalk ends and car traffic turns inward from the beach, the midcentury modern Empress Hotel, with a striking electric green backlit sign, stands across from a newer strip of stores, including Stella Marina, serving good Italian fare with an ocean view; and Style Rocket, a tourist-oriented clothing shop, sells T-shirts, caps, and other mementos graced by Tillie and other icons of Asbury Park’s branding efforts. The haunting, ruined shell of the massive Asbury Park Casino and Carousel House looms on the white sandy beach, nearby.
Unfortunately, despite the historic, iconic, tragic, and otherwise curious sites along Ocean Avenue, a very high proportion of the buildable land between the beach and Bergh Street (another ocean-parallel street, two blocks west) continues to be occupied by parking lots and random, low-rise, post-war buildings. The persistence of this pattern vitiates any aesthetic benefit that may once have accrued from James Bradley’s flared approaches to the ocean, in the city’s Victorian-era street plan. In fact, it essentially eliminates any intersection between the city’s urban fabric and its key attraction – the beach. One could easily surmise that the underuse of these parcels is not accidental, but the result of ongoing speculation. (It is common practice in urban real estate for owners to tie up prime land with dubious uses, in perpetuity, while awaiting a more optimal seller’s market – costs to the community be damned.)
Presently, the one obvious exception to this underutilized land-use pattern on the waterfront is the Asbury Ocean Club, a 17-story white tower nearing completion at Ocean and Third. The project’s developers seek, rather shamelessly, to skip over the incremental progress otherwise being made through small-scale redevelopment by a critical mass of individual actors. Instead, they hope to inject a dose of serious outside money into the local real estate market. A recent piece in the Times helps advance the spin by local politicians that building a plethora of expensive, ultramodern condo units will somehow better the lives of Asbury Park’s self-supporting artists and most impoverished residents. Perhaps that seller’s market is now on the horizon.
Cookman Avenue and Downtown
Moving inland, the core of Asbury Park’s traditional downtown is once again bustling with a mix of retail, residential, and commercial uses. Focused around Press Square (named for the former newsroom of the Asbury Park Press, and its neoclassical building, which still stands), a cluster of stores and restaurants caters to residents and visitors alike. Cookman Avenue, the main commercial street, comprises a multicolored variety of compact, attached storefronts, dating mostly from the early 20th century. The scene is visually reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting, but with fewer faces marked by anomic despair.
Cookman Avenue at Press Square.
Along Cookman Avenue, the absence of a Woolworth’s from the cascade of storefronts still feels like an omission. Though the chain is long gone, it probably should have been enshrined in neighborhoods like this, along with an old-fashioned A&P, via public trust. A closer look quickly reveals several practical, downtown businesses, along with a growing number of make-your-own-art galleries, chipper bruncheonettes (serving the requisite esoteric varieties of Bloody Marys and mimosas), a cat-themed tea house, and other shops geared toward the pervasive retail marketing correlation between excessive cuteness and disposable incomes.
Fortunately, there is also a thriving bar scene downtown, where a summer visitor can find solace from the heat, as well as the schmaltz. On a recent Sunday, an outdoor farmers’ market also added a measure of authenticity to the setting. Set up at the eastern end of the Cookman Avenue strip, near the former site of Palace Amusements, the market was busy with shoppers despite an intensely humid August heat wave. Bright-red Rutgers tomatoes, glass jars of berry jelly and clover honey, and individually wrapped cranberry muffins could all be found. About a dozen stands were set up by New Jersey farmers, bakers, jelly makers, and beekeepers.
Perhaps surprisingly, nowhere within the city limits is there a full-scale amusement park, as one might expect in such a city. Palace Amusements, which stood near the waterfront from 1888, near what remains of the Casino and Carousel House once offered a Ferris wheel, a Victorian-era merry-go-round, a funhouse, bumper cars, and other essential seashore attractions. After a century, it shut its doors in 1988, and the remaining structure was demolished in 2004. In its heyday, the business district and the beach were joined by the hub of activities around the Casino and Palace Amusements, but today only a scattering of generic townhouses and empty grass define the walkable transition between the two main nodes of the city. Recreating continuity between these distinct but complementary realms has been put off, for now, and the transition is awkward and jarring.
Where do we go from here?
Today, Asbury Park feels more hopeful than it has felt in years. But it also has reasons to remain cautious. The small, Victorian city’s location and history provide it with a salience among New Jersey beach towns that ensures a certain amount of interest in an ever-tightening real estate market. Small businesses, urban homesteaders, and individual investors have done much to build on this. Because of those factors, a new vibrancy animates the natural focal points its urban plan. Beachgoers are returning, and people are heralding a rebirth.
Yet the future of Ocean Avenue, including the sites that adjoin the Boardwalk, remains an open question. This part of the city demands a rich and intricate urbanism. Bradley’s 1873 plan would reward the development of parcels here in a traditional urban pattern of small lots with distinct, architecturally varied structures. Hewing to traditional building lines would frame and accentuate the vistas Bradley envisioned for the flared street approaches to the ocean. Such a pattern would also have the effect of weaving the city’s older blocks more naturally into a newer, larger canvas that incorporates the shore.
There appears to be a danger, however, that the land in this neighborhood will be sold off in large parcels to corporate developers. Such an outcome could have the effect of aesthetically separating the city’s historic urban fabric – an undervalued asset from its past— from the shore—its most apparent economic asset – through the construction of large-scaled, self-contained, and very expensive projects. In such a scenario, it is also likely that the city’s existing economic disparity within the community would only be deepened (tax receipts notwithstanding); and that, in the resulting environment, small businesses and middle-class homebuyers would be the first to be told: No Vacancy.
Asbury Park stands at an important crossroads. With pockets of 19th-century urbanism and 20th-century Americana, it offers the hopeful tale of a small, east coast city—with history, character, and a strong sense of place—finally rising above the grind of post-war urban America and reclaiming its spot in the 21st century economic landscape. This reading is accurate, and this moment is valuable, and worth appreciating—not only here, but in numerous small places around the United States that have begun, against the odds, to find their way. The question now is whether the qualities of this moment can be sustained, because they are appreciated; or whether, like so many fleeting moments in our high-speed culture, they will prove to be ephemeral.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban-planning projects, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. He blogs at legaltowns.com.
This New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation
The origins of European urbanism lie deep in a long-forgotten past. But any discussion of the tradition could not go on for long without reaching Vitruvius. The renowned Roman writer on architecture, though hardly the first urbanist in the classical world, remains a leading light of Western urbanism for the simple reason that he is the earliest author whose work on the subject is both extant and extensive. A Roman proverb is appropriate: Verba volant, scripta manent. Spoken words fly away, but written words remain.
At least, some do. Vitruvius, the man, is an enigma. Surprisingly little is known about his life. The words that would have told us were either lost, or never written down. His work is cited a few times by Pliny the Elder in the Natural History, indicating that he was a known name in his field. A 19th-century classicist argued that Vitruvius was actually a pen name for a wealthy Caesarist, Marmurra—an enticing theory with little corroboration. Vitruvius (whose full name may or may not have been Marcus Vitruvius Pollio) probably came from a small town in Campania. After more than twenty centuries, maybe it is not surprising that there is more mystery than certainty.
What we know about Vitruvius’ life, we learn mainly from his own asides, peppered throughout the text of De architectura, and by inference, from our general knowledge of his time. He tells us that his parents had valued his education. We know that he began a career as a military engineer, traveled throughout the provinces, and eventually worked for Caesar. He also writes that he was involved in the design of a basilica (that is, a public building) in the Adriatic seacoast town of Fano. No other building projects are definitively linked to him. Those are the hardest facts.
Scholars have even debated the publication date for De architectura. If it is true, as many believe, that it was published in the same decade as the Battle of Actium, then, about its time, we know quite a bit. It was a time with historical themes that would be uneasily familiar to an American in the early 21st century: Rome was politically dominant and it fostered the best of the fine and practical arts. Its trade routes were well worn, with the diverse nations of the Mediterranean fully within its economic and political realms. Wealth was being created and displayed with fervor.
And yet, in the midst of this heady time, the culture of Rome was coarsening. Customs once shaped by the proven traditions of disciplined, patrician farmers whose citizen armies had first conquered Italy, and then the known world, were dissipating. In the wake of Caesar’s murder, and in the midst of a raging civil war, cracks had appeared all over the republican edifice of the state. If its date has been pegged with any accuracy, De architectura was written in the last days of the Republic, and dedicated to Caesar Augustus —Octavian, the victor of Actium—whose building projects would transform the city at the very dawn of the Empire.
De architectura reflects the contradictions of its historical moment. At times, Vitruvius shows a brittle, almost obsequious reverence for the forms of tradition, while displaying a lack of knowledge about the plasticity of the actual tradition from which those forms emerged. Scholars have observed, for example, that his discussion of temple architecture seeks to categorize the arrangement of columns into a set of idealized forms that, in practice, had never truly existed. This criticism has been supported by the facile contradictions between his proffered forms and the dimensions found in most actual, surviving Greek and Roman temples.
Yet the text also reflects, in its great breadth of technical instruction and its very nature as a treatment of the myriad forms of building, the striking ingenuity and ambitious dynamism of the Imperial moment. And even as he falls short, at times, in his interpretations of established customs, Vitruvius embodies, with the very same impulse, a prescient awareness that something of deep value is being lost all around him; and that he has the power, because of his own imperfect observations, to write down a record of what remains—before it flies away.
A heartbreaking proportion of classical writings would not survive the fall of the Western Empire, nearly five centuries after De architectura was written. By some estimates, more than 95 percent of classical texts were lost. By fortune or fate, De architectura would be one of the few that survived, preserving and transmitting the practices of ancient architecture down to the modern world. But given the scale of loss, we cannot be certain Vitruvius’ treatise on the building traditions of the Roman world was unique in its breadth. Even less can we judge that it was the best.
Nevertheless, since its popular rediscovery in Renaissance times, De architectura, unique as an artifact (and a talisman, of a sort), has become a touchstone for students of classical planning and architecture. Its author’s sometimes clumsy treatments of important topics, such as temple architecture, are thus forgiven and his imperfect analyses have served as starting points for modern attempts to decode, understand, and revive the traditions of the ancient past.
Much like Leon Battista Alberti, the 14th-century Florentine who studied Vitruvius and is credited with reviving the classical building tradition for modern times, Vitruvius encompassed many urban planning topics in his writings on architecture. Accordingly, a reading of his work is pertinent to understanding the planning traditions of Western Europe that continue to influence and shape our neighborhoods.
For example, following some introductory formalities about the objectives of architecture, the first topic Vitruvius explores in Book I is one of the most basic questions of urban planning—the selection of a site for a new town. Writing at a time of significant expansion (as Caesar had recently conquered most of Gaul), he describes a number of intriguing traditional practices for choosing a site, many of which looked to health as a paramount concern.
The Romans believed that the situation and orientation of a town had a vital impact on its inhabitants—a concept not so different from today’s study of microclimates, or the more traditional vinicultural interest in terroir. In particular, he advised that, within a town, the directions of new streets should be determined with reference to prevailing winds, to avoid the creation of wind tunnels. But there was more, particularly with respect to site selection:
First comes the choice of a very healthy site. Such a site will be high, neither misty nor frosty, and in a climate neither hot nor cold, but temperate; further, without marshes in the neighborhood. For when the morning breezes blow toward the town at sunrise, if they bring with them mists from marshes and, mingled with the mist, the poisonous breath of the creatures of the marshes to be wafted into the bodies of the inhabitants, they will make the site unhealthy…. [I]f the town is on the coast with a southern or western exposure, it will not be healthy, because in summer the southern sky grows hot at sunrise and is fiery at noon, while a western exposure grows warm after sunrise, is hot at noon, and at evening all aglow.
Themes of sunlight and prevailing winds recur throughout De architectura. They reflect a resourceful principle to which Vitruvius and others in the Western European tradition have long subscribed. In the pre-industrial world, with limited technical knowledge, it was essential to identify natural phenomena that could assist builders in their goal of creating comfortable, durable, low-maintenance built environments. Studying and acceding to the predictable patterns of nature was the surest way to do this. Plainly, the roots of today’s interest in sustainable development can be found in the texts of classical antiquity; perhaps earlier.
The most planning-relevant section of De architectura is found in Book V. Here, Vitruvius identifies and describes an index of vital public sites. While the author’s primary focus is on architecture, his enumeration of purposes is valuable to the student of planning because the scaling and assemblage of these sites fundamentally shapes the physical character of the city, including surrounding urban interstices. The same text also provides a rich vein for Roman customs, because each of the sites the author notes reflects (and helped transmit, in its own time) the life patterns of the people that built it.
Each site that Vitruvius describes has a corresponding, firmly established cultural practice. Forums provided a venue for assembly and participation. Theaters reflected the primacy of music and drama. Harbors and treasuries showed the vitality of markets. Basilicas and senate houses, the practice of politics and the rule of law. And so on. In light of this manifest dynamic between sites and customs, one could also identify strands between the cultural forms of classical antiquity and those of more recent times in the modern West.
No single element of Western urbanism is more essential than that which the Romans instantiated in the forum. In Town and Square, an excellent (and sadly out-of-print) mid-20th-century book about the role of public spaces in traditional European cities, urbanist Paul Zucker taught that spaces like the Vitruvian forum corresponded tightly with the customs of politically participatory societies. He argued that no true public squares could be identified predating the classical Greek experiments with various degrees of self-government. (In classical Greece, the agora served a similar purpose; in the modern West, the town green or the plaza inherits the same.)
Vitruvius showed how the forum was the heart of the Roman plan. Around it, the more specialized civic sites should be arranged. These would include legal, political, and religious spaces. The author’s instructions for composing a new forum are simple. First, reserve an open space with a 2 to 3 ratio (roughly equivalent to the golden mean) at a scale befitting the importance of the town or city. Next, develop the blocks overlooking this space with buildings that comprise both street-level and upper-tier (i.e., balcony) access for pedestrians. Finally, over the course of several sections, he expands on a number of the special buildings that should be built in proximity to the forum. Notably, Vitruvius never prescribes the Roman frontier practice of establishing the forum near the origin of a town grid, at the intersection of the cardo and the decumanis maximus.
One site adjoining the forum was the basilica, which typically housed a mix of courtrooms and political chambers. One could compare the basilica’s purpose to that of a modern city hall or municipal building. (Today, basilica is typically a descriptor of church architecture, but in classical antiquity it did not carry religious overtones.) Ever cognizant of the potential benefits of astute site selection, Vitruvius advises building the basilica on the most sun-scorched lot facing the forum. This, he believed, would facilitate winter usage and, presumably, ensure convenient public access.
For basilica design, Vitruvius draws on elements from temple architecture, making reference to his formulae, presented in Book III, as starting points for the proportioning of columns, tiers, and other elements. Vitruvius also recommends situating the treasury, prison, and senate house at the forum presumably with complementary architecture. Thus, we see an early written example of a practice that has remained common throughout the history of Europe: the conscious incorporation of classical temple elements into secular, civic buildings.
Away from the forum, the outdoor theater implicitly forms a second node in the Vitruvian plan. It will draw crowds to a new destination and actuate a new center of urban development. In addition to addressing the structural and visual elements of theaters, Vitruvius delves into acoustic considerations:
Voice … moves in an endless number of circular rounds, like the innumerably increasing circular waves which appear when a stone is thrown into smooth water, and which keep on spreading indefinitely from the centre unless interrupted by narrow limits, or by some obstruction which prevents such waves from reaching their end in due formation. When they are interrupted by obstructions, the first waves, flowing back, break up the formation of those which follow.
After incorporating design considerations for optimal sound, Vitruvius recites a short history of Greek theaters, and presents a unique list of site-selection criteria. Notably, his unusually detailed treatment of public theaters illustrates an interesting marker in the timeline of Rome. In the last days of the republic, theater remained at the top of a cultural hierarchy that continued to reflect the philhellenic biases of old times. But as Jérôme Carcopino noted in Daily Life in Ancient Rome, in tandem with the growing authoritarianism and decadence of imperial society, competitive games and bloody spectacles at the amphitheater would supplant traditional drama at the center of Roman entertainment in the next century.
Forming a third node in the plan, Vitruvius describes a bath complex. Befitting the theme of architecture, his focus is on the fundamentals of construction. Similar to the forum, he recommends building at a scale proportionate to the population. Thus, a smaller town would reserve a smaller site for a bath complex, while a larger city would reserve a larger site. Like the public theater, only more so, the bath complex could be expected to attract frequent visitors. Hence, we could imagine a locus of activity in its vicinity.
The author advises selecting a site with a long southwestern or southern exposure for the bath. The southern element reflects a belief (as with the basilica) that prolonged natural sunlight is valuable to a public site. The western element, particularly for the warm bathing rooms, further incorporates the Roman custom of visiting the baths in afternoons and evenings. We can glean a bit more about the bath customs from Vitruvius. For example, he confirms the traditional, tripartite division of a bath complex into temperature-distinguished chambers, and that men and women had separate bathing areas as well.
Vitruvius rounds out Book V with a discussion of harbors. Depending on the topography and trade patterns of a particular town, waterfront activities may form a fourth node in its plan. In some places, however, the waterfront will simply adjoin the urban fabric of other neighborhoods; or, more likely, will create the initial node of settlement, onto which others are appended. One might surmise that a waterfront district would include warehouses, workshops, inns, taverns, and restaurants—as could be found in traditional ports throughout the ages. Vitruvius’ discussion, however, provides little guidance on adjacent development. Instead, he offers specific advice for the improvement and construction of maritime facilities.
The other books of De architectura do not touch as directly on the urban plan, but are nevertheless relevant to traditional Western urbanism. For example, the architecture of individual buildings forms a salient characteristic of urban fabric. His investigation of temple design identified, broadly, many of the building blocks of classical architecture that would continue to shape the face of Western urbanism down to the present time. In addition, he covers a number of allied arts, like the construction of aqueducts, agricultural land use, and a survey of Roman technical knowledge. One of the most curious points of De architectura is Vitruvius’ departure in Book IX into a long discussion about the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars.
A voice from a distant past, Vitruvius offers many of the same assets to urban planners and cultural historians that he does to architects. He also generates similar mysteries. The illustration he has left us of the late Roman republic is unique, if imperfect. De architectura offers a glimpse into the urban world of a decisive moment in classical antiquity—and into the mind of a man who quite literally helped to shape it. Through his writings, Vitruvius provides special insights on an early phase of a rich tradition that would evolve, over centuries, into modern European urbanism. And in light of its cultural influence since the Renaissance, De architectura remains the cornerstone of a canon of readings that have helped shape the traditional urbanism of the modern West.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban-planning projects, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. He blogs at legaltowns.com.
This New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
Like a signal from the past, Leon Battista Alberti’s De re aedificatoria—On the Art of Building, completed in 1452—transmitted urban-planning concepts of classical antiquity to the Renaissance scholars of 15th century. Today, Alberti’s impact on the field of architecture remains well known, but his abiding influence on traditional urban planning patterns is less appreciated.
In form and substance, Alberti’s work remains inseparable from the work of Vitruvius, the Roman architect whose writings encapsulated the maxims and mysteries of ancient building. For almost five hundred years, Alberti and Vitruvius reigned among the most influential texts in modern European architecture. On the surface, Alberti followed Vitruvius’ structure by dividing his material into ten chapters, mirroring the ancient Ten Books of Architecture. More substantially, his work laid out urban ideas and patterns that Vitruvius had once articulated, concepts which had been largely forgotten by the 15th century.
Alberti was inseparable from the time and places that shaped him. Born in Genoa on Valentine’s Day 1404, his early years were marked by a mixture of privilege and hardship. His father was a merchant from a wealthy Florentine family; in the classic fashion of Florence, he had been exiled from the city since 1393, when political enemies had come to power. Meanwhile, the plague was ravaging Europe. Alberti’s mother, about whom little is known, died during an outbreak in Genoa around 1406, when Alberti was just two years old. The young Alberti grew up with his merchant father, moving frequently, living in Venice and then Padua, and often traveling throughout northern Italy. Alberti was fortunate to receive a first-rate secondary education, shaped by classical studies, at a boarding school in Padua, but shortly after entering university, his father died. Because his parents had never married, family members used his illegitimacy as a pretext to steal his inheritance.
Despite the tragedy and transience of his youth, and the sudden loss of his patrimony, Alberti found many ways to excel. The great Swiss historian of the Italian Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt, described the young Alberti’s talents and the insatiable curiosity that drove him:
He learned music without a master, and yet his compositions were admired by professional judges. Under the pressure of poverty, he studied both civil and canonical law for many years, till exhaustion brought on a severe illness. In his twenty-fourth year, finding his memory for words weakened, but his sense of facts unimpaired, he set to work at physics and mathematics. And all the while he acquired every sort of accomplishment and dexterity, cross-examining artists, scholars, and artisans of all descriptions, down to the cobblers, about the secrets and peculiarities of their craft.
He was, one might say, a sort of John the Baptist figure for the Renaissance man that would soon become a cliché of Italian masters and strivers alike. He presaged all the essential characteristics: exceptionally well read, he delved into a broad range of arts and sciences with the confidence of an explorer; and he was endlessly intoxicated by the possibilities presented when the secrets of the past were crossed with the boundless potential of the present.
Alberti’s early studies had exposed him to the works of antiquity, and his ties to Florence had placed him, as a young adult, within the orbit of Cosimo di Medici’s passion for rediscovering the classics. The writings of the past had been preserved by Byzantine and Muslim scholars; and to a lesser extent by the cloistered monks of Western Europe. All at once, these texts were being recovered and reinterpreted by the scholars of 15th-century mercantile Italy. Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari relates that, early in his career, Alberti distinguished himself in a variety of fields. He studied law and religion, and he painted; but most especially, he made a name for himself in Florence as a writer and an architect.
In 1443, at the age of 38 or 39, Alberti moved to Rome, where he became active in a dizzying period of new construction, spearheaded by Pope Nicholas V in an ambitious project to remake the city. About the same time, Alberti began work on De re aedificatoria, a project that would continue for much of the next decade. In 2009, Pietro Roccasecca, a scholar today at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, described Alberti’s work in as intended “not only to update [Vitruvius], but also to go deeper and to put the internal logic of antique architecture to a critical test….Each page is proof of a deep knowledge of philosophical, scientific and historical texts, but he is also just as well acquainted with poetry, literature and rhetoric.”
Strictly speaking, Alberti’s De re aedificatoria is a milestone in the canon of European architecture. But a sizable portion also deals directly with the allied arts of urban planning. Specifically, Alberti provides insights about how planning was practiced in ancient times, as well as his own interpretation of these practices for the 15th century. Sections on site plans and street design remain particularly meaningful, as do discussions about the variety of urban buildings, their arrangement, and their interplay. Much has been written about the continuing influence of Alberti on Western architecture, and about how he served as a vessel for ancient knowledge; but far less attention has been paid to his impact on planning.
Like Vitruvius, Alberti wrote for the scholars and professionals of a confident, ascendant society. Expansion was expected, and his writing was directed at those with the power to shape the terms of growth. Alberti’s approach is fundamentally empirical, a point frequently obscured by his tendency to meander through anecdotes of questionable value from the ancient writers. Also beneath the surface, despite its primary objective to be a definitive text on classical architecture, Alberti’s actual project presents the building blocks of an entire, viable city in the classical tradition. Alberti lays out the most fundamental components of a city’s military, political, and economic viability; he describes the construction methods of defensive walls, towers, and other components of fortification; he articulates a series of organizing principles for neighborhood patterns and street dimensions within those walls; and, only within this broader context, he covers the architecture of various monuments, public and private buildings, and open-air spaces.
[A] city ought to be so placed as to have all sufficient necessaries within its own territory (as far as the condition of human affairs will permit) without being obliged to seek them abroad; and that the circuit of its confines ought to be fortified, that no enemy can easily make an irruption upon them, though at the same time they may send out armies into the countries of their neighbors, whatever the enemy can do to prevent it; which is a situation that they tell us will enable a city not only to defend its liberty, but also to enlarge the bounds of its dominion.
Here Alberti devotes a portion of text to the literal perimeter of urbanism: strategies and methods for defensive walls. Walls (and their associated features, like gates, towers, and moats) remained the norm in the early Renaissance, before advances in artillery (as well as statecraft) began to render them obsolete. Yet the relative permanence of city walls—resulting from the prohibitive labor and expense that go into their construction—means that in the days of their functionality they formed a hard limit to the amount of buildable land within them. As a result, land use efficiency was prioritized in walled cities; and cities that expected to grow were required to account for this in determining the reservation of raw land within the perimeter of newly constructed defenses.
Moving within the city walls, some of the most interesting planning concepts addressed in De re aedificatoria come where Alberti ventures into a mixture of practical and aesthetic theories, drawn from the texts of ancient writers, about large-scale town planning. Addressing the possible variations of street width and curvature, he writes:
Such should be the ways out of the city: short, straight, and secure. When they come to the town, if the city is noble and powerful, the streets should be straight and broad, which carries an air of greatness and majesty; but if it is only a small town or a fortification, it will be better, and as safe, not for the streets to run straight to the gates; but to have them wind about sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, near the wall, and especially under the towers upon the wall; and within the heart of the town, it will be handsomer not to have them straight, but winding about several ways, backwards and forwards, like the course of a river. For thus, besides that by appearing so much the longer, they will add to the idea of the greatness of the town, they will likewise conduce very much to beauty and convenience and be a greater security against all accidents and emergencies. Moreover, this winding of the streets will make the passenger at every step discover a new structure, and the front and door of every house will directly face the middle of the street; and whereas in larger towns even too much breadth is unhandsome and unhealthy, in a small one it will be both healthy and pleasant, to have such an open view from every house by means of the turn of the street.
Thus, Alberti presages a concept that would be addressed more thoroughly by later major writers on the art of urban planning, including Camillo Sitte and Raymond Unwin, namely, that irregularity, in certain settings, is both more beautiful and more effective at creating a compelling sense of place than the use of formal, geometric dimensions. Yet on this point Alberti is no zealot. He reserves a prominent place for the formal street: as an avenue into the center of a principal city, designed to showcase the grandeur of its surroundings, and to emphasize the importance of its approach. Thus, he offers a fine-tuned analysis, in a usefully concise passage, crediting the benefits and reciting the drawbacks of competing street typologies in different hypothetical settings. As he does throughout the text, he grounds his conclusions in a combination of logic and the primary sources of ancient writers.
Later, Alberti returns to the layout of neighborhoods to emphasize the importance of physical planning. “The principal ornament of the city,” he writes, “will arise from the disposition of the streets, squares, and public edifices, and their being all laid out and contrived beautifully and conveniently, according to their several uses; for without order, there can be nothing handsome, convenient, or pleasing.” In the same chapter, he also advocates for the concentration of similar merchants in convenient parts of the city; and the segregation of nuisances to the outskirts (with attention paid to the direction of prevailing winds, to minimize the city’s exposure to noxious fumes). Thus, we see that Alberti manifested an early call for rationality as a vital component of urban planning, and not just adherence the micropolitics of incremental growth. He writes that a “city is not built wholly for the sake of shelter … besides mere civil conveniences there may be handsome spaces left for squares, courses for chariots, gardens, places to take the air in, for swimming, and the like, both for ornament and recreation.”
In Alberti’s time, bridges were central features of the built environment in many time-worn Mediterranean cities. Among the bridges in Italy that remain familiar today, and that Alberti would certainly have also known, is the Ponte Vecchio in Florence; ancient bridges like the Ponte Rotto and the Ponte Sant’Angelo in Rome; and the countless unnamed bridges that form the latticework of walkways that skip over the capillary canals of Venice. In a thread similar to his advice about the layout of neighborhoods, Alberti provides basic instructions for the placement of bridges, recommending that they “ought to be at the very heart of the city” and built to be “durable.”
Alberti proceeds to describe several key points about bridge construction, including the ideal materials for the structural components of distinct types of bridges in various settings; a treatment of paving stones and elements of ornamentation; and an extensive discussion of Caesar’s approach to building bridges in the course of his military campaigns.
Keeping with his focus on the details of city-building, Alberti offers salient diversions throughout De re aedificatoria about Western roadbuilding practices from antiquity through his own time. He describes the separation of cartways (that is, the streets) from raised sidewalks: a pattern that was as familiar in the stone thoroughfares of classical Pompeii as it is in the asphalt and concrete canyons of modern cities. Further to this point, he provides instructions about the selection and cobbling of paving stones to provide traction. Alberti also provides a fascinating description of one of history’s earliest divided highways, in his own time, linking central Rome to its ancient seaport at Ostia Antica:
As there is a great concourse of people and great quantities of merchandise brought thither from Egypt, Africa, Libya, Spain, Germany, and the [Mediterranean] islands, the road is made double, and in the middle of it is a row of stones standing up a foot high … to direct the passengers to go on one side and return on the other, so to avoid the inconvenience of meeting one another.
Elsewhere in the text, he addresses topics as varied as the construction methods for both covered and open sewers, and the benefits of each approach; the construction of aqueducts and smaller water mains; the provisions that should be included in the blocks near seaports; and the social importance of parks and squares. Recalling the Appian Way and its extended highway network, he relates:
[The ancient Romans] paved their highways for above a hundred miles round their capital with extreme hard stones, raising solid causeways under them with huge stones all the way. The Appian Way was paved from Rome quite to Brindisi. In many places along their highways we see rocks demolished, mountains levelled, valleys raised, hills cut through, with incredible expense and miraculous labor; works of great use and glory.
Like Vitruvius, Alberti asks the patient reader to suffer a generous serving of pseudoscience. When discussing a process for site selection, for example, he makes frequent detours into the effects of environmental factors on the physical and mental development of inhabitants – as if these purported correlations were as factual and self-evident as the laws of Euclidean geometry. Elsewhere, he discusses phenomena like vapors and spirits, and their effects on civilization, with a similar credulous factuality. To see such material in a more favorable light, we may concede that the lessons contained in these snippets of folk wisdom often display a sliver of truth, because a bright line between acknowledging the maxims of distilled experience and blindly adhering to baseless superstitions is not always easy discernible. And irrespective of their ultimate veracity, these examples illuminate some of the notions that in fact shaped the work of architects and builders in early Renaissance Europe.
Undoubtedly, De re aedificatoria is primarily a book on architecture. (And it is worth recalling that comprehensive urban planning, as a distinct pursuit, rather than a challenge at the intersection of the traditional social arts, is historically a late development.) But Alberti’s decision to build on the work of Vitruvius, combined with his context of architectural instruction in an overall framework of urban viability, mean that his text still speaks to several important aspects of urban planning. Today, as builders in the developing world face the greatest wave of urbanization in world history— and as cities in the developed world struggle to make space for continued growth—Alberti’s work remains a guidebook for those who value the traditions of both classical and post-Renaissance European architecture. It is worth remembering that such architecture was not usually built in a vacuum, but, instead, in communication with an urban environment. And although the importance of things like city walls and the bounty of a fertile, adjacent countryside have been diminished by changes in statecraft and advances in technology, the urban patterns that Alberti described continue to complement a tradition of building that we have inherited from the ancient past. To read Alberti today is to discover an essential link in that long and living tradition.
This New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
(Author’s Note: The 1755 Leone Edition of De re aedificatoria, quoted in this essay, is itself a translation from the 1452 Latin into English. The 1755 text contains conventions of capitalization and punctuation that are not consistent with today’s standard American and/or Commonwealth English. In addition, the translation contains several idiosyncratic spellings of proper names that differ from today’s standard usage. Keeping in mind that the 1755 text is itself a translation, and therefore not the original language of Alberti, to the greatest extent possible, I have updated the language in these quotations to conform to the conventions of standard American English.)
When the Austrian architect and artist Camillo Sitte (ZIT-uh) first published The Art of Building Cities in 1889, his native Vienna was nearing completion of the Ringstraße—a grand boulevard of parks and public buildings that follows the path of a former wall around the perimeter of the old city. The ring road, along with its many individual site plans, was an immense canvas for late 19th-century urban planning, and Vienna’s prominence as a leading capital of Europe ensured that the project would help define the modern city. There is a tendency among advocates of traditional urbanism to have a rose-colored view of such 19th-century city planning projects. Yet for Sitte, both the successes and failures of the Ringstraße were salient as he wrestled with the central question of his book: As the modern metropolis experienced explosive growth, which aspects of traditional urbanism could be “saved from the heritage of our ancestors”?
An exceptionally sophisticated site planner, Sitte focused on aesthetic details at a level of depth even rarer today than it was in fin-de-siècle Vienna. While studying the cities of the Old World, he identified several valuable principles that by his time had already been lost or become neglected. Sitte lamented the decline of pre-modern urban characteristics and a gradual loss of wisdom from the town-building traditions that had shaped Europe prior to the rise of industry. Today, scholars often see Sitte as a leading light of the renewed focus on aesthetics that permeated the work of urban planners in the late 19th century—an accolade that he deserves.
But if all Sitte had offered before his death in 1903 was a critique of his own time, he would have been forgotten long ago. What has kept architects and urban planners coming back to him for over a century is a more inquisitive look backward: a close reading of the traditional forms that gave European urbanism its essential character. In the immediate decades after Sitte’s book was published, 20th-century urban theorists such as Raymond Unwin and others looked to Sitte for guidance when applying the time-tested traditions of town-building to the smokestack cities of the industrial age. Closer to our own time, prominent New Urbanists such as Andrés Duany and Leon Krier have taken inspiration from Sitte’s focus on the art of creating places, as they seek to deemphasize the functionalist approach that dominated much of 20th-century city planning.
Reading Sitte elicits a mixture of admiration and exasperation. While he is undoubtedly correct in many of his unfavorable comparisons between the patterns of traditional and industrial urbanism, he may also hold city builders—especially those working in uniquely dynamic historical moments—to an impossible standard of refinement. Yet despite these faults, Sitte is still appropriately placed in the canon of great urbanists, one of those classic thinkers who anyone concerned with the future of the city cannot ignore.
One of Sitte’s foremost concerns is the placement of monuments. Today, features like statues, sculptures, fountains, and obelisks may seem mere afterthoughts to core questions of urban planning. For Sitte, who considered the fine art of planning to extend down to the precise details of every urban space, such a presumption about ornament could not be more wrong. In his approach, the decision as to where a monument would be placed was as important as the choice of the object itself. He laments a tendency (which has continued) to select points along geometric axes as locations—especially when such points lie in the center of large open spaces, where the visual impact of any object will be diminished by its distance from observers and the dimensions of the surrounding space. Throughout his writing, Sitte returns to a deep distrust for the technician’s affinity for regular shapes, and for decisions that look tidy on a draftsman’s plan. Instead, he provides compelling evidence that a more sophisticated approach to site planning allows for frequent departures from the tyranny of right angles and rigid proportions.
Sitte argues that the historically and artistically correct practice is to situate monuments—especially sculptures—to the side of primary thoroughfares, often near the entries of buildings. This is a way of contextualizing their presence with the other physical details of the built environment. It also ensures that the largest proportion of passers-by will experience them close up. Among many fine examples, he offers two intriguing instances of the placement of public sculptures by Renaissance masters in Italian cities to illustrate the artistic component of site selection. First, he looks at the original site of Michelangelo’s David, in Florence:
This gigantic marble statue stands close to the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio, to the left of its principal entrance, in the exact place chosen by Michelangelo. The idea of erecting a statue on this place of ordinary appearance would have appeared to moderns absurd if not insane. Michelangelo chose it, however, and without doubt deliberately; for all those who have seen the masterpiece in this place testify to the extraordinary impression that it makes. In contrast to the relative scantiness of the place, affording an easy comparison with human stature, the enormous statue seems to swell even beyond its actual dimensions. The sombre and uniform, but powerful, walls of the palace provide a background on which we could not wish to improve to make all the lines of the figure stand out.
Sitte notes caustically that David has since been moved into a gallery—an “art prison that we call a museum”—where it is severed from the enriching urban and architectural contexts that Michelangelo had wisely selected. (The original remains indoors today, at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze; a full-sized replica now stands on the site chosen by Michelangelo.)
Building on his use of fine art to illustrate his principles of placemaking, Sitte also examines the siting of Padua’s Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata, a large bronze sculpture by Donatello located to one side of a piazza and vast basilica, rather than on a central axis:
[W]e may be astonished by its great variance from our rigid modern system, but it is quickly and strikingly seen that the monument in this place produces a majestic effect. Finally we become convinced that removed to the center of the square its effect would be diminished. We cease to wonder at its orientation and other locational advantages once this principle becomes familiar.
He further explains the traditional placement of monuments at the edges of busy spaces by using an analogy between finished public squares and the furnished rooms of private houses. Today, as we have for centuries, we tend to place art around the perimeters of indoor rooms.
Sitte’s recommendations for what today we might consider unconventional siting of monuments dovetails with a tradition in southern Europe, dating from classical antiquity, in which the centers of public plazas were kept open and clear (with some exceptions made for fountains). This practice began in ancient times, when these spaces were primarily used for community activities that drew large gatherings of people. Over time, many of these activities moved indoors, but the tradition of open space remained.
Sitte’s analysis is always driven by a close reading of practices from the past. He primarily focuses on Medieval and Renaissance towns in Italy and Germany, with occasional ventures into neighboring lands and more ancient times. The Art of Building Cities includes dozens of hand-drawn plans of plazas adjoining churches, city halls, markets, and other central gathering places.
The contention that ornamentation must respect its context is consistent with Sitte’s recommendations for the larger characteristics of public spaces. He calls our focus to the fact that, traditionally, churches in southern Europe were built into existing streetscapes—that is, most old Italian churches were attached structures rather than free-standing buildings. As with monuments, he favors the siting of iconic buildings, such as churches or city halls, at the perimeter of a plaza, with only a selective exposure of façade space; and he has harsh words for the more recent trend of placing monumental buildings in the center of open spaces. Sitte also calls attention to the proportioning of plazas in relation to the key structures whose vistas they will facilitate. “We can distinguish,” he argues, “between two kinds of public squares, those of depth and those of expanse.” The former, he believes, is most appropriate opposite the tall but often narrow façade of a church. The latter is better suited to the space across from the front of a typically wider city hall.
Always skeptical of overly rationalistic designs, Sitte is adamant about the value of irregularity. He contends that the modern desire for symmetry is misguided. Looking back to the history of the concept of symmetry, he writes:
Although [symmetry] is a Greek word, its ancient meaning was quite different from its present meaning…. The notion of identical figures to the right and left of an axis was not the basis of any theory in ancient times. Whoever has taken the trouble to search out the meaning of the word … in Greek and Latin literature knows that it means something that cannot be expressed in a single word today…. In short, proportion and symmetry were the same to the ancients.
For Sitte, the ancient meaning of symmetry is something closer to harmony than to a bilateral reflection. He argues that the more rigid definition is a product of Renaissance times that began to haunt the thinking of architects and planners, diverting them from the more nuanced harmonies of older, more irregular designs. Returning to the topic of public squares to apply this interpretive lens, Sitte notes that irregularities on the map are rarely discordant in actual experience. Instead, he contends that they can provide more interesting vistas, better proportioning, and even ideal sites for civic art:
The typical irregularity of these old squares indicates their gradual historical development. We are rarely mistaken in attributing the existence of these windings to practical causes—the presence of a canal, the lines of an old roadway, or the form of a building. Everyone knows from personal experience that these disruptions in symmetry are not unsightly. On the contrary, they arouse our interest as much as they appear natural, and preserve a picturesque character.
This point about urbanism is broadly consistent with Einstein’s famous observation that “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” As Raymond Unwin and others have observed, curved streets create an inherent sense of mystery, because their vistas reveal themselves only gradually, as one’s movement changes one’s perspective. That which has not yet become visible, but which we intuit to be there, compels us forward and holds our attention as it does so. Compare this to a typical grid, where streets, in the words of T. S. Eliot, “follow like a tedious argument.”
To illustrate the value of irregularity, Sitte offers an example from Verona. Situated in a V-shaped bend of the Adige River, the northern Italian city is surrounded on three sides by water, and accordingly benefits from a topography that has long required an efficient approach to land use. The old blocks of Verona focus on the Piazza Erbe, which is located at the approximate center of the city’s elbow in the riverbend. Its long, lozenge-like shape—wide in the center—creates an attractive enclosure. The space’s framing by irregular streets, shaped by topography and building variety, allows for a sense of mystery, with vistas revealing themselves from various perspectives. Despite its geometrical oddity (when viewed on a two-dimensional map) the square feels well-proportioned at street level. In addition, the variety of its building facades, refined over many years, adds texture and color, while a tower serves as a visual focal point. Perspectives benefit from a plaza with proportions that, intentionally or by fortunate accident, maximize their effects.
Numerous criticisms of contemporary planning—which read like philippics against bureaucrats, technicians, and their procedures—appear alongside Sitte’s attempts to integrate the wisdom of traditional artistic principles into the rapidly developing world of the late 19th century. These grievances against urban planning practices would be familiar among anyone who studies the field today: a tendency to prioritize vehicular traffic (then streetcars and animal-drawn carts) over pedestrians in ways that benefited neither class; a focus on technical considerations to the exclusion of aesthetic ones; a forgetfulness about history; and the uninspired nature of government edicts that shape land development. On this last point about the nature of planning bureaucracies, Sitte is especially biting:
Even if we assume that every official has the ability, knowledge, background in travel and training, innate artistic feeling, and imagination to conceive of an effective city plan, a number of officials acting together in a bureau would produce only barren, pedantic stuff of a dusty official flavor.
To improve the planning process, Sitte advocates reintegrating the essential artistic components discovered in a historical urban fabric—qualities like perspective, complementariness, proportion, irregularity, and so forth—with the necessary advances of modernity, including sanitary systems, transportation infrastructure, and contemporary construction practices. In fact, one of the strongest architectural lessons that some readers take from Sitte is an appreciation of the value of building in ways that respect a structure’s historical context; he is indeed critical of artificiality in all its forms, including attempts to replicate a time that no longer exists.
In keeping with his faithfulness to setting and not pure aesthetics, Sitte also provides a detailed analysis of traffic patterns at several types of intersections—tallying potential collision points between carts and pedestrians. His drawings are presciently similar to the diagrams that would one day delineate vehicle lanes, crosswalks, and traffic signals in the age of motor vehicles. Yet Sitte’s conclusion from this analysis does not advocate for a more orderly set of traffic controls; rather, once again critiquing an overly rationalistic approach, he suggests that the use of a more traditional, non-gridded street pattern will reduce the chance of congested intersections.
Sitte closes The Art of Building Cities with a close aesthetic analysis of several site plans along the Ringstraße in his native Vienna. His general assessment of the state of development there is that the architecture is well done, but the site planning is lacking in sophistication, largely because it has left an excess of open spaces that fail to either complement the buildings or define the plazas. Accordingly, he offers several ideas for changes to the spaces surrounding key buildings, including the Votivkirche (Votive Church) and the Rathaus (City Hall). Unsurprisingly, he suggests modifications that would bring these sites closer in line with traditional city patterns. His specific recommendations include the development of additional structures in the vast, undefined plazas that would create a sense of enclosure around the facades of the landmark buildings; the removal of streetcar tracks from their immediate proximity; and the use of various new structures to harmonize views by blocking the visibility of clashing, neighboring buildings. “We should always follow the principle,” he writes, “of harmonizing everything that can be seen in one view, and we need not concern ourselves with that which cannot be seen. That is the road to practical effect, and it will never lead us astray.”
The Art of Building Cities is a rich, dense book. Considering the wealth of information it contains, it is also deceptively short. Sitte’s insights about proportioning, site selection, and the benefits of irregularity remain particularly valuable to urbanists. At the same time, his criticism of Industrial Age planning is too harsh—especially in retrospect, with 20th-century planning failures such as urban renewal now in clear hindsight. The builders of the late 19th century may not have reached the zenith of artfulness and local authenticity as cities expanded rapidly during the Industrial Revolution. And they certainly could not replicate the construction of neighborhoods that the settled cities of medieval and Renaissance Europe had achieved organically—and presumably without conscious planning—over the course of many centuries of refinement. But in light of the pressures of the industrial era—including historically unique economic and population growth—many 19th century architects and planners deserve credit for incorporating more thoughtful applications of tradition into their plans than those of subsequent eras would do.
Ultimately, Sitte’s contempt for contemporary urban planning creates a paradox for his legacy: the very instinct that drives his criticism also fuels a call to planners to return to the essentials of town-building practices. And by defining certain simple devices from long-standing traditions of urban civilization, Sitte makes his most important contribution: providing a set of discrete, implementable ideas that urban planners, even in faster-moving times, can use to achieve more artful results.
This New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
By the late 20th century, much of the landscape of urban America had retreated from the goal of placemaking. Crime, suburbanization, and motor vehicles all worked to convince people that such an object was no longer desirable; that we had (in America, at least) moved beyond the street; that perhaps it was a relic of the old world, literally or figuratively. Allan Jacobs’ classic study of urban aesthetics, Great Streets, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, continues to represent an important and persuasive counterpoint to this story.
Building on the work of Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, and other urban writers of the post-war period, Jacobs offered a fresh perspective about what was possible, and the value that it could add to our lives—both as individuals, and as participants in a broader culture. For American readers, at least, it also subtly underscored the cultural continuity that existed between the urbanism of Western Europe and that of North America—and of how the historical links of that tradition were in danger of being lost. A quarter-century later, American cities still face many challenges. But their standing overall has greatly improved since 1993. The willingness of cities to re-engage with the elemental forms of traditional urbanism has played a vital role in their improved fortunes.
At its best, the urban environment has an intrinsic advantage over atomized, cookie-cutter developments. Real neighborhoods are simply interesting: they reflect the lives of the people who live in them today; and they are tangible artifacts of those who came before. But neglect makes cities haunting and, sometimes, dangerous: a healthy urbanism requires constant work. And Great Streets reminds us that this endeavor is more than a technical or bureaucratic exercise—indeed, placemaking is more art than science.
* * *
It is fitting that a spirit of art runs through Great Streets. An artist’s approach to urbanism is the essence of the book. Its very arrangement is artful: divided into four major sections, each part is distinct from the others in its length and conceptual focus. Yet the reader immediately senses that this is not a formulaic work; nor is there a formula implicit in the urban qualities its author identifies. Instead, an intrinsic mystery draws you in, and Jacobs uses comparison and surprise to spotlight a wide array of characteristics. Throughout the work, he stubbornly defies the temptation to simplify what is complicated. With close analysis of form and context, he highlights the innate variety of factors that can contribute to a street’s charisma and provides a diversity of examples from cities around the world.
When Jacobs first published Great Streets in the early 1990s, the future of American cities stood on shaky ground. True, some Americans had begun to forego the starched lawns of suburbia for the weathered brick and clapboard of old neighborhoods. But even in exceptional places where the virtues of old urbanism were valued, blight was never far. Everywhere, middle-class flight and the War on Drugs had turned entire subsections of American cities into violent ganglands. In such an atmosphere, a narrow focus on the elemental forms of traditional urbanism was, understandably, tangential; and struggling cities continued to seek salvation by incorporating discordant suburban concepts, like parking lots and shopping malls, into their aging fabric. In this context, Great Streets was a well-timed contribution. By focusing on the aesthetics and vibrancy of public space, Jacobs reminded readers that urban planning could be a conscious art that makes meaningful, humane places—and thereby attracts positive human activity—through decisive physical forms. To this end, Great Streets illuminates the qualities in different settings that are worth studying, questioning, and understanding.
The first section of the book is a collection of case studies of individual streets. With its focus on traditional Western forms, most examples are from Europe and North America. Jacobs begins by examining a residential cul-de-sac in Pittsburgh on which he once lived. He thus dispenses with the notion that fame or busy-ness should be prerequisites, focusing instead on scale, enclosure, and human activity. He looks at 14 additional streets in Europe and North America; a neighborhood in Beijing; and two street ensembles in Europe. His selections include grand boulevards in Paris, Aix-en-Provence, and Barcelona; winding, medieval streets in Rome and Copenhagen; and urban and suburban streets in the United States. Jacobs’ narrative is one of the best aspects of the book: in addition to providing a wealth of information, and a focus on important qualities, it reads at times like the tight, colorful prose of a 20th-century American novel.
The most interesting case study is also the most counterintuitive. Jacobs makes the case that the Grand Canal of Venice and other urban waterways are essentially liquid streets, serving, like paved streets, as thoroughfares, gathering places, architectural showcases, and prospects for vistas. And one might argue that the canals of Venice are more than just technically akin to modern streets: given the role of Venice in the emergence of the modern commercial world, its urban patterns represent a sort of prototype for later cities. But Jacobs’ focus is neither history or economics; it is aesthetics. And while one might observe that its liquid cartway is what distinguishes the Grand Canal most fundamentally from traditional, paved streets, Jacobs cites an absence of sidewalks along much of the canal—and associated absence of street life—as the most salient difference. As a result (and in contrast to many of the smaller waterways of Venice, as he notes), the Grand Canal is essentially a service thoroughfare, with few opportunities for foot traffic, outside a handful of specific locations (e.g., the Rialto, San Marco, etc.). Jacobs sees that this absence of pedestrians— which undoubtedly diminishes an element that is present in many great streets—as a boon to the observant visitor, helping shift one’s focus toward some of the canal’s higher-order, street-like qualities. In one of his more poetic passages, he highlights a sense of spatial enclosure, where saltwater takes the place of paving stones:
The water is calm, mostly a light olive green mixed with cerulean blue. In the early morning it may be a mixture of blues and greens and yellows that can be indistinguishable from the sky, so that one hardly knows where one stops and the other starts. In Venice, in the early morning, an artist might paint the air, permitting shapes of buildings to emerge at times not all that different in color from the air itself, only darker, maybe with some pinks. At these times there is a faint horizontal line in the water, a clue to where the buildings emerge. Generally the buildings are light-colored and richly detailed, as becomes apparent as soon as the sun burns off the morning haze. At first impression, they seem to be of similar if not the same height along the water’s edge.
The Grand Canal stands out as a unique example, but a more typical case study, also from Italy, is the Via dei Giubbonari in Rome. Beginning at the famous Campo de’ Fiori—an old market square that today doubles as a center of Roman nightlife— the Via dei Giubbonari takes a southeasterly course to the more subdued green space of the Piazza Cairoli. Covering less than a thousand feet, the street is nonetheless characterized by the mystery and irregularity of its medieval form. From wider ends, it narrows and bends over a short course, coaxing pedestrians into its right-of-way and obscuring what lies beyond. Jacobs describes its effects:
Once on Via dei Giubbonari, attracted by one of the funnel-shaped widenings at either end, you want to see where it leads, even if you already know, and you want to experience what is more immediately around you as well. There are many buildings, even more doorways, and almost continuous store windows at the street level. […] Wall thickness and building solidity are made clearly evident by their visible contrast with the glass panes in them. Buildings and other stores as well are deep, and the windows show this. How deep are they? What is in there? There is a bit of inviting mystery; something to be explored. Above, there are more windows, shuttered or open depending on the time of day and where the sun may be.
One cannot read Jacobs’ case studies without being reminded of, and marveling at, the relative permanence of urban street patterns. Because while individual buildings and their diverse uses exist in a sort of eternal flux, the patterns of thoroughfares themselves—once established— tend to remain fixed indefinitely. This is undoubtedly due to the practical nature of streets, and the consensus that exists at any moment among the many who rely on perpetual access. Thus, in very old cities like Rome, we find examples of streets like the Via dei Giubbonari, whose route and shape have survived for many centuries. Some elements date from classical antiquity; others from medieval or early modern times; and still others are of more recent vintage. Not surprisingly, similar tapestries can be found in Istanbul and Jerusalem, and in smaller towns and cities whose histories began in a similarly ancient past.
In a subchapter called “Trees Alone,” Jacobs addresses the Viale delle Terme di Caracalla (which follows the historical course of the Via Appia from central Rome past an ancient bath complex), explaining how the city’s iconic umbrella pines help define space:
Their height and linearity can be seen from a distance. In a city full of stone landmarks, these rows of pines are yet another way to understand the city and one’s location in it. Below, closer to the ground, there is another ceiling made of dark, spreading Quercus ilex. Some of their branches meet, other do not, so there is both light and shade, mostly the latter. Against the bright, hot Roman sun and in welcome contrast to the undefined large spaces at the street’s beginning [i.e., the Circo Massimo] … the tree-covered medians attract walkers with a promise of coolness…. During the winter months, when there is less sun, it is pleasant to walk on the side paths. If the design of the Viale della Terme di Caracalla was meant to attract walkers from central Rome … to the Baths of Caracalla another half mile or so distant, then these dark, cool, tree-lined paths are the way to do it.
Returning to the point of historical layering, note how the Viale delle Terme di Caracalla combines the showcasing of a ruined complex from classical antiquity, the creation of the pastoral aesthetic of Romantic landscape architecture, and the functional expedience of modern highway engineering—all while keeping faith with the ancient course of the Appian Way. Amazing.
The other sections of Great Streets are more spatial than narrative. Describing the definitive residential section of Fifth Avenue in New York City, the author notes the bounding and tone-setting functions of trees, masonry walls, benches, and paving stones; and he notes the distinction between the private spaces that can be glimpsed within apartment buildings and the public nature of adjacent sidewalks and Central Park.
Another familiar example that Jacobs offers is the curved portion of Regent Street, London, near Piccadilly Circus. Here, he describes a subtly discordant contrast between striking visual design qualities and a street-level environment that caters to vehicular traffic and fails to encourage leisurely walking. The author notes that numerous intersecting side streets, leading off into the quieter blocks of Mayfair and Soho, are much more inviting to pedestrians.
The third part of Great Streets, “Streets and City Patterns: Settings for Streets and People,” mostly departs from the narrative approach. Rather than examining individual streets, Jacobs visualizes the neighborhood context of streets, presenting black-and-white ink maps of square-mile samples of cities throughout the world. By examining these simple plans, the reader instantly grasps the impossibility of developing a standard set of quantifiable dimensions for the creation of streets (whether great, or not). The variety of building patterns between cities—even among culturally similar cities—is simply too profound. That the dimensions of post-war American suburbs bear little resemblance to those of European cities may not be especially remarkable; but that the dimensions of similarly-sized Mediterranean cities are so divergent from one another; or that the differences in street patterns across pre-industrial neighborhoods of the English-speaking world are so pronounced – these things are surprising. Block lengths, street widths, the absence or presence of grids, and the degree of adherence to land contours all prove nearly impossible to compare across locations. This is often true even within a single city.
Jacobs teaches that the physical form of urbanism—even traditional, Western urbanism at its aesthetic best—is not uniform. Echoing Camillo Sitte, the 19th century Viennese planner, he demonstrates that urban planning is truly an art: a practice whose application is borne of intuition and experience (both individual and cultural), drawing on a set of refined technical skills. And while certain elements may often present as common threads—street walls, for example, and public squares—these have been both successfully and unsuccessfully interpreted in countless ways. For this reason, instead of attempting to devise a unifying formula of urbanism, Jacobs uses the last section of Great Streets to articulate a synthesis, including rules of thumb, from the observations and interpretations that have filled the preceding pages. Examining the threads found in diverse case studies, with an eye to the organizing patterns of broader neighborhoods, Jacobs distills a group of general-but-necessary factors for good urban placemaking, cautioning that “By themselves, as a group, the required qualities will not assure a great street…. a final ingredient [is] … the magic of design.”
Leaving room for magic, then, what are the concrete qualities that great streets require? Jacobs begins with three basic, physical characteristics: (1) a pedestrian realm, (2) considerations of physical comfort, and (3) well-defined space. With respect to the first, a variety of approaches may satisfy: well-defined sidewalks, car-free streets, and even narrow, stone-paved streets—where vehicles are slowed to a human pace—can all make good places to walk. For the second, physical comfort, a time-honored planning tradition (taught at least as far back as Vitruvius) calls for studying hyperlocal factors when laying out new streets: prevailing winds, shadows cast by topography, and the transit of the sun may all be weighed to ensure the most comfortable use of environmental factors in a particular spot. Jacobs endorses this. On the third point, defined space—that is, a sense of placemaking enclosure at the street level—Jacobs turns to the research, and takes a more technical (and precise) approach than usual, arguing space is established when “height to horizontal distance ratios are 1:4 (or less) when the viewer is looking at a 30-degree angle to the street direction.”
It is interesting that there may be such a quantifiable component to placemaking; that we may in fact be predisposed to experience a sense of intimacy within certain measurable, urban dimensions—and a sense of alienation in others. Evidence of measurable, psychological ground rules for good urbanism does pop up from time to time: an experienced teacher’s advice that development ought to be concentrated within 1,500 feet of a town square or a railroad station feels about right—and is consistent with many examples of good urbanism. The Commissioners’ Plan of New York parceled out typical blocks with 60-foot-wide rights-of-way (i.e., cartways and sidewalks), spaced 200 feet apart. These were divided into building parcels with 25 feet of street frontage and 100 feet of parcel depth. For two centuries, this rude formula has shaped the Manhattan grid, and some have blamed the large-lot platting for the mishmash of big, expensive brownstones and even bigger tenements that continues to characterize the old fabric of the city between Houston Street and Washington Heights (where the regularity of the grid begins to break down). So, yes, there are hard numbers that go into placemaking, and these numbers matter. Yet we see in Great Streets how the numbers are just one of the many components that support placemaking; and that most of its aspects are not so easily measured.
Other essential qualities Jacobs cites hew more closely to a dynamic between visuals and imagination. In a literal sense, these elements are superficial; in an aesthetic sense, they are much more—but a casual observer might not be attentive to their effects, even as he or she experiences them. Jacobs cites visual curiosities that “engage the eyes,” like textures in building details that enrich surfaces and play in the shadows cast by changing sunlight. Another factor is transparency, achieved through windows, doors, and passageways that facilitate glimpses—or at least intuitions—of what happens in the private realms beyond. Also, there is complementarity: a sort of harmony, by chance or by design, among roof lines, floor heights, building materials, and other factors shaped by multiple structures. And though we might consider them givens, Jacobs cites good building materials and consistent maintenance to round out the list of essentials. Finally, Jacobs offers a list of non-essential factors, ranging from park benches to lighting design, that may work to invest urban settings with a deeper sense of place.
Ultimately, Jacobs’ work might be summarized as follows: Great streets combine certain identifiable, designable physical qualities to draw out public life; and that this liveliness, fueled by the right context of economics and culture, complements the well-built environment—and completes the process of placemaking on a day-to-day basis. This, one might surmise, is part of what Jacobs means when he talks about magic: the ephemeral dynamic between a good built environment and those who engage with it to create a living place.
Jacobs’ ideas in Great Streets track closely with improvements made toward reinvigorating the urban tradition since its publication. Keeping a valuable tradition alive requires a perpetual process of reframing and retelling; in short, it requires good teachers. The continuing relevance of established practices must be communicated effectively to maintain adherents who will be motivated to transmit their wisdom forward to the next time and place. In the tradition of urbanism as a cultural imprint and a living artistic pursuit, Jacobs is an excellent teacher. Twenty-five years after its publication, his work remains a guidebook for the cities of our own time.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, is a consultant on urban-planning projects, and has worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery projects in New York City. He blogs at Legal Towns, and has also written for the Metro New York Transit-Oriented Development Newsletter and the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute’s white papers series.
Copyright 2018 Theo Mackey Pollack
Zoning is having a moment. Across the country, and across the political spectrum, Americans have begun to pay closer attention to the land-use regulations that shape their neighborhoods. And many are fast discovering that some of their most fundamental values are being antagonized by a persistence of antiquated or imprudent rules.
From a political perspective, this presents a unique opportunity: Bad zoning laws threaten some of the deepest values of both of our major political traditions, so the circumstances are ripe for unusual bedfellows. To understand the overlapping nature of those concerns, consider the effects of bad zoning on some of the key priorities of both the conservative and progressive traditions in American politics.
Old But Not Right?
Few principles are more essential to American conservative politics than a belief that citizens should exercise control over privately-owned property with minimal state interference. Since the Supreme Court’s 1926 Euclid decision, however, courts have upheld an expansive view of the police power over land-use matters. Today, outdated laws shaped by dubious mid-20th century urban planning theories, have prohibited sensible building patterns—like Main Streets, with efficiency apartments above stores, and a wide variety of home-based businesses.
Zoning laws were originally written to address the major nuisances of the industrial era— loud, polluting factories and superblocks of overcrowded tenements. Since World War II, however, their mission has crept further away from these salutary objectives to a point where the state—through municipal governments—can now regulate or prohibit almost any use of private property through a simple ordinance. Not only does this stifle individuality; it prevents people from converting their parcels to the highest and best uses the market will support.
During the postwar era—when suburbs and cars were the way of the future, and cheap, undeveloped land surrounded all our cities—the postwar type of zoning seemed a reasonable trade-off for many conservatives. While it regulated the private land market, it was locally enacted. In addition, its intent was to protect a broad base of individual, private owners.
Today, things have changed. Many of our most prosperous regions have been effectively built-out—few undeveloped lots remain—and laws preserve building patterns from the less populous 1950s and 1960s. This in turn has created an artificial shortage of housing units to which local markets cannot respond. Property owners who could benefit from making more intense use of their parcels find their hands tied by local zoning. Families and individuals are priced out of regions where opportunities are strongest. Personal potential and mobility are limited. And local governments become powerful fiefdoms, selectively approving lucrative projects for (often) politically-connected developers while preventing smaller owners from similarly maximizing returns.
Most on the Right also express a strong preference for decisions made close to home. But to work, a decentralized national power structure requires a critical mass of healthy, vibrant communities. Today, small-town America is in deep economic and cultural crisis. Local wealth is drained away by global corporations, and few incentives draw the talent to replace what is lost. Meanwhile, many of our cities are changing so quickly that people cannot recognize, or afford, the places that were once familiar. In short, our communities are failing to respond to rapid change in a way that transmits essential traditions or even offers a sense of continuity. It is particularly salient that, among the casualties of bad zoning are housing options that would allow people to remain in long-term communities, close to family, friends, and self-help groups; as well as affordable retail spaces in which small businesses could begin to rebuild and retain local wealth.
Strong social networks, and their intimate connections to local wealth, are among the most important components of local self-reliance. Such dynamics reduce the need for government support and allow a decentralized power structure to flourish. But a status quo that prices people out of long-term communities attenuates the ties that facilitate self-reliance.
On their own, the above-mentioned real estate deficits would be troublesome; but they are made much worse by the fact that the types of real estate they represent—apartment housing and Main Street retail space—would otherwise be the building blocks of traditional town centers. Significantly, the basic arrangement of traditional towns and cities represents a cultural tradition that can be traced down to modern times from classical antiquity. After a centuries-long process of trial and error, traditional urbanism represents the physical imprint of a functioning, Western- or European-style community. Its forms facilitate commerce, law, religious practice, artistic tradition, civic pride, and ultimately a sense of belonging. Our communities can only be vibrant when their moving parts work together; and conservatism can only work with a critical mass of vibrant communities.
Since the 1920s, new communities have mostly failed to develop according to traditional forms. Today, a critical mass of Americans no longer lives in communities shaped by centuries of tradition; instead, they have been displaced to communities built on the technocrat’s zoning model. Not coincidentally, alienation, isolation, and cultural illiteracy are reaching crisis levels. Traditional urbanism is a time-proven, effective method that transmits an understanding of behavioral patterns from one generation to the next. Its loss is a significant break in that link. For those on the Right who are concerned about the erosion of culture and tradition, this really matters.
A Middle Class Left for Dead?
On the Left, the stability of the American middle class has lately resurfaced as an immediate concern. Activists tend to focus on union membership, and the public-sector systems that unions helped establish (e.g., unemployment insurance, good public education, and safety net programs) as the institutional pillars of a broad middle class. There is merit to these claims. But along with the booming economy of the postwar era (which made such programs solvent), a key component of the American middle class was access to affordable homeownership—and the opportunity to obtain an equity position in an increasingly financialized society.
During the middle-class heyday between World War II and the early 1970s, homeownership became the fundamental building block of an economic foothold in the United States. It combined affordable housing (allowing savings and consumer spending) with appreciating equity, which provided a source of collateral. The suburbs were the heart of this phenomenon, but their rapid construction also took pressure off existing urban housing markets. As a result, housing in working-class neighborhoods was also relatively affordable during the period.
By the early 1970s, the barriers to entry were rising. The aggregated impact of zoning laws on the cost of housing in a particular region was observed in New Jersey’s constitutional law cases that came to be known as the Mount Laurel decisions. Initially, the effects of exclusionary zoning were felt by low-income residents, including—perniciously—many working-class African-Americans, who found themselves priced out of the growing suburbs just as the wave of civil rights legislation abolished many of the legal hurdles that had previously kept them out.
Two generations later, an increasingly sizable proportion of middle-class households cannot afford to purchase median-priced homes. This is especially so in the most prosperous parts of the country. Recent statistics show that in the highly regulated land markets of the Northeast and California, affordability is dismal. In Los Angeles, a 2017 study found that just 6.6 percent of local homes were affordable to households at that region’s median income. In 2014, the figure for the five boroughs of New York City was below 9 percent. For those on the Left who want to see a strong middle class, our failure to provide a vibrant market of affordable housing options in affluent regions—and, by extension, an equity position in the market economy—is a serious stumbling block to social mobility.
The specific degree to which zoning-imposed growth restriction has driven the divergence between household incomes and home prices in such regions is a question ripe for multivariate analysis. That it has been a crucial factor is not debatable. And one of the most immediate effects of zoning-based growth restrictions is the displacement of wealth into adjacent, poorer neighborhoods. On a local level, gentrification takes place more rapidly, and more chaotically, than it would if individual neighborhoods—particularly, the most desirable ones—had room to absorb growth under their zoning rules. In good times, this pattern has produced a knock-on effect that disrupts communities throughout entire metropolitan regions: affluent newcomers are displaced to historically middle-class neighborhoods; middle-class newcomers are displaced to historically working-class and poor neighborhoods; and the working-class and poor are either forced to accept crowded living conditions, or to abandon the region entirely.
On the surface, this gentrification pattern has yielded a number of positive effects, including the revitalization of neglected buildings, windfalls for buyers whose purchase preceded the rise in values and a fleeting economic diversity while neighborhoods are in active flux. But on a deeper level, this pattern has also fed antagonism and competition over scarce space in the places where people have—and fear losing—their most intimate ties. It has turned old neighborhoods into floating commodities. And it has had an especially devastating—and largely unreported—impact on a significant population of working-class and poor Americans of the Northeast and California. Over the last generation, many of the working-class residents of places like New York City, San Francisco, and Boston, especially renters and young people, have been forced to choose between tolerating increasingly substandard living conditions in their home communities, and relocating to distant, unfamiliar places.
This phenomenon may also have played a part in a waxing hostility toward immigration. Consider that a major portion of the white working class that once populated the coastal cities of the Northeast and California has been on the losing end of this phenomenon. Many have watched as their old neighborhoods have been repopulated by immigrants who are willing to pay more for less; long-time residents may even intuit that the newcomers have driven up prices and created a sense of disorientation and loss in a place that had once been safe and familiar. And while older owners have benefited from a rise in property values, other long-time residents have suffered—particularly older renters and young people who wish to remain in the communities where they have grown up. This a terrible price for bad zoning policy; and the irony, from an urban planning perspective, is that even today many of the traditionally working-class neighborhoods of the Northeast and California continue to have low densities.
If local zoning had simply permitted these communities to absorb growth as it occurred, it is likely many longtime residents would never have been priced out by rising rents or property taxes. This means that more young people could have remained in their home communities and benefited from deep ties to family, social networks, and local wealth; and space could also have been made for new immigrants (and internally-migrating Americans) on much friendlier terms. Instead, our inability to accommodate change at the neighborhood level has resulted in the attenuation of countless social ties; the loss of myriad old communities; and an increased degree of hostility and resentment between competing, but similarly powerless groups, over space that never needed to be so scarce. If anything should outrage even the most nominal Leftist, it is a bureaucratic policy that pointlessly pits the American working class against new immigrants over something as fundamental as the need for decent housing.
Finally, while America may be a center-right country, there are abiding, regional exceptions. New England and its Midwestern outposts have formed a cradle of liberalism since the time of the Abolitionists. In the early 20th century, the industrial cities of the Rust Belt gave us labor Leftism. Most recently, the San Francisco Bay, and—to a lesser extent—a constellation of old Eastern college towns and enclaves in New York City have become incubators of the New Left. A pattern emerges: with the exception of the smaller cities of the Rust Belt, the historical geography of the American Left overlaps today with high housing costs and zoning-imposed growth restrictions.
The irony is rich. But as in many social science problems, causation is less important than correlation. Left-of-center Americans who wish to remain in these parts of the country are forced to chase higher incomes. Few things are less consistent with traditional liberal or left-wing priorities than a pursuit of money to the exclusion of other priorities; yet, this is precisely what many of those living in the progressive touchstones of the Northeast and California now do. Ultimately, most on the Left—including many who find themselves caught up in this rat race—would say that Americans should be free to live in whatever city they choose without being required to adopt the values and lifestyles of corporate careerism. Many on the Right would agree. Moreover, these vibrant, historic regions are integral parts of America. Shouldn’t all Americans, regardless of their current wealth or geographic origins, enjoy basic access to the cultural and economic riches of our great cities?
Where Left and Right Meet
Presuming there is space for a consensus, where do we find it? Broadly deregulating the nation’s metropolitan land markets sounds promising, but untenable within the current political landscape. Note, too, that this alone would not bring back the traditions of neighborhood-building that shaped communities until the early 20th century. Instead, due to the loss of tradition and the rise of technology over the past century, it would take us into uncharted territory. Moreover, we will continue to need ways to exclude real nuisances from the neighborhoods where we live and work.
Ultimately, then, the need for reform should focus on the core parts of zoning ordinances that stubbornly prevent salutary change without an overriding and compelling justification. Examples include arbitrary massing requirements, unit counts, and the separation of compatible uses. These approaches must be replaced with regulation that allows developers to meet market demand, with as free a hand as possible, while working within the liberal parameters of traditional urban forms. Such reforms could allow neighborhoods to adjust to the needs of their current residents and businesses; free property owners to pursue the highest and best use of their parcels; and, over time, allow regional housing costs to trend toward equilibrium with local incomes.
Perhaps more importantly, they would allow more Americans, through broader economic empowerment and individual freedom, to shape their communities into reflections of their actual life patterns, cultures, and personalities. This shaping—by rich and poor, urban and rural, liberal and conservative—was once an essential part of what made the United States such an exceptionally democratic society. To a troubling degree, we have lost this quality in recent years—in no small part because of bad zoning.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, is a consultant on urban-planning projects, and has worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery projects in New York City. He blogs at Legal Towns, and has also written for the Metro New York Transit-Oriented Development Newsletter and the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute’s white papers series.
Andres Duany, the architect whose work is perhaps most closely associated with the New Urbanism movement in the United States, once described Raymond Unwin’s 1909 book, Town Planning in Practice, as “the best planning manual available.” For its aesthetic guidance, the quality of its writing, and the unique perspective of its time, it would be difficult to disagree.
The towns and cities of Unwin’s era—the late Victorian and Edwardian periods (1880-1910)—were often developed with an intense focus on efficient land use. Necessity drove this priority, but it also paid dividends in both beauty and practicality. The urbanism of the time also had another unique quality: it reflected the dizzying impacts of modern industry—including mass production, mass transportation, and commercial wealth—on the free-form traditions of town-building that Europe and its diaspora had refined since classical antiquity. For a better understanding of how modern town-building might incorporate the wisdom of the past, there is no more important period to study. And it would be hard to find a more thorough and clear introduction than Unwin’s century-old Town Planning.
Unwin’s 416-page volume is the product of a unique moment in planning history. Its timing endows it with a valuable perspective from which we may reflect on our own moment in the urban tradition. In Britain, where Unwin lived and wrote, and in the United States as well, the upheaval that had characterized urban growth in the late Victorian period was suddenly becoming subject to much greater analysis, criticism, and—importantly—law. Unwin’s work sought to influence the new and growing web of legal devices that played a key role in the transformation that was taking place. As Unwin was writing, governments were assuming greater powers over land development; reformers were pursuing cooperative organizations and founding garden cities; and a confident cohort of planners was fashioning new theories and approaches with an eye toward shaping a less accidental urban future. (Unwin himself was instrumental in developing the Hampstead Garden Suburb outside London.)
World War I had not yet shattered the idealism that prevailed in the West about the human ability to invent its way out of trouble. Unwin’s Town Planning is a snapshot of this cacophonous moment: his vision of urbanism is steeped in the beauty of old Europe and the possibilities of turn-of-the-century wealth; his critiques reflect an incredulous reaction to the ugliness of the pollution and poverty that characterized the darker side of urbanism at the same time.
Early in Town Planning, Unwin offers an extensive and detailed series of case studies of urbanism in the Western tradition—a survey of historical planning practices all the way up to those of his own time. This background establishes a context for the rest of the book.
He begins with the Italian colonies of ancient Greece, and the influence of Hippodamus, the first famous planner of the classical world. Unwin writes that Hippodamus sought to impose regularity on the Greek tendency to follow the contours of the land. He offers the gridded layout of Selinus in Sicily as a prime example of this influence. Unwin also includes examples from the classical East, including the Colonnade at Palmyra and the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. He discusses the forums of Rome and Pompeii, and the layouts of imperial towns on the Roman Empire’s western frontier. He explores examples of towns from medieval Germany, Renaissance Italy, and the City Beautiful era; and addresses a project from his own time with a discussion of Philadelphia’s Parisian-style plan for Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Unwin’s series of case studies provide a sophisticated treatment of Western European cultural traditions and their expression through the urban form. The takeaway is not just a familiarity with the immense variety of urban forms within the broader tradition of European urbanism, but a recognition that urbanism is a social art, approachable in many ways, any one of which requires an intuitive understanding of human nature. That is to say, it is also not a strict science, as many 20th-century planners would naively insist.
In this vein, Unwin proceeds to address an interesting divergence between towns with plans that could be characterized as formal—those developed along regular grids with symmetrical parcels—and those with what may be called informal styles, which appear to have grown more incrementally, in deference to the contours of the land and the particular needs of individual sites:
It is true that the beauty of wild nature is usually informal in the sense in which we have used the term, but this does not mean that it is the result of chance, or of freedom from restraint. On the contrary, the forms which we find beautiful in wild nature are the result, so far as we know, of obedience the most perfect to laws the most complex, so much so that we may call the forms inevitable.
Unwin’s focus on a handful of specific design elements forms Town Planning’s most relevant contribution to the current conversation about real-estate development. These factors remain the salient characteristics of urban environments: compactness and variety. In America, they can be found in small towns and in large cities; in the forgotten, working-class neighborhoods of the Rust Belt; in the 1920s Gatsby suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey; in the mining towns of the old West; and in the most exclusive blocks of New York’s Upper East Side. Yet their absence from most neighborhoods built since 1945 is still manifest in the broken aesthetics and frayed social bonds of so many American communities. Often, these elements exist in older communities as a legacy of earlier times, but a failure of zoning to provide for their establishment in growing neighborhoods lies at the heart of their declining role in an expanding percentage of our communities. In regions that have largely developed since the postwar era, these elements may not exist much at all.
It is reasonable to presume that the relative compactness of historical towns and cities was in large part a byproduct of their intrinsic pedestrianism. That is to say, the most valuable land was that within walking distance of existing activities; and this consideration drove property owners to make the most intensive use of parcels within those limits. But Unwin addresses the shaping of compactness in at least one additional way that might not be evident to modern readers, particularly in North America: one of the main factors driving compact urbanism in the pre-modern era, Unwin notes, was the city wall. He writes:
Many ancient towns derive exceptional beauty from their enclosure by ramparts or walls. To this enclosure is due in no small measure the careful use of every yard of building space within the wall which has led to much of their picturesque effect. To this is due also the absence of that irregular fringe of half-developed suburb and half-spoiled country which forms such a hideous and depressing girdle around modern growing towns.
Unwin’s citation of compactness as a cause of not only practical but aesthetic benefits is astute. Still today, and far beyond the footprints of Europe’s walled cities, a disproportionate share of the world’s most photogenic urbanism, from San Francisco to Bodrum, Turkey—is located on narrow islands or peninsulas, where topography has created the physical equivalent of a defensive fortification. In light of this role of constraint in the development of compactness, Unwin advocates for a legal stand-in—the dedication of open space where construction will be off limits:
A certain concentration and grouping of buildings is necessary to produce the special beauties of the town, and this is inconsistent with the scattering of buildings which results from each one being isolated in its own patch of garden; but it is not inconsistent with the grouping of buildings in certain places and the provision of large parks or gardens in other places. If we are to produce really satisfactory town effects combined with the degree of open space now thought advisable, we must work on the principle of grouping our buildings and combining our open spaces, having areas fairly closely built upon, surrounded by others of open space, rather than that of scattering and indefinitely mixing our building and our spaces.
This is essentially a case for the establishment of greenbelts through local land-use planning.
In addition to definite growth boundaries, Unwin identifies another element of compactness: the well-defined town center. He describes an urban tradition dating from classical antiquity, in which public buildings are concentrated in a single, geographic space. This arrangement is practical, but it also has aesthetic value, creating a manifest concentration of important buildings that provides an identifiable core. The town center typically took shape around the agora, or public market, in the Greek world; or at the crossroads adjacent to the forum in Roman urbanism. By medieval times, Christians had replaced the classical assortment of pagan temples with a church or a cathedral; the adjacent spaces typically formed the center of European towns and cities, a pattern which persisted through the Renaissance and on down through the rise of industry. Then railroad stations were placed at the center of cities.
The arrangement of buildings to serve as vista terminations or create a sense of enclosure was frequently intentional. From this tradition of evolving public spaces, Unwin generalizes the concept of a place: a term used in French that shares its roots with the terms plaza, piazza, or platz; and that is echoed in the marketplace or the grassy commons of the English-speaking world. Unwin writes:
A place then, in the sense in which we wish to use the word, should be an enclosed space. The sense of enclosure is essential to the idea; not the complete enclosure of a continuous ring of buildings, like a quadrangle, for example; but a general sense of enclosure resulting from a fairly continuous frame of buildings, the breaks in which are small in relative extent and not too obvious. If we examine a series of ancient places we shall see that, whether from accident or design, the entrances into them are usually so arranged that they break the frame of buildings very little, if at all.
Compactness gives rise to variety, another essential element of urbanism, because in dense settings myriad activities are forced together; and the nature of commerce drives the increasing specialization and organic solidarity (to borrow a concept from Emile Durkheim), among participants in urban marketplaces. Accordingly, in traditional towns and cities, and in the absence of land-use zoning, a rich diversity of vital activities develops, logically, in overlapping space. This phenomenon characterized the blocks around classical forums and medieval cathedrals, much as it would the town centers of England and the British Empire (including many older towns and cities of the Colonial American eastern seaboard), and the Main Streets of middle America and the old West. All these compact loci shared the elements of public and religious spaces, as well as commercial and residential ones, within walking distance—and sight—of one another. In the absence of motor vehicles, this arrangement made a great deal of obvious sense.
Town Planning also addresses the basic elements of urban site plans and how an aesthetic approach to urbanism might inform the regulation of private development. This aspect of Unwin’s work offers a valuable snapshot of the legal and regulatory conflicts that were percolating at the time of his writing, as well as the technical dimensions and rules of thumb that were being considered as best practices in actual developments.
For all of the detail Unwin provides in this aspect of his work—including recommendations about lot coverage ratios, building massing, and other elements of construction that have long been included in codes—he remains quite conservative about the implementation of public dictates for the development of individual sites. In fact, Unwin seems somewhat torn on the prescriptive potential of planning, often supporting it in principle as a logical response to excesses of industrial urbanism, while voicing a deep skepticism about the potential to develop general rules that could be applied to achieve good results across a range of similar yet unique building sites.
Many examples in this part of Town Planning draw on the textbook Hampstead Garden Suburb project, outside London, whose planning Unwin helped to lead. Often, however, the elements of good urbanism that Unwin identified have been difficult to bring forth through the web of regulations that have been promulgated in the years since Town Planning was published. In his treatment of regulatory devices, Unwin seems to foresee the potential for this conflict. And if there is an overarching theme to Town Planning, it is the loss of the factors that once gave towns their character; and the question of how these might be recreated in the modern, industrial world.
In keeping with its physical, artistic approach to the subject, Town Planning is a visually compelling book. Its oversized pages are beautifully typeset and generously peppered with well-chosen photographs, drawings, and maps. Though not a comprehensive reference book, Town Planning contains a wealth of visual resources that planners, architects, and land-use attorneys might repurpose to illustrate the timeless spatial concepts of their own work. The same material constitutes a broad selection of the urban imagery and cartography of the early 20th century. Likewise, Unwin’s prose is clear, concise, and generally quite interesting; but the sheer quantity of examples that he offers can sometimes exceed what is strictly necessary to illustrate a concept. In this way, too, it resembles a reference book: its prose is more expansive, at times, than selective; and a reader who is not searching for a specific example may find that he or she has reached a point of diminishing returns before reaching the end of a chapter.
Dismantling some of the errors of more recent approaches to planning—especially the artificial separation of compatible uses, the centrality of traffic engineering, and the elimination of coherent town centers—requires us to look back to a time when the traditional art of town-building was still being practiced. It requires us to study the time-tested methods of incorporating the knowledge and wisdom of that tradition into the physical layout of neighborhoods. As today’s urbanists work to recover the art of planning, Unwin’s era remains uniquely instructive.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, is a consultant on urban-planning projects, and has worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery projects in New York City. He blogs at Legal Towns, and has also written for the Metro New York Transit-Oriented Development Newsletter and the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute’s white papers series.
Copyright 2017 Theo Mackey Pollack
The New York City region has a high concentration of cooperative apartments (“co-ops”), a method for creating owner-occupied, high-density housing with a longer history than the condominium model that now prevails throughout much of the country. A large subset of New York’s co-op stock is held under a limited-equity arrangement, a unique framework that combines the benefits of home ownership with long-term affordability. As the cost of housing continues to soar in regions with strong economies, this idiosyncratic model deserves a fresh look nationwide.
Like market-rate co-ops, limited-equity buildings are owned by residents whose shares represent equity in a business association. The association owns the buildings and grounds, and the resident-owners elect a board that sets policy. What distinguishes limited-equity buildings from market-rate co-ops is that the initial purchase price and the subsequent resale value of a unit is limited. In other words, the value of a unit does not float with the city’s land markets. Instead, when a resident leaves, the co-op repurchases his or her initial investment (plus some modest, formulaic measure of appreciation); it then charges the next resident, essentially, what the previous resident had been paid.
In New York, most limited-equity developments are now regulated by the state’s Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program, making them subject to income guidelines and other measures. Such oversight is not strictly necessary, and some do not participate. Significant tax benefits are also available for maintaining affordability. Presently, there are about 70,000 limited-equity units in the city, but, despite their value and viability, their number has been declining. The temptation of windfall appreciation has caused some boards—particularly in Manhattan—to reorganize as market-rate co-ops. At the same time, a shortage of cheap land, even on the city’s outskirts, makes it costly for new co-ops to be established. Finally, a general lack of knowledge about its merits has probably kept the limited-equity model from being a more prominent part of today’s affordable housing proposals. This is unfortunate, because limited-equity co-ops can work; and many American cities now have shortages of good housing for middle-income residents.
Cooperativism and New York City’s Early Housing Co-ops
The limited-equity framework is closely related to the modern cooperative, more generally, whose roots can be traced to Rochdale, England, in the mid-19th century. In 1844, a group of tradespeople pooled their buying power to form a food co-op, allowing them to source high-quality ingredients at lower costs. In the course of forming their association, the group developed a set of seven basic principles that have since guided the framework of most cooperatives: open membership; democratic control; dividend on purchase; limited interest on capital; political and religious neutrality; cash trading; and promotion of education. By the turn of the 20th century, the Rochdale vision had achieved a leading role in the reform currents of Europe and North America. In England, the planning visionary Ebenezer Howard proposed a Rochdalian cooperative structure for his Garden City in his 1899 classic, To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. In Germany, Theodor Herzl relied on a similar model in his blueprint for Israel in Old New Land. In the United States, Edward Bellamy had already envisioned a similarly utopian future age in his novel, Looking Backward. But while cooperativism took root in the visionary writings of the Victorian period, it remained limited in its practical applications, particularly in the world of housing. In practice, co-ops only became a component of New York City housing once the labor movement gained traction in the early 20th century.
Early in the 20th century, labor in New York was at the forefront of cooperativism. The 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in which 146 people—mostly young women—died, marked a turning point. The ensuing outrage about dangerous working conditions fueled labor activism, and demands for better housing were made a priority. The convergence of a powerful labor movement with the city’s uniquely apartment-oriented housing stock made the phenomenon of limited-equity cooperative housing possible.
But it is an irony of the changing nature of politics that cooperativism was championed by many on the Left in the early 20th century, yet in today’s politics its principles dovetail nicely with a more conservative approach. This is because cooperativism is essentially a self-help solution from a time when the role of the state was presumed to be limited. As a result, it does not require much public-sector involvement to work. In practice, establishing and managing a co-op has much more in common with starting a business or governing a small town than it does with subscribing to an ambitious political ideology.
Abraham Kazan was the central figure in the early narrative of American co-ops. He grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side; his parents had brought him to New York from Russia as a child. By the 1920s his career was already entwined with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (“ACW”) union, where he served as president of its cooperative credit union. Perhaps as an outgrowth of that role, he sought to apply a version of the Rochdale principles to the need for better housing in New York. Kazan and other labor leaders lobbied the New York State legislature to enact a framework that would facilitate construction of affordable new apartments, and in 1926 their efforts yielded the Limited Dividend Housing Act (LDHA). This law granted 20-year tax abatements to new buildings aimed at low-income tenants and whose profits were capped at just six percent. Although the legislation was not as strong as the initial proposal, it provided a new opening and ACW leaders quickly established the Amalgamated Housing Corporation (AHC), a new entity to take advantage of the new law; Hillman appointed Kazan as its president. The AHC was charged with developing housing for union members and others who qualified under the guidelines of the LDHA.
The 1920s land market presented a practical challenge: in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, where new housing was most badly needed, scarce land was available for construction. Echoing Sir Ebenezer Howard’s strategy to make Garden Cities affordable by building them on inexpensive rural land, the ACW selected a site for its first co-op far from its home base on the Lower East Side. Kazan chose a canvas in the northwest Bronx—on the suburban outskirts of the 1920s city. The development was financed by combining a down payment drawn from ACW funds with a $1.2 million loan from Metropolitan Life Insurance. Meanwhile, a separate pool was established by the owners of a community newspaper, the Forward, to finance the upfront equity payments that would be required of cooperators. Herman Jessor, a young architect who supported the goals of the labor movement, came to work on the AHC project. Jessor and Kazan formed a strong bond that would result in a lifetime of collaboration.
Jessor’s site plan comprised a cluster of six mid-rise, Tudor-style apartment buildings, with spacious rooms and landscaped grounds. Alexandra Hans, who grew up in the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative, described the key elements of its design:
Each apartment had hardwood floors throughout and ceramic tile bathrooms with marble thresholds. The kitchen was eat-in, and there was a foyer and a living room. The apartments to be selected had one, two, or three bedrooms. They all had cross-ventilation and sunlight. Some of the larger apartments had three exposures, depending on where they were located in the building.
When the Amalgamated opened in November 1927, with 303 original cooperators, the one-time purchase price for a standard two-bedroom apartment was $2,000—or around $28,000 in 2017 dollars. This amount constituted the cooperator’s limited equity in the cooperative—while the market value of the complex was presumably greater than the sum of shareholders’ investments. Carrying charges, or “maintenance fees,” for such a unit in 1927 were pegged at $44 per month—or about $600 in 2017 dollars. In addition to housing, the Amalgamated arranged for a number of community services for its cooperators. Milk and ice deliveries were purchased on the co-op model, and several cooperatively-owned stores were established in the immediate vicinity, including a pharmacy, a barber shop, a tailor, a shoe repair, a grocery store, and a butcher.
The LDHA had opened the door for groups other than its active sponsors to begin raising the necessary capital for limited-equity developments and created a legislative blueprint for them—and other players in the city’s real estate market perceived opportunities. Notably, the rush that characterized the early history of the limited-equity housing sector was marked by ironies: Although it was sponsored by one of the key stakeholders that had pushed for the LDHA, the Amalgamated was beaten to the market by another limited-equity development, the Bronx Park East Co-ops, on Allerton Avenue. Similar co-ops that opened for occupancy around the same time included the nearby Shalom Aleichem Houses, on Sedgwick Avenue, and the Farband Houses, near Pelham Parkway. All were sponsored by various labor or left-wing groups.
So, while early limited-equity co-ops grew out of the activism of some of the most radical political organizations in the city, they also brought members of the city’s workforce into homeownership, giving them a stake in the private economy. And despite its early support from radicals, the limited-equity housing arrangement provided a framework that was in many ways compatible with a conservative, market-based approach to real estate: a tax credit for developers and owners was the primary form of government support. As a result, even today, the limited-equity model has the potential to transcend some of the most controversial political subjects that may present obstacles to other affordable housing proposals.
In 1927, trouble for any new business venture was just around the corner. Yet how the Amalgamated survived the Depression illustrates the genuinely cooperative nature of the community in its early days. Kazan’s personal involvement was certainly an important factor. To save money, he met with residents and devised a plan to share custodial and grounds-keeping work on a volunteer basis. Undoubtedly, the residents’ ownership stake in the community made these sacrifices easier to elicit. The co-op also enjoyed a degree of leeway with its creditors, because it remained solvent and continued to perform on its debt at a time when many debtors were bankrupt. Kazan used the co-op’s stability to negotiate more favorable mortgage terms with Metropolitan Life. Most critically, the co-op implemented a proactive plan to generate needed cash while keeping its apartments occupied and its membership growing. Hans describes the approach:
Vacant apartments were rented out for a higher carrying charge than $11 [per room], and a lowered per-room investment of $200. The new residents could stay on for two and a half years. If the new family liked living [there], they could remain and apply the excess rent they had already paid in to bring their investment up to the $500 per room level.
Following this approach, in one of the worst years of the Depression, the co-op generated a surplus, and the board used some of the revenues to purchase an adjacent parcel.
Kazan’s second limited-equity co-op was the Amalgamated Dwellings, also underway when the Depression struck, located back on the Lower East Side, at Grand and Columbia Streets. The Dwellings brought the limited-equity housing model to the geographic heart of the ACW’s membership base. Partially financed by a loan from the nearby Bowery Savings Bank, residents began to occupy the new units in the fall of 1930. The 231-unit complex was arranged around an open courtyard, with lower lot coverage ratios than the tenements that comprised the surrounding urban fabric. In a 1994 Times article, Christopher Gray interpreted its architecture:
[The architects] worked in a romantic side of European modernism in a way rarely seen in New York, with rich brickwork patterns and colors following Austrian, Belgian, and Dutch designs of the 1920s. The red- and salmon-colored brick veers around in wild angles and staccato soldier courses, interrupted by occasional stucco panels, and voluptuous cast-stone door surrounds and curvy iron decoration. New York 1930, [a highly regarded book] by Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins, and Gregory Gilmartin, calls it “a major achievement in American housing.”
Along with his efforts to maintain solvency in the Bronx, Kazan employed similar approaches to shepherd the downtown Dwellings through the Depression years, working with resident-owners to control expenses and make good management decisions. The Dwellings, like its precursor in the Northwest Bronx, survived the 1930s and remained an affordable co-op for decades. However, in 1997, the Amalgamated Dwellings board traded the myriad benefits of limited-equity for the windfall to current owners, whose neighborhood had been absorbed by the astronomical real estate universe of Manhattan.
Both Amalgamated cooperatives were thoughtfully designed and built on a traditional neighborhood scale. These were not simply utilitarian housing blocks; they were planned communities. In addition to their spacious, modern rooms, they provided residents with landscaped grounds and attractive architectural details, grounded in the traditions of European town planning. The Amalgamated Co-op and the Dwellings expressed, respectively, the broader Tudor and Art Deco styles that predominated among the city’s private multifamily buildings in the early 20th century. Accordingly, the cooperatives themselves comprised political communities that allowed for broad and direct participation by resident stakeholders.
Robert Moses and Transformation in the Post-War Era
The success of early labor-sponsored co-ops attracted new political interest in the period immediately after World War II. The original co-ops became a template, however, for a notably different approach to urban housing. Returning veterans had fueled a surge in local housing demand. In addressing this need, the infamous New York planner Robert Moses saw a new opportunity to remake the city: He began to promote a supercharged version of limited-equity cooperativism.
In 1945, Moses met with Kazan and obtained his support for a new development. Much larger than the adjacent Amalgamated Dwellings, Moses’s Hillman Houses represented the start of a collaboration with Kazan that would yield increasingly massive limited-equity cooperatives that, unlike the leading lights of the pre-war period, benefited from strong government support. Not only would public money flow to these developments, but in many cases the power of eminent domain would be used to clear a canvas that was unhindered by existing urbanism. Kazan and Moses held differing political philosophies, but shared two critical beliefs about urban housing: first, the demolition of tenements was a clear benefit to the city; second, large-scale, high-rise developments could address the modern city’s housing needs.
In 1949, the Federal Housing Act authorized slum clearance for housing developed under its auspices; Moses and Kazan took this as a green light. By 1951, they had transformed the AHC into a new, larger entity: the United Housing Federation (UHF). Jessor was appointed chief architect, and with the added support of the state’s new Mitchell-Lama Act, the UHF became the most prolific builder of middle-income cooperative housing in U.S. history.
The stark new developments fostered a reduced degree of intimacy, with buildings that vaguely resembled Le Corbusier’s concept of A Machine for Living In. This was a time of modernity and state action. Although these middle-income buildings were more well-appointed than low-income housing projects of the same era, and although they enjoyed the benefits of being owner-occupied, they exhibited some of the same questionable design choices that characterized contemporary public housing for the poor.
The most salient of these problems centered around a radical departure in scale, form, and layout from the cultural traditions of town planning that had shaped urban development down to the eve of World War II. And yet, these novel qualities also represented a previously impossible efficiency that produced more units; a materialist approach that defined success by the gross number of people who received a benefit. In Working-Class New York, Joshua Freeman delineates the order of UHF priorities:
[The developers] placed the highest value on building comfortable housing at affordable prices, with exterior appearance secondary. Apartments in UHF projects were thoughtfully laid-out, with plenty of light, cross-ventilation in most rooms, eat-in kitchens (with windows) and parquet floors.
In the post-war period, new UHF limited-equity cooperatives included the Hillman Houses (1947-1950); East River Houses (1956); Seward Park (1957); Penn South (1962); Rochdale Village (1963); and Co-op City (1968-1972). Together, these six developments added more than 28,000 new units to the New York City housing stock. During the same period, other, non-UHF-sponsored co-ops were also organized or expanded, amplifying the total number of new units.
Spacious, modern housing in stable, owner-occupied neighborhoods had long been a tall order for middle-income families—and post-war limited-equity cooperatives offered many New York City residents a measure of economic and social stability. Kazan and his team appeared to subscribe to the conservative adage that private property is the cornerstone of democracy. In fact, their radicalism was the belief that the base of people who lived by this truism could be so broadly expanded, even amid the challenges posed by a crowded, expensive, and increasingly regulated city.
But some of the design choices that were used to facilitate greater unit quantities in these behemoth, post-war developments eroded several of the pre-war cooperative model’s inherent strengths. The sheer size of the post-war cooperatives was an affront to any intuitive sense of human-scaled community. The massing and layout elements—towers in the park, superblocks without street life, and a near absence of humanizing aesthetic considerations—manifested all the prominent mistakes that Jane Jacobs identified in the urban planning orthodoxy of post-war America. Finally, the formalization of the co-ops under the state’s Mitchell-Lama program, combined with their attenuated connections to the grassroots labor and community organizations that had been so important during the pre-war period, watered down the character, independence, and autonomy that had contributed to a sense of purpose and community.
The largest and—not coincidentally—the last of the large limited-equity developments was Co-op City. Begun in 1968 by the UHF team, its monotonous 32-story towers would dwarf the detached houses and small apartment buildings that characterized the surrounding neighborhoods of the East Bronx near the Westchester County line. Co-op City was car dependent. It was located far beyond the last subway stop, and its only public transportation was a bus. Worst of all, its builders discovered, much too late, that the marshland on which it was being built was too soft to support the massive towers—and the structures immediately began to subside. More than even the other large post-war developments, Co-op City was lacking in good design. While its location along Eastchester Bay and Pelham Bay Park provided a natural counterpoint, it remained the starkest and most institutional of the limited-equity developments. After several expensive engineering feats, Co-op City’s units began to come onto the market in the fall of 1968.
In 1971, Kazan died from the effects of a debilitating stroke while Co-op City remained in development. In the absence of his leadership, a series of allegedly broken promises led the UHF-allied management to be sued by cooperators, who accused it of fraud. The case marked a sour turning point: Some of the plaintiffs were longtime New York City labor activists who had shared Kazan’s beliefs in self-help and participatory communities, but at Co-op City, the UHF had become an adversary, rather than an advocate for their interests. In 1975 and 1976, a yearlong “rent strike” followed, in which residents withheld their maintenance payments, citing a litany of overlooked complaints. Ultimately, the UHF-backed candidates withdrew their names from a board election and were replaced by a slate that represented the strikers. The new board negotiated more favorable terms for cooperators for its state-backed mortgage and other expenses. The UHF was effectively finished.
Since the 1970s, the dearth of new limited-equity developments, along with soaring market housing costs in New York City, has resulted in years-long or suspended waiting lists—or sporadic “housing lotteries”—for units in most of the remaining limited-equity buildings. Frustrating as this situation may be, it illustrates the continuing value and viability of limited-equity co-ops in a highly competitive, heavily regulated real estate market. In his later years, Kazan criticized co-op residents whom he perceived to take little interest in the spirit of cooperativism, and instead seemed narrowly interested in UHF communities because of the value they provided as affordable housing. Be that as it may, it is interesting to consider how the various post-war changes to co-ops—greatly increased scale, radical site planning, and a supplanting of a literal community by its proxy, the state—may have diluted the benefits, beyond simply affordable housing, from an approach that once also created strong communities.
When implemented on a smaller and more traditional scale, and when integrated into established neighborhoods, the results had been, and remain, meaningfully different from those which Kazan lamented. If it is true that the dysfunction that characterized Co-op City was partly a product of the same types of urban-planning mistakes that Jane Jacobs and the New Urbanists have identified in other aspects of post-war American planning—and if it is also true that some of the other large developments of the post-war period were less lovable than they might have been because of their sheer size—then there may be space for a revival of limited-equity cooperatives on a more human scale.
Such an approach would likely be closer, in essential ways, to the original housing co-ops that were sponsored by labor, political, and community organizations. Many of these organizations, at their time, were aligned with the specific labor or left-wing organizations that had pioneered cooperative housing; yet in practice, their organization is very compatible with philosophies across the political spectrum. At a time when both affordable housing and stable communities are increasingly difficult to find in a growing number of regions, the story of New York City’s limited-equity communities deserves to be told again.
Copyright 2017 Theo Mackey Pollack
One of the most significant consequences of the 1926 Euclid Supreme Court decision—which declared that the then relatively new practice of zoning ordinances was Constitutional—has been the ability of municipal governments to quash organic approaches to efficient land development. In many cases, this impulse has served a valuable function, allowing communities to protect themselves from nuisances, incompatible uses, and the damage wrought by bad development. But along with their clear benefits, it is important to note the potential costs of zoning policies that discourage efficient land use.
In their 2000 book, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck note that between 1970 and 1990, the proportion of American families that could afford to purchase a median-priced home fell from 50 percent to just 25. During the same years, planners and others widely observed a troubling decline in the aesthetic design quality of new buildings and land uses, while lamenting the growing number of communities in which people cannot take part in basic, daily activities without a car. Significantly, a number of the contributing factors that have been cited for these trends have a common thread: a declining efficiency of land use.
Land-use efficiency has a long and practical history in town planning, beginning organically at the dawn of urban civilization, and refined in its method at least since the fifth century B.C., when Hippodamus planned the reconstruction of his native Miletus, after the Persian War. The goal of efficient land use was traditionally driven by the practical necessities of urban life in pre-industrial societies, where walking and animal use were the primary modes of mobility on land. Even with the advent of railroads in the nineteenth century, and the fast, long-distance travel that they facilitated, new towns were still built on a walkable scale—that is, their streets were laid out within walking distance of one another and the train station. Out of this practical necessity, a refined tradition developed that included resourceful devices for saving the valuable land near existing settlements, and for making the best use of the land that was already contained within them.
The industrial pollution and massive crowding of the late nineteenth century, followed by the individual freedom supplied by the automobile in the early twentieth, undermined the established, pragmatic rationales for maintaining the traditions of town planning: As cities became increasingly unpleasant, many individuals soon became free to leave them behind. In the United States, the Supreme Court’s 1926 decision in Euclid eliminated yet another support for traditional urban growth patterns: their legal inevitability. By empowering local governments to widely regulate the lawful uses of private property, the ability of individual land owners to maximize their use of every urban parcel was greatly abrogated. In Suburban Nation, Duany et al. point out two common, practical devices that fell out of favor due to their increasing illegality under Euclidian zoning regimes. The first is the age-old tradition of building inexpensive apartments over the retail space of business districts. Duany et al. write:
Upstairs apartments provide customers for the shops, activity for the streets, and nighttime surveillance for the neighborhood. They also represent one of the most economical ways to provide housing, since the land and infrastructure costs are covered by the shops; the housing can be supplied for the cost of construction alone. . . . Additionally, [housing over shopping] contributes much-needed height to retail buildings, which with only one story fail to adequately define street space.
In addition to separating what might be perfectly compatible uses, such as stores and apartments, Euclidean zoning laws have also frequently dictated that no more than one unit shall be permitted on a single lot. According to Duany, this policy has resulted in the elimination of so-called outbuilding apartments, such as those located above the garages of a detached carriage house, or those contained in a separate, smaller building, in the yard behind a primary house. Significantly, the elimination of such market-rate, affordable housing alternatives may have a doubly negative effect on the affordability of housing. By reducing the availability of new, affordable units, it has created greater competition for existing housing options.
In addition to quashing the potential for over-the-store apartments and outbuilding flats, typical Euclidean zoning codes, in keeping with the language of Justice Sutherland’s opinion in the decision, often greatly constrain the development of multifamily buildings in areas beyond their immediate vicinity at the time of drafting. In the post-Euclid world, any significant changes to established land use policies generally require the highly-political, time consuming, and necessarily infrequent process of revising the official map. And in a typical zoning ordinance, each of the basic use-zones is further correlated with a schedule of so-called zone requirements. These rules typically mandate minimum lot widths, depths, and street frontages, as well as maximum lot coverages, numbers of units, and heights. While safety codes have long been used to regulate the height of urban construction, comprehensive zoning ordinances are often written in language that is so restrictive that it effectively precludes the potential for creativity by builders and architects. In short, the hands of developers are quite well tied by the common restrictions of Euclidean zoning.
The impact of Euclidean zoning on economic development is powerful: First, it ensures that the productive potential of a community’s land is controlled by legislative restrictions on both its use and its intensity of development. Up to a point, the prudent exercise of this power can be beneficial to local economies, especially where it protects local properties by averting the predictable externalities of nuisances, eyesores, crowding, and incompatible uses. But where the impact of zoning laws exceeds these practical goals, and results in the arbitrary exclusion of compatible uses, walkable neighborhoods, and decent, land-efficient housing, such laws can severely limit a community’s capacity for healthy economic development. And when zoning policies result in artificial shortages of necessary floor space, the resulting increase in costs can impose a high entry barrier on a local marketplace, and ensure that a larger portion of a community’s wealth must be spent on obtaining access to real estate, rather than be invested in more productive, dynamic sectors of the local economy.
In contrast to the patterns that develop under the legal and political restrictions of Euclidean land policies, the pre-zoning development patterns of late-Victorian New York City illustrate the trends that emerged in a metropolitan land economy that was driven mainly by the organic demands of the market, and large-scale adaptations of traditional town-planning devices. In the period between 1880 and 1930, when the available land in Manhattan (and, later, what would become the Bronx) was being increasingly built out with single-family brownstones, a continued demand for housing led to the gradual redevelopment of many townhouse neighborhoods with larger apartment buildings. The architects of these new buildings, who were often limited to a canvas of just a few attached lots, were required to find resourceful ways to create housing on limited parcels of land.
Accordingly, the housing stock of New York City that was built between 1880 and 1930 contains a wealth of examples of traditional land use efficiency. The buildings of that era occupied the entire spectrum of both practical and aesthetic possibilities, representing, as they did, the products of a largely unregulated urban land market awash in the tumult of industrial capitalism. In the years since the turn of the century, a number of reporters have thoroughly documented the deplorable conditions of the downtown tenements in Victorian New York, but comparatively little attention has been paid to the remarkable qualities of the city’s vast upper-middle-class apartment stock, which was beginning to take shape around the same time. The design and land use efficiency of these buildings, and the value that they concentrate on small parcels of private land, often compares quite favorably with the endless payout of strip malls, garden apartments, mundane architecture, and distorted housing costs that has accrued to much of the post-Euclid metropolitan landscape of the United States. While zoning remains a useful tool in the hands of local authorities, the argument for re-examining its standard applications, often made by New Urbanists like Duany, has grown increasingly strong.
Market-Based Efficient Land Use: Late Victorian New York City
The upper-middle-class apartment stock of New York City, dating from the late Victorian era, represents a unique historical intersection of traditional, pre-zoning, land efficient approaches to town planning, and the large-scale, extensive infrastructure of a modern urban economy. In light of the present situation, it is interesting to look more closely to the not-so-distant past, and to examine some of the better approaches to efficient metropolitan land development that were employed in that context. In 1892, a guidebook author, Moses King, published an extensive survey of the contemporary city of New York that continues to offer some of the clearest depictions and descriptions of American urbanism in the late years of the Victorian period. In a chapter discussing the city’s growing supply of middle-class apartment buildings, King offers a thoughtful analysis of the social and economic factors that had influenced the increasing respectability of apartment living. He writes:
Apartment houses, it has been said, hold more than half of the middle-class population of Manhattan Island. Real estate is so valuable, and consequently rents so high, that to occupy a house is quite beyond the reach of a family of ordinary means, and the suburbs on account of their inaccessibility are out of the question. Consequently, apartments and flats have become a necessity, and a system of living, originally adopted for that reason, has now become very much of a virtue. Apartment-life is popular and to a certain extent fashionable. Even society countenances it, and a brownstone front is no longer indispensable to at least moderate social standing. And as for wealthy folk who are not in society, they are taking more and more to apartments.
It was during this period that a sharp distinction began to emerge in the city’s apartment stock, with the traditional slum-tenement buildings on one side, and the new supply of well-appointed buildings on the other. Both made efficient use of land, but the former group took into account few other considerations, while the latter tried to balance efficient land use with an effort to meet the aesthetic expectations of more affluent tenants.
The differences between these two tranches of buildings highlight the inherent tension between the goals of achieving maximum land use efficiency and creating decent living spaces. In the pre-zoning days of the 1890s, developers of the two types of buildings became embroiled in battles over the character of individual blocks and neighborhoods. King describes the frontiers of class geography in 1892 Manhattan:
The tenements display the lowly side and often the dark side of New-York life. It is not possible to locate the tenement-house population within any closely defined limits. In general, it may be said to hold parts of nearly all the streets below 14th, except a part of the old Ninth Ward, which is distinctively the Native [-born] American section of the city, and in and about Washington Square and lower Fifth Avenue, clinging to the river-front on either side, monopolizing almost entirely the East Side nearly over to Broadway. Above 14th Street on the East Side it is supreme east of Third Avenue as far as the Harlem River, with the exception of a part of lower Second Avenue and a few side-streets here and there. On the West Side it comes from the river-front as far east as Sixth Avenue, with oases of better homes here and there, and this as far north as about 59th Street. The territory above 59th Street to 125th Street has very little of this population. Tenement-houses are as a rule great towering buildings, many of them squalid and in bad repair, and devoid of any but the rudest arrangements for existence. They are packed with human beings. In a single block between Avenue В and Avenue С and 2d and 3d Streets there are over 3,500 residents, and a smaller block on Houston Street contains 3,000 people, which is at the rate of 1,000,000 to the square mile. That section is altogether populated at the rate of 500,000 to the square mile, which is as if the entire population of the city should be crowded into a space less than two miles square.
Presumably, it was with this landscape in mind that developers of new, upscale apartments sought to acquire land parcels further uptown, especially in the clean-slate blocks near Central Park, in Harlem and Washington Heights, and along the Grand Concourse. Many of their buildings took the spatial efficiency measures that had long been used in downtown tenements, and tempered them with a consciousness of form to create compact yet beautiful buildings.
The Classic Six
The New York Public Library maintains an extensive digital image database called “Classic Six: New York City Apartment Building Living, 1880-1910.” The name refers to the six-room layout that was typical in many of the city’s late Victorian apartment buildings, and the images are mostly scanned from The World’s New York Apartment House Album, an out-of-print volume that was published in 1910 by the New York World; and Apartment Houses of the Metropolis, a similar out-of-print album published two years earlier by G.C. Hesselgren & Company. Among the many plates are hundreds of color lithographs, depicting the footprints, floor plans, details, and dimensions of actual buildings that comprise the early portion of the iconic, pre-war apartment stock of the city.
These plans, which refer to bedrooms and living rooms as chambers and parlors, respectively, and which often provide for a maid’s room and a library in an otherwise modest unit, depict the urban American lifestyle of a lost time. Yet, in spite of their indulgence of dated pretensions and their frequently ornate details, these buildings contain a practical wisdom in their simple geometry, one that deserves to be recovered and applied in the contemporary search for efficient housing solutions. And, notably, like the over-the-store apartments and outbuilding flats described by Duany, et al., many of these buildings’ most useful efficiency devices could never be reconciled with the typical zoning ordinances of contemporary suburbia.
One of the basic architectural features to be employed for spatial efficiency in the apartment buildings of the late Victorian period was the interior courtyard. By opening up the inside of the structure to air and light, internal rooms could be arranged to overlook a courtyard, and a larger portion of the lot could thus be covered with living space. As an added benefit, interior courtyards facilitated the aesthetic effect of having continuous façades along a street’s block face, creating a strong sense of intimately contained space on each block, and maintaining the enclosure that had previously been established by rows of attached brownstones. While the courtyard remains in use today, it is applied less frequently in the kinds of simple, basic buildings that it often enhanced a century ago. This has led to a loss of both aesthetic value and land-use efficiency in urban housing,
A good example of the ordinary application of the interior courtyard can be found in the layout of the Wadsworth Court, a six-story elevator building that was finished in 1909. Situated at the southwest corner of Wadsworth Avenue and West 180th Street, its modest, 100-by-75 foot lot is the land-use equivalent of just three standard row houses. But the Wadsworth accommodates five generously proportioned apartments on each of its upper five floors, and four large apartments, as well as a lobby and vestibule, on its ground floor. If one could presume that the chambers, maids’ rooms, and libraries of 1909 would today be, simply, bedrooms, then the Wadsworth layout manages to accommodate a total of 66 separate sleeping areas. And if a predictable portion of these are shared by couples, then the building provides enough space for about 100 people to live comfortably.
Today, few people who passed on the street would be likely to notice the Wadsworth as anything more extraordinary than a typical New York apartment building. In fact, its cornice is gone—replaced by mismatched bricks—and its paint is visibly fading. Its aging fire escapes have marked it for conflation with the tenements it was designed to contrast. But, in a way, its unremarkable present-day appearance is exactly what makes it interesting: These ordinary old buildings often contained simple design elements that have been shelved by subsequent generations of architects. Yet some of these devices might well be recovered in the contemporary quest to create more housing in dense metropolitan areas.
Similar to interior courtyards, externally-oriented adaptations of the same principle were widely employed by architects of the period. Rather than being enclosed by four structural walls, exterior courtyards are generally open to the street, resulting in a building whose façade is visually separated into two or more arms. The deep setback created by this design might be furnished with landscaped gardens, paths, lamp posts, benches, and patio tables. Like the interior courtyard, the open courtyard allows a larger percentage of the building lot to be covered by extending the length of exterior walls, and providing the necessary geometry to gain greater access to light and air. Unlike the interior courtyard, it is generally less private, and it may or may not be gated from the street. A good example of two buildings whose design employs this device to maximize ground coverage can be found in Washington Heights, in a pair called the Knowlton Court. Occupying the entire east side of Broadway between West 158th and West 159th Streets, these buildings were constructed between 1907 and 1908. Together, they have four exterior courtyards, with two facing Broadway and one facing each of the cross streets. At seven stories, the Knowlton Court buildings provide at least 244 bedrooms on a parcel that measures 200 by 125 feet, or enough space to house about 300 people.
Yards, Alleys, and Airshafts
While courtyards offer a balance of function and form, providing both practical and aesthetic benefits to buildings in urban settings, their function alone can frequently be achieved on a smaller scale with more utilitarian applications of the same basic concept. Simple paved or unpaved yards, bounding alleyways, and airshafts can be designed into large apartment buildings to maximize lot coverage and provide at least a modicum of air and light to a large number of off-street rooms.
A good example of the judicious application of such devices can still be found at the Saxonia, in Harlem. Designed by the architects of Neville & Bagge, the building opened in 1907 at the northwest corner of Broadway and West 136th Street, in an enclave known as Hamilton Heights. A six-story, elevator building with extensive ground floor retail space, the Saxonia capitalized on its proximity to the new City College campus, which also opened in 1907, and to the simultaneously-constructed IRT subway station at the corner of Broadway and West 137th Street. With a façade that wraps around its block face on both streets, the retail spaces are arranged to open on Broadway, while the building’s residential lobby is entered through a vestibule on the cross street. Neville achieved internal space efficiency through a variety of devices, including both interior and exterior courtyards, an oversized airshaft (providing air and light to a number of the tenants’ bathrooms), and a narrow setback from each of the interior property lines to create bounding alleyways, which are faced with windows and fire escapes. In this way, despite being situated on a lot that measures only 100 by 100 feet, or the equivalent of just four row houses, the architects were able to provide for at least 100 bedrooms on the upper five floors, as well as seven retail stores and a superintendent’s apartment on the ground level.
Similarly, in west Midtown, the architects of the Summersby Apartments achieved an even greater efficiency with just a 50-foot lot. Their seven-story building, located on West 56th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, opened in 1910. Its façade is attached to those on either side, creating the aesthetic of a continuous streetscape, but the building edges are stepped in at a depth of 20 feet, to create a pair of narrow bounding alleys that run to the back of the structure. There, these spaces are connected by a small, paved yard that adjoins the similar yards of adjacent buildings. The crevasses of light and air thus provided are used as facings for the placement of windows and exterior fire escapes, and they allow for an astonishing eighty percent of the Summersby’s lot width to be covered with livable floor space. As a result, space enough for at least 68 bedrooms is provided in just seven stories on the land that would be required for just two standard row houses. Admittedly, the actual light and air enjoyed by many rooms under such a design is minimal. But the building’s description in the Album indicates that, even in 1910, there was a market for apartments that traded aesthetics for access to Midtown:
The Summersby is a splendidly built, fireproof apartment house, with elevator service and telephone in each apartment. The highest degree of efficiency is demanded of the superintendent and uniformed hallboys. Tenants are selected with great care, and each apartment has the advantages of a private house.
Surprisingly, in light of today’s Manhattan land costs, the building was designed to have just two large apartments on each floor. Clearly, in the alternative, a number of smaller units could be carved out of the same space to provide more housing at lower price points to smaller households.
The Legacy of Late Victorian Urban Design
The approaches applied by the architects of the buildings described above are not especially unique. Instead, they are examples of routine design elements employed in the kinds of typical, middle-class and upscale apartment houses that were built in New York City around the turn of the twentieth century. For better and for worse, these devices were applied in thousands of buildings to achieve a higher density of residential space on limited parcels of land. Late Victorian urban design employed a much greater intricacy in its building devices than the majority of today’s apartment buildings. Many of these devices continue to haunt the collective consciousness that Americans have of old city buildings: long, echoing hallways, precarious fire escapes, dim alleys, and dark, paved yards. The hard times that fell on many urban neighborhoods in the late-twentieth century further colored the perception of these devices, as their inherent creation of mystery, density, and intricacy seemed terribly ill-suited for a world of crime, poverty, pervasive danger, and neglected maintenance. Yet, some of the period’s classic devices, like landscaped courtyards, grand lobbies, sunken living rooms, high ceilings, and transom windows are remembered much more fondly, and are still admired for the aesthetic grace that they add to the older buildings—almost to the point of obscuring their practical purposes. Yet, all of this complexity, both good and bad, was built with a small toolbox of simple, geometrical adaptations that allowed for the very efficient use of limited land.
In the years after World War II, as the patchwork of postwar America developed from the application of traditional Euclidean zoning, much of the resourceful wisdom and intricate variety of urban America began to unravel under a legal regime whose mandatory, broad brushstrokes pushed builders, architects, and even small-scale private landowners in entirely new directions. As New Urbanist writers like Duany have frequently observed, post-war land development was largely removed from the historical, practical, and aesthetic contexts of traditional approaches to town planning, and the consequences of this fundamental shift can be perceived in the strip malls, garden apartments, stunted design quality, wasted land, car dependence, and distorted housing that now characterize much of the American landscape. But, in spite of this, the conventional wisdom at the heart of land-use zoning retains a broad and powerful appeal: Most people recognize that the authority that has been delegated to local governments, pursuant to Euclid, has allowed many communities to protect themselves and the economic value of their properties from the predictable externalities of nuisances, eyesores, crowding, and incompatible uses, each of which has the potential to blight the landscape in a nearly permanent way.
While the potential value of land use zoning is evident, it is interesting to consider whether some of the architectural devices that were employed in New York City before its advent might be recovered and applied to address today’s planning challenges across the United States. A recovery of certain design elements from that time would hold the promise of influencing a wider recovery of land-use efficiency in metropolitan housing. This would be broadly consistent with the sustainable goals of economic development, ecological stewardship, and social equity, for many of the reasons discussed above. As we revise the calcifying approaches to Euclidian zoning, and seek to increase housing stocks without destroying the complex fabric of existing neighborhoods, we should look to the intricacy of New York City’s late-Victorian approach to apartment building. We might find it contains a number of valuable secrets, hidden in plain view.
Copyright 2017 Theo Mackey Pollack
The Late Victorian period in the United States—roughly the last third of the 19th century—produced some of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the history of Western civilization. It also produced some of the most hopeless slums. In response to the crisis of industrial cities, the modern discipline of city planning emerged. The tools of this new profession helped clean up many unhealthy aspects of urban industry, but also stifled some of the best innovations of Late Victorian urbanism.
By the 1920s, planners in the industrial world had established the legal authority to promulgate land-use regulations, and over the next generation, they succeeded at slowing the construction of slum housing and segregating noxious industries from incompatible activities, such as housing and office space. Through some of the same devices, however, planners curtailed some positive features of 19th-century urbanism, including the rich variety of free-form industrial development and the adaptive responsiveness of such neighborhoods to the changing needs of a dynamic society.
In recent years, critics have lamented the parallel declines in beauty and functionality of newly built neighborhoods, and have sought to recover some of the best features of the Late Victorian city by mandating development styles that imitate its forms. The New Urbanism movement is the most salient example of this phenomenon. But far from being the products of a comprehensive legal process, the forms of traditional neighborhoods were the end result of a larger development context—one that has largely been forgotten.
The Late Victorian period is an object of admiration for many New Urbanists, and left a durable imprint on American urbanism before comprehensive zoning regulations began. By identifying the factors that shaped development in that the heyday of modern urbanism, we may begin to uncover how they interacted to build neighborhoods that people continue to love.
The Common Law and Urbanism in Late Victorian America
Today American law acts as the dominant factor shaping new neighborhoods. Prior to the onset of zoning, however, law was one among several factors that created the built environment. In the 19th century, a paradigm shift began to take place in the legal systems of the Anglo-American world. Statutes had coexisted with case law in the English tradition for many centuries, but in the early 19th century, statutes remained much less pervasive than they are today: The flexible doctrines shaped by courts through case law were broadly workable in agrarian societies. Partly in response to industrialization, and partly for other reasons, demand grew for greater specificity and predictability than case law could offer. One consequence was an ambitious effort to codify both the substance and procedure of law. During the 19th century, legislatures became more prolific, legal codes became more prominent, and case law began, more frequently, to interpret statutes rather than to expound on traditional rules.
The body of law that governs the physical development of real property did not escape the trend toward codification, although the result, modern land use zoning, did not crystallize until the early 20th century. Nevertheless, in the history of development there is a long tradition of formal regulation, which may obscure the importance of a key change in modern city planning.
Since antiquity, written codes have regulated construction in cities (e.g., to reduce risks of fire, collapse, and disease) and ensured the integrity of public rights of way. In the 19th century, such codes were at work American cities, and they continue to exist today, primarily in the form of building codes. The salient change, which tracked the modern trend toward greater codification, was the advent of the comprehensive regulation of land use. Unlike a building code, a zoning ordinance specifies permissible activities and limits development intensity for non-safety reasons. Thus, in the common-law world, one could see the advent of land-use zoning as an attempt to codify the prevention of nuisances. The increasing regulation of land use over the past century has diverted and reordered the powerful non-legal forces that once shaped development; when studying land development norms of the Late Victorian past, the silence of the law is often its most notable distinction.
Logic and Tradition as Positive Forces
In the more free-form legal context that developers enjoyed before zoning, one can imagine the formation of a new town. In an environment of light regulation, new settlements form as local variations on a general, logical pattern. Imagine any crossroads, for example, as the seed of a new town. A crossroads is logical, because it will experience more traffic than any non-intersecting point along either of its constituent thoroughfares, making it a good spot for a church, an inn, or a market. Better, still, is a crossroads near a secondary transport route, such as a river, harbor, or railroad track; or a crossroads near a natural resource, like a mineral vein or a hardwood forest. In some cases, chance or unique circumstances may determine why people initially select a particular point for a solitary outpost. Yet once a destination is established, the value of the adjacent sites increases by an order of magnitude: Now, this site receives the traffic for its newfound destination. With a second destination, the crossroads becomes the smallest kind of settlement.
From here, our settlement has the potential for continued growth. At some point, it may attract enough people to justify building a green or a forum. With foresight, the founders may reserve the last unoccupied angle of the crossroads for this use, as was done in the Roman tradition. If, instead, the designation of a common space is reactive, then it might be done a short distance up or down one of the two main roads, from which point it may eventually become a new center of gravity for the growing settlement.
If the trend continues, a logical course of action would be to build out a grid from the central locus to accommodate continued growth. Builders may extend blocks to establish the green shoots of this settlement pattern into the surrounding raw land. Over time, these activities may shape a pattern of neighborhood development with the economic and cultural forces that operate within it. This is because, in the absence of a formal planning process, towns and cities are living, responsive manifestations of the social lives, economies, and cultural norms of their people.
The Shaping Factors of Free-Form Urbanism
In contrast with the positive forces of urban genesis, an array of other, limiting factors presented forms of resistance that ultimately shaped the growth of neighborhoods. Most neighborhoods whose essential qualities survive from the late 19th century were not formally, centrally planned. One of the most interesting land use riddles—which should be at the heart of any inquiry into traditional town planning— is how the towns and cities of that period often achieved such good layout, massing, and general communication between diverse sites, given the much smaller toolbox of legal devices that controlled such phenomena prior to the early 20th century. Solving the riddle about what has gone missing in today’s development requires identifying the factors that fostered greater cohesion between urban parcels in the past. (This is a separate question from what caused the decline in quality of the architecture of individual structures and it goes much more to the essence of effective land-use planning.)
Five major constraints, or shaping factors, tempered the form of urbanism in its Late Victorian, free-form heyday. Bright-line distinctions did not always separate these factors. In fact, to a certain extent, their forces of influence tended to overlap.
1) The Topography and Dimensions of Development Sites
In the period before modern zoning, the layout of a new neighborhood was shaped by topography and subdivision. The former was mostly a given; the latter was done, as it is today, through the recording of plats, which showed the precise dimensions of new lots and rights-of-way. A typical American platting statute in the 19th century was enacted by a state legislature, and required filings to include a survey map; a written site description, with metes and bounds; a declaration of intent to subdivide the property; a scale and a compass; and the seal of a licensed surveyor or engineer. Publicly-owned lands could be platted by municipal authorities, while private lands could be platted by their respective owners, and multiple owners could jointly file for contiguous parcels. Issues such as street lines and zero-lot lines might have been addressed on a case-by-case basis. Notably absent from these statutes were any references to regulations pertaining to massing and land-use considerations. However, it was not unheard of for platting statutes to include an acknowledgment of the general police power over subsequent development. In areas of new growth, plats may have been initiated by the developers themselves.
In tandem with the human hand of subdivision, natural topography determined how individual sites could be developed. Steep slopes, watercourses, flood plains, wetlands, exposures to sunlight, and other factors could all present obstacles to the development patterns of a particular site. Of course, these topographic and environmental considerations have shaped the development of towns since antiquity.
2) Patterns Shaped by Contemporary Building and Transportation Technologies
Prior to the advent of railroads, any settlement not situated on a navigable waterway was limited to such commerce as could be supported by slow, overland routes, and the beasts of burden that traversed them. Accordingly, nearly every large settlement was situated on a seaport, a river, or a canal. And even within these maritime cities, intense development was viable only in proximity to the piers. Thus, the densest parts of old river cities as diverse as classical Rome, Elizabethan London, and 18th-century New York, tended to sprawl along their respective riverfronts, with their densest areas of settlement being essentially riparian and expanding in a linear, rather than concentric, pattern. Meanwhile, European cities with extensive canals, like Venice and Amsterdam, offer some of the most extensive examples of pre-industrial concentric urbanism, because their networks of artificial waterways served as capillaries for trade and the corresponding growth of dense urbanism.
During the second half of the 19th century, the growth of railroads played an outsized role in reshaping American land development patterns. With the advent of railroads, suddenly, vibrant towns and neighborhoods could be developed—and integrated into the larger economy—in proximity to any fixed stop along a track. Freed from its dependence on navigable waterways, the canvas of urbanism grew exponentially. On a local scale, streetcar lines, subways, and elevated railroads acted as arteries of urban growth that allowed the outward expansion from the central districts served by intracity rail. Yet, within this far-flung network rail-driven settlements, technological limits continued to exert pressure on developers to maximize land use efficiency on parcels close to transportation arteries. Most significantly, before the advent of motor vehicles, neighborhoods were still necessarily compact: A practical limit, walkable distances from rail lines, represented the continuation of a constraint that had existed in relation to navigable waterways since classical times. Thus, while railroads, including streetcars, expanded the canvas of urbanism, they did not so much disrupt the traditional patterns of cohesion within individual neighborhoods.
Accordingly, the period between the advent of railroads and the rise of motor vehicles (from about 1850 to 1910) was a historically unique period in the history of land development. In this era, urbanism could be economically viable in settings that lacked maritime commerce, and industry drove such development to countless new places. Yet the essential, intricate patterns of Western European urbanism were not threatened by sprawl. In contrast, the potential height of structures did grow significantly during this period. Large apartment buildings became increasingly common in New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and other east coast cities, and the first skyscrapers took shape at the latter end of this era. Accordingly, this period became a sort of tabula rasa for free-form urbanism, in which traditional forms could admit variations and experiments—such as taller buildings, experimental architecture, and streetcar suburbs—that would not have been technologically viable in earlier times. Yet neighborhoods retained the compact scale of European urbanism that had shaped settlements since antiquity.
3) Common Law Principles
In the late Victorian period, covenants could be made between private parties pertaining to land use. The basic form of such covenants dates from the decision in Spencer’s Case, in 1583, though scholars have suggested that the principle itself may be much older than that. However, the early covenants applied to the assignment of leases, and not to successive owners in fee. In England, the modern form did not take shape until the 1848 decision in Tulk v. Moxhay, which confirmed that equitable remedies (e.g., injunction and specific performance) could be used to enforce such agreements; and that covenants could be enforced in the equity courts against successive owners in fee. In America, real covenants had been allowed by courts from earlier times. Thus, on both sides of the Atlantic, by the time the Industrial revolution was reaching its full force, a device was available by which private parties could limit the allowable uses of their land—and these covenants could be made to “run with the land”—providing some measure of protection, for certain parties, against the dangers of growing industry.
In a typical form, one parcel would be burdened while the other would be benefited. Thus, reciprocal covenants could be used to enshrine certain qualities in future development patterns. When tracts of rural land were subdivided into smaller parcels for town development, entire neighborhoods could be shaped by running covenants. In addition, such covenants could fill the vacuum—to some extent—that the common-law system had left in the land-use constraints on private property as industry became more noxious. Yet covenants were limited in their utility by their requirement of horizontal privity, which typically meant the covenanting parties had to begin by subdividing a single parcel. While the precise definition varied by time and place, this rule had the invariable effect of limiting the circumstances under which parties could create covenants that would bind their successors. Thus, even neighboring property owners who agreed upon the need for specific restrictions could not simply establish covenants that would bind subsequent owners, in the same simple manner by which they could enter into contracts.
Because covenants required the assent of both the burdened and benefited parties, they were also relatively useless in addressing the growing number of conflicts that arose as cities and industries grew. Until the onset of zoning laws in the early 20th century, the common-law nuisance case was the main legal device that parties could use to restrain the noise, pollution, and congestion created by industrial sites. Nuisance law was limited, however, by interpretive trends that led to all-or-nothing remedies (e.g., closure of a factory versus the continuation of its nuisances); and by an increasing tendency of the courts, in the industrial age, to weigh the societal benefits of an activity against the costs to the immediate neighbors of the purported nuisance. Thus, by the early 20th century, the failure of traditional nuisance law to effectively police the consequences of heavy industry had become a major factor in the push for clearer and more predictable land-use regulation. As noted above, the early zoning ordinances could be seen as a codification of nuisance law to address—and presumably avert—some of the most common disputes that arose in industrial cities.
Thus, private covenants, on one hand, and nuisance law, on the other, constituted the basic common law that governed private land use in the Late Victorian period. This decidedly non-comprehensive system fostered a liberal development environment within which individual owners were largely free to innovate and be resourceful in how they developed the land. In the rural settings where new towns were being settled, and at the edges of growing cities where new neighborhoods were being developed, there were often only the constraints of nuisance law and simple economics on builders. Moreover, within established neighborhoods, as changing economic and technological pressures gradually altered the types of development that would be viable, the constitution of the urban fabric was free to evolve much more organically and responsively than it would be under today’s heavier and more political regulation.
Describing the transition of neighborhoods from private homes to apartment and commercial buildings, a process that was once taken for granted, Frank Backus Williams counseled urban planners in 1922 that, “such changes usually cannot and should not be opposed, for the higher land values (attained for such purposes) generally indicate that the new use is of greater importance to the community[.]” Fundamentally, a property owner under the common law system had a great deal of latitude and—with a few exceptions—could build as he pleased on his land.
4) The Evolving Landscape of Building Safety Codes.
Common-law urbanism was also covered by a veneer of statutory laws. The most significant of these were various types of safety codes. Yet much of the statutory land-use regulation that existed in the Late Victorian period was similar in nature to rules that had shaped urban development since ancient times; and these laws, like their ancient forerunners, did not attain the pervasiveness and restrictiveness that would characterize later, modern zoning laws. The rationale for safety laws was, quite narrowly, the promotion of safety, and their scope was defined accordingly.
In Rome, Augustus limited the height of new residential buildings to approximately 68 feet, to reduce the risk of collapse in the city’s growing insulae, or apartment blocks. Likewise, during the Renaissance, buildings in Venice and Florence were limited in height. Following the Great Fire of 1666, the City of London enacted the first significant building codes in British history. While these examples of laws were all enacted to reduce various risks to the public safety, they had the collateral effect of shaping their respective cities in those places, like Classical Rome’s Suburra, or along the Grand Canal in Venice, or in the 17th-century City of London, where unrestrained development pressures would otherwise have promoted the construction of larger and more crowded buildings.
The enactment of safety regulations, which in certain cases limited and shaped the development patterns of private property, was not novel—and during the heyday of free-form urbanism, such safety codes continued to govern urban building practices to reduce the risks of fire, disease, or collapse. Still it is important to note that codes prescribing a maximum density were likely to be factors only in those exceptional places where development pressure was quite intense, and where economic pressures would support development intensity that exceeded a consensus about safe practices. (This limited impact stands in sharp contrast to modern American zoning laws, which prohibit the construction of safe, economically viable development patterns to protect the preferences and property values of current owners from the real estate pressures of an evolving marketplace.)
In late Victorian America, safety laws primarily addressed the usual culprits. Over time, however, local authorities found ways to discourage certain unwanted types of development through dubious applications of safety regulations. Frank Backus Williams captures this when he writes:
A favorite means in many communities of excluding the “three decker” (i.e., the three story tenement house, with an apartment to the floor, often covering an undue percentage of the lot) is to make the requirements for it so expensive that it cannot be built at a profit. The New York City tenement house law, passed in 1901, provided that all tenements over six stories in height should be fire proof, and later amendments have made the six story building proportionately more expensive than the five story structure. Chicago has for many years required all tenements over three stories to be of fire proof material. The result is that in Manhattan and other parts of the city, New York is prevailingly a city of six or five story residences, while in Chicago the three story type is the predominant one. At the time these fire proofing regulations were passed, a plain height limit prescribing such a maximum would have been difficult of enactment.
Thus, by the turn of the century, we can see that local officials were using safety rules to limit the massing of apartment buildings in dense cities; and we can imagine that this practice may have incorporated political objectives, in addition to safety objectives. But we can also see how limited the hand of the law remained: Even these constraints only came into play in locales where development pressure was sufficient to promote construction that exceeded the size of traditional neighborhood development patterns. When, in describing the impact of the New York tenement law, Williams writes about “other parts of the city,” he presumably refers to those exceptional places in the boroughs outside Manhattan where real estate markets would support development that equaled or exceeded these constraints. In contrast, in most of the outlying locales of Greater New York at the turn of the 20th century, the city’s regulatory discouragement of residential buildings exceeding five stories in height would have had little or no effect on the formation of neighborhood patterns.
Similarly, setback requirements were also more constrained in the heyday of Late Victorian urbanism, as they typically represented strips of land acquired prospectively, or reserved by easement, for future street widening. By the early 20th century, the potential use of setback requirements to forestall high-density development was understood. Yet, as Williams notes, planners at the time saw this as a secondary purpose, and a temporary device to preserve the low density of certain blocks until they had become ripe for more intense land development. He wrote:
[T]he change should not be made at the whim of one or two shortsighted or selfish land owners, who by building to the sidewalk force an immediate and general change against the interests of the street as a whole, and temporarily impair land values for the entire street. With a setback established, such a change is impossible until the city, in the general interest or the interest of the majority of the property owners on the street, removes the restriction and authorizes the change of use.
Thus, we again see a utilitarian exercise of the general police power that was applied, creatively, in the early 20th century, to circumscribe market activities that had previously been driven by a plethora of individual actors. In the heyday of Late Victorian free-form urbanism, it was the norm for individual property owners to build to the established street line when they intuited—correctly or not—that their neighborhood real estate market would reward such development. When the initial actors intuited correctly, and their hyperlocal market did reward such densification, other nearby actors would also step in to meet the demand. This was the force that shaped the development of the whole physical fabric of free-form Late Victorian urbanism. Even among planners who sought to constrain the chaotic effects of ad hoc activities by individual actors, there was a general understanding of the logic and desirability of organic urban growth, and the trend toward densification that occurs as result of intensifying development pressures.
5) Traditional Western European Concepts of Town Planning
Finally, tradition remained a powerful shaping factor in modern free-form urbanism. When examining the genesis of urban forms, it can be a particular challenge to separate the influence of tradition from the force of logic.
In spite of their functionality, some of the ubiquitous elements of traditional urbanism have a cultural provenance. The role of a crossroads in embryonic urbanism has ancient roots in European planning: The Romans formalized the generative significance of the crossroads early in the Republic. In new towns, and especially in frontier towns, a crossroads lay at the heart of the textbook Roman town plan. Two major thoroughfares, following initial surveyors’ lines, bisected the settlement into quadrants, roughly approximating the cardinal directions. Running north and south, the cardo was typically the main commercial strip of the town; while the decumanus maximus was its largest cross street, running roughly east and west. In the angle where they met was the town forum. But in spite of its formalization by the Romans, the simple mathematical logic of growth around a crossroads is too compelling to attribute its ubiquity to purely cultural factors. In fact, a crossroads lies at the historical center of many towns more ancient than the Roman republic. (The ancient Parthian capital of Ctesiphon is a good example; but there are too many other examples to count.)
The placement and significance of an open public square, serving as a gathering place, is unambiguously a product of cultural tradition. The Roman forum was heir to the Greek agora, which originated in tandem with the participatory political systems of the Hellenic city-states. Prior to classical antiquity, there is little evidence of true squares having existed. Likewise, the geometric grid, which produces a potentially infinite number of intersections and squares, is a product of fifth-century Greece (although less formal grids had developed earlier, and more organically, in towns of the ancient Near East). By the time of Imperial Rome, the forum was the established site for law courts, temples, political activities, festivities, and various commercial and administrative activities; and the grid was the textbook method for building out a new Roman town. One can still observe the basic Roman layout of cardo, decumanus, and forum at the ruins of Pompeii and Lepcis Magna, and elsewhere throughout the Mediterranean basin. Down through the centuries, the English carried on some of the major elements of this tradition, and the Mediterranean countries carried on others, the major distinction being between town greens in the Anglo-Saxon world, and paved plazas in continental Europe and Latin America.
Similarly, the formation of continuous street walls, the separation of cartways (now traffic lanes) from sidewalks, and the separation of uses between street levels and upper stories are all phenomena that came down to the modern city from the urban traditions of classical antiquity. Other elements, such as the densification of settlements with continued growth and the concentration (in larger settlements) of related activities in particular neighborhoods, derived from the simple logic of past practices. Yet irrespective of their cultural or practical origins, these traditions exerted both positive and limiting influences on how neighborhoods were developed in late 19th century America. While these forms presented the surveyors and builders of the industrial age with a template for how towns and cities should take shape, their pervasiveness may also have tended to discourage radical departures from the patterns that had characterized the familiar pattern of European urbanism since classical antiquity.
The Landscape of Development in Late Victorian America
Even if comprehensive land-use planning were eliminated today, the factors that influence development patterns would be very different from those of the Late Victorian period—as different as the factors in that time were from those that had shaped agrarian or maritime towns before the advent of railroads and heavy industry. Thus, one cannot presume that a radical liberalization of land-use regulation would lead directly to a renaissance of traditional neighborhood design. More likely, such a change would take land development into uncharted territory.
Consider that the most significant effects of automobile-driven sprawl occurred after the widespread adoption of zoning ordinances. In the absence of zoning, market forces might drive the densification of development in certain locales, such as the suburbs of major cities; but these forces would not necessarily produce organic development patterns—particularly in low-density regions—similar to the compact forms that characterized American neighborhoods in the Late Victorian period.
Perhaps of equal importance, the broad Western cultural norms that influenced urban development in the late 19th century no longer sustain a consensus in American society, and a century of adherence to formal regulations has vitiated many of the granular traditions that once shaped the work of architects, tradesmen, land surveyors, and lawyers. For these reasons, the large-scale and small-scale traditions that shaped the building patterns of that time are not necessarily within reach. Finally, it is important to acknowledge two very important successes of land use regulation—the end of widespread slum housing development and the segregation of noxious industry—either of which could be undone with a radical liberalization of land use regulation.
Today, achieving the kind of development environment that flourished during the Late Victorian period—and spawned walkable, diverse, and architecturally rich neighborhoods—would likely require a hybrid approach. It would need to incorporate certain elements of the more liberal development landscape that existed in late Victorian urbanism. But it would also be tempered by new forms of regulation narrowly targeting modern tendencies toward sprawl and homogeneity, while preserving the advances in city planning that have been attained over the last century. Yet a clearer understanding of the elements that helped shape the urbanism of another time may light the way as 21st-century planners seek to once again build vibrant towns and neighborhoods, places that reflect the greatest traditions of a free society.
Copyright 2017 Theo Mackey Pollack