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Urban Planning


Most of us would probably agree that we really screwed up our cities in the 1950s and 1960s. Between uncontrolled suburbanization, urban renewal, the destruction of public transportation, white flight, etc., the city became almost nightmarish by the 1980s. Maybe longtime residents and writers like D.J. Waldie can find beautiful things in horrible suburbs like Lakewood, California, but a lot of people can’t.

Obviously, many cities have come a long ways since then. But we constructed a lot of cities during those years that had a real short shelf-life. As people’s urban values changed, they were quite literally constructed in ways that would make continued relevance difficult.

This didn’t only happen in the United States. And in Kiryat Gat, Israel, MIT and Tel Aviv University are cooperating on a project to rejuvenate this little-loved city. That’s fine, I’m sure they are doing some cool things. But I do worry about phrases like this:

Next up for the MIT and Tel Aviv students: working on final presentations, and then hopefully publishing their findings. “Some of the studies we’re generating are these typological interventions,” says Wheeler. “They could be implemented in other places in just about any context.”

The totalizing mentality here hasn’t served urban spaces very well in the past. Urban renewal “could be implemented in other places in just about any context” too. I distrust anyone who claims to have a one-size fits all idea about creating cities. I may be overblowing this, but it definitely caught my attention.

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  • Malaclypse

    But Jane Jacobs also had short simple solutions to implement anywhere, if you choose to read her that way:

    Short blocks are good.
    Mix old and new buildings.
    Mixed use neighborhoods.

    And so on…

    • But Jacobs (and the people who have interpreted her ever since) devised these solutions from a particular place, at a particular time in its history. Greenwich Village in Jacobs’ time was a product of very specific social, political, economic, cultural, and architectural forces that may or may or may not be relevant to other cities or eras. Trying to retrofit places, however well intentioned, based on Jacobs’ ideas — a set of observations developed from observing one neighborhood the late 1950s and 1960s — is, in some ways, as deaf to history and place as urban renewal was.

      In the end, we might like the results of Jacobs’ ideas more than we liked the destruction of neighborhoods or building freeways (and I do, certainly), but these ideas, as used by planners, fit well into the model of how the profession has always tended to work — devise simple models for how cities work or should work, and apply them to cities everywhere, regardless of where those cities are or how they developed over time.

      We know now how destructive some of those ideas were — how do planners now know that they’re doing the right thing?

    • DrDick

      This is one of the reasons Chicago still exists as a livable city, along with good public transportation that will generally get you where you want to go. It also has lots of viable neighborhoods which have most of what you need within walking distance, or at leas a short commute.

      • Lee

        The strict zoning that accompanied the suburbs built after WWII was probably did more to destroy urbanity than any lack of transit.

      • proverbialleadballoon

        and alleys. just ask kurt vonnegut.

  • Erik, do you have any particular opinions on Lakewood? I haven’t read that book yet, but it looks very cool. I lived not-far from Lakewood when I first moved to LA, and while it certainly is not as horrible as many LA suburbs, it never particularly impressed me as any sort of idealization of suburbia-done-right (from my lay, non-urban-planner perspective.)

    • The book is great. I’ve never been to Lakewood, but even though Waldie loves it, the very things he lauds about it makes it sound awful.

      • That’s what I thought. I was 99% sure your sentence was sarcastic. Lakewood is hardly a you-gotta-go-there kinda place.

        On that note: If someone wanted to see urban planning done right, do you have a short list of cities or suburbs that you would recommend?

        • Lee

          Stockholm seems to get urban planning right.

          • proverbialleadballoon

            scandinavia in general gets it right. the emphasis on walking and bicycling is the key, making cities very livable.

            • Lee/PLB- I should have clarified…short list in the US. Scandinavia definitely seems to be well-designed in general and is on my list of places I definitely want to visit.

              • proverbialleadballoon

                my personal top three, in no particular order:

                seattle. a bit more car-centric than i would like, because the neighborhoods aren’t as multi-use as possible, but there is decent public trans for cheap, lots and lots of trees and greenery and a national forest either in city limits or right next, and even if you have to go to the next neighborhood over to get or do something, seattle’s pretty small so it’s not all that far.

                madison, wisconsin. maybe it’s because i’ve had an absolute blast every time in madison, but i like this place. university town, bicycle friendly, nice little downtown, parks, lakes, etc. another city that’s a ‘smaller city’.

                chicago. i live here, so i’m biased, but… neighborhood-based, multi-use, each with it’s own feel. i’ve lived in a korean neighborhood, a black neighborhood, a hispanic/polish neighborhood, a puerto rican neighborhood, a yuppie neighborhood, a gay neighborhood, etc, each offering something different. public trans, the el, bus, and train. i drive my car about once a month, when i’m going to visit my folks in the burbs. bicycle-friendly with more and more bike lanes all the time. lots of parks. and alleys. (alleys never seemed all that big a deal until i visited nyc. nyc is frickin great, but that place stinks like garbage, i’m sorry.) shitty roads because of the shitty weather, but this global warming is working out real nice here, so who knows.

                • Linnaeus

                  I like all of those. I live in Seattle and I visited both Madison and Chicago (one of my very favorite cities) frequently. If I had to leave Seattle, Chicago would be one of my top choices to relocate to.

                • “seattle…a national forest either in city limits or right next,”

                  Uh…try 40 miles away.

              • marijane

                My favorite example in North America is Vancouver, BC. Tall buildings are required to have open space at ground level, there are no freeways into or through downtown, there’s good public transit, and a good network of bike routes.

                When they hold their annual fireworks festival, they close all the streets into the West End and what seems like the whole damn city walks to English Bay Beach for the show. It’s something to see, if you’re used to car-centric cities.

                I agree with PLB about Seattle — it’s very pedestrian friendly, for example, particularly so downtown — but when I lived there I was still kind of jealous of Vancouver.

                • Seattle is lovely. I only visited once (staying with my friend in West Seattle.) I thought it was infinitely cool to take a boat across to the downtown. Can’t wait to go back. And I’m dying to see Vancouver.

                • Ian

                  I love the West End, but there’s a big difference in feel between it and the other high-rise residential parts of downtown Vancouver, which have been built very rapidly by a small number of developers and are pretty soulless. (And tiny, and expensive, and often unoccupied.) It’s also a process that has displaced (and continues to displace) a lot of poor people. I think downtown residential density is a great idea in any city, but I don’t know if the specific way Vancouver went about it should be emulated.

                  (It’s also worth noting that the suburbs of Vancouver are mostly as blandly horrific as anywhere else.)

                • It’ll be interesting to see what happens when/if the real-estate bubble bursts.

                • DJA

                  Vancouver’s downtown is actually pretty terrible in a lot of important ways. It has density downtown but poor walkability. The tall buildings are all generically awful, and there’s no affordable housing to speak of. With the possible exception of Gastown, the main retail corridors are soullessly corporate. The transit system is expensive and unreliable. The homelessness and desperation in the Downtown Eastside are genuinely bleak.

                  It’s a beautiful setting for a city, of course, but the city itself is full of missed opportunities.. Among West Coast cities, Vancouver compares unfavorably not just to San Fransisco, but to Portland and Seattle.

              • LeeEsq

                San Francisco seemed to have gotten urban planning relatively right. There were very few if any attempts at urban renewal they way it was attempted in other big cities. The low income housing built in San Francisco basically conforms to the existing architecture. They didn’t gut their transit system and built BART to connect the suburbs with the central city.

                • San Francisco seems to have had more than its share of urban-renewal projects/disasters: Japantown, removing a lot of the houses out of the Western Addition, Moscone Center/Yerba Buena Gardens, the International Hotel, etc. Sure, these were smaller in scale than in other cities, but San Francisco is a smaller-scale city than most of its peers. The city lost a not-significant percentage (I don’t have the number in front of me) of its apartments and other rental units to urban renewal, most of which it has never recovered.

                  It can be argued that the difficulty of building something in San Francisco today, in terms of the hoops that developers have to go through in terms of neighborhood hearings and design-review boards, is a direct result of the effects of urban renewal in SF. Justin Herman, the longtime head of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, deliberately wanted to make San Francisco a city that conformed closer to white Anglo-Saxon capitalist values (while at the same time working to make it a center of Pacific trade).

                • burritoboy

                  No, what happened in San Francisco is that ….very little happened. But that wasn’t because the powers that be didn’t want those bad things to happen: the Japantown and Western Addition misadventures being good examples. San Francisco just didn’t have a big economic boom in the 1920s and post-WWII as other West Coast cities did, so the powers that be simply had less money and flexibility to do bad things with – and they got stopped a bit earlier than powers that be elsewhere did.

  • Heron

    Yup; what works in one place is terrible somewhere else. You can get away with highway-centric sprawl in a Houston, a Detroit, or a Dallas, but taking that approach in the enclosed coastal plain of Los Angeles was a terrible idea. Similarly, taking that approach in New York City proved to have some serious consequences over the long run.

    • Lee

      And New York City got off lightly compared to other cities. The public transit system was left in tact and suburbanization did not really hurt the 5 boroughs the way it harmed other cities like St. Louis or Detroit.

    • John

      It was a good idea in Houston, Detroit, and Dallas? How are those cities better than LA?

    • Having had to drive through highway-centric Houston way too many times in the past three months, I have to say it didn’t work there, either. The 1970s structural designs for the interchanges are nightmares (particularly the I45/I10/Hwy59 exchange), and the city left no room to be able to expand what is a grossly-overcrowded highway system.

  • Sev

    Agreed. why the cookie cutter imperative? granted, there are ideas with general application, but there does seem to be some sort of lust to obliterate local landscape which we have rather enough of already.

  • joe from Lowell

    I’d have to know what “these typological interventions” refers to before passing judgement on the quote. If she’s talking about the broad principles that guided the design, that’s quite different than if she’s talking about specific types of projects.

  • Dirk Gently

    I live in Denver, which is a great case study of what’s been so good and bad about this process. To start off, look at this map of the tram system prior to the 1950’s “investment” in buses and highways, and weep (NONE of this now exists): http://www.denverstreetcars.net/info.htm

    Not to mention tearing down downtown buildings like the Tabor Opera House and many other things.

    Over the last 15 years, urban renewal and new urbanism has taken off, mostly for the good: increased density, walkability, and mixed use public transit. But there are still stupid things occurring through a mixture of just the sort of “one sized fits all” shortsightedness Erik bemoans as well as simple greed. For example the Stapleton infill project which has many good things, but also ZERO commercial zoning within its confines (meaning you still have to drive for a gallon of milk) and what amounts to Stepford-ish designs and sensibilities regarding many of the homes. Similarly, there is wonderful investment in greenspace, but in nearly all of it they plant lush fields of Kentucky blue grass and water-sucking trees, in a semi-arid climate with shrinking water supplies due to depleted aquifers and shrinking snow pack.

    tl;dr: “new urbanism” profiteering + ignorance of climate and geography = abysmal urban planning that is only marginally better than that of the Cold War era.

    • joe from Lowell

      That’s incredibly disappointing. The Stapleton project was one of the greatest opportunities in decades.

      • JRoth

        Yep. I didn’t realize they had screwed up the zoning so badly.

        I’ll never understand why more people don’t see the value of nearby neighborhood commercial.

        Actually, my off the cuff theory is that all this New Urbanism stuff is aimed at people who grew up in the suburbs, and so don’t actually understand how mixed use neighborhoods work. You can sell them on cute houses behind picket fences with alleys behind, but a corner convenience store is a bridge too far.

        • JRoth, I think you are being a bit overly-harsh on New Urbanism. (Large cap New Urbanism.) No one anywhere using any theory has been able to create interesting walkable urbanism from scratch. Just hasn’t been done. Period.

          The New Urbanists have the best chance (and bear in mind that there are all sorts of people out there making claims to have created a “new urbanist”neighborhood) of what has been built under NU theory to evolve into something really interesting.

          Where we have been successful has only been with rejuvenating legacy neighborhood built before 1945. Can you think of any substantial new development anywhere in North America which you can fairly say is not just the rejuvenation of an existing legacy neighborhood or spreading it on a block by block basis? Nothing in Seattle, certainly.

          As to Loomis “totalizing mentality” — not quite sure what that means. Certainly, if you look at it simply, ALL walkable neighborhoods are built with the same spatial DNA. In fact “one-size fits all ” very much describes all walkable neighborhoods.

  • “Most of us would probably agree that we really screwed up our cities in the 1950s and 1960s.”

    Who are “we” and “us” in this sentence?

    • “Most” LGM readers? Should a poll be taken?

      • Walt

        It was clear to me. No need to poll the rest of the degenerates and reprobates that infest this comment section.

        • Malaclypse

          It seems obvious that “we” refers to JenBob Noir’s various personae. If anybody can personify fear and hatred of cities, it is JenBob.

    • If any among the readers think that we did a bang up job with urbanism in the 50s and 60s, then we should probably have a talk.

      • The second “we” is clear enough: EL and whoever disagrees with him. The first one is still uncertain.

        There’s a lot of stuff in the second sentence getting laid at the door of planning, it’d be useful to know who EL thinks was doing it, and what “we” it is that screwed up. For various developers, uncontrolled suburbanization probably functioned exactly as desired. Same for urban renewal, for slightly different sections of the then-existing power structure. Lots of different actors who don’t fit neatly into a single “we.”

        • You are really hung up on this.

          • Your writing annoys me more than it should, given how often I think I agree with you on the substance of things. I was trying to work out why.

        • I can accept “we” in the same sense as “we” won the war, a pretty easy formulation to deal with (although obviously various actors would be involved and I would lose all my coward points if I ever participated in one, et cetera).

          • JRoth

            Furthermore, the truth is that there was a pretty broad consensus around city-destroying after WW2. The history is complicated, but it wasn’t a matter of a few elites cynically manipulating the politics to line their own pockets. The best and brightest, to coin a phrase, mostly bought into the suburban/urban renewal dream. Hell, urban renewal is one of the things that most discredited utopian planning and design.

        • JRoth

          Even if the people who screwed up the cities got what they wanted (this is basically the plot of Roger Rabbit), that doesn’t mean they didn’t screw up the cities. If Mr. Potter had gotten his wish, he would have been happy, but it still would have meant destroying Bedford Falls.

  • Pronouns carry a lot of assumptions. The writing might be clearer if their load were lightened a bit.

    • This was meant to be a reply to Substance McG, above.

    • DrDick

      I can think of some other folks who need to lighten up.

      • Or maybe just state a claim.

  • Western Dave

    Speaking of cities, I haven’t yet gotten to read my copy of Austin Troy’s The Very Hungry City which seems like it would be relevant to this discussion. Has anybody read it yet?

    • LeeEsq

      Another new book that deals with these issues is Straphanger. I’m reading it now.

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