On Resilient Settlement

Tools and strategies for transition

The new relevance of New Urbanism


Note: This post first appeared on the Better! Cities & Towns blog (http://bettercities.net/news-opinion/blogs/michael-mehaffy/15771/new-relevanc… ).

This past year we passed a little-noticed milestone: the twentieth anniversary of the putative birth of New Urbanism, in the seminal conference that occurred at the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite, California. The year has also seen a remarkable series of re-assessments by prominent new urbanist practitioners and theorists, raising new questions about the identity and mission of what is now arguably the top international urban reform movement. At one extreme, some express alarm that New Urbanism has “peaked” and may be about to fall into the dustbin of history, swept aside by younger and trendier design movements — unless it too adopts exciting new elements. Closer to the other extreme — and closer to what I will argue here — some find New Urbanism more relevant and more vital than ever. But of course, that hardly means it’s time to rest on any laurels. There are, in fact, some big issues to confront on the road ahead.

Our good friend Andres Duany, whose contribution to the movement has been enormous, has staked out what some see as a distinctly postmodernist position of late — not just in architecture, but in his philosophical prescriptions. On listservs and in other recent discussions, he has argued that New Urbanism must focus on situational opportunities, and specifically, on satisfying the different desires and choices of different constituencies, including suburbanites. (Happiness, he says, is the only metric that matters.) We must take territory from our opponents in these and other contexts, especially the Landscape Urbanists; and we must do this in part by co-opting their tactics, and even some of their theoretical positions. At the same time, we must eschew ideal positions, especially those that reflect environmental concerns, because they amount to stultifying dogma — for example, “carbon theology.” If we do not make this transformation, we risk stagnation and irrelevance.

No doubt this is shrewd tactical thinking by a man who has shown masterful skills in the past. But there is always a question whether the tactics serve the strategy or the mission — or whether the former have begun to redefine the latter in unintended ways. But is it fair to suggest that Andres may be taking on too much of the excessive “postmodernist thinking” of our opponents?

If so, he would hardly be alone. Architects have always had a complicated history with self-rationalizing philosophies, most recently those of postmodernist varieties. It’s all too easy to use these philosophies to appeal to “creativity” and “pluralism” and “ambiguity,” and then rationalize whatever we wanted to do already. This “anything goes” approach ducks responsibility for the actual consequences of architectural practice on human life. Indeed, those who dare to even suggest such a responsibility are then subject to attack as “dogmatic” or “foundationalist.”

Nor is this anything new: architects have always used their profession’s status as fine art discipline to cash an enormous “blank check:” “you might not like my building, but that’s just your taste; I’m an artist, and you can’t limit my free expression to build it.” Postmodernist theory only takes this thinking another radical step, suggesting that, just as art is purely to varying taste, so all of knowledge is similarly varied and contextual, and there are no broadly shareable bases for judgment. The only real question is what we find meaningful in fragmentary increments — what we each find makes us happy.

Luckily for most of us, doctors and other professionals suffer no such fragmentary attitudes; they are able to focus reasonably well on ethical norms and standards of care for patients — to the point that if they violate these norms, they could pay large penalties or even go to jail for malpractice.

In fact this brings us to another philosophical perspective, shared by doctors and other professionals. We might call it “provisional scientific realism” (let’s call it PSR for short). In this perspective, we are all users of theoretical models — not unlike little maps in our heads, that help us to solve problems and improve quality of life. It’s certainly true that there is no “final” model, and no one has special claim to any such thing. But that hardly means all models are equivalent. Some are much more able to help us to solve real problems and improve quality of life than others (which can cause disaster!).

These models do develop and evolve within a culture, and occasionally they merge into a kind of “general model” — but they are not fundamentally derivative of one over-arching model. (This is the top-down approach that the postmodernists rightly criticize — but it is very often a straw-man argument.) Teasing out the most useful model or models for a given situation is precisely the job of professionals, like doctors — and, we hope, urbanists.

A useful model

In this view, New Urbanism is nothing other than a useful model, or collection of related models. They are aimed at a general goal — we could say, improvement of general quality of life within settlements — but evolving, learning and improving over time. Or so we hope.

What are these models? I suggest they show us how urbanism works as a process, i.e. how people live together within urban environments, and how they change that structure, and what are the likely consequences of that. They give us useful insights and “clues to go on,” in combination with observation, about what is happening and how we can improve it. They are not perfect, and they have their dangers, but they are useful; at their best, and working in careful iteration with observation, they help us to act more intelligently. This is the goal.

This urban model approach is slow but powerful. While more fashionable designers may capture the dominant attention of the day with their trendy novelties — often built around the unexamined models of the industrial past — these neoplasms suffer from the status of perishable one-offs, further cluttering a disordered and dysfunctional built environment. A modeling approach based on PSR has the wonderful capacity to “plug in” to other models, and form more useful knowledge networks. Architects and urban designers can work hand in hand (as indeed we do within NU) with lawyers, doctors, ecologists, engineers, and many others, using a common language for shared understanding of common problems. This kind of network approach, though not flashy and attention-getting, has shown its slow power over time.

It turns out that this idea of “knowledge networks” has a lot to do with the workings of urbanism too — and with what I suggest is the evolving model of New Urbanism, as I will explain below.

One of Jane Jacobs’ seminal contributions to urban theory — and, surprising to some, to economics — is a phenomenon called a “Jacobs Spillover.” It’s the observation that proximities within cities allow people to exchange knowledge and technology, and to develop new creative enterprises. These network patterns are not orchestrated from above, but “self-organize” — or they do if we provide the right urban ingredients. This model is shaping up to be a powerful explanation for how cities actually generate wealth — a timely topic in these tough economic times.

Moreover, this network of contacts is built around the fundamental mode of walking, and the physical meeting-places of the street and its intricate system of public and private realms. As urbanists, it’s vital that we maintain these fluid and self-organizing network relationships, flowing through pedestrian-scale public spaces, with their regular and intimate contact with private, semi-private and semi-public ones. This “room-like” urban system is where essential human contact occurs.

The resource spillover effect

And there is more at stake than economic vitality. Recent work has suggested that the same kinds of self-organizing network relationships help to explain why cities are so resource-efficient. Of course we already know that cities reduce the need for travel, especially by automobile, and their compact building form is also resource-efficient. But there is still a large unexplained factor or factors. It may well be a kind of “resource spillover:” because of this network proximity, the energy and resources we use for one activity are available to “spill over” and become inputs into another. An obvious example is the use of the waste heat from district energy generation, used as heating for buildings and hot water. But there are many other examples too: the way we combine trips, “spilling over” the resources of one task into another, or the way we bump into other people and pick up conversations that “spill over” from other activities, creating both knowledge and resource spillovers at the same time. All of these spillovers form a very complex network that self-organizes, and that tends to become more efficient over time: more things happen with fewer resources. That’s key.

This process can be likened to a metabolic network, transferring resources and information around in a compounding process that creates synergies and adds value. It’s essential that this “metabolic network” is structured in such a way that it can self-organize on its own, using both pysical and process  ingredients. (Among the latter are economic incentives, an especially important topic for urbanissts just now. But physical structures matter a lot too.)

And of course, there are many other related benefits for these self-organizing urban networks: people walk more and get exercise; people interact more, and research shows that social capital is higher; the city itself is more lively and often more aesthetically interesting; and so on. These compounding effects are all familiar benefits for urbanists, but this model suggests how they actually come to happen.

But there’s a problem. We have fractured these urban networks, and rebuilt much more dispersed, “dendritic” systems, connected not by pedestrians, but by automobiles, dispersed suburban campuses and parks, and single-family monocultures, supplemented by telephones and now, computers. The majority of us lives in encapsulated houses, in encapsulated neighborhoods, and travel in encapsulated cars to encapsulated work places, stores and other destinations.

But why, if this model of metabolic urban networks is right, are we so relatively prosperous? Shouldn’t there be a toll on our economic vitality?

In fact the entire scheme works brilliantly — but only with prodigious quantities of resource inputs. These are resources that we are rapidly depleting, with enormous cost to the viability of ecosystems, and — make no mistake — to future human economies. In effect we are running a grand Ponzi Scheme of resources, putting the whole thing on our grandchildren’s Visas. Eventually, these costs catch up with us — and there are signs they are already beginning to.

In retrospect, the 2008 financial meltdown might be looked at as the first clear sign that the scheme was already unraveling, as far-out owners of “drive til you qualify” homes got caught up in rising energy prices, and an ultimately unsustainable suburban lifestyle.

If this model is correct, then what is the answer? Very simply, it’s New Urbanism — or more precisely, urbanism, in a new and viable form, suited to current context. And it must embrace a variety of tools, practitioners and approaches, including more efficient energy and recourse systems too. But it must recognize the central role of functional urban structure.

Monsters in cities and towns

That means we need, as Jane Jacobs pointed out fully a half century ago, a fluid network of walkable urbanism, as little cut apart as possible by large interruptions. These include the natural ones, like rivers and hills, but also the human-caused ones, like freeways, campuses, malls, monocultural subdivisions — all the monsters that have very nearly eradicated a genuine urbanism.

And speaking of monsters, there remain some lingering models that we must challenge; and this model, with its evidence and its insights, gives us some powerful weapons to do so. The campus, the large super-block project, the neoplastic object-building — all so happily accepted and integrated by Landscape Urbanism, and other late-modernist design movements — reveal themselves to be the urban toxins that they are. The status-quo thinking of self-indulgent architects and urban designers must be hauled into the light of broad cultural assessment, and seen for what it is — a grand apologia for end-stage industrialism. We must champion the transition to a low-carbon, low-resource urbanism — we must recover a “natural” urbanism, if you will. Much else depends on it.

I suggest that this invigorated model of New Urbanism offers us much to work with in the New Year. It gives us many lines of investigation to research, many practical tools and toolkits to develop (e.g. sprawl repair, tactical urbanism, capacity-building, gap funding mechanisms, and externality finance, to name a few), and very many sympathetic allies to work with.

At the same time, it renews the usefulness of our existing models of practice, and gives us a few insights on how to use them better. Like any good map, used properly, it helps us to see where we are going, and figure out how to get there.


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This entry was posted on January 8, 2012 by .
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