Tag Archives: Sprawl

An empty city for sale

If we needed any further confirmation that China is the champion builder of sprawl in this decade (sorry America, you don’t even come close against things like Dubai Marina), this reporter traveled to an entire city built by developers in Inner Mongolia, that, it turns out, no one wants to move to because there is no economy there, as compared to the traditional city down the road.

The economic dimension problem of sprawl building is shown here as evidently as it can be shown.

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Review of Radiant City

There is a scene early in the 2006 mockumentary Radiant City that provides the key explanation to the morphology of suburban sprawl. Our favorite writer James Howard Kunstler sits on a bench in a community bike trail that is enclosed in two rows of chain link fence in order to, I presume, secure it from the high-capacity arterial road that runs alongside it. The experience is vaguely what it must have been like to patrol the Berlin Wall, had it been encircled by an expressway. “Some clown in an office somewhere thought this would be a good idea, that’s why it’s here,” says Kunstler. “Not because anybody really tested whether or not it would feel good to be here.”

That’s all the film has to say about why sprawl is, and in fact there is nothing more to be said. The characteristic of a sprawl city is the absence of any intelligence in design. The rest of the movie is about how and why families cope with life in this intelligence-less environment. It does that with a narrative that is refreshingly honest and modern, despite not depicting a real family. It is shot on location in the outskirts of Calgary, a city that, thanks to a highly competent planning authority and an economic boom that has attracted large numbers of new citizens, has over the last decade built new developments at supernaturally huge scale.

The new neighborhoods are for the most part built of nice buildings, nothing to write UNESCO about but approaching genuine Victorian. Contrary to the suburban cliché, houses are built to a density that is comparable to city centers, which means there is adequate public transportation available. And in compliance with new planning regulations, developers have provided big clusters of condominium buildings to serve as “affordable housing”. With this setting, the directors have avoided the social exclusion issues that sometimes get bundled up with criticisms of the suburbs. In fact here the families explain that they left the center because it had become unaffordable for either their growing family or without shame-bearing subsidization (never mind affordable housing regulation being indirect subsidization), meaning the exclusion narrative is turned backwards. These people have been pushed out of the city.

What is there left to complain about then? Not very much, still there is a general awareness that there must be something missing, yet none of the characters can pinpoint it. They deal with boredom as best they can, the local teenagers finding, as all boys have ever done, that a muddy pit is all that’s needed for endless fun. Today’s boys turn this free space into a paintball game they call “escape to Mexico”, but it’s really just cowboys and indians for the postmodern age. Their fun is interrupted by a private security patrolmen hired by the builders to patrol the private streets, but these guards turn out to be benign bordering on benevolent. Incessant chauffeuring becomes the cause of a mini-crisis as poor husband Evan is forbidden from working on his car by his emasculating witch of a wife Anne, worried that such activities will send the car to the mechanic and leave her with the entire burden of chauffeuring the family on their maddening activities schedule.

If there is one recurring theme, it is that at every point the creative control of the environment has been taken away from individuals. The kids cannot play on empty lots, the father cannot risk working on his car, the space for any meaningful personal culture has been slashed to nearly nothing. The exception to this is Anne who gets to enjoy total control of the house itself, which she obviously takes great pleasure in when deciding how each room will be laid out.  At every point in the film where someone defends the choice of life in the suburbs it is either Anne or a female real estate agent involved.

As a form of passive-aggressive revenge, Evan signs up to be in a musical about suburban life where he and his male friends sing showtunes while dancing around with lawnmowers. (Lawnmowers having no utility in the postage-stamp sized lawns of the new suburbs, they are remembered in dance.) It is telling that Evan found out about the show by looking around the Internet. It is on the Internet that community and culture has exploded in the last years as the physical world has become more and more inaccessible. The Web 2.0 phenomenon has given the power to everyone to create something and express themselves, for better or worse. The Web has become a new city, and its different processes new forms of urbanism.

Sorely missing from the film, which features the opinions of architects, professors of philosophy and other intellectuals, are the opinions of the planners, politicians and developers who make this product. The planning system is as remote to the narrative as it is to people’s lives. While the complaint of the loss of citizenship implied by mass motorization is rehashed by an intellectual, what about the loss of citizenship implied by the planning process itself? All decisions about the shape of their environment has been taken long in the past, in the colorful words of Mr. Kunstler, by some clown in an office somewhere. The only thing left for citizens to do is to enjoy or hate their environment. They have been dispossessed of any power to shape it. Somewhere democracy of place was substituted for bureaucracy, and the best the citizens have been offered since is the chance to collectively shackle the bureaucrats through public design charrettes. The citizens have no more rights to create their city than citizens of Stalin’s Moscow did. That is the only aspect sprawl still has in common with Le Corbusier’s original vision for the Radiant City.

Yet the film does not reach this conclusion. If there is any conclusion, it is that everyone is helpless in the face of this seemingly unstoppable monster. As Joseph Heath says at the beginning, the critique of suburbia is the same it was two generations ago, everyone who lives in suburbia knows backwards and forwards the critique of suburbia, yet they still live there. Andrès Duany appears proposing that what sprawl needs is a grid and denser housing, yet the setting already has a grid and obviously the last thing it needs is even more houses.

A young woman states at the end, out of character, that she sees kids playing alone in suburbia and remembers her youth building giant forts with everybody in the neighborhood. I remember my happiest time growing up at the edge of the suburbs was building a treehouse on some leftover tree with the neighborhood kids. The treehouse was demolished because it was unsafe and then the tree cut down to build another house. I never saw any of those kids again.

That’s all community is, people making things together. That’s what creates the spiritual aspect of a place. Once we lose the freedom to do that, we can’t be citizens. We are just consumers of cities. Radiant City, by looking at life in suburban sprawl in its purest, best realized form, defines the right problem but fails to ask the right question. Perhaps citizenship is so far in the past that we can’t even remember to ask the question.

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Radiant City

A film by Gary Burns and Jim Brown

Order it from Amazon.com.

RadiantCity

A conversation about the geometry of nowhere

In response to my last article, Bruce Liedstrand of Community Design Strategies in Paris writes,

I read with interest your essay on The Geometry of Nowhere because I divide my time between Paris and Silicon Valley (the site of your Cupertino Target store example). After re-reading the essay, I am puzzled. I hear your frustration with narrow sidewalks, but I am lost in understanding your concept of “place”.

My experience has been that a “place” is created by spatial enclosure, the use of adjacent buildings to enclose and shape the space into a comfortable “place”.  Paris is strong on spatial enclosure. To me it seems almost as if Paris started as a solid mass and that the boulevards were carved out of the mass by broad blades and the narrower streets (“rues”) by finer blades. Wherever I am in Paris I feel comfortably inside a good place.

Your essay seems to indicate that “place” exists without any enclosure by buildings. That, indeed, it can exist on the outside edge of buildings rather than inside a group of buildings. Is that what you intend?

I am puzzled also by your discussion of the Cupertino Target store, which I have personally visited. (Ed note: What are the odds?) When I look at your illustration of your changes, I don’t see any “place”. What I see new is open spaces outside buildings from which cars have apparently been excluded. Do you intend to say that exclusion of cars is the key to converting undifferentiated open space into a good “place”? What is it about these new open spaces around the store that would make them comfortable for people to linger in?

Perhaps I am reading your essay wrong? Can you please point me in the right direction?

Thanks.

Enclosure creates a room, but it’s not sufficient to create a place. You can see this in Paris, where some of the best places in the city are not enclosed, for example along the Seine, or the Luxembourg garden. And the most enclosed places, like Place Vendôme, are not very interesting.

To get a good understanding of the relative impact of enclosure and open space on place, all we have to do is take a long walk along the axe historique. Start at Place de la Concorde, which was about 50% sidewalk 50% free space when it was created and is not enclosed. All the free space was converted to road and now it is perilous to get across, but still a place. Walk down to Rond-Point de l’Élysée through a wood with substantial open space to walk across. I don’t know if that counts as enclosure, but it’s a good place. Then you have the model of place, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées with its straight-aligned buildings, that is also a place with 50% sidewalk and 50% road. And it is a major road, 10 lanes of traffic, but that doesn’t really interfere with it as a place because there is little reason to cross the road, and it can be done in two steps thanks to traffic islands.

Once you’re up the hill and you go across the monster Place de l’Étoile (horrible place, all cars driving maniacally so that pedestrians have to cross in underground passages), you end up on Avenue de la Grande Armée, which is morphologically identical to the previous avenue except that some of its space is taken by parking lots. That means the ratio of sidewalk to road is much less than 50/50. It’s also much less crowded and much less attractive than the previous avenue, but it still works.

After you get across Porte Maillot to Avenue Charles de Gaulle in Neuilly, then you find the same buildings with the same alignments and the same enclosure as the two previous avenues, except this time the space has been traffic-engineered to hell, combined with speed cameras to dissuade speeding. What space there was on Grande Armée has been cut even further, and the result is a dead street on what is a major business center of the city.

Finally cross the bridge and climb your way up to the Parvis de La Défense, where you will find that the buildings are modern and completely random, but the space is fully open to people and always full of people. (Even on Sundays!) I interviewed the master planner for the northern expansion, and he said the developer of La Défense did not agree to build the 25m wide pedestrian bridge he had designed to connect the site to the main place. After their small “passerelle” failed they backed down and built the full bridge, and it works, always full of people.

So there you have it, the closest thing to a controlled experiment on place and enclosure. Enclosure turns out to be irrelevant.

Have a nice walk.

Do you really find La Defense a pleasant place?  For me, it is utterly placeless – one of the worst locations in Paris?

If you have extra time on a pleasant afternoon, would you really rather spend it sitting in the open space of La Defense than in my neighborhood park?

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La Défense is a business place, and it works at what it is. But compared to Avenue Charles de Gaulle, which is another business place, and which has the same architecture and alignments as the rest of Paris, it is a much better place.

Can you say this is not a good place?

Look at all the people. They’re not locked up in their offices. The neighborhood is set up so you can go straight to your office to the metro using tunnels, but when I was there I always preferred taking a detour on the surface. Take my word for it, people even go there on the weekends to teach their kids how to ride bikes and roller-skate. They don’t care that the buildings aren’t aligned.

What I am asking with my article is how can we reduce and remove sprawl without going through an expensive process of total demolition for which we won’t have the money anymore? We don’t have the choice of your small neighborhood park. A place and a park are very different things anyway. Cities existed for centuries without parks, but never without place. If we reintroduce place in sprawl cities, that means shops that rely on place to survive don’t have to open up in the mall anymore, they can do business anywhere because the entire city is a mall (one of the first things I realized about Paris). Then your city starts to grow around place instead of around roads, and people have a reason to linger.

Yes, for me it is not at all a good place in the photo or in personal experience.  People are dwarfed by the size of the space (in the photo, the space is almost empty) and it is not comfortable.  One can look at the buildings as perhaps interesting objects, depending on one’s taste, but it certainly is not a place I would linger in or return to regularly if I didn’t work there.Let’s accept that we disagree, vigorously, about whether La Defense is a good place.  But what, in your view, makes a good place.  So far I hear you favor an absence of cars and openness?  Is that right?  Is that all, or can you tell me more?

And what would be good about your redesigned Target store?

I didn’t redesign the Target store, I left it there as a necessity of the context, and the people at La Défense aren’t looking at the buildings. They’re a necessary part of the décor, but they’re not the reason people use the place, or any place.La Défense became a success, despite everyone’s intent, because economic conditions forced the developers to break the master plan and allow any random building to be built. Had they not done so it would be exactly like Empire State Plaza in Albany. The difference between the two is not architectural, it is socio-economic.

You do not need to remove cars to make a good place, you only need to remove the exclusivity for cars. What makes a good place is total freedom of movement for everyone, including the freedom to stop and linger. You can’t do that in traffic engineered space because you are confined between very narrow limits. They tell you how fast to go, when to stop, where to turn, it’s a nightmare, but one that we put up with to go fast.

Is an empty space out in the desert a good place because everyone can move freely?  Or are you talking about places within cities?  Is it just traffic engineered spaces that you reject?  Are you advocating a Hans Monderman approach to streets?  Are you rebelling against “confinement”, or is some broader principle involved?

I agree that the Empire State Plaza in Albany is a terrible place.  Are you saying that the only problem with it is that, unlike La Defense, the buildings are not place at random?  What do you mean by saying that the difference is “social-economic”?

Could you please write in one paragraph what you believe are the key factors in creating a good place within a city so I can understand where we might agree or disagree?

Deserts can make a good place, although there is not much desert urbanization. (Desert driving is a lot of fun nevertheless.) Open space alone does not make a place, you also need people there, and the reason that people go through any place is to participate in and generate social and economic networks. This was not done at Empire State Plaza but was done at La Défense.

The issue is at core about freedom. How much freedom of movement do I enjoy, how much freedom to grow and build do I enjoy? In a place you can walk anywhere and build anything anywhere, or just occupy the space to conduct some activity like playing hockey or learning to ride a bike. That creates networks and attracts people. In sprawl the entire space is traffic engineered. To move around you are practically on a conveyor belt, offered only a linear path, delimited speed and a select few choices. You can’t build anything because of the zoning. The choices available to you have been selected by the traffic engineers and the planners, and they only fit  their model of what they want you to do. There is no creativity possible to invent your own journey. A famous game designer once said “a game is a series of interesting choices.” What kind of choices does sprawl offer?

The one place in sprawl where people are given a shred of creativity is the mall, and that’s how people who live in sprawl spend their free time. You can go there and just hang out, inventing an activity from nothing. It’s all the place they have left.

The geometry of nowhere

I hate sidewalks.

When I arrived in Paris the first shock I felt was how much space there was for people to move around. Even on boulevards with little pedestrian traffic, such as Boulevard Port-Royal, space is divided equally between pedestrian standing room, in other words place, and roads for vehicles. How many modern cities offer this kind of abundance? While, like all tourists, I loved the boulevards in Paris, I also became familiar enough with the city to find out that I disliked the little streets that branched off them. At first I thought that it was their boring, ordinary architecture and emptiness, but there were some exceptions. The pedestrian streets of the Marais and Latin Quarter were full of people and shops, which I assumed was exceptional due to their historic value. (Google Street View of a typical ordinary street of Paris.)

Late last fall I returned to Montreal sufficiently alienated from it to be once again shocked by the contrast in street design. All I felt upon stepping out on the street was terrified and exposed. The snow and ice of winter only made the experience more dangerous. Despite the streets being wider than those of Paris, I am required to walk on narrow strips of concrete, where any slip or missed step would cause me to tumble into a road where a passing car would undoubtedly decapitate me. (In fact a few Montreal pedestrians were horrifically killed this winter.) Any contact with another pedestrian involves invading their personal space and requires that someone yield to the other. This means you cannot walk side-by-side with another person, taking away all the pleasure of walking. And out in the suburbs, there isn’t even the luxury of a concrete strip to stand on. Little wonder that no one wants to walk anywhere. Thinking back, I realized why I hated Paris’ little streets: they forced me onto the sidewalk to make space for a road and car parking lane. There was no perspective from which to appreciate them because there was not even standing room in them.

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A picture of an early 19th century street scene shows that sidewalks were just a setback between the building and the street, a boundary to create a transition space between place and building. No one was expected to actually walk on them. The entire surface of the street belonged to pedestrians and vehicles equally. As a poor inhabitant of the late modern city, the street widenings and enormous open places of the 19th century appear to be unbelievable public luxury. There was an abundance of place even in the narrow medieval streets compared to what we enjoy in the modern city. Freedom of movement between one building to another was total. There were no obstacles, street furniture, traffic control devices of any kind. The final effect, in the pictures above, is of an enormous place with randomly configured boundaries, even bigger than those in our modern suburban sprawl. Why is this not a cause of anxiety the way that modern sprawl is? Why does it appear so orderly despite the randomness?

There is no clear explanation in either the historical literature or classical design treatises as to what makes a place. The reason for that I suspect is that place was simply the default state of things. Maps of fortified towns during the renaissance show that many of them were just a completely open surface with a few randomly placed buildings. Towns started out as open land upon which you could do just about anything you wanted, including constructing buildings. Over a long time, with the building density increasing, it became necessary to keep streets open by imposing limits on how close new buildings could be from others, in effect defining a lower bound on the width of the street. But the street was not really something created, it was something that was preserved, the way blood vessels are voids between cell tissues. It was the combination of building randomness and circulation feedback that created the organic pattern of streets. In a traditional city then the problem was never about creating place, but about preventing too much of it from being consumed that the system became unworkable. When circulation problems arose anyway in the early 19th century, the solution was to remove buildings in congested areas and create more place. And so this is how Paris got its fractal pattern of streets: randomness, constraints, and feedback.

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The pictures change around the turn of the 20th century, when mechanized vehicles start to take over the street. At this point pedestrians are being crowded out of their place and forced onto the sidewalks. The process may have been so gradual that hardly anyone noticed, but this seems to be what happened. The urbanists and architects of the early 20th century were right to denounce the congestion of the modern city. But what we see from the picture above is that the place occupied by vehicles is far less crowded than the space used by pedestrians. The crowding was purely artificial, the result of a process that no one may have been aware of.

The introduction of the automobile then made things even more unbearable, but at this point European and American cities took two opposite turns. While the streetcar moved at the leisurely pace of the horse-drawn coach, the automobile’s purpose was to go fast and cover distances that were beforehand too far. This could not be done in the congestion of the traditional street and required the production of an entirely new system of circulation, what later came to be called traffic engineering. American cities gleefully ripped up the streetcar tracks to make way for the new road system, literally driving place to the margins and choking main streets into economic starvation. In Europe the old tradition of place-preservation was applied and the new roads were only subtracted from place at a bare minimum, leaving about half of it left. That is how Boulevard Port-Royal remains so roomy for pedestrians, because there was no need to remove any more of it. And it is also why the design of Piccadilly Circus in London is so complex, balancing both traffic engineering and existing place improvements such as subway exits and fountains. By default, anything that doesn’t need to be traffic engineered is left to place.

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Even the problem of providing parking space can beautifully be solved by grouping parking into blocks surrounded by place. Here is a parking block in old Montreal. The dogma in parking planning has been that either the parking lot must be between the building and the road, such that customers and visitors will easily see how to park and won’t keep on driving right home, or the new dogma that parking lots must be hidden behind buildings because they are ugly and destroy urban space. Here however the parking is neither between the building and the street or behind the building, but across the street from the building. And it turns out to be unobtrusive, leaves plenty of open space to provide light and fresh air, and lets anyone walk right up to any building without having to cross a no man’s land of vehicle storage.

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In modern cities the process of place subtraction has been completely abolished. A modern urban development begins from a road and the road is extended through a parking lot to the entrance of the building. This was not the original modernist plan. Although the free-form street was supposed to be segregated into different pedestrian and automobile paths that would never intersect, the space set aside for pedestrians was gradually abandoned and removed entirely for various reasons, notably poor design and safety issues (as documented by Jane Jacobs). Place removed, all that remained of the modernist process of urbanization was the road hierarchy. Sprawl was born out of this mutation. Any available land that is not a building footprint is filled out with parking space or ornamental landscaping of fake nature. There is no land left over to place, although there is a sidewalk along the road.

Various movements to “reclaim the street” have sprung up in both Europe and America, sometimes going to zealous excesses (blocking Paris’ périphérique beltway). They have mostly focused their efforts in traditional urban centers, with the latest victories being the proposal to close off part of Times Square to yellow taxicabs and other vehicles. Top traffic engineers like the late Hans Monderman have figured out that traffic flow is best when it’s de-engineered, recreating place for better traffic flow at intersections. But what if we tried to reclaim place in suburban sprawl? What would it look like? Although buildings are huge, randomly situated and separated by wide gulfs of space, that really did not appear to be a problem in the pictures above of 19th century cities. Let’s try an experiment and assume that suburban sprawl has the same structure as a place-based city, then reintroduce road and parking lots within place, as was done in Europe.

The example I will use is the area of the Target store in Cupertino, California, just down the road from the headquarters of Apple Computers within the world’s richest sprawlopolis, Silicon Valley. I selected this site because the good people of Apple deserve to have a nice place to call home, and the biggest concentration of wealth in North America should have some kind of place to identify with.

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This is our starting point. I bet you think it’s hopeless. If I didn’t come in equipped with a process to create a place I would have walked away (driven away more likely). But from what we know of how place was formed in traditional cities it turns out to be really simple to build a place there. First we have to remove everything that isn’t a building and leave it as open space, the foundation for a place. Second, we draw a boundary around the buildings. Third, we reconnect the roads. Fourth, we add the parking blocks that the stores need to attract customers. And finally we spruce the place up with trees and other street furniture. The result doesn’t look that bad.

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Without having to demolish any of the buildings we have made a place out of what was a tragic cluster of sprawl. At this point people are going to say that there probably isn’t enough parking, or the roads might not be sufficient to accommodate the traffic, but the great thing about a place subtraction process is that you always have some space in reserve to fix unforeseen problems. So instead of building parking spaces in strangulating numbers, you can just convert place to parking lots as they become necessary. If it turns out that the parking is just right, you can build more buildings there and turn it into a little downtown. Of course as you do so density increases and open space disappears. It’s a trade-off, but it’s one that we have deprived ourselves of by insisting in our planning codes that everything be done right at the start, which means that we have too much of everything and nothing left over for people. The biggest myth about sprawl is that it is low-density. In fact it is much too dense, every bit of space used for cars or buildings, which is why people are always complaining about wanting more open space.

French author Marc Augé launched the study of the non-place, ultimately describing it as a space where meeting others is impossible. Place, an emergent product of traditional urbanization, was always simply taken for granted. It has taken enormous intellectual effort, after a complete elimination of place, to understand what exactly was lost and how. It will take a reconstruction of cities just as massive and a paradigm shift in the practice of traffic engineering to restore it. Until then whenever I am in a modern city I will stay in the car. As much as I love walking in town, I am not going to lose my life for it.

Reference

The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler, always a classic.

A video series of Hans Monderman showing his work creating places in “engineered, technocratic” new towns of Holland. And here is an introduction to shared space.

Related Posts

A cuter form of sprawl

The National Post reports about the failures of Canada’s most famous New Urbanist experience, Cornell in the Toronto Suburbs.

More than 10 years ago, a charismatic Cuban American architect embarked on a bold plan to transform a plot of Ontario farmland into a bustling urban utopia, a place where dwellers would swap cars for walking shoes and enjoy a sense of urbanity in what would have otherwise been just another suburb. Or so that was Andres Duany’s plan.

Instead, cars today zip up and down the narrow avenues and not a pedestrian, charming coffee shop, nor restaurant is in sight. It is a Tuesday afternoon, and two beauty salons are inexplicably closed for the day, a real estate office is locked with snow piled high outside its door, not a single child is playing in Mews Park, and the convenience store sees only a trickling of residents. Here and there a York Regional Transit bus rolls along, but public transportation to, from  and within Cornell is far from comprehensive.

“The mindset was that people wanted a village feel, but what emerged was a sort of pseudo-village,” said Michael Spaziani, a Toronto architect who a decade ago helped create Cornell’s open-space master plan, adding that Cornell is so far nothing more than a “cuter form of sprawl.”

John Evans, a father of three who moved to the Markham community about 10 years ago, said he was lured here by the promise of an imaginative urban development, only to today find his expectations not entirely met.

“I was drawn here by the novelty of the idea. But the goal of a walkable community with shops and a retail centre has not been achieved. We have to drive everywhere,” Mr. Evans said, adding that none of his children walk to school.

Renee Torrington, former president of the Cornell Rate Payers Association who moved here in 1998, said she too was excited by the prospect of living in a walkable community, where the revving of engines would be the exception and not the daily norm. But Ms. Torrington buckles into her car nearly every day, whether it be to drive to work in Mississauga, haul groceries from Loblaws, catch a flick, or pick up a bag of dog food from the pet store.

The solution proposed is to bring back Andres Duany to replan the town, in other words feedback. But the city that the New Urbanists are imitating, the traditional American town, did not need this. Its feedback loops were not a decade apart, but every day, as families, businesses and organizations grew it into a mixed-used city, without developers. That is why it was so alive. Too much has already been developed without feedback for this to take place in Cornell.

Previous: New Urbanism as dense sprawl

More evidence that New Urbanism is really dense sprawl

From The New Geography magazine.

In Celebration, many of the early residents were Disney executives; only 4 or 5 years after opening did Disney develop office space in Celebration for some of their offices. Baldwin Park, approximately 2 miles from Downtown Orlando, never pretended to capture the employment aspect, instead selling itself (to many Celebration residents who rushed to this newer, hipper version of their town) as a downtown commute. And neither Avalon Park nor Horizon West have employment opportunities within their town centers. What they do have is easy access to the area’s ring road – ensuring vehicular congestion outside of their New Urbanist communities.

What is in their Town Centers? Ironically, you find only a small shopping district and the ubiquitous Publix, Florida’s home-grown grocery store chain. The formula of “live-work-play” must stick in the craw of those who are employed in these stores, because the Publix employees, Starbucks baristas, dry cleaner cashiers, and others who do work in these Town Centers can not possibly afford the New Urbanist real estate. Rather than a social continuum (as was more common in the idealized version of America), there is a new social schism, with the New Urbanist underclass forced to commute to the New Urbanist communities from more affordable but less trendy housing nearby.

In contrast, the region’s native communities have been thriving throughout the same growth period. Communities like College Park, adjacent to Orlando’s downtown, offer something that New Urbanist communities do not: diverse housing, from garage apartments and rental communities up to stately mansions, all within walking distance of each other. They offer an idiosyncratic mix of sacred places, playgrounds, schools, and shops in what the Philadelphia architect and theorist Robert Venturi calls “messy vitality.” No overarching body dictated the form, developed transects, or rigidly controlled the distance between the front porch to the street to achieve these vibrant, socially cohesive, and proud neighborhoods.

New Urbanists claim to reduce the need for cars, but Orlando’s New Urbanist communities make the car more necessary than ever. Built on the periphery of the metropolitan area, they require a vehicle to complete the circle of functions necessary for a healthy society. Orange County planners have been submissive to the New Urbanists – especially after Celebration – but increasingly recognize that they do not solve the problems they claim to solve and instead invent more: higher traffic, less affordable housing near city centers, and lumpy development sprawl.

If you are building in a city at the metropolitan scale, you have to expect your potential residents to live metropolitan lifestyles. A single TND is nothing more than a prettier subdivision, and brings along all the economic risk and maladaptations that other subdivisions do, with none of the flexibility, agility and adaptivity of regular cities. But the blame here doesn’t fall on the developers of New Urbanism, it falls on the county planners who are supposed to enable the flexibility, agility and adaptivity of their metropolis, and who instead create the ideal conditions for unsustainability and subdivision development. There wouldn’t be these TNDS without the ring roads, which immediately become unplanned urbanism. That’s the only reason this kind of development is profitable in the first place.

The challenge of dense sprawl

When looking at such a picture we are at first inclined to make a parallel with the landscape of Los Angeles. It is a foggy urban plain with a cluster of towers popping out over the horizon. This is Dubai from a perspective that is rarely shown, that of the city in the foreground, and its suburban expansions in the background. The towers are the Dubai suburbs, lined up on what used to be the main highway out to Abu Dhabi, now the centre of New Dubai and the urban fringe of Dubai. A picture such as this is significant because the central core of Dubai is almost never seen in the pictures of the huge developments going up in its suburbs. That is unfortunate, since the reason that these suburban developments are economically possible at their size is because they are growths of the old Dubai. The parallel with Los Angeles is therefore incorrect. Los Angeles followed the standard American model of urban growth, developing a central business district on a simple grid where the original center of the city was founded, then later adopted suburban sprawl to continue its growth and grew a cluster of skyscrapers adapted to this sprawl where the center once was. The policy of sprawl is blamed for the impossible traffic congestion that cripples Los Angeles, but generally what is meant by sprawl are the low-density housing subdivisions, office zones and other standard typologies of suburbia. The solution that was called for was more density, even though some geographers pointed out that Los Angeles was already one of the densest cities in America. The result of this choice has been dense sprawl: worse traffic, worse crowding and seemingly no improvement in quality of life.

Clearly the challenge of sprawl has been improperly identified. I will show that sprawl is not about density but about distance between complements, and the extremely rapid urban growth of Dubai, from a small fishing town to an urban metropolis in two generations, makes this visibly explicit.

Perhaps the most fascinating fact about Dubai is how natural and complex the old city seems to be despite having an entirely modern building stock. Most cities associated with a natural or organic morphology are usually pre-modernist cities of old classical or vernacular buildings, or at least preserve some of them. There are no such buildings in Dubai, the city having started its growth period in the 1950’s. The only explanation for the natural form of the old Dubai is a natural process of growth.

The urban fabric of a city is a solution set, each building being a solution to a problem of a particular time and place. The city as a whole is a solution set for its population as a whole, and as times and people change new buildings are added to provide new solutions to these new problems. The reason that naturally grown cities have a chaotic morphology is the same reason why stock market movement is fractal; they are both adaptations to fluctuating circumstances, and they are both limited in size by the previous size of the system. That means that you cannot grow a city by a development that is bigger than the city’s current state of maladaptation to circumstances. Attempting to do so will result in economic failure. Many very small development operations done in succession will be much more adaptive than one large development operation planned at one moment, since each operation adapts to the circumstances created by the previous one.

Because cities grow by correcting maladaptations, the new buildings turn out to be complements of the existing buildings. It makes no sense to make a building that is identical to one that already exists, and in natural cities that will never appear. Each building will be fitted to the particular knowledge of time and place, as Hayek would say. This particular knowledge is itself produced by the presence of existing buildings and the way people use them.

This process is not simply an economic abstraction, it also has morphological consequences.

Jumeirah is a beachfront suburb directly to the south of old Dubai that has become the home of the Anglosphere expatriate community as well as synonymous with upper-class lifestyles. Because it is more recent growth of Dubai’s urban centre it has seen growth in operations of much larger sizes. You can tell that there are now “clusters” of identical buildings, nothing of the scale of a metropolitan subdivision yet, but the building individuality of central Dubai is no longer present. (Cluster housing development is also visible in, for example, the older parts of Las Vegas.) This is pre-subdivision scale, in that an operation creates multiple buildings without having a scale large enough to be “planned” and have status as a named development. For the purpose of the adaptation they bring, they are still only one event, only one adaptation subdivided into multiple buildings. And because they are much bigger than the previous development operations, they create more distance between themselves and the urban fabric they are adapting to. The scale of development is not big enough to be called sprawl yet, but the complexity of this neighborhood is not as advanced as that of the older city. While the buildings in Jumeirah are certainly complements of the whole city of Dubai, they are not complements of each other, which is true in the older city.

Left: Skyscrapers on Sheik Zayed Road, Burj Dubai site on lower left

Right: Palm Jumeirah, Dubai Marina megaprojects along with random subdivisions.

Here are Dubai’s world-famous megadevelopments, which have been made possible as adaptations to Dubai’s metropolitan scale. The development operations are enormous complements of the existing urban fabric, but the fact that they are all being built concurrently means that they cannot adapt and become complements to each other. With little surprise the traffic congestion on the Sheik Zayed Road that integrates them together has skyrocketed. The distance between complements has increased to the scale of the projects, and the only way to move from one to another is by driving down Sheik Zayed Road.

The skyscrapers going up are actually making sprawl worse the same way that a development of 100 houses extends sprawl. The idea that a skyscraper is a vertical city is a myth. Skyscrapers are identical floors of open space and rely on very large networks of complementary urban fabric to work properly. Skyscrapers can contribute to the complexity of a place like New York City because the urban fabric of Manhattan is very rich and can digest density and congestion gracefully, but in a city where urban fabric is undeveloped, as modernist plans for a Radiant City were, or has been de-developed, like the CBD of most American cities, skyscrapers throw congestion and traffic out to the whole city as badly as a housing subdivision.

The solution to sprawl is not increasing density, but increasing complementarity. That means breaking up existing housing subdivisions, office parks and shopping centers into smaller autonomous parts that can grow into buildings that are complements to houses, offices and shops as well as complements to the city as a whole. (This obviously implies abolishing zoning.) It means not trying to design everything that goes into one project, to let growth come to you and to accomodate it, to publicize the chaotic symmetry of old Dubai as a model of natural beauty instead of the iconic forms of the skyscraper cluster. The Dubai Palms and the Burj Dubai district may still grow into something natural and complex.