4.18.2009

Tending to Cities

Photo of the Plaza de la Constitucion de Oaxaca (Zocalo)Does it matter how a city or neighborhood looks? Many would say it does, though much less than, say, health or safety. So if it matters to some extent, what makes a place visually attractive? Are there any common characteristics, or is it only in the eye of the beholder?

Maybe "looks" is the wrong word. How about the way a place feels? This would include all the senses -- the different variables that make an area appealing. Of course, people have unique tastes and I don't know if there are any qualities loved by everyone. However, there are places generally considered attractive. They are usually in wealthier districts, but should extend to poorer communities as well. If we work towards achieving this throughout our cities, without displacing low-income groups, we might look back some day and wonder how we ever lived in some of the neglected areas we know today.

Maybe we can start by identifying the places people value most, why they are valued, and how to preserve them. (I'm not sure how best to do this. A popular vote doesn't seem practical, but maybe it would work. I wonder which areas would win out? Greenwich Village, for example, or Times Square?). We could go through a similar process for areas that people find unappealing, focusing on improvement. This might be considered a form of public participation in city planning. At the very least we would find out if there are any shared values among urban populations. If this kind of study reveals anything useful, it might inform the design of new places.

Photo of PittsburghA recent article on preservation in Pittsburgh shows how the adaptive reuse of urban areas can be an effective means of environmental sustainability. Cities are environments, and great urban settings should be valued and protected in a way similar to national parks. This is not a call to restrict new designs, but we can work to make sure the results are worth preserving. Setting standards for the quality of building materials might help. Design standards are another possibility, although that seems kind of arbitrary and stifling to creativity.

I wonder if there could be periodic review processes for all planned and existing development, assessing its contribution to the urban environment and how it might be improved. These reviews could address aesthetics as well as health and safety issues. Public funds might be used to make improvements. Sometimes small changes can make a big difference. A new paint job or facade can transform an area with minimal destruction of existing buildings. In other cases, shoddy construction can be removed to make way for something better. Would we be able to agree on what improvements to make? Who would be involved in the review process? How would we deal with the legal issues surrounding private property? There are many reasons why this would be difficult or impossible, but it would be great to set up a continuous process of developing healthy and attractive environments.

(Photo of Plaza de la Constitucion de Oaxaca (Zocalo) from The Project for Public Places. Photo of Pittsburgh from Statepa.org)

4 comments:

Benjamin Hemric said...

PART I

I think Jane Jacobs has addressed -- successfully, in my opinion -- most, if not all, of the questions that you ask (especially in "Death and Life . . ." but also in her other books and interviews too).

Peter Sigrist wrote (numbering is mine -- BH):

[1] Does it matter how a city or neighborhood looks? Many would say it does, [2] though much less than, say, health or safety.

Benjamin Hemric writes:

Regarding [1]: It seems to me that how a city or a city district "looks" is, indeed, important -- BUT how a city looks is, usually in the end, a product of deeper forces than just "architecture" or "urban design" -- e.g., the length of blocks, a mix of uses, sufficient densities, a mix of building types, economic development (as opposed to economic stagnation), etc.

Regarding [2]: I believe Jane Jacobs would be quick to point out that it's important to include social, political and -- especially -- economic functioning in such a list.

- - - - - - -

Peter Sigrist wrote:

Are there any common characteristics, or is it only in the eye of the beholder?

Benjamin Hemric writes:

In my opinion, Jacobs covers this topic rather well in "Death and Life . . ." -- particularly in the chapter devoted primarily to aetheetics. (I don't have my copy of "Death and Life . . . " handy, so I can't give the references, but there is a chapter where she addresses mostly aesthetic issues.)

- - - - - - - -

Peter Sigrist wrote (numbering mine -- BH):

Maybe "look" is the wrong word. [1] How about the way a place feels? This would include all the senses -- the different variables that make a place appealing. Of course, people have unique tastes and [2] I don't know if there are any qualities loved by everyone. However, there are places generally considered attractive. [3] They are usually in wealthier districts, but should extend to poorer communities as well. If we work towards achieving this throughout our cities, [4] without displacing low-income groups, we might look back some day and wonder how we ever lived in some of the neglected areas we know today.

Benjamin Hemric writes:

Regarding [1]: I think a lot of what passes for "urbanism" (like, for instance, "New [Sub-]Urbanism") is actually only a broader version of "urban design" -- where "aethetics" has, maybe, been broadened to include more than just the visual (and some superficial, "token," economics, etc.)

Re [2]: It certainly is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder -- another reason to be way of urban "planning" where one group tries to impose, via the political process, its aesthetic vision on others.

Regarding [3]: Using NYC as an example, it seems to me that a signficant number of districts that are now considered beautiful have, at one time or another, been poor districts. Also, a number of districts that were originally developed as affluent, or at least middle-class, districts are now considered monotonous, dreary or ugly.

Regarding [4]: To me, a very big difference between Jane Jacobs and many of the self-proclaimed urbanists (including many of those who profess to admire her) is the following: Jacobs correctly saw that the key to ameliorating the negatives of "gentrification" (a word that wasn't in common use when she wrote "Death and Life . . .") is creating MORE desirable URBAN (e.g., high densities, mixed uses, etc.) districts -- increasing the supply to meet the demand; on the other hand, many of those who like to think of themselves as urbanists (and Jacobs fans) are actually very ambivalent about urbanism (e.g., unplanned growth, high densities, mixed uses and mixed building types -- including high rises) and are often actually more concerned with divvying up the pie in what they see as an equitable fashion, rather than increasing the number of pies (e.g., high density, mixed use districts).

[END OF PART I]

-- Benjamin Hemric

# # #

Benjamin Hemric said...

PART II

While I notice that there are in Part I a number of typos, etc., I'd like to correct just one, in order to clarify my meaning:

The original statement I posted said, ". . . another reason to be way of urban 'planning' where one group tries to impose, via the political process, its aesthetic vision on others."

Instead, it should have said, " . . . another reason to be WARY of urban 'planning' where one group tries to impose, via the political process, its aesthetic vision on others."

Peter Sigrist wrote (numbering mine -- BH):

[1] Maybe we can start by identifying the places people value most, why they are valued, and how to preserve them. [2] (I'm not sure how best to do this. A popular vote doesn't seem practical, but maybe it would work.

Benjamin writes:

Regarding [1]: This kind of empiricism is what I think Jane Jacobs does in "Death and Life . . . ," not just in the chapter devoted primarily to aesthetics but throughout the entire book, and elsewhere in her work also (and with regard to other themes as well).

[2] I agree that a conventional popular vote would not be the best way to do this. And since Jacobs has so thoughtfully and thoroughly, in my opinion, addressed this topic, I think it would be very useful for people to discuss (pro or con) her ideas on this topic, at least as a beginning.

- - - - -

Peter Sigrist wrote:

I wonder which areas would win out? Greenwich Village, for example, or Times Square?).


Benjamin Hemric writes:

I'm not sure if this is what was really meant, but it seems that the implication in this statement is that it's an "either / or" situation (i.e., either Greenwich Village or Times Square).

It seems to me, however, that there are lots of different types of urban "beauty" (even in NYC alone, and not even including Paris, Venice, etc.): Greenwich Village, Times Square, SoHo, Chinatown, etc. Even Greenwhich Village itself has various subdistricts that are beautiful in their own very different way from the other Grenwich Village subdistricts.

- - - - - -

Peter Sigrist wrote:

We could go through a similar process for areas that people find unappealing, focusing on improvement.


Benjamin Hemric writes:

I think Jane Jacobs also does this in "Death and Life . . ."

- - - - - -

Peter Sigrist wrote:

[1] This might be considered a form of public participation in city planning. [2] At the very least we would find out if there are any shared values among urban populations. If this kind of study reveals anything useful, it might inform the design of new places.

Benjamin Hemric writes:

Regarding [2]: When Jane Jacobs was first starting out as an "urbanologist" (a word she didn't really care for, but it seems to me to be the best word to use), Harvard-MIT asked her to do a survey somewhat along these lines. She thought is was a very poor way to a better understanding of cities, and I agree.

I think the approach she took instead is far more useful, as it seems to me (among other things) that very few people have the time, inclination or appropriate talents to really think about such questions in depth.

It's better, in my opinion, to have people, who are really interested in the topic, research it, think about it, write about it and then present their ideas to the general public for further discussion (pro or con).

Re [1]: I think such an approach (e.g.,"let's take a vote" among people "who know and care very little about a topic") exemplifies what is wrong with "planning" and "public participation."

- - - - - -

Peter Sigrist wrote (numbering mine -- BH):

[1] Cities are environments, and [2] great urban settings should be valued and protected in a way similar to national parks. This is not a call to restrict new designs, but we can work to make sure the results are worth preserving. [3] Setting standards for the quality of building materials might help. Design standards are another possibility, although that seems kind of arbitrary and stifling to creativity.

Benjamin Hemric writes:

Regarding [1]: This is a major theme of Jane Jacobs' works, not just "Death and Life . . . " but her other books too. (See, for instance, "The Nature of Economies.")

Regarding [2]: The Jacobs approach seems to me to be less about protecting things (despite her interest in landmarks preservation, etc.) than in understanding beneficial developmental processes, both in cities and in the "rest of nature" too. (Jacobs argues that humans, their cities and their economies are best understood as all being part of "nature" too.)

Regarding [3]: While standards in general (e.g., noise, smoke, etc.) are useful and important, I think it's important to be wary of governmentally enforced design standards.

- - - - - -

Peter Sigrist wrote:

I wonder if there could be periodic review processes for all planned and existing development, assessing its contribution to the urban environment and how it might be improved. These reviews could address aesthetics as well as health and safety issues. Public funds might be used to make improvements. Sometimes small changes can make a big difference. A new paint job or facade can transform an area with minimal destruction of existing buildings. In other cases, shoddy construction can be removed to make way for something better. Would we be able to agree on what improvements to make? Who would be involved in the review process? How would we deal with the legal issues surrounding private property? There are many reasons why this would be difficult or impossible, but the payoff would be in the continuous process of developing healthy and attractive environments.

Benjamin Hemric writes:

It seems to me that the Jacobs approach to these aesthetic issues is to be very skeptical of all this government involvement, especially since aesthetics is very subjective; good regulations are hard to come up with and even harder to change; and, as mentioned earlier, much of what people consider beautiful is actually a product of other forces to begin with.

Patrick said...

See also "The Timeless Way of Building" and "A New Theory of Urban Design" by Christopher Alexander.

Peter Sigrist said...

Thank you both for the comments and book recommendations. A lot of the questions in this post come from thinking about the ideas of Jacobs and Alexander.

And great point, Benjamin, that it doesn't have to be a choice between "Times Square" and "Greenwich Village" urbanism, that all kinds of districts have their place, and that there are many different places within these districts.