Thinking Bigger 

Can new urbanism save the world from more than modernism?

"Faulkner was slowly going insane," begins J.G. Ballard's 1961 story "The Overloaded Man." An unemployed former lecturer at a business college, Faulkner finds his environment so dull and oppressive that he can only make it tolerable by mentally transforming the world around him into abstract art. A row of houses becomes "a cubist landscape, a collection of random white forms below a blue backdrop, across which several powdery green blurs moved slowly backward and forward." Faulkner, you see, lives in a modern, self-contained housing development known as the Bin, "a sprawl of interlocking frosted glass, white rectangles and curves, at first glance exciting and abstract...but to the people within formless and visually exhausting." The design of the Bin is based on the latest and most prestigious of architectural fashions, yet living there is "hell on earth."

"The Overloaded Man" appeared when the modernist planning principles that Ballard incorporated into his story reigned surpreme. But the 60s also saw the beginnings of a backlash--and the opening salvo came in the form of Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, the same year that modernism was driving poor Faulkner crazy.

Drawn from Jacobs's observations of life in and around her Greenwich Village neighborhood, Death and Life is both a manifesto against the irrationalities of post-World War II urban planning and a detailed guide to the organic systems of traffic and commerce that made cities work in the first place. Jacobs, a journalist and amateur sociologist, argued that density is a good thing, that cars and freeways destroy viable urban spaces, and that mixed-use zoning is not just preferable but critical to the continued vitality of urban neighborhoods. She popularized the notion of "eyes on the street"--the casual surveillance of a neighborhood by the people who live and work there that, she argued, helps prevent crime and preserve the peace. Communities thrive where you don't have to drive to get a carton of milk, she wrote. Where you can live right on top of the store that you own. Where the houses don't look like identical shoe boxes. Where you can get to know your neighbors.

When it was published, Death and Life was a shot across the bow of the establishment. "The planners hated it," Jacobs recalled in a 2000 interview. "The architects were divided." But over the ensuing four decades her ideas became the core of the urban planning movement known as new urbanism, which advocates a return to dense, pedestrian-friendly town planning. Earlier this year the official headquarters of the movement, the nonprofit Congress for the New Urbanism, relocated from the Bay Area to Chicago. Now the group--an international association of 2,300 architects and planners under the leadership of former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist--has its home in the Marquette Building on Dearborn Street; the CNU's 12th annual congress, "Blocks, Streets, and Buildings Today: The New City Beautiful," runs June 24 through 27 at the Palmer House Hilton.

The CNU's charter is grounded in 27 design-related principles intended to steer development, public policy, and urban planning away from the orthodoxy that took root in the U.S. after World War II. Built around the automobile, the assumption of the infinite availability of cheap oil, the belief that cities were too crowded and chaotic for comfort, and the ideas of European modernists like Le Corbusier, this orthodoxy gave us the sprawling American office parks, isolated housing developments, shopping malls, and endless traffic that are the default landscape of much of the country.

"Neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population," reads the charter's preamble. "Communi-ties should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice." In the 12 years since the CNU incorporated, the organization has helped develop more than 200 new urbanist communities, from the much-publicized Florida town of Seaside to urban infill projects like the Kingsbury Park development along the Chicago River north of Chicago Avenue.

Now 88 and living in Toronto, Jacobs herself is skeptical of the alternate orthodoxy her ideas have inspired. As she observed in a 2001 interview in the libertarian magazine Reason, "The New Urbanists want to have lively centers in the places they develop, where people run into each other doing errands and that sort of thing. And yet, from what I've seen of the plans and the places they have built, they don't seem to have a sense of the anatomy of these hearts, these centers." At a recent public appearance promoting her latest book, Dark Age Ahead (published last month by Random House), she reportedly dismissed new urbanism with the sharp comment that it simply creates more sprawl--but with porches.

In Dark Age Ahead Jacobs attempts to take the ideas so precisely articulated in her work on urban systems and apply them to a larger canvas. In one rather disjointed package it combines a restatement of urbanist principles with ominous warnings about the ongoing degradation of important social institutions. The thesis is that key areas of civilization have decayed to such an extent that they threaten to collapse: family and community, higher education, science, the effective use of taxation, and the ability of the "learned professions" to police themselves. The absence of the last of these, Jacobs argues, resulted in the Enron debacle and the sexual abuse scandals currently plaguing the Catholic church.

As these "jeopardized pillars" crumble, she goes on, we suffer the loss of cultural memory that's the chief characteristic of a dark age. "Most of the million details of a complex, living culture are transmitted neither in writing nor pictorially," she writes. "Instead, cultures live by word of mouth and example." This amnesia, she asserts, can be seen in the downgrading of learning in favor of "credentialing"; in the decline of fiscal accountability in both government and the private sector; and in the combination of faith in science and "contempt for scientifically rigorous behavior."

These warnings sit uneasily alongside the more patient, levelheaded sections of the book, which are largely rehashings of new urbanist principles updated with analyses of contemporary problems like the inefficiencies of Ontario's system of taxation and what that means for the decaying public life of Toronto. (She asserts that the current dirty, disorganized state of the city once described as New York run by the Swiss can be attributed to the way a "one-size-fits-all" bureaucracy prevents government money from getting to the places it would do the most good.) When she sticks to this familiar territory, her thoughts remain lucid and detailed; when she makes a break for larger significance, things become hazy. In the end, I wasn't at all persuaded that a new dark age is on the way, and toward the end of the book the author herself hedges her bets, writing, "At a given time it is hard to tell whether forces of cultural life or death are in the ascendancy."

What's more interesting is the way in which Jacobs's thinking has become more pessimistic as she expands her scope beyond urban issues. Her new message--presented in rather scattershot form--is that we have to fix a lot more than just ugly architecture if we want to have a sustainable future.

Her pessimism is urgently echoed in the work of James Howard Kunstler, a journalist and novelist who, like Jacobs, comes to urbanism from a lay background. In such books as The Geography of Nowhere (1993) and Home From Nowhere (1996), he stresses the destructive dependency of our car-centered way of life on the continuing flow of cheap oil from abroad. "I was a newspaper reporter in 1973, during the OPEC oil embargo," he said in a recent phone interview, "and I've never forgotten the impact it had." When he began writing about urban issues in the late 80s, he came at it from a quality-of-life perspective; but even then, the oil economy was "a dark force lurking in the background" of his harsh take on the suburbanization of America.

Kunstler's next book, due out this fall, is titled The Long Emergency. In it he predicts that oil and natural gas will get scarcer and the world economy will worsen as a result, leading to "an orgy of default and repossession, and a fight over the table scraps of the 21st century." In Kunstler's view the postwar suburbs are doomed by their dependence on the automobile, but larger cities, with their enormous energy needs, also face a bleak future. The last time he was in Chicago, he had to catch the Blue Line from downtown to O'Hare at 5:30 in the morning. "Downtown was totally dead," he said. "It was like a scene from The Day the Earth Stood Still. And I wondered: is this what Chicago will look like in 2027?"

Kunstler's apocalyptic approach doesn't always sit well with his peers. When he spoke about his concerns at the CNU's Congress last year, he says, "many of the people there thought I was cracked." Kunstler believes that the center of the future American economy will be agriculture, not oil, and that this--not quality-of-life concerns--is what will entail a return to life in traditional small towns and cities of a manageable size. Kunstler's vision is more focused than Jacobs's, and as a result it's more convincing.

The oil economy isn't such a pressing concern for CNU president Norquist. "We can't make dire predictions with certainty," he said when asked about the issue of resource scarcity. He does, however, deplore the impact of the car culture on our physical environment, calling Robert Moses, who masterminded the urban renewal that decimated the south Bronx and other New York City neighborhoods in the 1950s, a "villain," and citing Detroit as an example of a city destroyed by cars and the way they facilitated the independence of suburbs from the urban core. But to him, the question of oil is largely subordinate to the issue of quality of life. "Do you want to live in a place where you have to drive everywhere?" he asks. "Where there's no building worth putting on a postcard? Where kids are glued to the TV because they don't have any other choices?"

CNU cofounder Andres Duany, an architect and author of (with Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck) the excellent new urbanist treatise Suburban Nation, shares Norquist's opinion that quality of life is the issue from which other concerns flow. He claims that the attraction of the movement is "hedonic"--it's all about making life more pleasurable. He acknowledges, though, that some people bring a "Calvinistic" streak to it that expresses itself via environmental concern.

Clearly not everyone thinks our way of life is doomed or disordered. One of the loudest cheerleaders is New York Times columnist David Brooks. Brooks has spent the better part of the last decade singing the praises of the suburbs and exurbs as the physical manifestation of American individualism and freedom of choice, and last month published his book on the subject, On Paradise Drive. The things readers either love or hate about Brooks are on abundant display here--the cartoonish human archetypes ("Ubermom," "Patio Man"), the joshing attitude toward "crunchy" liberals (do they really give their kids names like "Milo" and "Mandela"?), and the golly-gee, can-do optimism. At one point, as a kind of exercise in pessimistic thinking, Brooks mentally builds himself a huge pile of depressing literature, and onto this pile he throws "the vast literature of suburban sprawl," an unsubtle dig at new urbanist concerns. If sprawl is Patio Man's Garden of Eden, who are we to say otherwise?

Brooks buys into a common perception that new urbanists constantly struggle against: that suburban living, despite the sprawl, the commutes, the lack of public space, and the cookie-cutter architecture, is simply what people want. Norquist and Duany both argue that this is not necessarily true. It's what people have been given, and the absence of options creates the phenomenon psychologists call consensus trance. "It's completely ridiculous," says Norquist. "People haven't been offered anything else." They blame the providers, such as the big developers, not the residents of suburbia. Duany also points to the "interlocked protocols" of suburban development that practically demand a continuation of the current patterns: not just zoning laws, but the way mortgages are granted and investments are made.

Kunstler believes Brooks is living in a fool's paradise. On his blog, Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle (www.kunstler.com), he calls him an "avatar of cluelessness" who "never actually touches upon the primary cause of suburbia's origin, which is nothing so metaphysical as a hundred years of cheap gasoline."

But if Brooks' exurban paradise is neither freely chosen nor sustainable, then the social and political ramifications--while possibly not as dire as Kunstler suggests--are large. This is precisely where the new urbanist paradigm, facing the big bad world of the future, starts to splinter. Even as it grapples with concerns about the economy, natural resources, the environment, and the decay of American communities, new urbanism lacks a clear political perspective, or any program beyond that laid out by those 27 design-related principles in its charter.

The lack of perspective means that it potentially offers something for everyone. You may be attracted to new urbanist principles because you're concerned about the environment, or because you're worried that the oil is running out, or you dislike what car culture has done to public space. You may, like Ballard's overloaded man, simply loathe your surroundings on aesthetic grounds. New urbanism is simultaneously conservative, in that it's concerned with the preservation of traditional modes of living and the best and most durable aspects of past practice, and oddly radical in its skepticism toward the power of developers, retailers, and the oil industry. It is social-democratic, in a European sense, in its valuation of public space and community life. Duany stresses the fundamental American pragmatism behind the movement: "Anything that works, we assimilate." But the key issue remains quality of life. What remains to be seen is whether people attracted by new urbanism's "hedonic" promise will eventually apply their energies to the messier problems outside its purview.

Dark Age Ahead, by Jane Jacobs, Random House, $23.95.

On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense, by David Brooks, Simon & Schuster, $25.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/William L. Brown.

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