Saturday, February 11, 2017

New Urbanism and Our Need for Utopian Outcomes

I was reading Emily Talen’s Sense of Community and Neighborhood Form: An Assessment of the Social Doctrine of New Urbanism and got hung up on two things: first, that there is a social doctrine of new urbanism, and second that this social doctrine is somehow separate and distinct from the American history of urbanization.
New urbanism as a concept and the philosophy behind it has always rung a bit false for me when talking about place-making efforts and initiatives: I simply don’t believe that there is this underlying Field of Dreams utopia of it all, that “if you build it, they will come,” some magic formula of sidewalks and cafes that will suddenly yield up a sense of community amongst and between the residents. Also, the idea of urbanism -- old, new or continuous -- as a social doctrine kind of weirds me out. I associate social doctrines with more secular arms of religious organizations, especially calling to mind such doctrines as social darwinism from the turn of the twentieth century, a time when we replaced god with gold once again and turned to science to cement our god-given right to do so. Now that we are all more enlightened in the twenty-first century and are all spiritual-but-not-religious, it probably is appropriate that we should be remaking our cities, once centered around the cathedral, into places of secular-spiritual importance.
In the nineteenth century, upon the dramatic expansion of this country with the purchase of Louisiana from Napoleon, our egalitarian founders undertook this same formulaic approach to community and place, with court, school, church and other civic buildings in the center of a square town, and residents afforded regular acreage surrounding the center in a grid.[1]
Planned communities enjoyed traction in the twentieth century as well, from skyscraper city centers at the turn of the century to 1950s housing developments touting themselves as the neighborhood of tomorrow (frequently able to be purchased and furnished completely through Sears & Roebuck) to the counter-culture communes of the late 1960s and the back-to-the-earth intentional communities of the 1970s. National conservative backlash in the 1980s combined with postwar economic pressures that were largely ignored by Reaganomic economic policies -- golf course communities and shopping malls were the core around which American life orbited, all with a schedule dictated by network television, the socializing force that would burst into the minds of a young generation and eclipse the teachings of everything else -- church, school or state. The sidewalk city, centered around parks and cafes, is not new -- in fact it is a recycled and romanticized version of a Parisian idyll, one that likely cannot be found to exist today if in fact it ever did.
It seems to me that civic engagement is fostered through activities, not through purchases and promenades, and I agree with our authors that gated communities and suburbs often create exclusion through price points, voluntary associations, and at times through less benign, more nefarious motivation. We all know about white flight and bright flight that propelled the suburbs in the 80s and 90s and the private schools associated with them and is now fueling the return to the cities as urban planning gurus again cry the utopian ideal of clean, upscale living where everyone likes each other and everyone is like each other.

We must beware our presets -- even good motives can go awry if we are not aware of the unintended consequences of social programming on any scale. While I love Kushner for pointing out the obvious consideration of transit as a central, unifying and democratizing element in urban planning[2], I can’t help but sigh a bit in resignation as he, too falls victim to a belief in the utopian outcome.

1. Credit (or blame, depending upon one's view) for the squaring of the Midwest is often given to Thomas Hutchins, the first Geographer of the United States.  Due partially to his influence, Congress, in 1785, two years before the Northwest Ordinance opened the Midwest to settlement, passed a law that stipulated the new lands would be surveyed in a grid pattern of six-mile squares, each square (or township) to be further subdivided into 36 one-mile squares (sections) of 640 acres each.  Surveying the first tract for the Ohio Company of Massachusetts, Hutchins struck his Jacob's staff on the north bank of the Ohio, square on the Pennsylvania border, and ran a line due west 42 miles to mark off the first seven ranges of townships from the Pennsylvania border.  Thus began the pattern of land survey that was to persist throughout the rest of the country except for West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, and Texas (and of course the 13 original states, which were mostly already surveyed).  In the years immediately following there would be some experimentation with five-mile squares and in one case, no squares or system at all, but by the time surveying had been completed in the Delaware Tract, wherein sits my catawampus house with its lopsided pictures, the six-mile square township of 36 sections, the 16th always reserved to finance a school, had become a permanent feature.
2. And, let’s face it, I love that he gives voice to the pre-Towers cynicism that we of GenX have ground into our cells, the perspective of a generation that looks askance at the hip, connected, vibrant and gosh-darn-it-all so clean and carefree Millennials. We love them, but we suspect they are misguidedly heading toward the cliffs. We, as a generation, crave being wrong, but have been proven to be right once too often.