The Algonquin town of Pomeioc. Watercolor by Captain John White, 1585.
“…comprising the dwellings and all other buildings of the people. Related to their environmental contexts and available resources they are customarily owner- or community-built, utilizing traditional technologies. All forms of vernacular architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and ways of life of the cultures that produce them.” Paul Oliver, Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World.
I continue to reflect on my search for sustainable shapes and forms that can help us create the next city. I am trying to find a more precise and useful way to describe how to think about making places that respond to specific and local environments and circumstances: vernacular urbanism.
Before the industrial revolution, most urban lives, and city forms, were entirely focused on all things local. The principle forces shaping cities – food, water, mobility and energy – were necessarily resolved in quite direct and legible ways. Whether in the ancient gridded Ionian city of Priene on the Maeander River in Anatolia (about which we have written here previously), or the winding streets on the hillsides of Lisbon, the forms of the city were frequently organized around a simple idea: access.
The Alfama, in Lisbon. Photo from flickr.
Citizens led the best good life (which is not to say without misery, war, chaos or pestilence – I do not mean the “good old days,” I mean simply a sustainable, thus good, urban existence) in places that offered easiest access to energy, food, water and transit (on foot or by horse, but almost always by boat on rivers, before the advent of the railroad). Using locally available resources, the city was constructed to be as durable and accommodating as possible – warm in winter, cool in summer, dry in the rainy times, with easy access to plenty of food, water, and energy – usually wood – for warmth, cooking, and making things.
With the advent of the industrial revolution, mass production gave us access to resources and materials that were almost never local in derivation, and available in an increasingly dizzying variety. Suddenly a wooden city or a stone city built near forests or mountains could become an iron city, a steel city or eventually a plastic city. As railroads emerged, we Chicagoans (my native place) could begin to enjoy a Florida orange, or a potato from Idaho. As the lights came on we could begin to ignore the cold, the lack of sunlight, and ultimately even the heat.
And when we could sit behind the wheel of our 3,000 pound personal transportation devices, things got better yet. Now we really could ignore where we were, and where things came from. We could drive to the shopping mall or the supermarket, where goods and foodstuff from across the globe were stockpiled – some 45,000 items in a typical supermarket alone. Every city became the shape and form of every other city – freeways, seas of parking lots, skyscrapers, strip shopping centers, subdivisions. What was once a unique urban response to local particulars and resources had almost totally disappeared. Everywhere.
And now this era of access to excess comes to a close. The patterns of living that we have evolved, and their corresponding urban shapes and forms, we are suddenly discovering we cannot sustain. Now what?
What have we learned? Now we can begin to recover our past, our history, how we once lived in places in ways that worked for the long haul. We must begin to look again at how we get our energy – sun, wind, tides, or other means, depending on where we are. We have to realize that we cannot afford to transport our food from every corner of the world – it just costs too damn much as oil prices rise and then rise again. We watch as cities all over the world run dry, their lakes disappear, and droughts rage – we must change the way we think of our water systems.
So we get out of our cars, stop building highways and parking lots and use other forms of transit instead, move closer together, capitalize on our local resources and assets. We craft regions so that we can grow food instead of subdivisions. We build new public markets, in neighborhoods all over our cities, to offer access to fresh foodstuff.
Shopping malls disappear. Supermarkets shrink. Now we spend much more time on foot – perhaps our city blocks become filled with pathways and snickets so we can meander. We live where we work. If we have to build, we build more simply – less tall, more durable, in the kind of self-contained fashion of another age. So, as we once did, we use local materials as much as we can.
We remember how to make and repair things. We use what’s at hand in materials to create what we need, and we now must rely on new ways to share what we know. Since we always build what’s in our heads, we will have to fill our heads with how to build.
And perhaps we can rearrange things – change the city’s blocks or add new spaces and places. Here’s an example you may have seen here once before:
And we can engage in a kind of vernacular version of what are some calling micro-urbanism – the extremely local, circumstantial and provisional reclaiming of urban spaces – the space beneath the viaduct, the cloverleaf interchange, a repurposed gas station. Spaces under and between and abandoned or unfinished. Take a look at the results of this idea in a course called “Urban Landscapes” taught by Professor Jeff Hou at the University of Washington in Seattle: http://microseattle.wordpress.com.
We begin with historic forms, materials, methods, because these have succeeded for a very long time. But we add new ideas and attitudes and renewable materials that extend and build upon these foundations. In the end, vernacular urbanism for the next city is not about the cutting edge, or the old fashioned and traditional. Instead, I think, the best vernacular urbanism for the next city is an integration of old and new, for the purpose of providing cities that can sustain us for more than a generation, and can provide access to the best good life in a changed world.