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Traffic in Xi'an, China

Xi’an, China.

Most of us live inside the gravitational pull of cities. Today, 54 percent of the world’s population resides in urban areas. In 1950, 30 per cent of the world’s population was urban, and by 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population is projected to be urban. Presently, the most urbanized regions include Northern America (82 percent living in urban areas), Latin America and the Caribbean (80 percent), and Europe (74 percent). In contrast, Africa and Asia remain mostly rural, with 41 and 48 per cent of their respective populations living in urban areas, while only 34% of India’s population is urban. So that means that about 4 billion of the planet’s 7.5 billion people currently live in metropolitan circumstances. (Interestingly, of those billions, the UN tells us that about 25 percent live in slums, and that number is rising quickly).

Making cities has always been a very complicated process, balancing economics with social will, and politics and power with public policy and some (often varying) sense of collective well-being. Kings and commoners (even slum-dwellers), moguls and mayors have all wrestled to control the character of urban life, and to preside over the ever-shifting balancing act between self-interest and the common good.

And in this complicated process of city making, architects and urban designers have had the job of creating urban shape and form. Since Hippodamus of Miletus (he was the first, or an early, promoter of the gridded city) and before, urbanists have searched for a right relationship between the block, the street and the building, and the good life. Sometimes their visions have been insightful, sometimes horrific. Or to say that differently, some of their visions have led to a better urban life, and some have led to a problematic and troubled urban life.

Two fast examples of better and less better before we move on to the crux of the discussion. The better city: Chicagoan Daniel Burnham imagined the “City Beautiful,” a city based on civic virtues and urban stewardship. Often accused of elitism, Burnham nonetheless wrote at length (300+ pages in his 1909 Chicago Plan) about the just city, its institutions, and its citizens. The less better city: Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris, promulgated as housing for unknown remote factories, and obsessively focused on all forms of contemporary technology – the car, the plane, the express highway, the ‘skyscraper.’ We can debate this if you like, but the jury has spoken on this matter, and moved on.

In any event, architects and urban designers have always played the role of set designers for the theater which is urban life, creating stages for the unfolding human drama – tragic or comedic – which billions now enact.

But the real question is this: what is a better life in the city? It’s worth asking this question because if we can arrive at some semblance of an understanding about what a good urban life might be, then it might be easier to formulate policy, and architecture, in support.

I am currently enjoying a cluster of essays by the quite extraordinary architect and urbanist Michael Sorkin. The collection is entitled “Twenty Minutes in Manhattan,” and a particular essay is called “The Stair.” I mention all this because in that essay, he says that Jane Jacobs, the Empress of Urbanism, says that a better city life is: “…mutuality, self-government, neighborliness, diversity, intimacy, convenience, contentment, and safety.” I might add a few things to this – a clear and inalienable justice for all, a willingness to restrain one’s appetites in favor of the community, and a desire to live in a resilient and sustainable community, now and forever.

So if this can act as a rudimentary definition of the good life in the city, what can we architects propose to help us get there? I propose a Twelve Step program to advance the common good in the shaping and forming of our cities. Here we go – twelve criteria for establishing urban excellence.

1. Density, Closeness

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Hong Kong, China

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Cadiz, Spain

In cities, density of population and density of use are almost always a prerequisite for other characteristics of urban excellence which follow. Density is a misleading term: many naturally associate dense urban settings with tall buildings in modern cities. But this is not so – some of the densest urban settings in the world are in premodern or protomodern locales, with a dearth of buildings above 5 or 6 stories.

Critically, density frequently brings with it a host of other urban assets: mixed uses, walkability, and an ease of access to the diverse assets of the community.

Perhaps one of the most important benefits of density in urban settings is the extent to which auto dependence can be obviated.

2. Walk, Walk, Walk

“No city should be too large for a man to walk out of in a morning.” Cyril Connolly

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Krakow, Poland

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Rome, Italy

Perhaps no single criterion is a better measure of urban excellence than walkability. If a city is understood and experienced as walkable, then it is a city where the automobile has a place, but probably not the place in questions of access and transportation. In walkable urban locales, studies show that residents are healthier, the environment is cleaner, and economic values are stable or rising.

And better urban life happens in a city where all of one’s needs can be met within a 1-mile circle – a 20-minute walk for most. Typically, an urban neighborhood, or quarter, has all of the goods and services needed for daily life – the butcher, the green grocer, the café, the library, the doctor, the pub. And some others, some specialties, as well. Then these centers – often there are many – are interconnected by modes of enhanced mobility – the subway, the streetcar, the bike path, the bus. Walking and cities – a fundamental urban proposition.

3. Beyond Our Feet

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Melbourne, Australia

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Hong Kong, China

We have become numb to the extent that automobiles have subsumed, and often wreaked havoc, on our urban centers. But diverse mobility means movement in cities without a bias of any kind between types of transport: by motor, bike, foot, or any other means. And the thoroughfares of mobility in the best urban settings are not dominated by one or another mode of transportation: all can move freely. No mode is entitled – all modes are entitled.

4. Living Narratives: a Million Stories on Every Corner

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Athens, Greece

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Valletta, Malta

In a city of excellence, we can find ourselves, our homes, our histories, our occupations, the stories of what we were, who came before us, and what they did. All of these narratives embody our personal and communal life, memorialize our best moments, recall our successes, and perhaps forecast our futures. We take care of such cities, we are loyal to such places, because these narratives are signals that we belong, we are empowered, we can take ownership.

In cities of excellence our sense of loyalty and stewardship can be because of at least three circumstances related to the presence of meaningful narratives. First, those narratives can be the legible and conserved – revered – nature of the physical place. Or next, the narratives could be the text for the physical extension of the city: we build on and expand upon the story of what has come before us. Or third, the narrative life of a city (embodying our loyalty and faith in the place) could be the basis for things in the city that are new, previously unseen but somehow resonant with our understanding of ourselves in the city.

5. For Richer, For Poorer

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Bangalore, India

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Tangier, Morocco

Before our era of gas fired mobility, it was much harder for us to avoid each other, much harder for us to segregate ourselves by race and class and ethnicity and whatever else made us different from each other. In those times, economic status was much less lateral or horizontal, and much more vertical, or at least proximate.

For the sake of density and walkability and resilience, and the integration of economic class, the creation of a single urbanism of economic diversity is a signal of urban excellence. We would be much better citizens, and our cities would certainly become physical expressions of a greater richness and vivacity, when wealth and poverty are contiguous.

6. A Public Realm for a Public Life

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Barcelona, Spain

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Shanghai, China

A lively and bustling public realm – busy sidewalks, active plazas, crowded markets – are signals of a healthy and engaged urban population. And a robust public realm is likewise a signal of a healthy urban economy. If urban byways are lively, then residential, retail and commercial uses are all animated, cash is flowing and taxes are being generated.

And there are many approaches that architects and urban designers can adopt that will enhance and complement a robust pubic realm. A bustling urban setting is probably not the result of design alone, but poor design can quickly reduce, and even extinguish, urban vitality.

7. A Living Past Assures a Livable Future

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Lisbon, Portugal

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Barcelona, Spain

Increasingly, cities across the globe feel and appear to be increasingly like one another. International franchises, auto-domination, sprawl, the loss of historic urban fabric, the separation of uses by zone – all of these characteristics and more mark places that have lost their sense of themselves, their collective memories, the narratives that make each place unique, and compelling.

Bur urban excellence is fundamentally about a place becoming more and more particular, more and more like itself (or to invert, less and less like somewhere else).

And it is in the historic built fabric of cities where this specific nature is most legible. Old buildings and old districts tell us who we were, what we did, why we are the way we are, and what we might become as the future unfolds. Losing these memories, these tales of our communal life (often most vivid in our monuments) is a certain guarantee of anonymity, and a true loss of urban value.

8. The City’s Site

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Haifa, Israel

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Cape Town, South Africa

Whether river or lake, ocean or inland sea, mountains or simply seven hills, best cities are fundamentally focused on their essential, and defining, physical characteristics. To say this in a different way, no city of excellence can ignore or fail to foreground the essential qualities of its nature.

Interestingly, connecting to natural assets like rivers, lakes or even oceans may be a new kind of opportunity in many cities. Often these waterfronts were historically industrial in use, and were frequently polluted and strictly utilitarian in their structures and surrounding infrastructure. Converting these zones to useful and attractive elements of the urban fabric is often substantial, but always important, work.

9. Urbs in Horto, Hortus in Urbe

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Santa Cruz de Tenerife

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Sydney, Australia

It was once commonly understood that parks and green spaces were the ‘lungs,’ and more, of any industrial or recently postindustrial city. The natural world present in the city has always acted as a counterweight to the surrounding built urban environment.

In the nineteenth century, urban parks offered relief from the stifling pollution of industrialism, as well as places to enjoy what little leisure was available, to have a place for recreation, and even frequently a place to bathe. In the 21st century many urban parks are being re-imagined – in Budapest for example – and in some cities parks are even being incorporated into private architecture. Most recent developments point at sustainability and resilience as the now-conscious intentions of the next generation of natural spaces in urban fabric.

10. An Institutional Presence

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Cadiz, Spain

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Valletta, Malta

In cities, institutions – governments, churches, universities, hospitals, theaters, libraries, and others – mediate between citizens and the larger community while providing a framework of moral and ethical values that guide and define the place. Excellent cities foreground these institutions, making them visible, and in fact allowing the physical locales of these institutions to act as fundamental organizers of urban fabric. And excellent cities will defend this hierarchy against encroachment of any kind.

11. Ages and Ages, Young and Old

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Santa Cruz de Tenerife

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Alicante, Spain

Excellent cities inspire loyalty across many generations. And civic loyalty is essential if a city is to remain robust, resilient, and sustainable. Walking the streets of a city of excellence, or visiting the essential places of those cities, should reveal the presence of a multiple of generations.

In the key locales of any city of excellence, we believe that the presence of at least three generations of any family is essential. To say this in a slightly different way, it should be possible to see families whose ages span 70 years or so as one visits the city’s parks or promenades or plazas.

12. Resilience – A Useable Future

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Singapore

Even now, as many cities realize the need to increase their sustainability, there is not one city on earth that is truly self-sufficient. This seems surprising, perhaps – not one city in the world can feed itself, power itself, slake its thirst.

We humans have devised all sorts of sophisticated technologies and industries to meet our needs, but we have done so without giving serious thought to consequences. And so instead of relying on our immediate environments and surroundings, we rely on fuel from the middle east, fruit from Chile, or shoes from China. This has not always been so – as recently as two centuries ago every city could sustain itself.

And now we know that we must increasingly lead local lives in order for our cities to meet the challenges of the future. As we search the world for examples of this new kind of resilience, this new sense of 21st century sustainability, we learn how truly difficult – notwithstanding completely necessary – is this task that looms before us.

 

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I was going to say that most of us carry a city around in our heads – a city we imagine, filled with places that we conjure, we seek, we occupy in our reveries.

But maybe most of us don’t. Maybe it’s just me.

In any event, whether you do or you don’t, I do, and from time to time I like to check in with that city in my head to see how things are going. I did check in today, and here is what I found:

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Everything seems to be okay. I wish I could see more people on the street – maybe everyone’s at the mall – but otherwise everything looks pretty good.

 

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Maybe I’ll just hop on the subway and go down to the ballpark this evening. Nice night for a hot dog and a cold one. See you there?

 

 

 

 

 

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In the Old City, Ahmedabad.

In February and March we spent a month visiting seven cities across India, from south to north, from west to east. Our time there was completely exceptional: invaluable, surprising, educational, revealing, depressing, infuriating, eye-opening and more. I continue to reflect on those days, and it has taken me until now to begin to digest, and therefore to be able to begin to describe, what we saw and experienced. Herewith, some first thoughts.

First, this: it seems certain that the best opportunity to understand the city in the 21st century and its challenges, obstacles, options and solutions, may be in India. India’s 1.3 billion souls live in the largest democracy on Earth, they own a rapidly expanding and developing economy, they face nearly insurmountable problems, and they are working as hard as they can to build a better urban future. Perhaps once we might have gone to Rome or Paris or Vienna to build a foundation for 20th century urbanism in the west. But now it’s time for the American Academy in Rome to become the American Academy in Delhi, or Chennai. I urge you: go, look, learn – you will be changed forever.

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The seven cities we visited were, in the order in which we saw them, Chennai (once called Madras), Mysore, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Delhi. Together, their populations equal over 70 million. To put that in some kind of perspective – a central operation both during and after this remarkable journey – the largest 72 cities in the U.S. add up to about 70 million.

In the U.S., 82% of us live in metropolitan areas. In India, 32% of the population live in a metropolitan area. India’s urban populations are exploding – most have doubled in size since 2000 – and this explosion gives potent urgency to the need to solve a panoply of problems that we face, and that they face, as the future races toward us all.

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Sarojini Nagar Market, in Delhi.

These cities feature an average density of 30,000 people or more per square mile. To say that slightly differently, each citizen has just over 900 square feet in which to dwell. In U.S. cities, we average about 5,000 people per square mile, or approximately 5,600 square feet per person. Indian cities are really dense.

And loaded with unbearable traffic, too many cars and motos, and endless honking and pushing and shoving. In the context of a measureable poverty of road infrastructure, the cities we visited had – nonetheless – over 20 million cars. Chaos.

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Traffic in Bangalore.

Vehicular traffic is so bad that there is NO solution that involves cars. The car is over in many places in this world, and in India expanding wealth will most definitely not want to hear this, but there is no urban mobility solution that involves cars. In Bangalore they twice tried an even/odd license plate number scheme to control congestion, and there were nearly riots in the streets. In that city, the average speed for traffic is projected to be 6 mph by 2030. We sat in one Bangalore traffic jam for over an hour and moved only the length of a ruler. A short ruler.

Gather all of the traffic engineers and transport experts in a room, tell them that they must solve problems in urban mobility, and let them know that no solution they devise can employ cars. We will see what they come up with, and it seems likely we’ll see it first in a city in India: their current state of urban transportation demands as yet unimagined solutions.

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Traffic in Delhi.

So many other challenges exist. In Bangalore, for instance, the city has seen 525% population growth, a 78% decline in vegetation, and a 79% decline in water bodies in the last few decades. Some Indian urban experts call Bangalore a dead city. And yet,

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Bangalore.

life goes on there.

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Traffic in Bangalore, beneath the Metro.

Another challenge: when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, one of his early pledges involved toilets. In India, 53% of homes have no toilet, and this is causing and has caused giant health problems. While 89% of this problem exists in rural locales, it is significant that many Indians prefer NOT to use toilets.

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Sprawl on the horizon, Delhi.

And then there is sprawl. As I have noted, Indian cities are expanding at breakneck speed, and while the improvisational and makeshift nature of much vernacular Indian urbanism covers some of this expansion, each of the cities we visited, big or small, is struggling with sprawl. Indian planners and architects and developers, using western and mostly U.S. patterns and models for ongoing contemporary development – single separated uses, car domination, and a pronounced lack of walkability – are creating places (well, not really places, but locations) that they will very soon come to regret. In the context of  the rapid urban growth of each city, the weaknesses of this method of dealing with needed newness shows up really fast. We had a mid morning flight one morning (commercial aviation in India is well developed and quite sophisticated) and we were told we had to depart for the airport at 6:30am for a 10:00am flight. We drove for hours through dreadful and very recent developments, in horrific traffic. Try something else, folks.

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Bangalore’s 2031 Master Plan – a bit of a puzzle.

And that something else could find its roots in the contingent and provisional urbanism so characteristic of the oldest parts of Indian cities. While it is true that much of this ad hoc urbanism has all kinds of structural and infrastructural problems, it is also true that the density of this urbanism, its mixture of uses, its walkable intimacy, are potent paradigms for growing a city. Some of the most powerful and moving places we witnessed were these older places. They are so vividly alive, so robust and vital.

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The images: two from Ahmedabad, one from Jaipur, and two from Delhi.

That vitality of Indian cities, more exuberantly than almost anywhere we have been, is situated in the  life of the street. In Indian cities, the street is a conduit for, and the principle stage of daily life. Dodge the motos and walk the streets – it is worth every second. Everywhere are merchants on the ground floor, usually open to the street, and often grouped by type: the jeweler’s street, the baker’s street, the tailor’s street.

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Jaipur.

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Jodhpur.

And above? All kinds of things: apartments, clinics, hotels, more shops – a real mix. These streets filled with commotion are active and vigorous day and night. The theater of these cities has no intermission.

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Chickpet and Avenue Roads, Bangalore.

In the end, the challenges are colossal. But these cities are so full of life and energy. And they seem to be – except maybe for the politicians – mostly free of cynicism. And marked by a substantial good will. There seems to be some hope that these cities can and will, eventually, show the rest of us how to make a 21st century urbanism. We can watch, and we will anticipate, how this struggle unfolds. Onward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ll make this short.

For years now, the City and Paetec, a major corporation here, have been wrangling with each other. Paetec has wanted to build a new headquarters, and the City has wanted to woo Paetec downtown, to the site of a former enclosed, and failed, mall called Midtown Plaza (worth much further discussion, but I am quite sure you can grasp the basic story line of a failed downtown enclosed mall).

Midtown is now being demolished to make way for new development. The site is what was once the 100% location in downtown – Main and Clinton. Today Main and Clinton, but for the hordes of buses, is pretty much a ghost town.

Main and Clinton, 1925.

Yesterday the Mayor and the CEO of Paetec held a news conference. Paetec is moving downtown: about 1,000 employees,  bringing the number of jobs downtown to about 56,000 or so. Even though the City has handed Paetec an almost unbelievably sweet deal (somehow at the last minute the City managed to avoid meeting the Paetec demand for free parking for all employees, but they are kicking in something over $80 million: for themselves, Paetec will spend $55 million, but only $5 million of that is their own money), this is good. I mean having more souls downtown is good. Expensive, but good.

Now comes the bad and the ugly.

An office building that is straight out of the 1970s. I know – we’re supposed to be grateful for the greenery on top and such. There will be shops at street level, thankfully, but that won’t overcome the truly pedestrian architecture. An alert reader sent me a more recent elevation of the building, featured in the press conference yesterday, and it has developed somewhat, but it still looks like something that belongs in the suburbs, not in a bustling and robust downtown. 

Nothing said about the rich tradition of wonderful buildings on Main Street, the big arch notwithstanding (you can browse through A Town Square and see dozens). Nothing said about sustainability – as in not a word, but for what is being called a rooftop garden. No discussion of building a building that is truly of mixed use, but for a few shops on the street. Oh, and maybe a police station (!). Paetec will give us a huge picture window into their operations center – oh boy. The only real public discussion has been about – you got it – cars.

One bright idea did surface yesterday – the idea of putting very large electronic screens on the building – ala Times Square they say. I wish I could feel good about this – here’s a recent view of the site kitty corner at Main and Clinton. Why am I not excited about the rich possibilities? I guess we’ll have endless Kodak moments flashing at us 24/7. Just what we need.

Oh, and Paetec did spend time telling us who they don’t want to have as neighbors – no students (students have been essential and key to the revival of Chicago’s Loop, I note), no clinic patients, no surface parking (how did that get in there?), no casinos. Ah Paetec – the corporation with the big heart.

Rochester, like every cash-strapped, shrinking, frightened city in the US, is dealing with a very, very tough question here. The City will spend 16 times more than the corporation, and in the end we stand to get 1,000 jobs.

But will downtown be better for all this? The building itself belongs in an office park, not our downtown. We get a few shops at the street, and a chance to look at Paetec employees engaged in the edgy drama of their work in electronic communications. We get giant LED screens blaring images at poor Main and Clinton. We may or may not get a building that represents a zero carbon footprint, or is even LEED rated.

Time will tell if any of this can be redeemed. Let us pray.

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As the new year begins, I am back to basics in urbanism and architecture. I have been spending some time doing research aimed at understanding the grid as an organizing device for cities. And the more I look into the use of orthogonal (right-angled) geometries as a way to structure urbanism, the more questions I seem to have.

At first glance, nothing could be simpler than organizing a city using right angled lines. The lines form streets, or passageways, and the stuff between the lines becomes blocks for buildings. Seems clear and straightforward, so far: street, block, building. We can easily imagine cities organized this way, since so many of us live in places formed by grids. Take a look at Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Barcelona. And even take a look at the ancient Ionian cities of Anatolia (Priene, Miletus), or the Roman Cardo and Decumanus: planning cities with grids has been around a very long time – thousands of years.

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Barcelona                                                            Chicago

Here in Washington, L’Enfant created a grid, and then bisected that grid with diagonal lines. The north/south grid is numbered or lettered, and the diagonal streets are named after states. (A waggish colleague once suggested that each state’s Senators should be required to live on the angled street named for their state – maybe this would insure Congressional representation for our fair city). Many think this confusing, but it’s nothing more than a gridded city with a twist.

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Washington, D.C.

Beginning with the Public Land Survey System (sometimes called the American Rectangular Land Survey), first devised in 1784 and modified thereafter, a giant grid was laid across the nation. The purpose of this grid was to act as a method for subdividing the immense new country in preparation for settlement. Townships of 6 miles by 6 miles, with 36 Sections of one square mile (640 acres), and from thence to streets and blocks (or farms). Chicago’s 660′ by 330′ blocks are derived from this easy arithmetic: 128 blocks per square mile.

At first glance, the grid itself seems like a neutral system, one without inherent meaning. Squares laid on the ground. What could be simpler? And less full of intent, or meaning. Just plain old squares. Or rectangles. Each orthogonal shape is the same as any other orthogonal shape. This grid planning approach seems mute – equality reigns throughout. Or does it?

What’s puzzling is this: as soon as you set a grid on real soil, its neutrality vanishes. Topography, relationship to natural features like water or mountains, blocks reserved for public uses (in Chicago, the original 1830 survey set aside certain blocks for public uses such as schools), the creation of open spaces or public squares within the grid as in Savannah or Philly, all conspire to instantly convert neutrality into meaningful hierarchy. The three-part hierarchy of traditional cities – Civic, Public, Private – seems entirely comfortable, paradoxically, within a grid. Example: take a look at the 1909 Plan of Chicago by Daniel Burnham.

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The 1909 Plan of Chicago, by Daniel Burnham et. al.

Burnham’s plan is clearly based on a grid. But just as clearly, this plan has a center – City Hall – and wings. Green spaces, a watery leading edge, a fade west into the prairie. Grid, yes, but one freighted with meaning, and hierarchy.

Which brings us to an even more problematic matter. If the blocks are rectangular, there will be a long dimension and a short one, and the orientation of buildings to sun, wind, and rain should become an issue. But in Chicago, three quarter’s of the rectangular blocks are oriented with the long dimension running north and south (nothing like being on a large body of water). Manhattan is just the opposite – all blocks are long in the east/west (river to river). 

In the next city, how your building faces the sun and wind, daylight, rain and snow, will again become important. The front, sides, and backs of buildings will need to have different treatments (think of this – what an idea!) based on their ability to deal with capturing energy, managing water, offering daylight.

It seemed so simple at first. Just a grid. But now we need to start tinkering with the grids of our cities, tuning them up to make them perform in ways that they never have before. On one hand, we want to conserve the idea that a gridded city paradoxically offers hierarchy, and meaning. Some  blocks in the grid are just more important than others, and for good reason, depending on the city we inhabit.

But simultaneously, each gridded city must be  restudied. What can we do to take advantage of the shape and form of our cities? How can we make them perform as they now must? Beyond a mere device for transferring property into private hands, or sheltering the Roman Legions, how can we make Chicago’s grid, or Barcelona’s, into a pattern that assures a sustainable, durable urban future? Time to unlock the grid.

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Steven Holl\'s \'Linked Hybrid,\' in Beijing

Steven Holl’s ‘Linked Hybrid’ project, in Beijing, just 2.5 miles from the extraordinary Forbidden City. Image from flickr.

I continue to muse about the New York Times Magazine’s recent architecture issue entitled “The Next City.” In the feature piece, “The New, New City,” architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff talks about the dazzling speed and scale of redevelopment in places like Shenzhen or Beijing or Dubai, and suggests that building cities, big cities, from scratch in three or four decades, is without precedent. (What about my home town, Chicago, where the population increased more than tenfold in 40 years?). He suggests that the size and chaos of these places robs architects and urbanists of any intelligible starting point for designing the new. Well maybe, and maybe not.

I will give Ouroussoff one point: contemporary development in Beijing and Shenzhen and Dubai is really awful. Unfortunately, some of the examples he touts as models for the future, as exceedingly ‘innovative,’ as benchmarks of new 21st century urbanism, are among the most significant failures.

These cities are all becoming manic expressions of fundamentally defective ideas about how to make urbanism. Some are architectural petting zoos, some are designer-label crazy, some are crazy quilts of new construction, each walled and isolated from the larger fabric of the place. Some are quickly filling up with construction that most resembles the worst of 20th century American urban renewal, and of course they are all filled to the brim with cars. At a time when beautiful and humanely designed cities may represent some hope for the future, these places look pretty hopeless.

Instead of writing breathlessly about how the starchitects are ‘innovating’ by creating architecture that does nothing to add to the common well being of a place, Ouroussoff should be talking about the basics in urbanism, reminding city designers, leaders, and developers to remember what, in the end, makes any city a great city. The street, the block. This is the place to start building the new.

First, last and always, great places, great cities, begin with great public domains, and in particular with their streets. We all own the street: it is the place where we all belong, where we can move and linger, where we can erect monuments to tell our stories, where we can sit and watch our neighbors, or sit and sip and read the news of the day.

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Steven Holl’s city streets, 20 stories above, in Beijing. Image from flickr.

Whether in grids, as in so many American cities, or in meandering knots of non-linear pathways, all cities must begin with their public realms, their streets. Streets make blocks, and blocks are where buildings go. Simple.

In the 1950s and 1960s we experimented with what was then called the superblock, and especially in the planning and construction of subsidized housing. Now that we have thankfully torn most of this down, we can say we’ve learned a lesson – streets at the fine grained scale of small blocks make the best cities. Steven Holl’s ‘Linked Hybrid’ project, and so many other new developments in Beijing and elsewhere, are, sadly, superblock designs. 

And this, in Beijing, which has a fascinating pattern of layers of streets and blocks. In the central city, there is a grid of major streets that is very large – say 2,500 feet wide (east to west) and well over 3,000 feet long north to south. Then, interior to this large block is a fine grain of minor streets and passageways, with most streets running east and west, and passages, or even narrower streets, running north and south. This secondary, and finer, layer of streets breaks the city into manageable, walkable blocks.

Go to Google Earth and take a look at Beijing. The damage is everywhere in evidence – huge superblock developments are the pattern of choice for almost all that’s new. But the starting points of a fine grained urbanism – the street, the block – are still there to act as inspiration.

Seems to me like a good place to start.

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Shenzhen, China

Shenzhen, China. Image by Sze Tsung Leong for the New York Times.

This past weekend the New York Times Magazine was devoted to architecture and urban design, and the issue was entitled “The Next City.” I was crestfallen to see that the title of our project here had been scooped up. I was certain that we had been rendered obsolete – surely the NYT would get great journalists to talk about all of the issues facing the next city, and they would do so in a provocative and insightful way. They would spend time, and column inches, talking about making cities, even new and exploding cities in the developing world, sustainable and green and fit for their burgeoning populations. I was really bummed.

Until I read the magazine. At first I was puzzled, and then, as I began to reflect on what I had read, I started to get angry. Really angry.

The cities we live in, whether east or west, whether giant and new, or older and suffused with history, are simply not sustainable. We must address this, in all of its complexity, and we must do this now. We are burning through the earth’s resources at a breathtaking rate, (especially we Americans), and as population increases, and the east develops so very quickly, it is absolutely clear that we are on a path to cataclysm. Does the NYTM’s Next City talk about any of this? Shamefully, it does not.

Half the world’s population now lives in cities. By 2050, most scientists (and the NYTM) tell us that 75% of the population will live in cities. Clearly, cities are the best laboratory for searching for, and we hope finding, the best next forms of habitation, piece by piece, neighborhood by neighborhood.

So what do we get from the NYTM? Starchitects. Celebrities. A highbrow version of Access Hollywood. Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Bernard Tschumi, Herzog & de Meuron and many more. What a waste of paper and pixels!

Nicolai Ouroussoff, the NYT’s architecture critic, writes the most dazzlingly, stupefyingly wrongheaded piece of all, entitled “The New, New City.” He investigates exploding cities like Shenzhen, Dubai, Beijing, cities without precedent of any kind, he says, and he muses about what approach poor architects like Holl and Koolhaas should take when they are working at huge scale and blazing speed. Where shall they go for inspiration, guidance, context in these placeless voids where they are work? He says: “…the notion of finding “authenticity” in a sprawling metropolitan area that is barely 30 years old seems absurd.” Oh? 

(Think of this: as America urbanized in the 19th century, the national population doubled, from 38.6 million in 1870 to 76.2 million in 1900, and from 25.7% urban to 39.6% urban. U.S. cities went from inchoate miasmas to real urban centers in this 30 year period).

Get rid of the cars, figure out which way the wind is blowing, track the sun, gather the water, make shelter from the heat, or cold. Start there. Make buildings, and urbanisms, that find their basic humanity in trying to create the gentlest and most sustainable places imaginable. Shaded places, sheltering places. Stop talking about modernism (mentioned five times in the piece) and modernists and the Voisin Plan and Corbusier. This is now nearly completely irrelevant. 

Ouroussoff never uses any of the following words: green, sustainable, sustainability, environment, energy, climate, sun, wind, rain, community. The New York Times is irresponsible in letting this drivel reach its hundreds of thousands of readers. Get rid of this guy, and stop talking about architecture and urbanism as if it were fashion. There’s too much at stake. 

Linked Hybrid

Steven Holl’s “Linked Hybrid,” under construction in Beijing. Ouroussoff says: “…one of the most innovative housing complexes anywhere in the world.” Image by Virgile Simon Bertrand.

If Holl’s Beijing project is leading the way, I don’t want to go. As a long time Chicagoan, the Linked Hybrid image reminded me of Presidential Towers, in that city’s West Loop. You can look it up. Not reviled exactly, but certainly not a path to the Beulah land. (Amy says Presidential Towers looks like the Dakota compared to Holl’s ‘Linked Hybrid.’).

But don’t get me wrong – there were a couple of nice pieces in the New York Times Magazine. Jim Lewis wrote a very strong piece entitled “The Exigent City,” which examines ‘temporary’ cities, refugee camps, and displacement. He points out that increasingly, refugee camps are less and less temporary. And he concludes that, at the moment, “The world is short a billion homes.”  And he actually uses the word ‘green.’

An interview with Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia has a great quote: “A sidewalk is a symbol of equality.” He got cars off the sidewalks in Bogota, and built more sidewalks, and nearly paid for it with his life. Go figure.

An interesting article about the Dutch practice called MVRDV. They (MVRDV) get what really counts in making cities, even though the article seems a bit too interested in their starpower and their relationship with Brad Pitt. Oh well.

And an interesting piece about yet another trendy practice, Lot-Ek (low-tech), a NYC based practice run by two Neapolitans who are interested in making buildings, and urbanism, from found objects. Their Urban Scan, a database of the industrial and the found in the landscape, is really terrific.

In the end, I wish that the NYTM had taken the time to seriously look at the challenges facing the Next City, and I guess I could live with being scooped. No matter what I do, I will never have a million readers. They do every week. They could help to advance the discussion about future urbanism and the next city, but this time they really, really failed.

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