Posts Tagged ‘Vernacular urbanism’

Next City cover cmp

Since we began posting here at A Town Square, in November of 2007, it has always been with an eye to using the blog as a research and development platform for a book, or something like a book. Who knows – maybe an HBO mini-series.

The book, with a working title of The Next City: Shaping a Useable Future, may or may not ever see the light of day. But the premise for the effort is simple – the cities we live in are obsolete, and simply cannot meet the challenges of what lies ahead. We can understand these challenges in economic terms, or environmental terms, or in terms of over-population, or in terms of shortages of jobs, water, energy, food, money. But our cities, the real engines of all nations, are obsolete. And we need to reinvent them at the speed of light.

So all the while I have been posting here, I have been doing so with the book’s table of contents in mind. And now I have collected something like 40 posts, put them in chapters, and self-published them as a 180 page book, which you can see at  www.blurb.com. I have also collected the four posts on vernacular urbanism and put them in a slim 32 page volume, also at www.blurb.com.

So if you’d like, you can go there, type in the book titles, and take a look. And tell me what you think. Remember, as good friend Larry correctly observed recently, these are books about books. Tools. Means, not ends. The real work lies ahead.

 Me? I’m going fishing now, for a publisher.

Vernacular Urbanism cover ctd cmp

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 Image from flickr.

“Once we accept that our cities will not be like the cities of the past, it will become possible to see what they might become.” Witold Rybczynski, City Life.

When he wrote those words in 1995, Rybczynski was actually “glimpsing the urban future,” and seeing it as a low-density and low-rise city, amorphous and sprawling, completely reliant on the car, decentralized. And, sadly, that is the city we live in today.

But in another way, Rybczynski was right. The city of the recent past, the 20th century auto dominated sprawling city, whose infrastructure alone we can no longer afford to maintain, is a failure, and obsolete. We must accept this, as he suggests. In fact, our cities and the way we inhabit them must now give way to an alternate vision: now we can begin to see what they must become. The existing American city is one stupendous shovel-ready project.


Image from flickr.

The oft stated goals are obvious: we need to inhabit a next city that we can sustain, and that can sustain us. A durable, useable city that we can afford, a city that actually works to heal the long list of messes we have made. A city that is based on energy we can generate locally, food that doesn’t come from a factory, or a semi, water from a well that won’t run dry, a city in which we no longer need a car for mobility and access to all of our needs. These are the basics, and are pretty easy to see as foundations.

But what may be most interesting about the shovel-readiness of the next city is the fact that it can all be done locally, neighborhood by neighborhood. The next city can be particular, circumstantial, based on what’s at hand, incremental. Based on systems of decentralized and locally installed elements of infrastructure, the next city could emerge block by block.

On our block of 59 rowhouses here in D.C., we could rip up the alley in our post-car, or shared-car, city and we could install a central heating, power and cooling plant there. And maybe a large solar array for all of us. We can gather all of our water, classify it, treat it, and reuse it on our own block. We can rip up a few of our defining streets and build some new buildings there, yielding an increase in mixed-use density for shops, offices, and homes, with room left over for garden plots and markets.


Image from flickr.

Across every city, we can reuse and reprogram and revise. We can renew and reinvent based on the rich array of found conditions available everywhere. Some call this micro-urbanism: a new market under the raised expressway, a town square in an old highway cloverleaf, gardens in old parking lots, malls converted to neighborhoods, parking garages as lofts. And we can recycle all the existing structures we can find, conserving both their narratives, and all the energy they already embody. They’re all shovel-ready.

Taking this approach to urbanism seems like a much better investment, and a stimulus to the economy and our urbanism, than new highway off-ramps. I guess what we need now, in order to see how possible this is to achieve, is a demonstration block. Somewhere where we could try things, discover the problems and pitfalls, find the right technologies and uses, and do so while everybody watches, and learns, as a new kind of community, and city, unfolds.

Time to get the new Urban Policy Czar on this – it’s shovel ready, after all. And what better place to demonstrate the next city than right here in the nation’s Capitol.


Image from flickr.

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Lisbon, Cadiz, Casablanca – some of our recent destinations. In each of these cities there is at least one district, or urban quarter, that is dense, rich, bustling with activity, alive, completely walkable, and as ever, fragile.  Each faces pressure from gentrification, adjacent development, cars. (Only the Old Medina is so dense that cars are excluded, because they just don’t fit).

We were interested to examine how each is unique, particular to its locale, and could be said to be a strong example of a kind of vernacular urbanism as each has evolved over time. Even today each seems to accomodate changing use within it’s urban fabric with grace, and without losing either physical and urban, or social and cultural identity.

Here are the three quarters.


Bairro Alto in Lisbon, from 4,000 feet.


The Old City, Cadiz, from 4,000 feet.


 The Old Medina, Casablanca, from 4,000 feet.

There is a fineness of grain and texture, and an intimacy in scale, to each quarter that is easy to perceive from the air. Also easy to perceive is the density of each – these urban quarters are both compact, and packed. Clearly each of these places was created by and for people on foot – most streets in each are narrow enough to reach across in the span of your arms.

On the ground, the quarters are each marked by an enormous mix of uses in very close proximity. Here is a view of each from the ground.


Bairro Alto, Lisbon.


Plaza de Mina, Old Cadiz.


The Old Medina, Casablanca.

Consistent with our observations in other posts examining the notion of vernacular urbanism, each of these quarters qualifies: each is instinctive, incremental, complex, and very local in character, form and material.

We found it interesting to contrast and compare the density, character, and intensity of those places with our own neighborhood, said to be one of the most walkable in the U.S. Take a look at this:


Capitol Hill.

Our neighborhood exists at a density of about 30 dwelling units per acre. By way of comparison, Old Cadiz is at least 4 or 5 times more dense.

If you set out for a walk in our neighborhood (as we do every day), and you were off to the local supermarket or hardware store say, you would walk about a mile to get there. Over half a mile to the local public market, or nearly that to get to the train station. If you walked for about a mile in Cadiz, or Bairro Alto, or the Old Medina, you’d be gone – you’d be well out of each of those quarters.

Said in a slightly different way, vernacular urbanism is about density of population, but also about density of use. And if the next city is to offer us a durable, sustainable home, it too will have to be intensely walkable, very dense with inhabitants, and similarly loaded with a dense mixture of uses.

In order to get to a density proximate to sustainability, perhaps we on Capitol Hill should ban the car (I know, nice piece of timing) and start building in the roadways and alleys. Out into the streets! Poor Monsieur L’Enfant…

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A slum in Manila.

“All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful: but the beauty is grim.”  Christopher Morley, Where the Blue Begins.

I continue to search for a vernacular urbanism for the next city. After some reflection, I have concluded that what I am looking for is an urbanism that is local in character, conditional, circumstantial, meaningful and of value (in every sense – not just financially) for its inhabitants, rooted to its surroundings and its past, an urbanism that is founded on local resources and the specific nature of a particular place, that is based on the found and the available and the renewable. And so I have found myself thinking about slums. Let me explain.

Today one half of the earth’s population lives in cities. That means that something more than 3 billion of us are city dwellers. Of that 3 billion in cities, one third of all city dwellers lives in a slum. Many sources put the world slum dwelling population at something near or over 1 billion people. The UN, among others, tells us that by 2030, one third of the population of the planet will live in slums. This is powerful data, and calls us to look at these places, and learn what we can.

Barrio, favela, shanty town, ghetto, squatter city, wasti in India, katchi abadi in Pakistan, refugee camp, the slum has many names, and many faces. They share some things in common, wherever they may be: they are always home to the very poor, the displaced and the outcast; they all feature substantial problems with sanitation, health, crime, education; they are fragile, and often the shelter they offer is insufficient for local climates; they are crowded, and very dense; they are not subject to romance or nostlagia of any kind – they are very hard places to live in in every way.

A favela in Morumbi, in Sao Paolo. The favela is on the left.

The term slum is seen by most, except slum dwellers themselves, as a pejorative term evoking squalor, filth, disease and crime. Slum dwellers, however, often defend their fragile communities in an articulate and powerful fashion, and aggressively organize themselves to secure improved conditions, access to infrastructure (water, sewers, energy), education, and access to some kind of health care.

Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai.

I think that there may be lessons to be learned from spending time studying these places. As an example, listen to what the distinguished Indian architect Prakash M. Apte said recently about Dharavi, one of the largest slums in the world, located in Mumbai, and home to nearly a million people:

“A unique characteristic of Dharavi is its very close work-place relationship. Productive activity takes place in nearly every home. As a result, Dharavi’s economic activity is decentralized, human scaled, home-based, low-tech and labor-intensive. This has created an organic and incrementally developing urban form that is pedestrianized, community-centric, and network-based, with mixed use, high density low-rise streetscapes. This is a model many planners have been trying to recreate in cities across the world. A simplistic re-zoning and segregating of these activities — common in the United States — would certainly hurt this very unique urban form.

The ‘unplanned’ and spontaneous development of Dharavi has led to the emergence of an economic model characterized by a decentralized production process relying mainly on temporary work and self-employment. The multiplicity of independent producers makes the production process extremely flexible and adaptable. Its viability is proven by the national and international market its products command.”

Dharavi, Mumbai.

Here are some of the characteristics of slums that might make them valuable in thinking about a vernacular urbanism for the next city:

-They are not designed by architects, developed by developers, marketed by marketers, or legislated by legislators.

-They are participatory, collective efforts.

-They are instinctive. They are vernacular.

-They are organic and incremental. They change and evolve over time.

-They do not look like this:

Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago – a paradigm of failed social housing, now razed.

-They are spatially and socially complex.

-They are very dense, they are definitely not auto-dominated, and they accomodate a dizzying mixture of uses.

-They use very little energy, recycle, and have what could be called small carbon footprints. They are constructed of what’s left over.

-They are intensely local.

Slums are filled with many very serious problems and unmet needs. But many are also robust and lively communities, highly social, and offer some bit of dignity to those most cultures ignore, or cast out. As physical, designed places, they are inventive and intuitive. Slums are always reshaping themselves, always focusing on creating shelter and shared spaces that deal significantly with local circumstance – how to deal with heat, cold, rain, wind, and work, using what is at hand. 

We must find our way to the next city in any way we can, as we try to shape a durable, usable urban future. Perhaps the slums of the world can help to show us a way.

Rooftops in Dharavi.

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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.

“From food and water, then, we may learn whether (city) sites are unhealthy or healthy.” Vitruvius, The Ten Books On Architecture.

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.

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“The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand.” Italo Calvino

Shibam, Yemen, photo by  Jialiang Gao: an ancient pattern of dense, high-rise desert urbanism.

What should the next city look like, and how should we inhabit the future? I have been puzzling over these questions for quite a long time. For architects and urbanists, this is one of the few projects we can work on that might keep us from total irrelevance (see earlier posts here, about emperors and their wardrobes) in these increasingly perilous times. And as I have continued to think about the character and form of the next city, I have begun to come to some general conclusions. Let me explain.

First, imagine a city without cars.

No, really. Imagine a city without cars. How do you get your food, get to work, visit Grandma? Some other way – maybe buses, maybe the metro or subway, maybe streetcars, maybe something else, but not cars. So one thing is for sure, neighborhoods, and the local life of urban places, suddenly become really, really important. You will need to have access to important resources and places within a mile or so of your residence – about a 20 minute walk for most people. The market, where you can get great locally grown foods (no more 3,000 mile Caesar salads, as James Kunstler tells us). Your office, if you still need one. Schools. Church. The library (we’re old fashioned in our house, and still need to read books by hand). The Doc. Cafes and restaurants.

Cars are now obsolete – notwithstanding dangerously destructive – so what follows from that circumstance is a dense city, with a multiple of uses close together, in neighborhood clusters walkably distanced from one another.

If you keep pulling on the thread of mobility, it leads you to a need for major shifts in trucking, rail, and aviation infrastructure, and suggests a tsunami of economic changes in how we make things, grow things, use them, distribute them, how we move around, and where we live and play.

And ultimately back to the local life of urban places. A local life seems a certain central fact of existence in the next city.

But mobility is only one of at least four forces that will fundamentally change the shape of the next city. These four forces include: mobility as noted here, and energy, food, and water. Each in turn requires fundamental, critical and urgent rethinking. And each, in turn, will fundamentally alter the cities we inhabit. Remember, 80% of the U.S. population now lives in cities: that represents a lot of lives that face enormous changes. 

I digress. It seems to me that the place to start thinking about what the next city should look like and how it should work is to begin with historic, and pre-automobile, patterns of urbanism. One might call this vernacular urbanism – that is, an urbanism that has arisen from and is an expression of a particular local culture and ethos. In the U.S., I would say that we could look at most cities before 1910 for suitable patterns of urbanism. Most American cities, even those with grand plans like our city of Washington, nonetheless derive much of their character from local circumstances – available materials, the nature of the climate, the slant of the sun, the availability of water. It’s not by accident that Washington is often called the red brick city.

Here’s another example. In my home town, Chicago, the development of the city’s blocks and streets was heavily influenced by the presence of streetcars. Thus, on streetcar lines, usually a half mile apart, we find concentrations of larger mixed use commercial buildings with retail (shops) at the first floor, and offices and apartments above. Logical, yes? Get on or off the streetcar, do your shopping, go to the dentist, and then walk into the residential neighborhoods between transit.

Streetcars and the Chicago block. Enjoy the streetcars – ignore the cars.

Every city can reimagine its future by first connecting with the inherent vernacular urbanism of its past. In Beijing, a pattern of urbanism that is nearly extinct there, and about which I have written over the last months, the hutong, is a particularly extraordinary template or pattern for continuing to make a dense, livable city. The hutong certainly make more sense than what’s being built there now – a kind of worst-case urbanism of recombinant Las Vegas-Strip-on-Steroids.

Shibam, pictured up top, is another suitable template: a dense city of mud towers, closely spaced to shade the passageways and building interiors, accommodating the harsh desert climate. And the list could go on, for cities across the globe. Venice, Lisbon, Barcelona, Marrakech, Savannah. Look carefully at how each city first responded to issues of energy, mobility, food and water, and start there.

Maybe two last examples, from a place where urbanism is totally out of control, might underscore how best to begin to make the next city. In Dubai, there are two recent proposals for extending that exploding city. One is by architect Norman Foster: his project is called Masdar. It is to be the first zero-carbon neighborhood/city ever constructed, and as the images indicate, it is low, very dense, has no cars, has a wind farm and solar arrays for power, and has courtyard forms and interior spaces that look like the souk and other vernacular Middle Eastern forms of urbanism.

Norman Foster’s Masdar in Dubai.

An interior at Foster’s Masdar.

The next is a proposal by architect Rem Koolhaas. It is a gridded, floating Manhattanesque island of towers, surrounded by other towers around a bay. No at all like Yemen’s proto-skyscraper city of Shibam, but instead New York in the desert, in Dubai. Seems a little like The Venetian on the Strip, but perhaps an even more bizarre approach, since we are supposed to take this seriously. Koolhaas says that the project is his attempt to “find optimism in the inevitable.”  Are we seeing leadership here, or irrelevance? [Naked emperor].

In the late 1970s, Koolhaas wrote a book entitled “Delirious New York.” The book was a hymn of praise to that city, and its “culture of congestion.” So why not reprise those themes, here in the desert in Dubai, 30 years later? Koolhaas in Dubai seems enormously cynical, manipulative, and destructive. Enough.

Koolhaas’ Ile Flotante, in Dubai.


Koolhaas, Dubai.

I look at the Koolhaas Dubai proposal and am reminded of a favorite quote from Ike: “You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.”

I think it must be back to basics – looking at and seeing and sensing what has created sustainable urbanity in geographies across the globe – Calvino’s lines in the citys’ hands – and using these urbanisms as a place to begin crafting the next city. Let’s get started.

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