Sunday, February 13, 2011

What is Radical Urbanism?

This blog advocates an alternative model of urban development. Radical Urbanism promotes organic, root-level methods of economic and community development akin to those that built our most beloved mixed-use urban districts decades and centuries ago. Such districts evolved through an ad hoc process of ordinary citizens opening businesses in their homes. Dining rooms were turned into cafes, living rooms became hair salons, garages were made into machine shops, spare bedrooms became second-hand stores, and basements were adapted into repair facilities. As these various efforts gradually cohered, new mixed-use streets, central business districts, and even downtowns emerged. The resulting urbanism was uniquely attuned to and intertwined with local culture. It was an urbanism in which citizens were personally invested, businesses were owned by familiar faces, and buildings were authentically, not cosmetically, human-scaled.

Since around the late 1800s, government regulations (building codes, zoning codes, health codes, and others), NIMBYism, and other factors have made it increasingly illegal to open most types of street-visible businesses in the home. The organic, bottom-up growth of our economy and our urbanism has been hampered, leading us to depend excessively on top-down development. Sadly, mainstream urban planning embraces and expedites this top-downism. It bypasses the historical genesis of successful urbanism and deploys top-down, professionalized expedients---comprehensive master plans, formal feasibility studies, developer friendly tax incentives, taxpayer-funded government grants, stultifying aesthetic codes, and cumbersome community review procedures. These methods neither produce a genuinely fine-grained urbanism nor foster the improvement of culture. Almost invariably, new buildings are multiples larger than their predecessors, the architecture is contrived, commercial tenants are national chains instead of indies, and an air of artifice pervades. Citizens are turned into strangers of their own neighborhoods. New business startups are hampered, our nation's economy is weakened, and our wealth gap widens.

Radical Urbanism works by promoting human-scaled cultural and business enterprise, out of which fine-grained urbanism naturally grows. Its essential tool is to allow a wide variety of home-based businesses, including retail stores, restaurants, service industries, and light industry. Radical Urbanism respects the need for government to regulate large commercial enterprise, but balances this need against the benefits of largely deregulating Mom and Pop. It is in doing so that America may once again build upon the many points of support that once made it great: its citizens.

radical = based in root-level processes 
urbanism = the dense arrangement of mixed uses (residences, retail, services, etc.) 
Radical Urbanism = densely built environments in which mixed uses are created through elemental processes, in particular the proliferation of home-based businesses 

Characteristics of Radical Urbanism:
allowance of a wide range of home enterprise start-ups, including retail, restaurant, services, assembly, and light industry
development by Mom and Pop, not just “developers” 
sustainable, bottom-up economic growth created by and for all, from the skilled to the unskilled 
cityscapes that change incrementally through the building of numerous small projects, not cataclysmically through large, developer-driven projects  
localized culture and democratic investment 
freedom of architectural expression
human-scaled buildings, streets, neighborhoods, and districts that arise as natural expressions of human-scaled culture, not because of formal mandate or cosmetic trickery

Radical Urbanism is not:
a free-for-all that allows, for example, a slaughterhouse next to a school 
New Urbanism 
"just like that mixed-use thing we're already doing" 
contrived to look old-fashioned 
subject to the feast and famine cycles of developer-based urbanism 
reliant on government programs, tax breaks, or other unnecessary complexities