Friday, November 28, 2014

Changing the air

The complexity of the urban problem can be overwhelming. In a given neighborhood, a hundred buildings may be falling down in a thousand ways for a million different reasons. Beneath the loose bricks and rotting eaves lies more complexity: people from countless walks of life with innumerable problems and an infinite number of obstacles to solving them. Where does one begin to improve an urban community mired in poverty, despair, and dysfunction?

A version of this question was posed to me recently by an official of a city in upstate New York. Our conversation, having reached a point of exhaustion, had settled upon a mutual realization: there never will be enough government programs operating with sufficient nuance to solve the problems of the people, buildings, and neighborhoods of our cities in all their particularities. We’ve tried top-down solutions for decades, and rarely have they begotten true improvement. Top-down urbanism focuses on buildings, not on lives. It might bring about physical improvement, but it doesn’t make the residents of a neighborhood wealthier. Instead, it most often displaces them in favor of a different group of people who already are wealthier. The displaced have the same problems they had before, with the added burden of having to solve them in a different neighborhood or in an altogether different city. Third tier cities—Troy, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, and others in the upstate come to mind—end up as depots for those dispossessed from “successful” cities. But if North Central Troy is struggling, don't worry, we tell ourselves; hang in there a while longer, until we find the money to do the same great things we did in Brooklyn.

It was in acknowledgment of such foolishness that my interlocutor asked, “What would you do in these places? How would you change things?”

It’s tricky to answer such a question. A too ambitious response suggests more top-downism, and urbanism properly works from the bottom up. So I narrowed the question further. “Let me suggest something small that might get things pointed in the right direction,” I offered. “Let me suggest something practical, that isn’t top-down or outside-in but that builds on what is already in a neighborhood. Something that will give the people there a tangible sense of hope…that might fundamentally change the air.”

My very modest suggestion is: signage. In even the most troubled neighborhoods, at least some people are engaged in useful, paying work. They babysit, cut hair, give manicures, sew clothes, make candles, plan parties, pack brown bag lunches, fabricate sheet metal, perform day labor, and engage in dozens of other activities that wouldn’t occur to someone like me trying to make a list of them. Most such activities, if not all, have no street visibility, as they take place in private homes and apartments. Proprietors earn a bit of pocket money and some carve out a subsistence income. But they rarely earn enough to fully flower. Clients are limited to those that can be found through word of mouth, or perhaps craigslist. Anyone not already in the know will pass these places of commerce without realizing they are there.

But imagine if someone making a few dollars under the radar on River Street in North Central Troy, North Miller Street in Newburgh, or even State Street in Hudson were granted the freedom to install a sign over his or her front door to advertise his or her goods or services. Imagine the opportunities for income, improvement, and self-actualization that would be created at very little expense. The changes would be modest at first. But imagine the sense of self-agency some citizens would acquire. Imagine, over time, the neighborhood sprouting a plethora of signs for independent businesses. Imagine the neighborhood becoming a place to live, instead of a place where people can only hope for something better to come along. Imagine the children growing up in the neighborhood seeing the elders be productive and self-driven. Imagine them realizing that their own future could be realized right there, instead of a far-off place somewhere on the other side of a college degree. Imagine the residents acquiring enough wealth to repair the broken stoops and rotted eaves, and to build new storefronts, and—

Oops…I forgot. Historic preservation. Pure architectural style must be preserved. Sorry about that. And so, let us give thanks on this day for those who remind us again and again that cities are places of buildings, not places of people, and that the former is more important than the latter. Not sure how I got that on wrong.

Apologies for the digression. Carry on.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Bringing urbanism home

I wrote the following essay for Architect magazine in September 2009.

Firefighters parade through Hudson, N.Y.
Macduff Everton/Corbis via Architect magazine

I love big cities, but I often find small cities more compelling. The dispiriting and encouraging aspects of urbanism are more immediately juxtaposed, often heart-rendingly so, but the disparity between them seems bridgeable. Surely, this place can be made to work, if only.

Hudson, N.Y., a settlement of 8,000 residents two hours north of Manhattan, is a two-square-mile snapshot of America’s urban disparity. Its main avenue, Warren Street, is a stunner; it looks as if eight very charming blocks of Brooklyn left the big city a century ago and moved to Columbia County. It has its rough spots, but Warren Street has been experiencing a revival, thanks to gentrification, historic preservation, an influx of antique dealers and tourists, and the helping hand of government.

In the blocks immediately to either side of Warren Street, one finds the other Hudson: comparatively poor, nonwhite, disconnected, and underemployed. The crime rate is higher, and the rough spots in the urban fabric are rougher. The industrial base is nearly gone, as are innumerable mom-and-pop shoe stores, food marts, and repair services that once made Hudson, Hudson.
What has happened in Hudson, as elsewhere, is that the middle has dropped out. But before blaming its vanishing middle class on the global economy, look closer to home. In fact, look in the home, for this is where American businesses—and American urbanism—used to get started. Before we became enamored of top-down urbanism—funded by government, propped up by feasibility studies, packaged by city hall, guarded by aesthetic review boards, and delivered by developers—urbanism arose through an organic process of small entrepreneurs opening home-based businesses to the sidewalk. Their one-of-a-kind shops and industries were the starting point for innumerable mixed-use streets, districts, and downtowns that we love today. Read more...

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What is urbanism?

From Hudson Urbanism  
Yesterday I found myself wondering if I should have called this blog "Hudson Urbanist" instead of "Hudson Urbanism." The former might have granted me the freedom to occasionally write about things not directly concerned with the urban condition—baseball, politics, life minutia, and whatever interests me on a given day. I might take such license anyway; in any event, my internal dialogue got me thinking about the word "urban" and the extent to which America's urban problem—or is it our suburban problem?—is exacerbated by misuse of the term.

Consider the U.S. Census Bureau's report that 81 percent of Americans now live in urban areas. This important example of who-America-is data places the cul-de-sac-dwelling, automobile-dependent suburbanite in the same category as the sidewalk pounding Brooklynite. I can't help but think this makes the fight against the environmental and social ravages of suburban sprawl ever more difficult and diffuse. Similar conflations are found among geographers, sociologists, historians, and others concerned with broad trends in human development. In their comparisons of modern societies to ancient or tribal societies, they typically place the "urban" label on those with water and sewer infrastructures, formal governments, advanced methods of goods production and distribution, and so on. Again, they lump the suburb with the "urb." 

Further poking prompts more questions than answers: is "urban" a proper adjective for "city" even though many city districts are as suburban in their physical makeup as those outside the city boundary? Is it appropriate for a mayor to proclaim his city's "urban renaissance" as he cuts a ribbon for a new strip mall? Is it fair to blame the excessive consumption of land and resources on "urban sprawl" when by definition it is suburbs, not urbs, that sprawl? How should we categorize Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston that is politically a city, that is physically predominated by single-family houses and strip malls, but that also has within it thirteen quasi-urban villages? And what can we conclude of a person living in Boston's Back Bay—an urban neighborhood by probably everyone's definition—who drives thirty miles every day to a job in suburban Westborough? Is she an urbanite or a suburbanite? If she took a new job in downtown Worcester, would that change anything? Wouldn't she, despite structuring her life around two urban places, be living a life that is dynamically suburban?

Such questions point to two things we need to do if we are to attain more sustainable, and necessarily more urban, ways of building and living. One, we need to define urban and suburban in a way that clearly and concisely identifies and differentiates their physical characters. To this end I offer this: Urbanism is high-density mixed uses, and suburbanism is low-density segregated uses. While there remains a finer grain to explore, this distinction covers more ground more effectively than anything I have come across in more than twenty years of study.

Two, we need to go beyond physical definitions and begin working to reinstill the dynamic realities that underlie the physical form of urban places. As our Back Bay friend demonstrates, one can "live suburban" in an urban place, which negates the point of urbanism. And not to push this point too far or paint too broadly, but I often think that the primary, unrecognized goal of the urban planning establishment over the past several decades has been to accommodate large numbers of such individuals—to support a suburban social order within a physical facsimile of urbanism, rather than to promote urbanism as a way of living.

This will not do. It is not enough for citizens to establish residence in an urban place while continuing to chase around the region to fill their life needs. It is not acceptable for residents of an urban neighborhood to oppose their neighbors opening new businesses if those businesses would make that place more urban. It is not enough to fight for the preservation of existing urban environments in their current state; one must support those policies and practices that will lead to greater density and more mixed uses, and thereby more local living.

Because this is what urbanism is.