Posts Tagged ‘cities’

A City Cannot Be A Work of Art

January 30, 2012

Hey it is the end of January 2012 and I have only been home for four days this year and tonight my new seminar class meets for the first time, under the title above. It is a deliberately provocative title, although perhaps not as provocative as its source, Jane Jacobs’ epochal “Death and Life of Great American Cities” which was written 51 years ago and remains the touchstone for everything written about cities since, including the various recent books I have included in the syllabus.

I think I will pepper this blog with pictures of actual cities, although like mirrors and magazines and popular television shows, the actual way things look has a lot less effect than too-perfect ideals. The history of city planning is the history of dreams with the “magic to stir men’s (sic) blood” as Daniel Burnham said in the really important part of his famous quote.

The history of city planning is a history of world’s fairs and exquisite renderings, of the idea – which Jane Jacobs denied most emphatically – that we could design a better city. But like self-improvement or religion, those are impossible ideals, golden rings deliberately beyond our reach.

Our failure to achieve those exquisite visions is what we need to keep moving, to keep striving. Constantly reminded of beauty and order, we strive and paper over our own continuous failure with new dreams of what should be, arriving as surely as each breath.

But this ideal is more than just a beautiful face and figure, for like all such it is mere facade to a more functional reality. There is efficiency beneath formality just as their is a circulatory system and muscles and bones beneath that face. The contrast is more than between the visual dream and the physical reality….

The drawing is always seductive, which is to say it elides, ignores or lip glosses over the functional reality it is in fact designed to disguise. The beautiful boulevards of the Burnham Plan were not designed simply to emulate Paris or to suggest an impossible beauty for Chicago. They were there to disguise the rumble of freight traffic rumbling right beneath them.

It actually says that in the original plan right under this picture, but what are you going to remember, the picture or the words? A picture is worth more than a thousand words, because it can make you forget all of the words, all of the messy reality that is every city.

This is Mexico City and I went there twenty years ago because it was the biggest city in the world and I wanted to see that chaos. It was built in the wrong location, as all great cities are, a combination of geographic imperative and biological impossibility. Mexico City is set in a valley that holds its smog close to everyone’s respiratory system. Lima, Peru has grown from 2 million to 8 million in less than a lifetime despite having no rain and no water.

Cities are this horrifying exciting fast-paced economic imperative that is always about a generation ahead of our ability to plan for it, but that doesn’t mean that architects and planners have tried to do it forever, and sometimes, like Baron Hausmann in 1850s Paris, they succeed a little bit.

They even succeeded a bit in Chicago: Navy Pier, Grant Park, the Michigan Avenue Bridge are all visible, ornate legacies of the 1909 Burnham Plan.

Hiding truck traffic, sewage and mostly the messy South Water Market, which was moved from downtown where it could be seen to a messy neighborhood where it couldn’t, although 90 years later that neighborhood has gentrified as well so the fruit wholesalers building has gone condo and who knows where the fruit has gone.

All of the Beaux-Arts ornamentation that characterized Hausmann’s Paris and Burnham’s Chicago is also misleading, not merely because it is makeup, but because it is a particular brand of makeup and thus we might think that this vision of planning is indeed different in kind from perhaps the streamlined visions that appeared in the 1930s or the grid-paper visions that appeared in the 1950s but they actually share diagrammatic aspects despite their formal divergence.


I’d take my talents to South Beach if I had any

Jacobs shot 70 years of city planners in the face with her semi-automatic “Radiant Garden City Beautiful” which combines Ebenezer Howard, Daniel Burnham and Le Corbusier into one über-macho I-can-fix-this formula for what she saw as an anti-organic disaster: planning based on separation of uses and continuous traffic.


do you know you can buy anything you want in the city? Anything.

She argued for what I like to call the messiness of history. History is what actually happens, just like cities are what actually exist. City plans are like ideologies or other static formulations that are inherently incapable of BEING in actual time and space.


the people here are REALLY nice

But at the same time we need them, otherwise we would shut down and be over, denying out own biological imperative. But it is biological, not physical or chemical, and what Jacobs noted was that the problem of the city was being solved by architects and engineers who were falsely and wrongly applying problems of statistical complexity to cities when they are BIOLOGICAL problems.


Go on, name this city. I double dare you.

So you have these tensions, between styles and designs, between organic and designed, between ideals and reality, but ultimately what makes cities exciting? There is something fantastic about Paris, arguably the world’s best-designed city, because every vista is complete and coherent. And their is something fantastic about the Asian cities that don’t even bother to have one or two downtowns but just scatter their skyscrapers across the horizon because there is nowhere to go but up, which is a very physical manifestation of the striving that is every city ever.


electricity. it is all about electricity

We have had horizontal cities and vertical cities and both have scared us to death, from Towering Infernos real and imagined to Unabated Sprawl and the ennui of little houses made of ticky tacky but those are really the extreme ends of all the options and those too are formalities, not functionalities.


this is Manek Chowk, which fulfills three completely different functions everyday

We can’t resist getting together and my whole life I have loved cities, loved their energy and even their fear, which is a more familiar and somehow friendly fear than the fear I feel in the wide open rural places…


saw a movie once where the character declared his love “was higher than a Flatiron Building” so I guess we will take that…

I used to decry Beijing for having such a horribly oversized scale to it, each block a half-mile long, but now I am used to it and I get it, it is not the pseudo-European Shanghai nor is it the Fritz Langy Chongqing but it is a funny combination of imperial and commercial and it is human even if it is oversized.

I want to run in their streets and catch their cabs and ride their subways and even, every once in a while, buy something in a shop. We can’t plan them but we have to try to plan them. We can’t control them but we want to. We can’t design them but we know they are fundamentally, biologically, of our own design.


We have met the entropy and he is us

Glaeser’s Triumph of the City

September 13, 2011

“Because the essential characteristic of humanity is our ability to learn from each other, cities make us more human.”

I finally read Edward Glaeser’s book The Triumph of the City and I liked it. I will assign it in my “A City Cannot Be A Work of Art” class next Spring. In some ways Glaeser is a standard issue neoliberal economist, decrying government regulations, especially landmarks laws. At the same time, he is a champion of Jane Jacobs and of cities in general. He recognizes the concentration of creativity – human capital – that can happen only in cities and he decries the massive government subsidies for roads and mortgages that fueled the abandonment of cities for sprawl in the second half of the 20th century.

I finished the book while in the massively overscaled environs of Beijing, which I initially disliked but have found oddly comforting with each visit. I actually enjoyed being crushed on the subway until my lungs hurt. Excitement beats comfort.

The vitality of city life is palpable in Beijing as it is in New York. Glaeser grooves on this vitality and actually PROVES the increased value derived from face-to-face contact in cities: a Michigan study showed that a group meeting for 10 minutes face-to-face cooperated better and made more money than a group with 30 minutes of electronic interaction.

There are reasons people want to live in crowded places and Glaeser counts among them the “intellectual explosions” that happen in concentration; the power of proximity; even health: Manhattanites aged 25-34 have a lower death rate than the rest of the country. Why? The biggest killers in that age group are suicide and automobile accidents: Manhattanites are in cars a lot less and they must have enough fun that they aren’t tempted by the overly abundant skyscraper window ledges.

Glaeser also breaks the old moldy mold of the standard U of C laissez-faire economist by acknowledging climate change and recognizing that adding gigatonnes of carbon to the atmosphere and oceans is not a positive thing. How to reduce carbon emissions? More cities. The denser the city, the less fossil fuels are needed for living (the largest user) and transportation (next largest). As density doubles, Glaeser shows, the percentage of the population that takes a car to work drops by almost 7 percent. Cities are more efficient and “greener” than suburbs, and crowded cities are super-green: “Household emissions in Daqing, China’s oil capital and brownest city, are one-fifth of emissions in San Diego, America’s greenest city.” Part of that is also standard of living, but Glaeser decries Americans who think they have a constitutional right to drive their car everywhere. He loves “Red Ken’s” driving tax in Central London, for example.


“Cities aren’t full of poor people because cities make people poor, but because cities attract poor people with the prospect of improving their life.” Glaeser is in more familiar neolib territory here, but he is right, despite the familiar economist’s elision of the threshold distinction between consumer choice and financial exigency. He is more right of course for the Sao Paolos and Guangzhous of the world than the Detroits or Clevelands with their “legacy” underclass that did not move there.

I actually like this book despite its attacks on preservation, most of which were witheringly familiar to those of us who have watched the Chicago Boyz economic juggernaut for the last 35 years. “The enemies of change essentially want to control someone else’s property” he says. Well, no. Real preservation/conservation does not oppose change but in fact promotes change within the context of existing buildings. As to whose property, in historic districts they are simply preserving those externalities (other people’s buildings) that provide the lion’s share of their property value.

In “The Perils of Preservation” he harps on the costs of restricting development and how historic districts become high-value areas that exclude the poor. The former is a bear to quantify and the latter is a bit of a red herring: People want to save their neighborhoods and their own property values and historic districts do that. They can become “owner’s clubs” that exclude the new poor along with new buildings.

He talks about the “web of regulation” that includes zoning and how we need to incentivize rebuilding cities for the good of the species. Glaeser’s view here is heavily inflected by his native Manhattan, which he says has preserved15 percent of the land south of Harlem. He sees Chicago as relatively free to develop, an argument I will be pleased to use for the next several years against our U of C-enamored zoning attorneys.

But he also doesn’t really know what preservationists are up to. Every preservation group in town commented on the redevelopment of Lathrop Homes by CHA this year. And they all bought into Glaeser’s basic concept of more density on part of the site IN ORDER to preserve more of the original low-rise homes. Contrary to his stereotype, they were not being NIMBY but looking at the larger urban system.

He argues that cities are not equivalent to their buildings, implying that preservation is a misguided place-based attempt to retain or foment the truly valuable human capital that happens to exist within and around those buildings. This is an academic distinction. The young professional who loves Cuban food and the Chrysler Building and MOMA isn’t going to parse out which elements of the environment she is buying into. In historic districts especially, architecture and place are extremely valuable externalities driven not simply by regulation but amenity and cachet as well.

He jumps on NIMBYism for basically pushing problems elsewhere, which is often true: his analysis of Silicon Valley (basically a City of Ideas set in semi-sprawl and the world’s nicest climate and landscape) drives the point home, but I would rephrase it. Yes, regulations limit affordability and admittance but my own research identifies regulatory bodies – especially landmarks agencies – as places where community members attempt to affect a democracy of the built environment.

Sure, this excludes poverty and even density in some cases, and you can call it NIMBYism, but the desire to control your immediate environment is a middle-class value and landmarks agencies – unlike zoning boards – allow a venue for community input that is qualitative as well as quantitative and which can be more surgical and less blunt as an instrument.

Many conservative economists see government agencies as beasts that grow ever larger and more powerful and consumptive, restricting more and more growth. This ignores how these regulations actually play out in the real world. In Chicago, the Landmarks Commission spends most of its professional staff time dealing with those historic districts where community members are active and use the commission as a venue for getting their way: the quantity of regulation is actually measured not in landmarked buildings and districts but the current rate of activism in each community. Yes, professional staff may make some decisions (predictable ones, actually) but there is definitely more regulation in more activist neighborhoods. Moreover, that activity will shift to zoning or other venues in the absence of landmarking, a fact that a student of Jane Jacobs should know. Removing the regulation won’t make it go away, because the true source is community activism, not government.

The book is very well-written and like Bob Bruegmann’s book on sprawl, I agreed with about 90 percent of it. It ends with a call for the elimination of those massive government subsidies that have pushed people out of cities; roads and home mortgage interest deductions. The latter has become increasingly untenable in the wake of “flat world” globalization: permanent homes don’t make intrinsic sense in the 21st century economy. Industrial cities existed to concentrate labor (and management and innovation) for efficient production. In the consumer economy cities compete for workers by being great places to live. The 21st century economy is not, like the 19th century economy, driven by production, but rather by consumption.

Cities are the ultimate consumer product, with all of the status and amenity that that implies and an innovative core of human creativity and action that Glaeser understands and communicates in a powerful way.

photos from top: Chicago; Los Angeles; Beijing; New York; New York; Lima; Shanghai; Lima; Vienna; New York; New York; Chicago; San Francisco; Silicon Valley; Chicago; Chicago; Amsterdam; Chicago.