Filed under: Volume 002 | Tags: Camillo Sitte, Civic Realm, Living Tradition, Living Urbanism, Living Urbanism Print Edition, Public Space, Volume 002
Urbanists need to regain control. The traffic engineer and landscape architect have had their way with the civic realm of our cities and towns for too long. The public spaces of any master plan are in fact the most valuable aspect of the design. Care should be given toward their creation and they should not be turned over entirely to any one specialized discipline.
The conception of a great civic realm, anchored by wonderfully, local public spaces, should be the principle goal of any urban design. Beauty will last the ages. If we are to truly build resilient settlements their public spaces must endure for generations. We do not have the luxury to waste on failed endeavors. The founding, or renewal, of a public space is critical to the success of any urban place. The square gives a neighborhood its identity. With success in mind, Urbanists must utilize all the characteristics of a successful public space —particularly the required management and diverse funding that allow for them to endure. As the New Urbanists increasingly look to retrofit suburbia, a similar eye must be put upon the many lost, miss-used or forgotten spaces that exist within our built environment. All land must not be underutilized. Perhaps our society does not yet understand the benefits that non-traditional American public spaces provide? In other parts of the world, a “shared space” is a cultural foundation. They are the streets and plazas that allow city life to exist. Traffic engineers had no hand in the creation of Rome’s piazze. We must learn from these cultures, and as American’s understanding of public space evolves we should not be timid about introducing these ancient forms into our plans. Today no one is looking after the whole of the civic realm. Our professional culture has specialized out of existence the generalist. And it is the generalist that understands what is required to grow a beautiful public space. As Urbanists, we understand the whole system. As Urbanists, we can conduct the symphony required to produce authentic beauty throughout our civic realm.
“Today nobody is concerned with city planning as an art — only as a technical problem. When, as a result, the artistic effect in no way lives up to our expectations, we are left bewildered and helpless; nevertheless, in dealing with the next project it is again treated wholly from the technical point of view, as if it were the layout of a railroad in which artistic questions are not involved.” (Sitte, p.223) In 1889, Camillo Sitte published “City Planning According to Artistic Principles.” One hundred and twenty years later little has changed in the practice of city building. The value of artistically created space has still not found a voice in the modern world. Why?
Shaping the public spaces of our settlements to support an enduring way of life is essential to both the economic development of a place and its overall resiliency. For decades, the artistic expression of our public spaces has not been the driving force behind the projects that shape our built environments’ identities. Beauty, comfort and the higher ideals of a place must be resurrected as the organizing force for city builders. We are still trapped by the statistics of the engineer and dull line of the drafting ruler when it comes to how we create our built environment. A Living Urbanism requires a sophisticated civic realm.
Anatomy of our Civic Realm
The civic realm can actively be identified as our publicly celebrated structures. However, our libraries, churches and governmental building are only a small, but visible, piece of our civic realm. A mature civic realm can be conceived of as the entire system of public spaces both contained by these civic buildings and connecting them. Contrary to other classification systems, I would like to propose that the civic realm is made up of only two categories of public space. In the most complex of conditions Shared Space and Landscaped Space, supported by quality public and private buildings, can provide the full range of conditions required for a meaningful civic realm to exist.
A Shared Space can be characterized as a piazza, piazzetta, plaza and, most importantly, streets and thoroughfares. I find these spaces fall under the guideline that urbanism enjoys complexity. These are “mixed-use” spaces in true form. Surprising is that within the best urbanism these spaces make no special consideration for the car. Properly programmed, multi-modal and effectively scaled the street is the most abundant of all shared public spaces. Yet we dilute the street down to a traffic tool in all American conditions. Why? When there are so many precedents for how a street can support all modes of transport equally. Few, if any, engineers will stamp drawings for the construction of a true piazza, piazzetta or plaza effectively removing these timeless forms from the urbanist’s palette. Our struggles for reducing the width of streets has taken too long. The ability to develop a true piazza needs to be possible. We must resurrect Shared Space as a possible modern urban form.
Landscape Spaces exist to connect urban dwellers to nature and to support the emotional experience of the pedestrian. Landscape Spaces create the contemplative places within a village, town or city. They are formed by having a strong connection with nature. The quay running along the river Siene in Paris, the great lawn in New York’s Central Park and the tree lined promenades of Villa Borghese in Rome are all stunning examples of how a Landscape Space gives emotion and soul to a city. Care must be given toward balancing the scale, orientation and natural features of our greens, squares, gardens and parks to ensure they offer the urban dweller relief in any form they wish to find.
Physical Characteristics of Public Space
Is a boulevard really a successful public space if it does not provide a pleasing escape for the pedestrian? Is a small plaza really a successful public space if it does not allow for the cafe to swell in the evening filling ever available square foot with patrons? As we contort the forms of our civic realm to support the modern demands placed upon them by public process and the science of traffic “engineering” (Jacobs, p. 72) we lose the characteristic that allow these spaces to be the foundation for a vibrant and living urbanism.
“The design standards imposed by the highway engineering profession, for instance, are particularly damaging to community as they ensure the dominance of the motor vehicle over the pedestrian, even within the neighborhood. If I may say so, your profession [architects] could be of great help with this challenge of converting the planning and engineering professions, as surely you have noticed that the well-proportioned neighborhoods of the Georgian and Victorian era hold their value far better than the monocultural housing estates of the past 50 years.” (HRH Prince of Wales, 2009)
As Urbanists, we must take up the Prince’s challenge. By giving modern meaning to the characteristics of a quality public space we can allow a boulevard to be a boulevard and plaza to be a plaza. We should no longer support the hybrid, or false, forms being forced upon our citizens.
Balancing the form of a public space is essential. It is most successful when all three dimensions of the space, as well as the surface treatments and sculpture, are considered in concert. It is understood that the containment of a public space is critical. Establishing the constraints of the outdoor room is also linked to the width and length of a public space. As mentioned earlier, we struggle to create narrow streets. I would also like to propose that our squares, and if we could build them, plazas and piazze are much too large.
“In former times all the arrangements and building forms we have enumerated were joined naturally in a unified arrangement that enclosed that plaza. In contrast to this, one tries in modern times to lay the plaza open. What this implies should be clear form what has been said above. It is equivalent to destroying the old plazas. Wherever such a disastrous undertaking has been carried out, the spatial effect is lost forever.” (Sitte, p. 176)
Christopher Alexander has also developed several patterns which I find often over-looked in contemporary practice.
“Pattern 61 – Make a public square much smaller then you would at first imagine; usually no more than 45 to 60 feet across, never more than 70 feet across. This applies only to its width in the short direction. In the long direction it can certainly be longer.” (Alexander, p. 313)
“Pattern 123 – For public squares, courts, pedestrian streets, any place where crowds are drawn together, estimate the mean number of people in the place at any given moment (P), and make the area of the place between 150P and 300P square feet.” (Alexander, p. 598)
Do modern planners or landscape architects consider the population of a public space when considering its most effective size? It is time to reexamine the size and proportions of the public spaces we design and ensure that they are appropriate to the activities, surrounding architecture and number of users. Size does matter.
Layers exist within all great public spaces. Picture the Piazza del Campo. The image of Siene’s Palazzo Pubblico, with its great tower, might come to mind, or the comfortable slope of its fan shaped form. But, with further scrutiny one can begin to see the layers of this space more clearly. The cafés, with their deep sienna brown awnings, situated on the ground floors of the surrounding buildings establish the outside layer and give the piazza its essential active edge. Just as important as engaging uses at the ground level is the composition, slightly varying fenestration and harmonious cornice line of the surrounding buildings. The tower pierces the perceived ceiling of the piazza completing the required characteristic that a public space be engaging in all dimensions. The tower can quickly be established as this spaces center, but with more investigation one will find that the square in fact has many centers. The portico of the Palazzo, opposite the portico is the Fonte Gaia, typically the square as several vendors dotted along its inner edge, the ring road between the cafés for strolling the circumference of the space and the sloping red brick floor with its many groups of seated onlookers all provide a difference experience. The addition of each of these layers enriches the composition giving the public space more significance.
Significance for public space can mean many things. Great spaces possess significant gravity. Several blocks away one should be able to sense, as if it is pulling you in, the nearing public space. This energy emitted from a significant public space attracts more than just pedestrians. At times this can create a gradient of taller builds, more intense ground floor users and increase in the number of intersections and streets. This gravity can also give a neighborhood its identity. “I live just off Washington Square Park” not only uses the significance of the square to orient location, but demonstrates how the gravity of the public space imposes identity on the surrounding blocks as well. The gravity created between the constellations of public spaces present throughout a civic realm give additional vibrancy to the traffic that flows throughout the city. This pulse of mobility gives life to not only the centers of activity but the various arms connecting them.
There are additional spaces that surround and lead into the primary place. They are the foyers for publics space during large events, the quieter plaza filled with cafés just outside the busy market square or the commercial nodes just outside the gates of the public garden providing refreshments to the scene. A healthy civic realm has a constellation of iconic public spaces. Each of these individual spaces possesses a constellation of supporting space. They might provide relief during extreme conditions or give space for services to support the active edge of the square. A single public space is better when it is part of a series of spaces. This fractal relationship gives vibrancy and depth to a living urbanism.
Public spaces are living. They breathe, sleep, require maintenance and enjoy company. As urbanism ages it continues to grow, change and adapt to the conditions of the time. This is true of the public spaces within that urbanism as well. Over designed and ridged alignment to uses significantly hinder the successful aging of a public space. These spaces must possess a certain amount of flexibility. This is even true within the span of one year. The best public space can support its citizens throughout the year. There is no “session.” The life of the city should not halt in winter. Prague does not close its squares due to cold weather. The many groups, clubs and organizations that a loved public space establishes will further extend the life of these places. These groups will give guidance to the space and provide resources as it ages. Quality public spaces are living infrastructure.
Beauty is Essential
A timeless public space is beautiful. This perhaps is the essential characteristic. Beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder. However, on average the dull, rigid and sterile places that mid-century planners conceived of as beautiful public space have failed. Beauty to the masses, not to a small group of intellectual designers, is essential for a public space to be successful. This beauty ensures the long term enjoyment of a space is certain. Fashion changes too frequently. To let it guide the creation of public space is a mistake. Beautiful squares, plazas, parks and gardens are multigenerational investments. Their form must be timeless for the required investment to be worth its value to a society. Beauty is more likely to be loved, and loved public spaces are more likely to spawn the groups required to maintain and care for it as the life of urbanism surrounding it unfolds. A loved public space endures.
Cycle of Involvement
What does the civic realm really mean to the city? Inevitably cultures and societies evolve. The civic realm provides the platform for this evolution. The civic realm is both the glue that holds a society together and a mirror that allows it to see its failures. This question is not correct; the civic realm means different things to different people. The meanings are not important, but the fact that the civic realm is present in one’s life is. We are just now becoming aware of what the lack of a civic realm can do to a culture and a society.
The civic realm engages the memory. It provides a physical history of a place either through the preservation of its best historic structures or through the generational interaction and story telling that gives rise to the myths of a place. The public spaces of living urbanism should persist within one’s memory. The mind should hold on to their image long since created. The most literal representation of the civic realms memory is those monuments and memorials erected to celebrate our past and the people who made life possible. Either in the squares of Savannah or under Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe the physical memory is real. It is these memories, provide in large part through the civic realm, that serve to give a place its soul.
One comes to respect both one’s place and oneself more in the presence of the past’s greatest accomplishments. This respect, carried by the citizens’ sense of a place, resists filth, counteracts vandalism and elevates the spirit of said place. Given respect, by way of the connections to previous accomplishments, a successful civic realm’s public spaces will be cherished.
The cycle of a person’s involvement with the public spaces of their civic realm will come to teach them how to care. It will give them pride for their locale and its continued success. Pride will lead to ownership. The city will become one’s own and in time this ownership brings one further comfort in its spaces – a comfort that makes the city a home. Through a populations life cycle of experience within a civic realm, many stories will be crafted which, over time, will enrich the memories of a living urbanism.
A market square is more then just the physical space of the market square. Public space is a platform for the life of a city to unfold. However, a play needs its actors, script and time of performance to bring an audience. Successful public spaces require users. The best of these places provide activities for their users. The smallest parking court can be elevated to a public space when planted with a fruit tree. The cycle of caring for the tree, picking its fruit, smelling its flowers and enjoying its shade can create public space out of the simplest of utility areas. The activities in larger public spaces are produced. There are stewards of the space that initiate the production of the activities required to seed the cycle of involvement that leads to the long term enjoyment of a vibrant civic realm.
Just as important as the physical characteristics of a space are the activities carried out within, surrounding or through it. We have discussed the importance of the edge activities. But, often these need to be support and enticed by the activities available in the space proper. Just as the civic realm is divided into shared and landscaped space, activities can be passive and active. There is a strong correlation between landscaped spaces and passive activities. However, a quiet piazzette, with several café tables can be the loveliest of places to rest. Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces, states that the best of public spaces are programmed by “zealous nuts.” It is these groups of nuts that knit together a square or park to improve its gravity, give opportunity for the creation of memories, and fundamentally provide for the enjoyment of future generations in the space.
At the center of a large publics space’s groups must be a “Friends of Great Kennedy Plaza” or a “Central Park Conservancy.” These organizations manage, fund and govern the ongoing operations of the space. They ensure its characteristics remain in place or improve. It is unfortunate, but modern urbanism requires successful large public spaces to be run like businesses.
Did Rome require Friends of the Forum? What kept the “geomorphic” spaces of unplanned cities running? (Kostof, p.43) We currently have no living tradition for the stewardship of our public space. During the last century, Americans learned that the stewardship of our native landscapes was worth the effort. During this century, we will learn that the stewardship of our village, town and city public spaces will be worth the effort as well. We must learn from Olmsted’s dual understanding for both the natural importance of Yellowstone’s preservation for the country and the complex details that would lead to Central Park’s success for New York. Both are of equal importance. Both required stewardship.
It is yet to be seen what type of global economy will be left, but being the optimist it is likely that global markets will still exist. The interesting thing about being competitive in a global market has a lot to do with the strength of your local market. For cities to be competitive globally they will need to differentiate themselves locally. Leveraging the advantages of the local arts, culture, landscape and vernacular building tradition is the foundation for cultivating a unique place in a global market. And we learned that a beautiful civic realm supports all of these items.
A resilient civic realm sets up so many factors that encourage innovation. In time of recession, people take to the streets with market stalls and push carts. These local economies would not be possible without established public space. Random encounters can lead to innovative interaction. The streets, square, plazas and parks are the places for locals to interact and improve their craft or practice.
What significant arts movement has been cultivated and supported by a suburban location? Movements, the type that inspire generations, begin in the cafés and piazze of our cities. The physical space of a city should be painted. Its beauty should be sketched, photographed and act as a well spring of creativity for future movements. A resilient civic realm captures the creativity of the group. The arts are perhaps the most radical of economies, but their practice is essential to pollinating the garden of innovation required for local economies to be successful. Fundamentally, a movement, either business or cultural, needs to be inspired. A living urbanism’s civic realm must provide this inspiration.
Civic and cultural institutions further enhance a local economy. Good public space gives visibility to these institutions and provides the essential link between the “Res publica” and “res privata”. These institutions are not only captured in the physical form of a museum or cathedral. Conservation can begin with a discussion in the square. Romance can ignite with a stroll through the garden. Just as a public space can give identity to a neighborhood, a resilient civic realm can help establish an attractive local culture. The institution of a romantic city can be a powerful enabler of the local economy.
Local economies are even more fine grain. The arrangement of public space gives identity to a district. The power of a good space provides the name to a neighborhood. These names can endure long past the time of their original conception. The economic power of a great civic realm can be demonstrated in the suburban shopping center habit of adorning placeless destinations with names traditionally assigned to the best public spaces.
A healthy social interaction, one that supports local economies, takes place in the public spaces of a living urbanism — commerce, or trade, originated in public space. That tradition is still present. I witnessed a chance encounter between two businessmen aboard a San Francisco trolley. One man hopped on, struck up a conversation with the man seated next to him and the next thing I knew they were getting off at the next stop heading toward the coffee shop to discuss a possible new venture. This is just one example of how a comfortable civic realm, not to mention public transit surrounding such areas, can support economic innovation. And if you believe Jane Jacobs, it is this type of innovation that keeps places alive.
Foundation for a Resilient Place
As Urbanists, we are responsible for helping to craft the foundations for a resilient place. A living urbanism is the best example of such a place. As we’ve discussed the creation, stewardship and enjoyment of a beautiful civic realm can have a profound effect on the successful passing of time. Celebrations and ceremonies are conducted within their enclosure, demonstrations are held in times of unease and direction given in times of crisis. The public spaces of our settlements are critical to their long term sustainability. These spaces are the constant throughout the lives of the citizens. Great care must be given to their creation and renewal. A beautiful public space can offer both a joyful reminder of the past and inspiring insight to the future.
As urbanists, we must realize that complexity is resilient. Natural ecosystems enjoy complexity as an essential piece of their endurance. Can a complex collections of public space help a local economy support itself during recession? Will these same public spaces improve themselves during booms? Many options are always more enjoyable than fewer and it seems as if contemporary planners, and even new Urbanists, are limiting the complexity possible in our built environment. A city or town should have a diverse selection of public spaces, each giving different types of citizens enjoyment. The stimulation of an elegantly complex civic realm keeps a culture renewed.
A living urbanism begins with community and space. It is the act of shaping this space that gives life to a place. Pleasing public space is the insurance that greater things are possible in a place. The quality of the civic realm is completely related to the comfortable level of density that the private spaces of a village, town or city can support.
A sophisticated civic realm allows for a compact population to exist. This population in turn improves the entire civic realm. It is essential for our projects to push this correlation. Achieving greater density is a significant piece of the puzzle that allows for transit, cultural institutions, local economies and an active street life to exist. It is this interdependence that makes the understanding and implementation of great public spaces so essential to our mission. As urbanists, we possess the skills necessary to lead the coming age of urban stewardship. It is time Urbanists regained control of our civic realm.
Filed under: Volume 002 | Tags: Characteristics, Living Tradition, Living Urbanism, Living Urbanism Print Edition, Original Green, Steve Mouzon, Volume 002
“Living Urbanism” seems at first glance to be an oxymoron. Urbanism is composed primarily of things that are not alive, like bricks and stone. Other than trees lining the streets, what aspect of urbanism is alive? But if “life” includes things without flesh, bone, fur, or feather that can nonetheless take on a life of their own, independent of that which created them, then the term “Living Urbanism” has meaning. Several things are required in order that something might be considered to be alive.
Characteristics of Life
No form of life is completely self-serving. Rather, each species is useful in some way to some of the other species of its ecosystem.
Every species has a recognizable physical form. There is great variety amongst individual organisms of the species, but only within a very narrow range. This combination of great variety within a narrow range is a characteristic of all life.
The entire creature is alive, other than certain protective structures such as nails and shells.
Each creature carries a genetic code that describes the design of the species.
Through a process of cell sub-division, creatures grow by making more cells. At each stage of growth, the specimen is whole and complete.
Every form of life has the ability to replicate without the involvement of any ancestral specimens that are replicating. Ancestors may die and be forgotten, but still, the current specimens can replicate, spreading the genetic material of the species.
Disease can come, in general, from two sources: It can originate from outside the creature: in this case, a foreign life form which works against the purpose of the organism enters the organism and reproduces. Or it can originate from within: in this case, the cells within begin to work against the purpose of the organism. Often, they reproduce wildly as cancerous growths, spreading across the organism, eventually killing it.
Death occurs at three levels: Cells of a creature live for a short period of time and then die, giving place to new cells during the life of the creature. The death of the cells is a natural and healthy part of the life of the creature because it allows the creature to renew itself, lengthening its life. Individual specimens within a species live for an intermediate period of time and then die, giving place to their descendants. The death of individual specimens is a natural and healthy part of the life of the species because it allows the species to strengthen itself. Species exist for a long period of time, but eventually go extinct. The extinction of species can also be a natural and healthy process when it is due to naturally-occurring reasons, because the extinction of one species might make room in an ecosystem for the ascent of a more advanced species.
Characteristics of a Living Urbanism
Urbanism is analogous to life in many ways. That is to say, a city is not a living creature, a city is like a living creature in useful ways. Types of settlements are similar to distinct species. A farming hamlet, for example, is far different from a metropolitan borough on many counts. They have far different habitats, food sources, life cycles, metabolic rates, waste materials, and appearances. So if types of settlements are like distinct species, then a particular city, town, village, or hamlet is like a single creature, and individual buildings within the city, town, village, or hamlet is like individual cells within the creature.
The idea that settlement types are like species was first proposed by Christina Miller; many characteristics of her model are incorporated here. A living urbanism exhibits all of the characteristics of biological life listed below:
Each type of settlement has its purpose. The purpose is often communicated explicitly: Farming Hamlet, Fishing Village, Market Town, etc.
Each individual settlement must also have a purpose if it is to be considered living urbanism. That purpose must include all of the functions of daily life if the settlement is to be considered a living thing. If people can’t live in a settlement without leaving for the necessities of life, it’s not a living place. Suburbia is comprised primarily of warehouses for sleeping humans and cannot be considered a living thing because you can’t live there; you can only sleep (and do a few other related activities) there. A liver or a spleen cannot live on its own, nor can suburbia.
Individual buildings also have their purposes, and therefore their types. But just as most cells in a body have multiple functions, the best buildings are those which have many possible uses. There are very few cells in a healthy body that have only a single function. An entire body composed of single-purpose cells could not remain alive for very long, if it could live at all. And a city composed only of single-purpose buildings is not living urbanism, nor is it sustainable.
Every type of settlement has a particular form. A River Port City, for example, snakes along both sides of a river, with one side built more intensely than the other. A Market Town has its heart at an intersection where two or more roads meet. The form of each settlement type begins with the thing that feeds it (the river, the ocean, the roads, the mines, etc.) But settlements are species that can undergo metamorphosis. Hamlets and villages usually have a single initial purpose, as do towns. But as they metamorphosize into cities and metropolises, they take on more and more purposes until they no longer reflect their primary purpose. For example, New York began as a Port Town, but that purpose is now only one of many, and so its form is now more complex than before the city’s most recent metamorphosis.
A living urbanism is produced by a culture at large, not just by a few specialists. If the citizens are not participating in the building of their town to a significant degree, then the settlement that is being created is not alive. Urbanism may be created either through a living process or through a mechanical process. The mechanical process for creating urbanism focuses on the specialties of the specialists that make the system. The New Urbanism admires and aspires to the old places, of living urbanism, but nearly all New Urbanist developments are still built by a mechanism comprised primarily of specialists. We cannot yet claim, therefore, that New Urbanism contains the pervasiveness of life found in a truly living urbanism.
Each type of settlement, each type of Transect zone, and each type of building in a living urbanism springs from a genetic code that contains the essential character of the settlement type, Transect zone, or building. But today, our codes are not helping to create living urbanism because they are based on the mechanical model rather than the model of life. For evidence, consider this: today, there are only a handful of planners alive that can plan a medieval (organic) town to a competent level. Yet in the medieval era, the townspeople built their towns.
Often, these townspeople were illiterate, and they certainly did not draw. So how were they able to build places so great that even the best planners alive today cannot exceed them and seldom even match them? How were they able to transmit the wisdom to the next generation? This transmission device remained a mystery for many years. Some assumed that is was some sort of mystical force that post-industrial people could not understand. Now, however, some believe that the transmission device has been rediscovered, and that it is something very simple, based on the purpose of each pattern: “We do this because…”
Because there is a purpose and a form for each type, and because the culture at large must be part of the process of creating a living urbanism, the code must be simple so that it is easily communicated and easily understood. Each pattern in the code of a settlement type, Transect zone type, or building type should be framed as “We do this because…” “We” signifies that this is a place “we” are building, not a place “they” are building. “Do” signifies that the code is not just theoretical, but that it requires action. “This” signifies the particularity; the code is not just some vague collection of good intentions. “Because” signifies that each pattern has a purpose. If every pattern of every code is framed in this manner, with the plain-spoken rule of thumb of the pattern connected to the reason for the pattern with “We do this because…” then this activates everyone in the culture, and everyone is allowed to think again. Until very recently, this aspect has been missing from nearly all codes, or has been only tenuously attached by a separate commentary document.
A living urbanism grows through a natural process that approximates cell division. Low-Transect-Zone lots are subdivided to make Higher-Transect-Zone lots. This method of growth drove human settlements until about a century ago, having entirely disappeared in new developments. One of the many benefits of the former method is that a settlement is complete at all times, just as an organism is complete at all stages of growth. You don’t see children walking around with one arm until a certain age, nor are they missing fingers or toes as infants. Living urbanism begins with a community of farmsteads. Each farmstead is complete, as is the sub-urban neighborhood block that it is divided into, as are the general urban lots that are further subdivided from the sub-urban lots, as are the Main Street lots that those are further subdivided and densified. This is a quick description of the Sky Method, which has only recently been proposed to approximate the old methods of growth of a living urbanism. This may sound like an entirely foreign concept to anyone steeped in modern development methods, but look back at a series of maps about a century apart showing the growth of an old city. You will see that this was the normal method of growth of living urbanism. So it is our recent system of development that is the foreign interloper instead.
The way we build today attempts to jump straight to final completion of a town by anticipating its climax condition, including that work of new urbanist firms. Until an entire town is complete, it looks like a stage-set. The corollary of a development in its early stages would be a creature missing most of its limbs, muscles, and organs. The only thing it would have in full supply is its bones, because the municipalities insist that the entire infrastructure for a phase be complete before lots can be sold. A skeleton with only a few pieces of tissue attached obviously could not be alive. Nor would you make it alive by continuing to add tissue here and there.
Lest there be any doubt about this poor creature’s inability to live, we have devised the Homeowner’s Association, which is Urbanism’s Chloroform. Because we are terrified of uncertainty, we want to make sure that the climax condition the planners tried to create at the beginning is perpetuated forever, so we immerse the entire place in Urbanism’s Chloroform, ensuring that it never has any chance of taking on life by unknown means in the future. By making change impractical, we make growth impossible. With no chance of growth, there can be no life. So the best that the New Urbanism can do under these conditions is to create portraits of living places, but these portraits are no more alive than any canvas on the wall.
Our system of higher education is the best structure that exists today for spreading wisdom. This structure requires students to spend years in classes, working through countless problems, showing their work and eventually earning a degree. But it is a terribly inefficient structure, as can easily be determined by looking at the proportion of PhDs in a particular population to the total population.
Nature has a better way. Consider humans: each one contains the most complicated code ever contemplated, the human genome. Yet this incredibly complicated genetic material is replicated hundreds of thousands of times every single day, and almost always by humans with no formal training and nothing more than experience learned through observation. Human replication begins when two humans consider each other to be attractive. If the attraction is strong enough, they mate, they breed (not necessarily in that order,) and the genetic material is passed on.
Living urbanism was once built by a very similar process that has now been lost: the Living Tradition. Every tradition begins as a great idea by a single person about how to build something better. If the pattern efficiently achieves its purpose and resonates with their neighbors, it is replicated, and therefore becomes a local pattern. Later, when the local pattern has existed long enough that other people in the region have seen it, they may say “We love this pattern; we want to adopt it into our family of regional traditions.” Most architects today equate tradition to history, but a living tradition bears about as much resemblance to an historical tradition as a living creature does to a fossil; they may both have a similar shape, but one is alive while the other is dead.
So living traditions work because people resonate with, or find beauty in, a particular pattern. Just as nature’s system works because one person resonates with, or finds beauty in, another. But just as people breeding have no need of any detailed knowledge of genetics, people who are replicating a beloved detail have no need of the detailed calculations of the person who first designed the detail. A living tradition embeds wisdom in beauty, just as nature does. So the people only need to know the general “we do this because…”, not the specific details the originator had to work out.
Disease & Death
Disease occurs in a living urbanism just as it does in living creatures. Patterns designed by specialists rather than generalists should be considered highly suspect as potential disease agents. Thoroughfares designed by traffic engineers are a classic example of a specialist’s solution with a single purpose: getting as many cars as quickly as possible from point A to point B. But in doing so, they make no contribution to the overall health of the urbanism. So almost everywhere such patterns are inflicted by the specialists — beginning in the teens, 1920s, and 1930s — they cause disease in the living urbanism.
The rapid, cancerous growth of the very fabric of urbanism is sprawl. Bloated, super-sized cells replicate rapidly, sucking up the resources of the living urbanism until the life of the place is sucked out and the living urbanism dies.
Today, our world is in crisis. We have a pandemic of global proportions of not just one disease agent, but of every sort of specialist-driven virus imaginable. And cities all over the world are eaten up with the cancer of sprawl, so much so that few places remain with any signs of true living urbanism. Many places are preserved in Urbanism’s Cryogenic State: the Historic District. They may appear alive under casual inspection, but will they ever actually live again? And all around them, we can usually find nothing except the sickening, bloated carcass of what might once have started out as living urbanism, but now is just cancerous sprawl. And so the living urbanism died in hideous fashion, and we watched it happen. And as the urbanism died, sustainability died with it.
What can be done? If we are to have any hope of living sustainably again, we must realize that sustainability goes hand-in-hand with a living urbanism. As a matter of fact, so long as it is understood that buildings are as much a part of urbanism as cells are of a body, it’s not too great a stretch to say that sustainability is a living urbanism. The two are inextricably linked; you cannot have sustainability without a living urbanism.
And so, we must revive living traditions, because they are the operating systems of living urbanism. Today, millions of people are working furiously all around the world to try to figure out how to live sustainably. Once we figure it out, (and I’m optimistic that we will,) we simply do not have the luxury of time to spread that wisdom using only the higher education system because it is far too inefficient and slow.
But there is an even worse way to fail. Modernism has at its core the precept that if you are to be significant, your work must be unique. So each significant architect is expected to reconstitute architecture into a personal style like nothing quite seen before. The problem is obvious: millions of the best minds are working today to figure out sustainability. Once it is figured out, if we then require each architect who would be significant to re-invent sustainability in their own personal style, then we can expect nothing other than catastrophic failure. So the requirement of uniqueness goes far beyond the ludicrous to the globally treasonous. It must not be tolerated any longer. We must be allowed to share wisdom! The most effective way of sharing wisdom ever devised and proven is nature’s way: it is a living tradition. And it is the operating system of a living urbanism. We must re-awaken them now!