14 11 13

Is “vision” just a buzzword in city planning?

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood…Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”

- Daniel Burnham, architect and urban designer

What, if anything, did Burnham’s famous advice have to do with vision?

Is vision simply something that accrues to a plan because it is more ambitious?

Robert Shipley, a professor in the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo, has written a series of articles questioning the meaning of “vision” as it is used in planning. He finds that though the word is bandied about as if everyone knew what it meant, there is actually little real consensus about it. In an article co-authored with Russ Newkirk, he found as many as twenty different meanings applied to “vision” in a review of planning-related texts.

Shipley traces how our concept of vision and our relationship to the future has changed at different points throughout history. In the time of prophets and oracles, vision had something to do with divining an unknown and unalterable destiny. “Much like many modern visioning exercises,” he writes drily, “the garbled words of the priestesses had to be interpreted by priests who were the reigning experts of their day.”

from: thechatterjis.wordpress.com

Belief in progress, science, and technology led to forecasting and mathematical extrapolation of current trends. Shipley cites psychologist A. H. Maslow as being hugely influential over the past century with his concept of self-actualization. Envisioning a goal as part of the process to make it a reality affected management theory, sports, health-related fields, and eventually also crept into planning practice.

Then there is the popular technique of “backcasting” – speculating about a future state and recreating the steps needed to arrive there as if they had already happened. Shipley suggests a link to a trend in fiction that started in 1888 with Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a story that told the future as if it were history.

Do these more recent meanings suggest that “vision” is little more than a buzzword for a plan?

Wendy Sarkissian, an Australian planner and academic, thinks this is all too often the case. She argues that with a vision, “the aim is to go deep, to reach a depth of understanding of what is going on…And with depth, which is about storytelling, imagination, and creativity, you don’t go quickly to conclusions.” To many planners, this might seem too abstract to be practical, but perhaps this reflects a blind spot in planning practice and public consultation.

from: stolpinart.com

Otto Scharmer, an MIT lecturer and founder of the Presencing Institute, suggests that as well as learning from the past, we can learn by paying close attention to the future as it emerges from the present. This too might seem abstract, but consider: how do you know whether a development proposal should respect the existing character of a neighbourhood or be allowed to set a new precedent? Even such a humdrum decision surely relies on intuition of some sort.

Imagination, personal values, openness to change, and a connection to place may be difficult to make part of planning processes, but they are undoubtedly important when we dream of possible futures. And…perhaps “vision” is as closely related to a dream as it is to a plan.

Upper Toronto is not a plan. But maybe it can be a vision.

08 11 13

Ideal Cities, Instant Cities

“Many people dream of a better world; Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier each went a step further and planned one…”

-       Robert Fishman, Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century

Imagining the ideal society that resolves today’s complex problems is not a new game, as readers of Plato’s Republic can attest. Thomas More’s Utopia in the sixteenth century gave us our current shorthand for a socially and politically perfect community, but “utopia” also retains an association with speculative fiction, stemming from its original meaning: nowhere.

Regardless, utopian plans have had a significant effect on real cities.

As Robert Fishman details in his book Urban Utopias, when Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier created their ideal city plans, they rejected a piecemeal approach to improving cities, each believing that a total rethink was necessary. They saw the fast growing cities of their time as dirty, congested, and chaotic, and planned their respective ideal cities as healthy and beautiful places that would bring their inhabitants into a harmonious balance with nature.

Howard’s Garden City plan led to the founding of Letchworth and Welwyn in England, places that model his ideas to this day. His continuing broader influence can be seen in today’s greenbelts and in aspects of the New Urbanism movement. Le Corbusier’s Radiant City influenced modernist apartment blocks around the world, as well as the master plans for cities such as Brasilia and Chandigarh. Wright’s Broadacre City, for its part, tends to be associated with the spread of American suburbia, but it is notable that Wright’s plans did include, among other things, schools and small-scale factories: a complete community, in other words.

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Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities (wikimedia commons)

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Le Corbusier’s Radiant City (morrischia.com)

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City (beloose.com)

It is interesting to compare these grand visions with the “instant cities” springing up around the world today, places like Shenzhen in China, Sejong in South Korea, or Putrajaya and Cyberjaya in Malaysia. What issues frame the guiding principles for cities like these?

Increasing environmental pressures have led to a number of “eco-city” plans such as Songdo (South Korea), Tianjin Eco-City (China), and Masdar City (UAE). These experiments are piloting “smart city” infrastructure, better building standards, resource use, and waste management, and in the case of Masdar City, trying to achieve something close to carbon neutrality.

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Masdar City, United Arab Emirates (wikimedia commons)

In China, a number of people larger than the entire U.S. population will move from the country to the city within the next 15 years. These kinds of demographic changes mean that successful elements or entire instant city templates may be replicated, as building viable new cities at exceptional speed is seen as a necessity. Companies like Gale International and Cisco (in the case of Songdo) hope to profit by providing the backbone expertise needed to build these “smart” new instant cities.

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Songdo, South Korea (wikimedia commons)

While environmental and population pressures are key drivers of new instant city plans – concerns that were shared by Howard, Wright, and Le Corbusier in their day – another fundamental imperative is the effort to attract global capital.

Shenzhen developed as an export powerhouse with China’s designation of Special Economic Zones in the early 1980s. Many comparable cities have tried to emulate the success of Singapore and Hong Kong as leading centers of shipping and commerce. Dubai’s explosive growth is closely linked to its efforts to become a regional hub for transportation and banking. The proposed “8-City” of South Korea aims to compete with Dubai and Macau as a city of leisure, with luxury hotels, casinos, convention centres, destination shopping, and theme parks.

Yet, thinking of 8-City in particular, planning a banquet of consumption for the wealthy seems a far cry from the utopian city plans of the past. Can there be too much emphasis on luring capital?

Take Dubai. To facilitate investment, Dubai has grown a strange amalgam of competing legal jurisdictions: its laws, enforcement, accepted currency, and official language all depend on whether you are in the Dubai International Financial Centre, Internet City, the hotels, or the squalid worker camps. While expat technocrats benefit from tax-free salaries, foreign workers who actually build the city have no right to a minimum wage or collective bargaining. With the idea of “charter cities”, Honduras is attempting to create economic development zones that may take these types of divisions even further. Unlike in Dubai, where Daniel Brook reports there is $1.5M in oil wealth per Emirati citizen and Emiratis are favoured by special rules, the Honduras charter cities threaten to widen the gulf in standards and rights between the local population and foreign capital. Surely these are not the type of cities we wish to emulate.

Returning to Howard, Wright, and Le Corbusier, what is now best known of their plans is their urban form and architecture, but each actually expressed far greater ambitions. These were meticulously planned alternative societies, politically and economically organized according to their respective author’s deepest beliefs. Even a passing glance at their idiosyncratic plans reveals stark, fundamental differences. Their wide divergence shows how dramatically plans are shaped by their foundational principles.

Howard’s Garden City expressed his belief in cooperative socialism and the better natures of people. Le Corbusier’s Radiant City saw harmony in a syndicalist combination of authoritarianism and libertarianism. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City was a dispersed anti-urban community based on Jeffersonian individualism.

Indisputably, each of these visions had its problems, and their influence has not all been positive. But this prompts a central question underlying the Upper Toronto project.

What are the deepest values expressed by the Toronto of the present? And what do we think they should be?

What would Toronto look like in 75 years based on the vision that most deeply motivates us?

11 10 13

Toronto In The Asian Century: 2088 

Once the world looked to the United States to glimpse the world’s sleekest and most modern cities. But as Dustin Roasa wrote recently in Foreign Policy, “the city of the future has picked up and moved to China”. Roasa details a range of advances that are occurring in Chinese cities, from new modular construction techniques that drastically reduce construction waste, to fleets of electric taxis, to new technologies for the transformation of garbage into fertilizer.

When the McKinsey Global Institute recently created a ranking system to predict the 75 most dynamic cities worldwide in 2025, it determined that 29 of them would be Chinese – and except for three or four such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong, most of them are cities that the majority of Canadians would know nothing about today. Shanghai, which had no skyscrapers in 1980, now has more than twice as many as New York. Celebrity architect Rem Koolhaas, whose firm chose to build Beijing’s CCTV building instead of bidding for the Ground Zero contract in New York, told Der Spiegel in an interview: “There is more willingness to experiment in China.” Even Vice President Joe Biden was reported in a recent speech to have made unflattering comparisons between U.S. cities and their glittering counterparts in the Middle Kingdom.

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CCTV Building, Beijing

Credit: parisworkingforart.wordpress.com

Of course, there is a dark side to such immense transformations. While China is the world’s largest investor in green energy, it is also its worst polluter (a distinction also due to China acting as factory floor of the world). Development has tended toward superblocks and car-dependent gated communities. The willingness to experiment celebrated by Koolhaas comes at the expense of history and existing residents in locations slated for redevelopment, a phenomenon vividly epitomized by “stubborn nail” houses and copycat architecture. Since municipalities generally don’t charge property taxes and real estate development is so important to local municipal revenues, worries have been accumulating about the effects of overbuilding.

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Pudong skyline, Shanghai

Credit: www.panoramio.com

Regardless of how you look at the breakneck development of Chinese cities, it is clear that much of the most vital urbanism of the twenty first century will not come from the West.

There are already many examples. Take South Korea, which has led the world for the past three years in internet connectivity, according to the UN. Facilitated by this exceptional infrastructure, Seoul has become one of the first cities to adopt an official comprehensive plan to boost its “sharing economy”, a sector epitomized in Toronto by such companies as Bixi, AutoShare, and AirBnB. Meanwhile, Seoul’s Incheon International Airport is ranked number one internationally based on the world’s largest annual survey. (The only North American airport to crack the top 10 is Vancouver’s.)

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Seoul, South Korea

Credit: wikimedia commons

The fact is that while the influence of Western models remains strong, many cities in Asia and elsewhere are inventing new approaches and drawing from each other rather than the West, as exemplified by the popularity of the “Singapore model”. On the other side of the world in Brazil, cities such as Curitiba and Porto Alegre have inspired many international admirers with, respectively, their integrated public transport system and participatory municipal budgets. Bogota, Colombia and Ahmedabad, India have improved on the original Curitiba Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) model and also included many improvements for cyclists and pedestrians.

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Bus Rapid Transit, Curitiba, Brazil

Credit: Hans-Rudolf Stoll, www.flickr.com

…So what does this mean for Upper Toronto and imagining the Toronto of 75 years in the future?

To put things in perspective, 75 years in the past, North America was still in the throes of the Great Depression, and the highways and mass-produced suburbs that now define North American cities had yet to be built. The world’s most famous skyline was Manhattan’s, the original home of the skyscraper.

The question, as we move deeper into “the Asian century”, is what the teeming, muscular cities of China and elsewhere can tell us about our own urban future? How will their influence be felt in the Toronto of 2088?

28 4 13

About us…

Upper Toronto is science fiction design proposal to build a new city in the sky above Toronto.

Imagine a city resting on the Bay Street towers or the CN Tower as a walk-in restaurant.

Once Upper Toronto is finished, Lower Toronto will be abandoned and turned into a combination of national park, farmland and intentional ruin.

This is, of course, a terrible idea.

But it’s a terrible idea that allows us to imagine a new city. To ask what would happen if, knowing what we now know, we could start fresh.

email inbox at uppertoronto to get involved

09 7 12

Report from the Field: Upper Toronto’s Designs on Scenarios

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Toronto’s city builders have a hard enough time trying to figure out transit, mid-rise condos and Toronto’s east waterfront. Everyone has an opinion, public budgets are stretched thin, and emotions run high. How much more difficult if you’re going to imagine Toronto 75 years from now?

In fact, playing with future scenarios is a fun, cool way to approach design. Recently, I gathered with groups of urban enthusiasts - designers, public leaders, educators, architects, students, and business people - to do just that, and plan a neighbourhood in Upper Toronto that fit a specific “world” scenario.

Read More

26 4 12

Call for Participants - Scenario planning with Upper Toronto

Call for Participants 
Scenario planning with Upper Toronto

DEADLINE: May 21

DOWNLOAD PDF

June 4-22, 2012

We are assembling teams to create scenarios 
for a city in the sky (75 years from now.)

We are looking for people willing to meet with us for three weekly three-hour sessions of scenario planning. (We’re planning a variety of options to suit a variety of timetables. See below.)

After running a series of one-off community consultations, we have decided to enhance our investigations by inviting small teams of experts and enthusiasts to think about the future of Upper Toronto in a more dedicated way. We want to start going deeper into the future possibilities of a new city in the sky.

Scenario design is used by planners, designers, organizations and governments. Groups are given sets of “given circumstances” – technological, environmental, social etc. – and sets of values and contexts. With these, they are asked to brainstorm flexible but specific scenarios. Over the course of the process, new circumstances, often unexpected but entirely possible, are added. Teams must work out how best to respond to them.

We will be using scenario design to focus our thinking. The goal is to develop scenarios which lay out possible conditions and constructions of Upper Toronto. These scenarios will serve to push the boundaries of what seems possible and to ensure that we imagine a tomorrow that is more likely than “basically the same as yesterday”.

Over the three sessions, your team will generate an overall look and feel for a district in the imagined city of Upper Toronto, along with policies and proposals for how the area should be constructed and run. 

Once that’s all done, we’ll take your work and hand it off to artists who will bring that vision to life.

The type of person you might be for this to appeal to you:
Structural engineer, front line city staff, science fiction writer, civic activist, illustrator, former Mayor, teachers, game designer, students, architects, City Councillors, futurists, curious person, historians…

If you are interested but you don’t see yourself on this list, please get in touch. You are probably the best judge—we just want to be clear that we’re looking for people with different backgrounds and interests. 

Participants will receive a token honorarium to cover expenses of attending.

Questions:
Please email info@uppertoronto.ca if you have any queries.

How to Apply: 
Please send an email info@uppertoronto.ca before May 21 with the following information:

Your Name:
Your Email Address: 
A phone # where we can reach you:
The best times to call:
A 100 word biography that includes some background and current interests.
300 words on what most interests you about scenario planning for Upper Toronto.
You first and second choice for a meeting time.
2 references.

Meeting Times:
Please select a first and a second choice for the following times for the regular meetings. Note that you must be able to attend ALL THREE meetings.

  • Tuesday evenings 6:30-9:30 : June 5, 12, 19 
  • Wednesday afternoons 1:30-4:30 : June 6, 13, 20
  • Thursday evenings 6:30-9:30 : June 7, 14, 21
  • Sunday afternoons 1:30-4:30 : June 10, 17, 24

DOWNLOAD PDF

Images by Brett Lamb & Rachel Kahn, respectively.

09 4 12
This observation is, obliquely, a warning against the limitations of my own prescriptions in this book. I think they make sense for things as they are, which is the only place ever possible to begin. But that does not mean that they would make the best sense, or even good sense, after our cities had undergone substantial improvement and great increase in vitality. Nor may they make sense if the current mishandling of our cities continues, and we lose constructive forms of behavior and forces on which we can still depend and still build.

-Jane Jacobs, the Death and Life of Great American Cities

Personal things have suddenly picked up for the Upper Toronto team, so things might be a bit quiet around here for a while. So quiet that our Jacobs series may have to come to a close with this quote from the thinker herself—a humbling moment in which she acknowledges some big limitations to all 448 pages of her argument.

02 4 12 24 3 12

Death and Life: infrastructural obstacles

Every week until the end of April, we will be blogging along with the City-Builders Book Club through Jane Jacobs’ 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Feel free to read along and join the conversation as we consider how Jacobs’ observations might hold up 75 years from now.

A forbidden crossing along Montreal’s train tracks.

Perhaps one of the more universally-applicable topics covered in Death and Life is the inevitability of borders and other geographic obstacles in cities. Interestingly, she speaks specifically of features of native physical geography or cumbersome infrastructure rather than arbitrary and invisible political boundaries. She is also quick to rule out a common assumption that her prescriptions are based on a value judgment:

A big city needs universities, large medical centers, large parks containing metropolitan attractions. A city needs railroads; it can use waterfronts for economic advantage and for amenity; it needs some expressways… They are mixed blessings.

Stephen Dale, in turn, is quick to point out that Jacobs doesn’t differentiate between the scale and geometry of such decidedly divisive features as waterfronts:

Trouble is, not all city-bearing water is the same. There are waterfront cities (those on lakes, seas and oceans), there are riverfront cities (those on rivers), and there are hybrids.

However, what she does touch upon is the idea of making otherwise ugly and low-brow borders into areas of attraction, if not prestige. Because the border zones which she mentions - then-freshly-deindustrialized areas along railroads, for instance - existed to a great extent only in her moment in time, her suggestions have only aged well in that there is still room for improvement. Either sides of the tracks running between Toronto’s Dufferin and Strachan roughly along King, for instance, contain growing neighbourhoods of upper-middle class yuppies, with a healthy and regular flow of pedestrian traffic penetrating the border. Looking at the Parc Ex and Outremont neighbourhoods on either side of the tracks in Montreal, however, shows that a variety of factors complicate Jacobs’ observation: the Liberty Village and King West neighbourhoods in Toronto were able to develop equally due to their equal proximity to the waterfront and to downtown, while Montreal’s Parc Ex and Outremont lie in the shadow of the mountain that cleaves the city from the centre, creating a sort of donut urbanism that causes all sorts of feelings of disconnectedness as well as roundabout transit routes. 

To get out of this fix, says Jacobs, borders should be designed as “spots of intense an magnetic border activity.” This is interesting on a number of levels: first, it requires an active consideration of an architectural feature that typically occurs as a side effect of the planning and design of a given site, or as a leftover feature that has outlived its historic use. Second, Jacobs suggests that the everyday backdoor activity linked to these borders be rendered spectacular. This is an interesting shift away from the picturesque streetscape often associated with her mixed-use dreams. Design of such spaces can speak more to McLuhan’s idea of the city as a pedagogical mechanism that engages us in conversation by making visible the invisible and making the familiar strange. Listing the example of passers-by stopping and dwelling along the docks of an old port when the workers go about their business on their ships, Jacobs notes: “This is not pretty-pretty, but it is an event greatly enjoyed on the dock.” 

What if borders - political, natural, and infrastructural- were made explicit and taken advantage of through playful landscaping, forcing citizens to think about how the space acts as a link, a suture, and a passageway between decidedly separate zones?

Image credit: Sasha Plotnikova.

18 3 12

Death and Life: “Diversity” vs. Zoning

Every week until the end of April, we will be blogging along with the City-Builders Book Club through Jane Jacobs’ 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Feel free to read along and join the conversation as we consider how Jacobs’ observations might hold up 75 years from now.

Nova-Heliopolis II by Dionisio Gonzalez, 2006.

Chapters 12 and 13 of The Death and life of Great American Cities conspire to expose the pitfalls of zoning—specifically, to point towards regulations as the primary prohibitors of diversity. This would be a good time to pick apart what Jacobs might mean when she uses “diversity” as a bit of a buzzword throughout her book. By this - interestingly and often problematically - she implies some sort of equilibrium between a diverse demographic of residents within a built environment; a flexibility of use in said environment; and an aesthetic variation in architectural style, size, age, and level of economic investment. Of course, she is able to blend all of these factors because they are inherently intertwined, but this kind of thinking can be very limiting. Jacobs was a great lover of mixing; a well-proportioned distribution of inhabitants and building types leads to an always lively, visually and culturally stimulating neighbourhood that fulfills many land use functions, according to her. Zoning, however, “permits monotony” and ignores “scale of use.” But what drives a need for zoning? How do we beat the convenience of allocating certain districts to certain segments of our daily lives? How might Jacobs’ envisioned mixed-use neighbourhood become the status quo? Most importantly, can there be a zoning model that revolves around the organically-evolving needs of a neighbourhood, taking into equal consideration the family that owns the laundromat on the corner and the wealthy fashion student looking to invest in a comfortable home?

Mary Rowe brings up the contemporary example of the rapidfire construction of nearly identical glass tower condominiums in major North American cities, where market demands drive out the same old building stock and residents that might lay the foundation for the very diverse neighbourhood Jacobs dreamed of. Rowe’s post brings up an interesting point: while Jacobs vilifies land use regulations, economic development is actually what propels land use regulations to favour the kind of development that is antithetical to Jacobsian urbanism. 

13 3 12

Death and Life: Life in Complete Environments

Every week until the end of April, we will be blogging along with the City-Builders Book Club through Jane Jacobs’ 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Feel free to read along and join the conversation as we consider how Jacobs’ observations might hold up 75 years from now.

Rendering for what Jacobs would term a “complete environment” in New Songdo City, South Korea: a built environment developed in one shot.

Last week’s chapter on the need for aged buildings really hit home for Upper Toronto. Jacobs, forever advocating for demographic diversity through diversity in building stock, argues that instant neighbourhoods -nevermind entire instant cities- that are built up all at once, are cursed to a short life of vacant soullessness. She describes this sudden build-up as a handicap: an entire neighbourhood of buildings of the same age group permits little organic change, and without these varied rates of decay and renewal, there is no diversity in use or aesthetic, argues Jacobs. Her concerns here, as far as economic factors go, are valid and will be valid so long as we remain within a capitalist economy. Generally, as buildings age, their market value declines and they become more financially accessible to lower income brackets than those who can afford to pay the high rents that accompany newly-constructed buildings. However, the cosmetic concerns for a diverse demographic of building stock can prove to promote just the kind of nostalgic preservationism that in turn prevents more affordable, sustainable, and technologically sound building stock to develop where there is demand for it. 

So, we cannot entirely dismiss the possibility for the success of a completely new built environment, but we must consider who will pay the price of development, and, more interestingly, how a real estate market might develop out of thin air. Without an architectural history, how might a city assign values to its buildings?

One way to move things in the right direction would be to work within a participatory framework from the very beginning to the very end of the planning and design process. If citizens take part in shaping their environment from conception, a new level of engagement - beyond the “street life” of which Jacobs speaks- might arise—one founded in the deep-seated responsibility we feel for our own children, and one which so rarely applies to our relationship to our environment, built or natural. 

11 3 12
archimaps:

Norman Bel Geddes project for the Futurama Exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair, New York

archimaps:

Norman Bel Geddes project for the Futurama Exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair, New York

04 3 12

Death and Life: A temporal take on streetscapes

Every Saturday until the end of April, we will be blogging along with the City-Builders Book Club through Jane Jacobs’ 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Feel free to read along and join the conversation as we consider how Jacobs’ observations might hold up 75 years from now.


Piet Mondrian’s rendition of life pulsing through the streets of New York in Broadway Boogie-Woogie, 1942-43.

There is one especially pertinent perspective revealed in Jacobs’ eighth chapter, devoted to promoting mixed primary uses. This is the point in the book when the city ceases to hold still as a tableau, or, at best, as a short series of tableaus illustrating the days and nights of a streetscape. Suddenly, the city — articulated as a web of sidewalks, streets, and public spaces — looks toward time as its primary dimension and traffic flows as its constant. People are recognized as variables, opening the idea of “neighbourhood” to far more than a place for residents to dwell.The built environment is a series of avenues and containers to facilitate movement and usage, and it’s arguably this animacy rather than the physicality that makes up the city itself.

Stephen Dale opens his post with a fitting image this week: a digital time-lapse photo-collage of downtown Toronto taken from above Bay and Dundas. In typical Jacobs fashion, her examination of the usage of the built environment takes place at the most human level, fixating on one block at a time. At the block level, flows of traffic occur throughout the day more so than through the city. The point made is that upon examining a block, traffic patterns should emerge before the user, illuminating the true character of the street, allowing it to come alive and play host to a cast of daily characters. For the sake of safety, successful usage, and sustainability, the street should serve different purposes at different points in the day, responding to and feeding the demands of a demographic that fluctuates as each day plays out.

Approaching the planning process through this lens offers a wealth of interesting applications, from the night-time economy and the growing culture of 24-hour cities, to provoking a re-examination of our material fixations when it comes to the architecture of our cities. Rather than striving to envision an architectural model of new environments, we should contemplate how events might take place within them, and how these new surroundings might lend themselves to transience and accommodate a need for adaptability.

29 2 12 26 2 12

Death and Life: The perilous state of the neighbourhood in the 21st century

Every Saturday until the end of April, we will be blogging along with the City-Builders Book Club through Jane Jacobs’ 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Feel free to read along and join the conversation as we consider how Jacobs’ observations might hold up 75 years from now.

A neighbourhood rises in Dubai’s World Islands. Image courtesy of Google, 2012.

This week, the CBBC read the Jacobs chapters on what she calls “neighbourhood use” and “the generators of diversity.” I’ll only talk about the former here, as it seems to be the more relevant chapter in regards to our project. In it, Jacobs interrogates the notion of a “neighbourhood” in city planning, and blames rural nostalgia for our desire for these tightly-knit archaic units. However, rather than dismissing the value of community at the street level, she critiques the way cities get divided into these planned neighbourhoods. The underlying thought here is that these planned communities essentially dictate the way we live, whereas the built form of a neighbourhood should take shape in response to a community that settles there.

Jacobs cites urban planner Reginald Isaacs, who pointed out that the appeal of cities is their ability to satisfy the idiosyncratic needs of individuals, and their capacity to feed our niche interests. A city is a large and dense expanse of services, environments, and lifestyles. These components cluster together in units we call neighbourhoods, loosely defined by their socioeconomic makeup, their cultural history, and their aesthetic landscape. Typically, the more obscure our needs in these categories, the further we will travel to fulfill our cultural needs and to lead a rewarding professional life. 

Neighbourhood cohesion, according to Jacobs, only comes about through highly localized social networks. In other words, these loose conglomerations of lifestyles, services, and environments achieve a sense of unity when the people who inhabit them begin to comingle and forge strong relationships within the physical bounds of the established community.

 I would argue that these ideas are largely irrelevant from now onwards. More loosely-defined, and more dependent on the success of their small businesses and attractions than residential street life, neighbourhoods have come to mean something different. Now our networks are more expansive and accessible by means other than face-to-face interaction, and one may argue that we each have a deeply personalized and despatialized notion of our neighbourhood in the city. Isaacs points towards the immaculate ability of a city to breed scores of subcultures—similarly, given ample mobility, we can bend the city into catering to our specialized needs and refined tastes. Our personal assemblages of favourite places come together in expansive mental maps that stretch beyond conventional neighbourhood boundaries. The individualized mental neighbourhoods trace the city-wide webs upon which the homes of our friends scatter; where we went to school; where we work; and other places of significance, big or small. 

However, these destinations are still strongly linked to nostalgia. In looking for a pleasant place to frequent in the city, we look at the housing stock: is it aesthetically pleasing (Victorian)? Or “cold” and still developing in character (post-1980)? Are the trees mature, or are the streets still lacking in lush greenery? If these hunches are right and the idea of “neighbourhood” is becoming more destination-oriented, how do we design neighbourhoods from scratch, evading our nostalgic instincts while allowing the built form to adapt organically to its community? 

As I mentioned, this is a problem for Jacobs’ idea that “localized self-government” is the ultimate task of  a successful neighbourhood — eyes on the street require trust and camaraderie, which are often hard to establish at the neighbourhod level amongst busy urban populations, as evidenced by tales from the newly-established community at CityPlace. Worth noting is that these things take time: Jacobs points out that not only does a neighbourhood need to be cohesive, but its initial residents need to make it their long-term home. Only a while after the initial settlement will neighbours begin to feel like neighbours.  

Perhaps the valuable lesson in this chapter is the social cohesion of the city as a whole. In the latter half of the chapter, Jacobs steps back from the neighbourhood and talks about the district—an abstract division used widely in planning, primarily to serve the purpose of an efficient municipal governance. The district is meant to mediate between the neighbourhood and the city, but often has an alienating effect on communities. For neighbours to feel engaged, mobilized, and empowered, there needs to be a decrease in the level of abstraction between decision-making and the built environment. This does not mean we have to return to the small-town-nostalgic neighbourhood Jacobs subtly mocked; rather, we need to fine-tune our conception of municipal political geography to the impalpable and individualized way we remain mobile in our cities.

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