Posts about regional planning

Rambled thoughts on Architecture, Urbanity, and the 7th Generation

November 1st, 2009

Oklahoma City Pei Plan (source: Doug Loudenback)

This morning, I read this old article at OKC Central about a architecture critic’s visit to Oklahoma City and comments on the City’s efforts back in the 1960s through 1980s with interest.

While some of what the critic Hiroshi Watanabe said sounded well-reasoned and has proven to be largely correct (praising Bricktown, the potential of the Myriad Gardens, etc), one thing that sticks out, both in regards to the efforts of I.M. Pei that preceded the critics visit and to the comments by Watanabe on the quality of the setbacks and plazas surrounding downtown office buildings, is the influence of architectural trends and the general lack of urban understanding.  Simply put: a good architect does not necessarily equate to a good urbanist. In fact, many renowned architects are very poor urbanists with destructive tendencies when given an opportunity to work at too great a scale. Along these lines, an interesting debate has been taking place between proponents of Frank Gehry and members of the more Jane Jacobs minded (actually, more accurately, William Whyte minded) Project for Public Spaces (PPS).  The debate was sparked by a question about the quality of public space provided by Gehry buildings asked by Fred Kent, head of PPS and a recent speaker at the Oklahoma City Mayor’s Development Roundtable, at a symposium in Aspen; to which Gerhy responded, if at all, with a pompous disregard that astounded some in attendance.

In the end, a great city has to be a collective effort.  Architects certainly have a tremendous amount to contribute to the conversation and to the overall aesthetic.  Planners, urban designers, engineers, real estate developers, etc – also all have much to contribute to shaping the ultimate urban environment.  But none of these professions, or any other profession for that matter, should wholly dictate the detailed form of the urban environment at a broad scale.  Ultimately, an eclectic mix of many persons contributions; spread out over decades or centuries of the technologies and styles of generations; creates the type of city that I consider great.  In truth, I am concerned more with creating a framework that will sustain and grow a great city for a long time to come. Key decisions about the overall framework of city development have given us the cities we see today, even if we did not know the importance of those decisions at the time.    The  seventh generation approach is interesting to consider when making major decisions that will impact the historical, current, and future urban environment:

“Oren Lyons observes that the first mandate of traditional Haudenosaunee [Iroquois] chiefs is to ensure that their decision-making is guided by consideration of the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come:

‘What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have? (Lyons 1980, p. 174).’

“The seventh generation principle applies to the ancestors as well. In honoring the ancestors, one expresses gratitude to them as the seventh generation, which they kept foremost in their decision making and for whom they sacrificed.

What types of projects or policies will do the most to serve and respect future generations?  What projects and policies may hinder future generations? I have some ideas of my own, but would rather hear what you think.  Thoughts?

Will anything redeem suburban ‘sprawl’?

June 30th, 2009

Came across a great article over at Huffington Post.  Mark Oppenheimer asks some interesting questions about the ongoing debate between New Urbanist and proponents of suburan “sprawl” (not sure they have a collective name).  Mark writes:

I don’t know. On the one hand, I don’t want to underestimate children’s capacity for self-mystification. I suspect that most children, at least most of those who grow up middle-class, and sheltered from anything too abysmal in the family’s home life, look back at their early years with a certain sense of awe and wonder. Those lookalike houses in Del Boca Vista Estates are not lookalike to the children inside them, who know which house has the best video-game system, which kid has the dad who makes the best forts with the dining room table and some blankets, whose parents go out late and don’t hire a babysitter (all the better for watching verboten TV channels).

On the other hand, there is empirical evidence that suburban life of this kind can lead to bad things: obesity, too much time in the car, fewer friends, less play. And teenagers — forget about it. If they can, they flee to the city. Or at least the curious ones do.

But what I don’t have are good sympathetic non-fiction books about life in suburban sprawl. For every book critical of that way of life — Langdon’s book, Duany et al.’s Suburban Nation, Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place — there seem to be exactly zero books about why it can be pleasurable to grow up in spaces that are, after all, safe, predictable, and quiet, which are all good things.

I want the other side of the story. Ideas, anyone?

It seems like a fair question to me.  There surely is another side to the story and there must be people that like to live on the outer edge of suburbia.  I mean, they choose to live there, right?  One of the commenters – Steve Mouzon – says that yes, there are some who like to live there, but many suburbanites are simply there because they lack options.  He use some rough estimates to make a point, but the point is still interesting to consider:

grew up in suburbia, and could go on for pages about its deficiencies, but that would just be anecdotal, wouldn’t it? If you discount the “sprawl lobby” that is funded by the asphalt companies or the road-builders, then you’re right: you find precious little sympathy for sprawl. ESPECIALLY concerning its lovability. Maybe that’s a clue.
The bottom line is that sprawl proliferated not because it was well-loved, but because it was the only choice of an industrial-grade land development system that actually outlawed everything else. When the New Urbanism began, all of its proposals were either illegal or otherwise impossible, even though its principles were based on the places in each region that people loved the most.

In the end, we’ve built so much sprawl that it now constitutes half of American buildings. Let’s assume for a moment that 1/3 of Americans loved sprawl. That’s dubious, given your noted lack of evidence of sympathy for sprawl. But just being generous, let’s assume that 100 million of 300 million Americans love sprawl. But if half (150 million) live in sprawl, then we have huge oversupply of sprawl. To eat up the oversupply, America would have to grow from 300 million to 450 million so that the 1/3 (150 million) who possibly love sprawl could match the sprawl units. That means we’d need to build 150 million units of New Urbanism and not a single new unit of sprawl to meet the market preferences.

Interesting food for thought.