Cities Rediscovering Their Roots

Cities thrive when they successfully service our basic needs with intelligence and simplicity. Recovering from 60 years of automobile-focused development and sprawl, urban planners are taking things in the right direction—backwards.

James Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere, famously calls suburban sprawl “the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known.” He asserts that the mistakes of postwar planning and development in North America have left us with a shameful legacy of “places that are not worth caring about.” Places that forgot about the people they were supposed to serve. The story of the automobile’s prominence in North American culture has been well-aired. The amount of land devoted to roadways and parking in the United States could cover the entire state of West Virginia—62 000 square kilometres; while the average working American living in a major city spends over 50 hours a year—the equivalent of more than an entire workweek of productivity—stuck in traffic commuting to or from work.

Walking the intimate and bustling mixed-use streets and market squares of some of Europe’s historic cities is to experience places that have remained physically unchanged for hundreds of years. Whether its the metropolises of Paris and London, the mid-sized capitals of Amsterdam and Copenhagen, or the smaller cities like San Sebastian and Salzburg, each on their own scale and in their own way remain urban environments with timeless appeal. They have demonstrated an uncanny ability to adapt and evolve with the times in order to stay relevant in people’s lives.

As a new era of towns and cities continue the long road back to relevance, whether by design or by demand, they are increasingly looking to the past and finding inspiration in ideas and principles that have been part of urban development for hundreds, if not thousands, of years; principles that are finally putting our basic needs and desires as human beings back at the forefront of our thinking about urban development; principles that somehow got cast by the wayside in a misguided march to modernization.

A Return to Mixed-Use

Most cities had their genesis as small mixed-use villages or settlements. In a world before public transit, cars and other means that expanded human mobility, people needed to live near where they worked, and went to school, and shopped, and recreated, and grew their food because walking was the primary form of transportation. The resultant proximity, convenience, and natural intermingling of uses and activities had been de rigueur, and created tightly compact places that grew up into mixed-use towns and neighbourhoods that naturally reflected and served the needs and wants of the populations that lived there. Simple nuisance laws were employed to manage disputes between neighbours.

As industrialization took hold and urban populations exploded, cities became increasingly crowded and the encroachment of certain uses upon one another became viewed as problematic and incompatible, so we started passing laws (which were not always well-motivated) to restrict the usage and users of land. Simply put, some people didn’t want a factory, or a Chinese laundromat (in the case of San Francisco’s failed attempt to ban public laundries in 1885) near their homes or shops. And as mobility improved, so did our ability to segregate. As Dartmouth College professor and zoning expert William Fischel writes, “once you got the streetcar, you could separate people from jobs”—i.e. live in one area and travel to work in another—and so were born defined residential and business districts in cities. These divisions widened further still with the proliferation of automobile ownership, which facilitated travel across yet larger distances.

Furthermore, as technology improved and buildings grew higher and cities denser, light and air became scarce resources, leading to height restrictions and other regulations of built form. In 1916, New York City passed the first comprehensive zoning code in the United States as a direct response to the construction of the Equitable Building in Lower Manhattan in 1915. The largest office building in the world at the time, it was erected without setbacks from the street and virtually cut off natural light to the street-level and many surrounding buildings.

And over a century of increasing regulation, we carved up every parcel of land in every corner of the continent into clearly defined zones with strict rules that decree what people can and cannot do with their land—a practice whose results we’re now wrestling with undoing. When the State of Maryland finally enacted bold land-use legislation reform in the late 1990s, former Governor Parris Glendening noted that the neighbourhood around the State House, in the quaint, loved, mixed-use historic district of Annapolis, had technically been rendered illegal in many respects under the then-current zoning laws. Similarly, David Alpert, editor in chief of the urbanist website/blog “Greater Greater Washington,” writes about Washington, DC, “if popular neighbourhoods like Georgetown, Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill didn’t exist today, they couldn’t be legally built as they are.”

Their supposed transgressions? Insufficient parking; buildings that aren’t set-back from the street; stairways inconsistent with modern building codes; narrow streets that can’t accommodate fire trucks; residences that front onto alleyways; a pesky corner store or art studio or shoemaker or small office bastardizing a pristine residential neighbourhood; other egregious mixes of uses. The list of prohibited absurdities—intuitive accommodations of basic human needs and convenience—is lengthy and laughable.

It has also been highly destructive. As most of the continent doesn’t have an urban form dating back to the 19th century, most of the development and suburban expansion that happened post-WWII never stood a chance—occurring in line with many of these ill-advised restrictions and giving rise to the the soulless suburban places we admonish today. We regulated out of existence the places we love most.

But at least we’re finally recognizing it, and cities are taking action. Washington DC is nearing the end of a 5-year process of rewriting and overhauling its 1958 zoning code. The reforms there and elsewhere are largely being driven and guided by a desire for these new regulations to not just allow but encourage the flexibility to develop and incorporate those mixed-use elements that give historic places their charm and remain natural, and preferred, by people today.

Rebirth of the Mom and Pop

At the heart of all our favourite places and neighborhoods, are the mom and pop businesses that give them personality and character. In pre-war North America, owner-operated businesses had been central to community life for hundreds of years. Business was personal. Beyond the provision of goods and services, they cultivated relationships with—and formed an integral part of the lives and identity of—the people and neighbourhoods they served. They were part of the social terroir, so to speak—an outgrowth and customized reflection of the community they were a part of. These small businesses populated the downtowns and main streets across the continent, the historic centres of commerce and gathering places of community life.

As the well-worn story goes, patterns shifted with suburban sprawl and the primacy of big-box and shopping mall retail culture. Malls gradually assumed the mantle of being the centres of commercial activity in most places—malls that were (and still are) largely populated with large, national brand retail and restaurant tenants, versus the small businesses of old. This struck a devastating blow to the downtowns and main streets of many cities and towns across the continent—sapping economy out of them and shuttering their small businesses. And as those businesses closed, so went a measure of each community’s history, identity and social cohesion in the process.

However, after decades of rapid expansion and growth, national retailing began to slide in the aftermath of the economic downturn of 2008. Countless national brands went bankrupt or downsized significantly in order to stem their losses. Those economic realities have both masked and fueled a fundamental change in consumer behaviour that was already underway. There hasn’t been a new interior mall built in North America since 2006, and a startling number of them are languishing or closing every year.

In 2009, after closing over 600 locations the previous year, Starbucks embarked on an experiment in un-branding two of its locations in its hometown of Seattle. Each was remodeled to appear and operate like a locally-owned neighbourhood café, while adding beer and wine to the menu and programming live entertainment. 15th Street Coffee and Tea (the original experiment) reverted back to the Starbucks brand in 2011, but Roy Street Coffee (the second iteration) endures to this day. While Starbucks has no additional plans for more “learning environments” (as they came to call those locations) the message was clear. That one of the most recognizable brands in the world saw its brand equity as a potential liability in some regards and experimented in distancing itself from it, was an overt recognition of customer preferences reverting back to a desire for customization and personalized commercial experiences—the traditional domain of the mom and pop operator.

And a new spirit of entrepreneurship is exploding to service that demand, harkening back to the small-business culture of old. Whether fuelled by an influx of people who lost their jobs in the Great Recession, or a younger generation entering the workforce without prospects of finding traditional employment, more and more people are making a go of it on their own. The maker movement continues to expand and evolve, with access to an internet that affords the boot-makers, tailors, bookbinders, axe-makers and every niche business imaginable, the opportunity of unprecedented market exposure and reach from a single geographic location to turn a profit. In a challenged economy where over half of all new jobs are created by small businesses, this may hint at the face of the US economic recovery.

A defining characteristic of many of the new businesses that achieve success is their ability to establish and cultivate strong personal connections with their customers—telling their story and communicating their values in a way that resonates and engenders loyalty. The advent of social media and related online communication platforms affords small businesses the necessary tools to effectively connect and build deep relationships with their customer base across geographic barriers—a sort of ‘mom and pop 2.0.’ Some of these entrepreneurs, whether they started online or not, maintain a brick and mortar location as customer touch point, even if an increasingly small percentage of their revenue is generated through foot traffic.

The meteoric rise of the food truck movement is further evidence of the move back to small business. According to a report by the California-based finance and tax software company Intuit Inc., the food truck industry is estimated to grow to $2.7b (USD) by 2017, or four times the current estimated economy of $650m (USD) . Google searches for the term “food truck” rose from 83 000 in 2009 to 28.2m in 2012, and these food entrepreneurs are changing their cities. From Silver Lake in Los Angeles and San Francisco’s Mission District, to Portland’s Pearl District and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, many of the most lauded neighbourhoods have redefined their identities partially on the basis of strong entrepreneurial food truck cultures. The accessibility of the opportunity is a strong driver. By most estimates, the average food truck costs $50 000 to $100 000 (USD) to start—a fraction of traditional restaurant startup costs. They furthermore offer greater flexibility in catering to customer demands, which often mandate locally sourced food and sustainable practices, and in many cases play an important role in connecting local urban agriculture to the commercial food chain.

The Re-Greening of Cities

While the community gardens of the 1960s were once viewed as an eccentric hobby of granola urbanites, urban agriculture seems to be in vogue as of late —its cultural acceptance and momentum seemingly increasing, one hipster apartment-garden at a time. Grow some tomatoes on your roof or fire escape; maybe keep some chickens in a garden plot down the street. The number of farmers’ markets registered with the United States Department of Agriculture increased over 4.5 times—to 7 864—between 1994 and 2012, and continues to experience double-digit annual growth. A novel phenomenon, it might seem to many, and presumably an outgrowth of the modern environmental/sustainability/locavore movement—except it’s not.

As far back as the earliest human settlements, cities have, by necessity, forged an intimate relationship with the crops upon which they rely for their sustenance. Because in a world before processed foods, preservatives, and modern transport and food distribution networks, if food wasn’t grown really close to the people that needed to eat it, it went bad. Mesopotamian farmers circa 3 500 BC were already setting aside garden plots in their growing cities. When William Penn set out his plan for a “Greene Country Towne,” the City of Philadelphia, in 1683, each home was to have its own space for a garden. This was a revolutionary concept at the time, and a reaction to what he saw as the increasingly cramped cities of Europe that were struggling with the challenges, including sub-par living conditions and spread of disease, associated with urban crowding and industrialization. Urban gardens provided food security for poor urban areas (many in Boston and New York) in the early 1900s, and for broader urban populations during the Great Depression; and ‘Victory Gardens,’ as they came to be known, helped feed American cities during the WWII period.

But for many years, in many places, urban agriculture in North America languished in a kind of regulatory limbo—largely left alone wherever it sprung up (at least until someone wanted to develop the land), but not operating under any official auspices, making it difficult to build a system of support for its practice. That’s changing. Remarkably, despite the city’s founding vision, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission hadn’t officially recognized urban agriculture (be it community gardens, farms, greenhouses, livestock, etc.) as a legal land use until its new zoning code was implemented in August 2012 . Now vacant lots throughout the city have the potential to be cultivated for productive use under official sanction, an expanding trend that has broad implications for urban food deserts around the country and affording people in urban areas access to fresh, healthy food.

The benefits of green space in cities are unequivocal. Environmentally, it filters storm water, improves air quality and reduces the urban heat-island effect. From a public health standpoint, access to green space is associated with the reduction of stress and increased longevity. Studies have even found that patients recovering from illness or injury, who can look out a window and see trees—just see them—heal faster than those who can’t. There are incredible economic and social benefits and incentives to making our cities greener. The problem is that we’ve largely left the responsibility of creating and maintaining urban green space entirely to the public sector—it’s a municipality’s job to build and maintain public parks, and landscape our public spaces—which some cities do better than others. But the vast majority of urban land is privately owned, and this reality has begun to spark a shift in thinking.

Following the lead of European first-movers Berlin, Germany and Malmö, Sweden, Washington, DC is on its way to becoming the second city in the US (after Seattle) to implement a ‘Green Area Ratio’ (GAR) as part of its new zoning code . GAR mandates that any new development must incorporate green space as a certain percentage of its lot area (including rooftops). It’s a decentralized approach, based on the ‘emerging’ idea that our civic entities shouldn’t bear the entire burden, and that every citizen and private landowner benefits from, and has a duty and responsibility to contribute to, making our cities healthier, greener and more livable—William Penn’s vision finally coming full circle.

Places for People

At the core of all of these renascent trends lies a very simple principle: cities must be for people first. By 2050, 75% of the world’s population will live in cities—in 1983 it was 25%. And as our growing cities continue to grow ever more diverse, the successful places of the future are those that will afford us opportunities to explore and express our individuality, while catering to our common humanity.

We’re witnessing a resurgence of civic pride and communal rejection of homogeneous urbanism—the proverbial ‘Anywhere USA.’ People have awoken again to valuing a culture and an economy that is particular to a place, and are taking increasingly deliberate actions to cultivate, support and safeguard that indigenous social and cultural capital. We care about buying the local tomato, drinking at the local café, supporting the local artist, eating at the local restaurant and knowing who we’re doing business with—the things that give people and places value and identity.

In 2010, a group of leading network scientists at Northeastern University studied the mobility patterns of over 50 000 anonymous cell phone users and concluded that human behaviour is 93% predictable . And this finding was consistent across the human spectrum, with no significant variances between major demographic characteristics or urban/rural dwellers. Chaoming Song, PhD of the Center for Complex Network Research and lead author of the paper added: “We now know that when it comes to processes driven by human mobility—such as […] urban planning—it is scientifically possible to predict people’s movement and positively impact how societies address […] urban development.”

We are all fundamentally creatures of habit. And the things that motivate us and influence our productivity, happiness and personal fulfillment remain fundamentally unchanged across millennia. We have the same needs and desires as we’ve always had, to eat, socialize, be entertained, recreate, access nature, learn, seek meaning and connect to one another. The environments that best enable healthy habits and the realization of those desires in a single location are the places where people, and economies, will thrive.

Automobile ownership is declining in North America for the first time in history, as a new generation flips a cultural paradigm on its head. So in this new world where freedom now means not needing to own a car, we’re moving back towards emulating the concept of the walkable, accessible, mixed-use village—executed on an urban scale. Places that successfully employ and integrate those best practices from the past that address human needs at a fundamental level, are the places that will flourish in this new era. With the benefit of hindsight and a generation of mistakes behind us, we have the unique ability, moving forward, to create livability in cities on a scale never before achieved.

Further Reading

Alex Steffen is well known for his environmental thinking and opinions, they also include well-thought-out ideas on cities, including his Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities That Can Save the Planet, Alex Steffen, 2012.

For in depth reflections on the intersection of emerging networked information technologies with urban place, see the blog “Adam Greenfield’s Speedbird” and Greenfield’s upcoming book, The City Is Here For You To Use.

Dan Hill, already quite present in this issue, still manages another must-read with his February 2013 post, Essay: On the smart city; Or, a ‘manifesto’ for smart citizens instead, which can be found on his blog “City of Sound.”

Cities have not only to be re-imagined, they need to find the right balance. On one hand, ‘evolution’ with connected citizens and infrastructure, resilience necessities, turning away from fossil fuels, rethinking suburbs, etc. While on the other, thinking about which solutions they should go back to, which roots need to be rediscovered, which scale is appropriate, which mix of uses has worked. Thankfully, many of the requirements of the future and the ideas from the past are actually quite compatible—if citizens are at the centre of the reflection — AR

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