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Urbanisms Old and New

Throughout history, urban design theories have sought to create social change and improve living conditions.
By Eric R. Osth, AIA

 

Our nation's physical form has been shaped by both urban theory and the market economy – often with unforeseen results. Whether we like it or not, the influence of the market economy has dramatically altered the implementation of urban theory over the course of the last century. A cursory review of the last century's theories and implementation can offer great insight as we move forward as practitioners of urban design.

Quite simply, urban theory is a reaction to social and economic conditions or a political mandate to improve the built environment; ideally, urban theory answers a burgeoning collective need. Stretching back through the centuries, movements have shared that common goal to improve the way in which people live. However, the methods and implementation tools are different across urban theory, and pioneering urban design is not simple. Urban designers must battle incredible professional challenges – unpredictable economic forces, brutal politics and complex societal influences.

The market, in the economic sense, is a combination of popular and monetary support that helps bring new ideas to fruition. The market will build what people need, though at times, theory has shaped its course. As we look back upon the impact of major planning movements over the last century, understanding how the market has responded to urban theory will help us, as urban designers and architects, to envision the influence of current theory and future development.

City Beautiful/Garden City
The City Beautiful movement and the Garden City movement ran in parallel. Both theories envisioned an overall planning diagram of a central city linked by rail to a constellation of satellite towns, with corridors of natural greenbelts in between, and both were influenced by Frederick Law Olmsted (who did not formally join either movement).

While the Garden City movement shaped a design aesthetic and pattern for satellite towns, the City Beautiful movement was aimed at restructuring American downtowns around a coordinated ideology and strategy. Just prior to the 20th century, America was becoming an international economic power, and its cities were in need of an urban form indicative of the new national identity. America's cities were fraught with problems, and the City Beautiful movement helped provide a physical form for the previously established Public Health Movement. The City Beautiful movement envisioned the city as an entire work of architecture; its practitioners insisted that all construction conform to a singular vision. They believed that cities had failed and that a new expression of values would inspire good government and public stewardship.

The 1893 Chicago World's Fair Exposition was one of the greatest catalysts of the City Beautiful movement. The fair was an unparalleled success and celebration of American ideals, inspiring tremendous political and public support nationwide. Consequently, cities across the country invested heavily in urban renewal. During the course of the movement's influence, more than 70 cities commissioned urban design plans classified as City Beautiful. As the movement matured, it became more comprehensive, incorporating urban repair, integrating social and education programs, and laying the groundwork for urban design as the profession we know today – coordinated work between landscape architects, urban planners and architects.

The City Beautiful movement was successful for many years and did not end abruptly, but was slowed by extensive infrastructure clearing and rebuilding, over-ambitious planning, the Depression era, and World War II. Following many years of interruption, today there is a renewed interest in the reconstruction of City Beautiful plans and the creation of new designs. Generally, City Beautiful centers consisted of government buildings coordinated around a green space, often with a domed public building as the hierarchical centerpiece. Due to the elaborate visions for design, it was often cost prohibitive to complete these city center plans during the era when the corresponding architecture was in fashion. These central squares were often completed in future decades, during the time of 'contrasting' rather than 'conforming' architecture and planning. Therefore, it is essential for theorists to think ahead towards years of change and a variety of architectural styles.

During the movements of later years, American market conditions shifted and the political language and propaganda of the City Beautiful movement followed suit. When space or funds were short, architects designed skyscrapers with ornamental architectural work indicative of the City Beautiful movement. McKim, Mead & White's New York Municipal Building and Oakland City Hall are examples. These economical skyscrapers became a flexible model for City Beautiful principles. They represented the "working man's dome" in which the original planning of the movement (distinct departments in separate buildings) was reassembled vertically.

The result was a distortion of the original theory – City Beautiful planning was not upheld. However, given appropriate siting, the outcome was often as dramatic as the initial domed buildings envisioned by the movement. In countless cities, towns and counties across the nation, civic buildings were constructed in this architectural style and expression. At times, planning ideology is not implemented but manifest through architectural expression.

Although 19th-century cities were considered places of opportunity, they were, in many cases, unpleasant places in which to live. Unlike the City Beautiful movement, which attempted to restore cities from within, the Garden City movement aimed to take people outside of the city – away from the pollution and ills of industrial life. With the growth of railways, the opportunity to live in the countryside, yet still connected to the city, became a reality.

The seeds of the Garden City movement stretch back to the writings and practice of Andrew Jackson Downing and Olmsted. Sir Ebenezer Howard, a British author of the movement, founded the Garden Cities Association in order to share techniques and proliferate Garden City ideals. He envisioned Garden Cities as compact, transit-oriented communities surrounded by greenbelts of natural landscape; they were to contain all the pieces of a town, integrating residential, commercial, industrial, landscape and agricultural uses. Howard authored the first radial city plan, which is a useful diagram for city planning even today. Garden City architectural styles were diverse but inspired by expressive, picturesque and romantic designs appropriate to natural settings.

The design techniques of the Garden City movement were well shared, well documented, and, early in the course of its progression, extremely well designed. Because greenfield development eliminated the complexities of urban infill, at the time, Garden City plans were relatively easy to implement. Good examples of Garden City planning include Hampstead Garden Suburb, Letchworth, Coral Gables and Olmsted's Forest Hills Gardens. Following their success, many more small towns were designed, some of which were already underway as vacation communities. Many original Garden City developments are still successful today and are often cited as models for development in the 21st century.

The Automobile
The Garden City vision was unexpectedly complicated by the popularity of the automobile. Increased automobile use did not paralyze the most notable Garden Cities; however, as the influence of the automobile grew, the movement struggled to catch up with the newfound freedom of its drivers, widespread fear of accidents, the reality of leaded gas vehicle emissions, and traffic congestion. In an effort to accommodate the car, the elegant core principles of the initial movement were lost. Thus, the automobile suburb was born.

The automobile suburb esteemed a social theory divergent from the community ideals of the Garden City movement. In essence, visions of independence and freedom inspired by the automobile shaped the entire landscape. To illustrate this shift in development, consider first the town of Radburn, NJ, and then its derivatives – a generic golf course development and cul-de-sac subdivision.

Radburn, a small town in New Jersey, was designed by the RPAA (Regional Planning Association of America) whose founders, Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, were well known proponents of the Garden City movement. Radburn represented a synthesis of new planning ideas. It was considered the first cul-de-sac community and "super-block" development – a development of limited automobile access – bisected by an arterial road that flushed traffic through its center. Cars entered the residential block via a service drive, in the form of a cul-de-sac. Pedestrians accessed houses from front entries; front yard greenbelts segregated foot traffic from automobile traffic and allowed for a shared community space. The entire goal was to separate people from the car.

Although Radburn's architecture was never fully embraced by Modernists or traditional architects and its planning was criticized for its awkward landscape spaces (too small for community activities and too large to create a sense of continuity), it was nonetheless a popular model for future development and modern planning ideals. Across the country, Radburn's plan morphed into two common suburban plans: the all-too-familiar golf course development and the generic cul-de-sac development. In the first example, the original landscape corridor, an easy target for value engineering, was replaced with a golf course – an economic generator adding value to the "view" property. This development lacks a mixed-use core and a sense of community. Radburn was considered the nation's first cul-de-sac community, but the golf course development represents a clearly divergent ideal.

Radburn minimizes cars and encourages people to walk through a common landscape. The golf course development necessitates travel by automobile – its residents merely look out upon "nature" from their private backyards rather than entering into it through their front doors. The second example deviation, a more common, prototypical cul-de-sac development, neither has a mixed-use core nor a greenbelt. The pedestrian network has been forfeited for ease of automobile circulation. Clearly, the market valued the automobile more than a pedestrian greenbelt. As a result, the Garden City movement was paradoxically a bridge to modern planning and the modern physical form of the United States.

Modern Visions
Modern architecture and planning evolved in parallel with modernity in other areas of pop culture and society. Following the triumph of democracy over tyranny in World War II, American culture began to lean heavily towards the promise of a convenient, "modern" life free from past hardships. Physical manifestations in the built environment were an inherent component to this greater societal shift.

Even prior to World War II, architects were beginning to experiment with modern planning techniques as a solution to urban problems. Le Corbusier, in particular, led an era of rigorous invention motivated by his proposal "La Ville Radieuse" and the redevelopment of Paris with his "towers in the park." The modern planning movement was organized through the work of CIAM (International Congress of Modern Architecture). The group was extremely well connected politically and highly successful. Although some Modernist projects suffered from budget cutbacks and overambitious scale, overall, the work of Modernist planners was transformative.

An illustration of the market's influence on original Modernist ideals can be seen in a common form of current development – the "edge city." Corbusier's ideas held some common ideals with the City Beautiful and Garden City movements: the historic cityscape was to be rebuilt, citizens connected to nature and proper planning was to restore glory to city life. Its urban plan was, however, distinctly different. Le Corbusier's "towers in the park" were to stand 50 meters high; the vertical concentration of residential and commercial uses would make more area available for surrounding natural landscapes. Interior pedestrian networks connected the buildings, while automobile traffic was to circulate on elevated roadways. The entire ground was intended for pedestrians, with pathways radiating from the center of each block.

Corbusier's specific vision for "towers in the park" was never fully realized, but another form of development, markedly reminiscent of the towers, did begin to spread after automobile ownership surged in the 1950s. The "edge city," a concentration of business, shopping or residential development outside of a traditional urban area, soon became the standard model for urban growth in America, representing a 20th-century urban form distinctly different from the 19th-century central downtown.

Whereas Corbusier intended to foster community via pedestrian traffic and connect its inhabitants to all necessities of life within walking distance, edge cities are centered around pedestrian-hostile principal roads. Edge cities are notorious for their single-use high-rise buildings (residential or commercial) isolated by parking lots and multi-lane automobile traffic. Within the context of the market, these ideas were simplified in the course of implementation. Le Corbusier certainly did not foresee this outcome, however, planning for single use was fully embraced by Modernist planners in the 1960s and '70s in the early growth of edge cities.

Environmental Design
It is a stretch to call environmental design an organized movement as it has such a broad scope and long history. However, as evidenced by a number of projects and graduate degrees across the country, environmental design has been especially influential in Modern planning since the 1960s. Environmental designers who practice in the context of urban design generally utilize green building technologies, appropriate site planning, landscape architecture and conservation methods suitable for ecologically critical areas.

The Sea Ranch, designed by Larry Halprin and shaped by the work of Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull, and Whitaker (MLTW) and Joseph Esherick, was an incredibly influential project designed in the 1960s. The Sea Ranch is a rugged costal landscape, dotted with distinctive homes, that extends for about ten miles on either side of Highway One in Sonoma County, CA. It is noted for its unique architecture – simple, weathered-wood structures inspired by local historic architecture – manipulated to create pleasant micro-climatic conditions in a harsh environment. The inventive regional architecture designed exclusively for The Sea Ranch garnered national attention. An entire generation of architects was captivated by the design, so much so that its unique architectural language was contorted into a very unusual architectural "style" replicated across the country in dissimilar contexts. Consequently, the theory behind The Sea Ranch's unique relationship between architecture and ecological context was eclipsed. Therefore, this example of environmental design actually developed into a style, which unlike the City Beautiful skyscrapers, was inconsistent with the theory's essence.

New Urbanism
Growing discontent with the monotony and isolation of suburbia has helped fuel a steady increase in New Urbanist projects during the past two decades. New Urbanism, a current theory and practice inspired by past movements, has emerged primarily to answer a demand for renewed community life in our built environment. New Urbanists design "neighborhoods," revive downtowns and create new satellite towns based on historical models of development. Excellent examples of New Urbanism include Seaside, FL, Disney's Celebration, and the revival of existing cities such as Norfolk, VA.

New Urbanists have organized themselves around a common ideology and enjoy a spirit of collaborative invention and sharing of techniques. The primary tenants of this movement are summarized by the Congress for the New Urbanism: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology and building practice. And, due to their inherent connections, environmental design is rapidly converging with New Urbanism.

In contrast to generations of development built without regard to comprehensive public interest, New Urbanists implement projects informed by collaborative processes. New Urbanists have influenced local codes and regulations through application of the 'transect,' form-based coding and the revival of pattern books. Despite these efforts, New Urbanists face considerable challenges as their complex ideas are translated to meet market demands. The United States is poised for a dramatic increase in development. Notable organizations have predicted that our nation's built environment will double in square footage by the year 2030. Even if this prediction is off by a factor of ten, such growth will dramatically alter our nation's physical form yet again. A number of concerns will affect the form of our development: an aging population, globalization and the loss of regional identity, high petroleum costs and rates of future growth.

As architects and urban designers, we have the advantage of a century's worth of theory and implementation to learn from. We can shape new demand and help guide the market to a certain extent. However, the future will bring new obstacles that no measure of hindsight can solve. We should never stop trying to resolve the challenges facing our cities, towns and neighborhoods. However, we cannot avoid the tide of market influences that will inevitably shape the future. Although we practice within the confines of anticipation and rough prediction of future markets, by making use of historic lessons and integrating public interest into our theory we can have confidence in our efforts to design places of lasting value.  

 

 

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