Friday, December 20, 2013

An Overview of Urbanism

The City Observed
The city is an organism, or a species, with its own evolutionary history, its own destiny. We must acknowledge that we are arriving in medias res, in the middle of a long story of shaping and living in cities. Even ‘new’ cities are no exception; they are composed of patterns from other cities, and populated by people from other cities.
As city builders we must acknowledge that designs, plans, and policies don’t animate the city; they can only slightly guide the energies of countless other people who are already a part of the city’s evolution. These energies take several forms: I name culture, motivation, and habit, but there are many more. You may choose to spend time observing the city, or you may focus on design and planning, but we should all start with the awareness that the city has its own life, and that we must understand it, and work with it. Even though the role of design and planning is to impose order on the city, we can’t take the attitude that it is waiting lifelessly for our instructions. And we can’t take the attitude that the city will just simply follow any instruction we give it.
The Idea of the City
As designers, we must approach the work of improving cities from a much higher level than just solving problems. Problems and their solutions are a continuous part of the fabric of the city, the slow evolution that reveals the city’s life force. It is a given that designers and planners are engaged with problem solving, but we are also called upon to provide some deeper vision, and engage with the deeper purposes of the city.
For me, the ultimate purposes of the city are nothing less than our collective striving for meaning and transcendence. Juhani Pallasmaa puts it thusly: “we have a mental need to grasp that we are rooted in the continuity of time, and in the man-made world, it is the task of architecture to facilitate this experience.”
Every person wants to participate in the search for meaning, the production of meaning, and the sharing of meaning. It is a fundamental right, and a cornerstone of human dignity. In the midst of all its other more pragmatic functions, the city is called upon to facilitate and perpetuate this oldest of human activities. The production of social meaning is the core metabolic function of the city.  The city acts as a kind of memory medium for the reading and writing of social meanings, by and for the city’s citizens.
A few things can be said at this point about the myriad of social meanings that are played out in the theater of the city. I describe them as narratives, stories, although the acts range from simple speech, to events, transactions, forms of tenure, strife, commitments, to a range of memorial making acts, most typically building structures. Most characteristic of these various urban “speech acts” is that they are spatial in nature -- the language of the narrative is spatial, drawing on quite ancient typologies and paradigms of shared space. These acts are also fundamentally acts “in situ” -- they respond to a specific place, to the landscape psychogeography of a particular place. They modify and contribute to that place, inviting and forming the locus for subsequent statements, variations and modifications.
Beyond space and place, the production of social meaning is fundamentally grounded in a shared paradigm, a matrix of ideations and storied patterns that form the true identity of the city; as paradigm, it transcends the particular city to form a “city of the mind” shared broadly among individuals and across generations. The Chinese city has a particularly strong paradigm; the consensus about the patterns is particularly strong.
Cities consist of the reading and writing of social meanings, in a spatial idiom, in a particular place, and a particular shared vocabulary; this activity is further constrained and shaped by four scale limits that govern the city’s growth: the scale of social networks; the scale of equitable economic exchanges; the scale of independent pedestrian mobility and the sense of proximity it carries; and the scale of perception, the gestalt that our five senses can make. Of course, technologies of every kind seek to expand these scales. Most of the designer’s value judgements consist in assessing the benefits and impacts of the amplifications of each of these scales offered by emerging technologies. Do they expand our participation in the production of social meaning, or do they have hidden costs, serve other interests, and increase inequality? This question is best introduced in Ivan Illich’s vital text, Tools for Conviviality.
Acting in the City
As designers, we find ourselves embedded in the midst of the city’s continuous growth. We may have a clearer sense of purpose, but we are still only small players among strong and entrenched actors with highly heterogeneous motives and trajectories. There are membranes of growth in the city, that can be identified through observation-- districts, boundaries, sites where new growth and new patterns are emerging. Equally significant for designers are the non-spatial, non-locational ones, the emerging markets, cultural memes, consensuses, and directions that mark each generation.
The locus of city building is best understood as a surface or boundary: an edge condition that serves as habitat for a great diversity of activities by others. The boundary between the domestic and the civic realms is where all kinds of purposeful acts first emerge. The retail interface, where production and consumption meet, is among the oldest seeds of city building. The edge between recreational open space and urban living space can host new cultures and personal development. And the boundary between city infrastructure and the public realm (between the railway tunnel and the pedestrian street, for instance) is of critical importance in the modern city.
Urbanists position themselves at this point of growth, armed with a clear and detailed observation of the conditions of the city, and committed to the purposes of the city. We create spatial narratives uniquely tuned to local geographies. We commit to understanding and championing the people who will populate the  place: economically, socially and culturally. This commitment is not light, and the planning cultures of different cities span a spectrum from autocratic command to citizen handholding; but all of that is just part of the situation: in each case the designer must commit, and accept the responsibility for choosing the right level of consultation with the living, and directly advocating for future citizens.