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Many people who live in places undergoing change, and that includes most all of us, are fearful of what those changes may bring, even (some would say especially) if those changes are labeled as “smart growth.”  I find this immensely understandable, particularly given some of the changes that we have witnessed in our built environment over the past few decades.

This diary entry is another collaboration with my friend and  frequent writing partner, Lee Epstein, a land use planner and attorney working in the Mid-Atlantic region.  The first part is mine; the second is Lee’s.  I’ll tell you when.

  this courtyard at Mixson in N Charleston SC has great design (by: Mixson)

  Make It Right rebuilds a traditional neighborhood in New Orleans' 9th Ward (design by buildingstudio, via Make It Right Foundation))

For example, four years ago, Michael Rosen wrote in the New York City neighborhood paper The Villager:

“[O]ne by one these and many other instances pile up and by their height and weight crush the character that makes this place our home. Our diverse ethnicities and income levels, our extraordinary range of interests become mostly homogenized in a relatively rich way.  The crucible of our diversity, doubt, dissent and creativity is tied in direct ways to the walkup height of most of our buildings, to affordable rents, to slow streets and the possibility of gathering places and dialogue — neighborhood coffee- and teahouses, local bars, community gardens and their casitas, affordable storefronts and miraculous community centers.”

I do not know Rosen’s East Village neighborhood or circumstances.  But to this reader’s eyes his concerns are those of a thoughtful resident, not a knee-jerk opponent to all change. 

New York's East Village (by: Teri Tynes, creative commons license)

The things he believes are threatened by development are the very things that most of us espouse, and even include in our definitions of smart urbanism.

Here’s another quote, this one commenting more specifically on building design.  Writing in The New Yorker last month (subscription required), Paul Goldberger describes part of an ongoing (and somewhat iconoclastic) revitalization of a faded industrial district in Culver City, California.  The project is all about showy, avant-garde design:

“[Architect Eric Owen] Moss’s buildings . . . may have demonstrated his earnest, if relentless determination to probe different kinds of materials, spaces, and shapes, but I found it hard to avoid the impression that the main point of a design like The Box – a distorted cube of dark metal on legs that Moss plopped on top of another building – was to make sure that you knew that an architect had been there.”

Now bear with me for yet another, particularly telling passage from the same article:

Hayden Tract, Culver City (by: Scott Moore, creative commons license)

“The Hayden Tract is as car-dependent as the rest of the city and just as lacking in meaningful outdoor public space in which to enjoy its benign climate.  On my last visit, I didn’t see anyone walking along the street from building to building, save for a handful of architectural tourists.  In one part of the project, five of Moss’s buildings face one another across an open space.  It’s a grand gesture – sharply slanted glass facades and irregular glass canopies define the edges of the space – and a perfect opportunity for a modernist rethinking of a traditional piazza.  Instead, it’s filled with parking spots.”

Again, it’s a neighborhood that I don’t know personally, and perhaps it will eventually evolve into the arty contemporary quarter that its designers apparently envision.  I like some of the Tract’s architecture that I have seen online, though the examples published with Goldberger's article (that I am reluctant to publish here, given copyright issues) are way too in-your-face with iconoclasm to suit my taste.  But, individual buidings aside, right now the district appears to be a long way from becoming a "neighborhood" in any conventional sense of the word.  The best one can say is that maybe it’s a work in progress that, for the time being, misses an opportunity to create a cohesive community.

high-rise condos go up in Austin (by: Tim Patterson, creative commons license)

People who know my work also know that few people champion revitalization more than I.  But it has to be high-quality revitalization, not just a bunch of high-rises gobbling up a streetscape that was once of more inviting scale, and not disjointed buildings drawing attention to themselves without relating well to each other and the whole, either.  We must be careful what we wish for.

For some time now, I have been engaged in a sort of conversation with myself (heh) about what I see as too much mediocrity in the name of smart growth and urbanism, spiced with not a little developer's greed.  I think the character of what we build matters, because we who believe the health of the planet depends on more development that conserves land and watersheds while reducing emissions must sell our product, before planning commissions and neighborhood review boards all across the country.  If our product isn’t better than the alternative – and I don’t mean just in the regional or abstract sense but in the local, right-in-this-spot sense – we won’t have enough (and maybe don’t deserve enough) takers to make our proposition work.  We need to advocate quality of smart growth as avidly as we advocate its quantity.

I’ve been chipping away at these concepts on my NRDC blog.  To an extent, they were implied in a post from earlier this week on wellness.  Aspects were certainly involved in a number of posts that I cited in my best-of-year entry, and even in my very first blog post, “Architecture matters.”  In a related post from two years ago, I asked, “Does beauty matter? Should it?

  which is the alien here? (sketch by and courtesy of Dhiru Thadani)

I think it does, quite possibly a lot.  But it sure is messy, because (at least in my opinion) quaity and beauty in design don’t lend themselves easily to objective measures.  We can measure things like transit boardings, impervious surface per capita, vehicle miles traveled, and people accommodated per unit of land.  That’s what leads us to advocate neighborhood density, transit access, mixed uses, and all the other components of “smart growth” or urbanism, be it of the “new” or old variety.  But it’s harder to measure what we lose if we can’t build enough of smart growth to make a difference because what we’re offering doesn’t make a good neighbor to its surroundings or a nourishing home for its inhabitants.  It's also harder to measure what neighbors and residents lose if what we build creates a less appealing place than what was there before.

This is emphatically not, by the way, an attack on “modernism.”  I have some traditionalist friends who become apoplectic even at the mention of the word, because in their view so much crap has been built in its name.   (I also have friends on the opposite side, who get agitated by the phrase “new urbanism,” in part because of its sometimes-unyielding allegiance to traditional forms).  But I’m not one of them. 

  Sony Center, Berlin (c2010 FKBenfield)  Gare d'Avignon TGV (c 2011 FK Benfield)

I’m sitting right now in a very modern, slate-gray building designed by Pei Cobb, and I love it, both as the well-functioning and aesthetically pleasing site of my NRDC office (if not for much longer, unfortunately) and as an asset to our downtown neighborhood.  I also love (and have mentioned before) Berlin's modernist Sony Center (above left), designed by Helmut Jahn.  Cesar Pelli's design for the main terminal at DC's National Airport is just about perfect, as is the Gare d'Avignon TGV (above right) by Jean-Marie Duthilleul and Jean-François Blassel.  For me, the issue of design quality is not so much a matter of style as one of scale, suitability to context, respect for nature, and perhaps variety.

Lee begins here:

Recent posts have speculated on the need to update our definition of smart growth.  This is only natural, some thirteen years from its initial articulation, and scores of real, on-the-ground development projects using some of those principles, later.  Indeed, Kaid’s writing has, since its own inception, taken a hard look at a number of these very projects.

revitalization in Harlem (by: EPA Smart Growth)

In my view, a “refurbishing” of the smart growth concept would definitely be helpful at this time, as LEED-ND begins to take hold and a whole new generation of development and redevelopment is built.  Along those lines, I’d like to posit that one other important element should be added to a set of newer smart growth principles – though I have no illusion that such a proposal will be anything but controversial.

That element is design.  I already hear the howls of protest from some of my friends.  How can design possibly be integrated into these principles?  Isn’t design a matter of art and taste, and who are we – or who is anyone – to impose some kind of artificial standards of taste upon the creative jumble that makes for a great urban experience? 

Would design as a smart growth element, for example, remove from the likelihood of construction the aluminum, deconstructionist swoops of a Frank Gehry project, or the clean line of a Rem Koolhaas building?  Would it “prohibit” a style, or somehow impose upon the creative process some “artificial” constraint?  Would the graceful curve of a Guggenheim Museum somehow be limited or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, how about the brutalist façade of the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.?

FBI headquarters in DC (by: cliff1066, creative commons license)

Here’s how I see it.  Design is part and parcel of city and suburb, whether we acknowledge it or not.  It can heavily influence how successful the pedestrian experience is, and indeed, can even influence how well a place works from a sociological perspective:

  • increasing personal safety and security with “eyes on the street,” or worsening it with long, blank walls;
  • enhancing the shopping experience with easy access, color and movement, or making it less enjoyable with barriers and a drab, uninviting “front porch;”
  • contributing to a feeling of comfort, human interaction and well-being with green parks and usable, human-scaled open space, or ignoring those characteristics in favor of windswept, characterless plazas;
  • making travel and mobility a pleasant part of the landscape, or forcing pedestrians across multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic or acres of pavement, and making cars into the only means of access to office, business, and home.

  village town (by Claude Lewenz, via Sustainble Cities Collective)

In other words, making design an “official” part of smart growth does not mean micro-managing creativity.  It does, however, mean that to really qualify as smart growth, development cannot simply meet its efficiency, access, respect for nature, and diversity of use goals (to name a few essential elements).  It must also be constructed at a scale, and with the materials and building components that allow it to really welcome people, and to get along with its neighbors.  That doesn’t mean it has to look just like them – diversity is good for architecture just as it is good for society and good for ecology – but it does usually need to be something other than a shocking “sculpture,” so unique and artistically precious as to shout: “Look at me.  Look how different I am.  I am art.”

Milwaukee Art Museum (by: b.jelonek, creative commons license)

I use the word “usually” for a reason.  There may well be sites and particular uses where the function of having something so utterly different in that place makes perfect sense.  Generally, such places and uses are set somewhat apart from the woof and warp of a city’s intimate neighborhoods or great streets: the Sydney Opera House, the Baltimore Inner Harbor’s National Aquarium, the Milwaukee Art Museum (above).  But these functions and these special places surely can be accommodated.

Design really must be addressed in smart growth.  Not to do so is to ignore how the aesthetic so influences human experience, and how it affects human feeling and function alike.  While articulating good design through local regulation may be difficult, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done – carefully, sensitively, and with an eye toward the main rationale for building: housing human activity in a way that best complements human needs in the context of place and time.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes occasional Village Green commentary on DailyKos and (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment on NRDC’s Switchboard.  For daily posts, see his Switchboard blog's home page. 

Originally posted to Kaid at NRDC on Fri Jan 07, 2011 at 06:15 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  first of all, ditch the phrase "smart growth." (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    claude, Captain Sham, AnnCetera, sweeper

    It's an oxymoron.

    ANY continued growth necessarily becomes exponential, and is unsustainable by definition.

    Do the math.  A penny's worth of gold invested a few thousand years ago at even a tiny rate of interest would by today have grown to more than the size of the Earth.  

    There is no such thing as an indefinitely sustainable growth rate, period.  Like it or not you have to live with it, just like the law of gravity.

    We hit the limits to growth in 1983 when humanity's ecological footprint hit 1.0, by which metric is meant that we were using up 100% of what the Earth could sustainably provide.  Today we are at 1.2, meaning that we are using up 120% of what the Earth can sustainably provide, which by definition means we are burning our planetary capital.  This will not continue because it cannot, and the only question is how we might go about reducing the amount of suffering and the number of miserable deaths that will result.  

    So let's stop hallucinating growth, deluding ourselves with growth, and titillating ourselves with endless fantasies of growth.  

    At this point in history there is no such thing as smart growth any more than there's such a thing as healthy tumors, much less happy tumors, much less tumors that sing along with you in the shower.

    Smart economics, yes.  That would mean steady-state economics.

    Smart cities, yes.

    Smart suburbs even, yeah sure just tear up the lawns and replace them with gardens and run electric minibuses around.  

    Smart architecture, sure, preferably minus the addiction to microprocessors that has come to define anything "smart" that people can actually touch with their hands, because all those microprocessors aren't sustainable either (did you see the Japanese urinals with built-in video games controlled by how you pee? no snark, look 'em up).  

    Better yet and best of all, let's have some smart humans.  Smart humans, strong humans, creative humans, and empathic humans.  That would be a change for the better.  

    •  I can't argue with your comment, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      but growth and development will continue to happen, no matter how unsustainable. Shouldn't the effort be made to try to manage it "smartly"?

      Sometimes I sits and I thinks; sometimes I just sits. - Archy

      by Captain Sham on Fri Jan 07, 2011 at 08:03:38 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Why is growth and development inevitable? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Because banks want more mortgages?  Because developers want to make easy money?

        Developers aren't interested in smart growth anyway.  The want to slap up as many houses as possible for as cheaply as possible.  Take a look at Florida.  The new Governor is putting a moratorium on impact fees.  Developers don't even want to pay for the cost of development.

        Land use planners can talk all they want about what good development should have:

        # increasing personal safety and security with "eyes on the street," or worsening it with long, blank walls; # enhancing the shopping experience with easy access, color and movement, or making it less enjoyable with barriers and a drab, uninviting "front porch;" # contributing to a feeling of comfort, human interaction and well-being with green parks and usable, human-scaled open space, or ignoring those characteristics in favor of windswept, characterless plazas; # making travel and mobility a pleasant part of the landscape, or forcing pedestrians across multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic or acres of pavement, and making cars into the only means of access to office, business, and home.

        That's all very nice, but until developers are on the same page, these things won't happen.  They won't pay for it.

        •  It's inevitable because the demand is there (0+ / 0-)

          and will continue to be. I'm not assuming a position of defending growth, as both you and G2geek seem to believe. I'm just writing about what I observe.

          Sometimes I sits and I thinks; sometimes I just sits. - Archy

          by Captain Sham on Fri Jan 07, 2011 at 04:46:47 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  so then, here's what happens: (0+ / 0-)

        We edge further and further into overshoot until ecosystems collapse on a global scale, leading to what scientists call an "evolutionary bottleneck."  That means a dieoff to the tune of billions of humans.  

        Is that what you want?  Or are you merely saying it's not worth fighting to stop it?  

        And how would you feel if the WW2 generation had taken that attitude toward the Nazis, who "merely" killed ten million or so in the camps, plus whatever war casualties were attributable to them?    Or is it somehow "OK" if the biggest genocide in history is committed for the sake of consumer baubles rather than national glory?

        Or does it have something to do with the inability of human minds to grasp large numbers, such as four or five billion?   Hint: that's 1/1000 of what the casino banksters just cost America over the past two years.  See, it's a really small number after all!

        •  "No" to both questions in your second paragraph. (0+ / 0-)

          Etcetera. I don't think you know my position on the issue as well as you think you do. My question to you, or to anybody else, is how, precisely, do we take growth and its accompanying development to zero, or less than zero? I'm not pro-growth or pro-development, but I don't believe it's worthwhile to take a position against better urban design because all growth is bad.

          How is my comment above so insulting to you that you bring the Holocaust into the conversation? Criminy!

          Sometimes I sits and I thinks; sometimes I just sits. - Archy

          by Captain Sham on Fri Jan 07, 2011 at 04:39:52 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  The problem, as I see it (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Virginia mom

    Is that, in practice, more zoning regulations don't help, since they come in basically two types: mandated ticky-tacky car-suburbia and incumbents trying to keep prices high by preventing change.  The net effect in the Northeast is that people move away, and communities decline.

    If you wrap up the same arguments in a design-based language, you won't get a different effect.

    •  I don't think people are moving away (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Captain Sham

      from the Northeast is because of poor zoning.  Unless you can zone a warm climate.  

      Now: Obama NEEDS to step up and be Obama.

      by Yoshimi on Fri Jan 07, 2011 at 08:06:36 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  "Zoning", especially of the old, worn-out, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Euclidian type, should not be mistaken for "planning" or "design". Or much of anything worthwhile.

      Sometimes I sits and I thinks; sometimes I just sits. - Archy

      by Captain Sham on Fri Jan 07, 2011 at 08:07:02 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I just don't believe (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Captain Sham, AnnCetera, Virginia mom

        that adding land use regulations in the city will help.  It only means more mandated parking, fewer apartments, and much more expensive apartments.  If you say, "I will only build short Rem Koolhaas buildings with an underground garage and at least 2000 square feet per apartment," your neighborhood won't get more vibrant.

        In my neighborhood in Philly, there are practically empty condo towers where the cheapest thing costs more than a really nice house a block away.  Some of this is clearly on the developers, but some is just on the various committees that restrict what can be built to keep prices high.  They all got greedy, leading to a fiasco.

        •  I'm right there with you! (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          theran, AnnCetera

          The effort should be improving land use regulations. A hard pill for many to swallow, unfortunately.

          Sometimes I sits and I thinks; sometimes I just sits. - Archy

          by Captain Sham on Fri Jan 07, 2011 at 08:28:54 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  The irony (0+ / 0-)

            is that the Village was created without heavy restrictions.  Freezing it in time goes against the original concept.  The city, in its classic sense, is the geography of capitalism.  Suburbia is what needs heavy restrictions to come into existence.

            Put another way: Jane Jacobs was defending something that came from, essentially, an unstructured process.  Robert Moses wanted very strict land-use regulations.

    •  And sadly (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      the prevailing atitude seems to be that good design is only for the rich. And BTW, out here in the suburbs, HOAs seem to fervently believe that all your neighbors can not be trusted to make a good decision about what color to paint their mailbox.

      Let tyrants fear.-Queen Elizabeth I

      by Virginia mom on Fri Jan 07, 2011 at 09:56:52 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I think that ticky-tacky (0+ / 0-)

        has reached the status of a uniform, just as much as skinny jeans and tattoos has for a different set.  The desire for good design signals all sorts of other things beyond "the rich".

        •  I agree that the desire for good design (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          is there- I only wish we saw more of it in affordable housing and neighborhoods.

          Let tyrants fear.-Queen Elizabeth I

          by Virginia mom on Fri Jan 07, 2011 at 10:12:50 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  This will happen only via capitalism (0+ / 0-)

            As long as zoning is used to prevent a mix of housing size/quality in neighborhoods, "affordable neighborhoods" will either have: nice, but run down buildings and high crime; terrible locations and shitty construction.

            A capitalist solution is infill where it makes sense, but that goes against the American approach of zillions of boards.

  •  smart growth: ABC (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    theran, koNko, slksfca, Crider, Prairie D


    It's not a fake orgasm; it's a real yawn.

    by sayitaintso on Fri Jan 07, 2011 at 07:59:05 AM PST

  •  Excellent analysis (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Virginia mom

    Architecture is or should be first and foremost, City Building.  But too many architects are trained to be "starchitects."  "Look at me, I'm an architect."  Buildings should not be sculpture in which you walk.  We have had 2,000 years of lessons on how and how not to design buildings in cities.  Architects should look at those lessons (so should real estate developers even if they care only about the bottom line.

    If Obama is so smart, why isn't he President?

    by djohnutk on Fri Jan 07, 2011 at 08:52:39 AM PST

    •  The vast majority of buildings (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      jabney, Virginia mom

      in America are designed with one of the following as the overriding goal:

      1. It must look exactly like everything else, to satisfy strict zoning.
      1. It should be as cheap as possible.
      1. Is should be efficient in the sense of a warehouse.

      We don't have a huge problem of beautifully thought out high modernism squeezing out human scale design.

  •  Some of this take time (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    theran, AnnCetera

    I appreciate a New Yorker archetecture critic living in a dense street city with mass transit offering his criticism of the failure to bring the same to a neighborhood that is low density and isolated, but unless he is willing to provide the funding for a massive redevelopment of Los Angeles transforming it into something other than what it is, and without the environmental impact such a project would bring, I find it hard to fault incremental community redevelopment projets that make the most of a site.

    3 minutes with Goggle leads me to believe this is a bit of an Apples & Oranges comparrison. A fev link including population density and land use information:

    Goggle maps

    Goggle maps aerial view

    Goggle maps

    Hayden Tract neighborhood in Culver City, California (CA), 90034, 90232 detailed profile

    Flicker page

    Flicker stream

    architectureweek profile

    Note it is being transformed from an industrial site to a mixed business zone but given the fact LA is a driving city with poor mass transit and there don't seem tó be any major lines nearby, parking spaces may be a practical necessity.

    To wit ...

    Traffic !!!


    The Hayden Tract is Culver City 's largest and oldest industrial area that has been transformed into an eclectic group of businesses ranging from traditional manufacturing to design and entertainment-related firms. Featured businesses include award winning architects such as Eric Owen Moss and Don Dimster, Ogilvy & Mather, Debbie Allen Dance Studio, and Smashbox Cosmetics.

    This is LA. Not may favorite city. East Village it ain't.

    My neighborhood in Shanghai is about the ideal of what you are talking about; a mix of income levels, old buildings including reused industrial buildings, new highrise flats on former industrial sites, very walkable, bikeable (tree line bicycle paths isolated from traffic lanes), electric trollys, busses and 8 min walk to metro line, street level shops, above street flats

    I like it fine, don't own a car, do own a bike.

    But that is Shanghai.

    What about my Daughter's future?

    by koNko on Fri Jan 07, 2011 at 08:58:31 AM PST

  •  IMHO (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    theran, jabney

    "New Urbanism" could learn a lot from a planned town 300 years old, Williamsburg. Wide central street, vehicle traffic mainly along secondary streets, buildings mandated to be a particular distance from street but not restricted by style,mixed use (often stores have living space upstairs), and very walkable.

    Let tyrants fear.-Queen Elizabeth I

    by Virginia mom on Fri Jan 07, 2011 at 10:01:05 AM PST

  •  Thanks for reading & perspective (0+ / 0-)

    Nice, rich discussion and, IMHO, a grain or three of truth in most of your observations.  Those who are interested my want to take a peek also at the same post on my NRDC site, where a number of architects and planners chimed in.

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