“Adriana, if you stay here though, and this becomes your present then pretty soon you'll start imagining another time was really your... you know, was really the golden time.”
~ Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen
In the late 1800s, the social and economic disruptions caused by the Industrial Revolution sparked a back-to-nature movement (inspired by the writers like Thoreau) and utopian communities sprang up across the country. But others believed that industrialization would bring about another kind of utopia: one filled with scientific wonders and new opportunity for all. But the dawning of the 20th Century brought surprises no one imagined.
The promise of the Industrial Revolution gave way to the financial panic of 1905 (when the federal government had to be bailed out by JP Morgan), the war to end all wars (WWI), the Depression of 1921, the Roaring Twenties and finally the Crash of 1929. The ensuing Great Depression left the public shaken.
By 1933, life seemed like an unending litany of booms and busts and scandals. Distrust of big business and government was at an all-time high. The majority of wealth was controlled by a small percentage of the population and the disparity between rich and poor had reached historic proportions. And the political landscape had become increasingly polarized on the left and the right.
Meanwhile, the general public was suffering from the worst real estate crash in history and they just wanted someone to get people back to work. Until the crash, people had been living high on the hog but now that seemed gone forever. People were very angry and they wanted “change.”
Sound familiar? History seems to be repeating itself, for better and for worse. But notwithstanding the years dedicated to fighting World War II, or ironically because of it, in the decades that followed taxes got raised, markets and finances were regulated, the middle class thrived and the American century came into its own.
A Very Brief History of City Planning
City planning has been with us forever. Alexandria, Athens, Rome, Tikal, Paris and Washington, D.C., were all carefully planned, albeit from the very top down. It’s even claimed that the reason Nero fiddled while Rome burned was because he wanted to do major urban renewal and starting from scratch was the best way to eliminate “community opposition.” But the planning of our towns and cities (rather than seats of government) got a major boost from the challenges of the early 20th century when a new idea was born.
From Bauhaus to Your House in Marin
There’s something about human nature that gravitates toward big, simplistic solutions when faced with complex problems. And faced with the multitude of woes in the 1930s, many believed that massive housing projects were the way to solve our social and economic problems.
This view was shared by many social reformers and prominent architects and planners of the time, who proceeded to take a plausible idea and completely overdo it. “Modern” architecture and planning, as it came to be known, embraced mass production and technological innovation and promised to create cities that showcased the wonders of the Industrial Age. This egalitarian and utilitarian ideal, proselytized by Walter Gropius and the German Bauhaus, was perhaps most famously expressed by an obscure painter turned architect named Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (who changed his name to Le Corbusier - perhaps being the first artist to take on a one name moniker).
The Radiant City
For “Modernists” like Corbusier, housing people was an industrial undertaking and humanity’s needs were utilitarian (fresh air, sunlight, sanitation, human scaled space, clean water and a view). This culminated in a vision he called La Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City).
The Radiant City envisioned thousands of boxy, well lit, unadorned living units stacked in towering glass, concrete and steel skyscrapers built in close proximity to transportation (automotive super highways) and within walking distance to shopping and other necessities (“The more things change…”).
Unfortunately, grand visions tend to be doomed to grand failures.
To be fair, the modernists were as much driven by concern about public health conditions for the 99 percent as they were by trying to house the masses: there was little fresh air or natural light and few private bathrooms in 19th century tenements and housing conditions for the masses in general were abysmal. The times called for bold action and optimism about grandiose solutions. Our innate love of all things new and shiny proved irresistible.
So when our federal government looked for ways to solve the demand for new housing in the 1940s after WWII, they looked to Modernists' visions.
Projects like Stuyvesant Town / Peter Cooper Village in New York City, built in 1947, housed almost 100,000 people in one high density location (the Radiant City in Manhattan). And the demand for housing at that time, after decades of almost no housing construction, was very real.
Proponents claimed it had everything required to ensure its success. It was a “walkable,” modern village close to schools, shopping and public transportation. But what began in the late 40s as a vision of equality and affordable housing opportunity became a dystopian nightmare, unflatteringly known as the "projects” by the 1960s.
To have grown up in the projects was synonymous with having had a deprived, crime-filled childhood that you dreamed of escaping. Somehow “warehousing” people near public transportation and in walking distance from shopping just didn’t magically bring about equality, harmony or happiness.
Perhaps I’m just spit-balling here, but maybe it had something to do with the complete lack of opportunity for individual expression and other less tangible human needs.
By the early 1970s, these massive experiments in social engineering had clearly failed and we began tearing down high density affordable housing projects across the country. Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis (2,870 units) was the most infamous but by no means the only example. Yet somehow this lesson continues to escape the “one size fits all” central planners today.
By the 1980s and early 1990s, it became obvious that we needed a new take on things. Fiscal conservatism became the new fashion and federal funds for housing were drying up faster than the Sacramento River Delta. Consequently, city planning became more about urban renewal, historic preservation and zoning codes than about building cities of the future. Left in a lurch, planners swung 180 degrees in the other direction and embraced the back-to-nature utopian ideals of the last century, but this time with a new twist. This was a new kind of nostalgia for the past that came wrapped in a new phrase: “sustainable living.” It was called “New Urbanism.”
Towns would now instantly have all the “character” of small town Americana. New Urbanism preached the benefits of walkable communities near shopping, amenities and public transportation. It was based on observing successful small towns (like our towns in Marin) and attempted to reproduce the lifestyle they enjoyed. The only problem is there’s a lot more to what creates “community” than meets the eye.
New Urbanism envisioned winding streets lined with quaint Craftsman-like clapboard homes on small lots, with people chatting with neighbors from rocking chairs on wooden porches behind white picket fences. Neighborhoods were laid out around quaint “town squares” with housing districts separated from commercial areas by green space. In many ways these plans were almost an exact copy of the utopian towns that were designed and built in the U.S. from the late 1800s and the early 20th century.
There’s no argument that there are compelling reasons for living in a more humanized environment. Just ask anyone who lives in Marin. But at the end of the day, the New Urbanism vision is superficial and its “community” is as faux as the shiplap siding on its cutesy bungalows.
New Urbanism is like Ralph Lauren was in the 1980s. Both try to sell us a nostalgic, patina-tinged vision of a past that never actually existed. Rather than doing the hard work of rethinking our world from the bottom up, addressing inter-related socio-economic realities and offering a truly new vision of our future potential, New Urbanism offers us a sentimental throwback to a Norman Rockwell painting belief about who we are. But in the face of our 21st Century challenges, it’s devoid of sustainable answers because we are not those imaginary people and we don’t live those imaginary lives. New Urbanism planners have made their careers out of selling a vision of simpler times to a world-weary public. But in reality, the promises of New Urbanism are empty.
Interestingly, New Urbanism was originally conceived to improve upon and make some sense out of suburban sprawl. It is actually mislabeled. It should be called “suburban-renewal.” It primarily focused on better ways to build single family housing in places completely devoid of character (Laguna West, Denver Stapleton Airport, etc.) and hoped that suburban commuters would someday be served by better transportation options like light rail.
These were perfectly legitimate goals. But New Urbanism wanted to get people out of cars mostly to enhance social interaction and small town character, not because of presumptuous claims about mitigating climate change. Likewise, New Urbanism was not originally about affordable housing. But in an attempt to remain relevant, it has been turned to the dark side.
Planners like Peter Calthorpe now work for major suburban developers like Forest City Enterprises, and New Urbanism has become synonymous with social engineering by big government agencies promoting infill, high density housing near freeways.
This unfortunate fusion has given us what might be described as the worst of both dystopian worlds: the faux “sustainable” community of the “back to simpler times” movement combined with the high density near transportation / housing for the masses visions of the Modernists. And in the middle, real communities like ours in Marin, which were built on decades of local control and environmental protection, are being thrown under the bus in the name of progress.
The result is projects like the 180-unit , located next to the 101 highway off ramps in Corte Madera, and the Millworks project in Novato. Building projects like this as “infill” won’t make them work any better than their larger scaled predecessors. It’s a sure bet that in 20 years these will not be among the most desirable places to live in Marin.
Perhaps the most absurd irony of all though is that we now have Peter Calthorpe coming to Marin to preach to us about the virtues of New Urbanism when in fact it is towns like ours that were the inspiration for New Urbanism in the first place.
I think our citizens know better than anyone what “community” and “walkable neighborhoods” and “small town character” are. The New Urbanism planners of the world should be coming to Marin to learn not to preach. We don’t need their definition of “sustainable” but they sure do need ours. Yet we find ourselves having to fight against the New Urbanist mantra to preserve what we have: the very thing they profess to want to create. Figure that one out.
In truth, New Urbanism’s solutions are not really more sustainable. Their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions savings are nonexistent. Their building methods are conventional and just as environmentally destructive as anything else. And implementing its concepts without first addressing the underlying social and economic causes of social inequity is fiscally irresponsible.
Who’s not for a Sustainable Future?
Let’s face it. Everyone is for “sustainable solutions.” But those solutions need to actually be socially, economically and environmentally sustainable after considering their true costs of natural capital and their external affects (supply chain energy usage, third world environmental degradation, etc.). New Urbanism and the One Bay Area Plan approach are not that. What we really need are solutions that are truly environmentally sustainable and address our social equity challenges at the same time. We need solutions that make fiscal sense for our cities and financial sense to private capital markets.
That is the problem before us. But instead we find ourselves faced with an unappetizing menu of “high density” options and massive bureaucracies , none of which are really sustainable in any real sense of the word.
But there was a third vision that came out of the 1930s that was totally ignored in its day and has been derided by historians ever since. Its author was not a popular man. He was the quintessential “politically incorrect” designer of his time. But it was the only vision that actually addressed long term sustainability. Maybe there are things we can learn from it.
NEXT WEEK: PART II – 21st Century Planning