teenagers and young people, in the city like locusts – mammoth // building nothing out of something

teenagers and young people, in the city like locusts

With the publication of their latest issue, The Atlantic Monthly launched a month-long sub-site that they’re calling “The Future of the City”, which interests us for obvious reasons.   In particular, the articles on the potential of private transit and post-Jacobsian urbanists are worth reading (and if I get a chance I’ll pull excerpts from them later), but the purpose of this post is to point you to a rather revealing (though somewhat absurdly titled) interview the Atlantic has conducted with Andres Duany.  Within the a few short paragraphs, Duany manages to confirm some of my worst suspicions about New Urbanism (suspicions, which, I should note, by no means apply to all of the movement’s members or fans, plenty of whom are well-intentioned).

For instance, there’s the distaste for youth culture:

“There’s this generation who grew up in the suburbs, for whom the suburbs have no magic. The mall has no magic. They’re the ones that have discovered the city. Problem is, they’re also destroying the city. The teenagers and young people in Miami come in from the suburbs to the few town centers we have, and they come in like locusts. They make traffic congestion all night; they come in and take up the parking. They ruin the retail and they ruin the restaurants, because they have different habits then older folks. I have seen it. They’re basically eating up the first-rate urbanism. They have this techno music, and the food cheapens, and they run in packs, great social packs, and they take over a place and ruin it and go somewhere else.”

The clinging to the more destructive tenets of the magical thinking that characterized the real-estate-boom economy (renting is improper use of cities; buying is proper):

“…These people would normally be buying real estate by now. And we designed for them. We kept saying, “Aha, these kids, between 24 and 35, will be buying real estate.” Guess what? They aren’t. Because they can’t afford it. But they’re still using the cities–they’re renting and so forth. The Gen-Xers also discovered the cities; they’re buying in a proper way. The Millennials are the ones we’re talking about. And they love cities desperately. And they’re loving them to death.”

There’s also a Friedman-esque longing for an authoritarian government that would cut through all the democratic whinging and get things built the right way:

“But I think the most interesting experiment of all is Singapore. Singapore had nothing going for it. No raw materials. And you got a kind of top-down government that was almost completely enlightened, putting education first and so forth, and you have this city that is extremely livable.

While democracy does most things well, I think we need to confront the fact that it does not make the best cities. And that the cities that were great were rather top-down. You know–Paris and Rome, the grid of Manhattan. What would those have been like if there hadn’t been some top-down stuff? Every landowner would have done a separate little pod subdivision. That’s one of the things that’s naive about Americans–extremely naive, I find, as an outsider having lived in places that are possibly less democratic, like Spain. This idea that you have an individual right to do whatever you want with your land is very democratic, but the result is pretty questionable.”

And, perhaps most troubling, apparent approval indicated for an instance of literally keeping the rural poor out of cities (within the context of praise of the preservation of Havana):

I think it’s more than just capital. There are two kinds of destruction: there’s the loss of the city, the high rises, which is what happened in Mexico City and Buenos Aires and Bogota. But then there’s the other destruction, which is the migration of the rural people to the city. And that was controlled in Cuba. They just said, “You don’t have your card, you don’t have your permit, you are not coming in.”

Interestingly, it’s exactly this tendency — the desire to preserve the city as an aesthetic and social experience for the privileged (you’ll note that earlier in the interview Duany describes New Urbanism as originating in aesthetic concerns) by maintaining controls on the movements of the poor — which, in another of the Atlantic‘s articles in this special report, Benjamin Schwarz finds and criticizes in the writings of post-Jacobsian urbanists:

“Confronted with this unstoppable process [of globalization-induced gentrification], Zukin proposes waving a magic political wand by calling for an assortment of mandates and controls to ensure that certain ethnic groups and social classes and the practitioners of certain livelihoods that contribute to the “authenticity” of the city be able to live there. Surely this is taking the fetishization of vibrant Jacobsian urbanity too far. It’s entirely reasonable—in fact, humane—to argue that the state must ensure decent living conditions for its citizens (and God knows we are terribly far from that situation). But it’s a wholly different proposition to argue that, in the name of what Sorkin calls “the protection of … the local” and to forestall “a landscape of homogeneity,” the state should create the conditions necessary for favored groups—be they designers, craftspeople, small-batch distillers, researchers, the proprietors of mom-and-pop stores—to live in expensive and fashionable neighborhoods or boroughs. That effort would ultimately be an aesthetic endeavor to ensure that the affluent, well-educated denizens of said neighborhoods be provided with the stage props and scenery necessary for what Jacobs and her heirs define as an enriching urban experience.”

35 Responses to “teenagers and young people, in the city like locusts”

  1. Wow, these statements do sound troubling. I respect his experience, from which these views must have developed, but it doesn’t seem to have left him with much of an inspiring or innovative vision for the future of cities.

    • rob says:

      I hope I’m giving Duany a fair reading (I certainly don’t think I’m taking his statements out of context here — if anything, I’ve erred on the side of excerpting more than I really should, with the express intent of avoiding distortion of his statements), but I’ve found his statements to be consistently troubling.

      Which is unfortunate, because, even though I do have real disagreements with some of the theoretical underpinnings of New Urbanism, I think that both many of their stated goals are laudable and I have no doubt that many members of that movement are working, designing, and advocating in good faith.

  2. Chris Gannon says:

    Excellent post. You know who did Jane Jacobs right? Richard Scarry. Now that man knew the beauty of the urban fabric.

    • namhenderson says:

      Great post, I think you definitely excerpted on the side of caution/fairness…

      Also, I just had to respond to Chris Gannon by saying F-ing A, Richard Scarry!!! To this day still my favorite of my early childhood authors and the one I collect every chance I get to buy one.

      • rholmes says:

        Yeah, I didn’t mention it, but I totally agree about Richard Scarry, too — though I preferred Cars and Trucks and Things That Go to any of the town books.

      • Mark says:

        Whoa! your edtriuion amazes! Is this your area of expertise? I have never heard of any of those books – not even the renowned Wendell Berry mentions them….and where is the Warner property?(The 'capcha' word is to prevent the roving computer sales ads from appearing in the comments section….so sorry)

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  4. Stephen says:

    I definitely want to associate myself with Rob’s take on this interview. The first sentence out of Duany’s mouth set the wrong tone for me:

    “Basically it is making communities that are mixed-use and mixed-income and complete, to the extent that they allow you to live without a car.”

    Maybe it’s just sloppy semantics, but I was really troubled by the notion that he aspires to create a ‘complete’ community. It’s entirely possible I’m overly hung-up on the use of a single word, but I find his use of ‘complete’ telling – it presumes an ability to evaluate what a complete city would be, leaving no room for uncertainty or fluctuation in composition of the city – its uses, its industries, its transit networks, its culture, its populations. It implies that preconceved utopias can and should be designed, then strived for.

    It is antithetical to the approach we advocate, which is founded on the assumption that designers can’t know or predict everything – that we must operate ‘under a surfeit of information’, as coined by Jesse Reiser – and that we must engage with the city we have, instead of attempting to start from scratch.

  5. faslanyc says:

    jane jacobs would never stop vomitting if she could read this…

    • rholmes says:

      Speaking of Jacobs, I think its worth noting that she’s consistently mis-interpreted and over-simplified. It’s been quite a while since I read Death and Life… but my impression is that the link above is broadly accurate.

    • Stephen says:

      Speaking of Jacobs, at some point I intend to read this, hopefully communally:

      http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/20100401/bookshelf-the-battle-for-gotham

      It sounds like there will be much to agree with, and much to contest.

    • david says:

      What an image. Ever-vomiting Zombie Jane Jacobs. God forbid we should offend the ghost of Saint Jane.

      I don’t see that Duany is “approving” of Cuba’s urban policy, simply by describing it.

      Also, what’s wrong with what you call “starting from scratch”?

      We should remember that most of the places we know and love were “started from scratch” at some point. Don’t be fooled by the height of the trees.

      Strange that Jesse Reiser would coin that term. From his website, it seems like most of his work is the UAE. Is there really a “surfeit” of information informing his work there? Or is the point that since there is so much info, you should just ignore it?

      In the end, if actually want to build something, you have to make choices, which by definition imply that you have some thoughts about what may happen in the future.

      Isn’t saying, “we MUST engage…” a pretty authoritarian phrasing? Why can’t we engage with the city as we see fit?

      Clearly, the answer is in the law. An architect can’t just “start from scratch.” There are so many layers of code, regulations, approvals, etc, that attempt to articulate ways in which new development will engage with the existing city. One of Duany’s greatest achievement was to pioneer the architect’s manipulation of this system in order to update a typically conservative (small c) vision of the city. However, the conservative vision that he was reacting to in the 1980s was one that took modernist planning principles as gospel.

      • rholmes says:

        “I don’t see that Duany is “approving” of Cuba’s urban policy, simply by describing it.”

        I would agree that he does not literally say “I approve” or “I disapprove”, which is why I used the phrase “apparent approval indicated”. I don’t think that phrase, though — being considerably more qualified than saying “Duany said x” — is unfair, given that the context is a series of paragraphs in which he is complaining about the difficulty of producing the sorts of urban environments he favors within democratic systems.

        The Cuban example is of, and this is literally according to Duany, a way of “preventing” one of the kinds of “destruction” (“the migration of the rural people to the city”) that can occur in a city. If he saw the Cuban example as problematic or exemplifying how top-down governance might go too far in the pursuit of certain objectives, given that Cuba is rather obviously an example of a top-down governance and that the context of the Cuban example is Duany describing what he sees as problems with democratic governance (and the corresponding advantages of top-down governance), you’d think that he would make that clear. But he hasn’t, and so I’m connecting the dots.

      • rholmes says:

        1. Also, what’s wrong with what you call “starting from scratch”?

        As Stephen indicated, this is an argument that we’ve been developing consistently for quite a while now; the two posts that he’s pointed to are good starting points for our answer to your question, and I’ll let him provide any further explanation that he would like.

        2. Duany and New Urbanism, generally

        The comments thread on this post at Free Association Design is the place where I’ve taken the most time to outline what I think is problematic about the New Urbanist approach in general, though readers of this blog will know that I haven’t hesitated to praise Duany when I think he is right, in particular agreeing that the notion of “architect’s manipulation of this [legal] system” is useful.

      • Stephen says:

        “Also, what’s wrong with what you call “starting from scratch”?

        We should remember that most of the places we know and love were “started from scratch” at some point. Don’t be fooled by the height of the trees.”

        Right, they started (often from trees) and gradually grew into their current states. And so they will continue. Starting from scratch implies skipping all that, jumping straight to complete communities, and staying that way. If something isn’t changing and adjusting, it’s because it’s dead.

        “Strange that Jesse Reiser would coin that term. From his website, it seems like most of his work is the UAE. Is there really a “surfeit” of information informing his work there? Or is the point that since there is so much info, you should just ignore it?”

        I make no claims about how Reiser + Umemoto conduct their work, only credit them for a phrase from their book which I agreed with (though I have to say I don’t follow the logic that: UAE has gobs of information for architects -> architects like R+U must know everything about every facet of the construction process, financing, and future activities of the occupants; humility about this is unnecessary -> Jesse Reiser is a surprising person to suggest that there are unknowables in the architectural process). I’m surprised that an assertion that we can’t know everything is contentious.

        Maybe a better way to disprove my argument would be to demonstrate that my frustration with Duany’s use of the phrase ‘complete communities’ is, in fact, an unfair reading (a possibility which I fully acknowledge, but doubt) by showing examples of his work or writing that embrace the possibility of flux in the composition of his projects. I haven’t seen examples of this, but would welcome the correction.

        “In the end, if actually want to build something, you have to make choices, which by definition imply that you have some thoughts about what may happen in the future.”

        I agree! But shouldn’t you also accept that things might not go as expected?

        “Isn’t saying, “we MUST engage…” a pretty authoritarian phrasing? Why can’t we engage with the city as we see fit?”

        Let’s not confuse the use of the word “must” with actually arguing for authoritarian planning regimes. Nowhere did I propose that the government outlaw New Urbanism by fiat . If rephrasing my original sentence would make that more clear, try: “it seems obvious that the way to engage cities, with all the their unique local context and histories, is to admit that we operate…”

        “Clearly, the answer is in the law. An architect can’t just “start from scratch.” There are so many layers of code, regulations, approvals, etc, that attempt to articulate ways in which new development will engage with the existing city.”

        This is certainly true – I would add local culture and politics to this milieu as well.

        “One of Duany’s greatest achievement was to pioneer the architect’s manipulation of this system in order to update a typically conservative (small c) vision of the city. However, the conservative vision that he was reacting to in the 1980s was one that took modernist planning principles as gospel.”

        Right, but he’s just replaced an system with his own, equally ossified definition of what a city ought to look like, and how it should function.

  6. I’m most alarmed by his inclination to support fairly totalitarian regulations. Damnit, we’ve been here before, and all he’s done is switch up the aesthetics.

    • rholmes says:

      Succinct.

      That’s what I often expend a ton of words to say: the biggest problem with New Urbanism is that while the what is different (even better), the how is the same.

  7. Neil Perry says:

    When will baby boomers finally die off or at least shut up. Hey Andres, I’m a millenial and I would love to purchase a house, but ummmmm for the speculation price of $500,000? When I already have student loan debt. Give me brake. I don’t think my generation will get to benefit from property ownership, at least not at the current rates.

  8. J.D. Hammond says:

    This sounds exactly like the man who’s spent the past twenty years trying to destroy the Tacheles, a major landmark for the development of punk rock in Berlin (and a UNESCO candidate), only to replace it with a tasteful reconstruction of another department store.

  9. Great idea to read The Battle for Gotham! I enjoyed Roberta Gratz’s Cities Back from the Edge. I’m not sure she’ll offer much criticism of Jacobs, as I think they were close friends, but I find her thinking on cities very inspiring.

  10. [...] about not only his words, but the metacommentary itself. Rob Holmes’ comments in his rebuttal on mammoth seem most responsive and salient to Duany’s general critique: With the publication of their [...]

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  12. jamesmallon says:

    Duany’s comments on ‘neo-urbanism’ and ‘top-down’ planning (in fascist states, no less) point out that ‘neo-urbanism’ is not the heir to Jane Jacobs, but the enemy. Her point was that good neighbourhoods were organic, and that planning for them had to be piece-meal, ongoing, unobtrusive, and beholden to a democratic process so that the, inevitably destructive, grandiose schemes of politicians and planners, who did not in fact live there, had to fail.

    ‘Neo-Urbanism’, on the other hand, is the imposition of a particular version of planned urbanity imposed from above by people who believe they know better what people want, but have never created any neighbourhood as interesting as one of the successful organic ones. Do not forget that Duany was a developer, a scourge who have ruined municipal politics with their greed and buying up of the political class.

    We have many or these ‘Neo-Urban’ developments in the Toronto area, and none of them are much more vibrant that your average suburb: everyone has the same income, same education, similar complexion, and owns a car they use to shop elsewhere.

  13. Sandy Sorlien says:

    >>Do not forget that Duany was a developer>>

    He’s not a developer, he’s an architect and town planner. Well, he did develop affordable housing in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans after Katrina, as a model for what might be done affordably and contextually to respect local culture. Being a “developer” of that small infill project means he and his business partner paid for it; he designed it.

    There’s a lot of other misinformation in this thread. The term “complete” when used for neighborhoods means not that it is “finished”, but that it has the basic elements needed for people to walk to daily needs – not just Residential, but Retail (including the cafes and clubs Duany loves at least as much as you do), Office, and Civic buildings and spaces. An incomplete neighborhood is missing one or more of those four essential components. A good city is made up of numerous complete neighborhoods. Jacobs’ Greenwich Village is a complete neighborhood. Again, not “finished” or static. Succession is a core tenet of New Urbanism and is built into our urban codes; Duany often says that when critics rail against the sterile look of NU development, the “missing element in urbanism is Time.” Just yesterday I visited the new town of Glenwood Park on an Atlanta brownfield site, designed by Dover Kohl. It is less than 10 years old. I saw it 5 years ago and the bones were good but it looked new – spindly trees and all that. Now, trees are much more mature, downright lush, and the public square is a wonderful outdoor room. The place looks lived in, because it is. There’s a bocce court in the middle and cafes around the edges. Last night Duany joined a party of people of all ages that spilled out of one of the narrow townhouses into the square. (Given all that, and knowing his fondness for the Next Gen, I find his comments curious and wonder what the context of the original discussion was.)

    Glenwood Park is a complete neighborhood in that it has provided the form for the four basic uses that comprise mixed use in proximity. The New Urbanism has long been involved in a Sisyphean effort to reform zoning in this country where it is *illegal* to develop a complete neighborhood like that one or Greenwich Village. Uses have been segregated for decades by regulation and policy, and developers of the Sprawl Age have segregated their subdivisions and apartment clusters by income and therefore by age. In autocentric suburbia four groups are isolated and dependent because they cannot drive: the elderly, the poor, the disabled, and children. The New Urbanism stands for a sea change in that social injustice. Please do more research.

    • J.D. Hammond says:

      That’s understood, Sandy, but the fact that NU attempts to address social justice issues in some circumstances does not necessarily mean that it doesn’t ignore others, and none of this resolves Duany’s apparent cavalierness about youth culture and the urban poor of less-developed countries – least of all in Cuba, from which he himself is a refugee.

    • rholmes says:

      “The term “complete” when used for neighborhoods means not that it is “finished”, but that it has the basic elements needed for people to walk to daily needs – not just Residential, but Retail (including the cafes and clubs Duany loves at least as much as you do), Office, and Civic buildings and spaces. An incomplete neighborhood is missing one or more of those four essential components. A good city is made up of numerous complete neighborhoods.”

      This, actually, gets well at our core disagreement with the methodology of New Urbanism (which, as I pointed out above, we have explained at length elsewhere). New Urbanism looks at the messes created by modernist planning (messes which I think are often exaggerated in a rush to make a blanket condemnation of the recent past, but I wouldn’t deny at all that those messes do exist), and proposes an alternate “what”. But New Urbanism does not propose an alternate “how” — it, like modernist planning, relies on the foundational assumption that form will dictate use, and consequently seeks to fix urban problems by proposing new codes for spatial organization.

      Those new codes, in and of themselves, are not necessarily problematic; I don’t think that it’s particularly likely that we’ll get rid of codes altogether, I’m pretty sure that doing so would not be desirable in any case, and, as I’ve said before, I think that altering codes is one interesting avenue for the development of urban fixes. What is problematic is the belief that by proposing new codes one can provide a “complete” solution to the fundamental problems of urban organization — without interacting with the economic and technological structures which produce patterns of urbanization. New Urbanism proposes an essentially political solution (change these laws) to a set of problems that have not only political roots, but also economic and technological causes. Unless you can address those root causes, you’ll continually find that the new architectural order you impose politically doesn’t perform the way that it was intended to. Any given neighborhood can be redrawn in the manner of the New Urbanist “complete” neighborhood, but it remains embedded in a larger economic and technological context which makes it impossible for it to function like the early 20th century towns it is modeled after: those jobs, those ways of life — they don’t exist anymore, and you can’t wish them back by adding sidewalks and eliminating cul-de-sacs. (Both of which, by the way, seem to me to be generally good things.)

      That’s been my general and consistent critique of New Urbanism: not that it is necessarily bad or that it doesn’t make useful improvements, but that it is essentially superficial and fails to address deeper structural problems. (It suffers from object fixation.)

      This interview, though, raised other questions — as noted above — and I’d love to hear an explanation of why the things Duany said don’t mean what they seem to mean, because I’d like to believe, for instance, that he’s a firm enough believer in the value of democracy to not be tempted by ease-of-getting-things-done which often tempts architects and planners into sympathizing with authoritarian governments.

  14. [...] are others who are also offended by these statements, and they have made their own comments.  But my question is [...]

  15. david says:

    Amazing, that the architect who attempts to do populist work in a democracy gets branded as “sympathizing with authoritarian governments,” while the architects who build avant-garde towers in Dubai and Shanghai (ACTUAL AUTHORITARIAN governments!) get a free pass!

    Rholmes, I totally agree that the underlying economic issues are far more important to well-being than the form of the neighborhood. HOWEVER, architects have quite little impact on economic structure. (Unless one believes that an architect’s design affects economic structure, in which case the form is the prime cause of everything. [I don't believe this, except sometimes.])

    If one wants to have a great impact on economic structure, go into politics and finance.

    Or architects could continue to do what they normally do, complain that architects don’t have enough power in society.

    However, the “object fixation” that the New Urbanists are accused of having could also be seen as realism. The “objects” are what the architect has a chance of affecting. Architects would spend all day designing relationships or new ways of using things, or whatever, but in the end, the OBJECT is the product.

    • rholmes says:

      “…the architects who build avant-garde towers in Dubai and Shanghai (ACTUAL AUTHORITARIAN governments!) get a free pass!”

      I have no idea why you think we would give Rem and company a free pass, given that (a) I said “which often tempts architects and planners into sympathizing with authoritarian governments”, clearly indicating that I think this is a repeated problem and (b) our previous commentary on Dubai.

      “Architects would spend all day designing relationships or new ways of using things, or whatever, but in the end, the OBJECT is the product.”

      This blog has a category dedicated to posts discussing ways in which architecture and landscape architecture can be more than just the production of the formal qualities of objects; you, of course, are welcome to think we’re wrong about that potential, but our argument a good bit more subtle than “form is the prime cause of everything” or “architects don’t have enough power in society”.

    • J.D. Hammond says:

      Amazing, that the architect who attempts to do populist work in a democracy gets branded as “sympathizing with authoritarian governments,” while the architects who build avant-garde towers in Dubai and Shanghai (ACTUAL AUTHORITARIAN governments!) get a free pass!

      Um, they don’t, and neither do I. (Unless you think “Dubai is the Paris Hilton of geopolitics” is meant to be a flattering statement.) Dubai has outrageous sustainability issues that need to be addressed, but likely won’t, even after it’s far too late.

      But I’m troubled by your implication that Singapore and Cuba are not “ACTUAL AUTHORITARIAN governments”. Are you serious? Do you believe that Cuba is “a democracy in Latin America”? Would you be willing to tell that to the queer activists that have been tortured to death in Cuba, or the opposition candidates that have been physically ejected numerous times from the Singaporean parliament?

    • J.D. Hammond says:

      And I know this is pithy, but I’d also like to add that the ALLCAPS are TROUBLING.

  16. rholmes says:

    It’s probably also worth noting that even if one accepts that architects ought to confine themselves to designing about objects, that does not absolve them of the responsibility to think about the objects that they design within their current economic and technological contexts (which is what I think New Urbanism fails to sufficiently account for).

  17. Stephen says:

    David #1: “Clearly, the answer is in the law. An architect can’t just “start from scratch.” There are so many layers of code, regulations, approvals, etc, that attempt to articulate ways in which new development will engage with the existing city. One of Duany’s greatest achievement was to pioneer the architect’s manipulation of this system in order to update a typically conservative (small c) vision of the city.

    David #2: “However, the “object fixation” that the New Urbanists are accused of having could also be seen as realism. The “objects” are what the architect has a chance of affecting. Architects would spend all day designing relationships or new ways of using things, or whatever, but in the end, the OBJECT is the product.”

    Of the two, I prefer #1.

  18. [...] make this point in more detail here and here. Conveniently, the comments of my interlocutor in both cases — Sandy Sorlien, the principal [...]