fracture-prone – mammoth // building nothing out of something


[An image from Mark Luthringer’s “Ridgemont Typologies“]

In an excerpt on Slate from his latest book (Makeshift Metropolis), Witold Rybczynski asks the question: what kind of cities do we want?

Judging from the direction that American urbanism has taken during the second half of the 20th century, one answer is unequivocal—Americans want to live in cities that are spread out. Decentralization and dispersal, the results of a demand for private property, privacy, and detached family homes, have been facilitated by a succession of transportation and communication technologies: first, the railroad and the streetcar; later, the automobile and the airplane; lastly, the telephone, television, and the Internet. In addition, regional shopping malls, FedEx, UPS, the Home Shopping Network, and have helped people to spread out. Even environmental technologies—small sewage treatment facilities and micro power plants—have allowed people to live in more dispersed communities than in the past.

Framed in this manner, Rybczynski’s question and this part of his answer (which is more complex than can be deduced from this brief excerpt) together indicate something important that has been missing from the latest series of shots fired by various New Urbanists at landscape urbanism (those shots and related posts have been handily collected by Jason King over at Landscape+Urbanism here, here, and here).  One of the primary roots of the disagreement between the two schools of thought is that New Urbanists tend to see dysfunction in the contemporary American city (roughly, sprawling suburbanization) as primarily political in origin.  This is why (true) narratives about the role of mid-century auto manufacturers in sabotaging street car lines or the illegality of building traditional urban forms under contemporary zoning codes are so central to the New Urbanist complaint.  (This is also, coincidentally, why New Urbanism has little to offer towards ameliorating one of the most massive global urban challenges, the question of how to deal with the sprawling and impoverished informal developments that one in six humans already live in — political actors may have a great deal of responsibility for those conditions, but it is extremely hard to see how political reorganization (of the sort that New Urbanists champion in the United States) is likely to successfully respond.)

The problem with this primarily political conception is that the contemporary city has been produced not just by political forces, but also by the social desires and technological changes that Rybczynski so succinctly describes.  Attempting to impose a New Urbanism through political means — however wisely planned — on the complex matrix of technological, economic, and social forces that produce cities is asking for that urbanism to be fractured by pressure from below.

I make this point in more detail here and here. Conveniently, the comments of my interlocutor in both cases — Sandy Sorlien, the principal of SmartCode Local and a New Urbanist of some note — indicate that New Urbanists tend to be as focused on political causes as I have argued.

13 Responses to “fracture-prone”

  1. Carter says:

    Good post. I enjoyed most reading the thoughtful comments you referenced on the FAD blog.

    Seems to me that the influence of technologies such as the cell phone, television, internet, etc. have much less impact and drag on a move towards denser, mixed-use, mixed income, walkable place than do car dominance and low-density, single/separated-use zoning. Although it’s easy to see how certain technologies have made dispersed settlement more do-able and convenient, the many drawbacks of living and growing up in a typical suburban, residential subdivision appear to me to be a stronger force pushing new development towards traditional, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods. In this technology respect, it doesn’t seem like the emphasis on political measures to change zoning codes and push TOD is misplaced.

    But parental concern to provide a safe and pleasant place for one’s kids to play and meet nice friends – away from as many threats as possible – seems like a key (social) factor that will continue to make low density, similar income, residential-only, cul-de-sac subdivisions popular.

    • rob says:


      “In this… respect, it doesn’t seem like the emphasis on political measures to change zoning codes and push TOD is misplaced.”

      While I’m sure that I could find plenty of places to disagree with New Urbanists on the specifics of desirable political measures (though I find it easy to agree that an increase in transit-oriented development or retrofitting places for walk-ability are obvious goods), on the point that political measures are necessary, I wholeheartedly agree.

      It’s the foundational assumption that political measures are sufficient, rather than merely necessary components of a larger package of tools, which I find problematic.

      • Carter says:


        I’d be interested to hear your ideas on other types of tools should be used to tackle sprawl in the US, other than the local & national political ones. Perhaps you have a previous post or two about that that I haven’t read.

        Also, I suppose you think the NUs are on the right track with trying to change municipal zoning codes, but that there are shortcomings to their ideas for new codes. If that’s the case (or not), how would you suggest fixing existing zoning that is geared to low densities and single uses?

        Also, I’ve lived in Windhoek, Namibia for about 10 years now (but raised in Chicago area and lived in Atlantic City area) and I’ve visited many of the informal settlements that exist here, which tend to be much smaller than those in South Africa or other more populated places. I’m no expert by any means, but if I had to identify a primary reason for why people live in makeshift, metal shacks without flush toilets on the outskirts of town, I’d say it is the relatively high cost housing with respect to low wages, where even a US$30,000 house is way too expensive. Is that the type of problem that you think the NUs have not addressed sufficiently in the US with respect to sprawl?

        Thanks. I really enjoy reading your blog.

        • rholmes says:

          I appreciate the informed questions, Carter. This is fascinating to me and helps me clarify my own thinking, so I could go on and on, but I’ll try to keep it (relatively and not really) brief.

          On other tools:

          a. Here are three that immediately come to mind:

          1. Infrastructure: We spent the summer reading a book, The Infrastructural City, which lays out much of what is interesting, significant, and difficult about infrastructure as a tool for organizing or intervening in the city. I’d recommend in particular the posts “jam, hack” (which also discusses some of the same things I’m going to mention under the third tool here) and “starting from zero”.

          We happen to be writing a post at the moment on exactly how and why infrastructure is an appropriate tool for designers to use to engage, shape, and organize cities; I can’t promise a particular date when we’ll finish it, but it is coming.

          2. Technological innovation: MIT’s CityCar, for instance; Stephen and I wrote about it and its significance in our “best architecture of the decade”. (You’ll have to scroll down to locate the entry for CityCar.)

          3. Practices: One place where I significantly differ from a New Urbanist in how I understand urbanism is that I would argue that practices — including what Louis Wirth called “ways of life” — are generally more significant than physical form in determining the shape (used figuratively, not literally to mean “physical shape”) of a city. (Though there is, of course, feedback between the two.) Suburban practices will tend to dominate an urban form, for instance, rendering it functionally suburban. (This is what has happened with the Kentlands, for instance.) Or urban practices can exist and even thrive in forms that New Urbanists would consider sub-optimal. (Greenwich Village, for instance, might be considered the most pure example of New Urbanist form in New York City, but it’s hardly the locus of the city’s creative culture.)

          What does it look like to use practice as a tool for altering urbanism, then? Well, one thing that happens is that you have to look at the practice of urban design disciplines — in our case, specifically architecture and landscape architecture — in very different ways, because the traditional models for those disciplines are explicitly focused on building objects and not curating/encouraging/seeding practices. We’ve got a whole category devoted to alternate modes of practice, “the expanded field”. Another thing that happens is that you become very interested in the idea of participation, of opening the city up as something which its users can participate in the construction of. Adam Greenfield has done tons of interesting thinking about this (specifically in relationship to technology and media), much of which is recorded at his blog, Speedbird (here’s a good starting point for Speedbird). Also quite participatory and focused on practices might be something like Broken City Lab or Actions.

          (The iPhone, by the way, is a fascinating instance of overlap between practice and technology, as we note both here and here.)

          b. You might also enjoy looking at this post, “public landscapes of distribution”, particularly the projects by Lateral, UACDC, and R&DAR — all proposals for working in suburban landscapes. Reasons to appreciate each of them are noted in the post.

          c. One of the major shortcomings of New Urbanism, I think, is that it tends to implicitly (particularly in practice) accept the standard American development model — so the construction of a New Urbanist infill neighborhood, for instance, would usually begin with the demolition of any existing structures. (The standard model has become that development is cheap and temporary, and that we begin with blank slates every time we redevelop a site.) I’ve got a lot of time for schemes that aim to hack or re-use or alter existing structures slowly over time, rather than proposing wholesale reconstruction. (I think there has been a growing awareness within New Urbanism, as it ages and diversifies, that this is problematic, and corresponding attempts to rectify it. Which is excellent.)

          This ties into the notion we have developed — also its own category on the site, but beginning here — of the importance of working with “the city we have”.

          2b. “Also, I suppose you think the NUs are on the right track with trying to change municipal zoning codes, but that there are shortcomings to their ideas for new codes. If that’s the case (or not), how would you suggest fixing existing zoning that is geared to low densities and single uses?”

          Kind of. I think, for instance, that zoning codes have produced an inadequate supply of dense housing relative to demand (or to what might be considered optimally efficient from not only an economic perspective, but also social and ecological perspectives). So I support efforts to alter codes in a way that permits denser housing, and that’s obviously one thing that New Urbanists have worked to do which I applaud.

          On the other hand — and this is particularly keying off of your mention of “fixing” existing zoning, rather than answering your explicit question, we have also argued strenuously for the importance of understanding the appeal of the suburbs to suburbanites (in previous posts — here and here, for example). So while I do think there are problems with existing zoning that need to be addressed, I think they need to be addressed in a manner that reasonably accommodates the preferences that produced that original zoning. (New Urbanists have often argued something like “zoning codes only look the way that they do because they were written by ideologically-motivated modernists, and if we just re-wrote them to favor traditional building patterns, everyone would be pleased”. This incorrectly shifts the burden of responsibility and agency from the populace to a few specialists, absolving us of responsibility for the consequences of our preferences while permitting us to blame those consequences on ideologically-motivated bad actors.)

          A list of alternate zoning code “fixes” would be great fun to produce, but I’m going to have to set that aside for now…

          3. Regarding informal settlements — the point there was that the tools that New Urbanists use in the States have little application to the global problem of inadequate housing. I think that the root cause of the inapplicability of the New Urbanist program to the global problem (excessive dependence and focus on political problems) is the same as the root cause of the inadequacy of the New Urbanist program in wealthy nations, but the inapplicability itself doesn’t tell you anything about the inadequacy (or, at least, if it does, I don’t know what it would be). A bit of a tangent, hence the placement of that point in parentheses.

          • Carter says:


            Thanks again for your generous and well-structured reply. I will definitely further investigate the three themes of infrastructure, technology and practice, as well as get a copy of The Infrastructural City.

            What I’ve seen is that the NUs have a tangible set of tools — from the design, regulatory and community participation angles — to fix urban sprawl and characterless urban layout & architectural forms. During this NU vs LU debate, it hasn’t been at all clear to me what the LU side would propose practically (as a set of tools equivalent to the NU’s) to improve zoning, characterless suburbia, car-based living, etc. — at least not from what I’ve read on the blogs, even though I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog, L+U, faslanyc and others. I think that’s what motivated my questions to you. Just as it seemed important that the NUs take a step forward in articulating how they would propose to practically fix existing suburban forms (and they’ve got that new book out now + E. Jones’ book which are supposed to do that), it also seems important that alternative urban design approaches/theories explain (and maybe package) how they would practically approach zoning, street design, characterless suburbia, car-centric urban design, community participation, etc. It makes total sense what you say that there are important reasons why people want to live in suburbs that shouldn’t be overlooked, and (from your previous posts) that one has to work with the existing infrastructure and buildings, not just theorize that everything should and will be removed and replaced. I guess I am still looking forward, though, to seeing how the ideas contained in your three themes (I’m sure there’s a better word) as well as the others typically addressed by NUs and urban designers (zoning, street design, site layout, non-car transportation, stormwater management, etc.)could be captured in some kind of set of recommended urban/suburban design patterns & strategies and typical/standard regulatory improvements that represent the LU, EU or other non-NU approach.

  2. effelarr says:

    First let me say I’ll be buying Rybczynski’s book on my next paycheck because I think he’s a brilliant author.

    But while I think there are plenty of holes in the New Urbanist argument, I think Rybczynski’s assertion that Americans have unequivocally shown their preference for dispersed cities is missing something, too. People’s preference for sprawled out cities is predicated on cheap energy and under-priced and subsidized driving (from gas to roads to parking), so of course people will want more of it. So the social desires and technological changes he speaks of, while very valid, are not the full picture either. (Maybe he addresses this in the rest of the book?)

    • rob says:

      I know Rybczynski uses the word “unequivocal”, but I think he’s doing his own argument a disservice by describing it in that absolute manner. (In fact, while I too tend to buy everything he writes, I think he does have a tendency to over-simplify in attempt to produce clear explanations for complex situations.)

      Reading further into the Slate piece, he also writes:

      “Thus even as dispersal appears to be the order of the day, concentration is making a comeback. Sometimes, concentration takes new forms: power centers, office parks, theme parks, and villagelike planned communities in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes the results of concentration are more familiar: downtown entertainment districts, historic neighborhoods, waterfront esplanades, and urban parks. All such gathering places are evidence of the age-old desire for human contact, crowds, variety, and expanded individual choices. This desire has breathed new life into many small cities, especially college towns, which, with their attendant research facilities, office parks, university hospitals, and cultural amenities, have blossomed and are among the fastest-growing and most attractive places to live and work. Part of this blossoming is the result of technology. Cable television, regional airlines, catalog shopping, and the Internet have brought big-city conveniences to small cities. But when college towns succeed as attractive and vital places to live—and by no means all do—the result is a potent synergy between higher education, information-age industries, and people’s preferences for smaller, more intimate communities.”

      The link here might be that by “dispersed” he doesn’t only mean “suburban” (though he does mean that), but also other forms of dispersal: more evenly distributed across the country (as traditionally populated cities in the Rust Belt empty out in favor of warmer cities), or into more, smaller cities rather than fewer, larger cities.

      The slideshow that accompanies the Slate piece jumps quickly between historical examples (Savannah, Reston Town Center) and contemporary riverfront landscape projects (Brooklyn Bridge Park, DC’s Navy Yards) which are all of relatively dense places — in fact, he even explicitly addresses the densification of suburbs — so I suspect you’ll find, as you note, that the book presents a more complex picture than either my short clip above or even the entire Slate piece.

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