tools – mammoth // building nothing out of something


In the comments on “fracture-prone” — where I argued that the set of political measures that New Urbanists tend to focus on are a necessary component of the urbanist’s operating toolkit, but not nearly sufficient — Carter says:

I’d be interested to hear your ideas on other types of tools should be used to tackle [urban problems] other than the local and national political ones.

This question is a very interesting one, and though I suspect there’s a lot more to a good answer than the brief things I noted in my reply, I don’t think we’ve collated our thoughts on tools in one place before (and I doubt there’s anyone out there subscribed to our comments feed, which means that most of our readers probably won’t see this unless I pull it up), so I’ll paste part of my brief reply here:

Here are three that immediately come to mind:

1. Infrastructure: We spent the summer reading a book, The Infrastructural City, which (among other things) 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 short 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. We also mentioned it in the post “jam, hack” linked above, saying:

“Instead of designing a new form for cities, and then producing buildings which fit that form, the Smart Cities group has designed both a technology — the CityCar — and a series of ways in which that technology would interact with the city (as a battery in a smart grid, as a part of an even more advanced traffic control system that would adjust congestion pricing in real time to efficiently distribute traffic over time and space), confident that doing so will enable ways of life [see point 3] that will generate positive changes in the city.”

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. Or urban practices can exist and even thrive in forms that New Urbanists would consider sub-optimal. Greenwich Village 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 practices 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, not curating, encouraging, and seeding practices. We’ve got a whole category on the site 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). Efforts like Broken City Lab or Actions are also quite participatory and focused on practices.

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

10 Responses to “tools”

  1. Carter says:

    Wow – thank you very much for addressing my question as you did. I’m going to (try to) do 50 push-ups in your honor. Then I’ll check out all those references you mentioned.

    I was expecting that you might emphasize the importance of decentralizing wastewater and electricity infrastructure, but couldn’t (haven’t yet) figure out how that could make a significant impact on fixing sprawl in the US. Maybe could be a strategy in addressing informal settlements (slums), but I’d like to see more real-life examples of that strategy.

    Community participation has been promoted big time in 3rd world development-related academic literature, for instance as a means to decide how a city’s annual budget should be allocated. And there’s that (distributed intelligence/knowledge-related) proposition that a crowd is wiser than a single expert (a la The Wisdom of Crowds) which I guess could support the power of community participation. But I’ll check out your links on this to see what’s being proposed.

    Thanks again for your great blog.

  2. rholmes says:

    Yeah, I’m familiar with the crowd-is-wiser notion; our general tendency here has been to argue that participatory measures need to be grounded within a framework of intelligently-designed and appropriate institutional controls (I can’t remember the post where we talked about this off the top of my head, but it was something like “not top-down or bottom-up, but top-down and bottom-up”).

  3. 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.

    • rholmes says:

      I think this — “it hasn’t been at all clear to me what the LU side would propose practically” — is a fair criticsm. (It should be noted, by the way, that though I am probably more sympathetic to the landscape urbanists than the New Urbanists, I have no desire to put myself in either camp.) One has to give the New Urbanists a lot of credit for producing a design movement which has been very efficacious — particularly in the political realm. Part of landscape urbanism’s failure to do the same can be chalked up to relative youth (particularly relative youth in spreading beyond a niche existence within landscape architecture), but not all of it.

      Some of the difficulty in looking for analogs to the New Urbanist “tools” within landscape urbanism is that New Urbanism and landscape urbanism are trying to do somewhat different things in different disciplinary territory (which might be somewhat obfuscated by the fact that both monikers end in “urbanism”). New Urbanism is often confused with architectural traditionalism — for a host of reasons, valid and invalid — but it really emerges from conversations within the disciplines of urban planning and urban design, not architecture or landscape architecture. Landscape urbanism, of course, has the opposite heritage, emerging from dialogue between architects and landscape architects in the nineties. So they’re bound to talk past one another at times, and to have methodologies which aren’t always directly analogous.

      On the other hand, I don’t think you can (nor do I want to) explain away the differences between the two by noting that difference in origin. There is real disagreement between them, which I think is rooted in (a) differences in understanding how cities evolve (the topic of the original “fracture-prone” post) and (b) their analysis of how modernist planning was deficient. To be really simplistic about (b), New Urbanists believe that the content of modernist planning was deficient, whereas landscape urbanists believe that the methodology of modernist planning was deficient — hence New Urbanists are troubled that landscape urbanism looks too much like modernism, while landscape urbanists are troubled that New Urbanism is executed too much like modernism.

  4. Isn’t there also an issue of scale – or what works at varying scales of urbanism. New Urbanism uses different architectural elements at different scales (cornice, wall, yard, street, city, zoning), but conceives of them all using the same top-down methodology, and very much integrates them.

    What I haven’t seen in landscape urbanism is a similar use of scale in the architecture. I wonder if this is a consequence of the postmodern attitude that lets a single design element exist at multiple scales. So, even if the methodology should pick different solutions for different scales, I have been seeing a whole lot of blurring and blending in projects that make waves online.

  5. namhenderson says:

    You know not to disagree at all, but i would simply note if participation and practices are key tools in contemporary urbanism than it would seem to directly call attention to the need for some practice (if not theory) of political engagement.
    While the focus by NUs on engaging the political to encourage/legislate a particular form(al) urbanism may not be appropriate. What about this sort of engagement to direct practice/participation?
    In my mind both seem to directly point to some concept of civic.

    I also think that this passage New Urbanism is often confused with architectural traditionalism — for a host of reasons, valid and invalid — but it really emerges from conversations within the disciplines of urban planning and urban design, not architecture or landscape architecture. Landscape urbanism, of course, has the opposite heritage, emerging from dialogue between architects and landscape architects in the nineties perfectly summarizes and explains the current “debate”. NUs and LUs are chiefly concerned with a different set of issues. They aren’t a one vs the other. In fact it would be interesting to see the two combined into some sort of bastard love child. Wherein an updated agricultural NU community was developed within the regional/infrastructural context of LU type project.

    • rholmes says:

      1. You are always welcome to disagree — we like disagreement — but I’m afraid you’re not disagreeing with us here. Or we’re not disagreeing with you. Or something. Point is, I totally agree that politics is one necessary and appropriate tool for engagement. (There’s probably a lot of room to think about what that might mean, and it’s not something that we do a lot of here, but we can definitely say that it’s necessary and appropriate in general.)

      2. There is certainly some distance between the two — and that produces some misunderstanding which is mistaken for real disagreement — but I also think there is real disagreement between the two, which would make reconciling them difficult. (Primarily, on the root cause issue: is the primary problem with modernist planning the ends, or the means?)

  6. […] and the tussle to describe an appropriate alternative to modernist planning which we have recently discussed.  We described this infrastructural potential with a more explicit focus on that overlap in our […]

  7. […] on “generative capacity” was a great follow up to a brief conversation in a previous post re the politics of  and the tools for implementing contemporary urban […]