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Blah City

Why aren’t we creating great urban spaces anymore?

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The world has plenty of great new skylines. But at the street level, there’s no community.
(AP)
It is no longer news that more than half of the world’s population now lives in places that can be classified as “urban.” The village and the isolated farm increasingly are things of the past. The massive urbanization of Asian countries, China in particular, stands out for its pace and sweeping nature.

It’s also true that not only has the world urbanized but that urbanity itself has risen in stature. People have returned to urban living. In books, television and movies, it’s seen as a place of attainment, where things are happening. The older parts of many cities, once abandoned, have revived with new dwellers and businesses, like dry plants blooming with much needed water.

But moving past the revived and renovated, where are the great new urban places? If we are urbanizing so quickly as a planet, where are the new streets and districts that pulse with activity and character?

First, I want to make clear I am using the term “urban” differently than the U.S. Census Bureau or the United Nations. I am using it the way the late Jane Jacobs, the great writer about cities, did. By urban, I mean a place where public and private worlds are delineated, and where people mingle in what is clearly and legally public space. This sort of classic urbanism has publicly owned streets and sidewalks, parks and squares, and privately owned shops, schools, homes and churches that are close to one another. Uses, to apply planning jargon, are “mixed” rather than separated.

Before writing this, I asked a lot of smart, well-traveled colleagues if any of them could name a great new urban place in the classic sense. They couldn’t.

Certainly the world has plenty of great new skylines: Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Singapore and so on. And then there are the newer districts that we find in our own country’s cities. But when you go from the view of the skyline down to the ground, you find that these big skyscrapers sit on giant superblocks, on roads that are more highway than street.

Many of these new urban places, such as the districts in South Korea I visited a few years ago, have excellent mass transit connections. But these transit links have not produced classic, Jacobs-style urbanism. Instead, these new cities often have offices or apartment towers that connect to parking garages and mass transit, and from these it takes a bike or bus ride to reach shops, restaurants, churches or schools. Rather than being mixed, uses are segregated.

In this country, many cities have put considerable effort into creating what I would call faux-urban places. There is Celebration in Florida, and the Reston Town Center in Virginia. My native city of Virginia Beach has its own Town Center. The city has put a lot of public money into it. Its towers are impressive from a distance, and it seems to work as a gatherer of people. There are stores, restaurants and civic facilities. But it feels more like a shopping mall with streets than a real urban place.

If my hypothesis is right, why are new urban places, in the way I define them, so hard to build? I think it has to do with infrastructure, something Jacobs largely missed the importance of. The old places so many of us love grew out of infrastructure that was mostly about walking, streetcars and subways. While plenty of new mass transit lines are being created -- China has more than any country on earth -- the places being built are not so urban because they are also accommodating the car. Usually developers or cities lay out streets designed for cars first, and then place the other stuff afterward. So what we get are hybrid places -- partially urban, partially suburban. These new cities may be great on their own terms, but I personally haven’t experienced one I really liked. I hope that changes.

When it comes to our ideals, Jacobs won, at least in our mind’s eye of what a real city is or should be like. We mostly follow, or try to follow, her rules for redeveloping an existing city or town. No one wants to tear down the classic streets and buildings of Paris and replace them with towers in the park, as the late Swiss architect Le Corbusier so famously planned. But Le Corbusier, Jacobs’ nemesis, has won in the newly urbanizing world, which I’m not sure has been recognized.

Does this matter? On a practical level, it should matter to a mayor, city manager or council member. When a consultant comes in talking about helping a city create a new urban place or center, leaders need to know that he’s usually not talking about creating public life on public streets, but rather faux-urban shopping malls.

Surveying the newly urbanized world, Le Corbusier would have been proud. Although Jacobs beat him in the academy, he seems to have won on, well, the street. Or what used to be the street.

An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing. He can be reached at amcities@gmail.com or on Twitter at @Amcities.
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