Monday, March 17, 2014

Andres Duany at MIT.

Andres Duany has been making waves in the urban planning world for quite some time now.  A founding member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, he along with his wife Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk played a fundamental role in the reassessment of American land use patterns starting in the early 1990s, away from auto-dependent sprawl and towards denser urban redevelopment.  In that sense, Duany, Plater-Zyberk, their firm DPZ, along with CNU, augured a more urban-centric logic that has only grown more forceful over the intervening two decades.  For urbanists, this change was welcomed warmly and elevated Duany's name to household usage at least in the households talking about American urbanism. In other words, Andres Duany is surprisingly well known in a profession not particularly known for creating well-known names.

But anyone who is out in front in a field as mild-mannered as planning also deserves a second look, to assess what makes them stand out in the peculiar world of city thinkers and city builders -- a world burdened as it is with endless non-sexy details, loads of public meetings, and very precise debates on subjects like parking ratios and building heights?  What underlies Duany's reputation and who exactly is he?  Most importantly, is he truly reshaping our thinking on the pressing issues of the day?

Duany gave a talk MIT last week, which gave me the opportunity to hear the man and gauge the case.  By way of full confession, I knew little about him prior, except my recollection that he was instrumental in the creation of Seaside, a community planned by DPZ based on New Urbanist principles that promoted higher density living in new construction along the Florida coast.  I thought I should do a little more reading about him before I sat down to pull together this post.

I was struck that Duany and Plater-Zyberk, along with Peter Calthorpe, another noted leader in American urban planning and urban author James Howard Kuntsler were all born within two years of each other, Kunstler in 1948, Duany and Calthorpe in 1949, Zyberk in 1950.  All except Kunstler are graduates of the Yale School of Architecture.

The closeness in age (and the shared school) may explain some things.  Their generation, born immediately following the Second World War, spent their youth in the fat years of American global dominance: America victorious, personal incomes rising, standards of living going up, the engine of democracy that had won the war transforming back to civilian production.  Huge investments, both public and private, were being made to increase the American housing stock and to expand the auto industry, both of which had huge implications on our national psyche and on our landscapes.

Yet by the time Duany got to college, Vietnam was raging and undoubtedly formative.  Fundamental authority and assumptions were under question.  In that light, his later activism makes sense.  By the 1990s Duany and his cohort, now in their early 40s, tackled those ills in their society they finally had the power to change.  Not unlike their fellow baby boomer Bill Clinton, it was their turn.  With this as a backdrop, examining Seaside, the Florida planned community, is even more disquieting.

Seaside has a postcard perfectness that conjures up the worst of American traits -- the capacity and willingness to use money and power to distance unwanted things.  Photographs of it beg the question, what was Duany's design aesthetic? "I spent several summer vacations here growing up, and it so peaceful and quaint.  The town is filled with cute boutiques, great restaurants, and a beautiful beach" writes one blogger.  I don't know that I've ever run into an urbanist who was trying to create "peaceful", "quaint" communities filled with "cute boutiques".  This is not a description of urbanity.  It is really a definition of urban failure: the ghettoization of the rich, not the successful mingling of an increasingly multicultural society. If higher density suburbanity is where DPZ was going, then Seaside may be considered a success, but the two are not the same.

Duany is very interested in Ebenezer Howard, the progenitor of the Garden City Movement, a point he made explicitly during his talk at MIT.  Howard at the end of the 19th century looked at how the city and the country could be joined to reap the benefits of both and minimize the downsides of each.  To Duany, this is an organizing principle of his own examination of both landscape and the built environment.  For some reason, Howard's treatises from 1898 are not worrisome.  Duany doing the same in 2014 is nerve-wracking.  In our complex and rapidly changing world, the melding of city and country seems horribly out of date and an incredibly inefficient land use pattern in a time of continued environmental degradation, resource constraint and population increase.

Nevertheless, I realize that Duany deserves more time to make his arguments and upon reflection, he is very right about some things. Here are some of his points, and some of my thoughts about them:

Urban succession is real and cannot be ignored.  Urban succession, the notion that cities evolve over time on the same ground is very important both to urban design and to urban politics, especially since urban politics is often played out as a battle of the blind fighting the blind over minutiae.  The physical aspect of cities, their buildings and infrastructure, exist over much longer life spans.  For this reason, knowing whether large scale changes to the urban fabric are beneficial can be very difficult, which reminds me of Mao's alleged response when asked in the mid-20th century what he thought of the French Revolution, "It's too soon to tell."  The challenge is finding the right balance between what needs to get answered right now, and what only will find an answer years from now.  The more pressure people feel from change, the more they demand concrete answers to their worries and concerns immediately.  Succession says, remember, this land is part of a much longer story.

Succession happens not only over time but over space.  The oldest part of the town will have seen the most phases of development over time.  As you move away from this central point, you get simpler forms of development.  This is an important observation about urban morphology that implies change is a constant, which has huge implications for urban decision-making.

Our public discourse is broken.  Duany addresses one of the great challenges about urban land use today -- the neighborhood has a tyrannical grip over the reins of decision-making.  This often leads to short-sighted, unimaginative, reactive, fearful and ultimately deeply conservative approaches to our urban challenges, even in "progressive" and "smart" communities like Cambridge.  Much of the protections built into our current system were established in the 1960s and '70s to protect the interests of poor people who had not been represented in the public discussion to that point.  These same tools now are used by wealthy communities and neighborhoods to thwart changes perceived to adversely impact them.  This only further entrenches segregation, privilege, opportunity and control over the shape and development of the city in the hands of a few -- usually well-healed, white, older.    Often, the exercise of this power is expressed in the language of community empowerment, but it is actually a modern version of the Old Boys Club.  Power continues to be distributed unequally, it just happens more in the light of day.  To be sure, the errors, overreach and failures by planners of yesteryear got us to now, but today's system is deeply flawed.  Duany is right to argue that our adherence to back-breaking public process in the end turns a planner into a mere messenger, a go-between.  He's right that unlike doctors and lawyers, planners have no final say or authority in the profession they are trained in.

Decisions are not handled at the right level.  He claims that one of the problems we have is that decisions are not often delegating to the right level of authority.  As a theoretical construct this may be true, but seems disconnected with the messy process to get to local land use decisions.

Economists have insulated themselves from their failures, planners have not. 
He sees this as an insightful observation -- that economists don't pay the same price for being wrong in their predictions that planners do for theirs.  Actually, it's a weak observation, but his answer to it is even more unsettling:  Planners need to create a standard model.  As it so happens, this happens to be his model.  He doesn't appear to see how terrifying a notion this is.  Thankfully, in practicality, it's a laughable notion. 

The transect is the all.  This is Duany in toto as far as I can tell.  It's Howard modernized, looking across the landscape.  It deserves greater time and attention, particularly since the specifics of this are very hard to judge from one talk.

Zones of urbanity are the way to think about cities.  Zones of urban intensity relates back to his conception that urban succession happens across geographical space as well over eras of time.  His vision is that one zone automatically moves to the next higher zone of intensity in period of 15 years, meaning that the next phase of urban intensity is possible automatically after 15 years, which he points out is half a generation.

Urbanity doesn't happen in a vacuum, and it doesn't happen without a cost.  New York City can only exist because its streams are not, nor will ever be day-lighted. He's right to observe this obvious fact and to emphasize the point that we can't have it all always.  Choices needed to be made.

Agriculture is important.  In concept, this is a beautiful idea.  In practice it seems very difficult to realize and has worrying implications about resource allocation among income levels.

Seaside too will see a collapse. Seaside will not be immune from urban blight, and will almost certainly become a poor community at some point.  This is a refreshing insight into the life of cities.

In the end though, whatever his insights, I'm not a Duany fan.  There is something too convenient about his arguments.  They always resolve so neatly.  It's contrary to experience and in that sense, raises questions about his judgment.

That's one problem I have with him.  The other problem I have is actually a bigger issue: to accept Duany's argument is ultimately to accept his vision of what the future should be.  His vision is ultimately disquieting.  In a country that is finally witnessing support for higher densities, decreased auto use and annual increases in public transit uses, with all the related benefits, whether they be environmental, societal, urbanistic, he seems to stop at this unsatisfying half-way point.  Howard's vision of these areas that were both town and country were plausible answers to the conundrum of both in the first decades of the 20th century, but they don't make sense now.  The second decade of the 21st century is one of urban rebirth at a scale unseen for generations.  It presents its challenges to be sure, including exploding costs and large-scale displacements in the housing market, but why Duany with his urban creed would want to stop at a way station, a place that is neither city nor country, doesn't make sense.