Planning Challenge 1: Commercial Aggregation and Subdivision (Part 2)
Tags: brady bunch, brownfields, cabrini green, chicago, commercial subdivison, corporate campus, dead malls, eyes on the street, friends, housing projects, jane jacobs, leave it to beaver, manhattan, master planning, modernism, New York, parking lots, public housing, redevelopment, School of Community and Regional Planning, seinfeld, suburban rail, suburbanization, superblocks, the life and death of great american cities, urban decay, white flight
This post is the second part of a multi-part article on an original (as far as I can determine) idea for regenerating large commercial or industrial sites into healthy city. The idea is as yet untested, a thought experiment. I look forward to your comments; please pass it on where you think it will do some good in stimulating conversations.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, cities were ascendant, dense, and prosperous, if also iniquitous and polluted. By mid century cities reached their zenith, and a slow decline lead by the flight of the white middle class and industry to cheaper land in the suburbs, subsidized with mortgage insurance and federal highways, free of urban crime and overcrowded school districts. By the last quarter of the century, American cities appeared to be in free fall, many having lost more than half their population, leaving behind the poor and marginalized. Then, in the last decade of the 20th Century the dense city once again showed signs of life.Young, creative professionals were heading to cities after college, crime rates began to reverse, and in popular culture shows like Friends and Seinfeld glamorized Manhattan, not the cul-de-sacs of The Brady Bunchand Leave it to Beaver.
For urban planners and policy makers, the 20th Century is the historical embodiment of the question: “what makes cities prosper, and fail?” In many ways the most insightful analysis remains that of Jane Jacobs in her seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities. An author and activist in New York City in the mid-century, Jacobs’ ideas about cities did not derive from overarching theories but from close and careful observation of how cities function, in sickness and health. Most readers of Jacobs come away with a few pearls of wisdom, such as the importance of “eyes on the street” and “corner stores” to a healthy urban environment. But, Jacobs ideas reach far beyond the pithy slogan. Just as her methods were those of the ecologist, her understanding of urban health shares many characteristics of that complex science. To Jacobs, city health was about diversity and change: of uses, of wealth, of transportation options, of building types and ages, of activity throughout the day.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written in the early 1960’s at the height of modernist urban planning and design. Highways and radiant towers set in parkland were replacing the dense, variegated fabric of streets, buildings, and social bonds. Jacobs reserves special ire for “cataclysmic” redevelopment schemes – whether public housing or commercial development – a single large site, developed all at one moment, master planned. It is no accident that some of the worst failures in public housing were just such cataclysmic superblock housing schemes, such as Cabrini Green in Chicago.
The temptation and danger of master planning is to design too much. The tighter, more elegant, and more efficient the plan, the greater the danger; if all the buildings and uses are designed to fit together at one moment, they prove difficult to adapt to changing economic and social needs. Similarly, large modern developments tend to eschew the urban grid and interior streets, preferring great central lawns or parking lots. Traffic around these sites worsens as most travel is forced to the periphery. But to Jacobs rich network of streets is essential to a healthy city. The street is all modes of travel, commerce, and life come together in an intricate dance that creates community, safety, and prosperity.
The buildings of large modern developments are integrated in a “campus” style, often with little regard to strengthening the traditional urban fabric beyond their boundaries. Parking lots and landscaping create barriers to the surrounding city and vacuums of vitality. The complex financing and large investors required to purchase and develop a large parcel with intricately integrated buildings exposes cities to the volatility of the national real estate market. Complex zoning arrangements make them difficult to break up into bite sized pieces. These constraints narrow the pool of likely investors and make the individual redevelopment of parts of the site very difficult. The site loses the flexibility and adaptability of small lots and modest buildings, the diversity of varied ownership and age. In Jacobs words, though at first such a site may seem like the height of modern innovation, in truth a “new corpse is laid out. It does not smell yet, but it is just as dead, just as incapable of the constant adaptations and permutations that make up the process of life.”
Disused industrial sites and dead malls are essential targets for urban infill and sprawl retrofit. Typically these projects are large sites (often more than ten acres), much larger than their surrounding urban fabric or the typical block in a healthy urban center. What can we learn from the failures of superblock campus development from the mid-Twentieth Century? How can the ideas and lessons of rural subdivision help improve the process of urban regeneration? In my next installment I will try to integrate these ideas and propose a new tool for land use management: “commercial subdivision.”