The built environment clearly creates a variety of experiences across place, culture, and socioeconomic class. Across these experiences there are those who are privileged enough to focus on the banal nuances of place while yet others are faced with the prospect of grasping for a place they can call their own (whether it be through exclusion or lack of financial accessibility). Recently (within the last few decades at least), there’s been an effort to focus on the built environment and to return it to something that offers something for everyone without allowing it to become a landscape dominated by spatial segregation, financial exclusion, and automobile dependency.
The Congress for New Urbanism has emerged at the center of these efforts with a focus on turning away from the ideas of suburban sprawl and back toward Jane Jacobs style urbanism with robust cities which help to foster walkable, diverse communities which emphasize an emotional connection to place. The fact is that trends have shown that the rising class of young professionals are attracted to urban densities and that they want the vibrancy of city life. Cookie-cutter suburbanism is (hopefully) a fading paradigm within modern land development.
When you think about it, that’s what makes good neighbors and communities — something that is shared along with the freedom to be different. – Robert Steuteville
One of the biggest qualms with the suburban sprawl model that became the dominant land development pattern following World War II was its attempt to mass produce places in a manner that took little into consideration other than large-grass ridden lots and the ability to quickly convey automobile traffic from one place to another. This era was (and still is) marked by homes that appear to have been uniformly squeezed out of a meat grinder in an attempt to raise profits and provide a comforting sense of sameness and uniformity. In the suburban world, everyone could be guaranteed safety from their neighbor’s poor aesthetic decision-making.
The New Urbanism offers us an ability to avoid the monotony of suburbia by offering more flexibility in the design of place and a wider range of uses within a smaller area. In other words, it is everything that suburbia failed at being – a pleasant, yet dynamic and functional place to live. Unfortunately, there seems to have been some regression in the promises of the New Urbanism. The other day, I was struck by a quote on Robert Steuteville’s discussion of Steve Mouzon’s “Fence Toolkit.” Steuteville states, “In the toolkit, Mouzon offers just a few types of fences that allow for 13,824 possible combinations. Yet none of them are weird, ugly, or incompatible. When you think about it, that’s what makes good neighbors and communities — something that is shared along with the freedom to be different.”
While I don’t want to discount Mouzon’s toolkit (in fact I think it’s an excellent tool for revealing options), I was somewhat perplexed if not bothered by the context and content of the article. In fact, it made me think of the much feared Home Owner’s Association of our suburban past who wielded restrictive covenants like tyrants unaware of their own diminishing relevancy in society. Steuteville also says, “Memorable cities and towns have consistency in design combined with a tremendous depth of detail, explains Steve Mouzon, an architect based in Miami Beach. Examples are Nantucket, The French Quarter, historic Charleston, and Paris. The consistent architecture of buildings within these places makes them immediately recognizable, yet the individual buildings offer seemingly infinite details.” Certainly details are immensely important in place, but this microscopic level of focus indicates to me that the key point is being missed. In my opinion, it’s not the consistency that people are after; people crave a place that supports them socially, professionally, and creatively. In fact, I come from the wildly inconsistent Asheville, NC which somehow manages to achieve accolade after accolade as an up-and-coming urban place for creative types. I’m perplexed and bothered that the New Urbanism would begin to head down this route and I think attempting to synthesize “place” by injecting snazzy architectural features is going to direct efforts in the wrong direction. Nice fences don’t entice us to come out and create good relationships with our neighbors. Urban environments need to allow individual creativity to shine through rather than simply allowing individuals to pick from a predetermined palette of options.
It’s not my intention to solely offer a criticism of the constrained freedom argument or as Steuteville puts it, “Good communities come from something that is shared along with the freedom to be different.” Rather my intention is to spark a conversation on the importance of architectural nuance in building memorable places and “good communities.” I’m of the opinion that years of retreating to our suburban fortresses have skewed our vision of community and neighborliness and that we use aesthetics as a substitute for a social context that we have long since forgotten how to maintain. Forcing a sense of order through architecture can certainly work to synthesize security in a geographic location, but it does nothing to actually get me talking across the fence to my neighbor.
[Video from UncertainSpace]