Can placemaking – in short, the building or strengthening of physical community fabric to create great human habitat – be a “new environmentalism”? The question is posed by a provocative short essay, which I first discovered in 2011. Written by Ethan Kent of the Project for Public Spaces, the article continues to make the rounds. The essay influenced my own writing (“The importance of place to sustainability”), and I’m returning to it here because the issues Ethan has raised continue to be important.
My answer, by the way, is a qualified yes: creating the right kinds of places for people, particularly at the neighborhood scale, has indeed become a new approach to environmentalism and one to which I am deeply committed. But I qualify my answer because placemaking is by no means the only important aspect of today’s environmentalism (not that Ethan suggested that). In addition, I think the physical building of community can become even stronger as an environmental tool by becoming somewhat more explicitly environmental in its content. I’ll get into all that in a minute.
First, though, I want to explore the phrase “new environmentalism” a bit. Years ago, the well-known urbanist Andres Duany was kind enough to write a cover blurb for NRDC’s then-new book about smart growth, Solving Sprawl. Andres wrote, “Finally, here is a book on the environment that includes the human habitat as part of nature. This may be the first text of a ‘New Environmentalism’.” I was quite honored by the flattery that our book was being considered important and new, and by the parallel language to “new urbanism,” bestowed by one of that movement’s pillars. Might our way of thinking – advocacy for smart, green “people habitat,” if you will – be earning its way to an impact on the environmental movement as significant as that brought by the new urbanists to architecture and planning?
I’ll let others judge the extent to which that has come to pass, and quite immediately proclaim that, to the extent it may have, the philosophy expressed in Solving Sprawl was neither all “ours” nor all “new.” (New urbanism wasn’t really new, either.) In discussing the death of the great American singer/drummer Levon Helm, my friend Geoff opined that all music is derivative; he’s right about that, and the same can be said for the school of environmental thought that came to be known as smart growth. Its tenets evolved from precedent, and one hopes they are evolving still.
All that said, there was indeed something new about the environmentalism that developed in the 1990s and continues so far in this century, in that now what we are for is every bit as important as what we wish (and need) to stop. I detailed my personal version of that transition (“NIMBY to YIMBY”) in an Earth Day essay written two years ago. And people habitat – neighborhoods, cities, metropolitan regions – is every bit as important to the environment as natural habitat and wilderness. Indeed, making cities great should be seen as a key strategy for protecting wilderness.
Today’s environmentalism incorporates the truth that, yes, we do need to build things. We need homes, workplaces, shops, schools, streets, factories, warehouses, ports, mobility, sources of energy. We need sustenance and we need commerce. To me, the excitement in environmentalism today is in making all that as good and as sustainable as possible. While there are still far too many things we absolutely must say “no” to, I’ve lost patience with the old environmental approach of saying no without a clear sense of the preferable alternative. It’s OK to be idealistic, if you must (I’m more of a pragmatist, myself), but please do have a vision if you want my personal support.
So that brings me back to Ethan’s essay about placemaking, which is eloquent on the subject: “Having less impact is noble, but aspiring to have a big impact, to create the world we want starting in the place where we live, work and play, is a transformative agenda.” And so it is, because placemaking is an affirmative act, fundamentally about creating something: quite literally, “making” a “place.” At the Project for Public Spaces, where Ethan is vice president, the focus is on our public realm – our streets, our plazas and squares, our waterfronts, our parks, our markets and so on.
These are incredibly important aspects of our people environment and, by placing them in cities and walkable neighborhoods, they become incredibly important to our natural environment as well. To the extent we use great public spaces to anchor compact people habitat, we reduce the spread of environmental harm. I would argue that the shaping of the private realm is also an important aspect of placemaking, and that we must get that part of our community fabric right, too.
I wouldn’t stop with the physical shaping of places, though. If the affirmative making of great places may define an important part of 21st-century environmentalism, making those places greener could strengthen the role of public spaces and urbanism in the environmental movement. In other words, let’s not just make a public square that works for people and call it good enough: let’s make it of locally sourced, sustainably harvested materials; in environments where it rains a lot, let’s incorporate green infrastructure to filter stormwater. If there’s a fountain – and I love fountains – let’s make sure it recycles its water; if there is lighting, let’s make it energy-efficient. Let’s take advantage of opportunities to bring more nature into neighborhoods, with plantings of native species. And so on.
I am not suggesting, by the way, that these things are not being pursued. In fact, I am confident that in many cases it is the Project for Public Spaces that is leading the way for greener urbanism. What I am suggesting is that, if our approach to environmentalism is and should be “new,” so should our approach to urbanism. As in so many matters relating to the environment, the greatest power lies in synergy: the more we learn from each other, the better both our people habitat and our natural habitat will be.
Originally featured on the NRDC Switchboard, now archived here, and also on the PlaceShakers blog.
Katarxis Nº 3
A Conversation with Andrés Duany
Architect, Co-Founder of Congress for the New Urbanism,
Author of Suburban Nation
and Developer of Urban Transect Theory
Jump to Interview Text
Andrés Duany and his partner, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, are undoubtedly among the most influential architects in the world today. Famed as the designers of Seaside, Florida, they began their career as modernists and post-modernists, designing stylish high-rises in late 1970's Miami. An epiphany brought on by Leon Krier, reinforced by the writings of Christopher Alexander, prompted Duany and Plater-Zyberk to change direction to build urban communities. They formed a town planning design company and began planning, writing and lecturing around the world.
Duany and his allies sought to do more than create famous projects: they sought nothing less than to reform what they saw as wayward modern architectural and development practices. To do so they co-founded a movement modeled rather ironically after the modernists' own CIAM - called the Congress for the New Urbanism. No longer would the rational, segregated planning and architecture of postwar America be the model. We would return to the universal and time-tested principles that were responsible for shaping the magnificent places of history. We would learn the lessons of Jane Jacobs and others in focusing all of our efforts on the street, the civic space, and the urban fabric. We would practice architecture, and urbanism.
The success that the New Urbanism has achieved in shaping the debate about architecture, and in transforming the entire American development industry, is nothing short of astonishing. Duany raises plenty of hackles from his opponents, from free-market ideologues on the right, who challenge his "social engineering," to neo-modernist defenders on the left, who attack his "insipid nostalgia". But one thing neither side can do, much as they might like, is ignore him.
And at the center of his message, beyond all the issues of Disneyesque re-creation, freedom of consumer choice, democratic culture and all the rest, Duany has raised one inescapable fact: compared to even modest work of the past, our modern culture of building is producing evident garbage. And the ball is in the modernists' court (modernist architects, postwar modernist planners, and modern production developers) to reform. The gauntlet has been thrown down.
Duany's critics like to focus on his design of "new towns" like Seaside, criticizing their "instant" artificiality. But Duany and his collaborators are still seeking the key to a deeper revival, both in the suburbs (where, as Duany notes, most new development occurs, and should hardly be ignored) and equally in the abandoned city. Duany believes that it is not enough to swoop in and plant swell modernist buildings in an existing downtown, and that what is needed above all is a process of revival. That is evident in a recent example, the town of Stuart, Florida:
Back in the late 1980s, 65 percent of the downtown business space was boarded up; the streets were devoid of people or traffic. The renaissance of downtown Stuart began with the efforts of a band of dedicated business owners and volunteers. One of the most important steps (they) took was bringing Miami planner and architect Andrés Duany to the Treasure Coast. Duany's then-unique approach to designing downtown as a reflection of what had gone before -- rather than demolition and redevelopment -- and his use of intense public involvement in the design process using charrettes, created the basis of what has become a vibrant urban core. Stuart's downtown has become a destination point for residents and visitors alike. (Fort Pierce Tribune, 2/03/2003)
But as our interview made clear, Duany believes more will be needed than charrettes and well-meaning civic leaders. What is needed now, he thinks, is nothing less than an overhaul of the technocratic culture, beginning with zoning codes.
Duany's latest Herculean effort is a new model zoning code called the SmartCode, developed after four and a half years of intensive work: "by far the most difficult thing I have ever done", he says. The SmartCode is based on his work, with his brother Douglas, on an analytical tool called the Transect. The notion, developed by Sir Patrick Geddes in the early 1900's and refined by the Duany brothers, is that urbanism occurs across a spectrum from urban center to rural wilderness, and that any system of zoning must account for that structure. (For more information, see the Duany interview with Oscar Machado that follows.)
The SmartCode will be distributed by MuniCode, the company that distributes model codes around the US. The analogy to a viral code, inserting its own life-generating genes into a host, is tempting.
I interviewed Duany in December of 2002, after interviewing Christopher Alexander in September of the same year. The two offer intriguing comparisons. While Alexander wants to treat each design problem as a fundamentally unique context - and indeed, believes that key ills of modernism arise from its failure to do precisely that - Duany believes we are doomed to a technocratic age, and that if we are to have any real effect, we must commandeer the apparatus of that technology, the better to turn it to more human ends.
In this respect, Alexander and Duany may not be as far apart as one might think. Both of them in fact agree with the modernist notion that modern technologies create a new human condition to which architecture must respond. But each approaches that premise from a somewhat different angle: Alexander from the long-term perspective of the ultimate transformation that is needed, and Duany from the immediate perspective of the pragmatic steps to be taken now. Alexander focuses on new computer production methods that may in time yield a transformation of technology - one-off processes, pattern languages, adaptive algorithms and so on. Duany focuses on immediate means of progress through the existing technological apparatus - the zoning codes, the developer conventions, the architectural fashion mills.
As Alexander said to Duany in 1988, "we all know what the appliance is… what we need to do is design the plugs that connect it to the existing power grids." Duany is, he says, only designing plugs now.
And so while Alexander may have made more theoretical progress - his book A Pattern Language is now reportedly the best-selling architecture book of all time -- The New Urbanists have arguably made more physical progress, with actual projects built in the hundreds. Whether Duany's is, as Alexander worries, a Pyrrhic victory - its compromises to the top-down developer game making it too vulnerable to the artificiality of the present consumer economy - remains to be seen. A more intriguing view is that each plows the ground toward the other, and may meet at some more satisfying time in the future.
- Michael Mehaffy
Michael Mehaffy: Pardon me for a long-winded first question, but I’d like to set up this discussion in the following way. As you know, in this issue we're discussing the “new science” of complexity and its implications for a new urbanism and -- perhaps -- a new architecture. This is of course a “new” science only in historical terms, since it has already been applied to urbanism and to architecture since the 1960s, by people like Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander.
Jane Jacobs ended The Death and Life of Great American Cities with that marvelously prescient last chapter called "The Kind of Problem a City Is.” In that chapter – which should be required reading for anyone in architecture and urban planning -- she talked very lucidly about the new science of "organized complexity". At that time the field was just then emerging, but since then one can fairly say that it has revolutionized the sciences. Back then, Jacobs made the case that a city was not a simple linear problem of the sort that planners had been assuming -- that a city had to be understood as complex, mixed, emergent. Only then could workable tools be developed to manage the complexity of the city for human ends.
It seems to me that this is the historic lesson we’re still trying to come to terms with. Some of the neo-modernists – Koolhaas, say -- throw their hands up and say that complexity amounts to nature out of control, let’s go along for the ride. By contrast the New Urbanists seem to be saying that complexity is just a deeper level of structure, but nonetheless understandable, predictable, something we can learn from. That we can restore the complexity and the vitality we’ve seen in the best cities, by first understanding what it is and how it is created, and then implementing new strategies for its creation. And the first step is to create diverse, mixed, walkable, well-connected urbanism.
But isn’t there some distance to go to get to the level of complexity, the organic character, of the greatest cities of history?
Andrés Duany: There is a potential contradiction at the center of your call for complexity: How to create such an urbanism by excluding any of the complex forces that impinge on it? Forces like the protocols of planning departments, and loan officers, and democratically produced laws; and those disastrous architects? Are they not to be part of the mix?
I am referring to the difficulty of getting such communities implemented in great quantity (which is the aspect of modernity that most interests me). Is a truly complex urbanism not irreconcilable with such fundamental forces as international finance, legal systems, bureaucracies, specialized professionals, retail organizations and not least: the wishes of the people?
Yes, the people's will may not yield what you consider an “organic” community. When asked, "the people" abhor diversity and connectivity. Yes, they are confused by media-induced fear and manipulative marketing. But as a result many of them want to live in monocultures, in enclaves. What are we to do, impose our principles upon their desires?
In the 21st century, it is too late for innocence, raw nature is gone. If we can manipulate genetics, then it must be possible to artificially create special strains of urbanism that work better. If not, we leave that big tool, hard science, in the hands of our adversaries, the modernists.
MM: I take your point that architecture cannot be separated from modern culture, and that modern culture is a technological consumer culture that is based on large quantities. Certainly we’re not going to return to raw nature, as you put it, and we need to take into account all the conditions you cite. But to borrow Leon Krier's title, wouldn’t you agree that that isn't our fate, that's our choice – to accept the awful state of affairs, or else to create the better strains of urbanism you mention, by getting our hands on this technology and reforming it to more humane ends? We’ve already made great progress with the traffic engineers, so don’t we need to extend the process to the problems you cite?
And if we are going to make this choice, guided by science, wouldn’t you agree that the first task is to really understand the nature of the environment of choice in a technological society - the nature of this state of affairs you describe? And it seems that all the fundamental forces you mentioned boil down to technical codes and marketing systems (including the marketable fashions of architects) - rather primitive, rigid and poorly adapted ones, in fact. There’s the problem.
So it seems to me that the “new science” shows us that it’s a problem of game theory – a solvable problem, according to the theory. Yes, we are technological people and we live in a world of codes and other generative rules, but there is no reason we can't supplant the existing codes with more adaptive codes that generate more life. After all, DNA is itself a code that generates life.
This strikes me as a very subversive and significant idea: a sort of virus that is infecting the organism of modernity, installing its own life-generating DNA.
Would you say that this is a good description of what you're doing - working, through the Transect and related tools, to overcome the problems of a primitive technocracy, creating the "DNA" that is needed for advancement? Isn't this how we're beginning to learn how to achieve again that complex urbanism?
AD: I disagree with you only in one point: That we are at the beginning of the acquisition of knowledge. I think that Leon and Chris and the best New Urbanists are MASTERS of urbanism and that the latter group are also masters at implementation. To quote Chris: "We all know what the appliance is. . . what we need to do is design the plugs (note the plural) that connect it to the existing power grids." The New Urbanists are designing plugs now. You are crafting the plug to the scientists, and that is why we support you. To the environmentalists, who are a very powerful grid, we are plugging into with the Transect.
MM: I guess that’s one of the dangers of talking about a “new” science – or, for that matter, “new” urbanism. It seems to suggest that we're at the beginning, but in fact we're plugging in a very old and well-evolved appliance: a traditional urbanism that represents a collective intelligence of millions of human minds over thousands of years. But what's new is our understanding of it, our understanding of its sophistication, in today's scientific and technocratic terms. And also our understanding of how to restore and reproduce it in a technocratic society. How to “plug it in.”
So it seems to me that the plug to the scientists is a two-way link - we're going to get back some strong ammunition to show how this stuff we're doing actually represents the technological future, and is completely compatible with it -- even demanded by it. We're going to shatter the myth that it's romantic and pre-scientific. That will be hitting the modernists on their home turf of technological modernity -- a realm they thought they had to themselves.
You mentioned that getting things implemented on a large scale was one of the aspects of modernity that interested you. Isn't there a danger, as Chris Alexander has warned, that that kind of large scale doesn't allow the grain of adaptation that's going to be required for good urbanism and good architecture? Isn't scale one of the key things that the modernists screwed up on so badly?
AD: Yes scale is a prime problem, but it is also THE reality of modernity. It cannot be avoided. I believe it was Gideon, the theoretician of modernist architecture who said: "Ours is the problem of large numbers." These early modernists were very smart. There is immense population growth, even in the U.S.; there is the blinding speed of communication, of automatic decision protocols and of mass production. If we return only to the crafting of cities, what we do may be of high quality but it will not be important. It will be an art, which is fine--but that is all. But we have achieved such places already: Leon, Chris, even ourselves. Those were the Beta tests. They were slow, handmade. What is the use of slower urbanism except to indulge ourselves in the pleasure of doing things well?
I think that you agree that what we must craft now are not the communities, but the programs that create them quickly automatically, replicating the organic process of sequential decisions. This must achieve the authentic variety and resilience of traditional communities. These protocols must be propelled by the power grids, and not be tied to the limits of our personal efforts. Every one of our "adversaries" operates from automated protocols. Ones that allow one Wal-Mart to be built, staffed and stocked each and every day. Protocols that flow 200 mortgages for 200 parametric strip shopping centers, all bundled for purchase in a single transaction by an insurance company. What would they do with our one-off creations? Inspect them individually? They can't. John Hancock in Boston has to invest $7 billion a year. Their investments MUST flow smoothly without hiccupping on our individual conceptions and explanations.
These protocols are powerful because they are automated, but for that reason they have no resilient intelligence. We can infiltrate them like viruses, as you say. Once we control the protocols they can be made to yield the communities humans desire. The handlers don't care, they just need to cover their asses. And they need them coordinated with all the associated protocols so that the system can hum along processing great quantities of investment. For example: the strip shopping centers need 25,000 drive-bys per day; this requires the traffic protocols to load up certain arterials which will only happen by cutting off the precious inter-connected network. Our opponents have a highly integrated system.
We must understand the system. It cannot be destroyed and replaced. We can only infiltrate it and turn it to our purposes, like a virus does to a cell.
I think that this is possible, as the system is susceptible to any organism that communicates in its terms. I am afraid (correct me, please) that Leon and Chris' methodologies do not wish to lower themselves, to the required level of communication, with the existing protocols. They create their own much smarter ones. But I don't think that we have time to break the existing ones down, nor to build up comprehensive new ones. No one has ever dismantled a bureaucracy--not Napoleon, not Hitler. They could only turn them to their purposes.
The strength of the SmartCode as a virus is that it is based on zoning, so that it can be administered by the existing bureaucracies. But the result is quite the opposite. By being Transect-based, it creates a zoning system of complex habitats with ecotones that assure overlap and connectivity; and furthermore, it is successional, like nature, so that communities can adjust and grow.
This particular "virus" will commence delivery to the market in January. MuniCode will distribute it for a profit. This is the outfit that writes most of the sprawl codes. It has 3700 open municipal accounts and a mailing list of nearly 40,000. And they will be sold at a good profit, so there is incentive to keep replicating. They are pleased to expand their business by distributing “an additional product.”
There are biological analogies to all this that perhaps you can help with. Doesn't the market behave like an organism?
MM: Well, that's part of the problem you described earlier, isn’t it? At this point the market behaves organically in a very limited way - it reduces valuation to a momentary decision, within a technocratic environment of very limited information and bounded rationality. Consumer manipulation and all the rest. You captured this earlier when you said "the people's will is no longer organic." By contrast, traditional patterns of the sort that Chris and Leon have identified have had the enormous benefit of slow adaptation and evolution, and because of the greater time span it was actually a much richer and more connected information environment. Also because it was a more connected cultural system. So now the challenge is to inject into the market the benefits of this richer information environment, by coding the patterns of good urbanism into the financial and legal and zoning systems - into the protocols. Then the market becomes a vector of traditional knowledge, through this code. And then the market does that work for you - which I take it is what you're saying.
By the way, I love that quote of Gideon about “the problem of large numbers.” That beautifully captures the conception of modernity in the last century. I think it’s what Koolhaas was referring to when he said that modernism had failed to deliver the alchemical promise to transform quantity into quality. But of course there’s a new conception of biological order, which is all about the differentiation of large numbers into structures of organized complexity. And we see all over in nature that large numbers are managed by generative sequences or codes. And that’s the new model that we can learn from, and that I take it we are learning from. That’s the new modernity.
So this is a real transformation of Gideon’s “problem of large numbers.” Instead of large numbers as undifferentiated statistical populations, we’re seeing large numbers as the result of prodigious but unique generative adaptive techniques, the way nature generates a billion critters, every one exquisitely different, and the whole thing incredibly efficient and economical. That shows us how we can still have great efficiencies and economies of scale, the way nature herself does. We’re learning to run manufacturing that way, with computer-controlled one-off processes.
So it seems to me that what is being done with urban codes represents enormous progress in that direction. But how much farther do we need to go? For example, the genetic codes of nature "learn" and adapt themselves to novel conditions and scales. The codes of traditional urbanism did this too, as part of the collective intelligence that they embodied. Can the SmartCode learn on its own? Or will you have to "re-program" it manually for any new conditions? I ask this because I think it's closely connected to the question of scale and grain of adaptation.
AD: Let me respond by extending your analogy to computers. The Transect is an operating system. The SmartCode is one possible program based on it. Its use to create a community is an application. This must always be done and it is understood to be necessary even in the modern world of mass production.
All sorts of codes can be written that are Transect-based. Our version happens to be the SmartCode. Ours is designed to be locally recalibrated very easily. It has text and numbers in [brackets] that must be replaced with local practice.
It contains, however, a hard core of inflexible principles. These are the principles of the human habitat that have been identified by Leon and Chris as timeless and cross-cultural.
There are other aspect to the SmartCode that supplement the answer to your question:
1. It includes notations about everything, even small things, for example, sign ordinances. Why? Because we have learned that our planning/legal system abhors a vacuum. Anything left void "because it doesn't matter one way or the other" will be filled, usually badly. We must deal with everything in order to protect flexibility and variety. There is no way around it.
2. Many prescriptions are parametric: physical requirements are stated numerically, as expected by the protocol, but the tabs are set so wide apart that it is similar to having flexibility or, in some cases, to having no rule at all. This achieves our purpose of flexibility while keeping the lawyers away.
3. The text and format of the SmartCode is heavy, and it is meant to be. It is very dryly written; it dispenses with explanations; it is technocratic and legalistic. In other words, it slips perfectly into the existing legal/administrative system. It simulates a “real” code – it is not an instructive or a hortatory document, like Leon's or Chris marvelous and necessary publications.
4. The reason that it will respond to local and evolving conditions is that it plugs in to the existing American political system. That this unfortunately consists of amateurs running government means that it will be compromised. This is the cost of being complex in an evolving democratic society.
This code would give better results in France or the old British Empire, which were run with powerful, professional and elite civil services. But since it is the American middle class that is emulated by the rest of the world, it is a good thing that we are working at ground zero, however noxious it may be.
A possible flaw in Chris' proposition is the assumption that the American people, unfettered, will build communities that serve them well, if only they are provided with the right tools. We must assume that they would want such places if they were only available, or we might as well quit right now; but we shouldn’t romanticize the reality about how they came into being. Most of our best places were created by powerful elite individuals (developers and town founders such as Oglethorpe, Nichols and Davis) or cabals (the 1813 Manhattan committee on streets). It is the naïve charm of Americans to think that democracies do everything best. Democracies indeed do many things well, but urbanism does not seem to be among them. We the planners must have the confidence to lead and the honesty to say so. In his willingness to admit this, Leon is less romantic than Chris.
MM: Again, it seems to me that goes back to the question of “the people’s will” and the process of cultural traditions like science and art. Clearly human culture -- human "collective intelligence" -- implies some selection, emergence of leadership, authority, all the rest: it is hardly led by a pure democracy of equals. Not all scientists have equal say in shaping the tradition of science: the Einsteins and Newtons have a disproportionate influence. I suspect you and I would agree that democracy ought to do that which it is best suited to do, allow a rightful say in the running of things, but without allowing human culture to be hijacked by a tyranny of the majority. Or by a tyranny of market fundamentalists either. We need to restore the legitimacy of that neglected third force, human culture, and the collective intelligence of cultural tradition.
On another topic, as you know we also interviewed Chris Alexander for this issue. He said that he was very proud of you and the New Urbanism for all that you have accomplished -- but that he remains concerned that the conventional development process, with all its financial constraints, still has a stranglehold on the result. That it forces construction to occur too suddenly, not allowing the adaptation that has to occur.
AD: The cities of Chris and Leon are my personal, unattainable dreams. I have said that if I had to go to a desert island for the rest of my life with only one book, that would be A Pattern Language. If I had to behold one image for the rest of my life it would be Krier's Atlantis.