Monday, October 8

An Urbanist Taxonomy

Every academic discipline has its competing schools of thought, and I'm trying to discern the playing field of urban planning before I apply for graduate schools. Categorization makes it a little easier for people like me to make decisions. Here are my brief summaries of three schools of thought, mostly derived from an article by Douglas Kelbaugh, that are currently in the running:

1) New Urbanism. Seeks to apply traditional neighborhood patterns in a human scale. Holds a high view of the influence that design and structure can have on culture and personality. Opposes dependence on automobiles and excessive privatization. Sensitive to the environmental impact of communities. Promotes mixed-use zoning. Attention to finite limits. Models: Portland, Seaside. Criticisms: excessively idealistic, sentimental attachment to the past.

2) Everyday Urbanism. Intentionally non-utopian. Appreciates the "bottom-up" design of communities by the residents for their own purposes. Inherent distrust of experts and intellectuals who may be detached from the public realm. Seeks democratic citizen participation. Focused on the particularity of a place rather than universal principles. Champions vernacular architecture and grassroots ethnic neighborhoods. Emphasizes the sociological. More observational, less prescriptive. Models: Various squatter settlements in the developing world. Criticisms: unable to resist purely market forces, lacking in coherence.

3) Post-Urbanist. [warning: highly biased. Read elsewhere for a favorable impression]. Jacques Derrida run amok in the built environment. Accepts the inevitable fragmentation of the contemporary world. Emphasizes liberty with the intentional breaking of any norm or tradition. Interest in the avant garde and technological visions of the future. Celebrates evanescence and flux. Seeks to shock with audacious architectural projects, often intentionally at odds with its surroundings. Privileges entertainment, consumption, and spectacle on a global scale. Models: Las Vegas, "world cities." Criticisms: ________.

These alternatives are further fleshed out in the Michigan Debates on Urbanism series.

I like Kelbaugh's assessement,

"Everyday Urbanism is too often an urbanism of default rather than design, and Post Urbanism is too often an urbanism of sensational, trophy buildings in an atrophied public realm. We can build a more physically ordered commons than Everyday Urbanism promises and a more emancipatory commons than Post Urbanism offers. Although Europe may hanker for Post Urbanism and the developing world may embrace Everyday Urbanism, the typical American metropolis needs and would most benefit from New Urbanism at this point in its evolution. It is the responsible if less glamorous middle path, which can and should be pursued as passionately as the more provocative extremes."

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