By Richard H. Carson
A few trivialists among us understood that 2001 was the real first year of the 2nd millennium. The hype over the predicted catastrophe of Y2K led many of us to believe otherwise, but we Americans like to believe in what is not real. Smoking cigarettes can't really kill us. Violence on television can't really kill us. Terrorists can't kill us.
However, an unpredicted cataclysmic event did occur in the first year of the 2nd millennium. And that stark, painful truth has begun a new era of art, architecture and urban planning. I call it Urban Realism and it will eclipse everything that went before it.
The new Urban Realism will be characterized as that which is rational, practical and functional. Webster's dictionary says that realism is "in art or literature, a style favoring the representation of life or objects as they really exist rather than romanticizing or idealizing them." Urban Realism in terms of urban planning will be marked by that which:
- Provides personal safety
- Provides personal space
- Is truly market-driven and about freedom of choice
- Is cost-effective
- Is rational, practical and functional (even factual)
- Embraces real citizen involvement and is populous.
- Is about the quality-of-life that people want and not a quality-of-life chosen for them by professional experts.
Urban Realism can also be characterized as Post-New Urbanism. The demise of New Urbanism was hastened by historical events, but in fact it was already on life support. Leon Krier, its founder said, "What we have to point out to modernists again and again is that in democracies even architecture and urbanism are a matter of choice." He also noted that, "Modernism is a totalitarian ideology which, like all dogmatisms, is based on unprovable assumptions." These were lessons not learned by the New Urbanists.
One wag recently wrote that New Urbanism projects "are feel-good faux-towns, cozy and nostalgic developments which feign urbanity without making the effort to actually be urban." This is because New Urbansim was the creature of architects and not planners. Such projects give one the sense of being on the movie set of The Truman Show. They are artificially arranged groups of buildings, not unlike the gaudy retail storefronts in any mega-mall in America.
The pious priesthood of New Urbanism decided that they knew what was best for the common man. They believed the common good they would bestow upon us outweighed the need to facilitate the actual wants of our citizens. New Urbanism moved us beyond being planners and architects, and we started becoming social engineers. We decided that the automobile was socially and environmentally bad, and we undertook a holy quest to change our autocentric society and instil new autophobic cultural values. But the automobile of the future will use little fossil fuel, not damage our air quality and proliferate because it will be so cheap. So we will have planned for the wrong future.
New Urbanism never found a place in the American psyche because it was essentially anti-American and did not result in an organic human settlement form. Nor was it created by an earthshaking historical event. Instead, it has been overtaken by an event. An event which altered society and left New Urbanism as no more than a historical footnote.
Le Corbusier's Modernist movement gave us the utilitarian skyscraper that ruled the end of the 20th century. And it was the New Urbanist progeny that failed to stop its proliferation. The demise of the skyscraper will not occur because of the New Urbanists, it will occur in spite of them. Both will end because of the adaptive evolution of Urban Realism. We, as a society, must survive; therefore we will adapt our settlement patterns to survive the new reality.
The era of Urban Realism will not be the end of good urban planning. The basic tenets of comprehensive planning and growth management are to take a very rational and functional approach to creating human settlements. For example:
- Urban growth boundaries will still be used because they are a cost-effective way to deliver urban services and contain, if not prevent, sprawl. However, it will be imperative to maintain a 20-year land supply with such a boundary in order to maintain a viable market for development.
- Providing high capacity mass transit, like light rail, is a clean and efficient way to provide mobility to those who can't either afford or access the automobile. Although light rail may cost more than buses, it says a lot about both the humanity of our society and the liveability we want.
- Urban Realism will return us to embracing real citizen involvement. We will stop social engineering our cities and neighbourhoods. We will stop and listen to what citizens are really saying.
- We will once again embrace the serenity of our back yards and the quiet backwater of the cul-de-sac. We will quit pretending that we live in the television hamlet where there never was a drive-by shooting.
- We will want more personal space than public space. This will force us to rethink densities. These days even New Yorkers do not want to live in Lower Manhattan. Instead of rent control, such housing is now subsidized to attract New Yorkers back.
- We will let people have the houses they want and can afford. Most people don't want to live in cute little neo-traditional towns that look more like Disneyland's Main Street than America's Main Street.
Corporate America will move out of their inner-city corporate phallic symbols and back into the more academic-research suburban campuses with 4-6 storey mid-rise buildings. This will happen because corporate America needs to attract employees who want to be psychologically safe. Corporate America also needs it because a jet airliner cannot destroy an entire company in a campus setting in a single act of terrorism.
Skyscrapers are arguably more cost-efficient in places with a finite land supply like Manhattan or Tokyo. But they do not provide the personal space employees want. More importantly, they don't provide the perception of personal safety where the employee feels they have control over their fate. Not even the CEO in the big corner office on the 100th floor really feels safe. In the 21st century such people will be viewed as corporate sadists because they forced their employees into the visible manifestation of their corporate power.
Reality is often painful and in time denial becomes preferable to pain. So Urban Realism will fade as our collective memory of that moment in time fades. Such memories last at least a generation, so Urban Realism will last at least that long. Then once again the prophets of aesthetics will start to dictate style over substance in our cities, as well as the psychology of the city over the city's functionality. That is until another act of human carnage in America will up the ante of the exponential calculus of domestic terrorism.
Richard Carson is an urban planner, writer and teacher in Northwest America and involved in several web sites devoted to planning and urbanism.
[Note: You can read the New Urbanist rebuttal to this essay on Planetizen].