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Monday, July 13, 2009

Book Review: Everyday Urbanism

Everyday Urbanism edited by John Chase, Margaret Crawford, and John Kaliski
Monacelli Press, 2008
Paperback, 224 pages

What is "Everyday Urbanism?" Taken at face value the terms point to a contradiction, the unplanned grouped with the planned. As a movement of urban design it sounds suspect, as if the everyday cannot be designed for, that it is what takes place regardless of urban design, not because of it. Or as one critic has painted it: "it is urban design by default rather than by intention." The expanded edition of 1999's Everyday Urbanism attempts some elucidation of the goals and means of the movement, while broadening its reach beyond the predominantly Los Angeles examples. All tolled the editors supply the majority of the content, pointing to a limited field of practitioners and scholars taking everyday urbanism seriously. Even more so than urban design -- also seen as a vague field -- everyday urbanism is aided and burdened by its lack of specificity and consistency of method, arising from the importance it values on locality and the day-to-day actions taking place within them.
Split into three parts -- the first two from the 1999 book -- reading the book in order reveals the LA focus the editors acknowledge. The essays on the streets, alleys, street vendors, Latinos and other places and people of the metropolis initially makes one think that everyday urbanism is specific to LA. East coast and European additions to the expanded edition address this perception, though they are accompanied by essays on mini-malls and signs in everyday urbanism's apparent west coast home. Does this mean LA is the penultimate example of everyday urbanism, stemming from its ethnic and economic diversity? Actually this geographical preference is due more to the location of proponents of everyday urbanism more than anything, but it can be said that they are responding to what they see around them, the daily lives expressed in public.
Living in New York I see the same thing occur every day, especially in the summer months when people leave their hot apartments for respite in the outdoor's breezes, shade and water. It could be said that New Yorkers, more than anybody in the United States, metaphorically extend their living rooms into the streets. The apparent social vibrancy and diversity of the place is not only apparent, it is its greatest asset. But how much of the public realm can be said to be designed for the everyday happenings of all the city's inhabitants? Do the streets designed for vehicular traffic really address the lives of people who live on this or that block? And does the closing of sections of Broadway in Times Square cater to more than tourists? It's easy to applaud the mayor when he takes a strong pro-pedestrian positions, but it's harder to push further and ask the questions that need to be asked so more residents can enjoy the benefits of safer and more beautiful streets.
An everyday urbanism in New York might resemble the LA examples found in this book, in method more than form. The closings of Broadway to cars, for example, is a top-down measure without any community input; democracy was missing from the process. This is not everyday urbanism. If it were such it would probably be in another location, and it would involve local residents and merchants in the planning of the spaces, instead of merely adding some lawn chairs and paint. So when returning to this review's initial question, everyday urbanism is two things: the expression of residents' exploitation of the economic, political and social situations (the bottom-up result); and the incorporation of the everyday into the designs and decision-making of urban designers and their clients (the top-down result). A synthesis of the two is key. It is what would have made street closings in New York more than just a spectacle in a place already saturated with spectacles.

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