Thursday, July 16, 2009

Book Review: Three Books on Urbanism

Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson
Wiley, 2008
Hardcover, 272 pages

Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design With Nature by Douglas Farr
Wiley, 2007
Hardcover, 256 pages

Urban Design for an Urban Century: Placemaking for People by Lance Jay Brown, David Dixon, Oliver Gillham
Wiley, 2009
Hardcover, 304 pages

President Obama's nearly $800 billion economic stimulus package promised to spark a building boom, but one focused primarily on the construction and repair of highways, bridges, and other pieces of aging infrastructure that admittedly require attention. These short-term band-aids in the name of job creation raise questions about how the first urban president since Kennedy will address the direction of our cities and suburbs, specifically their unsustainable trends. Where few arguments remain for continuing the suburban sprawl that gobbles resources faster than any place at any time in the world's history, it does just that. And cities persist in paving over everything natural about a place and draining the assets of the rural surroundings, offsetting the benefits arising from their density and diversity.

If better alternatives exist to these American ways of living on the land, why aren't they being implemented on a wider scale to reverse the environmental, economic and social conditions that harm us and our surroundings? New Urbanism's attempt at being a singular fix is increasingly being questioned, as the auto dependency and homogeneity of the sprawl it tries to remedy persist in its traditionally-garbed neighborhoods. The movement is proving inadequate for addressing the greater concerns facing urban areas in the 21st century. These three books on urban design's role in shaping the evolving futures of cities and suburbs argue their own unique approaches to improving the public realm, as alternatives and syntheses of New Urbanism and other approaches.

The title with apparently the most potential is Sustainable Urbanism by Chicago-based architect and planner Douglas Farr, the current chair of LEED-ND, the system's Neighborhood Development component. The book's appealing-sounding moniker knits together smart growth, new urbanism, and green building, three movements that address the sliding scales of regions, neighborhoods, and buildings, respectively. Farr advocates for transit-served, walkable neighborhoods with high-tech buildings and infrastructure. Chapters on the implementation and thresholds of sustainable urbanism are a descent resource for what hopes to be a burgeoning movement, as are the diverse case studies that round out the book. Farr's Sustainable Neighborhood Diagram is the most telling illustration of sustainable urbanism's benefits and drawbacks: Transit and habitat corridors and other commendable ecological features barely conceal the top-down imposition of what Michael Sorkin calls "starbucks urbanism."

In Retrofitting Suburbia, architecture professors Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson target the outdated, unsustainable developments of existing suburbs. With the reduction of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as their goal, the authors see transit options and increased density as the key means for success. The changing demographics of suburbia – increasingly comprised of single and aging populations – are opportunities for techniques like retrofitting garden apartments on typically single-family lots and making over strip malls and big-box stores into mix-used nexuses of activity. As the suburbs have lost their homogeneity, the authors argue, the suburban morphologies that have resisted change for so long are ripe for these and other transformations. From Levittown to edge cities, the book leaves no suburban condition untouched. Not surprisingly, the examples proffered, like Farr's book, are rooted in New Urbanism, leaving one yearning for even fewer VMTs and more formal diversity.

Urban Design for an Urban Century – the product of New York-based professor and practitioner Lance Jay Brown, David Dixon of Boston-based Goody, Clancy & Associates, and the late architect and planner Oliver Gillham – lacks the polemical focus of the other two titles, instead looking broadly at the urban designer's role in creating places for people. A handful of principles for the next generation of work by urban designers evolve from their analysis of the 70 projects winning AIA Institute Honor Awards for Regional and Urban Design over the last ten years included here. After a concise, yet thorough history of urban design and the decentralization of cities, the authors call for the recentralization of cities. The case studies, ranging from streetscapes to regional plans, are aligned with this ideal, but their variety illuminates more potential avenues for urbanism's future than the other two books.

Although each book is similar, they also divert sharply from each other. Overlap in ideas and techniques certainly occurs, but the differences point to the improbable success of singular, top-down scenarios in today's social and political climate. Sustainable Urbanism comes closest in aspiration for the one-stop-shop of New Urbanism, but the diversity of Brown, Dixon and Gillham's compendium points to a more realistic unfolding of reality. All three books should be consulted by those shaping the increasingly urban realms in the United States, with each offering numerous examples of commendable urban design. President Obama should take note.

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