On the Future of Cities

The recent publication of two books prompted me to ponder the future of cities and do a write-up of them together:
Implementing Urban Design is the latest of many books about urban design and planning by Jonathan Barnett, whose career and CV span around fifty years. Over that time he has served as an architect, planner, educator, and an advisor to cities in and beyond the US, including Charleston, South Carolina, Omaha, and New York City, where he was Director of Urban Design in the Department of City Planning. When I received Implementing Urban Design, one of the first things I did was scour my bookshelves for other books by Barnett (something I do with most other reviews). There I found his first book, Urban Design as Public Policy: Practical Methods for Improving Cities, published in 1974. It, his first book, summarized his efforts in that role at NYC Planning, presenting the working methods behind the projects he worked on and doing it in ways that other urban designers in other places could learn from them.

Just as Barnett's first book was "concerned with techniques of dealing with a number of significant urban and environmental problems which are found in existing cities, or are created when new areas are developed," his latest book focuses on the "complicated interactive process" that is required to move urban designs from their conceptual phases to completion. "What happens in between," in other words, is the subject of Implementing Urban Design, illustrated in ten chapters with case studies drawn from Barnett's experience as an urban design consultant. New York City is here, in chapter 3, "Designing Cities Without Designing Buildings," an echo of a chapter of the same name in the 1974 book. The chapter in the earlier book includes, among other projects, the Lincoln Square Special Zoning District, created in the wake of construction of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and developers rushing to build near it. A requirement to build to the sidewalk (to a height of at least 85') and including arcades for the buildings on the east side of Broadway were the most dramatic components of the special district. Too early to see its impact in 1974, Implementing Urban Design shows the area nearly fifty years later, with a hodgepodge of towers on podiums along Broadway but a street wall that is fairly cohesive. Although the arcade requirement was eventually eliminated from the special district (they're now "permitted" rather than required, such that recent projects like Robert A. M. Stern's 15 Central Park West don't have one), the bulk of the requirements are there, working to maintain that certain design aspects of Broadway north of Columbus Circle extend into the future.

The same chapter in the new book also touches on the office campus of PPG in Pittsburgh and a streetscape handbook for Norfolk, Virginia, but other chapters often delve deeper into individual projects in individual cities. For example, chapter nine, "Mobilizing Support to Redesign an Entire City," presents Barnett's process in the fairly massive creation of a master plan for Omaha, Nebraska (the cover depicts a visualization from the plan). Another chapter, "Changing Regulations to Prevent Suburban Sprawl," documents his work with Wildwood, a town west of St. Louis that incorporated in 1995 and wanted to develop a new zoning ordinance that would be appropriate to the area and veer from the suburban norm. My wife being from St. Louis, a city I've in turn visited numerous times, attracted me to this chapter, whose theme — preventing urban sprawl — is of undeniable importance. Barnett walks through the process in detail, from initial contact and developing a team, to research, concepts, writing the master plan and development regulations, and devising a specific plan for the Town Center. The last is now just partially built out, about 25 years after Barnett was brought in. But if we learned anything from the Lincoln Square example, urban designs can take upwards of fifty years until they are "complete."
Spread from Renewing the Dream: The Mobility Revolution and the Future of Los Angeles

If the visuals in Implementing Urban Design are, to put it inelegantly, less than sexy, the opposite is true of Renewing the Dream, which was edited by James Sanders, author of Celluloid Skyline, and produced in association with Woods Bagot, the Australian firm that now boasts 17 offices around the world. The "freshest member" of the global studio, founded in 2020, is in Los Angeles, where numerous projects to date have focused on transportation, including a concourse at LAX and a proposal for turning gas stations in Los Angeles into EV charging stations with cultural components like drive-in theaters. This beautifully produced coffee table book is full of striking visuals by Woods Bagot and from the worlds of art, photography, and cinema.

Even though Renewing the Dream presents a number of projects by the LA studio of Woods Bagot, including the ReCharge LA Prototype EV Station, I wouldn't call the book a monograph. Consisting of a half-dozen essays and two interviews alongside case studies of Woods Bagot projects — all geared around the theme of the "mobility revolution" in Los Angeles — the book's genre is indefinable: it is a hybrid that Sanders describes in the introduction as a "kaleidoscopic portrait" of LA, with "an unusually wide-ranging mix of content—research and data studies, urban design and public art projects, cultural and historical overviews, surveys of current and future technologies."
ReCharge LA Prototype EV Station by Matt Ducharme and Woods Bagot Los Angeles Studio

The book's wide-ranging content is predicated on what Sanders and Woods Bagot call LA 3.0, a new Los Angeles in the making, following LA 2.0, the freeway and tract-housing landscape of the mid-20th century, and, before that, LA 1.0, the streetcar and boulevard paradigm before WWII. Some of the in-progress LA 3.0 is mandated — extending the subway by 2028, the year of the LA Olympics, and the outlaw of gas cars and trucks for sale by 2035, accelerating the rise of EVs — but much of it comes from wider developments that aren't necessarily rooted in LA but have taken hold there, notably the climate emergency (think the Getty Fire in 2019) and digital technologies like Uber, which eliminate the need for personal cars on, for instance, nights out with friends.

Los Angeles may seem like the most unlikely place for a book devoted to a mobility revolution, but my personal experience with LA gave me the opposite impression. My only trip to the city was around twenty years ago, when I spent two weeks there working on a competition with a short deadline. I stayed at the Biltmore in downtown, with a view of Pershing Square out my window. My morning commute was walking across the street to U.S. Bank Tower; my evening commute, 12 or 16 hours later, was the opposite. No car, no driving — a very un-LA experience of LA. But on weekends I walked around DTLA, took buses to the Getty Center and Santa Monica, and rode the subway to West Hollywood. Although I was a tourist, my experience showed me it was possible to navigate a good deal of LA without a car. An expanded subway network, more frequent buses, urban design focused on walkability and bicycling — it isn't hard to consider these and other efforts having dramatic changes on the car-centric nature of Los Angeles.

Yet, the wide-ranging mix of content in Renewing the Dream reveals that the biggest impact of mobility advances on the city — any American city, really, not just LA — is found in parking. If changes in laws, increased public transit, technology advances, and other things lead Americans and Angelenos to have fewer cars, drive less, and use ride-sharing and take public transit more, then the many square miles of surface parking lots can be given over to spaces for people, not cars: densifying (sub)urban areas and providing housing and other much-needed functions. So, in addition to the ReCharge LA project, the book includes MORE LA, Woods Bagot's study for infilling lots previously used for surface parking, and Sanders' own California Court project, a denser version of the city's beloved bungalow courtyards apartments from a century ago. The last, documented in the 1982 book Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles, is one of a few-dozen books in the bibliography whose quotes and influence pepper Renewing the Dream. The older book and newer proposal illustrate that, while certain elements of the mobility revolution are linear and future-oriented, some of them are historical and cyclical. The answers to tomorrow's sustainable Los Angeles, in other words, are found as much in the city's existing built environment as they are in technologies and designs still to come.