Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Dissolving Border Vacuums, Part 7

Last time we examined the border vacuums around superblocks, so this time let's look at a specific subset of particularly problematic superblocks: tower-in-the-park projects, garden apartment projects, office parks, strip malls, big-box stores, and other facilities that come in the Garden City and Radiant City formats.

Ebenezer Howard's Garden City concept.
In the late 19th century the British planner Ebenezer Howard promoted a planning strategy that emphasized the formation of satellite towns around large cities (see right). These towns were intended to have their own agricultural belts and commercial districts, but the few that were built – Greenbelt, Maryland, for example – more or less took the form of conventional bedroom communities.

Howard's pastoral Garden City proposition was an understandable reaction to the horrors of hypertrophic industrialization, but, as Jacobs noted in her introduction to Death and Life, the concept was unrealistic, as all utopias are:

“His aim was the creation of small towns; very nice towns if you were docile, had no plans of your own, and didn't mind spending your life among others with no plans of their own. [Howard] conceived of planning as a series of static acts; in each case the plan must anticipate all that is needed and be protected against any subsequent changes. He conceived of planning as essentially paternalistic, if not authoritarian. (17-19).”

Since it was hopelessly static, Howard's Garden City was completely irrelevant to the social and economic underpinnings of real cities. But unfortunately, as Jacobs went on to argue, the Garden City exerted a powerful influence on 20th century architects and planners, and I think it continues to do so today: there seems to remain a subconscious meme that the city is an environmental evil, and that we should import artifices of “nature” into the city to ruralize it. I'd argue that this meme drove Ian McHarg's Design with Nature philosophy, that it drives today's Landscape “Urbanism” (more on this in an upcoming post on the border vacuums around “green spaces”), and that it even leads places like Washington DC to consider open space mandates a la suburbia!

Le Corbusier's Radiant City concept.
After WWI the architect Le Corbusier refined the Garden City concept by extruding Howard's diagram into the sky: “The Garden City is a will-o'-the-wisp. Nature melts under the invasion of roads and houses and the promised seclusion becomes a crowded settlement. The solution will be found in the vertical Garden City (22).”

Le Corbusier called this concept the Radiant City and aggressively promoted it, as in his scheme for razing half of Paris and replacing it with towers set in vacuous “green spaces” (see above). Baltimore's notorious postwar tower-in-the-park housing projects were direct descendants of the Radiant City ideology.

Again, Le Corbusier's concept was an understandable reaction to the horrors of hypertrophic industrialization, but, as with the Garden City, the Radiant City was hopelessly static. As Jacobs said, it was “irrelevant to the workings of cities (25).” Le Corbusier was notoriously averse to street life (“death of the street!” was his refrain), and in the antiurban Radiant City daily life seemed to be little more than mechanistically undertaking a series of solitary, sanitized, segregated tasks. The concept is so inhuman that some wonder if Le Corbusier was oblivious to the necessity and felicity of human interaction.

Like the Garden City, the Radiant City exerted a tremendous influence on 20th century architects and planners. Although its most infamous products were the anarchic housing projects in Europe and the Americas, the tactic wasn't just confined to public (or “social”) housing. Middle and high-income housing developments followed the tower-in-the-park model, as did office developments and shopping centers.

As mentioned earlier, the Radiant City's dysfunction was made highly visible in the fiasco that was public housing. Although there is currently an attempt to revive the concept by essentially asserting it would work just fine if enough money was thrown at the facilities (apparently you can never throw too much money at a problem!), the reality is these projects required an unwieldy, statist scale of operation that isn't feasible in a contemporary urban context characterized by the prioritized distribution of limited public resources. Even today's “model” housing authorities can't keep their units habitable, and public housing has arguably only perpetuated an endless “affordable housing crisis.”

Jacobs describes precisely how tower-in-the-park housing projects unnecessarily induce social and financial burdens: while there are elaborate and costly (and sometimes still ineffective!) workarounds for the blind-eyed hallways, stairwells, and elevators in housing projects, like open-gallery hallways, security cameras, and regular policing in stairwells, the traditional street-and-block fabric obviates the need for these workarounds. You don't need police-patrolled stairwells and hallways if the public circulation occurs where there are “eyes on the street”: “Buildings must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs on it and leave it blind (35).”

While upper-class towers can afford enough private security and gadgetry to make their blind-eyed hallways and stairwells safe, project towers must instead sap limited public resources that could be better deployed elsewhere – like foot patrols on regular streets. So the project tower is unnecessarily vulnerable to security problems that the traditional city street addresses automatically and casually due to its form – Jacobs called this “do-it-yourself surveillance.”

This surveillance allows self-appointed “public characters” to maintain the street's social structure, further reinforcing the street's safety and cohesion in a positive feedback loop (68-71). Many Baltimore neighborhoods – even struggling ones – have these public characters, and people quickly learn who the unofficial “mayor” of their street/block/district is. Contrarily, vacuous project hallways rarely produce such mayors.

Unlike housing project grounds, many traditional streets are self-policed.
In Chapter 4 Jacobs goes on to argue that self-policing allows traditional streets to casually assimilate children: “I have seen a striking difference on two sides of the same street in East Harlem. On the old city side, which was full of sidewalk loitering, the children were being kept well in hand. On the project side of the street, the children, who had a fire hydrant, were behaving destructively, drenching [passersby with water]. Nobody dared stop them. What if you scolded them? Who would back you up in their blind-eyed turf?... On lively diversified sidewalks, people supervise the incidental play of children. Only from the ordinary adults of city sidewalks do children learn [that] people must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other. The project children who squirt water on passersby go unrebuked because they are anonymous children in anonymous grounds (56-82).”

The anonymous, ambiguous nature of project grounds (or “green spaces” in today's lingo) is precisely why they form such formidable border vacuums. The grounds remain ownerless because there are no eyes on the street and no way to discern what needs to be casually policed: “There must be a clear demarcation between public space and private space; they cannot ooze into each other as they typically do in projects... Far from being attracted by indefinite leftovers of land oozing around buildings, people are repelled by them. People don't seek settings for buildings; they seek settings for themselves (35-106).”

Of course, in many Radiant City projects even the simple inanities of “green space” give way to pavement: “[Le Corbusier] embroidered freeways onto his Radiant City scheme in quantities that bore no relationship whatsoever to the hugely greater quantities of automobiles, amounts of roadway, and extent of parking actually necessary for his repetitive vertical concentrations of people separated by vacuity. His vision of skyscrapers in the park degenerates in real life into skyscrapers in parking lots. (342-343).”

As their grounds devolve into border vacuums, housing projects set into motion the running-down process discussed in the very first post: “Sometimes visible evidence of the running-down process is as graphic as a diagram. At the borders of the dark and empty grounds of [the Lower East Side] housing projects, the streets are dark and empty of people too. Stores have gone out of business, and many quarters stand unused and empty. Street by street, as you move away from the project's borders, a little more life is found. But each year the vacuum seems to eat a little farther in (260).”

It's remarkable how common this running-down phenomenon is: although the severity of moribundity varies from city to city, I've seen the process affect cities as small as Albany and Troy, NY, and even though Baltimore's highrise projects are gone, a depressing moribundity continues to emanate from lowrise projects like the Perkins Homes, much to the frustration of Fell's Point residents! This moribundity is partly a product of infantilization: as Jacobs discusses in Chapter 15, traditional neighborhoods can “unslum” and improve themselves over time (Fell's Point is no longer seedy and overcrowded!), but housing projects are frozen in perpetual stasis.

Finally, as Jacobs discusses in Chapter 14, housing projects form “dead end” border vacuums for non-project residents due to their monolithic sorting-out of a single use (affordable housing). Like any other use, affordable housing needs to be integrated among other uses in modest increments: “There is nothing unhealthier for a city than a monoculture of poverty (Duany, 37).”

As in the previous post on superblocks, at this point some might insist that the Garden City and Radiant City theories are long dead. But while Baltimore and many other cities have gotten rid of their tower-in-the-park projects, the tactic is still used for other kinds of developments. After all, the architecture profession's academic wing never really got over the Radiant City: slabs or ambiguous blobs in the park are still proposed for school projects, for competitions and exhibitions, for infill projects and new cities, for university campuses, and so on. For example, much of the development in Asia currently comes in the vertical dormitory format.

Furthermore, a kind of “fashionable dystopia” continues to preoccupy some academics and starchitects – that is, the notion that a city is just so much “chaos,” “uncertainty,” and “disorder.” As Jacobs discusses in her introduction and conclusion, this notion of the city as “chaos” was common among Garden City and Radiant City utopians, and it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of cities: “[To Mumford] New York's midtown was 'solidified chaos.' [To Stein] the shape and appearance of cities was nothing but a 'chaotic accident', to Le Corbusier Stockholm was 'frightening chaos'... But [cities] are not problems in disorganized complexity, they are problems in organized complexity (21-433).”

Jacobs goes on to discuss how midcentury utopians, seeing nothing but urban “chaos,” strove to replace it with statistical models: “The conception of the city as a collection of separate file drawers was suited very well by the Radiant City vision of Le Corbusier. His scheme assumed the statistical reordering of a system of disorganized complexity (436).”

Today, of course, the impulse to replace urban “chaos” with simple statistical models has given way to an incurious, even nihilistic, celebration of said “chaos.” To me this suggests that urbanity continues to mystify some cutting-edgers: there seems to be little conception of the city being anything more than a kind of Radiant City sculpture garden. But as Jacobs argued, “To approach a city as if it were an architectural problem capable of being given order by converting it into a work of art is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life (373).”

The continued preoccupation with nonexistent “chaos” and with cities-as-art raises some troubling issues for cities like Baltimore: unless they constantly and carefully scrutinize the quality of their urban infill, there is the danger of slipping into a second round of Radiant City experimentation under the persistent misguided notion that the cure to a city's ills will be found in its ruralization: “The failure of urbanism has been so comprehensive for the last fifty years that we have no faith in our ability to do it anymore. So now the default setting is 'nature.' The automatic response should be, 'Let's repair the mutilation in the urban fabric.' But instead you get this knee-jerk reaction, 'Replace [the city] with nature.' (Kunstler, 23:00-23:35).” So it'd be a shame if cities were saddled with a second crop of 'blob-in-nature' experiments, because recovering from the first crop was difficult enough!

But assuming Baltimore and other cities manage to keep new Radiant City border vacuums at bay, how can they go about fixing their existing Radiant City border vacuums?

The former Lafayette Courts housing project.
Baltimore has been quite successful in removing tower-in-the-park projects and replacing them with traditional rowhouse blocks under the CNU-influenced Hope VI program. Nowhere else is this impressive feat described better than in the Baltimore Rowhouse:

“On a winter's morning in 1955, a bulldozer started up and plowed into a group of brick rowhouses at the corner of Lexington and Aisquith Streets. When it was through, every rowhouse in the area was gone. It its place came a highrise housing project called Lafayette Courts. Forty years later, on a summer's morning in 1995, an electronic signal ignited 995 pounds of dynamite and the six towers of Lafayette Courts came crashing down. In its place came 228 rowhouses. The rowhouse has come full circle (1).”

Broadway Overlook replaced the Broadway Homes.
The rowhouse neighborhood that replaced Lafayette Courts, Pleasant View Gardens, was only one of several new rowhouse neighborhoods designed to replace dysfunctional housing projects: Broadway Overlook replaced the Broadway Homes, Heritage Crossing replaced the Murphy Homes, the Townes at the Terraces replaced Lexington Terrace, and Albemarle Square replaced Flag House Courts.

As with other Hope VI developments across the country, I sympathize with some criticisms over their residual Garden City features: the excessively-wide roads, the excessive parking (at the expense of larger backyards), the rather useless setbacks (again at the expense of larger backyards), and the lack of shops, live-work units, and other commerce. These shortcomings are perhaps most visible in Heritage Crossing.

Albemarle Square is seamlessly integrated into surrounding neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, the developments generally did a good job breaking up the old superblocks by reintroducing a continuous street grid and orienting their rowhouses to the streets. This is perhaps most visible in Albemarle Square, which feels like a seamless extension of Little Italy (see left). And, unlike the old projects, the new rowhouses offer myriad homeownership opportunities for both low and middle income residents.

Interestingly enough, in Chapter 20 (“Salvaging Projects”) Jacobs never called for the demolition of tower-in-the-park projects, perhaps because they represented such enormous sunk costs. Rather, Jacobs argued, they should be integrated back into the urban fabric by infilling their ambiguous grounds with small blocks composed of mixed-use buildings fronting onto continuous streets – in other words, by extending the traditional urban pattern right up to the towers. Of course, Jacobs wrote Death and Life when the projects were still relatively new, and their physical condition has since deteriorated to the point where demolition becomes far more attractive.

Still, a combination of incremental demolition and infill might work for some projects, like the McCulloh Homes. If the project's two towers aren't demolished, their (rather modest) skirt of “open space” could be infilled with mixed-use walkups. The project's superblock could be broken up by reintroducing and extending Hoffman, Etting, Division, and Brunt Streets across the site. The lowrise apartments could be incrementally converted into or replaced with traditional street-fronting shops and rowhouses, and the parking lots and walkways could be converted into intimate alley streets capable of commanding pride of ownership.

Of course, the McCulloh Homes are only one small part of a massive border vacuum composed of multiple Radiant City failures all the way from State Center down to the Social Security complex. Any strategy for dissolving the McCulloh Homes border vacuum would need to be coordinated with strategies for fixing State Center (more on this below), the dismal Social Security complex, several insular garden apartment complexes, MLK Boulevard, and the Highway to Nowhere.

Having demolished its highrise projects, Baltimore has turned its attention to removing its increasingly dysfunctional lowrise projects. For example, Spicer's Run recently replaced Eutaw Gardens (as discussed previously, it could have done a better job reconnecting to North Avenue), and there are plans to further improve Eutaw Place by replacing Pedestal Gardens with traditional infill. Madison Park North, the “Murder Mall” that cleaves Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill, also faces inevitable replacement. I think the Poe Homes and Perkins Homes should eventually be replaced with traditional infill as well.

Like tower-in-the-park projects, many of these lowrise garden apartment complexes have nebulous, ownerless, blind-eyed grounds, so they too are unnecessarily vulnerable to crime. As with the aforementioned incremental conversion of McCulloh Homes into a traditional mixed-use neighborhood, I think many lowrise projects could be incrementally repaired by breaking up their superblocks (i.e. extending clipped streets through linear parking lots), converting their walkways into streets, and converting or incrementally replacing apartments with rowhouses and commercial establishments that fronted onto the new streets.

Baltimore's State Center as originally envisioned.
As discussed earlier, the tower-in-the-park format wasn't just used for housing projects; it was also used for office projects with equally dismal results. Perhaps the most notorious example in Baltimore is the State Center, a poorly-aging complex of state government offices between Midtown and Bolton Hill. Originally conceived as a glittering tower-in-the-park sculpture (see right), State Center actually devolved into an even-drearier tower in the parking lot, exactly as Jacobs had predicted.

There already is an ambitious proposal to break up State Center by extending clipped streets across its superblock and infilling it with mixed-use midrise buildings. I think the proposal sounds fine in the abstract, but its implementation raises several concerns:

Firstly, there is the risk of injecting too much new office space into an office market already suffering from high vacancies; as with Harbor East, the development might only undermine the downtown via “intracity sprawl.”

Secondly, the proposal intends to incorporate an absurdly high amount of parking, far too much for such a transit-friendly location! (Both the Metro and Light Rail have stations there.) If this happened, the proposal could end up as another in a long line of TOD-in-name-only developments dwarfed by massive parking garages.

Thirdly, there are numerous downsides to introducing too much new construction all at once. As Jacobs discusses in Chapter 10 (“The Need for Aged Buildings”), districts that are built up in a relatively short period often fail to accommodate a sufficiently-broad range of activities: “A district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition [to] incubate diversity. If a city has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction. Mingling of new and old buildings, with consequent mingling in living costs and tastes, is essential to get diversity and stability in residential populations [and] enterprises (187-194).”

The urban fabric wiped out by State Center could still be rebuilt...
I therefore think a long-term strategy of incremental, finer-grained infill would be more appropriate for redeveloping State Center: the existing office buildings could be remodeled/converted and their grounds and parking lots gradually infilled with streets and mixed-use buildings in the manner described earlier. Or, if the buildings are unsalvageable, you could kill two birds with one stone by moving the state offices into one or more downtown buildings (thus alleviating the office vacancy rate and injecting more patrons into downtown restaurants and shops), subdividing the vacated State Center site into rowhouse-sized lots fronting onto newly-extended streets, and selling those lots off to multiple individuals rather than awarding the entire parcel to a single “economy of scale” developer (larger developers could, of course, still participate by buying multiple lots).

Although this approach would take longer to coalesce into a neighborhood, that neighborhood might very well be more organic: it'd accommodate a wider range of residents and businesses in buildings of different types and sizes, provided Baltimore's zoning code overhaul is flexible enough to allow the necessary variety. In short, there's no reason why the city couldn't adopt policies to encourage the reemergence of the original fine-grained neighborhood (see above) rather than continue relying on the “big footprint” approach.

It's still quite common for suburban commercial templates, like strip shopping centers, big-box stores, and shopping malls, to be carelessly airlifted into urban settings. Like any other city, Baltimore has its poorly-aging suburban transplants from the urban renewal era, but it continues to see new transplants, as at Port Covington and Canton Crossing.

The problem with airlifting suburban commercial templates into urban settings is that the urban context behaves very differently from the suburban context, and a context-insensitive transplant often causes problems. For example, a big-box supermarket can be comfortably accommodated in a suburban setting because there is sufficient space to buffer it from surrounding streets and houses via berms and shrubbery screens. Even if the big-box abuts a street, chances are that street (i.e. unpleasant arterial) will have no street life anyway.

But an urban context is very different: there is less land to sacrifice for berms and shrubbery buffers (even if there was, urban land is far too valuable to waste on such marginal band-aids), so the big-box usually ends up abutting streets and houses at an uncomfortably-close distance. The resulting blank-walled, blind-eyed streets are rendered unnecessarily vulnerable to crime, just like the aforementioned housing project grounds. This careless sundering of “eyes on the street” can be seen in Charles Village and Waverly.

Horizontally-oriented facades make a walk feel longer and more tiresome.
Not only are these blind-eyed streets unnecessarily vulnerable to crime, but the long, low blank walls undermine the sense of progress a pedestrian feels as he/she traverses the sidewalk, which gradually discourages pedestrian traffic, which ultimately makes the street even more dangerous in an accelerating feedback loop.

In Close Encounters With Buildings, Jan Gehl argues that porous vertically-oriented facades make a walk feel shorter and more pleasurable, whereas blank horizontally-oriented facades make a walk feel longer and more tiresome: “Walking along facades with vertical rhythms makes the walk much more interesting. We move from 'column to column,' which makes the walk seem shorter. Facades with horizontal articulation intensify the feeling of distance – a long, tiring perspective at eye level (35).”

Tachieva's Sprawl Repair Manual offers many ideas for fixing big-boxes.
Fortunately there are numerous options for integrating shopping centers and big-boxes into the urban fabric – I particularly like Galina Tachieva's suggestions for incrementally enclosing big-boxes with mixed-use liner buildings.

For big-boxes that directly abut the street (like the Waverly example), one could punch storefronts through their street-facing blank walls and simply move their interior shops (the pharmacies, bank branches, salons, video arcades, and other venues near the registers) into the storefronts. The shops could then be accessed from inside the big-boxes as well as from the sidewalks. For big-boxes with parking aprons (like the Charles Village example), one could incrementally extend existing buildings around the perimeters of the parking lots to create mixed-use liners. Of course, big-box retailers can be accommodated in midrise and highrise buildings too. Whatever the tactic, the goal remains the same: don't cripple streets with blank walls, parking lots, and ambiguous setbacks!

To that end, I hope Baltimore's new zoning code discourages the further importation of incompatible Radiant City transplants. Note that this wouldn't be a matter of discouraging any particular use (i.e. chain retail) but rather a matter of discouraging specific forms (i.e. blank-walled boxes set in parking lagoons).

Next time we'll examine solutions for the border vacuums around parks and "green spaces," so stay tuned!

- Marc Szarkowski


  1. So amazing how Ebenezer Howard was able to think of such a plan for the City. He was one man with a brilliant mind whose ideas sparked and materialized dreams even up to now. :)

  2. i was born and raised in the broadway homes and lafayette public housing development and im looking to find pictures taken during the time they were up...can you help me find them please? email address is ""


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