Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dissolving Border Vacuums, Part 8

Having looked at the border vacuums around Garden and Radiant Cities, let's now examine the vacuums around parks and “green spaces.” This might be an uncomfortable discussion at times because some of my arguments may run counter to conventional “green” or “sustainable” thinking.

There has long been a romantic “city vs. country” tension in Anglo-American culture: the friction between Hamilton (who favored urban mercantilism) and Jefferson (who favored an agrarian society) is an emblematic example, as was William Penn's preoccupation with platting Philadelphia as a dispersed “green country town.” Kunstler's City in Mind quotes Vita Sackville-West on this curious phenomenon:

“The English are a rural-minded people, which perhaps explains why our rural architecture is so much better than our urban. Our cities, generally speaking, are deplorable. There is a lack of design which must make the French smile (225).”

This “city vs. country” tension grew stronger in the nineteenth century after England and the US unintentionally fouled many of their cities in the Industrial Revolution, but Jacobs goes even further in discussing its origins:

“Humans are a part of nature and the cities of humans are as natural as the colonies of prairie dogs or the beds of oysters. But a curious thing happened in the eighteenth century. By then the cities of Europe had mediated many harsh aspects of nature, so that something became popularly possible which previously had been rare: sentimentalization of nature. Marie Antoinette playing milkmaid was one expression of this sentimentality, as was Jefferson's intellectual rejection of cities of free artisans and his dream of a republic of self-reliant rural yeomen. Owing to the mediation of cities, it became possible to regard “nature” as benign, ennobling, and pure. Opposed to all this fictionalized purity, cities, not being fictions, could then be considered seats of malignancy and enemies of nature. Consequently what could be more natural than the desire to bring “nature” into the city so it might get some purity by association? But there are dangers in sentimentalizing nature. Most sentimentality implies a deep if unacknowledged disrespect. It is no accident that we Americans, probably the world's champion sentimentalizers of nature, are at the same time probably the world's most disrespectful destroyers of the countryside (443-445).”

I think this sentimental view of nature may have led to a deeply-ingrained Anglo-American notion that the human imprint on the landscape is inherently destructive, and therefore the best way to mitigate it is to mask or dilute the “necessary evil” of urbanism with penitential reconstructions of “nature.”

In this post I'll argue that this notion reverberates through many of our parkmaking and urban design efforts from the nineteenth century to the present (from Olmsted to Howard to McHarg to today's crop of “Landscape Urbanists”), and that the ruralize-the-city tactic has only grown stronger with today's focus on “greening” and “sustainability.”

I'll also argue that the ruralize-the-city tactic has sometimes resulted in our neglecting the design of the human habitat in favor of constantly creating artifices of nature to escape from its neglect. That is, I think we're stuck in a feedback loop: if our cities have historically been “deplorable” (to use Sackville-West's term), especially since the onset of industrialization, we only make them more deplorable by retreating into “nature” rather than undertaking the hard work of making the built fabric and streetscapes desirable such that the impetus to escape wouldn't be there in the first place.

Finally, and most importantly, I'll argue that certain reconstructions of “nature,” if inappropriately applied to the urban setting, can unintentionally create border vacuums. We'll look at Jacobs' suggestions for fixing the border vacuums around parks and see if they could apply to Baltimore.

Baltimore on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.
Before the nineteenth century there were few parks in cities because, save for a few exceptions like ancient Rome, most cities were quite small: you could walk for fifteen minutes and be outside of town (see right).

The Industrial Revolution induced a kind of hypertrophic megalopolis that had never been seen before, and since England and the US industrialized earliest and fastest, our cities were the first to experience hypertrophic growth. (In many cases, like Chicago's, they mushroomed from handfuls of cabins into megalopolises almost overnight.) Because our cities grew so rapidly, they often resorted to the monotonous replication of utilitarian building types (rowhouses in Baltimore's case) unrelieved by any of the felicitous infrastructure that had graced Old World cities, like intimate arcades, lanes, and squares.

Baltimore after only a few decades of industrialization.
Since these rapidly-expanding cities were despoiled by industry (see left) and filled with uprooted rural migrants, a romantic yearning for rapidly-disappearing rural lifeways quickly emerged: “Baltimore's growth fed a wave of nostalgia for rural life. Unlike Savannah or Philadelphia, Baltimore had no public squares. It had instead block after block of houses, factories, and warehouses relentlessly gobbling up undeveloped land. Baltimoreans were not alone in their sense of loss: all across America people expressed concern over the loss of open land in cities (The Baltimore Rowhouse, 57).”

The reaction was an understandable desire to preserve large tracts of the disappearing countryside in the form of parks so that city dwellers could retain access to a landscape that was becoming increasingly remote. Olmsted's Central Park in New York is a famous example, and Baltimore has the examples of Carroll, Clifton, Druid Hill, Leakin, and Patterson Parks, among others. (Many of these parks were created out of formerly-rural estates that had been surrounded by the expanding city.)

Unfortunately, as discussed in the City in Mind, most Anglo-American cities created these large “rural” preserves at the expense of smaller, formal, well-defined squares and allees distributed among the urban fabric on a finer grain. Baltimore eventually became somewhat of an exception: it created numerous “rural” preserves, but it also acquired several neighborhood squares – Mt. Vernon Place and Collington, Franklin, Harlem, Johnston, Lafayette, Madison, O'Donnell, and Union Squares – that are still valued today. The city was also graced with a few boulevard-promenades partly inspired by Haussmann's renovation of Paris, like Eutaw Place.

Olmstedian parks are incredibly beautiful retreats, but the City in Mind argues that the tactic of creating large “rural” preserves unintentionally reinforced the “city vs. country” tension in the Anglo-American imagination:

“The Olmsted park became the dominant model for parkmaking in America. But Olmsted's methods – the methods and traditions of the rural English landscape park – cannot be used for other urban park typologies, especially at small scale. A neighborhood square cannot be composed of rambling vales and rocky defiles. Olmsted's methods omit the one device that can avail on the small scale, and that is rigorous formality of the kind the French use so well to make trees, shrubs, flowerbeds, fountains, paths, pavements, and statuary integral with the surrounding urban hardscape of buildings. Having left us with no tradition for creating small squares, most American cities compare unfavorably with American “nature.” We therefore have a tradition since Olmsted of venerating the places of “nature” and holding in contempt the abode of human beings (246-247).”

After Olmsted it became increasingly difficult to conceive of formally integrating greenery into the city in a manner other than the “rural” preserve. I think we came to believe that the city could never be reconciled with the “natural” landscape: the best one could do was retreat into a “rural” oasis for a few hours, then grimly return to the “necessary evil” of the city until the next opportunity to escape. How unlike the contemporaneous tactics of Haussmann and Napoleon III in Paris, who managed to formally integrate “nature” into the city on a fine grain!

As discussed in the previous post, our efforts to ruralize cities only grew more abstract in the twentieth century: we experimented with Garden Cities and Radiant Cities, but the former proved unrealistic and the latter was a complete fiasco.

I should reiterate that I think Olmstedian parks are wonderful, and that Olmsted's romantic greenswards, walkways, and bridges are intensely people-centric and spiritually gratifying. My point is merely that Olmstedian romanticism can't be the only tactic for urban parkmaking, especially at the smaller scale of the neighborhood square.

In recent decades even Olmstedian romanticism has taken a back seat to an even more abstract effort to create as much “green space” and “open space” as possible. To me the mere fact that we're even using these vacuous terms reveals that we're thinking too abstractly: if you ask for vacuity you'll get vacuities that will be of little use to anyone, and consequently will be shunned.

Baltimore doesn't need more open space; it needs to use existing space better.
For example, in many cases the response to the endless clamor for “green space” and “open space” has been to infuse useless berms, setbacks, and other dreary scraps of ambiguous residual space into the urban fabric. Like any other American city, Baltimore's arterials, megastructures, and superblocks have plenty of residual “open space” around them, but has this “open space” done anything to improve the street-level experience in the city?

Even after the infusion of numerous “open spaces” into downtown Baltimore (see above), there's still a clamor for more. To me this suggests that the existing “open spaces” are, for the most part, unsatisfactory and unappealing. But infusing even more “open space” would only make the situation worse: the downtown would feel even more like a desolate Radiant City than it does now.

I think the solution to this predicament is fairly straightforward: as discussed in the post on superblocks, we should discard the vague “green space” and “open space” terms and begin asking for specific amenities with proven practical uses, like shady allees of trees, public squares intimately enclosed with porous liner buildings, sports facilities and playgrounds, and so on.

The task of repairing downtown Baltimore's ambiguous “open spaces” might therefore necessitate removing (infilling) many such spaces and concentrating public life in a handful of nodes that had the potential to evolve into lively “outdoor public rooms,” like the Inner Harbor Promenade, Center Plaza, War Memorial Plaza, University Square, and Preston Gardens. This is precisely what Old World cities like Florence do so well, and why they don't need to resort to scattering object-buildings among residual scraps of perpetually-unsatisfying “open space.”

Our acquiescence to “open space” and “green space” abstractions may also be a product of the contemporary preoccupation with statistical analysis; that is, of the postwar equation of quantity with quality. One manifestation of this preoccupation has been the rise of quantitative “open space” mandates in development regulations. Under a quantitative analysis, the more “open space” a city has, the better off it supposedly is, regardless of the quality of all that open space. As revealed in Suburban Nation: “Current requirements for open space have been reduced to regulations that are primarily statistical. These requirements say little about the configuration and quality of open space; usually the main specification is [to leave open] a percentage of the site area (32).”

To me an emblematic example of this mindset was Boston's decision to replace the Central Artery with “open space” after it was buried underground in the Big Dig. An arbitrary 75% of the reclaimed land had to be left as “open space,” but what did Boston get for this quantification? It got a boring, sun-baked median strip, interrupted in many places by gloomy tunnel portals, and cut off from the surrounding urban fabric by two moats of traffic. This is what happens when a focus on providing quantities of abstraction (“open space”) comes at the expense of traditional civic art, of the qualitative design of places that are first and foremost understood to be places for people.

In the Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte proved that, contrary to popular belief, there was no correlation between the sheer amount of “open space” and public enjoyment of said space: “Sheer space does not draw people. In some circumstances it can have the opposite effect (27).” Jacobs harshly criticized such quantification as well:

“Open spaces are venerated in amazingly uncritical fashion. Ask a planner how his Radiant City improves on the old city and he will cite, as a self-evident virtue, More Open Space. Ask him about changes in zoning codes and he will cite again More Open Space. Walk with him through a dispirited neighborhood, and though it already is scabby with deserted parks and tired landscaping festooned with litter, he will envision a future of More Open Space. More Open Space for what? For bleak vacuums between buildings? Or for ordinary people to use and enjoy? But people don't use open space just because it's there and because planners wish they would. People can hardly enliven the plethora of malls, parks, and other indeterminate land oozes in typical Radiant City schemes and in the stringent accompanying requirements for leaving high percentages of urban land open. But American cities, under the illusion that open land is an automatic good and that quantity is equivalent to quality, are frittering away money on land oozes too large, too frequent, too perfunctory, too ill-located, too dull, and too inconvenient to be useful (90-111).”

It's distressing to discover that little has changed in the last half-century!

Another driver of urban ruralization has been the realization that the hardscape of the city (the asphalt, concrete, and roofs of buildings) induces an “urban heat island” effect and is impervious to rainwater, thus forcing it into overloaded sewer systems and resulting in “combined sewage overflows.” But one popular solution to this problem – leave as much city land open as possible – only induces a bigger problem: if it's impossible to infill those places already developed, then where will the development go instead? It'll go to the fringe, putting much more pressure on the landscape since fringe development is more likely to come in a dispersed (i.e. land-covering) format with acres of parking. There are practical solutions for making the urban hardscape permeable – such as discouraging megastructures and using porous paving on downsized streets – that don't require detours into “nature.”

The environmental conservation movement brought innumerable benefits to society by placing rivers, wetlands, forests, and other vital ecosystems under extensive protection. One unintentional side effect of environmentalism, unfortunately, was the revival of that old Anglo-American notion of the city as an enemy of nature. This mentality was particularly conspicuous in the writings of Ian McHarg, who considered humanity a “planetary disease.” As the City in Mind argues, there consequently arose a belief that urbanization should be prevented anywhere and everywhere possible, even in places already urbanized:

“In the context of contemporary confusion, “green space” or “open space” means “build nothing.” It is a rhetorical device for putting city land in cold storage in the only currently-acceptable form, “nature.” A large fraction of the public has decided categorically that urbanism is a menace to the human spirit and therefore that the only acceptable use of vacant city land is for the installation of the putative antidote to the city, “nature” (213-214).”

So, despite being thoroughly disillusioned with the previous iteration of urban ruralization – the Radiant City urban renewal projects of the 50s and 60s – we still seem determined to ruralize our cities. Boston's inability to conceive of infilling the land reclaimed from the Central Artery was a typical example of this determination, but a particularly distressing example is our inability to conceive of infilling the Pruitt-Igoe site in St. Louis with anything other than “nature”: the competition entries for fixing the scar left behind by the long-demolished Radiant City project abound with suggestions for ambiguous “green spaces,” for unrealistic heavy-duty agriculture, for starchitectural sculptures set in “open spaces,” for “urban forests,” and so on. The idea that this scar could be healed with the traditional urban fabric of St. Louis, meanwhile, is relegated to the fringes.

One disturbing consequence of the “green” movement is the widespread belief that literally looking “green” is the same as actually being “green.” That is, we've come to believe that anything covered with plants is automatically “green.” If this notion were true, then paved-over cities like Florence, Munich, and Prague would be environmental catastrophes, and all our exquisitely-bermed big-boxes and office parks would be environmental saints. The reality is quite the opposite: urban foliage is certainly a wonderful amenity, but it's not a prerequisite for actually being “green.”

Unfortunately design professionals are besotted with the “slather it with plants to make it green” notion too: many design schools are awash in fashionable “biophilia” chatter, and starchitectural proposals are laden with fanciful greenwashing stunts.

But even more disturbingly, the long-dithering design academy is now attempting to revive the Radiant City. This strategy, known as “Landscape Urbanism,” is once again preoccupied with setting isolated megastructures in ambiguous “green spaces.” As discussed in Landscape Urbanism and its Discontents: “Rather than having an urban fabric based on spatial definition by buildings, landscape would be the 'structuring medium.' The 'look and shape of the city' was to be a matter of 'open space within which buildings are set' (4).” In other words, the strategy is just a continuation of the conventional starchitectural predilection for treating the city as an inert sculpture garden.

The last thing we should be doing is reviving the Radiant City.
My opinion of Landscape Urbanism is thus rather harsh (see left), because I see little value in reviving urban design tactics that never worked the first time around. As Jacobs warned us, this dogged pursuit of failure is the urban design equivalent of medical schools bringing back bloodletting: “The pseudoscience of planning seems neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success (183).”

As Landscape Urbanism and its Discontents reveals, the strategy is also preoccupied with inserting a kind of “look but don't touch” scenery into cities: “The landscapes could be gazed upon, but that was all. An enormous amount of urban space was thereby removed from its primary recreational purpose where it was needed most. A well-known failure came out of Portland with the juxtaposition of Jamison Square and Tanner Springs Park. Jamison is usually packed with people, while Tanner is virtually devoid of humans, whose feet and posteriors would only crush the “native grasses” (19).”

In other words, whereas traditional civic art is concerned with creating places for people, today's scenery-building often results in ersatz hands-off “wildernesses.” The difference between the two approaches is not trivial: this should be obvious, but city dwellers need to use parks, not just look at them!

The traditional ingredients of parkmaking – greenswards, plazas and terraces, formal gardens, pavilions and bandshells, riverside embankments and esplanades, tree-lined allees, fountains and statues, boat and duck ponds, playgrounds and sports fields, seating and refreshment areas, and so on – have all evolved to meet specific recreational needs, especially the need to “be entertained by the sight of other people.” You can sunbathe and play soccer on a formally-maintained greensward, but you can't do this in a Landscape Urbanist “urban wetland” filled with waist-high “native grasses” and mosquitoes. You can get some ice cream and people-watch in a shady allee of trees, but you can't do this in a Landscape Urbanist “urban forest” filled with thick undergrowth.

That last example alludes to a border vacuum problem common in ruralized neighborhood squares: just as there need to be “eyes on the street,” so too do there need to be “eyes on the park,” but this isn't possible in squares composed of pretend wildernesses. As Duany argues, their thick undergrowth inevitably attracts drug dealers, muggers, rapists, and sexual adventurers: “The environmental assessment of the city these days is 'greening' the city by ruralizing it. One of my friends lives in Portland, where they woodlanded one of the squares. He says 'I can't go into the square in the morning because my dog is always running across condoms' (18:00-20:00).”

Even now, decades after Newman published Creating Defensible Space, some designers still seem not to have internalized the lesson that impenetrable blank walls of greenery create hideaways for unsavory people: “For reasons of safety, comfort, and orientation squares must be transparent – that is, you must be able to see through the square to the buildings on the other side. The square is not the wilderness and should not pretend to be (Kunstler, 33-34).”

Whyte essentially argued the same when he evaluated New York's Bryant Park, which had devolved into a cesspool by the 1970s: “Bryant Park has become the territory of dope dealers and muggers. It's cut off from the streets by walls, fences, and shrubbery. You can't see in and you can't see out. There are only a few entry points. This park will be used by people when it is opened up to them (58).” This is exactly what New York did in the 1980s, and consequently Bryant Park is now safe and well-used.

Bioswale or abandoned lot? In West Baltimore it's hard to tell the difference.
Kunstler's point that “the square is not the wilderness and should not pretend to be” is  particularly important. Much contemporary landscape architecture is characterized by a “scruffy” aesthetic in which trees, bushes, and grasses are delivered in the manner they exist in the wilderness – informal, rough, and unkempt. This aesthetic may work in large romantic parks like Druid Hill, but I'd argue it can cause “Broken Windows” problems if applied to the urban setting of the neighborhood square. In real countryside, the “wild” aesthetic signifies a pristine and undisturbed landscape. But in cities the aesthetic can signify decay, disorder, and blight (see above). Unkempt landscaping is the first sign of “deferred maintenance” in city parks, so if they're made to look rustically neglected, they might be neglected.

In Chapter 5 Jacobs distinguishes neighborhood parks from larger city parks by pointing out that most neighborhood parks are “generalized.” That is, while city parks contain attractions that draw people from far and wide (like zoos, conservatories, lakes, sports fields, and swimming pools in Druid Hill's case), neighborhood parks generally don't offer specialized amenities and thus have to work harder to attract people via other means: “Parks intensely used in generalized public yard fashion tend to have four elements in their design: sun, enclosure, centering, and intricacy (103).”

•    SUN: As is perhaps self-evident, a neighborhood park needs to provide a balance between sun and shade to maintain year-round use (i.e. sun in the winter and shade in the summer). Jacobs also warns against excessive highrise construction near parks since they can plunge parks into shadow and generate unpleasant “wind tunnels.”

•    ENCLOSURE: Although parks shouldn't be hemmed-in by highrises, Jacobs stresses that they still need to be enclosed with buildings so they feel like outdoor rooms: “Far from being attracted by indefinite oozes of land, people are repelled by them (106).” The enclosing street walls should, of course, be composed of mixed-use buildings so as many different people as possible use the park for as many different reasons as possible.

•    CENTERING: Parks need focal points just like neighborhoods do. Romantic glades and meandering paths have their uses, but prominent centers (like fountains, statues, or pavilions) and geometric crossroads do a lot more to enliven neighborhood parks: this is where itinerant musicians put on performances, this is where snack vendors set up their carts, this is where children splash around in the fountain while their mothers chat. As Jacobs argued, people tend to gravitate to prominent centers, turning them into lively “public stages” in the process.

•    INTRICACY: Jacobs says “Intricacy is related to the variety of reasons for which people come to parks. Even the same person comes for different reasons at different times (103).” Intricacy is the product of physical features designed to stimulate that range of reasons. For example, a subtle change in elevation – a shallow dais or bowl – could accommodate public performances. Jacobs is quick to remind us that “intricacy counts at eye level” and that doodad-dependent site plans aren't necessarily successful.

Jacobs makes several other important points that fall outside these four criteria. Firstly, she emphasizes that successful parks have “rarity value.” The more parks a neighborhood has, the harder it is to enliven them all with people. Jacobs' advice thus runs counter to the contemporary clamor for as much “open” or “green” space as possible.

Secondly, in the chapter on border vacuums, Jacobs argues that the perimeters of large parks need to be activated to generate cross-use. That is, the city side of the border should incorporate commercial activities that feed into the park, and the park side of the border should incorporate recreational activities that feed into the city: “An example would be a skating rink brought immediately up to a park border, and across the street on the city side, a cafe where skaters could get refreshments and observe other skaters across the way (166).”

I think this “activating the edge” strategy could significantly improve Baltimore's larger parks if (1) restrictions on vending were eased, (2) park attractions were moved closer to park edges, and (3) mixed-use infill and rowhouse-to-shopfront conversions were encouraged along park edges. This was, after all, the strategy used to revive the Inner Harbor.

Steven Dale does a great job elaborating on Jacobs' third point – the need for parks to have frequent entrances – by arguing that “we should encourage people to pass through a park” before we encourage them to use it: “Since there is no initial attraction to a generalized park, it must first provide useful shortcuts for people. These shortcuts create the initial user base, thereby generating “eyes on the street,” which generates further usage. Shortcuts are created by maximizing the park's permeability, portals, and paths, which should be logically and strategically arranged to coincide with the entrances and exits of surrounding streets and buildings.”

Many of Baltimore's parks lack one or more of these features. Some, like Druid Hill, are cut off by moats of traffic. Some parks were crippled by depopulation and consequent disintegration of enclosing buildings. In other cases decades of undergrowth have accumulated under deferred maintenance. In still other cases, like Hopkins Plaza, they're surrounded by monotonous uses, resulting in uneven use of the parks themselves.

Fortunately Baltimore still has several successful parks that offer repair lessons, like Mt. Vernon Place: Its intimate greenswards and tree-lined perimeter offer a good balance between sun and shade. It's well-enclosed by buildings accommodating a rich mix of uses, which activate it with a rich mix of people. It's exquisitely centered with the most prominent focal point in all of Baltimore. It contains an intricate array of fountains, statues, and gardens, all carefully arranged to accommodate complex pedestrian movement and visual delight. It's also very rare: it doesn't compete for attention with any adjacent “green spaces.” Finally, Mt. Vernon Place contains numerous entrances.

So to repair Baltimore's less-successful parks, I think we should identify which of Jacobs' criteria are weakened or missing, then work to improve or introduce them. In some cases, like St. Mary's Park in Seton Hill, it may be necessary to add entrances, paths, and centers. In other cases, like downtown plazas and residential squares, it may be necessary to improve the sense of enclosure and add mixed uses. (The proposed addition of an apartment building to the office-dominated Hopkins Plaza, for example, is a good start.) In short, the city should improve what it already has rather than dragging in any more “green” or “open” space distractions.

Again, I'm worried that today's “Landscape Urbanism” is preoccupied with scenery-building at the expense of these criteria, save for a few exceptions like the High Line. It doesn't matter how many people are photoshopped into a rendering of a prairie: if it isn't people-centric, it'll probably sink into dereliction after the initial novelty wears off, upon which it'll be just another burden for some cash-strapped Parks and Rec department.

Jacobs concludes by reminding us: “Parks are not automatically good. Far from automatically uplifting their neighborhoods, they are drastically affected by the way the neighborhood acts upon them (92-95).” The recent history of Patterson Park reflects this: the park grew increasingly seedier in the 90s, but it was revived the following decade after renewed interest spilled over from surrounding neighborhoods.

Finally, I'd humbly reiterate that rather than constructing artifices of “nature” to apologize for our presence on the landscape, perhaps we could begin leaving imprints capable of garnering affection such that we wouldn't be embarrassed into covering them up with “nature” in the first place. In recent years, for example, we've poured huge sums of money into ruralizing unpleasant arterials, but we still don't have a single boulevard that comes close to offering the intense comfort that Barcelona's Passeig de Gracia offers. Unlike the Floridian highway, the Passeig de Gracia is truly green because it celebrates humanity.

Next time we'll examine solutions for the border vacuums around hospital and university campuses, so stay tuned!
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