Thursday, June 16, 2011

Charles Waldheim, Landscape Urbanism, and Modernism

Prof. Charles Waldheim was invited to the nineteenth session of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU 19) to talk about Landscape Urbanism, a recent approach to urban design which some see as a rival to the New Urbanism. Waldheim coined the term “Landscape Urbanism” and is chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Waldheim gave some good examples of recent projects that show how landscape architecture can contribute to urban design, but he also tried to promote the modernist style of architecture and to rehabilitate the modernist style of urbanism. Waldheim revealed this larger cultural agenda when he said:

“Your cultural program vis-à-vis architecture is circa 1979. … For those who were at the foundational moment of the New Urbanism and those who are promoting a postmodern urbanism more generally, they hoped to build a kind of connection over the last 500 years to the western tradition of urban form in which the twentieth century was meant to be seen as a kind of historical anomaly. It was a kind of blip, and it was exceptional… But I think increasingly it is clear over the last ten or fifteen years that architectural culture has not in fact embraced that history … and to the extent that there is still as sort of latent or kind of core neo-classicism at the heart of the New Urbanism, I think there is kind of potential vulnerability there.1

As a model for urban design, he showed many slides of the Lafayette Park urban renewal project in Detroit, a mixed-income project designed by the arch-modernist architect Mies van der Rohe and others, which is one of the few mid-twentieth-century housing projects that has worked in social terms and that continues to attract people.

Lafayette Park: A Model for Urban Design?
(photo by Mike Russell)

Waldheim claimed that Lafayette Park meets most of the CNU’s criteria for good urban design; for example, it has shopping within walking distance of its housing. The only criterion that it fails to meet is that it has parking facing the sidewalks, and Waldheim claims that its success shows that the New Urbanists are too dogmatic when they say that shopping streets should not be interrupted by parking. You can look at this picture of shopping in Lafayette Park (which Waldheim did not show in his presentation) and judge for yourself whether it is as appealing as the old-fashioned Main Streets that the New Urbanists design.

This is one of the very few modernist projects that have been successful, while hundreds of projects in the modernist style have been so unsuccessful that they have been demolished under the HOPE VI program and replaced with traditional neighborhoods in the New Urbanist style. Isn’t it plausible that Lafayette Park is successful not because it is appealing but because most of Detroit is so forbidding that Lafayette Park does not look bad in contrast?

Waldheim over-simplifies the history of architecture and urban design when he says that everyone has moved beyond the theories of 1979, that now we now all know that modernism will endure.

What he says may be true of architecture. During the 1970s, post-modernist theorists such as Charles Jencks claimed that architects were rejecting modernism, but there was a modernist revival beginning in the 1980s. Modernism is once again the established academic style that is taught in almost all the architecture schools and that receives all the Pritzker Prizes (though the public still likes traditional architecture, there are a few schools that teach traditional architecture, and some noted architects, such as Robert A. M. Stern, David Schwartz, and Quinlan Terry build in traditional styles).

What he says in clearly not true of urban design. Because of the efforts of the New Urbanists, urban designers have virtually all rejected modernism in favor of traditional neighborhood design. There are still suburban sprawl developers who build in the modernist style, but it is so discredited that the New Urbanists’ traditional neighborhood design is now the dominant style of urbanism. In terms of urban form, the twentieth century is a historical anomaly,

Waldheim is trying to carry the modernist revival a step further. Modernist architecture has been revived, and Waldheim also wants to revive modernist urbanism by promoting Lafayette Park as a model.

As an academic, Waldheim is narrowly focused on his own field, and when he talks about 1979, he is thinking of the theories of Charles Jencks and other writers who are even less known to the general public.

He ignores the most obvious fact about 1979: It was the year before Ronald Reagan was elected president.

During the 1960s, criticisms of modernism became influential. For example, popular movements stopped the construction of many urban freeways, and there was widespread academic criticism of urban sprawl and of towers-in-a-park urban renewal projects.

During the 1970s, criticisms of modernism became much broader. The public’s faith in economic growth and modern technology was shaken by soaring oil prices and by books such as The Limits of Growth, which used computer models to show that growth would lead to collapse because of the earth’s limited resources and limited capacity to absorb pollution. These criticisms were so influential that, in 1979, a national survey found that 30 percent of Americans were pro-growth, 31 percent were anti-growth, and 39 percent were uncertain.2

Postmodern architecture was a hopeful development of those times. Though many postmodernist architects seemed to be most interested in being ironic and clever, many others were looking for a serious alternative to modernism. The mid-century faith in modernization and technology was not only leading to ecological collapse. Postmodern architects showed that it was also producing uncomfortable places for people to live. At the time, it seemed that they might develop a more humanistic architecture that could help us get beyond the myth of progress and build a more sustainable economy.

Then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president, and he promised to revive the economic growth and the optimism of the 1950s. Not long afterwards, academic architects began to criticize post-modernism and to revive the mid-century modernist architecture of the 1950s. Waldheim is trying to carry this retrograde trend further by reviving mid-century modernist urbanism.

Since Reagan’s election, the country has spent several decades trying to restore economic growth, but now the old 1970s’ criticism of growth is beginning to seem more relevant than ever. Oil prices have soared during the last decade, as they did in the 1970s, and they have become a major obstacle to economic growth. The massive wildfires in Texas and Arizona, and the drought in Europe should remind us that global warming has already begun.

Andres Duany has predicted that postmodernism is the next architectural style that is up for revival, but that it should be a postmodernism without the irony. New Urbanism and postmodernist architecture are part of a larger revaluation of the modern economy that is needed as a response to our current ecological crisis. Lafayette Park’s celebration of modern technology and progress can only get in the way of this revaluation.

Lafayette Park: A Celebration of Modern Technology and Progress
(photo by Mike Russell)

When Waldheim criticizes the class of 1968 and claims to speak for a younger generation, we should remember that he got his undergraduate degree as part of the class of 1986, during the Reagan administration - and he seems to have absorbed some of the 1950s-revival spirit of that time.

His talk to CNU 19 did include good examples of how landscape architecture can be integrated with urban design, which could be a useful addition to the New Urbanism. He shows a wonderful project on the lower Don river on Lake Ontario,3 including restoration of a river and development of a new neighborhood around it, which could be a very useful model for New Urbanists who want to design traditional neighborhoods around restored natural systems.

But his talk also included a retrograde attempt to revive the modernist urbanism of Mies van der Rohe, which can only get in the way of the revaluation of the conventional faith in technology and progress that we need to deal with the current crisis of growth.

Modernists tend to judge buildings on the basis of whether they are “of our time” - meaning that they reject all traditional models and celebrate modern technology - rather than on the basis of whether they are comfortable and attractive places for people to use.

Waldheim takes the same approach in his talk. In a very revealing statement, Waldheim said that the landscape urbanists decided not to organize a congress, similar to the Congress for the New Urbanism, because they considered the congress to be a “twentieth-century form.”

You might as well say that you refuse to read books, because you consider them a “nineteenth-century form.” During the twentieth century, you abandoned books and spent all your time watching movies and television, because they were “of the time.” And in the twenty-first century, of course, you spend all your time watching streaming video on the internet, because it is “of our time.”

No one says we should give up books because only streaming video is “of our time.” Likewise, no one should say that we should give up traditional urbanism because only freeways and parking lots are “of our time” or that we should give up traditional architecture because only glass, steel, and concrete are “of our time.”

If we ask whether we are designing good places for people, rather than asking whether we are building places that are “of our time,” we can develop a humanistic architecture and urbanism that helps to humanize the larger economy and to move us beyond our current fetishism of technology and of growth-for-its-own-sake.

1. See Waldheim’s talk at, 43:54.

2. Robert M. Collins, More: The Politics of Economic Growth in Postwar America (Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 164.

3. See Waldheim’s talk at,1:03:30

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Straten Van Amsterdam - Streets Of Amsterdam

It is remarkable how little traffic congestion there is in central Amsterdam. The city is densely populated, and the streets were laid out between the middle ages and the seventeenth century, when there was little traffic except for pedestrians.

Though the streets are filled with pedestrians and bicycles, there are relatively few cars and trucks - and there are none of the traffic jams that are common in American cities that have lower densities and wider streets and freeways. Cars have to wait for pedestrians and bikes, but they do not get stuck in backups of cars. They are accustomed to driving cautiously, and there is little road rage. Drivers are willing to wait patiently for a moment in situations where American drivers would leaning on their horns to get people out of their way.

There are three major street types in central Amsterdam - in the area within the Singelgracht (which was the protective moat around the seventeenth-century city.

The most common type of street has one lane for traffic. The sidewalk generally is not at a different level from the street; instead, it is protected by bollards. Cars share the one lane with bicyclists. Usually, cars pass bicyclists, but the narrow street forces them to slow down to pass. Sometimes, bicyclists make cars follow behind them at bicycle speed, as shown in the picture below.

The narrow sidewalk areas are sometimes blocked by parked bicycles or by people who have stopped to talk. Sometimes, the steps of house protrude into the sidewalk area, as shown in the picture below. As a result, pedestrians are often forced to spill over into the street to avoid obstacles, which slows down traffic even further.

A second type of street has four lanes (in addition to bike lanes), one in each direction for mixed traffic and one in each direction for trams, as shown in the picture below. Even in these collector streets, the widest streets in central Amsterdam, traffic flows in one lane. Everyone drives at the speed of the slower cars, because there is no fast lane.

A third type of street is the steeg (alley), shown below, which is too narrow for cars to use except for occasional deliveries.

You would expect these medieval and seventeenth-century streets to be too narrow for the traffic of a dense, modern city. But notice that there are no cars in sight in the picture of the major street above. You can routinely cross major streets without going to the crosswalk because there are so few cars.

How is it that Amsterdam is far less congested and less frustrating for drivers than Los Angeles, a city that is less dense and that has wide streets and freeways?

In part, it is a matter of incentives. There is very little automobile parking in Amsterdam. Residents can buy permits that let them park in their own neighborhoods, but anyone without a permit must pay 8 Euros per hour to park on the street. As a result, people store their cars on the street but use their cars primarily to drive out of the city on vacation, and they bicycle to destinations in the city.

Even more important, the city was built at a time when walking was the most common form of transportation, so it works well for pedestrians and has been easy to adapt to the bicycle. It does not work for cars, which discourages driving. Thus, the city can charge so much for parking, because there is so little parking available.

Most important, the Netherlands has a strong bicycle culture, which is part of its larger cultural bias. International surveys have shown that more people have "post-materialist values" in the Netherlands than in any other country. In 1950, the Dutch worked longer hours than Americans; now they work 70% to 75% as many hours per year as Americans. Many of them would rather have more time to live well rather than consuming more - and one of the best ways to reduce expenses is by bicycling. This, I think, is the deepest reason that Amsterdam's streets are filled with bicycles and have not filled up to capacity with cars, as the streets of Paris and most other older cities have. They clearly live better as a result of this cultural bias, with less traffic congestion and less road rage than other cities.

Though Amsterdam's streets work very well, today's traffic engineers would never allow streets to be designed in this way. The first type of street that we looked at is the most common and the most pleasant type of street in the city. It works so well because pedestrians are constantly spilling from the narrow sidewalks into the roadway, slowing traffic. Traffic engineers would never allow obstacles to block the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to walk in the street. They would say it is unsafe. But in reality, those pedestrians help to make the streets safer by slowing traffic.

The streets work well in the central parts of Amsterdam, where they developed over time with little planning - and with no planning to accommodate the automobile. But in the outer parts of Amsterdam, developed after World War II, the streets were designed by traffic engineers, who based their designs on projected demand for road space and for parking.

As a result, the outer parts of the city have commercial areas like the one shown below, with parking between the sidewalk and the stores. This works for cars, but does not create attractive shopping streets for pedestrians.

And the outer parts of the city have streets devoted to automobile traffic, like the one shown below.

Only traffic engineers could design such an ugly, pedestrian-hostile street - the same traffic engineers who will not let us design narrow streets and sidewalks like the streets that attract people to central Amsterdam.

Beluid In Amsterdam - Noise In Amsterdam

Though it is much denser than most American cities, Amsterdam is quieter than most American cities. Here are some sources of noise that are common in America and absent in Amsterdam:

Gardening Noise: Houses in Amsterdam are allowed to have a strip of land only 30 centimeters (about one foot) deep in front of them for planting. Many have beautiful plantings, as shown in the picture below; most have simpler plantings such as rose vines; in any event, the space is so small that the plantings need only a bit of hand-trimming. There is none of the noise of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and other gardening machinery that you always hear in America.

Beepers on Trucks: Trucks in Amsterdam do not beep when they back up - a minor nuisance but one we constantly face in America. The federal government requires these beepers as a safety measure, but their absence does not seem to cause accidents in Amsterdam. This is undoubtedly because Amsterdam drivers are used to being surrounded by people and bicyclists and so are very cautious, while American drivers are used to barreling along with few pedestrians around them.

Sidewalk Repairs: Jackhammers breaking up concrete sidewalks are not heard all that frequently in America, but they are extremely loud and annoying when they are used. In central Amsterdam, the sidewalks are paved with bricks, and repairs involve pulling up and putting down bricks by hand, which makes little or no noise. This undoubtedly requires more maintenance expense than our concrete sidewalks, but because Amsterdam is much denser, there is much less sidewalk area per capita than in American cities, so it is plausible that sidewalk maintenance costs less per capita.

Traffic Noise: Cars are the number one source of noise in American cities, and people in Amsterdam drive much less than in America. In central Amsterdam, most streets have only one traffic lane, shared by cars and bicycles, so the cars drive slowly, reducing the amount of noise they make. The difference is very clear on residential streets: where I live in Berkeley, I cannot stand outside of my house for more than two minutes without a car pulling in or out; but where I am staying in Amsterdam, there are fewer cars, even though the street is about four times as dense as my street in Berkeley.

But there is one source of traffic noise that often disrupts the quiet of Amsterdam, the bromfietsen (motorcycles and motorscooters). I guess that there are about 5% to 10% as many bromfietsen as fietsen (bicycles) in Amsterdam. When you walk down the street, it is usually very quiet for a couple of minutes, with only pedestrians, bicycles, and s few low-speed cars going by, and then very noisy for 15 seconds or so, as a motorscooter or motorcycle roars by.

The bromfietsers ride on the bicycle paths, and because they go faster than bicycles, they weave between them dangerously. On major streets, bike paths are right next to the sidewalk, and when you are walking on the sidewalk, it is alarming to have a heavy, noisy, high-speed vehicle right next to you; they are more polluting than cars, and you can smell their fumes after they pass. They often park blocking the sidewalk, because they cannot be leaned against buildings and fences like bicycles. They tend to be aggressive: sometimes they barrel through a street filled with pedestrians, honking their horns and roaring their engines to get people out of their way.

If half the bicyclists in Amsterdam shifted to motorscooters, it would be a much noisier, more dangerous, and less livable city. The 5% or 10% who have shifted to motorscooters save themselves a bit of time at the expense of making the city less livable for everyone. They are just the opposite of the people who give a gift to the public realm by planting in front of their houses: they degrade the public realm to benefit themselves.

On the balance, I think that the benefit to the individual of the time the motorscooters save is not as great as the cost to the public of the noise and danger that the motorscooters cause. If it were up to me, I would simply ban them - with an exception, of course, for people who have health problems that prevent them from bicycling.

Then Amsterdam would prove to the world that it is possible for a city to be dense and urban and at the same time to be beautiful and very quiet. It certainly is beautiful, but its quiet is under attack.