Urban life

Tim Cook is no titan of industry. Judging by its new introverted headquarters, Apple doesn’t look like a very urbane company, either. But to the chagrin of many, including City Lab editors, they might feel at home at their new store’s proposed location at the Carnegie Library building in Mount Vernon Square in Wahington, D.C. Apple’s contribution to urban life could be greater than expected, if they put their minds into trascending retail in favor of community building.

The Carnegie Library is part of a group of beautifully crafted buildings that came to serve as cultural hubs between the last half of the 19th century and the first decades of the 1900s. The Boston Public Library and its New York counterpart in Bryant Park are great examples of publicly funded cultural amenities. But this cohort also has other members that were funded privately, with over 2,500 libraries around the world underwritten by Andrew Carnegie alone.

Apple’s recently announced plans are to transform the Mount Vernon square library into a new typology of global flagship store. Times change and gadget buyers use stores to try devices on for size for later purchase at online stores. The retail value of storefronts, especially technological ones is diminishing. It’s the brand value creation that companies are after. The global flagship store that Apple envisions promises, in the words of Angela Ahrendts, their senior VP for Retail, to be a cultural and educational facility as much as a showroom framed in the experience economy. They are even dropping the “store” from the name, to focus on creating a destination.

From great libraries in Amsterdam and Aarhus we have learned that in the age of cheap books and cheaper internet, their mission has to evolve in order to survive. And some have done it by becoming a destination for diverse publics and making the city around them safer and more inclusive. They have turned into community hubs where people meet in tea shops, coffee houses or just the foyer; where children and adults can learn in worskshops, where maker spaces welcome new economies and where culture is alive in the form of theater, concerts or poetry readings. The typology of the library is in constant evolution as it acquires the characteristics of a Place.

If we look at both by function alone, we would find many similarities between what a library is in 2017 and Apple’s proposed new outlets. Save for ownership, we might be headed for a new iteration of urban gathering places where public and private dissolve into Place. That in itself would be an entirely new mission for Apple and its retail department.

Users and usage notwithstanding, there is a difference between ownership and property. And the private property of public spaces is a very sensitive issue. Mount Vernon Square must remain public property and continue to be open to the public, by all means. That is not part of this discussion. The proposed use of the building is. And whether Apple is a worthy steward of the Nation’s Heritage, Washington, D.C’s first desegregated building, the cultural baggage of the space, and an architectural gem from the Gilded Age.

I believe it will be. The New York Landmarks Conservancy seems to think so as well, given that in 2016 it presented Apple with its Chairman’s Award for conservation of the built heritage in Manhattan. Apple has a clean record of respect for history and the public realm, not only in the US but in very sensitive historic contexts like Paris, where the store sits across from the Palais Garnier, Paris’ famous Opera House.

But this is hardly a defense of Apple. The case in point might involve the tech giant and the particular D.C. store but it is a matter of how we reach the solutions that our cities so desperately need. Population grows and housing becomes increasingly unaffordable. Large swathes of city dwellers are pushed out of the more dynamic urban cores into sprawling suburbs where the overall cost of each library, concert hall or cultural center is larger per capita than close to the center, and companies pay much less taxes per acre than in central cities. Local governments are cash-strapped and the quality of their service declines.

As we prepare for dwindling public endowments for culture and arts, it’s worth to look at the structure of funding of these activities across the country. A recent report by the World Cities Culture Forum finds that in US cities, private sponsorship makes up an overwhelmingly large percentage of culture financing, which includes libraries. Much like in the age of Andrew Carnegie, business owners otherwise known as “robber barons” were actually dedicated patrons of the arts. There are several museums, parks, concert halls and libraries to attest to their generosity. 

There wouldn’t be a lot of arguments in favor should a building of such significance be turned into a regular retail outlet. Some private space dedicated to profit making within a building that will remain open to the public with active, community-building content seems like fair price in exchange for additional tax revenues and new exciting public uses. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that private money goes to add civic value. Philantropists have done it since “The Gospel of Wealth” and modern-day billionaires like Bill Gates continue the trend.

Since the closing of the short-lived City Museum of the D.C. Historical Society, City Lab reports, the recurring question has been what to do with the Carnegie Library. Public funds to update its original use to 2017 standards might be hard to come by.

A solid first step towards social inclusion, cultural development and prosperity in cities and towns is to acknowledge that things happen when there is a partnership of mutual respect between public and private initiative. The people benefit from shade and fresh air from a public park whether its funding came from a bank, a nonprofit or a local government. Gems like Paley Park and the Morgan Library were given to New York City by private support from corporate chums. Inclusive places that restore dignity can happen anywhere, funded by anyone, and neither the public nor the private sector should have a monopoly over caring for others. 

So this is my challenge to Apple. Prove to the world that your new retail concept goes further than just adding amenities to your showrooms. Be the gentle corporate giant and show how a real Placemaking process from the private sector can be as beneficial as a public one. Give back to the city whose heritage you benefit from. Let us believe that for Tim Cook & Co., Historic Preservation is more than just a marketing gimmick. Create a Place and not just another store.

I believe in the power of Place to contribute to inclusive, prosperous cities and to create wealth, opportunity, and governance. Firms like Apple have at their disposal tools with tremendous possibilities to make better cities for all. These types of partnerships where a big corporation engages in placemaking practices that benefit the general public will add value to society as a whole. They show us that diversity is good also when it’s part of a conversation between public and private initiatives. They can confirm that Placemaking is not the exclusive responsibility of government but rather an ethical obligation of both sectors to work together and improve our quality of life.

The city is a complex system of networks that facilitates the exchange of information, similar to how the Internet works. Both replicate the “invisible” design features of alluvial fans, trees, respiratory and circulatory apparatus, lightning and volcanoes, among other entities. This configuration is reiterative in nature, and implies main trunks that branch off at ever smaller scales until the flow is fully distributed.

The coincidences in terms of design are captured in Edward Bejan’s Constructal Law, which looks at all elements of nature as flow-facilitating systems that tend to constantly rethink to maximize their efficiency, and despite their differences, respond to a very similar design matrix.

According to Bejan, the city is a systems system whose computer architecture tends to seek the most efficient way of transmitting information. Since the days of Çatal Hüyük and Mohenjo Daro, the architecture of the system has been essentially the same. The city has retained its basic design because it fulfills the mission of facilitating the flow of information. The morphology of the system has been perfected over millennia and is, theoretically, the most efficient one.

One could argue like Bejan that a city is a complex system with identical elementary characteristics as a tree, the Internet or the circulatory system. And yet it is not. A city is a redundant, resilient, hyperconnected network of unique places and individuals. Some of whom are involved in a perennial search for ways to disrupt the ultimate system: geometry. But in reality, the Smart City is just a tech tool that navigates through logistics or bureaucracy to facilitate the most efficient flows of people, goods or ideas within a set physical form. It is interrelated with the spatial dimension of the city, and enhances the experience, but has not and will not change the geometry.

Artificial Intelligence may soon be able to recommend new optimal ways of designing a city for efficiency, but the pace at which the physical realm can effectively change is not fast enough. At least not faster than we can tear down and replace streets and buildings. But the real question is Do we want efficiency to be the guiding principle of citymaking? Is an efficient city a creative one?

The intelligence of the city lies in collective ingenuity derived from individual ideas. It is by the sum of millions of decisions that the dynamics of the city adapt to political, economic, social or environmental conditions. The city requires spaces with the capacity to facilitate flows, to assume and to hack systems and to incorporate the technological dimension into the urban space. That is achieved through the philosophy of Placemaking.

Undoubtedly, we are still building public spaces in the digital age. From the Forum to the Basilica to the Cathedral square to the Parisian coffee houses to the Mall, and the current practice of giving back the city to the people, the essence of Place has been the same. Through history and in cultures as diverse as Western, Andean and Polynesian, Place has been a constant and Placemaking the underlying thread, with very similar planning processes and many reiterating building blocs.

There is no sense in changing the geometry of Place to accomodate the Smart City. Technology will find exciting new ways of enhancing the urban experience but the actual experience will happen in the realm of Placemaking. The typology of spaces, incidentally, needs not be invented. They have existed for millennia and share at least four fundamental principles: centripetal attraction, friendly body language, an accomodationg enclosure and space for contemplation. And there is no app for that.

Looking at the Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach is like looking at many shopping streets across the world. The stores that line it are the same ones one finds at many other shopping streets and even at suburban malls. Tourists and locals mingle and there are even a few community spaces that pull families and residents like a play park, a church, a bank, all perks of not being out on the city. But there are also many closed stores. 

The “retail apocalypse” is touching shopping streets everywhere and Miami Beach is no exception. Every day we witness a new closing and new replacements do not fill all the vacancies. Some creative interventions have brought a City Ballet storefront showcasing their costume design, and a Botanical garden storefront bringing a bit of the lush to the shopping street in an effort to attract people to the garden. But vacancies are not only evident on the ground floors. Also upper stories remain dark at evenings. Some buildings have offices on upper floors. Others have what seem as dream rooftops with vegetation, string lights and pergolas. But the vacancy ghost looms.

Can residential uses be brought to buildings and terraces like the ones pictured above? Would people want to live there? Would there be zoning issues? Should ordinances be changed? Would it make any difference? Would the experience improve or not? Could we make better use of historic assets along Lincoln Roads everywhere if we keep asking these questions until someone in government sets out to answer them and solve those equations?

Since mid-2015, the relationship between Historic Preservation and Placemaking has been one of my favorite topics of study. I have found that the greatest challenge is to imagine historic districts that preserve their identity and spirit, their coffee shops, small businesses and places of contemplation, while accommodating the needs of the 21st century and the conditions for Economic Development.

If we act with the conviction that the mission of our profession is to improve lives, we can make better cities with the help of those who will use them. By sourcing ideas from the community, it is certain that creativity and a wealth of knowledge will inform the implementation and governance will come easily.

Even the conversation of contemporary buildings with historic districts has the potential of unleashing rich urban processes and adding value to their neighborhoods. I’m thinking of the work of Alberto Campo Baeza in Zamora, that of Carlo Scarpa in Verona, or that of Renzo Piano in Paris (no, not the Pompidou Centre but the Atelier Brancusi, mind you). Even Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim would make this list. And now, The new Boston Public Library, which is among the 2017 CNU Charter Award winners. This year’s Charter Awards focused on preservation at many levels, and seen from many angles. As a side note, it’s worth a look here.

Successful interventions in historic areas have in common features that are reproduced over and over again. Architectural thinker Christopher Alexander found that successful spaces, buildings and cities had several elements in common. Alexander isolated these elements and found that they were composed of combinations of objects. A door, its weight and materials, the treatment of the wall that frames it and the difference of light on each side of the threshold make an “entrance” pattern, A patio, the vegetation it contains, the seating spaces, the shade and its relationship with the walls that surround it and its interior make a pattern of “outside stay”. Together, these patterns make up a language that has a structure and communicates a message.

The conservation strategy of heritage areas must take into account that buildings are sets of patterns that converse – or not – with the larger patterns of the neighborhood and the city. Conservation decisions should not only be about technical, constructive and material isues, but mainly about context and the impact of conservation projects on urban life. Hence the immense relief you feel as you walk around a corner where a nuisance has been demolished and experience a city that enhances the historical experience, connects to its context and allows for vistas that were obscured by concrete and bricks. Such is the case with Ellis Square in Savannah.

Contemporaneity forces us to see heritage as a useful asset and as part of a lively, open and multicultural city. The built environment is made not solely of buildings but of patterns, and these are, in turn, composed of smaller scale patterns. It is thus appropriate to imagine the conservation of historical areas as the rehabilitation of historical patterns and experience, and not just isolated buildings. This enormous shift in focus could allow cities to perpetuate their character and identity, and continue to enhance the user experience. The possibilities become infinite when we move from the linear thought process of conserving, restoring, rehabilitating or adapting a building, to an exponential one, where creative conservation processes focused on patterns, intangible heritage and urban experience preserve history beyond bricks and mortar.

The search for patterns to recover experiences over the focus on saving specific buildings is what I call “Creative Conservation”.

Big-box retailers belong downtown. Scale and frontage treatment are critical, as the Kress Supermarket demonstrates. Its big space needs does not distupt the scale of the fabric in downtown Seattle, but rather accomodates to it, pushing the large footprint underground and keeping the rhythm of successive, narrow storefronts in the ground floor. 

Setbacks generally create voids that fail to enhance the experience. And are often turned to parking. But sometimes they allow for creating wonderful places like this garden in Wynwood. 

The success of the Placemaking movement has expanded its reach and popularity around the World. Participatory planning processes and collaborative creation of better cities and towns have revolutionized the way we experience public spaces in countries as diverse as Ecuador, Lebanon or Australia. The legacy of visionaries like William “Holly” Whyte has inspired young entrepreneurs, urbanists and activists from Mexico to Chile and made Latin America one of the most interesting areas to realize the power of Public Space.

During the Habitat III conference that took place in Quito, we were able to strengthen the network and learn from the innovative approaches that enrich the movement from Sweden to the United States. The conversation was open, enticing and engaging. As Placemaking moved to the center of the New Urban Agenda, for some of us that week was a journey of discovery. As I dug deep into the reasons for the absence of a landmark contribution from my country to the global dialogue, a few notable findings emerged.

The quantity and quality of events and the high level talks that went on motivated a search for the missing piece of the puzzle. Turns out Placemaking had been a part of Andean culture for centuries and we didn’t even know it. If we harness the lessons from history, our contribution could be enormous. The creative economy, the diversity of the movement and urban development strategies would benefit.

The Minga, or as I like to call it, Ancestral Placemaking, has been in practice in the Andean highlands of Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Bolivia for hundreds of years. It is a voluntary, collaborative effort in which townspeople of all ages and genders contribute with their work, their motivation, their knowledge or their wit to finish a project of collective interest. Whether it’s a new irrigation waterway, a road, a fence or a corral, everyone partakes of the festive event. It is based on trust and all contributions are received with gratitude, regardless of their size. Contemporary iterations of this time-honored tradition have brought different and more complex forms of adherence. For example, better-off tradespeople in the community often contribute with monetary contributions.

Mingas are still the preferred strategy for completing small works in rural communities. In later years, urban neighborhoods with strong presence of immigrants from the countryside have also recurred to this practice. In some cases, the Minga has been the counterpart component that communities contribute with when local government provides financing for projects with a requisite of thrift.

Conventions so ingrained in the collective are easy to repurpose to focus on the creation of great places. The methodological components of a Placemaking initiative are mostly present in the Minga. My Eureka! Moment came with the realization that this was the missing piece on the question of Ecuadorian contribution to the global dialogue on Urbanism. Quito, Ecuador and South America have a lot to say and this sort of discovery presages a very successful implementation of the principles of good public space.

Concepts of community engagement are dear to Latin American cultures. A history of shared values and strong cultural markers aligned with the principles of Placemaking could ease its introduction and match it with an update of the language of the Minga to better serve the changing needs of public space in the 21st Century. Great contributions to implement the New Urban Agenda need not be in the form of megaprojects or grand schemes requiring sanctioning at government level. Massive changes can come from harnessing the power of little actions and age-old traditions.

The Minga can be a way to introduce Latin America to Placemaking. In this way, the Minga can be a tool for leveraging our cultural traditions to build better cities from the ground up. Let’s get started!
Read the original post in the Project for Public Spaces Blog.