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Urban life

“… to think of a persistent urban artifact as something tied to a single period of history constitutes one of the greatest fallacies of urban science.”

Aldo Rossi

 

Monuments do not define the character of a city or its people. They are, however, deeply ingrained in their history and attest to its growth, glory and gore. It is a society, at a particular point in time, that charges them with meaning and leans on them to move forward. By purging those monuments that are no longer cherished, societies aim to start anew. Most of us will remember the toppling of Lenins and Saddams after their regimes were overthrown and civil liberties were restored in their countries. The trouble is that bronze, marble and granite do not have a voice of their own, nor do they carry an immovable significance with them through the historical continuum. They merely echo the imaginary. Taking stones down without realizing (and effectively fixing) the complexities of their profound interaction with urban and social life does not prevent the resurgence of hate, dangerously symbolized by cleaned up, homogeneized, normalized figures from an horrific past.

Monuments tend to signify different things at different points in time and they may endure or disappear but their locus remains. The footprint of monuments in history is not tied to their physical existence but to the amalgam of volitions, decisions and stories that had them built in the first place and those that keep them relevant through time. That is what we know as Permanence. As Rossi argues, we – and the cities that we shape and shape us in return – tend to seek evolution rather than preservation, and in that process, “monuments are not only preserved but continuously presented as propelling elements of development.”

Permanence is closely tied to Place. Landmarks persist and become part of the collective image of the city because they have both grown with it and watched it grow. In that sense, they play a role quite similar to the ties that the people have to Place when it is collectively thought, collectively built and collectively taken care of.

The meaning of an artifact is what we make of it when we own it and lean on it to look towards the future. The inspiration to walk in the virtuous direction of what a monument reminds us of, or the lessons to be learned from its history so we do not repeat it are what give them a relevant place in our time.

As a society we are faced with the decision of whether to do away with uncomfortable symbols or lean upon the scars they left in our history to move forward, united. History does not change if we choose to ignore it, and the future is not guaranteed if we silence the past, grueling and offensive though it may be. Cities and societies can only get stronger if we strengthen our ties to Place and its landmarks.

For some it is a given, specially in the wake of Charlottesville, that monuments will come down. But the ghost of hate will still loom after taking down what symbolizes it. Reminders of a violent past are necessary, not least because they are part of a process that now affords us the liberty to reclaim that past and remove those edifices. But memory is the stuff cities are made from. Let’s not crush it, lest we forget how to build the places that house it.

For further reading on the matter, I’ve taken the liberty of excerpting from Aldo Rossi’s The Architecture Of The City his reflection on monuments and permanence. I respectfully recommend reading more than this excerpt for a great overlook on the significance of urban artifacts through time and the importance of monuments for the evolution of the city and its dwellers.

How we interact with food defines how we interact with Place. From the night markets in Southeast Asia to coffee at a stall in the Egyptian Bazaar in Istanbul to Hot dogs at a street vendor’s cart in New York City, Place is built around the culture of street food. The last time I looked at the powerful Placemaking capacities of place names and how folklore adds identity to Place. Food is, perhaps, as powerful if not more at the time of forging identities and making places recognizable, enjoyable and memorable.

Below are three stories that link food and Place that caught my attention today. First is chef Michael Solomonov, who places the value of belonging at a high priority. Then comes Foodlink, a food bank that has close ties, invests in and gives back to the local economy, and last but certainly not least, a story about markets, from the primitive civic places where producers would sell their goods to supermarkets and the resurgence of the farmers market.

How we buy and sell food is a reflection of the values we have as a society and an activity that informs our Placemaking efforts.

Folklore plays a critical role in how people see their places and how they project themselves in it. Place names are lockets full of stories that explain history and processes of apropriation. Dr. Sharon Blackie weaves two beautiful stories of how the Apache and the Irish relate to Place. She argues that “The myths and stories of place can help the establishment of enduring bonds between individuals and the natural world.” By naming their surroundings, communities channel the collective wisdom that allows their members to find their identities and make the world better with their unique contribution. So, could it be that finding one’s purpose and identity is directly related to belonging, engaging and contributing to community and Place?

To paraphrase Fred Kent, it takes a community to find an individual’s identity and many individuals to create a community.

I have just read Prof. Richard Florida’s article, based on a recent University of Chicago/UC Berkeley study of land use regulations stifling productivity on a whooping 9% of GDP per year. Prof. Florida argues that where not for that decrease in productivity, the Rust Belt and other hard hit areas would be far worse off. I have a few comments, for which I do not presume to have a final say, so I will leave them as questions.

  1. Wouldn’t New York’s or San Francisco’s potential triple digit growth rates be good for the environment, since everyone would choose those metropolitan areas and most of the country’s greenfields would be left alone?
  2. If we agree to the premise that land use regulations have reduced productivity and that metros like NYC or SFO would otherwise be even more attractive, does that necessarily mean that every company in the country would flock there, leaving the rest of the country deprived of any productivity and ravaged with poverty?
  3. Are we saying that the only reason recovery is underway in the Rust Belt is because large cities have been reined in by regulation? Isn’t that view contemptuous of the efforts of smaller cities and towns by assuming that every victory they get on the econ dev department is due to land use regulations in cities far away?
  4. Does the boost for Sun Belt cities that makes them more attractive regardless of their wasteful land use patterns and unsustainable dependence on air conditioning worsen negative environmental effects?

 

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?