The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of!

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The Curmudgeon has followed Rybczynski since he first read, HOME, back in the 1980’s. Occupationally Rybczynski is an architectural critic but he is much more than that. His written works have been excellent and critically acclaimed and his latest work, Makeshift Metropolis, ought to be read by serious scholars and practitioners alike. Makeshift offers a valuable perspective seldom found in economic development literature, and readability never found in academic journals.

Makeshift Metropolis has a bit of a career long perspective and reflection contained in its pages. Perhaps that is what most attracts the Curmudgeon to the work; it seems to be a beginning assessment of the closing thoughts of an outstanding commentator of the urban form. The book is not about architecture; it supposedly about the practice of urban planning (but most planners are not likely to like the message). For those of us who are not planners, the perspective is perhaps even more valuable. Rybczynski asks the question what kind of cities do present day Americans want. Equally critical to economic developers, he examines how these cities actually get built in real life.

…a central Rybczynski point is that Americans want different, even conflicting things out of our urban areas and the various types/styles of urban areas suit some, but far from all Americans. There is not one type of urban area which is inherently desirable or pleasing to all, perhaps most, Americans.Accordingly, when Rybczynski poses the question of what Americans want of their cities, he really means urban areas. While certainly a great part of his book cites examples of big projects from our mega cities, he also spends a fair amount of his time on suburbs and small towns. As we shall discover in this review, a central Rybczynski point is that Americans want different, even conflicting things out of our urban areas and the various types/styles of urban areas suit some, but far from all Americans. There is not one type of urban area which is inherently desirable or pleasing to all, perhaps most, Americans.

Makeshift Metropolis is a charming and quite understated analysis. Instead of screaming, he employs subtlety and prefers to use the words of well respected authors and commentators to present his most important points. His summary of the chief high priests of urban planning (Robinson, Le Corbusier, Wright, Howard and Jacobs) is delightful, insightful, informative, short, and very, very readable.

The Demand Side of Urbanism

Rybczynski probably writes this chapter with a view to reorient planner’s models and perspectives. Initially Rybczynski observed that planner’s models and projects during the 1950-1970 period were on balance faulty, to the point of being disastrous to urban, central city America. Included in the sad mélange of failed strategies were: urban renewal, wholesale slum clearance, high-rise public housing,  government, cultural and sports “centers” which were isolated from the rest of the city, large plazas and wide street  or traffic separation, pedestrian-only downtowns (sometimes with underground concourses), and urban expressways.

Most of these projects were associated with Le Corbusier’s concept of the “Radiant City”, and the planner’s anti-Christ, Robert Moses. And the consensus today is that most failed badly and have left a heritage of abused spaces, further compounding the weakening of our central cities, but inflicting damage no matter where they were built. The concepts of extreme vertical density separated from other islands of similarly extreme density by large expanses of parkland-like settings and with key economic functions segregated from other uses were for the most part not accepted by consumers and its implemention produced very negative side effects or consequences.

… the suburbanization of America. Race and class differences all escape Jacob’s great work. The idea that some consumers would not choose to live within her image of a vibrant community such as Greenwich Village, but would in fact want to escape from it, is foreign to Jacobs.As an antidote, Rybczynski suggests revaluing two other paradigms, the City Beautiful (Charles Mulford Robinson) and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City and incorporating their concepts into current planning practice. After all, much of what has been labeled the New Urbanism, he observes, seems drawn from these perspectives. “The chief lessons of New Urbanism were that home buyers value planning and design and will accept higher densities when these are associated with a sense of community” (P. 85). The basic tenets established by Raymond Unwin, compactness, variety in design and heterogeneity in house types, walkability and neighborliness (P.85) are all a blend of City Beautiful and Garden City precepts.

With some cynical delight he later links the New Urbanism with Wright’s Broadacre City stating that “The New Urbanism movement has grand ambitions to remake the center of cities, but its greatest successes have been in the suburbs, so much so that Vincent Scully, an admirer, once wrote, “The New Suburbanism might be a truer label.” (P.92) In essence, Rybczynski suggests despite their announced purpose to transform the central city, City Beautiful and Garden City have found their true home in the American suburb.

Interestingly, Rybczynski does not spare Jane Jacobs. “’Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, she wrote, ‘with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves’. The second half of her statement never quite came true. (P.88) While many a downtown responded well to her prescripts and are victim/beneficiary of today’s Jacobs-inspired gentrification, her vision and images failed to counter, or even address, the suburbanization of America. Race and class differences all escape Jacob’s great work. The idea that some consumers would not choose to live within her image of a vibrant community such as Greenwich Village, but would in fact want to escape from it, is foreign to Jacobs.

Yet, Rybczynski, with some satisfaction, observes that within Jacob’s perspective is an intense distrust of government, an endorsement of small business (but a total neglect of large corporations), an opponent of centralized planning and the champion of free markets – a virtual Neo-Conservative belief system, he suggests. Then, with no small irony, he demonstrates how Jacobs has become the patron saint of planners, who in Jacob’s name conceptualize and pursue projects and plans in reaction to which, a real-life Jacobs would have undoubtedly hit the streets in protest.

Employing the author of Boston’s North End academic obituary, Herbert Gans, Rybczynski tosses out an insight which is a central message of Makeshift Metropolis. Whatever planners think or whatever it is they propose, planners operate on the margins of urban development. Quoting Gans Rybczynski questions the power and impact of planners and planning theory on the city form;  “the truth is that the new forms of residential building—in suburb as well as city—are not products of orthodox planning theory, … but expressions of middle class culture which guides the housing market, and … development and redevelopment projects are important in the life of many an economic developer. In his chapter “Putting the Pieces Together” Rybczynski offers his thoughts on how to implement successful and effective real estate projects. As the reader might by now suspect, he gores a few oxen along the way.which planners also serve’. In an entrepreneurial society where people are free to choose how, and where, to live, they will ultimately get what they want, not what planners think they need” (P.91). In this Rybczynski joins with Jacobs stating that “Instead of one big idea, the city is formed by many little ideas, ‘the freedom of countless numbers of people to make and carry out countless plans’” (this is Jacobs herself). (P.92)

To summarize this very penetrating, and frankly piercing chapter, Rybczynski concludes that they activities and concepts of planners require a political constituency to be implementable and effective. In the end this constituency “’will express itself in the form of individual choices, and individual demands, channeled through the marketplace. Quoting once again a friend’s observation (Andrejs Skaburskis, Queen’s University, Canada) “In the long run, it is the demand-side pressures that forge the shape of cities’… the public actually knows what it wants or, at least, recognizes it when it sees it”. (P.92)

Putting the Pieces Together

The Curmudgeon has often thought, no doubt erroneously, that planners propose projects and economic developers complete them and build them out. Whether it is the latest and greatest downtown revitalization schema or the capstone business, professional, industrial or technology/life sciences park which is to serve as the focal point for developing a cluster or a community renaissance, big (relative to the size of the jurisdiction) development and redevelopment projects are important in the life of many an economic developer. In his chapter “Putting the Pieces Together” Rybczynski offers his thoughts on how to implement successful and effective real estate projects. As the reader might by now suspect, he gores a few oxen along the way.

First, he exposes the reader to a concept which, in fact, underlies most signature big scale projects: densification, the desire to increase the use/value of a geographic area. Development and redevelopment is in essence densification.  “Cities are always building and rebuilding to accommodate growing (and declining) populations and technological and cultural changes” (P.145). At root these large scale projects and transformations seek to increase or create densification in a geographical area. Densification is good and full of advantages for the community: greater human traffic and safety, more choices, more amenities, more efficient and cost effective infrastructure and services and a larger tax base. Densities and people go together like movies and popcorn—but which comes first?

Planners frequently implicitly seem to follow the “build it and they will come” approach. Here, they say, is a great idea/plan to revitalize a troubled area, it’s loaded with green and sustainable codes and initiatives, and will generate serious increases in taxes and probably votes. Then they put it out to bid. And, in crawls the developer. And from then on, from the planner’s perspective, the idea/plan goes downhill fast. Typically profit and greed crush design and green. Time marches on and projects change character and many never reach any real stage of final completion.

Successful densification-based projects cannot be created in isolated and hard to reach areas. “To effectively prime this pump there must be water in the well, however, it is essential that the city be part of a growing and economically healthy metropolitan region. Downtown densification is not a recipe for saving declining cities.Why does this occur so frequently?

Density, Rybczynski posits, should be linked with amenities such as parks, waterfronts, cultural districts and entertainment centers, not to mention shopping and business parks. “sufficient amenities must be in place from the beginning (of the project) to attract buyers and tenants, the success of such projects depends on developers who have the financial resources to fund the considerable up-front investment … (to generate) enough critical mass to warrant such investments, and the developer must have the experience and resources to deal with a variety of uses (and markets)” (P.146) Developers should be chosen therefore, not just because of designs and aesthetics, willingness to incorporate green/sustainable features, but also because they have access to markets/buyers and the financial lenders of capital. Otherwise the critical mass so necessary to solve the chicken and egg (people or amenities) will not be developed. Successful densification-based projects cannot be created in isolated and hard to reach areas. “To effectively prime this pump there must be water in the well, however, it is essential that the city be part of a growing and economically healthy metropolitan region. Downtown densification is not a recipe for saving declining cities. (P.146)

Densification must exist, and should be growing and the project must build on and incorporate existing density and link it to desired and attractive amenities—all of which will attract users and consumers. Amenities are expensive and cheap project, stripped of amenities may doom the project to failure. Developers must have the resources to finance with amenities. They will not obtain these finances if density is diminishing, if an area is declining. In a declining area the momentum necessary to obtain resources, users, consumers will be lacking and the development or redevelopment will sputter to an incomplete finish or outright failure.

Certainly this perspective will not lack for its opponents. Nor will it account for the “Las Vegas in the desert” phenomena. But there is value in understanding that development projects usually must draw from existing densities and that successful plans/projects are those which link with an amenity to produce people, traffic and users early in the project. But is there an alternative to this form of development/redevelopment. Fortunately, Rybczynski has such an alternative which can be utilized by declining communities and which may assist them in their revitalization.

Using Philadelphia’s complicated and arguably troubled Penn’s landing plan and development project as an example and support for his perspective, Rybczynski states that it “shows the difficulties inherent in the wholesale development of large urban sites. He argues that ‘successful megaprojects, such as Rockefeller Center, are few and far between and are generally the result of unique circumstances. .. The challenge for a site as large and isolated as Penn’s Landing was that it needed a critical mass (as discussed in our preceding paragraph), but because of its size it took so long to implement that it was particularly … if the project is simply too large, demand cannot be created in the time frames needed to attract users or capital so necessary to achieve a critical mass. Big projects may sell newspapers and garner votes, but they do not create demand from nowhere. Build it and they won’t come is what Rybczynski is saying.susceptible to market cycles’”. (P.149) The Curmudgeon would insert that the identical comment could be made regarding small scale projects in small and second tier cities and towns. The real issue underlying the intrinsic difficulty of these projects whatever the size of the community is the level of demand in the community and how demand shifts over time.

Thus economic developer need to create demand for a successful completion of their projects and if the project is simply too large, demand cannot be created in the time frames needed to attract users or capital so necessary to achieve a critical mass. Big projects may sell newspapers and garner votes, but they do not create demand from nowhere. Build it and they won’t come is what Rybczynski is saying (except of course in mega growing first tier cities).

Rybczynski, in effect, is urging planners and economic developers to be more realistic in their projects. They should not swing for the fences, but instead try for singles and doubles. Most cities, he suggests, do not have a “sufficiently dynamic real estate market” to attract the capital sufficient to create the critical mass (which links densities to amenities) so necessary for successful completion of large-scale (relative to the community) projects.  “That doesn’t mean that densification can’t happen (for these communities), but it will be smaller in scale and slower.” (P.154)

How then does one solve this issue? He turns Daniel Burnham upside down.  “The answer to large urban development has turned out to be big projects that are, at the same time, collections of little plans (projects).” (P.150). Rather than “phasing” a unified concept and “big-large-scale project”, planners and economic developers show allow a geography to “grow piece-meal, building by building, with individual projects financed and built by different developers, in response to changing market demand, but following the architectural guidelines of the master plan…. the physical results are pleasantly heterogeneous and avoid the architectural uniformity that so bedeviled earlier urban renewal projects.” (P.151)

In such cities with limited demand and capital “the process generally begins with small developers, entrepreneurs, and individuals who are prepared to take risks. Eventually new residents attract small-scale retail, which in turn attracts more residents….The growing demand encourages larger, better-financed developers to undertake larger projects.” (P.154) For Rybczynski the role of government (and hence economic developers) is most critical in the early phases of this incremental process. Fast permitting, tax abatements, historic preservation credits, streetscape and infrastructure improvements, and at the later stages facilities and public buildings such as libraries and schools. Interestingly, in the Curmudgeon’s experience, communities often try to jump start the revitalization of a targeted redevelopment area with public facilities; for Rybczynski such facilities are most useful after moderate levels of demand for the geography have already matured.

Finally Rybczynski concludes this chapter with a second example, the Washington DC Yards (Washington Naval Yard). He draws four additional concluding lessons from large scale projects. First, do not ignore urban history. By that he means streets with sidewalks, trees, individual smaller buildings, and an intensive mixture of different uses. Secondly, admitting that modern technology whether it is the car or the internet is powerful, such new technology does not require the geography to be reinvented. Rather, he urges developers just superimpose another heterogeneous layer upon the past real estate legacy. Use modern technology to reinforce the past. His third lesson borrow directly from Jacobs (actually I think they all do) is that amenities work best only “when they are intensively used”, that is after a sufficient densification has already occurred. Projects should not be isolated but instead integrated into the adjacent community. His fourth lesson is most important for planners and economic developers: recognize what the public sector does best and avoid like the plague what it does not do well. Government, he argues, “has not shown itself to be effective at city planning, often being more concerned with dictating what is ‘good for people’ rather than discovering ‘what people want’”. Burdened by entrenched bureaucracies, government is also not good at responding the changing consumer demands.” (P.161-162)

Kinds of Cities We Want

“We’ll always have Paris”

Many economic developers, certainly those who work in rural areas and small towns, but also including many, who labor in suburbs, think of their communities different than “cities”, i.e. central cities. Indeed much ink and considerable lamentation has accompanied our transformation from central cities to suburbs. Indeed, in my earliest years in the profession, I was educated how the federal government through housing and transportation policies principally created the fodder for ticky-tacky profit gouging developers to digest.

Accordingly suburbs arguably have been the geographic instruments of evil, draining the lifeblood from our central cities, leaving behind a residue of destruction and separating American society into geographic silos of race and class. The effect of suburbanization on central cities was one thing, but for some, there is no form of life lower than that of a suburbanite and no lifestyle more pernicious, or at least mediocre, than suburban.  I have lived and worked in a atmosphere where there seemed to be an update of the medieval chain of being, to a post modern “chain of urbanism”, a structured preference order of urban forms, the highest of which (central cities) is closest to God.

… recognize what the public sector does best and avoid like the plague what it does not do well. Government, he argues, “has not shown itself to be effective at city planning, often being more concerned with dictating what is ‘good for people’ rather than discovering ‘what people want’”. Burdened by entrenched bureaucracies, government is also not good at responding the changing consumer demands.”No surprise than to observe that policy-makers, especially federal, have focused for years on reversing past decisions and supporting the revitalization of the impacted central core of our metropolitan areas in preference to encouraging further suburban growth.  Rybczynski enters obliquely into this fray by seemingly accepting this new suburban nation, even citing a 2008 Pew Research Center poll supporting the notion that suburbanites are even happier in their miserable existence than city dwellers (P.165). But no sooner than almost endorsing suburbs, in the same paragraph he quickly demonstrates that simultaneous with the development of the suburban nation, central cities have in fact grown in population. Observing that in 1900 14% of the U.S. population lived in the 38 cities with populations greater than 100,000, but in 2006 27% lived in 258 cities with an equivalent population. In short, Americans were simultaneously choosing to live in both locations.

The question, Rybczynski poses from this bimodal love affair is not “whether we want to live in cities” but “the real question is in what kind of cities do we want to live. Compact or spread out? Old or new? Big or small?” (P.165-166) For Rybczynski the key to answering this question is to first understand that the real life definition of what we think of as a city has changed from our traditional definition of a city. How so? “Not so long ago, big cities were easily distinguished from small towns and rural areas by the quality of life….Today, the nature of suburbs and exurbs makes it difficult to define exactly where the city stops and the countryside begins. (P.166) Citing Irving Kristol ‘For the overwhelming fact concerning the quality of American life today, whether this life be lived in a central city or a suburb, or a small city–or even in those rural areas where something like a third of the population still resides–  is that it is life in an urban civilization. (P.166)
The question Rybczynski poses from this bimodal love affair is not “whether we want to live in cities” but “the real question is in what kind of cities do we want to live. Compact or spread out? Old or new? Big or small?
For Rybczynski no matter where we live, we live in an urban civilization and that central cities, towns, small cities, villages, exurbs, boomburgs, edge cities et al are all simply forms of an urban area in a larger urban civilization. The choice is made by each household and there is no preferred type of urban form which in inherently defines a city and serves as justification for its preference vis-a-vis another form.  If having postulated that residential location is a personal choice, does Rybczynski suggest any particular style of preference? Yes! “Americans want to live in cities that are spread out”. P.167

The Horizontal Urban Form

“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Horizontal is not defined only by suburban and exurbanization. In fact, central cities can be horizontal as he observes are many of the Sunbelt cities: Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, San Jose, and Atlanta-not to mention Los Angeles or Las Vegas. They are horizontal central cities with relatively low population densities (less than ten per acre). He does admit, however, that horizontal cities are dependent on cars and trucks, which is sure to aggravate any reader who considers themselves an environmentalist. Nevertheless, he proceeds onward complimenting what he labels as the “dispersed city” for its ability to accentuate flexibility, adaptability and rapid change, and accommodate our “increasingly heterogeneous society”; “Americans are not more alike today; they are more dissimilar, and dispersal accommodates these differences. (P.168) In essence, city dispersal facilitates innovation and change and serves as a buffer between the various chunks of protein in our American societal stew. Low density, the enemy of environmental economic and transportation efficiency, may yield positive, compensatory benefits, allowing us to survive and adjust to heterogeneity and change.

“the new always seems slightly makeshift, shoehorned into an old mold that doesn’t quite fit. The past is part of a city’s charm—and what keeps me here (he is a resident of Philadelphia)—but it exacts a price in terms of efficiency, convenience, and endless maintenance. An old city is like an old car: it still runs, it will get you there, but it doesn’t have the safety features, conveniences, and efficiencies of a newer model.”Decentralization and dispersion are not the only common denominators Rybczynski discovers in the aggregate of personal residential choices made over the last century. He also believes that warm cities have been more preferable than colder ones and that new, since it can build in a modern infrastructure and current consumer preferences (shopping styles, for example), is more desirable than the older industrially built urban forms. In an older industrial city, “the new always seems slightly makeshift, shoehorned into an old mold that doesn’t quite fit. The past is part of a city’s charm—and what keeps me here (he is a resident of Philadelphia)—but it exacts a price in terms of efficiency, convenience, and endless maintenance. An old city is like an old car: it still runs, it will get you there, but it doesn’t have the safety features, conveniences, and efficiencies of a newer model.” (P.168) Newness also is likely to be more efficient and will incorporate more of the knowledge and innovation we have accumulated over the past decades. This enhanced infrastructure and built in modernity are likely to lead to less regulation and lower building/construction costs and hence greater affordability, at least compared to the unit to unit costs found in older cities (he contrasts New York City with Houston to prove this point).

His final and perhaps most controversial characteristic of American residential preferences is again borrowed from Irving Kristol:

If we are a nation of cities, we are also becoming to an ever greater degree a nation of relatively small and middle sized cities. (P.172)

Indeed, since 1970 the proportion of the urban population living in large cities has steadily declined, while the percentage living in small cities has grown, suggesting that what Americans don’t want is to live in large metropolitan areas. (P.173)

New and dispersed is not enough. Most Americans also want small, but chiefly small cities which offer all there is to offer. Such cities, Rybczynski claims are what “Joel Garreau has christened the Santa Fe effect”, a small city (Santa Fe is 62,000) which possesses a variety of “big city amenities”, and a “degree of urbanity that belies their small size and their often remote location.” (P.174) In short, even in a reasonably small city it is possible to have most of all the charms and even advantages of a big city.

By now more than a few readers have become skeptical regarding my enthusiasm for Rybczynski. Central cities are nothing special, newer cities are better than older ones, low density preferred and in important ways, perhaps more desirable and small cities are the way to go. What are you supposed to do if you work in an old, cold, largely vertical central city? Not to worry, our sage with the unspellable last name has something for everybody. He speaks kindly about concentration (town centers, entertainment districts, power centers, historic neighborhoods, waterfronts, urban parks, theme parks, and village-like planned communities), for instance. All this yin and yang, preferred versus less preferred, high and low density attractiveness, forces the Curmudgeon to inject what Rybczynski is actually trying to say- it is a central observation of his book: “THERE ISN’T A SINGLE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION ‘WHAT KIND OF CITIES DO WE WANT’”. (p.179)

While the majority of us appear to prefer dispersed small cities, a significant minority want to live in concentrated big cities, and a tiny fraction is prepared to pay the price of living in the very center of things….we want different things at different times: an exciting big city when we are young, beginning a career or looking for a mate; a dispersed small city close to nature when we are raising a family; a culture-rich downtown when we are empty nesters; and a walk able small city in a warm climate when we retire. IF CITIES ARE SHAPED BY POPULAR DEMAND, ONE CAN EXPECT THEM TO EXHIBIT A VARIETY THAT IS NO LESS RICH AND DIVERSE THAN THE VARIETY OF AMERICANS THEMSELVES. (P.179)

Concluding Observation

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”.

“THERE ISN’T A SINGLE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION ‘WHAT KIND OF CITIES DO WE WANT’”. (p.179)To planners Rybczynski is saying, give the residential consumer what he/she wants; don’t sit in your office and decide what is best and force choice and proper behavior onto consumers. It won’t work! They will in the end choose what they want, despite your zoning, building and land use codes. To economic developers, the Curmudgeon thinks Rybczynski would be saying that economic development goals and strategies should reflect an understanding of what truly drives projects: developers with access to sufficient capital and the community’s market demand for real estate and amenities. Also, the Curmudgeon suspects (based partially on a chapter we did not review, the Bilbao Anomaly) that economic developers not fall victim to the fad of the month, or the last research read (excepting our review, of course). Magic bullets and hot fads are always cool and a topic of widespread conversation—but they don’t address the uniqueness of your community and frequently, although they pretend to, they are oblivious to the fundamentals which really underlie success.

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