With a possible end to the Covid crisis in sight, we should again remember that the western U.S. will likely burn again into an orange hellscape some time soon, the Midwest will flood more frequently, and many coastal areas will continue to be inundated by rising seas. Scientists have been warning us that we have no more than a decade to tamp down the climate crisis. Other wise men and women think we don’t even have that much time. We should be listening to them.
Some believe that urbanization is a leading cause for this. In response, many cities around the world have mobilized unprecedented transformations into better performing, more livable, equitable and inclusionary places. As a result, they’re reducing their carbon footprints. But not so here in Southern California.
Local streets remain ready to snap back to life-defeating gridlock in the post-Covid return to “normal.” Bike networks are at best discussed, but rarely implemented, condemning this immediately attainable mobility option to a high risk transportation choice. And despite escalating homelessness, public opposition to new housing construction remains high, thus constraining the housing supply and dooming more people to either homelessness or to ludicrously long commutes from further and further away.
Much attention is being paid at the policy level. But urban design professions are conspicuously absent in the discussion. By ignoring the unassailable truth that cities can be built differently, architects and urban designers miss the potential for a radical paradigm shift. It’s long past time to go down “the urban design road not taken.” Such a bold move would allow us to break free of the urban stalemate, mobilize U.S. design creativity, and help solve intractable social, economic, and environmental problems.
Just the Facts
There are essentially two types of cities, and they are in many ways opposites of each other. One type, the urban model, is both age-old and timeless; it has the potential to be the solution for our ailing planet and can provide quality lives for larger numbers of people. The suburban model emerged in the past half century or so, but has already burned through its potential. And yet Southern California continues to build this wrong type of city, with escalating negative consequences. Year after year, the state of California lists the transportation sector as the largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Direct emissions from vehicle tailpipes, off-road transportation mobile sources, intrastate aviation, rail, and watercraft accounted for more than 40 percent of statewide emissions in 2017.
Consequently, a rising chorus of activists are calling for a revolution of the energy sector and transportation technology, part of a Green New Deal. But merely replacing technical equipment with newer, lower carbon technologies misses huge additional and easily attainable GHG reductions.
This is clear in the chart below: with existing technologies, U.S. cities are causing transportation-related carbon pollution many times higher per person than comparable cities abroad. If U.S. cities were to use new green-tech to achieve even a 50% reduction in GHG generation, they would still perform worse than other cities already are right now, even with their current technologies, which in fact they are not keeping. Rather, they are deploying new technologies, further driving down their transportation-related carbon footprint.
The graph above compares the amount of energy used for transportation to the population density of a city. European and Asian cities are only slightly denser than U.S. counterparts. However, livability there is higher, as measured by a variety of urban livability indexes such as this and this. To understand such differences, one needs to recognize the two different city typologies and grapple with the outsized impact Modernism has had on urban design.
The Urban Design Road Not Taken
Cities have a long history. Influenced by local factors, the buildings in them can look quite different. Until recently, all cities shared a similar typology: individual buildings were clustered close together (and in many cases touched), and they aggregated into larger forms (namely, the block). Those define public space in the front (the street, the plaza) and private enclosed space in the back (the yard or courtyard). All buildings merge into a formal whole that is commonly referred to as the “urban fabric.” Private buildings are articulated individually, but they do not overpower one another visually. Special formal attention is reserved for the institutional buildings of the community—city hall, museums, school, marketplace, courthouse, houses of worship. They stand out on purpose, to serve as markers for intuitive wayfinding and to signal locations for public gatherings.
Cities have functioned this way for many centuries. But about 150 years ago, with industrialization and the subsequent exploitation of urban populations, many cities turned into toxic slums. These harsh conditions gave birth to the modern design movement. Intended to advance the cause of architecture as a social art, the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM) was founded in June 1928 in Switzerland by a group of 28 European architects. The organization was highly influential: It formalized the architectural principles of Modernism and approached architecture as both an economic and a political tool that could be used to improve the world through building design and urban planning.
Modern design has since spawned delightful and awe-inspiring structures. But modern planning has a more troubled history. It attempted to completely revolutionize urban design by negating the formal constraints of the traditional city and replacing it with groupings of detached buildings standing in limitless, free-flowing open space.
The idea of pre-existing, unlimited open space that just needs to be tapped into to properly site new buildings is fundamental to Modernism. It is the underlying idea for beautiful structures positioned to capture breathtaking vistas. But applied to cities, this idea became a curse. Attempting to liberate everybody into unrestrained open space around them fails to acknowledge our planet’s physical limitations. There never was enough open space for everybody—just as there is not nearly enough coastline to grant everyone an ocean view. This is where Modernism’s ambitions for equity clash with the physical realities of a finite planet.
This “modern” concept is so different from traditional urban design, in which space is created through a skillful arrangement of buildings, and where individual buildings are almost always intended to play only a participatory role in creating the larger, urban form. In a fascinating new book, Space and Anti-Space, by Barbara Littenberg and Steven Peterson, the authors refer to traditional urban space as “positive space” and call out the modern conception of (sub)urban space as “anti-space.” The new genetic code of modern “anti-space” matured over time into sprawling American suburbs; in turn, they subsequently became the low-density sprawling aggregations of larger freestanding buildings connected with oversized streets and highways, which we now refer to as the “modern city.”
Sadly, Los Angeles became a poster child for the modern city. Large areas of L.A. were developed from the idea of “spreading out,” providing everybody with enough open space around their own home—and for a while, this new shape for a city was much admired. But there were prescient critics. Published in 1977, the highly influential book A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander assessed the amount of land dedicated to the automobile in Los Angeles to be approximately 66% of the available area. This ratio has been much debated and analyzed since. Regardless of the exact number, the large share of land dedicated to cars represents a colossally wasted resource. The smaller share of land with buildings cannot generate enough tax revenue to maintain and improve the vast expanse of land dedicated to roads and parking. (There is ample discussion about the economic shortcomings of a suburban model here.) Traditional cities allocate only about 20% to 25% of their land for transportation. There, the ratio of land to be maintained to land generating tax revenue is 1:4 in favor of revenue, while in L.A. the ratio is 3:2 against it. Even Manhattan only uses 35% of land for its streets, which represents a ratio of roughly 1:2 in favor of funds to maintain public infrastructure.
The unequal distribution of public space when it comes to pedestrians, cyclists, and cars is an issue that urban mobility specialist Mikael Colville-Anderson calls “The Arrogance of Space”. In a series of analytical diagrams and a video, the founder of Copenhagenize applies this term to streets that were made primarily for cars.
The Continental Divide
The shortcomings of “modern” urbanism were widely recognized several decades ago. Between 1979 and 1987, the International Building Exhibition Berlin (IBA) propagated the concept of urban “critical reconstruction.” It amounted to a complete repudiation of modern urban planning and a return to traditional urban placemaking, albeit with modern buildings. With the participation of architects from all over the world (including the U.S.), this IBA created hugely successful examples of urban infill and social and economic revitalization. Other cities studied and learned from it.
But the Berlin example got little traction in the U.S. With massive available land resources, the U.S, and especially Southern California, doubled down on sprawl and widely rejected a return to “space-positive” urban design. In 1986, Los Angeles—“the reluctant metropolis,” as William Fulton called it—passed Proposition U, the mother of all slow-growth measures. Its net effect was to limit the housing capacity of the city to just about the population already present at the time. It rendered Los Angeles as nearly full.
Anti-growth measures can be understood as desperate moves by people who feel their “quality of life” is threatened. Despite these measures, the city continued to swell. Many Los Angeles planners and developers are trying to wring out as much new density as they possibly can—any way they can get it. Regrettably, the region is not addressing its growth in a cohesive way that could create the basis for a denser, better-functioning city. Urban growth here is a project by project, vertically enhanced version of suburbia, with even more traffic. No wonder many locals are NIMBYs.
Cities with freestanding towers surrounded by open space were once aggressively built in Eastern Europe and Asia. They have since fallen out of favor there. Locals still struggle to call them home. The term “placemaking” was invented partially in response to the alienating and vacant environments they created. There are some successful versions of tower-type cities—e.g., Vancouver—but these exceptions confirm the rule: this kind of high-rise living has, at least in the West, rarely met with the broad approval of the public.
On the other hand, modern expansion projects based on traditional urban form, especially in Northern Europe, offer residents increased amenities in the forms of usable parks, improved transit, better city services, and higher densities. Southern California developments cannot do so, because there simply is not enough space left. Every development needs to divide space and funding allocations to accommodate residents—and their cars. Even if the development offers new open space as a concession, this “park” usually exists on the outside and is often unprotected from traffic and little more than a landscaped strip between the building and the road. No child will ever play in it; no one would dare eat lunch there.
The perception of crowdedness might partially explain the growing popularity of microunits and the small-house movement. From the perspective of the “modern” city, there is not enough room to house more humans comfortably. So, future residents will need to live with less space. Considering some apartment sizes hover around the 300-square-foot mark, it bears to remember that cities continue to blindly allocate parking spaces that measure, on average, at least 350 square feet.
The Design Style Paradox
When most people remember their visits to traditional cities, they think of market squares, plazas, and busy pedestrian streets with vibrant stores and restaurants. But “modern” cities have largely failed to develop those. In the “modern” development framework, amenities like these only occur in a large private project, where a single developer creates an artificial version of a downtown, making it appear as if it had grown over time. What does it say about contemporary urban design when the best it can generate is a “Disneyfied” version of a real downtown?
The urban design conundrum also influences the quality of architecture in it. In rebellion against modern planning, a group of smart architects and urbanists created a version of traditional urban design: New Urbanism (NU). It uses the comforting look of traditional main streets while quietly sneaking in traditional planning principles that attempted to negate the prevailing “modern” paradigm. This method proved successful and became acceptable to the public, thus encouraging planning authorities to allow deviations from the suburban model while simultaneously encouraging, and often demanding, romanticizing historic style imitations that drive many architects mad.
An example of the commercial value of this strategy is Seaside, Florida. It is heralded as the first “New Urban” community. Founded in 1979, Seaside has 80 acres and a population of approximately 1,200. This makes it more than twice as dense as a suburban single-family neighborhood in Southern California. Seaside individual properties are trading at premium values, as can be seen by a 672-square-foot cottage that is on the market for close to $1.9 million.
This retro styling for urban progress is not limited to American New Urbanism. Prince Charles appointed noted NU theorist and planner Leon Krier to prepare a masterplan for an “urban village” in Poundbury in southern England: a denser walkable, sustainable model for suburban development. Despite the picturesque street layout, Krier’s approach is not simply scenographic. It embodies the theories of the 19th century Viennese architect and planner Camillo Sitte, who believed that the old cities that people loved were not happy accidents but were designed according to principles no less specific than in the other arts. In The Art of Building Cities (1889), Sitte provided a detailed urban design analysis of streets and squares in old Italian and northern European cities. “Modern city planning completely reverses the proper relationship between built-up area and open space,” Sitte wrote. “In former times the open spaces—streets and plazas—were designed to have an enclosed character for a definite effect. Today we normally begin by parceling out building sites, and (only) whatever is left over is turned into streets and plazas.” In a nutshell, modern urban planning treats the public space as the waste/leftover space outside the buildings.
Despite the artificiality of the historicizing designs, most people appreciate the buildings. There is some criticism that these communities look like movie sets rather than places one calls home, but overall, many U.S. cities have embraced revivalist architectural styles to please the public and facilitate gradual planning changes.
Appreciating Modern Design—Again
In Europe, where the CIAM-influenced version of modern urban planning was eventually rejected, modern buildings were not. On the contrary, when the continent experienced their local environmental crisis in the form of acid rain and dying forests in the 1980s, officials embraced technology as a way forward. This focus on science marked the end of postmodern (historicizing) architecture there, and many European cities have since delivered large, impactful, and contemporary developments that are celebrated by much of the population. These projects are timeless urban extensions of cities with strikingly modern buildings that are created quickly and often less expensively than in the U.S.
One key difference between European and Southern California cities is how their inhabitants feel about urban change. In Europe, repeated successes make people feel that they are on a journey toward better, healthier cities for more people. The residents there are often looking forward to more change. Despite cities that are environmentally and economically unsustainable and fail to provide basic services, such as enough housing, open space and transportation options, Southern Californians still resist change. They feel the “California dream” slipping away because the method that once generated it, and the method they have known for their entire lives—namely, planned suburbia—has reached a maturation point of no return.
Southern California needs a complete paradigm shift toward “space positive” and timeless placemaking. There is no smart legal initiative alone that can tweak “modern” planning to provide better cities people will suddenly like; no ordinance to create more housing that will convince people to appreciate such projects in their backyards. In order to move forward, we need to take a small step backward to re-engage with the timeless way of creating better cities. The U.S. has ample history on par with the rest of the world, in creating great cities—places like Philadelphia, Boston, Charleston, the borough of Brooklyn—until the dominance of cars brought cities to the current stalemate.
Since most parts of our cities will continue to exist for a while, the battle cry for this paradigm shift should be “transition.” Rather than threaten change everywhere at once with new policies, these changes should first focus on nodes around transit, and the remaining parts of the current city should be adapted to coexist. The mixed-paradigm city that emerges will create new opportunities and choices for all. Doing so will preserve the city people know and allow it to transition into something different.
What Does “Different” Mean?
The new urban paradigm will allow for plenty of individuality and local character. Rome, Paris, Stockholm, and the borough of Brooklyn are all based on the same urban typology, but nobody would deny their uniqueness. A new urban consensus will eventually allow projects to happen easily once again, with faster approvals. This may unlock the pent-up creativity that is so undeniably Californian, but has had little opportunity of late to make an imprint on the physical place itself.
Developers will construct different building types. Most will be easier, quicker and cheaper to build, and they can be created by small local investment teams. Locals building for locals. There will still be large projects, but developers will need to put some reality of their claims of abundant luxury. Besides single family houses and massive projects, there are other building types possible: duplexes, triplexes, row houses, small apartments buildings. They were common in Southern California’s early history and they need to be reintroduced to the market. These kinds of buildings are commonly referred to as “missing middle buildings.” To its credit, the city of Los Angeles just launched a competition to create some of those models as new prototypes for the future city.
Cities will need to create new planning frameworks to site buildings differently, with much less external wasted spaces. These buildings need not be tall, but they will create more residences or commercial suites, because they will use the building sites more efficiently. The new sites will allow for better backyards, courtyards and even more parks that can offer protected outdoor space within walking distance of people’s homes.
In these Urban Nodes in Suburbia (UNiS), parking will be restricted and managed as a public resource. If individuals want a parking space, they will need to privately secure it. This is no different than car ownership in cities like New York or similar cities all over the world. In New York, a vehicle owner either owns a parking space or spends hours every week searching for street parking. In Tokyo, citizens can register a car only if they can prove they have available off-street parking.
People will increasingly use transit, which will need to increase frequency and improve service quality. Neighborhoods must aggressively provide first and last mile connectivity to the stations, by any means available, including bike/little vehicle networks and ride share options. These types of actions will stitch the larger city into UNiS around transit stations, and into the conventional car-dependent suburban city around them. On the boundary between them, facilities will need to be created to intercept and store cars and transition people between means of mobility.
There is ample global precedent for the kind of modern city that will emerge. In 1970, Amsterdam drivers and parents (who wanted to keep their children safe) had angry street fights about who got to use street space. Today, Amsterdam is an urban quasi-paradise that works efficiently, offers a high level of quality of life, has much reduced the number of cars, and is expanding with new housing opportunities that are both modern and appreciated. And its carbon footprint is less than 20% of what is typical in Southern California, measured per person. We should tap into the vast international know-how like this. In most cases, these are stories of success, and these successes can be adopted to benefit our region as well.
The most necessary ingredient for a successful paradigm shift is proper messaging. It is so important that it should be managed by the state, with the help of academia, marketing professionals, architects, planners, developers, and politicians. All of them need to join together to convince the public that a better urban future is possible. There are sophisticated visualization resources available that can help in reaching out. This effort should enroll all stakeholders in a crowdsourced placemaking effort to define a better future for all.
Next, pilot communities will need to test, extrapolate, and demonstrate new rules and methods before they get rolled out to the general public. There should be no more theoretical debate about the effect of one or another policy initiative, only a successful real-world demonstration that they work. Urban laboratories like this can validate positive change and generate a true “Green New Deal” for our cities, a way to make them denser and more effective, while also cutting down the largest source of greenhouses gases in our lives: too many cars.
There is no better place to start this turnaround than in Southern California. Christopher Hawthorne, Chief Design Officer for the City of Los Angeles, has coined the term the “Third Los Angeles.” L.A. can become a new version of a city that captures the vigor and free spirit of its history, but also creates new examples of how to convert the “anti-space” of its suburbs into positive urban space.
Cities need to play a leading role in the effort to reduce society’s collective carbon footprints. There may not be much time left, and this work should start immediately. The L.A. brand is still strong, and because of this the world will pay attention—and the planet will at last breath a sigh of relief.
Featured image: Vallastaden, Sweden. Photo by David Einar.