Monthly Archives: August 2014

Architecture and the Built Environment: Talking With William Sherman—Part 2

Last week, we featured Part 1 of my interview with William Sherman in which he discussed the consequences of a poorly-designed built environment. In Part 2, Professor Sherman goes on to explain why and how architecture matters for cities. In this segment, he highlights the ways buildings are interwoven into the fabric of urban life.

William Sherman Part 2 from IASCulture on Vimeo.


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Urban Renewal Syndrome—Part 1

Perhaps no federal program looms larger in our collective memory than ham-fisted and costly  attempts at urban renewal. Created in the Federal Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 and lasting to the 1970s, urban renewal programs sparked a nationwide enthusiasm for revitalizing decaying inner cities. Often these projects resulted in urban redevelopment schemes distinguished by their harsh modernism and daunting scale.

Urban renewal programs, along with the social welfare policies of the Great Society, became a symbol not just of the collapse of urban America but also of the failure of progressive government action—perhaps even of liberalism itself. For nearly fifty years, the United States has shied away from comprehensive urban policy, almost as if we were suffering from a malaise similar to the so-called Vietnam syndrome.

While few would deny urban renewal’s role in eroding faith in government and aiding the fragmentation of progressive policymaking, a group of recent urban development histories suggests areas where our collective memory on this issue is significantly flawed. This faulty collective memory was largely shaped, I’ll argue in a later post, by subsequent forms of urbanism and political opportunism that have profoundly limited the range of national policies aimed at fighting social inequality, poverty, and urban blight.

Flawed Memory #1: Urban Renewal’s Advocates Were Primarily Elites.

The first wave of literature on urban renewal explored the program’s impact on the distribution of power, highlighting the emergence of municipal “growth coalitions”—elite public-private partnerships—that guided its implementation. To be sure, these interests dominated local administration of renewal programs, but as Nathan D.B. Connolly argues in his forthcoming book,  A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida, this emphasis on chamber of commerce types misses other interests whose support also lent the program a great deal of legitimacy.

In his rich discussion of postwar Miami, Connolly shows how and why middle-class black homeowners, civil rights organizations like the NAACP, and progressive groups such as the League of Women Voters actively supported urban renewal especially when it came to slum clearance. Federal policymakers and these groups all considered urban policy to be essential economic components to spatial desegregation mandates handed down in cases such as Shelley v. Kramer (1949) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Vital to this vision of what Connolly terms “Sun Belt civil rights” was the belief that slum clearance would offer residents of substandard, socially and morally degenerative, and unhealthy city center housing the opportunity to move to the fringes of the city where they would own homes in racially homogenous suburbs.

As Connolly shows, however, these advocates unwittingly supported a program that, as he puts it, underwrote “the modernization of White Supremacy.” It is doubly tragic that urban renewal hastened the economic and spatial marginalization of the poor and minorities, since its original intent was to broaden economic opportunity through homeownership. With the exception of deregulating mortgage securities, the United States has never again attempted such a bold, if deeply flawed, housing-based assault on economic inequality.

Flawed Memory #2: Urban Renewal’s Housing Projects Were Socialistic.

It’s tempting to look at urban renewal housing projects and equate them with mid-century high modernism and European socialist planning (even if they did share intellectual roots). Yet in his book Manhattan Projects, Samuel Zipp uses urban renewal projects in New York City as a window onto American Cold War political culture and economic thinking. Zipp illuminates the degree to which renewal advocates construed the city’s full gamut of projects— from Lincoln Center to affordable housing—as a “weapon” in “the Cold War struggle for hearts and minds.” “Public/private urban renewal,” Zipp contends, “could operate as a potential immunization against the threat, a way to beat the Soviets at their own game.” By cultivating private sector partners, public officials believed they had found a means by which public policy could underwrite the material prosperity needed to demonstrate the superiority of democratic capitalism.

Flawed Memory #3: Urban Renewal Stifled Private Sector Action.

Martin Anderson’s The Federal Bulldozer (1964) focused on the waste of taxpayer dollars and called for a reintroduction of free enterprise to solve the nation’s worsening housing crisis. He argued that the private sector could deliver the promised fruits of urban renewal far faster than the federal government. Further, it was also in 1964 in the speech that launched his political career that Ronald Reagan referred to urban renewal as “assault on freedom.” It is true, as the federal planners argued, that without massive subsidies, the private sector was unlikely to undertake significant any new commercial or residential urban developments.

While these arguments helped popularize zero-sum appraisals of public- and private-sector initiatives, but they also fundamentally overlooked a critical aspect of urban renewal. In his recent work Insuring the City, Elihu Rubin demonstrates how urban renewal programs provided vital financing for a major private-sector development that would not have otherwise seen the light of day, such as Boston’s massive Prudential Center. In opting to push public funding to the private Prudential Insurance Company, Rubin argues that Boston planner Ed Logue, was deeply “attuned to the concept of momentum: large projects had a catalytic effect on the public’s attitude . . . toward renewal and boosted the city’s self-perception.”

Prudential in turn sold the development as a risky private-sector bet on Boston’s future. Indeed, in working hard to secure public subsidies, the Company emphasized the “civic” aspects of their $100 million development. A mere quarter of the redeveloped land, officials contended, would be devoted to private enterprise, with the rest available to the public in green space and plazas. In this way, as Chester Hartman puts it in his study of renewal in San Francisco, “the private investment community” came “to be seen as performing functions in the public interest.” In cities across the country, then, urban renewal became a stimulus to encourage private sector players to act in the public’s interest.

Brownstones in Brooklyn

Flawed Memory #4: Urban Renewal Signified the End of Urban Liberalism. 

To be sure, much about urban renewal caused Americans to lose faith not only in the government but also in progressive public policy. But as Suleiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn demonstrates, urban renewal also inspired a new version of urban liberalism: white, urban professionals. Excavating the history of Brooklyn’s gentrifying neighborhoods, Osman offers a cultural history of a “new middle class” that took shape in direct response to the “Manhattanizing” programs of urban renewal that threatened their neighborhoods. In opposition to centralized redevelopment plans, these self-consciously liberal gentrifiers were also “privatist, celebrating the sanctity of home, small shops, bootstrap renovation, and freedom from city intervention. In the fight against Urban Renewal,” Osman contends, “they celebrated the free market, extolling the authentically organic cityscape and lambasting abstract regulation.”

These gentrifiers, while they might have preferred to be following in the footsteps of Jane Jacobs, soon discovered that their vision for equitable housing options caused them “unintentionally [to] become bedfellows with an emerging New Right critique of government intervention.” This would seem to be a classic case of modern liberalism’s lip service to the fight against inequality coming up against its inability to muster robust forms of collective action. The Urban Renewal syndrome lives on.

A subsequent post will take up why the Urban Renewal Syndrome persists and will argue for why it is so important to set the record straight on urban renewal.

Brent Cebul is an associate fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

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Architecture and the Built Environment: Talking with William Sherman—Part 1

At the recent Thriving Cities conference, I sat down with William Sherman, Professor of Architecture, at the University of Virginia.  As an architect and an expert on the built environment, Professor Sherman examines how misguided building design over the past century has inhibited urban thriving. At the same time, Professor Sherman offers key insights into how architects can facilitate a more just and socially aware built environment. 

In part 2 of the interview, Professor Sherman will explain the particular role that architecture plays within the larger urban ecosystem.

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Urban Thoughts in a Medieval City

Second World Congress of Environmental History meets in Guimarães, Portugal

What makes a thriving city?  One way the Thriving Cities Project seeks to explore this question is  by comparing a selection of cities across the United States, relying on expert analysis from those who best know their local communities. But cities beyond the United States also experience similar challenges. The globe-spanning history behind cities and their relationship to the natural environment was a major theme at the recent Second World Congress of Environmental History (WCEH) in Guimarães, Portugal. Held in early July, the conference brought together scholars from around the world to present the latest research on different aspects of environmental history.

 Strolling in the old town section of Guimarães

Presentations included histories of environmentalism in the developing world, research on environmental decline in settings as diverse as pre-colonial Africa and the Soviet Union, environmental thought in Czech urban planning, environmental disasters and memory in Latin American cities, various urban efforts at nature conservation around the world, and historical perspectives on contemporary urban ecological problems in China. Across these diverse topics, presenters stressed a number of important and recurring themes: the regional and often global nature of urban problems; the complex and peculiar ways in which urban life sparks environmental thinking; the reciprocal relationship between humans and the natural world; ecological limits to urban sprawl and growth; and the many ecological consequences—pollution, for example—of urban living.

This perspective was particularly notable at the WCEH because urban life has not always played a large role in the field of environmental history. Early environmental histories often focused heavily on the “natural”—that is, wilderness spaces and their protection—and less on the built environment of cities. For many decades, historical scholarship on cities largely remained in the domain of cultural, political, economic, architectural, or social perspectives.

Inspired by the pioneering scholarship of Joel Tarr, Martin Melosi, and William Cronon, historians have developed innovative new lines of inquiry into the relationship between cities and the environment.  In the United States, for instance, Tarr and social historian Clay McShane have shown how environmental forces such as animals and pollution have shaped the course of urban life. Environmental historians Chris Sellers and Adam Rome stressed how urban and suburban experiences shape our ideas and definitions about “nature.” And Cronon’s scholarship revealed the many overlapping material connections between cities and their rural surroundings.

Although many of the presentations suggested that urban environmental history is now thriving as a discipline, more work along these lines is vital, as urban thriving today continues to be defined by a city’s material surroundings. Guimarães offered a unique setting for this kind of project. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the historic city has been associated since the twelfth century with Portugal’s rise as a world empire; in 2012, Guimarães served as European Capital of Culture promoting urban development amid cultural diversity. As a center of commerce and business, the city was also one of the earliest to be shaped by urban planning. In addition, with its proximity to fertile farmlands, hills, and two rivers, it is a vivid instance of the reciprocal relationship between the natural world and city development. Guimarães is a city of many layers, from its well-preserved medieval castle and city walls to its dilapidated, industrial-era factory spaces and sleek, modernist hotels. Like a palimpsest, its historical layer reveal the cumulative past attempts to alter and build on the rugged, hilly landscape in order to protect its people and allow them to prosper.

As the Thriving Cities Project continues to ask what makes a thriving city, it would do well to keep in focus the central insights of the WCEH: that many urban problems are now global in scope and that there are ongoing historical and modern challenges in reconciling city life with the non-human world.

Stephen Macekura is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

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Do Cities Tear Us Apart?—Part 2

Two Trends Changing Urban Communities Today


Many cultural observers once believed cities and religion simply would not mix. One early twentieth-century sociologist famously depicted peasant farmers abandoning their Catholic faith the moment their feet touched the ground in Paris’s Montparnasse train station. Even as late as the 1960s, theorists like Peter Berger and Alasdair MacIntyre believed the experience of industrialized urban life was simply too fragmented to sustain a coherent religious belief system.

Today, these generalizations seem less plausible. Millions of city inhabitants—many coming from some of the world’s most religious places—have found ways to combine modern urban living with devout religiosity. Strongly religious subcultures and diasporas have also thrived within densely populated pre-industrial, industrial, and now post-industrial urban centers.

So why did so many thinkers believe in an inherent conflict between religion and urbanization? In part one of this series, we looked at how many sociologists at the turn of the twentieth century believed that cities eroded interpersonal relationships, damaged traditional ways of life, and left people with a sense of anomie. With a cultural transition of this magnitude, then, the disappearance of religion seemed inevitable.

Although scholars have now moved beyond this “urbanist-determinism” theory, it has still drawn attention to the basic question of social cohesion in urban settings. Contemporary inquires locate similar concerns in citizenship activism and ethics as well as in broader areas such as architectural design and city planning where the goal is to prioritize organic interactions and to facilitate access to public goods.

To this end, I want to outline two trends that demographers and sociologists find to be prevalent across urban environments today. While hardly deterministic, these trends will unquestionably contribute to how cities preserve and develop social cohesion in coming decades.

The Rise of the Single-Person Household

As sociologist Eric Klinenberg argues, the world likely has more urban single-person households now than at any other time in history. Atlanta, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Denver, and Chicago are all made up of between 35 and 45 percent one-person households, compared to the national average of 28 percent. For Manhattan, the rate is about 50 percent, same for London, Paris, and Tokyo. Perth and Stockholm both top 60 percent. Urban areas in Southeastern Asia have some of the fastest growing rates of single-households. Seoul, South Korea, now at 24 percent is expected to top 33 percent in 2035; its popular trendsetting Gangnam district is already at 30 percent. While Singapore’s rate is at a modest 9.2 percent, it has doubled in only a generation and will likely continue to increase.

What this means for social cohesion has yet to be seen, but more conservative-oriented and “social capital” scholars—focusing mainly on the rise of adults forgoing marriage and family—argue that the transition to the family life-stage has historically been crucial for communal life, taming anti-social behavior and embedding individuals in the shared life of playgrounds, schools, PTAs, and kids sports leagues. At least in the twentieth-century context, this stage in the US has also meant a turn (or return) to active involvement in religious congregations, a central generator of social capital. Thus, urban contexts with fewer households of families will likely lack key institutional resources that have historically been major avenues of interconnectedness.

Other thinkers tie this trend to the increasing power of market forces to mold societies into largely-detached household units. Highly-demanding careers—often filling the void that opens in the absence of familial ties—may drive emotional energy toward the workplace rather than toward civic and neighborhood involvement. Reinforcing this trend, advertisers seize upon the higher discretionary incomes of single-dwelling households to pitch lifestyles that often preclude meaningful ties to others. From this perspective, urban communities made up of single households could become, in Zygmunt Bauman’s words, “shared physical spaces of consumption…without having any actual social interaction.” Here not only the community health but also the mental health of residents may suffer, particularly among the elderly.

At the same time, this trend does not penetrate all subcultures or social classes with equal effects. And even in places where single households are growing, Eric Klinenberg has argued against the caricature of the socially withdrawn loner. While we may not yet know its full effects, the rise of urban communities of single-person households will likely create a demand for new forms (or reforms) of civic institutions that bring people together.

The Skyboxification of America

As a second demographic trend, today’s cities bring into near proximity places of sharply-contrasting life outcomes and well-being. Richard Florida has described this as the unprecedented rise of “compressed inequality” where well-maintained gated communities exist mere blocks away from blighted neighborhoods. A recent Washington Post article provides the means to locate one’s own neighborhood amidst surrounding zip codes representing different educational and income levels.

Called the “skyboxification” effect, this trend means most daily urban experiences are likely dominated by interactions with those who demographically are most like us, in our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our grocery stores, our schools, our religious communities, and our choice of leisure activities. Chicago sociologist Robert Park was already observing this effect in 1925, noting that a city population tends to “segregate itself… in accordance with its tastes and temperaments.” But scholars from across disciplines (and from across the political spectrum) have come to agree that American “skyboxification” has intensified in recent decades due to rising income inequality combined with deeply entrenched “neighborhood effects” that perpetuate negative life outcomes for certain areas. I will explore this narrowing of the urban community experience (the “homophily effect”) in greater detail in part three of this series.

Rather than viewing these phenomena as some new form of urbanist-determinism, city planners and urban scholars should consider how these trends might shape communal life within the cultural and historical context of particular cities. As we saw in part one of this series, this multi-dimensional approach to cities—keeping the focus on the well-being and fulfillment of the people who make up a city—is one of the most valuable takeaways in the synthesis of earlier theories on the power of cities to shape our daily lives and interactions with others.

Andrew Lynn is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Virginia. His interests include sociology of religion, social change, and the cultural logic of individualism in American culture. 

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