Friday, February 10, 2006

The New Potemkin

Austin Williams' essay at Spiked-Online deals with New Urbanism's apostles "getting on with it with a missionary zeal" in rebuilding the Gulf Coast and engaging in the debate of whether New Orleans sould be rebuilt.

I have news for professor of architecture Roger K Lewis, New Orleans is being rebuilt as we speak. The real question is how should we rebuild. His question was answered when residents reacted angrily when the BNOB Commission recommended a four month moritorium on issuing new building permits in the city.

So now that New Orleans is going to be rebuilt, how do we proceed? The New Urbanist's have a lot to offer but we should take Errol Barron's warning that

'it's not the [New Urbanist] aesthetic that's wrong, it's the artificiality of something planned all at once.'
That's why I like, at least in concept, the master plan proposed by the BNOB Commission in that it mostly deals with improving infrastructure. Residents will react to the location of things like public transporation, schools, and recreation facilities. But they are also influenced by more intangibles like crime, economic opportunity and social interaction. Proper zoning will also help.

These things cannot be solved by simply putting the gangster in a nicer neighborhood. Rather the gangster needs to be excised from the community. That is what prisons are for.

While [David Harvey's 1997 Harvard Design Magazine essay] is rather too soft in his criticism (effectively suggesting that New Urbanism's proscriptive car-reducing, underclass-taming, suburb-sprawling objectives won't work, rather than arguing that they are wrong), he still identifies the authoritarian nature of the behaviour modification obligations lurking behind its dainty facade. The Charter for the New Urbanism looks to forming 'identifiable areas that encourage citizens to take responsibility for their maintenance and evolution (where) streets and squares...enable neighbours to know each other and protect their communities.'

While these sound like pleasant homilies and an innocent nostalgia for the reinvigoration of neighbourliness, there is a less tolerant aspect to the pattern-book approach of the New Urbanists, in which disharmony can be designed out and neighbourliness engineered in. Societal fragmentation is an ongoing political concern, developed by Robert Puttnam's 'Bowling Alone' thesis in the USA and recently expressed by Tony Blair's 'Respect' agenda in the UK, so it should be expected that the design remedies apparently offered by New Urbanism should gain a hearing. But the fragmentation of communities is a political problem allied to a lack of political vision; it is not a 'design issue' that can be remedied by porches, pedestrianisation or the provision of faux-French facades. Community spirit may well form in many of these newly-built, New Urban areas, but the failure to address the underlying fractiousness in society means that we may be building communities of isolated individuals, in which the appearance of unity can only be maintained by excluding those who won't play the game.
Rebuilding the physical damage done to New Orleans is the easy part but it should be part of the long-term effort. In the short-term, let's rejuvenate the institutions that have been failing the Crescent City for the past forty years. We need a healthy soul before we can begin healing the body. Otherwise New Orleans will be again just a prety facade with a crumbling foundation.


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