Monday, May 28, 2012

Recuperation Time in the City

I recently read of a new chapel at Xavier University of Louisiana.  All recent campus buildings had been built with green roofs.   Not grassed roofs, but green-painted roofs.  The architect for the chapel, the well-known Cesar Pelli of Pelli Clark Pelli Architects, didn’t want to a green-painted roof on his chapel.  He wanted a copper roof that would gradually become green.

Campus administration was dubious.  They were hesitant to move away from their standard roof.  But Pelli argued that the eventual verdigris would be more beautiful than green paint.  He also contended students would benefit from a roof that changed colors during their matriculation.  “It allows us to measure our life and the shortness of our life much, much better than a building that appears to always be the same.”

I suspect that Pelli really just wanted to have a photo of a copper roof in his brochure, but it was a clever argument.  It was also wrong.

All buildings change with time.  And many buildings, with life spans of a century or more, will still be changing after we’re gone.  Perhaps not all the changes are as obvious as copper moving toward verdigris.  But changes happen.  Some changes are from age.  Some are from changing uses.  Some are from remodels.  Mark Byrnes discussed the nature of the changes with City of Toronto Archivist Patrick Cummins, who provided a set of photos of the same building over 26 years.  It is obviously the same building, but the look of it and the place it filled in the city changed in each photo.

And if the daily life of the city creates reasons for buildings to evolve, imagine the stress that new building put onto their surroundings.

One way to think of new building is as a surgical wound of the city.  A well-intended wound, one that was carefully vetted by the city, the community, and the development team and is intended to provide beneficial change to the city, but a wound nonetheless.  And just like humans, a city needs time to recuperate.  Time for the nearby buildings to adjust their uses.

Perhaps the new building includes residential units.  Surrounding buildings might add more restaurants or consumer retail to serve the new neighbors.

Perhaps the new building is a rail station.  Surrounding buildings might add bare bones office space to accommodate the startups who could be staffed by transit users.

But whatever the new building, the city needs time to adjust and works best when it is given that time.  Jane Jacobs described an overabundance of new projects as a “cataclysmic flow of capital” and abhorred it.   She believed that the logic of how cities work is beyond the scope of a zoning code or a project spreadsheet and needs time to work its magic.

The problem is that we often don’t want to give our cities that time.  It’s too easy to see a fully implemented vision for our cities and to want to jump to that future in a couple of giant bounds.

I’ll turn 60 next year.  For now, it’s just a number.  I plan to still be here, commenting on urbanism, in 25 years.  But it’s still a reminder many urban changes I’d like to see probably won’t happen in my lifetime.  And it’s a chance to accept that reality and to realize that it is as it should be.

We all need to accept the same reality, that good urbanism is incremental urbanism.

But there are motivations that work against incremental urbanism.  Development teams, particularly lenders, often work from a logic that is opposite what cities need.  If there has been no development in a neighborhood for twenty years, lenders look at the absence of history and are hesitant to make loans.  But if there have been several successful projects, lenders are more eager to participate.   This is a place where free markets and good urbanism are at cross-purposes.  There is no easy answer.  It’s a conundrum that we must ponder and work to resolve.

Also, as a result of policies that have sent our cities down unfortunate paths, we currently have catch-up to do.  For too long, government funding flowed to cities based on the urban pathology model.  Government directed more money to people who shouted that they had identified a big problem and had formulated a big solution.  As a result, we left some big wounds from which the recuperation is still underway and may never finish.

We need to remediate for those mistakes, but in a way that we don’t leave new wounds for the next generation to address.  And perhaps we need to find balms that will ease urban recuperation without adverse side effects.  Those are the challenges of urbanism in the early 21st century.  They’re big challenges.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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