Detroit, Istanbul… Seahaven?

There are a lot of things I like about New Urbanists. In a lot of ways, Andres Duany et al. can be considered part of the architectural wing of the Jane Jacobs generation of planners, who were the first to reject the anti-social (not to mention racist and classist) monomania of mid-century modernists like Robert Moses and Le Corbusier, and to take the discipline in the more postmodern, organic, and socially just direction we’re heading today.

On the other hand, sometimes I just don’t get them. Many NU enclaves such as Seaside, Kentlands, or Watkins Island are just that – nostalgic outdoor arcologies isolated and disconnected from genuine regional centers while nonetheless longing for them; Kentlands is so close to DC and yet so far away. Given the whole-cloth nature of these developments, they can seem surprisingly totalizing for a movement designed to escape the universalizing constructs of prior aesthetic institutions. Rather than being dynamic, they are cloth-mothering, and while this may certainly be better than a conventional suburb, but it still is a suburb in the self-contained model we’ve seen since WWII.

And then there’s things like this.

Logan Nash blogged about Istanbul recently at the Congress for the New Urbanism website, though he does not appear to have actually visited Istanbul per se. He mentions an article in Monocle about comparisons between Detroit and Istanbul that he found incredibly moving, but doesn’t actually quote from the pricey article; instead he waxes kind of whimsically about a wholly different article we don’t get to read about the Istanbul streetscape:

Halliday writes about the street life around his apartment in Istanbul, talking about how children play in the streets, old men pass the day with small talk and backgammon, and one always feels comfortable in the public realm. He offers up his neighborhood as a case study for cities unused to such types of interactions, and one can see why Detroit in particular might have something to learn. Halliday’s street is one designed for people (and not just wealthy people), it exists on the human scale and offers security in the form of social interaction rather than high walls and chain link fences. Is the quaint Turkish street corner too lofty of an ideal? Perhaps, but the core principle is sound: Detroit should come to embody the livelihood of its people and its neighborhoods rather than cars and the glass palaces of the companies that make them.

This is all well and good, but what exactly has this got to do with Detroit? The problem with cities like it, or Cleveland, or Buffalo isn’t that they don’t have potentially walkable neighborhoods; they have plenty of them – but they don’t have supermarkets, or even jobs. This is the heart of why many Rust Belt cities are hollowing from the inside out. Again, it ignores the crux of the issue: that there isn’t a there there.

Again, I can’t tell how this is relevant to Detroit because I have no access to the original article; next week I’ll try to read it so you don’t have to. But if he’s not trying to say that the problem with Detroit is a lack of cute, or a lack of walkable neighborhoods that do in fact exist in Detroit, perhaps the focus of the article I can’t read was economic development, in which it emphasizes Istanbul’s relationship as a bridge between Europe and Asia, and the extent to which this reflects a model for growth in Detroit. However, this seems rather limited. I performed a similar economic analysis for the Buffalo-Niagara region recently, and the notion of the region serving as some kind of maquiladora for Canadian goods is not only an alarmingly reductive basic-industrial strategy, but assumes a great deal of factors that aren’t necessarily the case in the economic relationship between Canada and the United States. Nash’s analysis is like asking what Buffalo could learn from Tijuana and concluding that its children need to smile more often.

To be frank, this is magical thinking of the most superficial sort.

New Urbanism has good bones, but practitioners need to be less concerned with particular aesthetic criticisms (like, say, Leon Krier railing endlessly against the postmodern architectural movements he doesn’t seem to realize he’s a participant in) and focus more seriously on the dynamic, holistic elements that make cities work – which are the sort of things they seek to emulate in neighborhoods anyway. Until then, NU will continue to produce darling and lavish set pieces that have distressingly little to do with the cities they want to mature into.


~ by J.D. Hammond on July 29, 2009.

3 Responses to “Detroit, Istanbul… Seahaven?”

  1. I agree with you big picture criticism here. But I hope that the things you are criticizing represent a transitional phase in our collective consciousness towards the lay of our land.

    At the risk of grossly underestimating and simplifying the culture in which I live, places like Kentlands do serve a purpose in keeping with the spirit of good urbanism. Kentlands is a highly successful development that has showed the DC area that new urbanism can be very appealing. Yes, it is far out, disconnected from transit, and in its own way, a “pod”… but if mixed use, (relatively) mixed income communities work for the wealthy, this can drastically improve their chances of catching on elsewhere.

    Here in Prince George’s County, areas like Edmonston and Hyattsville are experiencing renaissances in urbanism, and more (Laurel, New Carrollton, Riverdale) are on the way. Kentlands may be ironically secluded, but I believe that it has paved the way for other places, and that it has allowed better urbanism to trickle down to working class hamlets like Edmonston.

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