The American City in A.D. 2025

By Scully, Vincent | Brookings Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

The American City in A.D. 2025


Scully, Vincent, Brookings Review


What will our cities be in 25 years? The question calls up a caricature, a grotesque vision of ultimate ghettoization. The vision involves a permanent underclass of poor people, largely defined by race, in rotting urban enclaves with no public transportation worthy of the name. An affluent class lives far off in automobile suburbs, probably gated. A skyscrapered business center rises like a sterile Acropolis. Government is off in what it calls a "campus" somewhere. And all of it is spread out at regional scale, consuming enormous quantities of landscape, more like a small nation than the city as we have known it, and perhaps, like Miami today, with its own foreign policy.

To make something like this baroque vision come true, all we have to do, I suspect, is nothing at all. Any specific suggestion about how to make something else happen may sound paltry, because it will be bound by the limitations of the individual who makes it. But I want to suggest what architectural design might do, or has begun to do, to reverse the process of ghettoization, centrifugal dispersion, and sprawl. The New Urbanism tells us that the architect's essential job has always involved the manmade environment as a whole, that we once knew quite well how to shape it and are now learning how to do so again.

I think first of Seaside on the Gulf of Mexico in Florida's Panhandle, the first of more than a hundred projects designed by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, an ideal community at pedestrian scale, put together with the grid and the radiating avenues of the classical American planning tradition and built up in the wooden vernacular architecture of the region. Small, rather haunting, and Chatauqua-like, with a seasonal population, Seaside is still very much a town, with the liveliest retail trade along the coast. It has been followed by such very different communities as Kentlands in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., also by Duany and Plater-Zyberk, largely constructed of brick with many row houses in the Georgian vernacular of the Middle Atlantic tradition; and Laguna West, near Sacramento, by Peter Calthorpe; Harbor Town in Memphis, designed by RTKL of Baltimore and Looney Ricks Kiss; Fairview Village in Portland, by Lennertz and Coyle with Bill Dennis; Reston Town Center by RTKL; and the beautiful I'On near Charleston, by DPZ and Dover Kohl for the developer Vince Graham.

All these developments are fundamentally towns, or the image of towns, although none of them except Laguna West yet includes an integral workplace. But the process is under way. Malls, for example, are being transformed into town centers, so returning the automobile world to the pedestrian, as in Mashpee Commons, Massachusetts; Mountain View, California; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and in greater Miami, where Dover Kohl is making a new downtown Kendall out of the old Dadeland Mall and its surrounding "big box" sites.

This has all been wildly successful so far in making towns out of suburbs, or towns rather than suburbs, for an affluent middle class. But the New Urbanism has always had its sights set on affordable houses and rental units along with the rehabilitation of center city and of low-income housing. Duany and Plater-Zyberk, for example, redesigned and rebuilt the blighted Central Neighborhood in Cleveland in a vernacular as lovingly assembled as that of Seaside out of the traditional house type of the area. Other examples include Ray Gindroz's remakes of blighted housing in Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and Norfolk and a good deal of work under HUD's Hope Six program: Peter Calthorpe's Henry Horner Homes in Chicago; Amy Weinstein's fine traditional scheme for Washington, D.C.; and Mayor Vincent A. Cianci's initiative in Providence, where dysfunctional office buildings are being turned into housing. …

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