New Urbanist Andrés Duany discusses “lean urbanism”

Architect Andrés Duany talks about his latest idea: lean urbanism.

Galina Tachieva: Can you summarize the big topics that are on your mind today? What about some short-term actions we can take as urban thinkers and doers?

Andrés Duany: We at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company have been engaging many of those topics, and are in the midst of writing a book to be called Lean Urbanism. Big things changed on a permanent basis around the 2007 meltdown; many of the false premises that guided American urban planning seem almost comical today, while, in fact, in the past they had the dignity of seeming tragic. One of the most interesting topics is identifying another set of appropriate models. Our current thesis is studying the great American continental expansion of the latter half of the 19th century, when thousands of towns and cities were founded in the absence of financing. We must understand what allowed that and what makes it seem impossible today. Among the constituent elements are a very light hand of government and, often, management genius—as well as normative patterns like the continental survey, the town grid, etc. But the key element is successional urbanism. Start small at the inauguration, and later build well, culminating in the climax condition of the magnificent cities of the 1920s. By contrast, for the past 15 years or so, planners have been going straight to the climax condition, bypassing the inaugural condition and successional stages of urban molting. We need to develop protocols for every level—financial, administrative, and cultural—that will allow successional planning to occur again. Those are the big things…

Galina Tachieva: Why is it important to talk about and further develop Lean Urbanism?

Andrés Duany: Some of the conditions we find ourselves in are permanent. Even when the effects of the real estate bubble are overcome, what is revealed is an underlying impoverishment. We are no longer the fantastically wealthy nation that we had been since the Second World War, in which we could implement simpleminded ideas and then proceed to mitigate them by throwing money at them. The primary wasteful idea is the building of very high-grade highway infrastructure, not just for inter-city commerce, but also for securing quite ordinary things. Taking an arterial to get a cup of coffee at Starbucks is now conventional. This posits an urbanism in which it is assumed every adult will purchase a car because it is a prerequisite for a viable social and economic life. This is an astoundingly profligate conceit, and one quite unfair to the 50 percent or so Americans who don’t drive because they are too young, too old, or too poor to have access to a car. We can no longer even pretend to afford that kind of thing.

There is more interesting material in the full interview including Duany’s take on the historical stages of New Urbanism.

The portion in the quote above sounds like New Urbanism tweaked for a recession era: you can’t put it all together at once so you need to build in modules and continue to question some of the basic assumptions about planning so that we don’t incur unnecessary long-term costs (like keeping up with cars). Of course, the economy doesn’t necessarily have to stay in the doldrums, oil may be plentiful, and Americans may have more wealth down the road to continue to have cars (which are quite costly). But, it sounds like Duany assumes these problems will persist – and this may just be good for New Urbanism in hte long run.

If the economic situation continues to be difficult, it would then be interesting to ask how this is supposed to work out in practice. Building whole towns in a New Urbanist style is out? It is worth noting that Duany mentioned the need not just to have good planning of physical space but also the right administrative and cultural elements. Indeed, the physical planning may be the easiest part as it takes a lot to put together good yet limited management/government within communities that are meaningful from the start.

Quick Review: Radiant City

I’m always on the lookout for movies having to do with suburbia. I recently ran across Radiant City at a local library and found that it had earned some recognition at film festivals (including the 2006 Toronto Film Festival). Here are my thoughts on this 2006 “mockumentary” set in the suburbs of Calgary:

1.If you have read any critiques about suburbia, you are likely to see it discussed in this film: sprawl, too many cars that everyone is dependent on, lack of community where no one knows their neighbors, too much private space and not enough public space, no activities for teenagers, a lack of mass transit, health issues (obesity), a lack of walkability, big box stores, wasted land, the solution of New Urbanism, and on and on.

1a. A number of anti-sprawl experts (or “stars”) are featured including James Howard Kunstler and Andres Duany.

1b. There are a number of “statistical interludes” throughout the film that deliver facts about the horrors of suburbia.

2. The film tries to set up fictional family storylines to follow. I didn’t find any of these to be compelling as it seemed like the characters were simply there to break up the facts of the documentary. One of the storylines, of a father who is acting in a satirical musical about suburbia, is particularly obvious.

3. The many shots of the Evergreen neighborhood outside of Calgary are both beautiful and jarring. The homes featured in the films are on the edges of suburban development so there are plenty of open fields (mostly dirt), empty lots filled with construction equipment, single-family homes built very close to each other, concrete sounds barriers and highways that cut off views and walking, and beautiful skies (we are told at one point that the mountains are off in the distance – you could see them if the guy next door would open his front door so you could see through his house).

Overall: you can find the same critiques in many other places. I don’t think the fictional storylines added much as the main point seemed to be the commentary of the experts and the statistics that are meant to get viewers to question their assumptions about suburban living. If you already are opposed to sprawl and suburbs, your likely to find this film preaching right to you.

(This film was well-received by a limited number of critics at the movie is 93% fresh with 14 out of 15 positive reviews.)