The New Urbanist flava

September 7, 2006

Cities, well, suck. I grew up in a small Hampshire town, enjoying each muddy spring and bitterly cold winter, relishing the taciturn New England way of life. But I’ve spent the last few years in the District, lived in San Diego for a summer, visited most of the United States’ major cities, and have just begun a four-month stay in Cairo, Egypt. It occurs to me that, like it or not, I’ll be living and working in cities for a quite a few years to come. So, I’d better start liking them, at least temporarily, before I can return to the live-free-or-die state.

This summer I befriended an urban partisan, raised in Brooklyn, who would gladly wipe away the suburbs and move everybody into apartment buildings if he could. I objected; cities are expensive, often ugly, generally dirty and increasingly poorly planned—give me New Hampshire instead. Why, besides the cultural, political and economic activities that make my presence necessary, would I want to live here?

My friend wasn’t just any city enthusiast though; he was a proponent of New Urbanism, an urban planning and architectural movement dedicated to reviving the “lost art of place-making,” the conservation of resources, especially oil, wasted in suburban developments, and returning real identity to the places where we live.

Their project is not geared towards cosmetic change; it is a movement to save our society. Remembering how we learn from the ruins of great civilizations past, they ask, how will future peoples judge us when they look at the way we live?

To give me a better understanding of New Urbanism, my friend passed along a book by James Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere. This description of our own Georgetown neighborhood gives an idea of the New Urbanist’s likes and dislikes:

“Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, the row houses of Georgetown create a pleasant streetwall that affords a sense of secure enclosure so that the street seems like an outdoor room…In some blocks, the ancient cobblestones remain; so cars tend naturally to move even slower which makes the pedestrians feel more comfortable.”

Urbanists reject the modernist architecture that has brought us strip malls and suburban malaise and has discarded the idea of creating architecture rooted in local history and traditions. See our library, looming in cruel mockery of the gorgeous Healy building it apes. Look at New South, reputedly concocted by a designer of women’s prisons—it feels like one. Harbin, with its clusters, is the only dorm that attempts to mimic human community. The best living spaces on campus, the Nevils dorms and the University townhouses, provide an assortment of layouts catering to a sense of authentic Georgetown living. But these arrangements are few and far between.

Given the challenges of creating livable spaces, it’s hard to imagine a way to affect change, but Kunstler’s most important insight is that we must begin thinking about our own homes and neighborhoods. Few of us notice the social problems at our own doorsteps. While major change will take political action at every level of government, at Georgetown, at least, we can badger administrators to abandon the brick cube as the basis of campus building design.

I recently traveled to Alexandria, where I visited the ruins of a Roman Villa—airy and spacious, it was set in a gridded city designed by one of Alexander the Great’s architects. As succeeding dynasties ruled Egypt, architecture changed and adapted. Mosques were built on top of merchant’s stalls; colonial-era European apartments rose up.

Cairo, my home for the time being, is like Alexandria a mix of many centuries of architecture and design and is so overcrowded that people fill the streets, praying, eating and doing business amidst a million cars and 5,000 donkey carts. It is pure urban chaos, wonderful in its way, but home to poverty and pollution. But the mix of styles, from Sultans to Sadat, shows that each succeeding generation attempted to impose some order, to put some stamp on their city reflecting their values. Isn’t it time we do the same?

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