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Planning Naked | March 2017

Planning Naked | March 2017
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

Your (hopefully hilarious… but not so much this month) guide to most everything about the latest issue of APA’s Planning Magazine

NOTE: The United States of America inaugurated Donald J. Trump as its 45th President on January 20, 2017, and, in response, Planning Magazine turns the crazy up to eleven.

Making Joseph Goebbels Proud. “Placemaking as Storytelling” by James M. Drinan, JD (From the Desk of APA’s Chief Executive Officer, pp. 3) contains some disturbing language. Drinan points out, “Research shows that coupling stories with data produces a significant increase in the retention rate of that data.” Basically, he is correct. However, it is important to clarify Drinan is not precise. FYI: Never expect precision from a lawyer because you will always be disappointed. It is more accurate to say that using data to better tell a story about an objective truth is an excellent means of increasing retention about both that story, the data, and the truth. It reinforces the objectiveness of both observer and the observed. Using data loosely to reinforce a lie is propaganda. This is a nuanced but important distinction. This is because Drinan goes on to state, “it is crucial to control (our emphasis) the narrative-the story.” This is a defensible position for a propagandist but not a scientist. Drinan (perhaps unintentionally) reveals he is discussing politics and propaganda, not scientific truth when you consider what he manifestly fails to say in a subsequent sentence. The key is the citation of planners as storytellers, authors, illustrators, and editors. What is missing? The answer is scientists. This ‘frontpage editorial’ is one of the most disturbing things I have read in Planning Magazine in years because it advocates for the very thing it pretends to be against. This is the insidious nature of the status quo reasserting itself against change. Forewarned is forearmed. NOTE: Having now read this, I am angry with myself for leaving this March 2017 issue of Planning Magazine sitting unread on my desk for two months. The previous months’ issues lulled me into a false sense of security. My mistake…

OMG! And I am only on page eight. “Federal Tax Credit Uncertainty Puts Affordable Housing at Risk” (News Section, pp. 8-9) by Dean Mosiman – a Madison city government reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. RED FLAG, RED FLAG: Scott Walker is evil incarnate – contains some really bad reporting as Planning Magazine embarks on Drinan’s explicit promise to attempt to ‘control’ the story. First, it assumes a reality that is non-existent. “For 30 years, federal affordable housing tax credits have been the nation’s most potent tool to create housing for the homeless and low-income households.” Really? Have you been to Los Angeles lately? This bastion city in a bastion state of the Democratic Party has one of the worst, most despicable, and most shameful homeless problems I have ever seen in the Western world over the last three decades. It makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about what I saw and smelled in L.A. Everyday, there is another article in the mass media about an overwhelming lack of affordable housing in cities around the world including the USA. The tax credit is not a potent tool but a failed one. According to the article, the tax credit “had a major impact on the nation’s housing stock, helping create 2.8 million affordable units nationwide.” The use of ‘major’ here is shameless hyperbole and the ‘helping create’ means there might be an indirect benefit but not direct causation. Of course, these 2.8 million units were most likely woefully insufficient to replace the smaller (in square footage), more affordable historic housing stock demolished by public and private agencies during the same period. This news article is about one thing: fear that the pigs might not be able to eat at the government trough in the near future. Then, at the end of the article, the author implicitly concedes this is fear-mongering by stating the tax credit “is likely to survive.” Nothing to see here, folks, move on home! This is ‘fake news.’

People Matter. Planning Magazine ‘buries the lead’ with the “Miami Street Experiment Prioritizes People” by Susan Nesmith (News Section, pp. 9-10) by discombobulating the story across two pages, which is bad editing and bad graphic design. It makes you wonder what APA has against putting “people over cars” and “slowing traffic (with) no big gridlock.” The experiment is over but the “fancy crosswalks” remain: really, fancy crosswalks? Fancy? It is a good thing I have plenty of hair to pull out. This experiment and the subsequent attempts for a more humanistic redesign of this Miami boulevard is something that Planning Magazine needs to herald and promote, not deride as some quaint idea. Is this a failure of Ms. Nesmith’s writing or the editors of Planning Magazine? Perhaps both. I am not sure.

In ‘Do No Harm’ News. “Remaking Vacant Lots to Cut Crime” by Martha T. Moore (News Section, pp. 10) is an interesting story about a low-cost, temporary solution for vacant properties in urban conditions; as long as people and agencies understand it is not a long-term solution. All in all, however, I like the concept.

Beware of Florida Lawyers Bearing Gifts. This months’ Legal Lessons section (“Staff Reports: A Lawyer’s Take by Mark P. Barnebey, pp. 11) is one of those standard-type of articles Planning Magazine re-runs every 3-5 years due to new, young professionals entering the workforce. I remember reading the last two iterations of this article about staff reports (respond the young people, “He must be really old”). Barnebey’s article is fine for this purpose though he undersells just how influential of a role the staff report can play in quasi-judicial decisions by elected officials, if carefully constructed.

Strike that. Reverse It. Welcome, Florida Lawyers Bearing Gifts. However, having said that, the more advanced state of staff reports in Florida – due to their quasi-judicial nature associated with the 1985 Growth Management Act and subsequently, Mr. Barnebey’s greater experience with the best of such staff reports – starkly contrasts with the next article, “The Better STAFF REPORT” by Bonnie J. Johnson (pp. 20-24). Allow me to state more simply the point that I believe Dr. Johnson is attempting to convey: the best staff reports combine: 1) well-written content with 2) well-designed visuals and 3) promptly get to the point. Like most planners, Dr. Johnson’s article manages to fail on all these counts. Johnson does not even seem to know her audience for this article (i.e. there are lots of different types of planners and staff reports) so she makes the mistake of trying to address ALL possible audiences. The result is inadequate for everyone. The graphic design of this article makes the content even more confusing. I mean it is really, really bad but hardly surprising. In my experience, most planners are woefully under-trained in the art of graphic design. I do not know if this is the fault of Dr. Johnson or Planning Magazine but, seriously, reading this article gave me a fucking headache.

Meanwhile. “Here comes the Sun” by Charles W. Thurston (pp. 25-29) is the type of article you get from professional organizations nearly four decades after a nation abandons nuclear power.

The Blood Pot Boils Over. But what really gets the blood boiling is Planning Magazine: 1) makes the preceding article the subject of this month’s cover (see above) instead of this article ‘buried’ at the end of the feature articles, “Life and Death Every Quarter Hour” by Jeffrey Brubaker (pp. 30-33); and, 2) seems blissfully unaware of the contrasting traffic fatalities data in this article (35,092 death in 2015) compared to the article about wildlife crossings, i.e. 200 fatalities associated with collisions with wildlife. That is right. This month’s Planning Magazine dedicates twice as many pages to an issue involving 6/1000th the number of traffic deaths. Worst still, the subtitle of this article claims “mixed results” for what is a complete failure. Finally, at the end, Planning Magazine adds a “The opinions expressed in the article are his own” (meaning Mr. Brubaker) disclaimer. God forbid that anyone might think APA and Planning Magazine are anti-automobile. And the thing is, Mr. Brubaker’s article is mild. It does not go nearly far enough in pointing the profession’s hypocrisy on this issue. Here is the gist: in 60 years, nothing has changed. There is still a death caused by vehicular traffic every quarter hour in the United States.

That is it. I cannot take any more of this month’s issue. I may have to stop reading Planning Magazine in the best interests of my health because you would not believe the migraine headache I have right now. Shame on you, Planning Magazine. The best article this month was written by a Florida attorney.

Planning Naked is a series of observations and comments about a recent issue of Planning: The Magazine of the American Planning Association.

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REPOST | 20 Must-Read Texts for Urban Planners (#11-20)

by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist Contributor (Originally posted January 22, 2013)

Lists are often a handy tool to spark a discussion, debate, or even an argument. The purpose of this list is pretty straightforward, i.e. what should you have read. Of course, in limiting the list to a mere 20 texts (books and articles), there is no possible way it can be exhaustive. There are a lot of interesting texts out there from a lot of different perspectives (some better than others). It is also true that compiling such a list will inevitably reveal the particular biases of the person preparing the compilation (like revealing your iTunes playlist). In the end, it is only their opinion. There’s no way around it. This list demonstrates a clear bias towards texts about the relationship between the physical fabric of cities and their spatio-functional nature with a particular emphasis on first-hand observation of how things really work. Because of this, perhaps the most surprising thing about this list is how few texts there are by people who identify themselves as planners (or perhaps not, depending on your perspective). Finally, as with most lists, it is wise to reserve the right to amend/update said list in order to allow for any unfortunate oversights. Having said that, the list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies suburban sprawl. Let the making of lists begin…

las_vegas20. Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (1972) by Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour and Denise Scott Brown
Venturi et al expand the arguments first outlined in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture in 1966 to the urban level with their seminal study of Las Vegas. Only on these terms, it is an interesting read. However, dig a little deeper beneath the surface and into their wonderful series of figure-ground representations of spatial functioning on, along and adjacent to the Las Vegas Strip. You will discover Venturi et al concede – almost casually – the functional dynamics of how the strip operates to the realm of urban space and pattern in order to quickly focus on their arguments on what really interests them, i.e. the semantic nature of architectural form. A surface reading of only what Venturi et al writes misses a lot of the richness found within since there is a whole other book hidden based on what they are not saying but merely showing you. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

concept_dwelling19. The Concept of Dwelling: on the way to figurative architecture (1985) by Christian Norberg-Schulz
One always has to be careful with phenomenology because, by definition, almost everything written is subjective and open to vast differences in interpretation. However, much like the previous entry on this list, if a reader is willing to dig beneath of the surface and give thoughtful consideration about what, at first, appears to be purposefully opaque writing, then often there are rich rewards to be discovered. Norberg-Schulz’s The Concept of Dwelling is one of the best examples. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

ladders18. Ladders, Architecture at Rice 34 (1996) by Albert Pope
It is something of a mystery why this book seems to be sorely under-appreciated and underrated outside of Houston, Texas. Pope’s study about the physical pattern of the American urban fabric is a fascinating read. Urban planners – especially American ones – could do a lot worse than read an entire book examining the physical pattern of the urban fabric in cities they are suppose to be planning; in fact, they have and do so regularly. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

rational_city17. Dreaming the Rational City: The Myth of American City Planning (1983) by M. Christine Boyer
Boyer’s The City of Collective Memory seems to overshadow her earlier book, which is a shame. Her history of the planning profession in the United States is a devastating and powerful critique that is as relevant today as when it was first published. It is also a much better book than The City of Collective Memory. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

america16. America (1988) by Jean Baudrillard
The best planners are good sociologists and the best sociologists are great observers. Baudrillard was one of the best and keenest observers of human society and its meaning. Baudrillard wraps his observations within a flamboyant, often elegant, and occasionally beautiful use of language. It is not always clear whether the flurries of linguistic gymnastics are really his or is the result of translating from French into English. However, the results often amount to genius. In America, Baudrillard’s compare and contrast of Paris, New York, and Los Angeles yields rich rewards to any planner who dares to pay attention. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

streets_patterns15. Streets and Patterns (2005) by Stephen Marshall
The first half of Marshall’s book is a brilliant review and analysis of where we are and how we got here. The second half – focusing on possible solutions – descends into being only interesting. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

city14. City: Rediscovering the Center (1989) by William H. Whyte
Whyte’s study of informal, social interaction in public spaces is a case study in urban observation that any planner should seek to take into account and emulate. Yes, sometimes Whyte’s conclusions are too localized about the attributes of the space itself than how it fits into the pattern of a larger urban context. However, at other times, his findings are remarkable for their common sense. For example, people in public spaces will move chairs for the purpose of promoting interaction rather than locate their interactions where chairs are located or tend to locate social interaction in areas of high movement like street corners. Anyone who has ever tried to move their way through to party – mumbling to themselves “why do people have to stop here to talk” – will understand many of Whyte’s observations about human nature and informal interaction are rock solid. Whyte’s City can almost be read as a companion piece to Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

architecture_community13. “The Architecture of Community: Some New Proposals on the Social Consequences of Architectural and Planning Decisions” (1987) by Julienne Hanson and Bill Hillier, Architecture and Comportement, Architecture and Behaviour, 3(3): 251-273.
There are many texts by a lot of people about why space syntax is important. However, few have driven home the point more powerfully and succinctly than this early article by Hanson and Hillier about the social consequences of design decisions for Modern housing estates (projects) in the UK. In doing so, Hanson and Hillier add considerable intellectual and quantitative heft to Jane Jacobs’ arguments about urban safety and “eyes on the street” in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This article will probably be obscure to most planners, especially in the USA. The real crime is it’s rarely read outside of the space syntax community itself. Download the article here.

suburban_nation12. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (2000) by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck
A purist will probably argue when it comes to New Urbanism, start with The New Urbanism by Peter Katz. If you’re not really keen on appetizers, then go straight to the main meal. Suburban Nation is not only about what is the New Urbanism but also delves into the argument about why we need the New Urbanism today. New Urbanism does not always get it right. Does anybody? However, there shouldn’t be any doubt that it is heading in the right direction and that is a huge achievement in itself. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

transect11. “Transect Planning” (2002) by Andres Duany and Emily E. Talen. APA Journal, 68(3): 245-266.
Duany and Talen elegantly translate a fundamental aspect about the spatio-functioning of streets tailored to urban form into understandable terms for public officials, urban designers and planners who are still trapped in – or refuse to leave – the box of the Euclidean zoning model and the arbitrary roadway classifications almost universally associated with it over the last half-century. In terms of the prevailing planning paradigm afflicting our cities, transect planning is the metaphorical equivalent of Duany and Talen pushing a Trojan horse inside the city gates. The more applied, the less tenable becomes the roadway classifications associated with the Euclidean zoning model. Beware of New Urbanists bearing gifts (i.e. methodology).

Coming Soon: 20 Must-Read Texts for Urban Planners (#1-10)!

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Life, Liberty, Happiness: the need for heroic planning | Blab

CURJCoWWIAAi_Lo.jpg_largeThe Outlaw Urbanist, Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, will participate in online broadcast with Don Kostelec of Kostelec Planning this Monday, November 23, 2015 at 8:00 pm EST titled, “Life, Liberty, Happiness: the need for heroic planning,” hosted by Andy Boreau of Urbanism Speakeasy.

The content is pretty wide open though it will tend to focus on what is wrong with our current development practices. We will be able to answer your questions and, hopefully, have a pretty good debate.

You can subscribe to the broadcast on Blab here.

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The Transcendental City | Las Vegas

Las Vegas: The Transcendental City
by Mark David Major, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

Email:              mark@outlaw-urbanist.com
Web:                www.outlaw-urbanist.com
Twitter:           @OutlawUrbanist

Las Vegas is a source of fascination. It has been since the publication of Learning from Las Vegas in 1972. Some say Las Vegas is “the way you’d imagine heaven must look at night.” Norman Mailer describes the city thus; “the night before I left Las Vegas I walked out in the desert to look at the moon. There was a jeweled city on the horizon, spires rising in the night, but the jewels were diadems of electric and the spires were the neon of signs ten stories high.” Alistair Cooke observes, “Las Vegas is Everyman’s cut-rate Babylon… (there was) a roadside lunch counter and over it a sign proclaiming in three words that a Roman emperor’s orgy is now a democratic institution: Topless Pizza Lunch.” Cooke implies waitresses were serving pizza sans clothing but it could have meant the roadside lunch counter was serving its pizza lunch sans toppings, i.e. Margherita. Given Las Vegas’ reputation, it is probably wise to assume both options were on the menu. In any case, architects and urban planners have shared this fascination with the ‘Modern Babylon’ of Western civilization.

Learning from Las Vegas narrowed its arguments against the precepts of Modernism in favor of a new theoretical approach. The emergence of Post-Modernism as a distinctive architectural style overshadowed some of the most remarkable things in that book. This unsurprising since the point of examining the “phenomenon of architectural communication” where the “symbol in space (comes) LV-figure-ground1972before form in space” in Las Vegas and, specifically the famous Strip, was to expand to the urban level a theory Robert Venturi had already outlined in 1966’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. The preoccupation with the semantics of architectural form in Post-Modernism – and its successor, Deconstructivism – took to heart what Learning from Las Vegas showed us to the exclusion of what was said. For example, there is an implicit acknowledgement of a spatial dimension to the pattern of urban functions in Las Vegas. Namely, “a set of intertwined activities that form a pattern on the land… the Las Vegas Strip is not a chaotic sprawl but a set of activities whose pattern, as with other cities, depends on the technology of movement and communication and the economic value of land.” The book also extensively uses plan representations such as figure-grounds to reveal crucial information about the functional structure of urban space in Las Vegas during the late 1960s.

(Above, right) Urban Pattern in the 1960s: Figure-ground representation of building footprints along the Las Vegas Strip during the late 1960.

LV-hgy_parksLas Vegas Today: Parks, airports, and interstate highways overlaying a space syntax model of Las Vegas street network.

This is a little remarked upon yet still remarkable concession, i.e. more than semantics is going on in Las Vegas. Albert Pope seizes on this concession in Ladders (1996) to argue the “urbanism of the Strip was itself structured on a relentless linear armature… in contrast to the original Las Vegas gridiron and the pedestrian ‘strip’ of Fremont Street, the organization of the upper strip was a discrete and reductive axis of development – a complete linear city.”

In hindsight, the flaw of Learning from Las Vegas is taking an urban object as a subject before its time. Las Vegas is more fascinating today than five decades ago because it represents a quintessential example of American development during the post-war period. We say this because the city is spatially transcendental. This means first, the city is characterized by congruent spatial networks occupying (grossly) the same point in space/time and second, these spatial networks exist a priori and emerge as a consequence to urban growth. By congruent, we mean coinciding at all points in terms of location since one is super-imposed over the other. The a priori conditions are a consequence of the pattern of land division imposed by the 1785 Land Ordinance. Using computer modeling such as the configurational software of space syntax, we can ‘peel’ these congruent spatial systems apart and examine their role in Las Vegas; much like peeling layers off an onion and examining the individual layers (we know together they form an onion). The results are fascinating. First, Las Vegas has a well-defined, center-to-edge spatial pattern, the focus of which is not the Las Vegas Strip (though it is partially in the core) but the historic area/Central Business District (CBD). Second, a congruent, large-scale orthogonal spatial pattern emerging from the pattern of land division over time characterizes Las Vegas. This orthogonal grid pattern did not exist in the early 20th century (though we can infer its outline from section lines) and only began to emerge during the 1950s and 1960s before fully manifesting in the late 20th century.

LV-1908-1952Las Vegas Yesterday: Las Vegas in 1908 (left) and 1952 (right).

Urban form in Las Vegas has evolved over time to privilege the CBD/historic area so there is a micro-scale urban fabric that includes the historical diagonal routes from the CBD to the edges of the city in addition to this macro-scale orthogonal grid logic arising from the national grid system. We can demonstrate this by identifying all orthogonal routes aligned to cardinal directions arising from the pattern of land division. Some of these streets are long and highly connected (such as Charleston Boulevard). Others are not but all are evenly spaced apart in terms of metric distance arising from a historical process (subdivide the section, township, etc.) previously described by John Reps in The Making of Urban American/Cities of the American West. These streets represent the “strong prescriptive order” (using Pope’s terminology) of the national grid system as realized on the ground over time in the urban object. A portion of the ‘holistic’ Las Vegas super grid is composed of these large-scale orthogonal streets. This includes highly integrated routes such as Charleston Boulevard (east-west) and the southern segment of Las Vegas Boulevard (north-south).

LV-orthoOrthogonal Las Vegas: All orthogonal routes emerging from the pattern of land division imposed by the 1785 Land Ordinance.

However, this orthogonal logic is imperfectly realized. There are two reasons. First, the national grid system is a conceptual division of the land. The process Reps describes of section lines becoming main roads and so forth did not always occur for every tract of land. Second, the national grid system lays over the circumstance of the Earth. Bill Bryson succinctly summarizes the problem this causes for surveyors. “One problem with such a set-up is that a spherical planet does not lend itself to square corners. As you move near the poles, the closer the lines of longitude grow… (so) to get around this problem, longitudinal lines were adjusted every twenty-four miles… (which) explains why north-south streets… so often taken a mysterious jag” (136). This appears to be evident in diversions along the length of some north-south streets in Las Vegas. Peeling off this large-scale orthogonal street network reveals the underlying variation in the Las Vegas urban layout including a striking center-to-edge pattern formed by the historical diagonal routes and micro-scale street network. This shows how movement might utilize the urban grid, independently of the large-scale orthogonal streets.

LV-c2eLas Vegas’ Privileged Center: Center-to-edge urban pattern privileging the CBD/historic area.

The effect of the micro-scale street network is to privilege Las Vegas’ CBD/historical area. Configurational analysis using space syntax demonstrates this micro-scale street network is more closely related (significantly so) to the Las Vegas urban grid as a whole than the macro-scale network. This should be unsurprising. The crucial relationship for movement/urban functions in a city is center-to-edge. Edge-to-edge movement (for example, passing through Las Vegas in going from one city to another, i.e. Denver to Los Angeles) is nominally the function of the interstate highways. Instead, the macro-scale network operates as super-integrators since these streets are about six times more connected into the network compared to the average in Las Vegas.

The macro-scale network is reminiscent of a hierarchy imposed on the urban fabric by large-scale historic interventions: for example, Haussmann’s 19th century boulevards in Paris. However, there are key differences. First, the national grid system is an a priori conceptual order. Development allows this hierarchy to emerge during the growth of American cities. It is not a later remedial correction to the urban fabric. Second, it is distinct from the Las Vegas super grid. Some streets compose both but the most important are the diagonals of Las Vegas Boulevard, Main Street, Fremont Street, and Rancho Drive. If we removed the super grid in a similar experiment, then the urban fabric would disintegrate into discrete elements in the absence of these diagonals. Finally, there are highly segregated interstitial areas of the urban grid. These are suburban-type developments poorly connected into the urban grid except via the large-scale orthogonal streets defining their perimeters. We can describe this as discrete separation by linear segregation. Often, the only connection from neighborhood-to-neighborhood is via parallel curb cuts into separate developments (with at least one development somewhere having a minimum of two entry roads). This has nothing to do with inter-connectivity and everything to do with traffic management of vehicular turning actions.

This emergent hierarchy in Las Vegas and other cities characterized by post-war growth in the 20th century (such as Phoenix and Orlando) derives from modern transportation planning. Regulatory requirements mandate the design of roads including street width, stopping distance, frequency of curb cuts, turning radius, and so on based on traffic speeds/volumes projected to utilize the streets using origin and destination gravity models Local governments have adopted these standards into their development review regulations, having a profound impact on American urban form since the mid-twentieth century. Planning to ‘minimum requirements’ gives rise to a spatial hierarchy that becomes embedded in the urban pattern. Borrowing from Christopher Alexander, Las Vegas proves that, in part, a city can be a tree. It is a different question whether it makes good urban form.

Based on excerpts from forthcoming Relentless Magnificence: The American Regular Grid by Mark David Major.

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A fanciful city | REVIEW | American Urban Form: A Representative History

AmUrFormA fanciful city | REVIEW | American Urban Form: A Representative History
By Mark David Major, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

How do you solve a problem like ‘the City’? This is the generic name Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore give to their “hypothetical city” in American Urban Form: A Representative History, available from MIT Press (176 pages; $20.71 on Amazon). Warner and Whittemore’s City is a narrative conglomeration of urban history, for the most part, in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia (New Philaton?) and, therein, lies several dilemmas. The book’s subtitle describes this as “a representative history.” Outside of academia, this is more commonly called historical fiction. It is uncertain the authors’ admirable honesty in admitting this fact (albeit, using academic language) is enough to transform a historical fiction into a substantive scholarly work. All good historical fiction writers conduct research into their subject but tend to not provide footnotes and bibliography (as Bass and Whittemore do). This information is incidental to the goal of telling a good story. So, do we approach American Urban Form as a well-referenced historical fiction or a scholarly work adopting an intriguing (perhaps even innovative) methodological approach to urban history? In the end, it doesn’t really matter.

American Urban Form is more curiosity than ground breaking as a scholarly work. Despite the bold, important title of the book, its publisher, and the authors’ claim “the book is about patterns, the physical patterns or urban form that we can observe in American big cities past and present” and “physical patterns shape and are themselves shaped by” political, social and economic factors, it only discusses urban form incidentally in relation to those factors. In doing so, the authors adopt an a-spatial perspective when discussing the generators of American urban form, which is revealed by their use of the word ‘reflect’ in several instances. We have to believe this word choice is intentional. In this sense, American Urban Form comfortably sits within the prevailing planning paradigm of the post-war period in the United States (see M. Christine Boyer’s Dreaming the Rational City: The Myth of American City Planning for an excellent and detailed discussion on this topic). Unfortunately, it is also consistent with a recent, unfortunate trend in planning theory to claim to discuss one thing (physical form and space) but substantively reinforce prevailing thought (an a-spatial perspective of the city). Even when American Urban Form does discuss the physical fabric of ‘the City’, it tends to become trapped in discussing architectural styles.

Boston, New York, and Philadelphia seem a stylistic choice for the narrative since they have common temporal and geographical origins, and builds on the foundation of Warner’s previous research into the real history of these cities. It also allows the authors to avoid the emergent effects of 1785 Land Ordinance in generating American urban form (based on the authors’ own timeline, their use of the phrase “Jefferson grid” refers to the regular grid in general, in which case it is more accurately described as the Renaissance grid or even the Spanish grid). In selecting these cities, American Urban Form also reinforces what many see as an ‘East Coast bias’ in urban planning. This is not exactly right. It is actually a ‘Bi-Coastal bias’, which is consistent with a larger cultural bias in the United States. In a real way, there is an ‘axis of planning’ in the United States that stretches from the cabals of MIT to the Ivy League schools to the West Coast (Cal-Berkeley/UCLA) (see “Who Teaches Planning?”, Planitzen, January 14, 2013). By merging these cities together, American Urban Form manages to both undercut and misunderstand the importance of Philadelphia. Philadelphia is more important than New York and way more so than Boston in terms of the American planning tradition. Penn’s 1682 plan for Philadelphia demonstrated the scale of the possible for city planning in the New World. Namely, American urban form has always been expansive, what Gandelsonas referred to as “the invention of a new scale”, especially in comparison to European models of urbanism. If the authors had taken different cities as their subject (such as Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans), then a different (and, perhaps, more common) picture might have emerged in their narrative about the physical form of the American city.

This fact reveals the subjectivity lurking at the heart of American Urban Form. The authors’ experiment in representative history fails the most basic test of scientific method because their methodology cannot be objectively repeated to produce similar results for different cities. The results are entirely determined by the subjective choices of those writing the narrative. In this regard, the methodology might be useful as the basis for a student studio project but of little use to anyone outside the classroom. Also, taking the two densest cities in the United States (Boston and New York) as the subject for two-thirds of ‘the City’ allows the authors to craft an overly romantic view (in New Urbanist and Floridian “creative class” terms) of American urban form that does not ring true for the majority of the country. A quick review of Wikipedia’s listing of America’s most dense cities reveals two-thirds are located in the New York and Boston metropolitan regions; though interestingly and importantly, not Philadelphia. It is also interesting the authors’ descriptions of urban form become considerably more assured with the onset of the 20th century, which coincides with the emergence of urban planning as a distinct discipline. Before this, the authors provide as much space to discussing free-range hogs as they do to urban form. In itself, this is revealing since roughly half of the book is devoted to the first 200 years of ‘the City’ whereas the second half covers approximately the last 115 years. This is unfortunate since important aspects of early urban form are casually mentioned and their generative effects are not explored in detail. Instead, the narrative quickly returns to surer ground. i.e. a pseudo-history of political, social, and economic factors.

Does American Urban Form work as historical fiction? Well, not really. The book cannot be given a pass on these grounds either. Disturbingly for academics, this methodology seems to provide the authors with an in-built defense mechanism against criticism and, more importantly, testing of their ideas. Hey, it’s only “a representative history”, meaning, of course, it is a fiction so we have to evaluate the book on these grounds as well. We tend to teach historical fiction (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, and so forth) in literature courses, not history classes, because what is important is not historical accuracy but the use of literary devices in telling a story. American Urban Form fails the most basic literary tests in this regard. There is no characterization, rising action, dramatic climax, or dénouement. It is all conflict. Most of the book reads like an urban horror story where everyone is neatly divided into oppressor (rich white male, capitalist landowners) and the oppressed (everyone else who is not, especially Black Americans, women, and unions). This provides most of the narrative with an oddly Marxist perspective on American urban history. We say ‘oddly’ because it is so unexpected. This fictional urban history of capitalist oppression in ‘the City’ would sit a little too close for comfort (for some) next to the fictional history of capitalism written by Karl Marx in Das Kapital. The authors drop this odd perspective on their imagined history with the onset of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and the leftist radicalism of the 1960s, which, in effect, conveys an apologia for the social conscience and actions of leftist baby boomers. For example, the authors state not once but twice (without explanation) the economic stagnation of the 1970s was caused by the Vietnam War. It will be a surprise to many who thought it was monetary policy, high taxation and excessive regulatory regimes during the Johnson, Nixon, and Carter Administrations as well as out-of-control government spending by a long-held Democratic U.S. Congress (the Reagan Revolution of 1980s does not seem to exist in the imagined world of ‘the City’, except incidentally or negatively).

In this sense, American Urban Form represents the worst kind of historical revisionism, indoctrinating leftist wish fulfillment (capitalism is evil, the state is good… and everything that follows on from that view) as a “representative” fact of American urban history. Because of this, it does not even qualify as good historical fiction. Much like Whittemore’s detailed and pretty bird’s eye views of ‘the City’ in the book (for the most part, vacant of meaning because they are a fiction, too; the one clear-cut exception is his wonderful aerial perspective of ‘dumbbell tenements’ on page 71), American Urban Form remains trapped in a single perspective on its subject. It either ignores, consigns to happenstance, or weaves an elaborate explanation for anything that might contradict or interrupt that perspective. Collectively, the result is a fanciful city of leftist, pseudo-Marxist fallacies. If you are already a member of the choir, you will like American Urban Form: A Representative History because you know the song and can sing along. If not, you will be better served by reading the history of a real city, examining in detail its historical plans and bird’s eye view drawings, and making your own conclusions.

American Urban Form: A Representative History by Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore with Illustrations by Andrew H. Whittemore, 176 pages, MIT Press, is available from MIT Press here and Amazon here in hardcover and Kindle formats. Prices may vary.

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