Category Archives: Urban Patterns

FROM THE VAULT | Bourgeois Utopias | Robert Fishman

FROM THE VAULT | Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia by Robert Fishman
Review by Dr.  Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

I’ve been an admirer of historian Robert Fishman ever since reading Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 1982) in the early 90s but especially after hearing him speak at CNU20 in West Palm Beach, FL in 2012. Given this, I was a naturally excited to read this book when I came across it many years after its publication. However, I have to begrudgingly admit I was mostly underwhelmed by Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (Basic Books, 1987). Partially, this is a matter of timing. When Fishman wrote and published this book in the late 1980s, it seemed like the cumulative apex of suburban expansion and urban decline in the United States. In hindsight, Fishman’s history of suburbia come across as a dated, unconditional surrender to what must have seemed to many people at the time as the inevitable (despite the ‘fall’ mentioned in book’s title). Of course, we now realize there was still a significant part of the story waiting to play out over the subsequent three decades (see New Urbanism/Smart Growth, collapse of the mortgage bond market, and 2008 Financial Crisis).

However, it is not all a matter of timing. Fishman is so determined to fit his subject into the thematic structure began in Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century that he tends to cast aside any evidence contrary to his central thesis, especially when it comes to the American experience of suburbia. For example, you will not find the phrases ‘exclusionary zoning’ or ‘restrictive covenants’ anywhere in Bourgeois Utopias, which seems like an odd oversight for a purported history of suburbia. Fishman also oddly ignores ample evidence in the historical record (as well as John Reps’ seminal histories The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States and Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning) that there were, in fact, only a few examples of the modern American suburb type (Llewellyn Park, New Jersey and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Riverside, Illinois being the most obvious 19th century forerunners) before World War II because the regular grid dominated in American land speculation activities until the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

Riverside, Illinois (Photo: Wikipedia).

This creates a problem because Fishman has to, more or less, cast aside the narrow, formal definition of suburbia he adopts at the start of the book when discussing early suburbs in London and Manchester, England  for a much looser definition (basically, any single family home with front yard setbacks) when approaching the American experience, especially in Los Angeles. In fact, Fishman’s entire chapter on Los Angeles reads as a regurgitation of Reyner Banham’s arguments in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971) so both have the same flaws in underestimating the power of the urban grid. It is also another case in bad timing since Mike Davis’ City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles was published only a few years later in 1990. Davis’ book has its own flaws but it is an invaluable resource for understanding the historical development of urban form in Los Angeles including the role of water pilfering in that city as well as the insidious role of the automobile industry in the Red Car’s demise.

By far, the best and most compelling part of Bourgeois Utopias is Fishman’s research on early suburbs in England during 18th and 19th century and Olmsted’s mid-19th century plan for Riverside, Illinois (basically, pages 1-148). Indeed, any reader should be able to sense the author’s greater interest in these pre-20th century examples compared to the amalgamated cancer of 20th century suburbanization in the United States, when it seems as if Fishman is trying to ‘run out the clock’ on the book. In fact, if Fishman wasn’t so determined to ambitiously fit this topic into the ‘utopia’ theme, he might have been better served to limit his historical research to these pre-20th century examples. Fishman astutely identifies the changing nature of family related to longer life expectancy during the 18th and 19th century in England as the social origins for suburbia. Fishman briefly mentions life expectancy (which seems far more important than the words given in this book) before devoting most of his time to the evolution of familial relations in the workplace and/or home. Fishman also makes an important, useful distinction between the productive and consumptive suburb that has broader implications than spelled out in the book. It is fascinating research, which alone makes the book worth the effort. In the end, though, there are some good parts (Anglo examples) and some head-scratching parts (American examples) in Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia so the book deserves, at best, only a 3-star rating.

Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia
by Robert Fishman
Basic Books, 1987
Paperback, 272 pages, English
ISBN-10: 0465007473
ISBN-13: 978-0465007479

You can purchase Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia from Amazon here.

From the Vault is a series from the Outlaw Urbanist in which we review art, architectural and urban design texts, with an emphasis on the obscure and forgotten, found in second-hand bookstores.

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Preserving the City of Tomorrow | The New Criterion

Excellent article about
 the push to “reinvent Paris” by Steven W. Semes in The New Criterion.


So what is driving this push for tall towers in a low-rise city that is universally admired as the outstanding model of what a city can be? Why this “explicit repudiation of previously successful typologies,” as the CEU report describes it? The answer lies in contemporary architectural philosophy and its demand that buildings and cities be “of their time”—that is, conform to the aesthetic fashions of the moment—whatever the consequences for the character of the place or the quality of life of the citizens. This claim presupposes that “our time” is determined by historical forces—the Zeitgeist—that cannot be denied or reversed except at the risk of being bypassed by “history.”

Reading the full article below.

Preserving the city of tomorrow by Steven W. Semes | The New Criterion

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Poor Richard 2.0 | Planning Magazine

A review of Poor Richard: Another Almanac for Architects and Planners (or Book 2 of the Poor Richard series) appears in the April 2015 issue of Planning Magazine (pp 69-70).


“As in life, some days are better than others… Two favorites: Week 13, Day 6 (In the city, buildings mate for life) and Week 29, Day 5 (Never go to an architect or planner whose office plants are artificial).”

Download the full review here.

PoorRichardv2_FrCoverPoor Richard, Another Almanac for Architects and Planners by Mark David Major
Foreword by Steve Mouzon, AIA
Paperback, 140 pages (5″ x 0.3″ x 8″, 7.4 ounces)
Forum Books (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; First edition)
November 30, 2014
ISBN-10: 150290182X<
ISBN-13: 978-1502901828

Poor Richard, Another Almanac for Architects and Planners (Volume 2 of the Poor Richard series) is available for purchase from CreateSpace, Amazon, iBooks, and other online retailers around the world. Be sure to check the online store in your country/currency (USA stores available below).

Purchase from CreateSpace here.
Purchase from Amazon here.
Purchase from Kindle Store here.
Purchase from iBooks Store here.

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10 Blogs We’re Reading… well, keeping an eye on

10 Blogs We’re Reading… well, keeping an eye on…
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

We say ‘reading’ but really it is ‘periodically checking in on’ because there is way too much content to keep up with everything on the web. We have over 30 newspapers and online journals from the United States and Europe alone bookmarked for daily review! The Outlaw Urbanist is backlogged over a year with interesting news articles we have saved for re-posting on the blog. We are only now (very slowly) beginning to diligently work our way through this backlog. In the meantime, we encourage you to visit these blogs (in no particular order).

1.  Clusterfuck Nation by James Howard Kunstler
Now archived on but still worth a periodic visit. He is on Twitter but not much so you can follow @Jhkunstler.

2.  The Original Green and StudioSky Blog by Steve Mouzon
Mouzon is on Twitter a lot but his feed ebs and flows, you can follow .

3.  The Power of the Network by Tim Stonor (Twitter: @Tim_Stonor)

4.  The Pure Hands by Dr. Nick “Sheep” and Professor Ruth Dalton
You can follow Sheep on Twitter and Ruth . He is on Twitter more often than her.

5.  Tiny House Blog by Kent Griswold (Twitter @kentgriswold)

6.  Failed Architecture by Michiel van Iersel et al out of Amsterdam (Twitter @FailedArch)

7.  Spatial Disjunctures by David Jeevendrampillai
(UCL Research Student whose blog has gone quiet for over a year but we hope returns soon)

8.  Urban Formation or Mapping Urban Form and Society by Dr. Laura Vaughan
Professor of Urban Form and Society at UCL, whose blog has also gone quiet for six months… we’re all very busy these days. Laura tends to be on Twitter more than most and she often actively engages in interesting discussions via her feed @urban_formation.

9.  Moser Design Group by R. Eric Moser (Twitter @Moserdesign)

10.  Urbanism Speakeasy by Andy Boenau
We’re not sure if this qualifies as a blog since it is a podcast series… perhaps an audio blog. Andy is a active participant on Twitter .

PoorRichardv2_FrCoverPurchase your copy of Poor Richard, Another Almanac for Architects and Planners (Volume 2) today!

Available in print from Amazon, CreateSpace, and other online retailers.

Available on iBooks from the Apple iTunes Store and Kindle in the Kindle Store.


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PHOTO ESSAY | Savannah, Georgia USA

It has been said that ‘Savannah is all about its squares.’ This is inaccurate. The spatial logic of Savannah is all about the historical loading of front doors along east-west streets in the ward plan. This generates a spatial hierarchy in the plan between ‘outsiders’ (i.e. visitors) principally using north-south streets to enter the town (historically from the port, later via vehicular traffic) before assimilating along the east-west streets primarily used by ‘insiders’ (i.e. residents) (Anderson, 1986 and 1993; Kostof, 1991; Major, 2001 and 2014).

John Reps’ famous 1959 drawing of the historical growth of the Savannah, Georgia ward plan from 1733-1856 (Reps, 1965; 201).
View southeast down West River Street: an east-west street in Savannah (Photograph: Mark David Major).
View southwest from West River Street to Williamson Street showing the dramatic change in elevation from the bank of the Savannah River (Photograph: Mark David Major).
View northwest across Oglethorpe Square (Photograph: Mark David Major).
View northeast from Johnson Square down Bull Street to Savannah City Hall (Photograph: Mark David Major).
North-south streets, mostly barren of trees or front doors, bear the weight of moving high-speed (in relative terms) traffic through Savannah’s ward plan (Photograph: Mark David Major).
(Photograph: Mark David Major)

The spatial logic of the ward plan is imminently serviceable for managing moving traffic, treating most squares as enlarged roundabouts and filtering through traffic mostly along north-south streets such as this one. Over time, constitution (i.e. dwelling entrances) has emerged in a spotty fashion along these north-south streets but not enough (to date) to deteriorate the logic of loading front doors along east-west streets.

(Photograph: Mark David Major)

Despite this, Savannah’s ward plan is suffering under the weight of storing parked vehicles. There are parking garages located on at least four of the squares and two sides of Orleans Square is constituted by surface parking for the convention center. The wall constructed to ‘hide’ this surface parking does nothing to support the functioning of the ward plan or Orleans Square itself. This photo shows the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission offices occupying a ground level retail space (not a bad idea but poorly designed frontage) on Oglethorpe Square at the base of a seven-story parking garage (metaphorically-speaking, being crushed under the weight of parked vehicles).

Loading of front doors along an east-west street in Savannah’s ward plan (Photograph: Mark David Major).
Loading of front doors (including double-loading at ground level and second-floor entries) on an east-west street defining the northern edge of Oglethorpe Square in Savannah (Photograph: Mark David Major).
(Photograph: Mark David Major)

Some modern in-fill development adheres to the nuances of how Savannah’s ward plan was historically designed to function (front doors loaded on this east-west street in the development in the background) whereas some actively retards that functioning (garages loaded on east-west street in the development in the foreground, turning this portion of the space into an alleyway with trash cans).

Anderson, Stanford. 1993. “Savannah and the Issue of Precedent: City Plan as Resource”, Settlements in the Americas: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (Ed. Ralph Bennett). Newark: University of Delaware Press.

Anderson Stanford. 1986. “Studies towards an Ecological Model of Urban Environment”, On Streets (Ed. Stanford Anderson). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Kostof, Spiro. 1991. The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meaning Through History. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd.

Major, Mark David. 2015. Relentless Magnificence: The American Urban Grid. Ph.D. Thesis. Copies available from University College London.

Major, Mark David. 2001. “When is a door more than a door? The role of constitution in strongly geometric configurations”,  Third International Space Syntax Symposium Proceedings (Eds. J. Peponis, J. Wineman, S. Bafna), 37.1-37.14.

Reps, John W. 1965. The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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