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Intercultural Urbanism Has Moved…

It can now be found at

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People or Place in Urban Planning?

In his deservedly well-reviewed book Triumph of the City the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser unambiguously opts for people as the key element that determines a city’s success.  He argues that a place-centered approach to urban planning—that is, one informed by a “build it and they will come” logic that uses convention centers, pedestrian malls, festival marketplaces, light rail systems, and iconic buildings to reinvigorate downtowns—may have been “the biggest mistake in urban policy of the last 60 years.”  Put differently, place-centered planning is a prime example of “edifice error.”  Detroit serves as the textbook example of such folly, as evidenced by the failure of the GM Renaissance Center and the People Mover monorail to enliven the urban core.

Instead, Glaeser argues for planning strategies that invest in people: small businesses, affordable housing, and education.  He does see a role for infrastructure in supporting people-centered strategies, especially the high-rise residential skyscraper.  Building up is perfect for creating the sort of population density that fosters human collaboration and creativity, while also having certain “green” virtues.  However, efforts to create vertical density are, in Glaeser’s view, too often foiled by other place-centrisms like historic preservation.  Too many historical landmark and district designations inhibit commercial development and severely limit the supply of affordable housing that would draw a mix of people back to the city.  Preservation can too easily turn urban cores into museums accessible only to well-heeled tourists and the very rich.  Paris, for all its aesthetic beauty, serves as Glaeser’s prime cautionary tale in this regard.

The other great book about the city to appear in the last year—Makeshift Metropolis by Witold Rybczynski, a Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania—is a bit more appreciative of place-centered urban planning.  Several American cities including San Francisco, Boston, San Antonio, and Baltimore have capitalized on their distinctive locations and histories by combining “nostalgia” with innovative design to produce vibrant downtown centers.  In each case the effort was helped by the proximity of water, a love of which is arguably hard-wired into the psyche of human beings (see “Evolution’s City”, below).  Rybczynski, like Glaeser, notes that iconic architecture has helped spur economic development in some cities—Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain is everyone’s favorite example—but has been less successful in far too many others. These include Denver, where Daniel Libeskind’s new wing of the city’s art museum hasn’t generated the anticipated number of visitors nor dollars.  Rybczynski concludes that the widely invoked and analyzed Bilbao “Effect” is more of an “Anomaly,” and that cities should expect only modest success when using the iconic building as a means to urban renewal.

No anthropologist would dispute that, at the end of the day, the success of a human settlement of any kind depends upon people.  But they would never marginalize the role of the built environment in producing civic success.  A robust body of theory and cross-cultural empirical research in the area of human “materiality” has established that people and things are co-dependent.  Material objects are crucial to stabilizing individual psychology, regulating social relationships, and transmitting cultural meaning.   The built environment is particularly important in transforming generic space into a lived place with which people can identify and to which they can commit.   James Brooks, writing about Glaeser’s book in the National League of Cities blog, pretty much nails the anthropological view:

Certainly the factor of human collaboration is the powerful value of the city.  Ideas and energy swirl among people in a dense urban space fostering miracles of insight and innovation…But skills and creativity are portable.  The talented are footloose.  Therefore, what qualities of urban life bind creative and talented people to a particular place?  Assuming it’s relatively simple to learn what people want, the next logical question for policy makers is to ask how do you build, rebuild or improve one particular place in order to hang on to the talented people?  Put another way, how do you build and sustain a community that people want to remain in rather than drive through?  No two things on earth are exactly equal.  Not people, nor plants, nor sunsets nor least of all cities.  The city as an institution may have several features that transfer across time and place, but the individual cities themselves are as unique as snowflakes.  In that uniqueness lies the power of place [emphasis in original].

Interestingly, Rybczynski also understands that a good urban planning project must “quickly establish that elusive quality, a sense of place [emphasis in the original].”  And, he understands that drawing on local context and history is important in creating that sense of place.  Today’s challenge to urban architects, planners and developers is to keep both in mind; to attend to both historical and environmental context in creating not icons but rather settings akin to those that we admire in Paris, London, and other great world cities.  Such sensitivity is still in short supply in Denver and may explain why the official selection of Santiago Calatrava’s aesthetically pleasing and iconic bird-winged design for a new Denver International Airport terminal–a choice seemingly intended to signal Denver’s arrival as a global city if not an emerging aerotropolis–did not, for many locals, measure up to Curtis Fentress’s original terminal evoking (depending on your nostalgic sensibilities) either the Rocky Mountains or a Plains Indian teepee village.

Calatrava Design for new DIA Terminal

Jeppesen Terminal, DIA (by Fentress)

In short, “People or Place?” is the wrong question, and an unhelpful dichotomy.  A high density of people alone is not likely to produce the requisite social capital for generating a successful city.  Indeed, recent research suggests that social capital can also be produced by walkable neighborhoods.  In either case, as Brooks suggests, you still have to find ways to materially “bind” people to place.  To give materiality its due is not to embrace a crude architectural determinism, something that Ken Archer worries about in a very interesting and provocative piece on Big Tent Urbanism (where he also throws in with the advocates of people-centered planning).  Rather, it’s to embrace a theory of people-place co-dependence.  An intercultural perspective on place and built environment that’s informed by a deeper understanding of the great cosmopolitan cities of past and present offers one guide for such a project.

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Researching Urban Hydro-Sustainability

I’m fortunate to be part of a transdisciplinary research collaborative that’s just received a $10,000 Institute for Enterprise Ethics grant from the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business for a project entitled “Front Range Urbanism and Hydro-Sustainability.”  It has long been recognized that the key variable affecting the quality of Colorado Front Range urban life and growth is water. Accordingly, any city-building enterprise in the region must be informed by a sustainability ethic that centers on water.   Our research topic is the water conservation values, policies, strategies and technologies that have been identified by Front Range planners and developers as important for guiding urban growth in the region. We will evaluate the efficacy of current and recommended water utilization policies and practices for supporting sustainable urbanism along the Front Range.

Colorado Front Range near Louisville, north of Denver

The proposal was stimulated by a series of investigative reports, op-ed pieces, and reader letters that appeared in The Denver Post debating the recently approved development of Sterling Ranch, a community planned for the Chatfield Basin south of Denver.   Organized as a clustered arrangement of 7 “urban villages”, Sterling Ranch would contain over 12,000 homes and 31,000 people over a 20+ year horizon.  It is estimated that the project will generate over 9,000 permanent jobs.  Although promoted as a model of high density development having a progressive and praiseworthy water conservation plan, Sterling Ranch has nonetheless raised serious questions about where such planned communities will get their water and whether their water usage will be sustainable over the long haul.

Our research will seek specific answers to these and other questions about the hydro-sustainability of planned community developments along the Front Range.   The framing questions of the research include:

  • How much reliable water is available to planned suburban and exurban development? What are its sources?
  • What projections exist for required housing stock and non-residential construction over the next 5-10 years?  One high growth area in Colorado Springs is expected to be military housing. What other high growth areas are predicted for Front Range cities?
  • How likely is it that current and projected construction can be supported given the water that’s available?
  • What water conservation and storage methods hold out the most promise for sustaining urban growth into the future?
  • How might cultural variables complicate planning for Front Range suburban and exurban water use?

We will use our findings about current and projected water capacities and utilization, and our evaluation of proposed water conservation values, methods and techniques, to identify constraints on Front Range urban and suburban growth and project the future of urban hydro-sustainability in the area.  Will seek to publish our findings and recommendations in the Journal of Real Estate Sustainability.

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Interdisciplinarity in Urban Studies

Urban Studies is generally recognized as a textbook example of an interdisciplinary field of inquiry.  Contributors look to synthesize observations and insights from multiple disciplines including anthropology, geography, history, sociology and many others.  Such integrative work has the potential to produce new models, metaphors, concepts and heuristics for thinking about the city.   The field becomes “transdisciplinary” when urban studies scholars collaborate with colleagues in urban planning, architecture, real estate, and other professions to practically implement ideas in the interests of improving urban life.

A couple of recent articles in major journals ordinarily read by very different academic audiences indicate how much more is still to be done to build interdisciplinary collaborations in the field of urban studies.  In the June 23 issue of Nature Florian Lederbogen and colleagues at the University of Heidelberg report some research in cognitive neuroscience that begins to explain why city living is associated with a greater lifetime risk for anxiety and mood disorders compared to country living.  It is known that anxiety disorders for city dwellers are 21% higher, mood disorders are 39% higher, and schizophrenia twice as common.  The team’s brain imaging experiments correlated city living with greater stress responses in the amygdala, a region of the brain involved with emotional regulation and mood.  This region was only activated in the subjects who


were city dwellers.  The team suggests that their work points “…to a new empirical approach for integrating social sciences, neurosciences and public policy to respond to the major health challenge of urbanization.”  A Nature News account of the research notes that such integration has always been a hard sell for social scientists enculturated by their disciplines to believe that biology plays no role in human affairs.  Indeed, one urban design professional commenting on the research cautioned that “all cities are not the same” and that there is “great variation in types of urban environment” worldwide. Nonetheless he admitted that understanding the neurobiological impacts of different urban designs would be a great boon to his profession.

Global variation in city type is the starting point for the second article by Michael E. Smith, an anthropological archaeologist.  Writing in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal Smith suggests that archaeology, with its “deep time” perspective on human settlement, can be a major contributor to contemporary discussions of urbanism including debates around such hot button issues as sprawl, squatting, and sustainability. Archaeologists might even offer some generalizations about the relationship between urban form and quality of life that are relevant to public policy if they can be confident about the comparability of ancient and modern urban contexts.  For example, detailed mapping and excavation of the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan has revealed that architecturally distinctive “informal housing” was a significant feature of the cityscape.

Teotihuacan City Plan

Such housing fell outside the planning purview of central administrative elites and, thus, may indicate that the “right to the city” was taken-for-granted within this complex polity. Archaeology’s contributions to contemporary debates have heretofore been limited because archaeologists haven’t typically shown such an applied interest, nor developed concepts and models for studying the ancient city that would facilitate comparisons with modern cities.  At the same time Smith understands that it takes two to tango.   In a 2009 editorial in Urban Geography he noted that most urbanists are not aware of how an understanding of the ancient world can benefit the comparative study of city life (Edward Soja’s interest in the ancient Anatolian settlement of Catalhoyuk–arguably the first city in history–is one exception).

Although Smith and Lederbogen operate in very different academic domains they are united in calling for research to break down the artificial boundaries that divide disciplines.  Such research stands to enrich both disciplinary practice and public policy, and inevitably changes disciplinary practice itself.   This is what makes interdisciplinary work different from the various forms of multi- and cross- disciplinarity that far too often substitute for the former in most academic contexts.

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(Affordable) Housing and Urban Development

(A version of the following appeared in today’s Denver Post, co-authored with Kyle Cascioli).

In Colorado many of us think about access to affordable housing as a problem for resort workers in mountain towns.  Although it is a peculiarity of the current economic recession that homes are becoming more affordable for those who can qualify to buy them, today’s record number of foreclosures, sharply reduced personal income, rising rents, and high unemployment mean that good, affordable housing is beyond the reach of many Americans.

The Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) defines “affordable housing” as housing that costs no more than 30% of the resident’s monthly income for rent and utilities.  This is significant because so much of our economy is dependent on consumer spending.  When a family has to spend more on housing it has less disposable income to help drive our economic engine.

The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard reports that between 2001 and 2007 affordable housing stock fell 6.3 percent to 1.2 million units while affluent housing stock increased by nearly 100 percent.  The Center further reports that for every new affordable housing unit that is created two are lost to abandonment, waste, “condominiumization,” or expensive rental conversions.

The record compiled by HUD and other public agencies to fund construction of affordable housing in major metropolitan markets is not a happy one.  Last year The Dallas News broke a story about HUD-subsidized housing at the Ridgecrest Terrace Apartments that is disturbingly reminiscent of stories told by residents at some of public housing’s more celebrated failures like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis and Cabrini Green in Chicago.  At Ridgecrest tenants reported “a hellish swirl of drug activity, mold and mildew simply painted over, carpet so filthy it causes blackened feet and rashes, and water-leak stains on walls.”

Corridor, Pruitt-Igoe, St. Louis

What can be done to correct this historical tendency and help those in need of more affordable housing?  What are some possible solutions?

Because HUD defines affordable housing as housing whose cost does not exceed 30% of its resident’s income for rent and utilities, perhaps one solution is not to develop additional affordable housing stock but rather to find ways to make the current housing stock more affordable.  One strategy is to incentivize the private sector to develop new “co-housing” models like The Wild Sage Community in Boulder.  New private sector

Wild Sage Community, Boulder

mortgage financing instruments could also be developed to provide the necessary investor protections while expanding the qualified buyer pool of homeowners for affordable properties.  A combination of property tax abatements could be made available to both individuals and corporations that can demonstrate that they have reduced their rents to below market rates. Ensuring access to rent-controlled housing for those who need it most is another strategy.  In our larger cities rent controls have existed for decades but rent-controlled units are far too rarely leased by people of modest means.

The current affordable housing crisis presents not only a challenge but also an opportunity.  This is to use existing resources and common sense strategies to solve a longstanding urban development problem that, if left unaddressed, will only serve to prolong our economic woes.

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The University and The City

The University of Denver promises, in its vision statement, to be “a great private university dedicated to the public good.”  In 2006 a campus conference about the university’s relationship to the city provided an opportunity to explore ways that DU can partner with city government to address significant urban problems. At the time local columnists worried about the loss of large and mid-sized employers in the city center, the growing number of poor students in a public school system characterized by aging infrastructure, and the migration of middle-class families to the suburbs.

The conference proceedings didn’t disappoint.  Presentations by city officials in the areas of public safety, education, and business development suggested numerous possibilities for student service learning and collaborative, community-engaged research.  Civic commitments to historic preservation, sustainability, and social justice were also on display. All of this nicely dovetails with DU’s educational mission.

I listened to the speakers as a Denverite keenly interested in the life and future of the American city.  Many of DU’s professional schools, research centers, and institutes are well-positioned to tackle problems around urban education, land use, transportation and environment.  Much less tractable is the challenge of integrating new immigrants and other culturally diverse groups into an intercultural whole that has a shared commitment to city-building.   Several conference presenters expressed optimism that Denver is up to the task given what they see as our city’s long history of civic determination and cultural inclusiveness.  In one of the few moments that elicited spontaneous applause from the audience–given a wider debate percolating in American society at the time–one presenter described immigration to the city as an “asset” rather than a problem.

Downtown Denver, viewed from DU's Penrose Library

I wonder, however, whether such claims are actually reflected in practice, some successes in other areas of civic life notwithstanding.  Five years later Denver is still experiencing many of the same problems as other American cities: gentrification, middle-class flight to exurbs, and deepening divisions between rich and poor in urban core and suburb alike.  One strategy that’s emerged worldwide for revitalizing life in city centers is building for cultural tourism, but this has opened up other debates about the accessibility of revitalized spaces for minority populations.  These debates are happening here Denver, inspired by such developments as completion of the Hamilton wing of the Denver Art Museum, proposals to rehabilitate the Civic Center and Union Station areas, and the continuing maturation of Denver’s widely-touted New Urban experiments in sustainable living.

The key question is whether these developments will produce a more culturally-inclusive city or simply reproduce old patterns of exclusion in new forms.  Will investments in Denver’s pedestrian plazas and malls, recreation centers, libraries and museums, and its many public parks encourage use by a variety of groups?  Will redesigned public spaces enhance democratic interactions on the street and help create a common civic purpose that transcends loyalty to the local professional football team?  How might other spaces and cultural institutions be designed and located so as to serve the common good?   These and other questions require serious engagement with a variety of traditional liberal arts disciplines—fields much maligned by parents and pundits these days for having little practical relevance—such as anthropology, art, foreign languages, geography, history, human communication, and religious studies.

In recent years DU has nicely burnished its reputation as an institution that serves the public good.  In 2006 an Economic Futures Panel evaluated the ability of Colorado’s state and local governments to develop and sustain public investments appropriate to the state’s long-term financial well-being.  Strategic Issues Programs in 2007 and 2009 examined the hot-button topics of water use and immigration reform.   In 2010 DU opened a new Center for World Languages and Cultures.  The DU faculty have just approved a new academic minor in Intercultural Global Studies aimed at better understanding the cultural similarities and differences among diverse groups living in the United States.  What if we now imagine the formation of a Colorado Cultural Futures Panel to examine intercultural relationships and sustainability in the context of the myriad challenges facing great—and wannabe great—American cities?  It’s a proposal worth considering if we want to cultivate more and better partnerships between the city of Denver and its institutions of higher learning.

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