Friday, February 7, 2014

Modernism Revisited, Was Jane Jacobs Right?

I recently had an opportunity to view the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which I touched upon earlier in this blog. In this film, many residents of the infamous public housing development reflect upon the time they lived there, the community that existed, and it's ultimate undoing.

The residents interviewed for the film, some who had lived in the development since the beginning, others who moved in during its period of decline, all noted that throughout the lifetime of Pruitt-Igoe, a strong community developed, first based on the joy and pride that came from living in such a new, modern place, and later as a counter to the decline of the complex and its neglect by local, state, and federal housing officials.  

The documentary notes that what caused the ultimate undoing of the development, a post-industrial city with a declining population, miscalculations of growth, and policy, both formal and informal that maintained the racial segregation of St. Louis's housing stock, keeping African Americans from entry-level jobs, had little to do with the modernist movement, architectural features of the buildings (or lack thereof), or the quality of the community created within them.  

Jane Jacobs, in her landmark Death and Life of Great American Cities notes that housing developments such as these will inherently fail due to their architectural characteristics, such as massive scale, large open spaces with little use, and lack of economic diversity or mixed uses. However, from this documentary it is apparent that such a community did develop, and that, for a time, it was able to benefit and look after the residents of Pruitt Igoe.

Ultimately, the downfall of this community, and the housing complex, was caused by insufficient maintenance, a shrinking population, and a bureaucracy that ultimately was apathetic to such problems as they affected many similar public housing units around the country. In other words, the massive resources that a public housing development of this scale needed to succeed were not available.

In this sense, the point Jacobs makes is that development or refurbishment is most efficient and useful if it occurs in forms already recognized in the neighborhood it is located in, as this development can be supported by existing infrastructure, with existing means. In order to work properly, modernist public housing on a large scale would require massive amounts of continued funding, which would likely be unsustainable.  

Jacobs notes this, and tells the reader that when the word “project” is used to describe such a development, it conjures very specific things, namely that the development, and those who live in it, are fundamentally different than their surroundings. Death and Life of Great American Cities describes in detail how cities can be revitalized by using their intrinsic characteristics, a much less intrusive practice than the modernist approach, and one that is ultimately more sustainable.

In this way, the film's claim that Pruitt Igoe should not be used as an example of modernist failings is somewhat inaccurate. Pruitt Igoe demonstrated that the modernist approach would work as long as large sums of money were provided over the lifespan of modernist developments. The political reality prevented (and continues to prevent) such sums of money being spent on public housing, necessitating a more efficient approach.

It can be argued that Jacobs approach to housing is more practical because it uses the intrinsic features of an urban environment to promote social and economic growth. This prevents unnecessary sums of money being spent on imposing “order” on an “chaotic mess”to use descriptions common amongst modern architects and correcting what is actually a non-problem.  

This is the core reason that large scale public housing complexes such as Pruitt-Igoe should not be repeated, they are the hallmark of construction for construction's sake, and only work if continuously supplied with funding.

Monday, August 19, 2013

On Detroit

The bankruptcy of Detroit has sent a shock wave through the economic community and has caused much discussion about the continued provision of pensions and other "entitlements" by municipal governments. Such discussions follow the popular debate about public sector unions, but fail to take into account elementary knowledge of planning and economic efficiency. Detroit's development went against several guidelines noted primarily in Jane Jacobs' The Economy of Cities which describe how cities grow, develop, and adapt to change. Ironically, this book used Detroit as an example of how cities should develop sustainably.

1: Lack of Economic Diversity
Detroit was developed as an industrial city, and for many decades that industry and its exports were widely varied, from ship building to agricultural and industrial machinery to tools to automobiles. Jane Jacobs takes note of this and describes that a city must have diversity in its economy in order for it to adapt to change. During the second half of the 20th century, Detroit's industry began to converge on one product, automobiles. This was well and good for the brief period before automation of assembly lines and competition from foreign manufacturers. This quickly changed, as assembly lines started to automate, less manpower was required to operate factories, and legions of workers were let go. In addition, as manufacturers such as Honda and Toyota came into the American market, offering what was widely perceived to be a superior product, the demand for domestic automobiles started to decline. The fact that Detroit's main export was automobiles meant that factory workers who were laid off had few employment alternatives.

2: Sprawl
Detroit's horizontal growth (attributable in no small part to it's main export) exponentially increased the amount of money that needed to be spent to provide public services to its residents. More police and firefighters were needed to cover more land, more schools had to be built and more teachers and staff hired to operate them, more hospitals and clinics needed to be built, and more roads needed to be maintained. This not only required the city spending money to build and maintain public structures and hire people necessary to operate them, but also required private residents to pay higher taxes to maintain those services, spend more on transportation, living, and healthcare. The city is now unable to maintain this infrastructure, and vacant houses have been torn down in droves.

3: Corruption
Despite the fact that the monetary losses from the city pale in comparison to its debt, this is a major consideration. Detroit is famous for its corrupt city officials. It's mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, has been investigated multiple times by the federal government and accused of laundering money through a variety of front companies. In addition, many current and former council members have been charged with corruption. Clearly, the city's politicians are not motivated to solve problems such as economic resiliency, poverty, and crime.

In order for a city to be sustainable, it must be economically resilient. Detroit did not plan for this (perhaps due to the fact that the interests of its politicians were elsewhere) and, predictably, failed. Cities must insure adequate economic diversity for continued survival and the well being of their residents.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Design Fixation and The City

One development that's undergone much recent study in the field of engineering is the concept of design fixation, the reluctance of a designer to innovate due to their unquestioned adherence to existing ideas or due to the influence of previous designs upon them.

According to a study published by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), design fixation is often subliminal, and occurring regardless of what instructions are provided to the designer. This often results in a flawed design being, in a large part, copied, despite the designer being told specifically that it is flawed.  

This concept is beginning to manifest itself in several interesting ways in regards to city planning. One of the most apparent is the idea that in order to be competitive and economically resilient, a city should strive on attracting a "creative class" of young professionals, something which recent research shows might not actually work, as opposed to trying to develop one by increasing the quality of education, public services, or low income housing.

Another way is by cities directly copying aspects of comprehensive plans from other cities without optimization or the understanding of why they were originally developed. A good example of this is the implementation of form-based zoning codes aimed at promoting pedestrian friendliness and mixed uses. This is often seen when cities do not provide a reason or direction for their codes, and implement them over large areas of land instead of applying them to specific neighborhoods.

A good example of this is "new urbanist" suburbs which are composed of rowhouses on a grid plan, but do not exist in a larger context. They must still be accessed by car, and still have minimal connectivity to adjacent roads.  

One of the major flaws of the urban renewal program in the 1950s and 1960s was that it tried to apply standardized solutions to a variety of problems across a variety of cities, itself an expression of design fixation. This approach paid no attention to the peculiarities of the urban environment.

Jane Jacobs discussed several flaws with this approach, most notably, the fact that the design of these developments run counter to the way the street level is actually used by a city's inhabitants. She also noted that the interactions that take place among the residents of a city play a large part in keeping it safe, interesting, and economically competitive. Most importantly, she noted that each city has its own peculiarities which influence these interactions. The peculiarities of one city are different than those of another, and thus a planning solution to a particular problem may work in one city, but not in another.

In order to make a substantial effort at addressing the variety of urban problems that face us, such as poverty, crime, and abandonment, the reasons for them, demographic patters, investment and development rates, policing strategies, and travel patterns, must be thoroughly examined and well understood. In this way, each city is unique. A problem that is fundamentally different in two locations cannot be solved with the same solution.

This is what keeps urban design interesting, and I dare say, what makes it fun.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Urban Living and The Second Suburban Sprawl

A large percentage of new housing units constructed as part of downtown revitalization cater to a two specific groups of people: older "empty nesters" who live alone and do not want to drive, and young professionals, who are often single and want to be near active and "trendy" neighborhoods. A common element in both these groups is that they do not have children, and thus neighborhoods designed to attract them do not cater to the needs of children by providing amenities such as schools, libraries, and playgrounds.  

Because of this, it is likely that many young professionals will move out of cities and back to suburbs should they decide to start families. This will cause yet another round of suburban sprawl and possibly a second wave of urban decay.

In order to lessen the effects of this or prevent it altogether, urban space must be designed and purposed in a way that is inclusive to the needs of current and future residents of all age groups. In some cases, this will result in tradeoffs where a city has to decide whether to allocate resources to schools and public or affordable housing or amenities designed to attract younger residents and tourists to cities.

Despite these tradeoffs, an inclusive built environment has the potential to draw a previously unconsidered demographic to cities, families that live in the suburbs simply because these are the only areas that currently cater to their needs. Making cities attractive for these groups will not only work to reduce suburban sprawl but will also extend the economic and social benefits of urban life to as many people as possible.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Mass Shootings and Suburbanization

Whenever a mass shooting occurs, public opinion focuses on one of three things: guns, video games, or mental illness. Where and how we live, a prominent aspect of our culture, is rarely discussed in relation to increasing violent tendencies.

Most mass shootings have occurred in suburbs or small towns, not in cities. This includes the Virginia Tech shooting, Columbine High School, and most recently, Newtown, CT. A recent study by the Brookings Institute showed that as the crime rate for inner cities is decreasing, the crime rate for suburban areas is increasing.  

Likewise, poverty is shifting from the inner cities to the suburbs. This is due to both the special severity of the financial crisis in account of the pervasiveness of mortgages, and the fact that suburban living is highly decentralized and infrastructure intensive, and thus has higher living costs.

The ways suburbs are planned and built runs contrary to the ways the built environment is intended to work for people. Jane Jacobs notes how shared and varied land uses promote use of outdoor space and socialization with other users of that space. This goes for adults as well as children, as she notes that when children play on sidewalks or in alleys they are indirectly protected by public surveillance of the streets.

This is a process that is not allowed to occur in suburbs chiefly because land is segregated by use. There is no incentive for those who live in residential neighborhoods to survey their streets because nothing of interest is taking place on them. Likewise, residents of suburbs are also less likely to use sidewalks on their streets because of the lack of destinations reachable on foot and the fact that fences have been erected around yards, prohibiting residents from interacting with each other via streets.

In addition to this, a growing amount of research is being done on the mental health effects of pollution and traffic congestion. An article in the Wall Street Journal notes that research has found possible links between air pollution and Altzheimer's, Parkinson's, and Autism, as well as increased levels of stress. Traffic congestion has also been linked to increases in stress.  

This stress, combined with the few opportunities for socialization provided by suburban life and the easy access to weapons in American society no doubt contribute to our high rates of gun violence and mass shootings. If mass shootings are a problem we wish to address responsibly and permanently, we need to look at the way we live and how it shapes us.

Monday, October 29, 2012

An Evaluation of Moving to Opportunity

The subject of this post is a 2001 study by Mark Shroder which explores the results of the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program. The program is an experimental implementation of Chicago's Gautreaux Project on a national scale.

The intent of the Gautreaux Project was to allow families living in low income neighborhoods and public housing developments to relocate to higher income neighborhoods in an attempt to better their socioeconomic status. This was initiated after the 1966 court case Dorothy Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority ordered the Chicago Housing Authority to take steps to end segregation in public housing.

This project involved moving participating low income residents from inner-city areas to suburban areas, where neighborhood economic status and school quality were by nature higher because of the presence of higher income individuals and families.

The project found that the group that was relocated had an increased rate of employment and that the children of those that relocated had an increased percentage of high school graduation than those who did not.

MTO has been designed to further explore these findings, and established three classes of participants. A control group that received no housing assistance, a Section 8 comparison group, and a group which received special Section 8 vouchers usable only in areas with a poverty rate of less than 10%. Several cities were included in this experiment, thus eliminating any geographical bias to the results.

In all of these groups, the majority of subjects were African American. Less than 40% of total subjects were employed.

The study noted that most of the applicants had been, or had friends or relatives who had been, victims of crime and that this was their reason for applying to the program. Other reasons included the desire of better schools for children and for larger residences.

Because of these desires, it can be said that the group "self selected", in that those who expressed a desire to leave immediately took advantage of the program, making it difficult to study the effects of MTO on group dynamics and social networks.  

The study also noted that participants were widely dispersed once moved, pointing out that simply re-concentrating poverty in different areas would not solve any problems. It also detailed how not all of the families with the option to move to other areas did so.

Shroder's work then gives summaries of other studies done on the MTO program and attempts to make generalizations from those.

A study by Katz, Kling, and Liebman found that those who relocated felt safer, noticed less neighborhood drug use, had fewer domestic issues, and described themselves as increasingly healthy. This study did not examine poverty or employment.

A study by Ludwig, Duncan, and Pinkston found that those who had relocated were slightly less dependent on welfare than those who did not.
Finally, a study by Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn found that those who relocated had decreased instances of depression and anxiety, and that parenting skills had improved significantly.

Shroder notes that more studies will be needed to determine the effectiveness of the MTO program, but states that the initial research looks promising.

While MTO does seem at least initially to be successful, it comes at the price of disrupting the existing social networks between residents of public housing. Instead of moving low income residents out of a community, higher income residents should be moved in to under-occupied residences. These would allow existing social networks to be strengthened instead of being removed.

Lower income residents also have a stronger attachment to their residences than higher income individuals, as they have fewer options for replacement housing should they be forced to leave.

While Moving to Opportunity was successful at reducing individual poverty, it did little to help poor neighborhoods. This is something that needs to be examined closely, as strong neighborhoods are what allow social networks to develop and for information about job opportunities, educational opportunities, and political organization to be disseminated.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Revitalized Neighborhoods, Social Environments, and Education

A study by Claire Smrekar and Lydia Bentley focuses on the social environments of affordable and public housing as they relate to schools, with both HOPE VI and Section 8 programs being examined.

HOPE VI is the newest generation of public housing policy aimed at meshing public housing with local context. It consists of mixed income housing communities in an attempt to prevent concentrated poverty and to develop community resources, including schools. HOPE VI requires a detailed plan of improvements that will be made to schools adjacent to or within HOPE VI communities, and school performance is directly linked to economic development within a community.

Section 8, on the other hand, focuses only on the housing aspect of a community. The program provides vouchers to residents living in public housing so that they may choose their residence from any number of places with the voucher covering some or all of their rent.

Urban poverty is often seen as a cyclical problem in that poverty and crime are highly correlated, crime discourages investment, which further increases poverty within a neighborhood. The crime created by this can make public space unsafe and preclude the development of social networks, as I noted in my last post, a discussion of David Kennedy's Don't Shoot.

The research notes that the social environment of a community can have a large effect on parenting techniques, which, in turn, can have an extraordinarily large effect on a child's educational motivation. They relate this to the development of social capital within a neighborhood, and note that strong communities with civic organization, youth groups, and churches often contain strong social networks. These social networks serve as couriers of employment or educational opportunities, community news and gatherings, and information about community services.

The study notes that two similar programs, the Gautreaux Project in Chicago, and the Moving to Opportunity Program, on a national level, have tested this theory. The two programs had opposite results. When Gautreaux was implemented, it was shown that the quality of live for residents, especially that of children, improved. However, when Moving to Opportunity was put into place, significantly less quality of live improvement was shown, and almost no educational improvement in children was noticed.

The study examines the Section 8 community first, three out of eight parents who lived in the community noted that they were unemployed, and the average occupancy time was noted to be two years.

Residents noted that the move in process was smooth, but that maintenance services were often unresponsive (sometimes, to the point of enticing residents to move), and that crime was perceived as high. Interestingly, all residents noted that the areas of the community they lived in were safer, and that other parts of the community were the areas with the crime problem. Despite the fact that the physical size of the neighborhood was not excessive, a social gulf was perceived to exist between residents. Many residents thought that the nearby HOPE VI community was safer and quieter.

In the HOPE VI community all residents were employed, and the average occupancy time was noted to be three years. Employment is a condition for living in a HOPE VI community, as the study notes, as are education and a clean criminal record.

Residents of this community noted that there was a set of regulations put in place to prevent dependence and to insure community well being. These involved such things as inspections, removal from the community for nonpayment of utilities, and requiring residents to pay maintenance fees for tasks they could have accomplished themselves. 

The study notes that the HOPE VI community was more personal and empathetic throughout the housing application process and while connecting residents with social services.

The HOPE VI community was perceived by all margins as extremely safe, with all residents allowing children to play outside (some with supervision, however), and several residents being unafraid to go outdoors after dark. Many residents noted that the social network within the community was key to providing most of this safety.

While many residents of the HOPE VI community did not discuss development of close relations with neighbors, it was noted that the level of social interaction was significantly higher than in the Section 8 neighborhood, and community events were organized to promote this.

Overall, the study notes that HOPE VI communities have higher social networking potential over Section 8 communities, and that these social ties generated a stronger community which could work more effectively for the benefit of its residents. However, correlations between this community development and the strength of the nearby school were not directly measured, for undisclosed reasons.