The 'Modern' Genius of Traditional Urbanism

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By Michael Mehaffy

The data from the research is striking. In European city after city, per-capita rates of carbon emissions and other consumption of resources is dramatically lower than in other places. Yet the people who live in these places are hardly suffering from a lower standard of living. In fact, on many metrics of income as well as quality of life – health, longevity and other indicators – they are as good as, and often better than, places that use far more resources per capita.

So what's going on? We can readily see part of the story: urban Europeans tend to live in higher-density settlements, which means they use less energy to get around. On average, they live in smaller spaces, which require less energy to heat and cool. These places also have more opportunities for economies like district energy, which allow the re-use of waste heat.

But this only explains part of the story. It seems that people in these settlements also consume resources in a different pattern – and by doing so, they manage to get a lot more quality out of a lot less quantity. This does not seem to be a matter of national character, or government policy, or any of the other common explanations for these kinds of variations. It seems more related to the particular way that spaces are connected within these cities.

This spatial pattern of connections was a topic of keen interest to the great urban scholar Jane Jacobs. She asked what, if anything, that pattern had to do with the economic vitality of cities. She hypothesized that cities do, through their network of proximities, allow "spillovers" of knowledge and ideas, which in turn create powerful economic synergies. Today these "Jacobs spillovers" are an active area of research in economics.

It seems very likely that something similar occurs with resources: thanks to the network of urban proximity, I can "spill over" the resources from one activity into another, and get multiple synergetic benefits. I take a walk, and along the way, detour for groceries, get some exercise, run into a friend, share an idea, and even help to keep the street safe by my presence. If I were living in more fragmented, "drive through" urbanism, those activities might require separate trips to the grocery, gym, your house – and perhaps even a bit of money to pay for private security.

Note that these synergetic benefits are only possible when we use space in a particular way. Instead of neatly segregating space into zones of use, like "modern" planning has done, the various urban spaces are woven into a dense overlapping network of connections across many scales. The network has at its heart an intimate filigree of pedestrian pathways by which most people get around for most things (including walking to the transit stop, or even the car parking lot).

This network structure turns out to be a very complex system – and it doesn't stop with the main pedestrian routes: it connects up to larger scales (big parks and public spaces) and down to finer ones (porches, gardens, rooms of a house, even building details). At many scales it includes a series of room-like nodes that serve to define the space, and control our degree of privacy versus publicness (doors, gates, windows, blinds, etc). There are also implied rules (and sometimes formal ones) governing who is allowed to be in a space, and when.

This complex structure has a marvelous capacity to mediate our conflicts with one another, and help us to get the most out of our urban environment. As we walk around, we are informed by rich layers of information about the spaces and what they might hold for us, in details small and large: the colorful fruit at the vegetable stand, the grand entrance to the library, the cozy park bench sited in just the right place for people-watching.

Even more remarkably, the whole structure is evolving and self-organizing in time, adapting in response to user needs. Just as we can take a detour to grab some vegetables for dinner, or draw our blinds to control sunlight and privacy – so other parts of the system can organize from bottom-up agents, and gradually change the larger character of the system (e.g. many cafe owners can add tables, transforming a street). That's self-organization at work, and it happens in the short span of my detour, or the very long span of the growth of a city.

This is where traditional urbanism comes in – which in this sense is nothing other than the refinement and passing down of successful solutions to the age-old challenges of living well. Traditional urbanism conveys the patterns by which we may generate more of these rich layers of well-adapted connections, by creating and sharing a kind of "DNA of place."

So why aren't we promoting more traditional urbanism? Why don't we see a renaissance of this kind of high-quality, resource-conserving city-making? To put it simply but accurately, we have the wrong models, set up with all the wrong incentives. We have the wrong "operating system."

What's more, there is a lingering refusal by some influential architects to help change this situation – borne of a stubborn fixation on industrially styled objects, and hostility to the regeneration of effective traditional patterns, lest we be labeled "unimaginative." But this in itself may be the ultimate example of failed imagination.

The fact is, most of the models we have for urban structure (and "Modernist" design) are holdovers from a primitive industrial era when neat separation was king. In that thinking, there was no urban problem that couldn't be solved by separation. Overcrowding? Disperse to the countryside! Pollution from factories? Separate work from home! Pollution and danger from cars? Separate buildings from the street!

Unfortunately, we have devolved to a pattern of runaway sprawl, and now, runaway resource use. The ecological problems are inevitably becoming economic ones too.

In response, many Modernist architects have proposed that the old regime can be salvaged with new bolt-on "green" technologies. But that is just not going to work. We have to get past the ideology of separated object-buildings (of whatever style) and begin the regeneration of these tissues of urban connection.

And we will need to use the (adaptable) language of traditional forms, precisely because it has evolved to contain this generative, human-adaptive, self-organizing capacity. TB

Michael Mehaffy is the chair of the USA chapter ofINTBAU, and executive director of the Sustasis Foundation. He is a former resident of fantastic traditional cities in the UK, Norway and Italy.