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A Long-Range Vision for Cities, and for Preservation  

12-09-2015 17:35

I am honored to accept invitations from the National Trust because those of us involved in New Urbanism owe you greatly in our own endeavors. We are certainly in your debt, not only as an allied institution, but -- and I want to emphasize this -- in what preservationists bring to communities. Whenever we come to help a town or city that needs expansion or revitalization, there is a substantial public process with participants who have a lot to say. In fact, they’re almost always the determinants of whether the plan goes forward well. And the vast majority of those who help are preservationists.

When we arrive to work with a city, I am the least expert person. Everybody else knows more about the city than we do. It’s a very peculiar situation, to come from the outside as an advisor. Study as you might, take advice as much as you might, you’re never as expert as those who live in the city. What emerges in these public processes, are people who have been thinking deeply about what is to be done. And ironically, they also think how impossible it is to get things done, because they know too much. They know the details.

So what can I contribute when I come into a place where everyone else is an expert? Rather than pursuing expertise in the sense of becoming like the citizens, I’ve found that I can contribute two things that are not normally engaged in their mindset: a conception of time and a conception of scale.

Time: The Need for a Long-Range View

After many years of being an architect and an urbanist, I’ve finally figured out the difference between the two disciplines. The first conception was to think that for an urbanist, the issues are more complicated because the scale involved is larger. It’s architecture writ large. In fact, I have found that not to be the case. There are, after all, some very, very large architectural projects. There are huge housing schemes being laid out at one time designed by a single hand. There are enormous campuses, like the Getty, and huge shopping malls. It is said that they are urbanism, but the ones designed by a single architect are, in fact, simply large architectural projects.

The categorical difference between urbanism and architecture is the factor of time. Regardless of how large an architectural project is, the scope of its creation -- from design to construction to implementation in every sense -- is between two and five years. You must convince people, you must get it done, and probably you must photograph it before it changes in some way, within two to five years. The reality of the market, the budget, and the client are all constrained by that short time frame.

The reality of urbanism is between 20 and 100 years. There is very little that is possible unless we take the long-range view. It is very difficult to get anything done unless you see past the present.

Let me give you two examples: Florida’s Seaside and Cleveland, where we meet today.

When we first arrived at the Florida Panhandle in 1980, the only value of that shoreline was the strip on the beach, which was sold as townhouses and condominiums. Nothing behind it was valuable. The only things that were on the market at the time were relatively cheap condominiums selling “ocean view.” That was the only reality in 1980.

Now, because Robert Davis, our client, owned land in depth, he had to make all the land valuable, not just the frontal strip, we had to conceive of a plan that the site as a whole was not just an attachment to the beach. There had to be other things that made it worthwhile to live at Seaside.

In 1980 no market analysis would tell you that such a thing was possible. And it was even more difficult to conceive of the plan as a town. How can you even think of anything other than marketing condos on the beach? And yet when we designed Seaside, we reserved a site for a rather large chapel; we reserved a site for an elementary school; we reserved sites for a clubhouse and a concert hall; we reserved many sites for a downtown of four-story mixed-use buildings with shops on the first floor, living above; we even reserved sites for a cemetery as well as houses. Over time they all became real. Over time the citizens moved in. They became proud of their community. They wished to improve their quality of life. They wished to ornament their lives. And they themselves raised the money to build a beautiful chapel. They’re now raising $10 million to build the concert hall. And they lobbied to bring in their public school.

Now, this happened because we knew that over time everything is possible. There is nothing unusual about time as a factor. Look at the people who laid out cities like Cleveland. Look at the early lithographs of Cleveland, 200 years ago, 150 years ago. You see something akin to a shanty town. You see shacks without windows. You see pigs in the street. You see mud in their streets. There was no sewer. And yet we know very well that, although the buildings were akin to shanties, the initial conception was that it was to become a city. The road grid was laid out; the widths were large. And duly, 100 years later came the infrastructure that permitted the large and glorious buildings that you now have in Cleveland. This happened because they took time into account. This is the kind of vision that permits cities to occur. Vision is, in fact, possible only when you take time into account.

Another reason that time, as an ingredient is so important: People are experts in what cannot happen. They will tell you that the crucial building, which stops the project, is “owned by a misanthrope living in Florida.” And my response is, is there any evidence that he’s immortal? Because if there isn’t, then we can go ahead and plan for the generational transition. This happens even more often with entrenched regulators, such as zoning administrators or public works chiefs.

And then a curious thing happens when you see past the people who are preventing things: For the first time, a vision is permitted to be created that is of sufficient standing, of sufficient greatness, that these very same people who said “no” before, actually join. They’ll say, “Oh, so that’s what you mean to do. That’s interesting! Well, I guess I’ll sell my building.” Just to be permitted to think about the future is the crucial thing.

Why Preservation Needs to Look Forward

And how does this affect preservation? I believe that there’s a problem with the American preservation movement that was present at its birth. It was conceived very late -- about 150 years later than the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings in England. Why so late? Because the ethos of America used to be forward looking. We always knew that the future was to be better than the present; that the present was better than the past. And so willingly and uncritically we demolished and demolished in order to build places that were better and better. Remember the shantytown that became Cleveland! And the evidence really was that places do get better.

If you look at lithographs and photographs of Cleveland, first with shacks that then became brick houses, which then became glorious mansions, and then became the standard American five-tosix- story downtown, and then became glorious 1930s stone skyscrapers.

This rise to greatness was built on the demolition of the prior stage. There was no preservation movement because it was understood that there was a fair exchange value. It was understood that that which would be acquired would be at least as good as that which was taken away.

But in the 1950s and in the 1960s the evidence grew that this was no longer the case. I believe the key event was the demolition of Penn Station and its replacement by that aberration, that disgusting building. That was the last straw. And we as a culture concluded that we were trading downwards. And so we came to believe that we must preserve not only that which is of historic value, but anything that exists, knowing that it is better than that which will replace it.

That’s been my own experience with the preservation movement. I have seen single buildings of no value, architectural or historical, being fought for by preservationists because the proposed replacement is some kind of disgusting national chain drugstore.

Ultimately, in the very long run, thinking about time again, there will be less and less for us to preserve. Right now we’re engaging in the debate about Levittown. We’re engaged in a debate on preserving the earliest McDonald’s. I think those are of value. I think that the earliest glassand- steel office buildings are of value. But as you move into the ’60s and the ’70s, I guarantee you, there are no lenses so rosy that they will actually permit us to look at those McMansions and say that they are worth defending.

We are creating places that are not worth preserving under any circumstances. And as you look backwards, it is just as important that you look forward. If not you, who? Who else is, in fact, supervising the quality of what is being built? Who has the knowledge? Who has the goodwill? Who has the vast and mature organization to look over that which is being built but the National Trust?

Scale: The Need for a Regional View

It is crucial that preservationists begin to understand the protocols that are creating the present built environment, which is largely suburbia, and see the competitive disadvantage cities are in. Of course, the cities are more beautiful. Look at the glory of these buildings in Cleveland. Look at where the cultural institutions are located. Look at the prices of downtown real estate. Look at the advantage of existing infrastructure and the mature street trees and parks. Look at the tax breaks that are available. But then, why is development occurring out in open lands at a much faster rate than redevelopment in the city? Why are they building thousands of houses for every unit that is built downtown? Why does a shopkeeper willingly pay 10 times as much to be in a shopping mall than in a storefront downtown?

Preservationists, who want cities to be preserved as vitally functioning places, must understand the scale of the region and the competitive relationship between the city and the suburbs. Otherwise they will not understand why Euclid Avenue in Cleveland is still relatively empty, despite the excellence of the architecture and all the efforts to redevelop it. It is not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with Euclid Avenue; it is just that it extrinsically relates to what else is happening in the region.

Until the recent recession, nearly a million houses were built each year in this country in the greenfields. It is very, very difficult to stop this. We know it truly cannot be stopped because there is growth in the population and wealth that makes the generations no longer share households. Families, who would have lived together, now live apart. So there’s a tremendous multiplication of households, and statistically some regions must continue losing greenfields.

I don’t think anybody here should or can stop this constant exchange. Exchange is life. The problem that we have in suburbia is that the exchange value is downwards. Even the rawest potato field is more desirable than a strip shopping center. It’s a downward trade despite the fact that the shops in that strip shopping center must be provided somewhere. And preservationists, who have come to learn, painfully, about exchange value in buildings of the past, cannot fail to engage that issue of exchange value in the open space of the present.

Why Preservation Needs New Allies

To conclude, I would like to make a proposition. This organization is necessarily elsewhere, but it is constrained by its mission. You should not diffuse yourself more widely. You should concentrate on your job, but you do need an allied organization that will engage the preservation of the countryside and the building a future worth preserving.

Now, most environmental organizations have an ethos different from yours in the sense that many of them -- and I’m not criticizing them because they are very effective -- are staffed by overgrown and not particularly well-behaved kids. Their effectiveness is their misbehavior. But there is one organization that is actually staffed by steady-eyed adults, and that’s the Nature Conservancy. And they also have the tremendous advantage that they look upon the landscape as shared by human habitation. They do not share the cataclysmic definition -- that nature is only wilderness and humans are always intruders.

Now, as I said, do not diffuse yourself. You do not need to take on environmental problems. Nor do you need to take on the building of the new communities; the Nature Conservancy and the New Urbanists are engaged in these endeavors. But we do desperately need each other for cross-education and to back each other in the many, many campaigns that must be fought, both locally and at a national level.

I also wonder whether at some point, to stimulate debate, you should consider a change of your name as a way to bring up the fundamental issue of the future. Is the National Trust for Historic Preservation the future? Is “historic” the correct word? Is this not limiting?

Now, you will probably decide not to alter your name. But to engage in a debate about fundamental issues by reconsidering that name and seeing where that takes you would be healthy. And nothing gives more vitality to an organization than the true exchange of ideas, both by internal debate and by external association with the two organizations I’ve proposed.

I’m proposing to you that the Congress of the New Urbanism owes you a lot, and I think we can offer a lot. I think that the Nature Conservancy would also be equally invigorating as an ally.

Publication Date: Winter 2003


Author(s):Andres Duany

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