New Urbanism and libraries

I am thinking a lot lately about the organization of our cities, and about the idea of New Urbanism. It is not hard to understand some of the concerns about new urbanism, and the worry that a blind devotion to aesthetics will subvert equitability and affordability. Even though popular culture is beginning to understand that the spaces in which we live need purposeful organization, it is difficult to move beyond emotional subjects such as zoning. We need to get over our reliance on cars, and embrace flexible, modern forms of public transportation. We also simultaneously need to wean ourselves from our waste culture while we embrace long-term building projects, reusable product packaging and hold large scale waste producers accountable.

“ON AVERAGE, each person in the U.S. throws out 4.5 pounds of trash a day. Over the last thirty years, the amount of rubbish the United States produces has doubled. Eighty percent of U.S. products are used once and then thrown away. And, unfortunately, this isn’t a problem that remains confined to U.S. borders: Today, the middle of the Pacific Ocean is six times more abundant with plastic waste than zooplankton.” (from Heather Rogers’ article The Conquest of Garbage)

Contrasts (downtown Seattle) uploaded to Flickr by A Boy and His Bike on March 29 2007

In 1956 Eisenhower signed into law the Federal-Aid Highway Act, more generally known as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways Act. The build up to this legislation was remarkably complex, and there was definitely a significant measure of desire for it from general American citizens. The social, economic and governmental effects of the highway were far different that the establishment of the railroads. Our cities and rural centers spread out at first like a drop of water in the middle of a toothpick star; by the sixties and seventies, the drop became a stream of water, and the toothpicks clung to the land chaotically like sediment.

Suburbs, as we conceive of them today, arguably began in the middle 19th century, in England and other industrial centers, where employees were isolated from cities by the nature of their work. They rose to prominence though in the middle to late 20th century, a post-war phenomenon encouraged by complex social agitation, but ultimately made possible by the growth of highways. Highways consumed public and private lands like starving termites, supported by Federal appropriation and continuing a process of grants and subsidies offering lands to big business that started with railroad networks. Post WWII is when suburbs became desirable for more affluent homeowners, and the urban centers so fetishized today started to lose their economic foundations.

Jane Jacobs had commented on this in 1954 — “The erosion of cities by automobiles proceeds as a kind of nibbling. Small nibbles at first but eventually hefty bites. A street is widened here, another is straightened there, a wide avenue is converted to one way flow and more land goes into parking. No one step in this process is in itself crucial but cumulatively the effect is enormous.”

Celebration, Florida uploaded by RiffRaff to Flickr on March 18 2006, creative commons

This is part of why Disney’s Celebration, Florida is so fascinating. It is a town build not from need or natural population accumulation through the endemic value of its natural resources. Celebration is a much hyped face of New Urbanism that has none of the underlying structures that keep communities stable. Instead it offers residents a quaint, walkable downtown with a library, post office, “town hall” (which actually houses offices for the homeowners association), and store fronts. Homes and stores open directly onto the sidewalk, and naturally they have a golf course and a soda jerk fountain.

What they do not have is native industry, social infrastructure or democratic government. The local school is owned and administered by Disney corporation, and the teachers are trained “in a teaching academy established in Celebration by Disney.” Their downtown has had a remarkable amount of turn-over since business is heavily reliant on tourism. Celebration is almost entirely dependent on Highway 192, the same road that services nearby Kissimmee and leads to Orlando, the prime location of employment for Celebration’s residents. A major necessity of urban downtowns is high population density, guaranteeing enough foot traffic to justify increasing urban business owners’ monthly rent. Disney could subsidize shop owners’ rents and still there is not enough business for many of them to stay.

I hope that New Urbanism does not become solely identified with corporate interests or with futurist nostalgia, which will only damage its reputation. New Urbanism has promise, and much of that promise comes through broad support of efficient, affordable centralized public transportation networks. Even more important is the value of keeping necessities such as construction, agriculture and water supplies local. An intriguing proposal for downtown NYC is for something called vertical farming.

Is this how farms will look in the future? (from BBC article)

“Professor Despommier lists many advantages of this revolutionary kind of agriculture. They include:

  • Year round crop production in a controlled environment
  • All produce would be organic as there would be no exposure to wild parasites and bugs
  • Elimination of environmentally damaging agricultural runoff
  • Food being produced locally to where it is consumed”

I hope for more creative and viable plans such as this one. It may sound nutty, but it is not unrealistic from either an engineering or agricultural perspective. Either way, to me it signals an attempt to encourage long-term sustainable urban planning and the more ideas the better. The number of urban dwellers will equal that of rural dwellers this year, the first time this has happened in human history. The more land made available outside cities for the natural growth of heritage and heirloom agricultural varietals the healthier our global ecosystem will be — cities simply need to start supplying their own food.

Anything that fosters pride in local community will be good for libraries as well, and will not only provide visibility for library programming but will make provision of library services easier. Just look at the work of the Project for Public Spaces website to see how positive effective planning can be. Or look to our southern neighbors in Bogotá, who sponsored the amazing International Seminar on Human Mobility in 2003.

Then there is the IDTP, whose mission is worth quoting in detail: “The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) was founded in 1985 to promote environmentally sustainable and equitable transportation policies and projects worldwide. ITDP was created by leading sustainable transport advocates in the U.S. to counteract promotion of the U.S. model of costly and environmentally damaging dependence on the private automobile in developing countries…Our programs include bus rapid transit, congestion pricing, pedestrianization, bicycle and pedestrian planning, brownfield revitalization, bicycle and cycle rickshaw modernization, the development of buyers’ cooperatives among independent bicycle dealers, and emerging work in health service delivery logistics. All of our projects are used to leverage additional resources from international development institutions, inspire these institutions to change their own priorities, encourage private sector participation, and encourage more participatory and transparent decision-making.”

In the meantime, perhaps librarians can step up the efforts to create joint-use facilities by integrating public and academic, public and school or public and museum libraries. These types of facilities are much more common outside of the United States, and offer so many benefits for 21st century communities. See this Donald E. Riggs article for basic considerations, and then check out this ALA bibliography for more in-depth study.  With digitization, libraries are able to work more effectively in tandem with disparate agencies in organizing, preserving and presenting the human record; the ability to tailor services to both individual and community needs through sophisticated content management systems is also improving.  Anything that enables us to serve larger populations, consolidate resources, and reduce eventual waste (in the form of subscriptions, energy use and land use) is a good thing.

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