A Journalistic View of Cities

Scott Page's picture

I was reading the New York Times Magazine special architecture issue a few weeks ago when something jumped out at me. On the intro page to the issue of the "Mega-Megalopolis" one of the by-line says "How does an architect plan for a city with no history? Or a city that just keeps growing?" Interesting questions particularly given the fact that to charge architects with the task of planning our cities is affording too much power to a profession that simply doesn't have it.

Nor do planners for that matter. I've made it no secret in this blog that cities are the product of thousands of decisions made by individuals, organizations, leaders, businesses among others. We have the opportunity to guide some of those decisions and make more informed choices but the days of Hausmann and Napoleon who transformed Paris in the span of a few decades are coming to a close. Yes, yes, I know that China and a handful of other places are building cities ridiculously fast today and I also know that starchitects are generally charged with the task of creating large master plans to guide this government-sponsored development. I think we also know how unique a situation that is. Architects are flocking to build in China and Dubai precisely because of this unique opportunity. Where else can you feel like Robert Moses or Albert Speer, able to shape a city in a single bound?

But what struck me most about the architecture issue is that the public's perspective on cities today is written primarily by architecture critics. Almost every major newspaper has an architecture critic whose responsibility it is to educate the public about design and stir debate about the built environment. Many of these critics are excellent journalists and thoughtful about their criticisms (and praise) of new buildings but are their columns the right forum for discussing the city of tomorrow? Frankly, what other choice do we have?

In Philadelphia (my hometown) and many other cities, planning has taken center stage after years of media dormancy. Residents are asking for more planning and fewer arbitrary decisions. They come to meetings armed with ideas and information about how to make our cities more livable. To capture this interest, the task of discussing planning has fallen to the only newspaper staff that seems to have any facility for it – the architecture critic. Some are better than others in thoughtfully discussing planning issues but in the end, they are writing about planning from the perspective of architecture. The result is that the city is often represented as a game-board for building. The task of discussing the other issues that face our cities from education to crime to greening are left to a panoply of other journalists.

I want the architecture critics to remain and write about architecture. I even embrace the good ones to continue discussing urban issues from that perspective. But what would it take to add a planning critic? That journalist would be responsible for criticizing recent plans but also highlighting the underappreciated things that happen in our neighborhoods which are all too often overshadowed by the body-bag style of reporting.

What's ironic about this is that the current identity of our profession was largely shaped by a journalist – Jane Jacobs. The Death Life of Great American Cities was read by planners and residents alike. She managed to capture not just issues about development but how cities function socially and economically.

Planetizen recognized that there was a dearth of media focused on planning early on and created this site to gather what was out there. New journals have emerged and The New York Times and other papers have written excellent articles about our cities. We also can't forget the blogoshpere which is growing in terms of planning-related stories. It seems the media gap is narrowing but more remains to be done and it needs to be done in a way that caters to non-professionals.

I remember one time on a trip to England I was taking a nap while the Teletubbies was on (highly recommended background noise for napping) but awoke when I heard a public-service announcement that went something like this – "Do you know what urban regeneration is? Do you know how it helps your neighborhood?" That's fantastic. I would love to see more attention paid to getting the youth aware of our cities and how they evolve. It seems there's a lot we can learn from other countries.

Scott Page is the founder of Interface Studio, a collaborative design office based in Philadelphia.



Public Awareness

I am sure this is not news, but judging from personal experience a majority of people outside planning or related fields don't even know that the profession exists let alone what it does. The scope of planning is so broad it is hard even for us to pin it down, but I agree that when possible, a planner should be employed to critique planning issues.

To get back to the idea of public awareness of planning and how the majority of cities evolve... while in Amsterdam I visited The Zuiderkerk and witnessed their permanent exhibition of the cities 2020 vision in the form of a 3-dimensional model. When I returned to the States I decided that we need to elevate urban planning and design to the level of art and architecture so I devote a great deal of my time trying to make that happen.

Great article Scott.

Very nice piece, thank you.

Very nice piece, thank you. I especially like what you said about cities being the "product of thousands of decisions made by individuals, organizations, leaders, [and] businesses among others." Cities grow organically. Even if a city is being built overnight, it doesn't then remain static - it continues to evolve.

I was terribly disappointed by the Times Magazine architecture issue, and am consistently unimpressed with the Times' treatment of architecture and planning. For one thing, I am frustrated that Mr Ouroussoff and other critics are so UNcritical. They seem never to question architects' intentions, or to look into the many impacts of their work on other people beyond an initial "wow" factor. And aside from your excellent point about planning journalism, I think that even architecture criticism should be much more than the equivalent of a movie or art exhibit review. We're talking about a structure that will affect us for years to come - not something that will come and go.

Even without delving into Planning with a capital "P," isn't architecture about more than metaphor or aesthetics? And shouldn't journalists do some digging - like interview the client, or talk to some people who will use or have used the building? There is such a drive to think of architecture as high art that we're losing sight of architecture as so much more than that. Can't a building be high art AND work? And if it is, doesn't that give architecture MORE status, not less? Why are architecture and architecture criticism becoming so limited in scope?

With regard to Mr Ouroussoff specifically, I have read two or three references of his to Jane Jacobs that make me wonder if he's actually read her work. (I was also horrified by the Times' decision to print his nasty and off-base piece upon her death - it was as if they hadn't had the courage to print it while she was alive.) He seems to think that she advocated for all cities to look like the West Village of the 1950s.

Mr Ouroussoff's treatment of Ms Jacobs continued in his recent piece in the Times Magazine, in which he was so eager to agree with Koolhaas and others that all the "rules" are out the window. Little does he know that the "rules" are about behavioral psychology, economics, anthropology, sociology, etc., etc. If we can't design an airplane without an understanding of gravity, how can we design buildings without understanding people?

Architecture cannot address city-building. A series of rooftops that look "as if they were cut from a single piece of crumpled fabric, giving the composition a haunting unity" looks great from the air or in Ms Hadid’s beautiful renderings. But aside from the fact that "haunting unity" is arguably a meaningless term, this effect does nothing - either for the functioning of a city, nor, even, in terms of design, from the perspective of someone walking down the street. This small sample of Ms Hadid's work is an example of how architects typically deal solely with building design, and not with an essential and often-overlooked element that does have a tremendous impact: human behavior. As William H. Whyte observed, people are drawn to other people. The world's great cities are great because they facilitate our social nature.

While starchitects delight in thinking that they can bend reality to their whims, there is a lot more to cities than "haunting unity." The quality of a city’s public realm will always shape that city. The public realm is physically comprised of the space between buildings in a city – the streets, square, and parks. But the public realm is also determined by the complementary economic and social interactions among people between those buildings; this is about much more than the design of individual buildings. The public realm is what we pass through to get from one place to another, and where we shop, wander, socialize, do business, and hundreds of other things. A city’s public realm is, in essence, its living room.

What we remember after visiting a city – good or bad – is its streets, parks, and other spaces. What would Paris be without its tree-lined boulevards? Seattle without Pike Place? Or Savannah without its squares? I would never suggest transplanting these in China or the UAE – a public space in Dubai functions very differently from a public space in New York, because in each case the economy, the climate, and several other factors come into play. (Regarding climate, a souk, incidentally, is more than just a hackneyed design concept, contrary to Koolhaas' perception - of course, it does become hackneyed the minute you think of creating a souk solely as a design, and do not allow for it to develop organically. Souks are a wonderful response to a hot climate, and they can also can be incredibly dynamic spaces in economic and social terms.) But I have no doubt that emerging cities throughout the world have the potential to ensure their economic and environmental sustainability by focusing on “the street” – not just on buildings.

Just because a city is being built quickly doesn't mean that some fundamental tenets can be ignored. As we all know, Brasilia was supposed to rewrite the "rules," and it was planned as an over-simplistic, conceptual piece to look like an airplane, with various functions separated from each other. Do we think of Brasilia today as a success?

Architecture critics - and the new planning journalists that you propose - can write much richer and more relevant articles by recognizing that the power of architecture and the real nature of cities go far beyond "compositions" characterized by "a haunting unity."

Bill Fulton in California is a planner/journalist

Here in Southern California we have an excellent example of a planner/journalist in the case of Bill Fulton. But if you read his work you may be disappointed in what you are looking for. A planner/journalist, in my experience may end up more interested in the political machinations, and economic processes of government actors and large developers, rather than the urban design components you are discussing.

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