Urbanism is for Everyone

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

Is it mid-March already?

I'm far overdue for announcing my departure from Planetizen, which happened at the tail end of 2011. It was a wonderful 3 ½ years at the helm, and I thank Chris Steins and Abhijeet Chavan for giving me the opportunity back in 2008 to steer this incomparable resource.

One of the most interesting aspects of editing Planetizen was the birds-eye view of urban planning and its internal debates. Planetizen's policy has always been to encourage commentary from all sides, including those deemed unpopular by the majority of the field. I admire this journalistic policy, and as I depart I feel the opportunity is ripe to loosen my tongue and add a few opinions of my own to matters of ongoing debate.

1.  Urbanism is for everyone.

I'll point the finger at Joel Kotkin for this one: he's in large part responsible for popularizing in the media the confused idea that the suburbs are at war with the cities. I won't go too deep, but Kotkin's definitions are flawed and out of date. It's easy to say everyone wants to live in the suburbs when you define the suburbs as everything smaller than a skyscraper.

Beyond the definitional confusion, the debate seems like a complete distraction from what is happening on the ground today, which as I see it, is an acceptance of the definition of good urbanism at all levels of density - city, small town or rural. Whatever you want to call it, practitioners are embracing walkability, mixing uses and creating quality places for people to come together. The decades-long rejection of the public realm in favor of convenient parking is mostly, finally over.

2.  Traditionalists need to get over themselves.

I'm going out on a limb on this one, because I have many friends in CNU that embrace the idea that traditional architecture and planning are the only tried-and-true way to build quality places. I understand the sentiment – there is a lot of crappy construction out there, and there are a handful of folks in academia who are too wound up in the esoterica of avant-garde architecture and design. But rejecting new ideas in architecture as a whole is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  You can preserve the basics of good urbanism that we all agree on and still create sexy buildings that are (heavens!) modern in style. David Baker + Partners in San Francisco, to name just one, is doing excellent contemporary, affordable designs that people love, and that are on-target urbanistically.

3.   Gentrification is the life cycle of a thriving city.

If a city is going to be healthy economically, there will always be neighborhoods that are revitalized and brought up from poverty, and populations will shift.  Some concerns about displacement are appropriate, and communities need to have the levers in place to help people stay in their communities and contribute to revitalization. But in some cities, anti-gentrification forces actually prevent economic development and urban vitality. Done properly, a rising tide can raise all, or at least most, ships. It would be a true shame, as we pull ourselves out of the economic recession of the last few years, if a small force of anti-gentrification advocates managed to prevent much-needed economic investment in underdeveloped urban communities, thus doing a disservice to those communities as they are left to wither.

Barbs and strong opinions welcome (I'm waiting for you, Dano).

Please make new managing editor Jonathan Nettler feel welcome.  I've met with him a few times since he took the reins, and I feel like Planetizen is in very capable hands.

I'm also pleased to report that I'm working now for an exciting new venture with the ever-inspiring Carol Coletta called ArtPlace. ArtPlace is a collaboration of eleven of the nation's top foundations, eight federal agencies including the National Endowment for the Arts, and six of the nation's largest banks. The motivating theory behind ArtPlace is that art, culture and creativity create vibrancy and increases economic opportunity. That's a mission I can get behind.

I'll always be an "editor emeritus" of Planetizen, and will try to blog regularly.

After all these years, I still feel strongly that we, as urbanists, are one of the only fields that truly have holistic solutions for saving the world. Amid the debates and endless public meetings, we should celebrate that and always hold true to our knowledge and our ideals.

Tim Halbur is communications director for the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).


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