Our favorite urbanist has a new book (I’ve ordered it already) and in this article from New Geography, he writes about it.
It’s all about everyday life, and I am also a fan of Braudel, whose books are amazing, a completely new way to look at history.
In his new book, The Human City, Joel Kotkin looks at the ways cities succeed or fail in terms of how their residents are best served. Here’s a tour of some past models.
Throughout history, urban areas have taken on many functions, which have often changed over time. Today, this trend continues as technology, globalization, and information technology both undermine and transform the nature of urban life. Developing a new urban paradigm requires, first and foremost, integrating the traditional roles of cities—religious, political, economic—with the new realities and possibilities of the age. Most importantly, we need to see how we can preserve the best, and most critical, aspects of urbanism. Cities should not be made to serve some ideological or aesthetic principle, but they should make life better for the vast majority of citizens.
In building a new approach to urbanism, I propose starting at the ground level. “Everyday life,” observed the French historian Fernand Braudel, “consists of the little things one hardly notices in time and space.” Braudel’s work focused on people who lived largely mundane lives, worried about feeding and housing their families, and concerned with their place in local society. Towns may differ in their form, noted Braudel, but ultimately, they all “speak the same basic language” that has persisted throughout history.
Contemporary urban students can adopt Braudel’s approach to the modern day by focusing on how people live every day and understanding the pragmatic choices they make that determine where and how they live. By focusing on these mundane aspects of life, particularly those of families and middle-class households, we can move beyond the dominant contemporary narrative about cities, which concentrates mostly on the young “creative” population and the global wealthy. This is not a break with the urban tradition but a validation of older and more venerable ideals of what city life should be about. Cities, in a word, are about people, and to survive as sustainable entities they need to focus on helping residents achieve the material and spiritual rewards that have come with urban life throughout history.
Cities have thrived most when they have attracted newcomers hoping to find better conditions for themselves and their families and when they have improved conditions for already settled residents. Critical here are not only schools, roads, and basic forms of transport, which depend on the government, but also a host of other benefits—special events, sports leagues, church festivals—that can be experienced at the neighborhood, community, and family levels.
This urban terroir—the soil upon which cities and communities thrive—has far less to do with actions taken from above than is commonly assumed by students of urban life. Instead, it is part of what New York folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls, “everyday urbanism,” which “take[s] shape outside planning, design, zoning, regulation, and covenants, if not in spite of them.”
This divergence in perspective, notes Los Angeles architect John Kaliski, stems in part from the desire of planners and architects to construct “the conceptually pure notion of what a city is or should be.” The search for a planned utopia, he says, also ignores the “situational rhythm” that fits each specific place and fits the demand of consumers in the marketplace. No surprise then that grand ideas, epitomized by soaring towers, often prove less successful than those more pragmatic, market-oriented efforts of, say, Victor Gruen to recreate the plaza and urban streetscape within the framework of modern-day suburbia.