09 October 2006

Putting People First

I recently pulled out my copy of the James Rouse speech “It Could Happen Here.” This speech was delivered at Berkeley in 1963. In this speech, Mr. Rouse argues that even with plentiful resources, planning alone cannot create a better city. In this speech, he states:

The biggest hole in the planning process in America today is right at the beginning of it. We aren’t coming up with right answers because we aren’t asking the right questions at the outset. Planning deals with highways, land uses, public buildings, densities, open spaces, but it almost never deals with people. So seldom as to be never, in my experience, do you find in a planning study or report any serious discussion of the problems that people face in an urban society or how plans are directed at relieving those problems.

Isn’t it time we began to ask what we are planning for? What is the purpose of the community?

I believe that the ultimate test of civilization is whether or not it contributes to the growth, the improvement of mankind. There really can be no other right purpose of community except to provide an environment and an opportunity to develop better people. The most successful community would be that which contributed the most by its physical form, its institutions, and its operation to the growth of people.

So what have we learned after forty years? Over the last year, we have endured a discussion of residential housing density, traffic volume, building heights and the proximity of public art to the proposed road surfaces. No specific discussion has been held with regard to people, and the maximization of those people’s abilities as of yet.

The problem I fear, lies within the New Urbanist/Columbia conflict. The principles upon which the New Urbanist movement is based are known as the Ahwahnee Principles :

Community Principles

  1. All planning should be in the form of complete and integrated communities containing housing, shops, work places, schools, parks and civic facilities essential to the daily life of the residents.
  2. Community size should be designed so that housing, jobs, daily needs and other activities are within easy walking distance of each other.
  3. As many activities as possible should be located within easy walking distance of transit stops.
  4. A community should contain a diversity of housing types to enable citizens from a wide range of economic levels and age groups to live within its boundaries.
  5. Businesses within the community should provide a range of job types for the community's residents.
  6. The location and character of the community should be consistent with a larger transit network.
  7. The community should have a center focus that combines commercial, civic, cultural and recreational uses.
  8. The community should contain an ample supply of specialized open space in the form of squares, greens and parks whose frequent use is encouraged through placement and design.
  9. Public spaces should be designed to encourage the attention and presence of people at all hours of the day and night.
  10. Each community or cluster of communities should have a well-defined edge, such as agricultural greenbelts or wildlife corridors, permanently protected from development.
  11. Streets, pedestrian paths and bike paths should contribute to a system of fully-connected and interesting routes to all destinations. Their design should encourage pedestrian and bicycle use by being small and spatially defined by buildings, trees and lighting; and by discouraging high speed traffic.
  12. Wherever possible, the natural terrain, drainage and vegetation of the community should be preserved with superior examples contained within parks or greenbelts.
  13. The community design should help conserve resources and minimize waste.
  14. Communities should provide for the efficient use of water through the use of natural drainage, drought tolerant landscaping and recycling.
  15. The street orientation, the placement of buildings and the use of shading should contribute to the energy efficiency of the community.
Arguably, most of these principles have been successfully implemented in Columbia. To be honest, some are unfulfilled and some are applied unevenly throughout the city; however, it is possible to read from “It Could Happen Here” and read the above principles and arrive at the conclusion that they were authored by the same person or committee.

The conflict I see is that Rouse was looking to use planning for a greater goal. To not just live, but to live and grow. In my opinion, New Urbanism does not seek the goal of human growth, but through planning sets a high standard of living. Somehow, these different (but not necessarily conflicting) planning ideals wind up describing each other.

So here we are now, today, searching for a new downtown. There is anxiety, fear and frustration. There are strong opinions. There is no discussion of growing people. To get us back on the path, might I suggest we go back to Berkeley. Not in 1963, but in 2006. During this past summer, Sharon Hudson published a series of columns in the Berkeley Daily Planet regarding development in downtown Berkeley. The culmination of her series listed (as she called it) the “Urban Bill of Rights (NIMBY Manifesto)”:

  1. The right to see significant greenery, the sky, and the sun from within one’s home.
  2. The right to natural cross ventilation in one’s home.
  3. The right to enjoy peace and quiet within one’s home with windows open.
  4. The right to sleep at night without excessive artificial ambient light.
  5. The right to be free in one’s neighborhood from pollution of air, water, soil, and plant life.
  6. The right to be free from undesirable local environmental change caused by poor urban design, such as wind, shadow and noise canyons, excess heat caused by overpaving, etc.
  7. The right to adequate space for storage, hobbies, and other personal activities in and around each dwelling unit, including play space for children in family housing.
  8. The right to mobility, regardless of income. If automobile use is discouraged by prohibitive pricing, public transit must be adequate and low cost.
  9. The right to parking space for each household.
  10. The right of convenient access, on foot if possible, to basic daily needs, such as good quality food at reasonable prices, daily household and medical supplies, laundry facilities, etc.
  11. The right of convenient access, by foot, private vehicle, or transit, to places of employment.
  12. The right of equal access to the commons and to taxpayer-funded and other public facilities, such as government buildings, libraries, museums, bridges, and roadways.
  13. The right of access within walking distance to nature, recreation, outdoor exercise, and discovery, including parks, open space, and areas inhabited by wildlife.
  14. The right to equal and adequate police, fire, and emergency services, which shall not be infringed on the basis of income or neighborhood character.
  15. The right to participate in and guide, through equitable, representative, democratic processes, land use decisions that affect oneself, one’s neighborhood, and one’s community.
This list is not entirely applicable to our downtown project, but it is a starting point. It also provides enough substance for us to start discussing our future development in terms of people. Let us build on this.

As we start this discussion, I will close with the concluding paragraphs of “It Could Happen Here

Here then, is the challenge of a Good Environment – not a call to raise huge new funds; nor to marshal new pools of manpower. It is simply to change our attitudes toward our community. To build:

  • A new sense of humility and social purpose in the urban designer,
  • A new sense of relevance and responsibility in the social scientist,
  • A new sense of conviction and courage in the public official.

To harness these new attitudes to the forces already in motion and to the resources that already exist among us will generate a new, creative thrust that will not only produce new communities, but will release among the people in them the potential for the noblest civilization the world has ever known.


Anonymous said...

This is definitely, in my opinion, a five-star post.

It was good to see citations of Rouse's pre-Columbia vision (which seemed people-centric), especially comparing it to the new urbanism (which could describe a medieval walled city just as well as any new cities planned with new urbanist specs).

I was unaware of Sharon Hudson's series of articles, but wow does she have it right relative to the kind of forward thinking principles every community needs to guarantee and incorporate into their planning.

wordbones said...

Quoting old Jim Rouse speeches can be misleading. Jim was an evolutionary visonary. He was constantly challenging his own thoughts on development. The man who pioneered the concept of the suburban shopping mall which sucked the life out of center city shopping districts later saw that those same cities needed shopping to retain their vibrancy. He then successfully turned his attention to recreating the urban shopping experience.
I had the opportunity to listen to a speech he gave years after retiring from his role of chairman of The Rouse Company. He was speaking to a group of former Rouse employees at what was then The Cross Keys Inn in Columbia. This was a time when many in Columbia were complaining that The Rouse Company had lost its way without Mr. Rouse at the helm. Instead of panning the company, Jim spent about ten minutes lauding the various acheivements the company had made since his departure. He then looked around the room and deadpanned, "They have obviously done pretty well without us."
Those who look for clues to how he would react to today's discussion about Town Center development in speeches he wrote over forty years do a disservice to the community and to the brilliance of the man.