Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ken Greenberg Talks Flexible Urbanism in New Book

(this article originally appeared on Spacing Toronto on May 24, 2011)

Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder by Ken Greenberg, Random House Canada, 400 pages, $29.95

After the election of Rob Ford, it seemed as though many urban-minded people in the city wanted to Rip Van Winkle-themselves through the next four years. And, as we hear about the collapse of the Fort York Bridge and rumblings of a potential waterfront shake-up, it’s difficult not to read Ken Greenberg’s new book on city building, Walking Home, without a bittersweet tinge.

Walking Home is, as the subtitle says, the life and lessons of a city builder. In this case, one Ken Greenberg, born a New Yorker, former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto, and current principal at Greenberg Consultants.

Anyone paying attention to recent debates in urban planning and design won’t be surprised to see discussions around walkability, sustainable neighbourhoods, bikes, density, and active streetscapes. What makes Walking Home interesting, however, is Greenberg’s pitch for a flexible, adaptable urbanism.

In Greenberg’s view, a static city is a dead city. Instead, he argues, the city should be recognized as ever-evolving, fluid, and responsive. “I began to grasp,” he writes, “that building places where people lived was not a matter of determinism through design but a matter of creating ‘platforms’—open-ended frameworks that people could build upon as they wished, with the underlying design as enabler or inhibitor.”

Think of cities as open-source software, a kind of urban Wikipedia in which we are all constantly adding, deleting, and modifying. The truly dynamic places in our city need to have that flexibility built into them. This doesn’t mean we should leave our cities to chaos, though. Coherence and flexibility must both be balanced, Greenberg says.

The point is that true city builders are aware that the reason places become places rather than just spaces is because of the people that use them. If no one wants to use them, they sit dead and empty. The difference, Greenberg suggests, is flexibility. Don't overdesign. "Less is often more," he writes. Kensington Market is a perfect example of a place that has grown and evolved over time, where old houses are reused for other means.

And what worked then might not work now, Greenberg says, cautioning against mimicry and nostalgia. This reminded me of Cornell, a community in Markham built following the New Urbanist credo of harkening back to a small town design. Houses are close together with driveways in the back, trees abound, and there is even a main street with small retail spaces and residential units above. While it sounds like the Annex—and the planning philosophy of creating a walkable, green neighbourhood is commendable—the result feels eerily like a set for The Truman Show. What makes the Annex the Annex is how it has evolved over the years into a neighbourhood of architectural diversity, spontaneity, and a comforting messiness. Maybe, given enough time, Cornell can do the same, but we can’t expect places to cohere just because we are following a formula.

He also expresses wariness toward what he refers to as the “Big Bang Theory” of city building. The idea that we can just plunk a casino or a starchitect-designed building or—ahem—a waterfront stadium somewhere and, just as if we were sprinkling fairy dust, watch our city grow into an exciting place. What he advocates for instead is the incremental approach, which doesn't treat the urban realm as a giant game of Sim City, but allows for change and growth over time in a more organic way. Finding intelligent ways in which to graft and insert density into our cities, like infill projects, are ways to do this, he writes.

There are many negative books, ones that gleefully detail the downward spiral of our urban spaces, our rapacious hunger for energy, our sprawling suburbs, our deteriorating infrastructure. (For a good urban tongue-lashing, read James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere). It's far more difficult, however, to write a book that recognizes the challenges we face in our cities, while starting a constructive dialogue about how we might be able to get there. Greenberg manages to keep his head above water, and the end result is a book that feels hopeful and invigorating.

Although the book follows the path of Greenberg’s own life and work in placemaking, it avoids the danger of becoming simply a listing of his credentials and past accomplishments by weaving each project into a larger fabric.

Physical designs and theoretical concepts are written with the same fluidity and engagement, keeping the book smart, but accessible. And those that know little about planning history have nothing to fear, as Greenberg does the sweep through history picking up the usual suspects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Jane Jacobs on the way.

One thing, however, that kept nagging me throughout the book was the fact that our cities are growing increasingly unaffordable, pushing low-income people out of the very areas that are the beneficiaries of this kind of exciting city building. Although Greenberg touches on the issue of affordability throughout the book, it was never explored in depth. Many of the places mentioned, such as Vancouver's Yaletown are not exactly known for their affordability, and affordable housing units are usually the first on the chopping block when projects inevitably nudge over budget.

As we work our way towards the future, not only must we heed Greenberg’s call in creating these open-ended frameworks that build the kind of vibrant city we enjoy, but we must make sure that they are equitable places as well.

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