John King on “Instant urbanism”

John King, the Chronicle’s urban design critic, recently wrote “a two-part series”: on New Urbanist suburban infill in/around Denver and the Bay Area — pointing out that Denver is far further along than self-congratulatory San Francisco in creating good urban fabric in suburbia. He has this response to the elite critics of NU:

A cynic would look at projects like these and dismiss the lot. They’re not Paris in the 1920s, or North Beach in 1950s, or SoHo in the 1970s. Cue up the intellectual scorn.

But the fact is that American expectations are being redefined — and the suburban landscape where most people live is following suit. This is, after all, a world where people want what they want when they want: music on their iPod, old movies or television shows on their DVD player, newspapers via the Internet.

Why shouldn’t urbanism be available on demand as well?

The thing is, there’s a difference between buildings and megabytes. One is ephemeral, the other isn’t. You can watch a grainy snippet on YouTube and move on, but a poorly designed building stays right where it is, looking more faded and false by the day.

The suburbia of the future will be more dense than today, with a more varied set of options. And that’s a good thing: There’s a limit to how far a region’s population should sprawl, or how much land should be consumed. Fighting change is absurd. Sneering at it is equally absurd.

On my long-term projects list is an effort to catalog today’s “historic, gritty” urban neighborhoods when they, too, were brand spanking new — with shiny new buildings and tiny trees, they, too, looked pretty silly.

One thought on “John King on “Instant urbanism”

  1. I think of the cover of Stewart Brand’s _How Buildings Learn_. It depicts two identical speculative buildings in NOLA in the 1850s and then shows them after a half-century or more of alterations and ownership changes.

Comments are closed.