On the Urban Ideology

Preliminary census figures for Chicago during the last decade are in and they are not pretty. The city's population has dropped to levels not seen since 1920. As the most notoriously segregrated city in the country celebrated the forceable eviction of the last tenants from the notorious Cabrini Green housing projects and plotted to tear down Robert Taylor homes, African Americans left the city en masse. In 2000 there were 1,065,009 African Americans in the city. In 2010 there were 887,608. Read more at the Wall Street Journal.


I've written before about the tremendous danger that the new "urban ideology" poses to us (for example, in encouraging the segregation of the poor into suburbs, e.g. American favelas and the homogenization of the contemporary city). The model of the "city as a luxury product" advocated by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is unjust.

Standing downtown next to the Bean, the city's symbol of its reincarnation as a creative, global city, designed by British-Indian born Anish Kapoor, it's easy to think that the city is a better place.* In some sense, I suppose it is, but in other ways, it's not, the Bean could as easily be seen as the symbol of a globalized, high-tech, Ă©lite global culture. 

When will we, as architects, urban designers, and urban planners care about this again?  

*Disclaimer… Kapoor is one of my favorite artists, so perhaps this is a little unfair, but so it is. 


Yes we do care

If you go further back in history looking at Chicago, the sad truth is that current occurrence has had precedent. The chicago model of urbanization (Land Use Model) by the sociologist Ernest Burgess in 1925 has described what what already can be described as a certain segregation. Where the loop was the zone of commute, the factories and businesses a halo around and the further from the center you get, the (upscale) residential zones start. The latter have later become what we call suburbs and since they have not been connected by public transportation, only people who could afford a car could live outside the city and drive to work in the center. Obviously that model has changed over the course of time, when the center has become a CBD rather than a residential center and thus was completely empty at night. This development then has seen several iterations and inversions. The latter had the positive consequence, that the city center has become somewhat residential.
In English cities during the industrialization, people who could afford houses on hills or away from the center, where better off, because the did not have to live with the fumes, hence the name Bel-Air and the likes.
Sociological examination show, that the lack of public transportation and thus the dependency on cars is a vicious circle for inhabitants of certain areas in Los Angeles. Characteristic is also the disputed history of the demise of the public transportation system, especially of the tramways in LA.
There are plenty of examples of little and sometimes hidden agendas and manifestations of segregation. The frenzy about the gated communities the USA being only a very visible example. Studies in Brazil suggest that urban segregation is a danger for democratic structures and the opposite process of breaking the segregation, e.g. the formalization (upgrading/augmenting) of favelas are not solely considered a urban and legal process but also political, because people get access to political representation and thus it denotes an important parameter of democratization.
It is important to have a discourse about said issues, but does it happen in the USA? Here in Europe the different discourses are very diverse. I would argue that architects and urban planners are indeed aware of said dangers, the implications however are different than in the USA, because of the size and structure of the cities. Nevertheless I agree it is of utmost importance to raise awareness and start taking action.
How are architecture students tought in the States, what tools and models do they apply and what effect can they have in the actual planning of the cities. Who are the actors mostly involved in the creation and change of cities? Supposedly not the master plan of Chicago, but private investors I presume.

Architects in Chicago care

Architects in Chicago care about this very much. As in other rustbelt cities, the squalor, violence and economic irrelevance into which many of the city's inhabitants are born is impossible to ignore. The problem for the discipline is not lack a lack of empathy but rather an inability of the discipline's tools to address the self-sustaining culture of poverty that persists across whole swaths of the Southside.

Architects helped draw the cartography of segregation, but even if architects had the power to undraw the past it would be impossible without money or power. The state and municipal political machines are the organizations that must come to care about this again.