Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

On Feb. 19, President Barack Obama signed an order establishing the White House Office of Urban Affairs. First announced just days after the historic U.S. election last November, the office—which will be headed by Bronx Borough president Adolfo Carrión Jr., who has a master’s in urban planning and spent three years in the New York City Department of City Planning—will serve as a bridge between federal dollars and the programs that affect metropolitan America. Among other pursuits, its mandate covers community development, housing, job creation, manufacturing innovation, sustainable technologies, and infrastructure.

This commitment to cities is just as surprising (and overdue) in breadth and vision as it is unsurprising, given our new president’s urban history—many have cited Obama’s time as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago—and knowledge. Stumping in Toledo, Ohio, last August, Obama was handed a copy of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities by an audience member. The exchange sparked the candidate to give a nuanced explanation of the relationship between cities and suburbs.

“The research has shown that if you want a thriving suburban area, then you better have a thriving city. If you want a state as a whole to do well, then the metropolitan areas in that state have to do well,” Obama said. “There is no separation. It is all linked together. We have to get past this notion that we can just leave the cities to rot, because your economy will rot. We want to work to revitalize cities, to diversify their economy.”

The new administration’s emphasis on urbanism, combined with unprecedented infrastructure spending and the appointment of a “green dream team” to tackle climate change issues, has raised hopes for architects and urban designers. “The stimulus package could be really exciting, and everyone has something riding on it, and some of us around here are feeling that we are at a tipping point to connecting our urban policies to some trends we’ve been seeing—to more compact development, focus on the center, quality of life, and sustainability,” says Philip Myrick, vice president of the New York–based nonprofit Project for Public Spaces.

But Myrick’s optimism is cautious. In the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, signed into law on Feb. 17, total infrastructure accounts for just a fraction, with $47 billion going to a combination of transit, rail, roads, and bridges. Highway investments dominate the allotment. Is this the way to jump-start cities? “We need to put a more efficient, less sprawling, less car-dependent infrastructure on the table, but I really don’t see it in the package,” Myrick warns. “My fear is that rather than changing the way we live in a profound way, which is what we need to do, that we will wind up replacing one technology with another, that we will still live in this land-gobbling way.”

Myrick stresses a commitment to “soft infrastructure,” the social spots where we live and work: parks, downtowns, public spaces. “These places are vital to our public heath and to the success of cities,” he explains. “It’s what makes them sustainable and what makes them better. There is very little awareness that creating those vital spaces in the public realm is a critical bottom line of any stimulus package.”

With the Office of Urban Affairs and the stimulus package, the new administration is sending a mixed message: Yes, we are committed to re-envisioning cities, and yes, transportation and infrastructure remain status quo. This leads to questions: What model will the next urbanism take? And who will design it?

New Urbanism—with its feel-good values—was the go-to philosophy for rebuilding New Orleans, and results have yet to rise out of the muck. Still, the Congress for the New Urbanism succeeds because it has established initiatives and resources that are easily digested by lawmakers. “The avant-garde hasn’t really offered up anything comparable or as comprehensive,” says Peter Zellner. “Who else has written plans, policies, and prescriptions that can be implemented by politicians?”

Zellner coordinates the Southern California Institute for Future Initiatives (SCIFI) program at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. The research-based graduate program is co-sponsoring (with The Architect’s Newspaper) an open ideas competition titled “A New Infrastructure: Innovative Transit Solutions for Los Angeles.” SCIFI’s mission is to train graduate students not just in design, but in policy and planning—the very tools needed to rebuild and reframe the city from an economic, social, and environmental perspective.

Looking at the infrastructure of Los Angeles, a car city if there ever was one, means understanding that highway-driven sprawl is no longer feasible. The metropolis, having filled the L.A. basin to the point of overflow, has begun to turn back in on itself. The subprime mortgage bust reminds us that cities just can’t support ever-more-attenuated subdivisions and strip malls. New Urbanist literature recognizes the need to redevelop urban cores, replacing them with walkable streets and transit hubs. And while the practice is laudable, it makes use of an urban language drawn from a cultural imagination of Main Street as seen in film and television—a unified, comfortable vision that is hard to argue against. “Based on the neotraditionalism that it is peddling and the fact that it works best on greenfield sites, the paradigm New Urbanism promotes is actually, ironically, anti-city,” maintains Santa Monica–based architect and urban planner Roger Sherman.

Sherman co-directs cityLAB, an urban design think tank founded in 2006 and supported by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). It takes on projects theoretical, political, and pragmatic, but always advancing new approaches to the urban realm. “The alternative [to New Urbanism] is not a new overall blanket ideology or theory,” explains cityLAB director Dana Cuff, a professor of architecture, urban design, and urban planning at UCLA. “It is the idea of working in existing cities, not on master plans. You have to have tactics and strategies.”

For Cuff and Sherman, top-down master plans are problematic. Just as the word “urban” takes on pejorative, inner-city connotations, “master planning” is tainted with the notion of outside forces acting on existing communities. This is not to say that cityLAB avoids large-scale projects, but its members understand the finer grain. With the project 10K Pacoima: Backyard Homes, cityLAB researchers worked with a diverse project team of community organizers, L.A. planning department staff, city council members, and for-profit and nonprofit developers to identify sites for affordable housing in the northeast San Fernando Valley, an area facing shortages. Closely reading the urban fabric, the team located more than a thousand super-sized single-family lots (topping 10,000 square feet). By collaborating with the community and working with existing planning policy and zoning practices, they found that the empty spaces on those lots could not only accommodate workforce infill housing in the residential neighborhoods, but in turn increase overall density—a factor that also increases the sustainability of the area and, because public infrastructure is already in place, reduces valley sprawl. Development of design criteria and financing for the pilot project are under way.

Because cityLAB is based in Los Angeles, its work inevitably deals with the blurring of core urban and suburban issues—the kind of relationships mentioned in Obama’s stump speech. Terminology such as “megalopolis” and “exurban” has trickled down from the academy and into mainstream parlance to describe a condition Sherman likes to call “metrourban.” It is a condition prevalent in the States, but insufficiently addressed. Redefining the urban in urbanism—looking beyond the polarizing distinctions between urb and suburb—is critical to practitioners on both coasts.

Brooklyn, N.Y.–based Interboro Partners—Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore—is co-curating the 2009 International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam. The title of the exhibition, “Community and the Open City,” speaks to the goal of a heterogeneous American city, both in terms of diversity in urban design and planning, but also, and perhaps just as important, socially and ethnically. What is a city, if not a mix of people and activities?

Interboro has won a series of notable competitions since it was founded in 2002, including the Columbus [Ohio] Re-Wired ideas competition in 2007. Its winning project, The Critical Path, rejected the competition brief’s desire to link up the city center nodes with the suburbs because, according to Theodore, it reinforced old-school thinking about cities, pitching downtown against sprawl. Instead, Interboro proposed transportation infrastructure for an everyday corridor in a Columbus inner-ring suburb—a site full of the banes of urban design: big box stores, cul-de-sacs, and golf courses.

Trying to get riders that critical last quarter mile from a transportation hub to their homes, the team asked unusual questions, such as: How to make a shopping center denser? The firm is emerging as a fresh voice precisely because its members are so attentive to what is really going on in American cities today, not an idealized or dystopic version of it. “To change the planning discourse, we want to get planners to look a little more closely at the urban dynamics of a space,” says D’Oca. “The way analysis is done needs to change, so it is not just based on the quick visual clues but is a more thorough engagement with the space and how it works, despite what you might initially think.”

In its understanding of how a site works—really works—and how it affects its users, much of the new thinking about urban design is underpinned by infrastructural systems and the environment. It is an approach that seems localized, but the implications of this rethink can be applied nationally, especially in regard to environmental concerns. San Francisco–based landscape architect David Fletcher brushes aside status quo terms such as “green” and “sustainable” in favor of “urban ecology.” The phrase isn’t metaphoric.

In Fletcher’s work on the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan (undertaken while at Mia Lehrer’s office), a restoration of the city’s oft-chided concrete channel, he doesn’t separate the river from architecture and urban development. Urban watershed, river, storm-drain runoff, new construction—all are linked like a natural ecosystem. The river could be the catalyst for alternative transportation and denser development throughout the region, but it requires a systematic, metabolic approach, not a superficial greenwash. The Revitalization Master Plan team—which included the Department of Public Works’ Bureau of Engineering, consultant Tetra Tech, and a host of professionals in urban design and planning, landscape architecture, economic development, environmental analysis, and community outreach—worked for nearly two years to develop the guiding principles and objectives now in place.

Mitchell Joachim, a co-founder of Brooklyn’s Terreform ONE (Open Network Ecology), echoes Fletcher’s desire to go beyond simply efficient or sustainable urban solutions. The nonprofit practice creates visionary proposals, propagandalike in their scope and activist intent. Rapid Re(f)use: Waste to Resource City 2120 is a Wall-E–esque plan to rebuild New York City from scratch using millions of tons of trash from the Fresh Kills Landfill. And like the Disney flick, it features robots (here outfitted with 3-D printers) that would sort, process, and reconstitute the junk into new construction material. CityLAB’s and Interboro’s work falls under “Radical Incrementalism”—a phrase coined by Sherman and Cuff—but Terreform 1’s projects are meant to be provocative on a large scale, a polar extreme from the other practices.

Whether fantasy or audacity, Joachim’s work has gotten attention. In September, Wired magazine named him one of 15 people Obama should listen to. But the new administration should hear all emergent urbanists. CityLAB, Interboro, Fletcher Studio, and Terreform ONE are all activists in their own right, and they are just four of many practices engaging with the city in significant ways. That it takes a crisis to recognize the problem only stresses the importance of radical thinking. “For the first time in a long time, these thinkers might be taken seriously,” stresses SCIFI’s Zellner. “It’s the time where there is the political wherewithal to make changes. Speculation is not just a device for intellectual diversion. It might now actually be useful. It might improve and forestall crises—ecological and economic.” New policy and infrastructure spending (even in light of its inner conflict) present an opportunity to strategically change and revitalize American cities.

“Urban design is not dead. It has not had a chance to be reborn,” says Joachim, parrying a 2005 claim by theorist and architect Michael Sorkin. Here’s that chance.