Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Flexible City

The Ideal City by Fra Carnevale. Image from the Walters Art Museum.

In the course of researching an article the other day, I ran across a 2003 piece by the late Herbert Muschamp. The NY Times architecture critic was discussing a new building in Miami and he wrote the following:

"The most important events in society take place in the inner world. They're not about moving bodies around in urban space (that was the Baroque ideal) but about moving minds in and out of changing human relationships. When to connect with others, when to disconnect from them? Building the contemporary city is an art of setting flexible boundaries."

Muschamp presents an interesintg point. Our inner world has become the filter for spatial experience. That's a very clear distinction from urban space itself defining our experience. The Ideal City, pictured above, shows the ordered, civic space of Renaissance urban planning. It represents "the importance of security, religion, and recreation in a well-regulated city and the value of Roman ideals in urban design," according to the curators at the Walters Art Museum where it is held. There is defined space, and that space cues the action and movement of the inhabitant. It is symbolic, grand, and inflexible.

How do we interact with a city today? Well, for one, we are able to move beyond the context of physical space and the programmatic clues presented therein by accessing virtual connection. The city is, at times, something experienced in a digital world of our choosing. We create satellite maps and imaging, employ social networks, apply personalized layers of information to maps, twitter our coordinates. We curate and filter our information to fit our needs. We can usurp actual forays into the world at large and order our groceries online. (The UK's Stephen Graham, a researcher in human geography and cities, compiled an excellent book of essays examining urban life and technology called The Cybercities Reader.)

Does this change the way we experience space and what we need from our city? What does it mean to create those "flexible boundaries" that Muschamp discusses?

I got to thinking about a comment made by a reader to my post about privately owned public spaces . In Carnevale's ideal city, spacial definitions are clear: here is civic space, here is private space, here is ceremonial space, here is where we trade goods. The reader noted that our contemporary debate between privately owned public spaces and pure public spaces represents ambiguity—we often encounter spaces that we are not sure how to handle—and that ambiguity can be a good thing. "We tend really to passivity when we hit a necessary structural ambiguity like this [a privately owned public space], when what's called for instead is active, less-timid pushing of the public-vs.-private overlap/contradiction right to the fore, giving it more significance in what's expected of city space," he writes.

In other words, there is no master in the master plan anymore. Sometimes urban spaces are up for grabs. Their use changes over time, their intended use is trumped by the crowd, by shifting economies, by unforeseen events. As our own creative minds fuel our economies, as that inner world Muschamp mentions trumps the communal, civic one, we can become the definers of space. Our cities become more fluid, less rigid, and cry out for new systems to help us navigate them. So what does that mean for urban planning? We often hear about how uncertain economic times require us to be nimble and reactive. How do our cities manage to balance long-range planning with that necessary nimbleness?

This question was raised at a Design Conversation in Baltimore earlier this month. The answer from the group that night pointed less to design dictates and more to values. Create planning around values and develop design hierarchies that support those core values. In New York, for example, urban planner Alex Washburn says that the city uses a simple matrix to assess new developments: the pedestrian is first, the bicycle and public transit second, the car third. When that simple hierarchy of values is employed, it dictates how projects are executed and, in turn, how the city is experienced.