Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Is it Soup Yet?

A postcard of Paris's Les Halles, circa 1920.

That's the question one of my editors asked when I was running late with an assignment. The implication: have all the research components for your article come together finally and transformed into an actual story? (The underlying implication: hurry the f*&k up).

Lately, I've been thinking about this magic moment of transmogrification when it comes to cities. When do the disparate ingredients of planning coalesce into something altogether different and whole? In a biography on James Beard, writer Robert Clark describes why Les Halles, that famous Parisian market, was so popular in the 1920's:
"Part of the wonder of Les Halles was the sense that it was less a collection of vendors than a full-blown organism whose life came not from any conscious effort but through the transcendent totality of its constituents."

Urban planning is a very conscious effort at changing place. Planners often apply ideas like recipes. Put a mixed-use development here, a highrise there, a new zoning overlay across the river; try to recreate the hub of New York city or the civic order of Portland. Like cooks, they can adhere to their favorite chef. Some cook from the book of Jane Jacobs, some from the book of Robert Moses, some from Andres Duany, others from Le Corbusier. etc. etc.

But what turns those urban planning ingredients into—as Clark so aptly describes it—a transcendent totality? In the case of Les Halles, it was the "constituents." The people. Les Halles symbolized the vibrancy of French culinary culture and it was imbued with the passion of the vendors sharing their livelihood and the customers who believed in those products. The people engaged in marketing at Les Halles believed in its value and as a result it became vital.

Interestingly, a similar public market in Portland, Oregon in the 1900's failed to achieve such success. Beard grew up in Portland and Clark describes how a thriving farmers' market was relocated into a civic structure at the prodding of political power brokers. The new market never achieved the same vibrancy as the original and it closed leaving Portland without a public market. They built it; the public did not come. The "constituents," many of whom were not aware of the political machinations that led to the market's move into a new building, sensed the place was off nonetheless and simply stopped going there. The most important consideration in the planning process—the end user—was not considered and the project failed.

That said, even some of the best intentioned plans can fall flat. It's hard to predict human behavior, to understand why a street with all the right ingredients comes alive with the "messy vitality" of urban life (a la Lewis Mumford) or does not. Some recipes sing, others are inedible. Why? I don't profess an answer. Any thoughts?