Tuesday, December 20, 2005


The New American Urbanism

American readers are going to be thrilled by this: somebody out there is trying to build a new America – without Americans, that is. And, to be more specific, it is the European Union (EU), Putin’s New Russia and Capitalist China the ones that are trying to do it. They all call this trend the ‘New American Urbanism’.

The New American Urbanism is what city planners, architects, civil engineers, developers, realtors, appraisers and bankers throughout the United States refer to as simply ‘Urbanism’. It is the way so familiar to us all in which cities, towns and communities have been conceived, planned and built. There is nothing new about it, since Urbanism in the United States and to a lesser extent Canada is a phenomenon that dates all the way back to the Seventies. It is just the very practical way North American cities are structured: a mix of shopping, residential and light industrial districts effectively connected by a system of boulevards, roads, streets and alleys. Residential neighborhoods are comprised of mixed-use housing clustered with schools, sports centers, wide sidewalks and essentially with everything at close range from home.

Business is carried out in the city centre areas or in downtowns, with the typical characteristic skyline of concrete high-rise and low-rise buildings. One would not think that all this would cause such an uproar. But it has. There are three specific reasons for the rest of the world to all of sudden rediscover America and to put it (again) under the microscope: time, money and economy of scale. The EU, Russia and China all face the common dilemma of having to relocate millions and millions of people on relatively short notice and share the common denominator of minimizing social cost and maximizing affordability.

With the collapse of European borders and the fast-approaching disappearance of singular national identities, the urban trend throughout Europe nowadays is to create centers where jobs are being relocated and redeveloped. Cities and towns must follow the people who, in turn, follow economic prosperity wherever they may find it. As such, it is imperative that a social and living thread be created quickly and swiftly anywhere there is a need for it. Call it the logistics of capitalism, but the EU cannot possibly achieve its coveted objective of creating a free market zone of 600 million or so people, double the one in North America, if this area cannot be properly connected, effectively serviced and economically integrated.

Likewise, it has been over a decade that Russia is in the process of abating the old Stalinist organization of a modern, self-sufficient European Russia on one side surrounded by a cluster of backwards Asian republics and Putin – the former KGB boss - has now become for domestic political reasons the chief architect of the new Russian social integration. Consequently, the republic is now in the process of developing far away areas the likes of northern Siberia and the East Urals, and will shortly be facing the huge problem of having to accommodate, house, connect and integrate millions and millions of domestic migrants and workers.

China suffers of an ailment called ‘one side development’: its coastal areas, home to thirty-five percent of China’s 1.3 billion people are expanding at the rate of 10 percent per year and have been doing so for the past decade, while the remaining sixty-five percent of the population living in the hinterland is housed in communities where running water is thought of as the ultimate luxury. Chinese leadership is very much aware of the economic rift that exists between the affluent, modern and westernized city dwellers on one side and the poor, uneducated and hopeless inhabitants of the countryside, as well as the tension, envy and huge social unrest that this situation – if not resolved quickly – will inevitably lead to.

Hence, America. Using standardized models of development it has occurred to urban planners throughout the globe to think (possibly at the same time) that it takes Americans four years to fully build, connect, develop, service and integrate from scratch a standardized community for 30,000 people. This would include building roads, viaducts, railway, shopping centers, living dwellings, parks, sidewalks, streets, lighting, school and sports facilities, utility installations such as electricity, telephone lines, cables, sewers, water mains, a small airport as well as plant trees everywhere. Furthermore, the typical housing construction time in the United States, counted from digging a hole in the ground to giving the keys to the owner, is five and a half months. Using the same standardized models but applied to different construction and development methods, it would take seven years for Western Europeans to accomplish the same objective, with the average housing construction time running to about one year. The Russians would take almost ten years to do the same, with a typical housing construction time of one year and data is unavailable for the Chinese – but it is common belief that it would take them longer than the Russians to build this model town in the countryside.

Moreover, what foreigners especially cherish of North American cities, towns and neighborhoods is the economy of scale: the more you build, the less expensive it gets. And, naturally, the fact that environmental concerns are of paramount importance, particularly in Canada. So much so, in fact, that Europeans have banded together none other than in Stockholm to draft, well ... The Charter of Stockholm, in fact, where the Council for European Urbanism has adopted officially as its mission the objective of maintaining and preserving the well being and integration of the present and future generations by building cities, towns and villages speedily and with mixed-use with architectural lines, construction techniques, planning and management modeled upon American cities.

Seems that somebody is eating back a lot of criticism these days ...

Luigi Frascati


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