More Episodic Urbanism
Downtown Cincinnati. Licensed for use by Hannaford under Flickr Creative Commons.
Last week, I commented on the holy-ness of the American city where I live, Cincinnati. I pointed out that our downtowns are devolving into places of episodic urbanism, environments where what we think of as the great good of intense interaction between people, activities, forms, and images takes place not in a core, but in moments within that core–and beyond its confines. Lars Lerup, who during his deanship at Rice University assembled a crack team of thinkers about sprawl, termed it “stim and dross.”
The rhythm of vast stretches of form without meaning and space without borders punctuated by moments of intensity and articulation is clearly visible if you drive out on the highways into the heart of sprawl in America’s heartland. I attended a Memorial Day picnic this last weekend in what is still sort of farmland, but only barely: in the five years I have been making this pilgrimage once a year, suburban developments dotted with banks and CVS stores have marched up the nine miles from the nearest highway exit almost to the farm’s first fence.
When I can, I bicycle to work, and the six miles I traverse have the same sense of dissolution you can find in its concentrated, walkable form in our downtown and in the drive-by version out beyond our beltway. Here, it is a hospital complex through which I wind my way halfway between here and work that represents the point of urbanism or stimulation, though it is both a massive and a weak one. The midrise buildings tower over the adjacent neighborhoods of one-family homes, but are separated from those small structures by parking lots and garages. There is virtually no activity around the hospital itself, beyond a few fast food restaurants. Only the sick and those ministering to them mix here. Hospitals have become Cincinnati’s largest employer, as they have in most American cities, yet they give back virtually nothing to what makes a city vibrant in the traditional sense.
On a smaller scale, the streets along which I pedal have holes in them –and not just the ones in the ground that our economically challenged, under-investing cities cannot fix. For every line of houses that create a regular rhythm in which the picking out of domestic elements, from porches to turrets, and from windows with carved detailing to elaborate planting in the front yard, creates a sense of particularity and diversity, there are more places where houses have been torn down, or where new apartment blocks exhibit their face brick masks to an environment that, to their manner of appearance, could be anywhere. A few stores and restaurants resist the onslaught of chains with their parking lots and mass produced signs and spaces, but mainly there is the mess of fragments of an older urban form, punctuated by new stims that are isolated and isolating, featureless and forlorn, without any relation to their surroundings.
The problem, in other words, is here, and out there, not down where the power is. Episodic urbanism works, to a certain extent, downtown. What does not work is the punctuation of the rest of the city and its surroundings with moments of activity and interaction that do not and cannot contribute to their surroundings. This is where there is work to be done. This where episodic urbanism needs to develop ways of creating points of stimulation that are open, engaging, and vital to the way we live in our world.