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Book Review: Common Ground in a Liquid City

Park Art

A few months ago I picked up Common Ground in a Liquid City off a friend’s shelf. It’s a collection of essays by Matt Hern that are tied together by a few common themes. After reading just a few randomly chosen pages, I can honestly say I now look at differently at cities I visit, including my own.

The essays are titled with the names of cities around the world, ranging from the exotic (Diyarbakir, Kurdistan) to the local (Portland, OR), to the remote (Fort Good Hope in the Northwest Territories). But in reality, all the essays are about Vancouver, BC, Hern’s hometown. In each chapter, he looks at the city of Vancouver through the lens of another.

The ideas that struck me – likely because they’re related to the content of this blog – is Hern’s nuanced and critical take on density in Vancouver (and elsewhere).

Before I even visited Vancouver, the city was hyped up as the place to go for great design and urban planning in the Pacific Northwest (Pacific Southwest for Canadians, I assume?). In fact, my first fieldtrip in architecture school was a two-day excursion to see the works of Patkau and Arthur Erickson. I remember being struck at how ugly Vancouver’s residential buildings themselves are, but then was reminded that they’re built around the views to the water and mountains beyond. Which makes sense, as there’s an architectural resemblance to the huge residential towers you might find in Miami.

Typical street in Vancouver with residential towers looking out to the water/mountains. Photo via Creative Commons/Flickr/Karen

Typical street in Vancouver with residential towers looking out to the water/mountains. Photo via Creative Commons/Flickr/Karen

Vancouver is also a model of urban design and planning, however. Much of this is thanks to an initiative in the 1990s called “Living First,” which was charged with “an urban lifestyle that will bring people back from their 50-year romance with the suburbs” (44).  The success of Living First is evident as soon as you arrive – the high-rise housing, Jane Jacobs-friendly streets with wide sidewalks and shops on the ground level. Public spaces are populated with citizens and tourists alike, and the housing prices suggest that the demand to move back downtown is here to stay. Living up to its reputation, Vancouver is manicured, pristine, and expensive.

But despite (or because of) this, Hern pushes beyond the growth and the glitz and demands more. Yes, the city is leaps and bounds beyond most other North American city in terms of density and “sustainability,” but at what cost? He argues the impetus to become a global, capital-attracting, developer-driven city creates a homogenous, commodified experience that lacks roots, identity and community.

 “In Vancouver, we’re getting a very particular kind of density: a developer-friendly, instant-mix version that is injecting huge swaths of the city with a concentrated, pre-planned density in an incredibly short period of time.

“But Density without community sucks. Thousands and thousands of people jammed into faceless little boxes trying to pay off exorbitant mortgages is not much of a city. … We really should be aspiring to density, but too often what we’re getting here is a rendition that threatens to undermine the virtues that theoretically inhere in dense urban life” (54).

Side note: Vancouver is the only city I’ve visited where you can drop more than $200 on a broom.

 

The Problem of Funk

A common conflict appears in Hern’s narratives between the desire for economic growth and the need for identity and “funk.” All* fast-growing cities, including Seattle, experience this phenomenon, where easy capital leads to development and design to what I consider “tight” tolerances. Return-On-Capital demands force the utilization of every possible floor and square foot, which in turn leads to little innovation or variation in terms of building massing, materiality and programming. The “sterile and choreographed” (67) cityscape we produce is a direct result of its being a point sample of our architectural tradition.

Typical developer-driven housing development in Seattle. This building could be anywhere, but it happens to be in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Photo via Creative Commons / sea turtle.

Typical developer-driven housing development in Seattle. This building could be anywhere, but it happens to be in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Photo via Creative Commons / sea turtle.

The paradox is that it’s impossible* to directly design funk into a city, though many have tried. For that matter, it’s hard to force outside developers to create public space that is actually useful. Hern cites the example of small parks and play areas that developers are forced to include by Vancouver’s widely praised bylaws. The parks meet the city’s requirements, but they’re not used because they’re detached from their urban context, and little design effort has been made to integrate them into the city. In a city rich in outside money, builders rarely live in the neighborhoods they develop. Sterility and choreography stem from relatively few and detached inputs.

 

Fremont Troll - a neighborhood- commissioned sculpture beneath the Aurora Bridge in Seattle by local artists Steve Badanes, Will Martin, Donna Walter, and Ross Whitehead.

Fremont Troll – a neighborhood- commissioned sculpture beneath the Aurora Bridge in Seattle by local artists Steve Badanes, Will Martin, Donna Walter, and Ross Whitehead.

This book is full of thoughts on how cities might foster funk indirectly. Slowing down development; putting more control of neighborhoods into the hands of people who live in them; relaxing or changing the focus of law enforcement; supporting the urban poor who are being priced out of their neighborhoods; sanctioning, or at least tolerating, public movements and political speech. Hern touches on all of these strategies to create space for funk, individual expression and the local ownership of the city.

Public space integrated into new housing developments tends to not be used because it's added as an afterthought and has little relationship to the surrounding community, argues Hern.

Public space integrated into new housing developments tends to not be used because it’s added as an afterthought and has little relationship to the surrounding community, argues Hern.

 

Homogeneity and Formulaic Building Practices.

Hern’s argument voices some frustration I’ve experienced in Seattle, which is currently experiencing a building boom like the one he describes in Vancouver. And he’s on to something when he identifies the neoliberal political system as a primary driver of the phenomena.  City codes and building traditions do not adapt as quickly as the money that flows into development projects. Outside, developer-driven architecture all looks the same for these reasons.

Many people complain that buildings (especially housing) in the city is formulaic, and it is. But I would argue that it’s not because architects lack imagination today (which some may), or even that developers are forcing convention with shoe-string budgets (which most are). Rather, the problem is more of timing and speed. Pacific Northwest natives love and defend their Ranch Homes (formulaic), 20th-Century Tudors  (stylistically formulaic), Colonial Revivals (formulaic), and especially their Craftsman Bungalows (especially formulaic).  Every decade, give or take, has its own building tradition and most residential neighborhoods see a healthy mix of these styles. For the formulas, see any old, mass-distributed house blueprints or Leland Roth’s American Architecture. But when development happens so quickly and all at once, we perceive the replacement of entire neighborhoods with just one (current) building tradition.

A Dutch Colonial in Seattle.

A Dutch Colonial in Seattle.

Seattle and Vancouver both enforce strict building and land-use codes that cover everything from building height to the finish on your doorstep. Developers and architects typically respond with methods that are have been proven to work under these codes and a given budget. Unfortunately, this means there are often a finite number of solutions to a building project with tight tolerances.

But every era has had code and financial restrictions that have tightened the tolerances of the building traditions. All archetypes are formulaic. So, assuming decent detailing and sound construction, I have faith that the current developments will be around long enough to take on some cultural patina – and therefore nostalgia – and future building traditions will inevitably add the variety we crave. Then we’ll have those to complain about instead.

 

Cities Selling Out

The second half of Common Ground carries a tone that is slightly more subversive and extreme. In reflections of Las Vegas, Diyarbakir (Kurdistan), and Moloka’i, HI, Hern develops a multifaceted criticism of the neoliberal philosophy that drives aspiring cities today.  The perceived requirement for global capital forces cities to compromise the needs of their inhabitants to attract outside investment – the assumption appears to be that everyday residents do not or cannot sustain a city’s economy; it must appeal to outside sources.

“Right now the whole region [of Diyarbakir] is a loser in the global marketplace because it doesn’t really have anything to sell. In the neo-liberal marketplace cities are just trying to sell themselves to capital, trying to find ways to attract investment, and right now Vancouver is a winner while Diyarbakir is on the losing end of the equation.” (170)

 

In some form or another, cities like Vancouver must market themselves like a product or amusement park. Las Vegas is the archetypal example. Would it even exist in the desert if it had not packaged itself into brand-laden experience? Perhaps it would be harmless if Las Vegas didn’t have one of the country’s highest rates of foreclosure and unemployment. Hern writes, “Theme parks are fine if they’re isolated and understood explicitly as, well, theme parks. But when they become models for urban development, look the hell out.” (118)

2010 Olympic Village in Vancouver. Photo via Creative Commons / Maziar Hooshmand

2010 Olympic Village in Vancouver. Photo via Creative Commons / Maziar Hooshmand

Building metaphorical theme parks to attract outside capital comes in all forms and degrees, but cities need to recognize the difference between spending resources to benefit tourists (and perhaps a few developers) and resources to benefit residents as a whole.

 

A shopping plaza in Hollywood, CA.

A shopping plaza in Hollywood, CA.

 

A Question of Democracy

The problem with global capital – and the homogeneity and lack of funk described earlier in Common Ground – is a systemic one. Hern argues for change in the parameters, the raison d’etre, the flow of resources, and the decision making in the city.

“The imperative has to be understood as antagonistic: we cannot have global capitalism and embrace localization. They run directly in the face of one another no matter what Lululemon or BP or the Body Shop tries to tell and sell us. Our only alternative is to constrict the economy. We cannot have economic growth and ecological sanity.”

Solutions to get the funk back into Vancouver involve local urban participation and the devolution of political power to the neighborhood level. In language that invokes nascent revolutionary speech ( “… parts of building a different city are going to be straight-up brawl, and we shouldn’t fear that. Nobody likes to lose privilege but it’s going to have to happen, and the sooner the better” (207)), Hern presents some methods of taking back power:

  • Critical Mass as a (often confrontational) means of bringing attention to the needs of cyclists. “For me, the reactions of people to Critical Mass are what I imagine (hope) radical social change of the sort I am calling for will look like. The rides are a direct confrontation – a temporary one, and not hostile – in which one group of people unambiguously impose their will on another.” (210)

    Critical Mass in Seattle. photo via Creative Commons / Frank Farm

    Critical Mass in Seattle. photo via Creative Commons / Frank Farm

  • Progressive taxes and participatory budgeting. Giving local neighborhoods more control over more resources to develop themselves.
  • Guerilla Gardening for local food security and reclamation of urban space for the common good.
  • Car-Free Days to bring people together and use public space in a non-motorized manner.
  • The establishment of Community Land Trusts (CLTs) to for housing security and the protection of affordable housing against speculative development, extreme market forces, etc. “… developers and realtors will (correctly) view CLT’s as undermining their efforts and cutting into both supply and demand. I’d also agree with that, and again, it’s still a good thing.”
Guerilla Gardening. Photo via Creative COmmons / Flickr / MrsEds

Guerilla Gardening. Photo via Creative COmmons / Flickr / MrsEds

 

Hern’s strategies are all counter-cultural to some degree; they challenge the neoliberal status quo. Furthermore, they’re in the same vein as some examples of participatory democracy promoted by Archon Fung and Erik Wright, like the system of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Fung and Wright describe systems of EPG – “Empowered Participatory Governance,” which are hands-on, bottom-up, deliberative decision-making bodies that involve those most closely affected by those decisions. (Fung & Wright. Thinking About Empowered Participatory Governance. Deepening Democracy. 2003. p17).

As Mark Purcell describes the EPG form of democracy, they feature “neighborhood-scale and school-district-scale participation in decisions about policing and education, respectively. Devolution of authority ‘down to the neighborhoods’ is seen as a key element that can enable enough local control to create meaningful participatory structures.” (Purcell, Mark. Recapturing Democracy: Neoliberalization and the Struggle for Alternative Urban Futures. Routledge. 2001. p55). Other examples are Neighborhood Governance Councils in Chicago and Habitat Conservation Planning under the US Endangered Species Act (Fung & Wright 5).

As Hern and proponents of participatory democracy illustrate, the question of representation is a critical one. Local decision-making over resources means an independence from outside capital, more individual sovereignty, strengthened neighborhood identities, and expanded space for funk.

2010 Olympic Torch in the snow.

2010 Olympic Torch in the snow.

And that’s why Common Ground in a Liquid City is critical in an inspiring way. The book is one of the few times we’ve looked beyond the ideals of Vancouver or Seattle to see what there could be beyond a rich city. As Hern points out, Vancouver is what a great city is “supposed to be like. This is what a successful – maybe the ideal – neoliberal city looks like (207).” But a wealthy city is not necessarily a livable city for all. A dense city is not necessarily a sustainable city. However, such cities are in a great position to become both.

 

*counterexamples welcome

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  1. […] socially unjust. For accounts and analysis of character-killing growth, see Matt Hern’s book, Common Ground in a Liquid […]

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