Adrian Parr (2013) highlights ‘problematic’ aspects of New Urbanism

A previous post has outlined positive aspects of New Urbanism in Chicago, as described by Adrian Parr in The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate change Politics (2013).

The current post outlines Parr’s discussion of problematic aspects of New Urbanism in Chicago, a city which has shed its “blue-collar rustbelt image, and in its place it has joined the ranks of other global cities the world over” (Parr, 2013, p. 111).

“New Urbanism,” Parr notes (pp. 116-117), “is the outcome of a marriage between the principles of environmentalism and neotraditional design and planning. It aspires to make cities and towns more user-friendly by creating walkable, efficient, and livable communities.”

“There is,” adds Parr, “enormous merit to the notion that a compact, well-planned community with a strong public infrastructure and green buildings is an effective way to reduce the ecological footprint of cities and metropolitan regions.”

Modernity, postmodernity, modernism, and New Urbanism

Parr also attends to what she perceives as problematic aspects of New Urbanism. She notes that critics of New Urbanism have examined some of the movement’s touchstone examples – Seaside, Florida (the set for the film The Truman Show) and Celebration, Orlando (built by Disney Co.). What comes in view, according to Parr, in Michael Sorkin’s words, “a development that harbors ‘a single species (the white middle class) in a habitat of dulling uniformity.'”

Parr adds that Michael Sorkin characterizes ‘New Urbanism’ as a misnomer:

“It reproduces all the ‘worst aspects of Modernism’ because ‘undergirding modernity was the fantasy of a universal architecture.'” Parr adds that New Urbanism promotes, in Sorkin’s words, “another style of universality that is similarly overreliant on visual cues to produce social effects,” and that is characterized by a uniformity of production and a “polemic of stylistic superiority” (Parr, 2013, p. 117).

Adrian Parr characterizes Michael Sorkin as being “critical of the universal content of the New Urbanist project.”

In contrast, Parr perceives the problem “to be less of content than one of form: New Urbanism does not prioritize a responsive design process that emerges in collaboration with existing communities. Instead, it begins by creating a tabula rosa onto which the physical features of a traditional conception of community are rolled out” (p. 118).

Parr speaks of ‘pathologization’ of poor urban communities

According to Parr, deindustrialization in 1970s Chicago gave rise to urban crime, middle-class flight to the suburbs, and a growth in districts characterized by extreme poverty, and to what she describes as a “historical narrative that pathologizes Chicago’s poor urban African American communities (p. 119).”

She adds that “this patholigization reappeared In Mayor [Richard M.] Daley’s use of New Urbanism: demolishing public housing (‘the Projects’) and replacing it with mixed-income housing, restructuring public schools in low-income areas, and developing initiatives to address Chicago’s food deserts” (pp. 119-120).

She notes that the post-1970s justification for dismantling of Chicago public-housing projects “has found support among architectural and urban theorists who have been highly critical of the modernist project and more specifically of modernist high-rise public-housing schemes” (p. 121).

Parr notes (p. 112) that “as a green city, Chicago epitomizes modern feeling as much as it produces that feeling.” She refers, as well, to Frederic Jameson (1991), who speaks of ‘this modern feeling’ associated with a desire to make things new and to get rid of old objects, values, and mentalities.

According to Parr, an appetite for “newness” has the “consequence of generating amnesia throughout the social field, an amnesia that inhibits institutions and social organizations from effectively intervening in the structural inequities that infuse our common landscape” (p. 112).

For understanding the nature of modernity, my own preference is the overview that Charles Taylor provides. For understanding the nature of postmodernity, my preference is the overview that Peter Burke provides.

Parr’s argument about a relation among modernity, New Urbanism, and amnesia doesn’t carry a lot of traction for me, but I believe there is value in being aware of the underlying train of thought.

Climate change

Parr’s chapter on modern feeling and the green city highlights what has worked well, and what has not worked well with regard Chicago, as seen by a particular observer.

The discussion brings to mind the history of Regent Park in Toronto.

With regard to the wider topic of climate change, Harald Welzer’s Climate Wars (2012) provides a particular overview.

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