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The Growth of Democratic Urbanism: Sorkin, Crawford, Gehl, and the Future

Published on 25th March 2017

In recent centuries, the world has experienced quite the urban explosion. As the global population has skyrocketed, so too has the population of the world’s cities. New York City, which was already one of the largest cities in the world in 1900, has more than doubled its population within the past one hundred years and it is not alone. Accompanying this rapid global urbanization, many theories of urbanity have been created. Further, theories of structuring urbanism in a productive way have also been created and, as these theories have grown critically, cities and their respective governments have searched for the ideal urbanism to match. Some of the leading minds in the realm of the city, including Michael Sorkin, Margaret Crawford, and Jan Gehl, have had a real impact in the way cities accomplish this, and such influence can be seen in countless projects around the world, but two essential examples include Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Lexington, Kentucky. What these case studies show is that urban designers and planners have taken heed to the changing nature of urbanism and, as the script has turned away from homogeneity and mass consumerism, towards localism and uniqueness, so too have modern cities.

Both Michael Sorkin and Margaret Crawford can be described as critics of the pervading theories of urbanism and urban design. In fact, a great many scholars of the city have posited critiques of the way cities are going. Sorkin in particular decries the progress of urban design in the 20th Century, stating that “While the task grows in urgency and complexity, the disciplinary mainstreaming of UD has transformed it from a potentially broad and hopeful conceptual category into an increasingly rigid, restrictive, and boring set of orthodoxies” (Sorkin 273). Throughout his work, “The End(s) of Urban Design,” Sorkin focuses on this point, arguing that even as cities have become larger and more diverse, urban design and city planning have become streamlined and homogenized, evidenced by cookie-cutter apartment blocks, stoic neoclassical city halls, and Wal-Marts from New Mexico to Maine. He quotes Eric Mumford’s critique of this phenomenon by stating that “the organs of political and cultural association…are the distinguishing marks of the city: without them, there is only an urban mass” (Sorkin 275). Throughout, Sorkin argues that a one-size-fits-all approach, while useful and efficient in many ways, has deprived cities of what makes them, as Jane Jacobs would say, “primary organs of cultural development; that is, of the vast and intricate collections of ideas and institutions called civilization…” (Jacobs 6).

The principle idea of a critique is change. One could read Sorkin’s piece as a rant about urbanism and the telos of the city, and this would not necessarily be wrong. Such a narrative, however, sells Sorkin short in many ways. If “The End(s) of Urban Design” was truly a simple statement of outcry, then there would be little significance. No, Sorkin’s work can best be used as a guide not so much of what to do, but what not to do. The influence of such an interpretation can be seen in projects taking place in both Lexington and Philadelphia. Firstly, the Rupp Arena Project in Lexington is more complicated than it first appears. Initially, it simply seems like urban development driven by the construction (or renovation in this case) of a large stadium, the prevailing logic being that stadiums are one of the more blatant examples of thousands of people coming together for a purpose. Many cities have tried and failed to incorporate such ideas into their urban topography. What first comes to mind is Turner Field in Atlanta. Originally named Centennial Olympic Stadium, it was designed to be a new focal point, a beachhead in a formerly rundown area of downtown that had the purpose of revitalizing the community around it. Twenty years later, little to nothing has changed in the neighborhood and the tenants of the stadium, the Atlanta Braves of the MLB, are moving into a new, culturally void stadium in the upper-class suburb of Marietta.

Cause for optimism exists in the Rupp project, however, specifically as a result of Sorkin’s criticisms of modern urbanism. One of Sorkin’s primary critiques of modern urbanism is that it wantonly bulldozes culture for the sake of a perverse, top-down concept of advancement. However, Rupp Arena already exists. There would be no tearing down of neighborhoods to build a mega-stadium, just an enhancement of what was already there. Further, Rupp is ubiquitous with college basketball, something that helps to define the character of Lexington and the greater region. Renovating the arena and making it the center of a new urban and cultural district stays true to what makes the region what it is. The authors of the proposal discuss at length Lexington’s Urban Growth Boundary and its centralizing effect. This project also overlaps with the Town Branch Commons proposal to uncover the Town Branch creek that once flowed through downtown Lexington, turning it into a natural focal point to complement Rupp’s technological one. While it is a park bearing all the hallmarks that parks are wont to, it too gives a nod to the culture of an area, reviving a historical landmark and restoring it to useful prominence within society. Both project’s designers argue for the transformative qualities of such projects and that they will “accommodate typologies of space” (RAAED 10). These projects also touch on the redevelopment of the downtown core, using their focal points to foment public life and small businesses.

Sorkin mentions wanton expansion of urbanity as an “untenable contradiction” as societies, in a desire to expand ever outward, create “their destruction of the very qualities that had defined them” (Sorkin 281). According to such logic, Sorkin must look favorably upon the Lexington projects because their rootedness in local culture while providing an example of progress forward attempts to combat this very problem. These projects, particularly Town Branch Commons, also put a premium on greenery and sustainability, which is very much in line with Sorkin’s thought processes that urban design requires “making a genuine contribution to the survival of the planet” (Sorkin 288).

The Philadelphia example could not be more different from Lexington’s, and while the Lexington examples provide a very good showcase of how a top-down approach can be used without conflicting with Sorkin’s ideal of community-driven diverse urbanism, the Delaware Waterfront project encapsulates these ideas in a vastly different way, taking a more simplistic approach. At first, the “organizers strung up holiday lights, brought in food and beer vendors, and held holiday events and performances” (Segarra). The idea eventually grew into a larger, more permanent fixture, with an ice rink in the winter and a sea of hammocks in the summer. While somewhat uninspiring to the untrained eye, the project has done something that the proposals have not yet had a chance to do: It worked. It transformed an area that is described in the article as underwhelming into a locus of human interaction, and not just any human interaction. “You’ll see men in suits, teens, families, elderly people, toddling babies, and couples…” (Segarra). This addresses one of the primary issues that Sorkin has with modern urbanism. In his critique, he argues that “the role of design as the expression of privilege has never been clearer” and that “the city seems to everywhere sacrifice its rich ecology of social possibilities for simply looking good” (Sorkin 279.) The Delaware River project addresses all of these concerns, and it does so by showing that diversity is bred by a bottom-up approach. This perhaps demonstrates that Sorkin’s idea on the end of urban design has perhaps been exaggerated somewhat.   

While Sorkin’s work is essentially a critique of “New” Urbanism, as it were, Margaret Crawford’s “Blurring the Boundaries: Public Space and Private Life” is more of an argument in favor of the concept of everyday urbanism, which is somewhat summed up by her statement that activities in “vacant lots, sidewalks, parks, and parking lots...are restructuring urban space, opening new political arenas, and producing new forms of insurgent citizenship” (Crawford 343). Crawford shares much in common with Sorkin, condemning much practice of urbanism as being “privileged and defined as universal” (Crawford 344). Both posit that urban theory and design should be influenced more by a democratic ideology, taking the form of “communities of difference” in Sorkin’s mind and “counterpublics” in Crawford’s. Even so, the nature of their arguments differ. While Sorkin’s piece is an exhortation for change, Crawford’s is more of a commentary on an alternate way to think about reality. She sidesteps what urban planning ought to do and instead focuses on what people already do in the spaces that they have, focusing on such basic concepts as the garage sale or street vendor.

While Lexington is no Los Angeles, Crawford’s tenets still apply in many ways. Her hypothesis centers on “multiple publics and varied struggles between contentious concerns” (Crawford 344). Many of these multiple publics are racial in nature, as evidenced by Crawford’s focus on Hispanic street vendors and the riots in the wake of 1990’s police brutality and the case of Rodney King, but they need not necessarily be so. Lexington surely has many conflicting publics. The older couple living on the east side of town will have a very different ideal of what the city is than a college student at the University of Kentucky. The projects at hand in Lexington spur the interaction of these publics by creating public space, and useful public space at that. While the Rupp Arena and Town Branch Commons projects actually create this space physically, the Lexington PSPL does more to repurpose space. Its authors focus on several downtown locations, including Thoroughbred Park, an area with green space and fountains, where “kids and families are...playing in the fountains, despite it not being permitted” (Lexington PSPL 45). Short Street is another example of this repurposing of space. The street itself has become a thoroughfare, with restaurants, tables, and public art, transforming a space once reserved only for cars into a dynamic area for many people to use in their own way, creating a “thirdspace” with “the possibility of new meanings, a space activated through social action and the social imagination” (Crawford 347). One of the major pitfalls of downtown that the project aims to correct is the idea of “stickiness,” wherein people simply do not stay in an area, namely Triangle Park or 5/3 Pavilion, as they have no reason to, squarely in line with Crawford’s idea that many people rashly “mistake monumental public spaces for the totality of public space” (Crawford 343).

The Delaware Riverfront project appears to be right in line with Crawford’s thinking, as far as a bottom-up democratic repurposing of space is concerned. The project does away with the monumental and empty public spaces so loathed by Crawford, although after much trial and error, as “in 1976, the city spent $13 million to transform this same section of river into a recreational park, with walkways and a boat basin,” and nobody came (Segarra). By catering to what people actually wanted, which was an open, accepting space for community engagement, instead of what they decided people ought to want, the government in Philadelphia achieved urban growth in a section of the Delaware River that had absolutely nothing going on previously. Even so, it was planned, while many of Crawford’s examples of everyday urbanism exist precisely because they are not. They happen for no other reason than the many varied processes of life. People do not congregate on the street corner because that space was made for them to do so, they congregate there because they decided to. However, Crawford’s analysis must be read in the same fashion as Sorkin’s, in a multifaceted lens. Crawford is not saying in her piece that the only good urbanism is unplanned urbanism. If that were the case, there would be little purpose for urban design in the first place. What Crawford is arguing through that framework is that urban design should simply take the actual people into account, what they do and what they desire, as opposed to what classicism dictates that  they should. Such an unorthodox approach has met with rousing success in Philadelphia and may indeed work as well in Lexington.

Jan Gehl also has many opinions that match up well with Sorkin and Crawford. Sorkin mentions sustainable cities, and Crawford discusses democratic cities. Gehl centers his thoughts on people, not so much on physical location, arguing that a city should invite people to “do the things they do by using their own muscles…” and that it “should try to make itself more livable, more sustainable, and healthier” (Brammer 2). However, Sorkin may disagree with his theory that “making a good urban habitat” is “no different in Tokyo than it is in a small village in China, or in Moscow, or Christchurch, or Hobart” (Brammer 3). Even so, his idea that sustainability and health should be paramount is followed quite closely in the case studies.

Gehl’s ideas are perhaps most closely followed by the Town Branch Commons proposal, even though the other Lexington-based proposals were in part designed by Gehl Studios. The project aims to “provide a sinuous respite for weekday workers...morning joggers, commuting cyclists, and those strolling after a meal on Main Street” (Scape 3). It highlights filtration gardens and a wholescale cleaning of the Town Branch and a revival of the natural character of the region, which will entice people to experience the outdoors, fitting with Gehl’s statement that “every city should have its citizens walk and bike as much as possible on a daily basis” (Brammer 2). Wider still, the other proposals foster an environment that is pedestrian-friendly and meant to bring people out of their cars, where they sit isolated from the rest of society, and into the city, exactly what Gehl advocates. The Lexington PSPL focuses on Triangle Park’s main issue being a lack of access as it sits in a prominent location, though at the intersection of two major roads, with ineffectual crosswalks and, in the words of the document, it is “a well-designed, well programmed, and well cared for space. It’s just impossible to get to” (Lexington PSPL 40). The solution posited by the project is to dynamize access, creating a bridge over the fountain and creating new, larger, and more interactive crosswalks. This fits well in line with Gehl’s framework, advocating pedestrian involvement in the city, as opposed to viewing the park out of a car window.

The Delaware Waterfront project does not focus quite as much on these tenets of making a city pedestrian-friendly, but it does have a major focus upon health and sustainability. The nature of the project as a democratic open space invites people to go outside and walk around, and its very construction serves a dual purpose of cutting down on costs and increasing sustainability, as “there’s even a rink-side food vendor that operates from a carved-out red shipping container,” “the surface of the park is wood chips,” and “the lodge is decorated with fishing poles…” (Segarra). All of these facets of the project, and many more, paint it as not only having a focus of sustainability, both environmental and efficient, but an entirety as such.

Sorkin, Crawford, and Gehl, as the case studies show, have proven to be major influences on new urban projects in today’s cities, but this does not mean that they are above reproach. Each has their own set of issues and conflicts that have proven problematic in the past and potentially in the future. Sorkin and Crawford have both created a critical picture of modern day urbanism, pointing out things that are wrong with the way city governments do things. Gehl, on the other hand, argues for a progressive approach by cities to solve such issues. Each is affected, perhaps some more than others, by the locales of their study. Sorkin focuses in many ways on New York City, referring to it as “the world’s largest gated community” (Sorkin 279). This idea is not wrong, but he simplifies certain aspects of the United States’ largest city perhaps too narrowly. The localism that he so earnestly advocates does exist in New York City, if one does not simply look at the outside observer’s vision of Manhattan as the whole of the city. Each borough has its own distinct cultural mores. Go from the Bronx to Staten Island and there will be quite a different feel. Moreover, many of Crawford’s tenets can serve as a foil to this homogenization of New York. Harlem, Chinatown, and many other areas, while affected by planning more recently, did not come about due to New Urbanism, but to democratic processes. Even so, his complaints about functionalism and homogenization represent very real issues all over the world.

Crawford focuses purely on Los Angeles, creating a truly fascinating narrative that is applicable to the urban experience in general, but Los Angeles is also a largely unique city that has really only come into its own in the past century and the social issues faced there may be very different from those faced in a city like Boston. Without expanding her frame of study further, others could argue that her findings are somewhat fluke-esque, though the universality of the concepts which she discusses does render such a criticism unlikely to bear fruit. Gehl, too, has a narrow focus, his being on Copenhagen. He strives to create walkable, livable public spaces in the mold of that city, but what would he do were he to encounter, for example, Los Angeles? Crawford states that a key facet of the urban culture of Los Angeles comes from the perspective of an automobile-driven city, whereas Gehl seems bent on removing the car from the concept of urbanity, which does seem quite unrealistic. Not every city is Copenhagen, and each is unique in its own way, but Gehl is not wrong to aim for cleaner, healthier, more sustainable cities. Perspective is necessary.

The case studies, as a synthesis of these differing but linked schools of thought, have done what any good synthesis does: created a compromise. Each, whether they be the Town Branch, Rupp Arena, or PSPL proposals in Lexington, or the Riverfront Project in Philadelphia, pulls aspects from these ideologies, the ones that best suit the interests of the unique location. As such, it is not wrong that Sorkin, Crawford, and Gehl conflict with each other and, in some ways, complicated notions of urbanity. This conflict breeds comprehensive and thoughtful projects that do a great deal of good for their respective communities and provide, on the whole, quite an optimistic outlook for the future of cities.

Works Cited

Brammer, Mikki. “Q&A: Jan Gehl on Making Cities Healthier and the Real Meaning of Architecture.” Metropolis August 2015.

Crawford, Margaret. “Blurring the Boundaries: Public Space and Private Life.” Readings in Urban Theory. Ed. Fainstein and Campbell. 3rd. Ed.

Gehl Studios. “Proposals for Downtown Lexington.”

Jacobs, Jane. The Economy of Cities. New York: Vintage Books.

SCAPE/Landscape Architecture. “Town Branch Commons Proposal.”

Segarra, Marielle. “Philadelphia Starts Small (and Cheap) with Delaware River Waterfront Revitalization.” Keystone Crossroads. August 14, 2015.

Sorkin, Michael. “The End(s) of Urban Design.” Readings in Urban Theory. Ed. Fainstein and Campbell. 3rd. Ed.

SPACEGROUP. “Rupp Arena Arts & Entertainment District Master Plan.”

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