“Urbanism” is the science, or the art, of planning and organizing life in a city. It is an on-going study of how a town looks and functions; how it evolves to meet its visionary objectives while simplifying and satisfying the needs of the inhabitants.
Those of us who travel the world can tell in a matter of days whether a city makes sense, from an urban living perspective. If you feel good walking the streets, looking around, discovering the charm, style or architectural beauty of buildings as well as their logical/harmonious fit within the local environment, the city planners did a good job.
If, however, your reaction, as you move from one street or district to the next, is one of confusion or dislike, the kind of “what’s wrong with this picture” feeling, you just know that those who drew the plans for the city had little or no understanding for balance, and little or no common sense.
I would hate working in city government. A town is never finished. It is a work in progress. There is always something to do or undo to enhance its appeal and make life better for those who call it home. Changes are always necessary, and choices always controversial. Easier to get boos than applauds when you do that job with clear vision and a true sense of responsibility.
As usually it is the case, whether you “play” with a town, or any kind of work project, it is easier to start from scratch than modify what already exists. Easier to invent than re-invent, to build than renovate. When you create a new town, I guess you cannot go wrong because people who don’t like it will chose not to live there. When you change things around, half the people will be happy, and the other half will be upset.
At this age of global competition between cities of both the new world and the so-called old one, the job of urban planning is getting more challenging as towns keep on changing to adapt to needs. Take resort towns resting by the sea for example. They need to increase hotels and luxury condos-buildings’ capacity while being stylish to attract more & more tourists and their money, so essential to keep the town budget in the black.
Last month, I got to thinking quite a bit about this, as I was walking along Waikiki, in Honolulu. Gorgeous place, yet screaming for a daring beautification touch-up. Many buildings on the very busy Kalakaua Avenue, facing the beach and the ocean, are more than just a bit shabby as they have already lived a full life. You see the same picture in most similar settings, all over the world. There is a time to go through a complete make-over or be replaced.
This reality is especially painful when, for the sake of growth, profit and design, new bigger & taller high-end buildings are set to replace some which are too small & short for today’s tastes and needs. That does not happen without public battles.
Over the years, in Honolulu and so many other world resort towns, a bunch of condos buildings were constructed right behind the first line of shorter ones, just to offer a very exclusive & expensive open ocean view to the owners. Well, where is the view now, or what will it be tomorrow when even taller towers pop up along the sea-front?
If you lose 50% of the view, perhaps you lose 25% (or whatever percentage) of the value. One thing is for sure, you lose 100% of the reasons why you bought there in the first place. Tough. Sometimes a public outcry stops some beautiful & daring projects (as it was the case on the San Francisco ocean-front this year), but most of the time you cannot stop the growth. In a way, you should not, as you would do it at the risk of becoming obsolete.
Again, urban planning has to be logical & harmonious. It has to respect and, to a large extent conform to the environment, whether natural or man-made. Along the coastlines of the French or Italian Riviera, it would not make sense to get rid of historic low-rise buildings and erect new towers to store a few more thousands tourists. Different challenges in newer cities, In the US & Asia principally. There, keeping things as they are might not be an intelligent option for a bright future.
Old & authentic does not always mean beautiful. “Progress”, here and there & everywhere, takes many shapes and comes in many sizes.