The Privilege of Urbanism, The Democracy of Placemaking


The one thing I can take from reading this article and reading my words back to myself on what it has been like living as a classical new urbanist over the past year. I cannot think of another way to illustrate how I feel vis-a-vis a young man, only two years younger than me, who’s trying to get his life back on his feet, facing challenges. It also brings me to a hard truth that my design-focused friends and followers will not want to hear.

Design, even new urbanist design, is out of reach or a major stretch for far too many people, including myself.

Prior to speaking with the reporter about the issues and frustrations I have with where I live, prior to the noise ordinance and curfew restrictions, I’d been thinking about a change in living situation.

However, I kept beating myself up with a major what-if: if I leave my apartment and go somewhere cheaper, then many of the theories I’ve put forth on this blog and in other forms would go unproven.

Isn’t that what a theory is though, an idea that hasn’t been proven? Is anything on this blog law?

No, it isn’t, and that’s actually a good thing.

One of the greatest new urbanist writers of our time is actually not quite an urbanist, in the sense that he doesn’t live in an apartment, near transit, by himself or with one or two other people. I would like to think his credibility on the subject is far superior to mine and the marketplace agrees (slowly but surely).

Yet, I still believed for the longest time, that the only way anyone would listen to my words and create a marketplace around them is if I lived the most extreme urbanism I knew how to live.

And it’s urbanism, but it’s not placemaking.

Placemaking does require an address, but it’s not necessarily an address in demand. Place can be made from old-line suburbia, where each neighbor can decide to grow a different vegetable and then teach the community how to clean and cook those vegetables, in order to eat healthier. The streets of that old-line suburbia could become woonerfs, places where cars automatically go slow and people take advantage of the sloping hills and winding curves and dead ends to get in workouts, that shed the pounds earned by sitting in cars commuting to ever further away jobs, or from sitting at home doing a job that no longer requires a specific location. They could carpool to stores. I think my reporter friend said it best in this article, “Even for a staunch new urbanist like myself, the logic is inescapable: If you want two or three bedrooms and you can afford a mortgage of about $100,000, you head for the suburbs.”

While I truly don’t want the center city to yield to the gilded class, I don’t want us to give up on making good places because we don’t live or can’t afford to do so. I also don’t want those of us with massive privilege to forget that it doesn’t take much for anyone to fall on hard times and not all dealing with hard times are lazy and uncommitted.

Whatever happens and whatever I decide to do in the coming months, my goal is to commit myself to a new theory, the democracy of placemaking. To create, to invent, to include, to incorporate, to adapt, to save and to grow. Let me not forget again, what it really means to be a placeist.

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  • DANL

    I know how you feel…existential angst. Your article harkens back to the NYT’s post about ‘hip-sturbia’ earlier this year and more recently this post by the atlanticwire;

    Its always comforting to hear the same sentiment I have being expressed through your blog.

    • kristenej

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving me a note. It’s a weird feeling to be in the middle. You feel the tug from both sides. However, I prefer to be thankful for the opportunities I have, but always mindful of ways others can be helped to be a part of the community. Plus, artists shouldn’t be financial or even cultural gentrifiers. Will we ever see another Harlem Renaissance or have we been ignoring the literary and artistic movements of POC’s of the years since?

      • DANL

        I hope anyone, no matter income, level of education, race, sex etc can win in this new shuffling. But as you said, its more about social-bonds of placemaking than the economics of New Urbanism. Maybe in another 30 years the suburbs will be the hip. democratizing place while cities will be the monotonous, bourgeois class. Again, not where you live but how you live within your community.

  • DANL
  • katherine

    I totally get your feeling. I love urban communities, spent 6 years in San Francisco. Now I am back in suburbian (semi – rural) VA, at least for the near term. I constantly wonder how do I lend my voice when I am not in the thick of it. Additionally, I wonder how do I get people living in and planning suburbia to be more thoughtful about creating great places to live, work, and play and less auto-centric. I want to gag every time I see land being cleared for out building at strip malls with existing vacancies, yet, still, no sidewalks or other pedestrian paths.

    • DANL

      For Atlanta suburbs, its the opposite- sort of. You’ll find some of most best looking sidewalks in the suburbs of Atlanta ie wide, new, leveled. However, most ppl turn their nose up or think you’re crazy if they see you commuting via walking. These sidewalk networks are often disjointed since they’re conceived and maintained by individual subdivisions or businesses. STROADs/sprawl further mitigate walking/pedestrian safety. However, I must give credit to their improvements in bicycle infrastructures.

    • kristenej

      I think those of us in the rural/town/small city area need to be more vocal. I’m working on connecting with local groups who have similar, but slightly different interests.A lot of people are into this stuff, but they all call it different names and come in at different junctions.

  • katherine

    Also, you didn’t mention the “g” word – gentrification. It’s kind of sad we haven’t learned to make places better without pushing out those who were already there and could probably benefit most from these neighborhoods being better places.

    • DANL

      Gentrification isn’t synonymous with displacement but that’s usually the case in America. Free-market capitalism at its best.

    • kristenej

      I think gentrification is mis-defined. It’s only an economic effect. If it were a race thing in all cases, my rent would have gone down the minute I walked into my apartment. If anything, the racial issues happen over time and the economic issues happen immediately. Plus, with a grassroots placemaking push, you are pushing towards greater inclusiveness and also a cheaper alternative to costly development.