Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Awful building facades matter, but not because they're ugly

This abandoned building in Hapeville, GA is a devastating crater in an already struggling community
Photo credit: Loopnet.com
The fantastic Aeon magazine seems to be stepping up its urbanism coverage. This pleases me, but their most recent article about the effects of urban design on psychology somewhat misses the mark for me:
If city streets are designed with endless closed fa├žades, such as those seen in supermarkets and bank headquarters, people might feel a little less happy and they might walk faster and pause less. But what is really at stake here? The real risks of bad design might lie less in unhappy streets filled with unmotivated pedestrians, and more in the amassing of a population of urban citizens with epidemic levels of boredom.
I have no doubt that monolithic and isolating facades along sidewalks have negative effects on a city's psychic health. But I also see them as a byproduct of a more sinister problem which connects to a city's economic vitality in a more direct way.

In the article's example--the Whole Foods complex on Houston in Manhattan--this building fails because its facade isn't interesting or dynamic, and thus kills social activity along its perimeter. Certainly true, but honestly: the heart of New York City is probably gonna be okay with a few mediocre sidewalks, and overall it's an insanely successful and productive block (the lines inside are terrible). The real problem with a building design like this is that most don't succeed like Whole Foods, and most aren't located in such a thriving economic cluster.

Buildings like these are horribly exposed to massive failure, and thus expose the city to the effects of that failure. A huge reason why cities have been successful in generating economic wealth is because they greatly facilitate an incremental and iterative process of growth, decline and rejuvenation. Old-style cities are stuffed with blocks containing dozens of different businesses doing different things. If one fails, the block will likely keep on chugging, economically and socially. Modern-style cities are littered with the remains of massive single-business buildings who's failure dominates an area of space. From the public finance perspective, these failures are especially dangerous, because the decline in tax take isn't matched by an equivalent reduction in service liability (sidewalks, roads etc.). Having beautiful, diverse facades is something every city should promote. But it's because their existence indicates a deeper resilience in the urban economy, not because they make us less bored.

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