Saturday, March 21, 2009

An Evening with Robert Fishman

The 1903 (rebuilt after fire) Downtown United Presbyterian Church was the setting for a lecture on Monday night entitled The Fifth Migration: Return to the Urban Core. Insightful historian and author Robert Fishman fortified his own presentation with plenty of retrospective on noted urban and social critic Lewis Mumford as well as a mention of the late, great Jane Jacobs as really the first person to revalue quality urban fabric in an otherwise dark time.

The Fifth Migration concept began as a article Fishman submitted to the Journal of the American Planning Association. Mumford had written a piece coining the terms of the ordinal numbered migrations preceding the fifth where:
  • First Migration = Pioneers leaving the east coast
  • Second Migration = Mass scale movements to factory towns at the beginning of the industrial revolution
  • Third Migration = to the great Metropoli prior to World War II (this includes the streetcar suburb, generally in cities proper, a non-insidious or derisive use of the term)

He then predicted the Fourth Migration, that which would spawn the exurban land development pattern.

Mumford was far from anti-urbanist. Unfortunately he had too much faith in society. He didn't consider this migration to be detrimental to the business centers of the country at all since he assumed that out-migratory development would be disciplined and take the shape of garden towns with some elements of functional urbanism, albeit on a different scale, that would occupy a similar relationship with agri-land and rural areas as small towns and cities previously had.

What actually occured according to Fishman was a fragmentation of the city and its services over a vast area. I liken it to the pattern made after a vessel containing anything under pressure is breached, except in this case some civic organs such as county offices and services or centralized retail establishments are spewed out to the perimeter.

While this isn't news to many, what Fishman posits will save cities and the urban cores of the country is a reactionary period not unlike the one that created the current dilemma. As has been revealed in the last few months regarding lack of fiscal control in all levels of society, the suburban housing boom ran out of control, possibly overwhelmed by its own resources and opportunities. There was a general feeling that 'drive until you qualify' ethos could be maintained at an ever escalating rate forever and ever to create and enhance personal wealth.

Duly noting that the suburban arrangement has been a success on some levels such as the ability to drive retail development and demand for the better part of 70 years, it has been surprisingly unsuccessful from a cultural standpoint (though I wouldn't call the idea that drinking coffee in a metal box on a concrete slab lacks cultural value a surprise). Its quality (or lack thereof), predictability, and unfulfilling environment has failed to attract the 'creative class,' Fishman's key factor driving the Fifth Migration.

It is his belief that this migration is already beyond its infancy stages and that the creative class will be trend-setters going forward in terms of dictating the preferred housing arrangement of the nation. At the same time, it was implied that Rochester may have difficulty in competing for the highly desirable demographics with places that already offer an ideal urban condition such as New York, Chicago, or Washington. However he did say that urbanism can succeed in parallel on different scales, that it is not a zero-sum game, but that planning and coordination (as well as honesty in government) are critical in terms of presenting the most attractive urban environment possible.

While I enjoyed the address, I was troubled by the lack of inclusion of anything related to energy inputs and the ultimate question of the insustainability of the exurban all you can eat buffet. When pressed for the types of employment/industry drivers of the future urbanized society, Fishman tended to fall back on an imagination theme, stating that we may not even be able to characterize the types of innovation/economies that would serve to keep this wave of urban dwellers meaningfully employed. I also found the statement that the transition from the fourth to the fifth migration is one of the major causes of the current financial crisis to be wishful thinking on his part (it's significantly more complex than that). But to his credit, when pushed on the topic of oil prices, he skipped directly to the likelihood of future oil shortages such as those seen in the early 1970's and what that would do to suburban land value.

Just a short note on the significance of this post. This is post #100 in the history of my Moderate Urban Champion blog. While the post frequency has declined, my interest in the subject has not. I've accomplished my short-term goal of moving to the city (without taking too much of a bath in the real estate process) and taking advantage of its efficiencies. I've been jaded by some discourgaging developments and continued prevalent attitudes, but I've been encouraged by an equal amount of stories I've come across, people I've met, and things I've experienced. I hope whoever reads the blog finds it insightful as opposed to preachy and I look forward to the next 100 posts.

1 comment:

thethirdcoast said...

Congrats on your 100th post!

Your dedication is inspirational, moreso as I struggle to formulate worthwhile goals for my life.