Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Evening with Emily Talen

Somewhat appropriately on a night in which the air smelled faintly of Kodak Fixer, I was off to the theater attached to George Eastman's house for the latest installment in the Rochester Regional Community Design Center's 5th Annual Reshaping Rochester lecture series. Emily Talen, professor at Arizona State University in the both the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and the School of Sustainability expounded on Diversity and the Power of Place.

While most immediately conflate the term diversity with the term ethnicity, in Talen's studies diversity can mean many things. The central thesis of the address as well as Ms. Talen's 2008 book, Design for Diversity: Exploring Socially Mixed Neighborhoods, is that the city is a sum of its communities and that the most successful communities are often those that are the most diverse in terms of four key factors: income, age, family structure, and lastly ethnicity.

Leading off with praise for what she deemed quality urban material in many sections of Rochester and a backhanded swipe at her adopted hometown of Phoenix, Talen proferred encouragement for the prospects of continuing urban rebound by stating there are three forces converging that are good for urbanism in cities across America. First, there is a noticeable focus on climate change in the mainstream implying that people are consciously beginning to make efforts to live more efficiently (Eg. living close to life needs, driving less) and reduce their environmental impact. Second, the ongoing recession has had a huge impact on the grandiose ideas of some developers/planners (from a financing standpoint) and put the brakes on not only the perpetuation of sprawl, but also poorly thought out urban superblock projects. Finally, Talen cites demographic shifts, namely smaller household size, as a driver of urban real estate demand going forward.

Not content to rest on those three premises, Talen took the discourse one step further and invoked the name of the great Jane Jacobs in proclaiming a trend toward smaller scale diversity. What is meant by smaller scale diversity is a lot-by-lot reassessment and redevelopment which promises to bring the greatest variety of uses to a community by virtue of avoiding the trap of paying too strict attention to zoning and its segregation of not only uses, but also people.

The following are Ms. Talen's fundamental traits of a socially diverse urban area:
  • Economic Vitality
  • Cross-fertilization of Ideas
  • Equitable Distribution of Resources
  • Eliminate Concentrated Poverty
  • Reduce Miles Traveled
  • Different Users at Different Times of the Day (another Jane Jacobs cornerstone)
  • The Ability to Age in Place if Desired
  • Neighborhood Resilience
Posing the rhetorical question, Did we ever live in truly diverse conditions?, Talen produced some simply fascinating late 19th century studies of London performed by Charles Booth who mapped entire city districts based on income class as well as nationality maps of Chicago produced by the Hull settlement house. The short answer is that yes, due to onetime technological constraints, people did live in diverse environments. The caveat comes in the form of recognition of the social controls in place during the era. Class mobility was not generally achieveable nor was it socially accepted. The challenge for our 'more enlightened society' is to return to a scenario like Booth's London without antiquated social mores. The charge presented to the designers of the built environment is to provide quality urban fabric that might foster this.

The remainder of the lecture delved into social similarities to agricultural monoculture, the prevalence of separation and its direct relationship to maladies afflicting urbanism, the unaffordable nature of Ebenezer Howard's ideal Garden Cities, supporting the integration of building types through form-based codes as opposed to undermining vibrant areas such as ethnic enclaves, and the concept of the Civic Desert as a space lacking in focal points and civic gathering places. All of these topics mesh together to paint a picture or create a mantra stating that if we want truly sustainable cities with lower carbon emissions, less energy requirements, fewer impervious surfaces, less disruption of natural habitat, etc, we must be willing to live closer together. To take this theme the extra mile, considering the audience assembled last night, the designers of today's new built environment must be willing to assume a leadership role in achieving this end both technically and politically.

The next lecture in the series is slated for February 10th at 7PM at the Jewish Community Center on Edgewood Avenue in Brighton. The guest speaker will be Christopher Leinberger, visting Fellow of the Brookings Institution, professor at the University of Michigan, and author of The Option of Urbanism.

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