18 July 2011


From someone who advocates keeping, renewing, and repurposing the existing city fabric (the layering of buildings and infrastructure accumulated over time), the notion of offering up something called creative destruction as a solution for solving city design issues naturally incites some suspicions.

Lovers of cities rightfully get a little concerned with any kind of talk that involves the term 'destruction'.  In the United States, the era of Urban Renewal that roughly extended from the 1950s into the 1970s, rudely cut through established cities with elevated freeway systems, and systematically leveled blocks and blocks of fine grained urban fabric. It was an era adept at turning delightful but run-down streets and buildings into uninhabitable islands in the name of progress.  A story so often told, that it has become a cliche.  Yes, that was 'Creative' Destruction all right, the most ham-fisted type. 'Solutions' to problems that were blindingly simple-minded, and woefully adept at squandering the precious resources.  It was an era in cities that  resulted in many scars.

But I've enjoyed reading in technology circles (a guilty pleasure) about 'hitting the reset button' regarding the moving aside of set ways of doing things, and how some folks get in there, turn everything on its head, and change things for the better.  The act of tearing down and reassembling the pieces so as run around the tyranny of doing something in a certain 'same-old' way. It is the act of losing the energy-sapping and looming presence of dogma. It occurs that the tearing down of cities doesn't have to be with the destruction of its buildings, but in the way we think about them and administer them, and perhaps that extraordinary things can come from this sort of destruction.

By their very nature, cities attract certain centers of power that deeply shape what gets accomplished and built.    Be that power in government and in the administration and regulation of building projects, or in the consortium of those involved in entitlements law and real estate finance. All vested interests, with a lot to loose if things were done differently. Folks that are not interested in messing with a process that provides them a living. The destruction we're speaking of may be in the layers of involvement removed by the rethinking of what these folks do.

Our ultimate goal is to bring city building in sync the public good, maintaining the rights of individuals and business entities in line with the rights of the existing city inhabitants, in right with the flow of good design ideas. The dogma we currently face is that good ideas aren't able to flow; they exist as persistent 'weeds' that insist on occurring in spite of everything out there (the dogma) that by accident or purpose wants to stamp them out.

Cities are no longer judged as excellent railheads or for their positioning as a seaport. They exist in the marketplace of ideas. If they are attractive as places to live and do business, then they will thrive. Hampering growth and change with backward methodologies for envisioning and building is ultimately a foolish and choking path.

I have a few suggestions for creative destruction:

  • In spite of all the examples out there that show that collective good design makes for increased property values, good design has no acknowledged value in the marketplace, either objectively or subjectively in property assessment. How do we get that changed?
  • Where I live, the entitlements process is so onerous and time consuming, that it has been my experience on numerous occasions that the end building project was made worse by the process. Rules always interpreted by staff to always say 'no you can't', environmental law twisted beyond any recognition from what it was originally intended to do, design codes administered without flexibility, conforming a specific design to a simplistic 'one size fits all' rule, this is how projects are administered. It needs a re-think.
  • Financing a project is all about threading the needle to get something built. Tremendous amounts of money are spent on things that have nothing to do with getting the building actually built, and actual design and construction expenditures are ground down as low as possible. Costs over the life of the building are often completely ignored, and things like sustainability are mostly given lip-service. Creative minds should be able to come up with something better.

'Destruction' can be a useful way to think about acting upon some of the things that keep us from having a great city. We want to preserve history, and layer upon the good work that has already been done. We want to eliminate the dogma that attaches itself to the process of building that can be so harmful to the life of a city. President is needed, because it gives us a guide on how to proceed in the future, but it is the formalities of finance and entitlements that cast a deadly pall on the creative process.

The creative minds of this generation of designers, builders, and visionaries are frustrated by the current process. The act of creative destruction is mostly awkward and cumbersome, and because of this, those who are best able to bully through codes at the expense of any deep thought about design are the ones that get things built. Money and legal entitlements take a front seat over the folks with the ideas. Time to dispose of all this and turn our cities into the equivalents of smart phones and iPads; let's remove the things that block our way to making smart and beautiful cities.

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