A planning thrill ride with Fregonese, Koolhaas, Krier

According to the number crunchers at Metro (Portland’s regional government, for those keeping track outside Oregon), metropolitan Portland, which includes five counties in Oregon and two across the Columbia River in Washington, will reach a population of 3.85 million by the year 2060. The population now is roughly 2.1 million. And if the area continues to grow at the rate it did from 1960 to 2000, that rises to more than 6 million.

If you are in the planning business, and John Fregonese is, this is important news, because big change ahead means more planning! Fregonese spoke Monday night at the Bright Lights Discussion Series, sponsored by Portland Spaces magazine and moderated by editor Randy Gragg, and one of the first things he referenced was that figure. Not because he’s looking for work, but because it lends a certain urgency to the work he’s doing with the Big Look, Oregon’s attempt to improve its land-use framework, still seen as a model nationally, but now a bit old and proven to be short on flexibility. Especially with hordes of new residents lining up to come here.

Fregonese’s discussion wasn’t all that radical, primarily a restatement of the principles governing the Big Look, a short and flattering account of Chicago’s planning process (not to mention Denver, both Fregonese clients), and some cautionary notes about the cost to Portland of standing still. What gave it some urgency for me, though, was the Nicolai Ouroussoff story in the New York Times magazine about urban planning and building (without urban planning) in China, specifically the coastal town of Shenzen, which has grown from a little fishing village of a few thousand to a city of eight million or so in the past 30 years. That’s eight million. Ouroussoff’s story is interesting for its account of this frenzied growth, not all that uncommon in China, where a huge rural population is shifting to the cities, but also for the “values” it contains. More about that later. Finally, I was also considering a rousing defense of New Urbanist Leon Krier by Roger Scruton in Journal magazine, a publication of the Manhattan Institute. I started to type that the Manhattan Institute is like Portland’s own Cascade Policy Institute, but it’s much smarter than that, though its eagerness to battle “collectivism” in all of its real and imagined forms is similar. Both are important for they way they send you back to check your “arithmetic” on various issues (the Cascade Politicy Institute, for example, hates light rail, accommodating bicycles and the Eastbank Esplanade).

So, just to recap the introduction: Fregonese on contemporary planning processes; Ouroussoff on China; new urbanism. If we throw them together, what do we come up with?

I liked John Fregonese from the beginning of his talk. He’s smart but not imperious, meaning he’s got things on his mind, but he understands that you might have things on yours, too. And as he began to spin out his thoughts on the Big Look, it became apparent that he was a very practical fellow as well. This has been a common thread on Art Scatter in recent weeks — I think Fregonese has an essential pragmatism in common with Mike Richardson (Dark Horse Comics), architect Brad Cloepfil and several of the members of the green panel assembled by PNCA a couple of weeks ago, including Susan Anderson, director of Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development. Not that they lack strong values, because in fact they are quite principled, I think. But they acknowledge that to accomplish things in the public sphere you have to be willing to consider the other people sitting around your metaphorical table, even to the extent of conceding that they may have ideas superior to your own, once you get into it with them.

Back to Fregonese, who said he believed Portland was “on the verge of radical change,” for lots of reasons, not all of them demographic: the population gain; the aging of the population (Boomers, that’s you); the cost of oil (and I was so glad to hear him say that, though he didn’t go into the implications — to the I-5 bridge proposal, for example); climate change; the competition for workers in their 30s, among whom Portland is thankfully popular but maybe could do more. What are those 30-somethings looking for? Easy: energy-efficient living, an attractive place to live, a good transportation system, a high livability index and lots of options for the above (travel, housing, shopping, working).

Who is doing a good job along these lines? Well, Chicago, which he described at length. The Chicago experience exemplified the rules of success in planning: timing, a public vision, a detailed plan, communication of that plan, direct and large capital investments, access to the levers of power (economic and political), leaders and an army of followers (he observed that Portland has leaders but not enough committed followers). See? I told you he was practical.

That practicality was even more apparent in his discussion of the Big Look planning effort, which hopes to revive and improve the state’s land-use planning, which led in the 1970s to our famous Urban Growth Boundaries. The Big Look has 19 goals, but four basic principles: to increase economic prosperity, equity and fairness, quality of life and a healthy environment. Inside the Urban Growth Boundary, he wants governments to have the tools to make their cities great places to live. At the edges of the line, he favors flexibility about adding land to the urban areas (though protecting irreplaceable natural and farming areas) and compensating land owners. And ultimately, he thinks Big Look can lead to changes that also produce the re-engagement of citizens in the process of planning, which is another way of saying “governing themselves.” It’s an exercise in democracy repair, which perhaps is the unstated fifth principal. In the question and answer period, Fregonese said, “No one has asked Oregonians what to do with their land planning in a long time.” And then, remarkably, he suggested that the imaginary table we were talking about before must include those with views that might start out antithetical to the very idea of planning. In fact, he said this a couple of times — it’s the only way to keep offspring of Measure 37 (which was at least a partial repudiation of the rigidity of the Urban Growth Boundary and those who guarded it, according to Fregonese) from blossoming time after time.

There was more, but you get the drift. Fregonese is an exemplar of the exhaustive public process that has become the way we do business in Oregon, and especially in Portland. There’s nothing especially noteworthy about it — until you go with Ouroussoff to China, with a side trip to Dubai thrown in for good measure. Was there any possibility that representatives of the hundreds of thousands of workers housed in spartan barracks in Shenzen would contribute their perspective on development decisions? Uh, no: in Shenzen there is no table, just cranes and concrete and steel and money. Oh, and architects, lots of them. Ouroussoff’s story is written from their perspective, and frankly, that’s pretty scary.

Rem Koolhaus gets quite a bit of quote time in the story (he’s getting a lot of business in China, too), and I like that he admits that the sudden urban explosion has left him befuddled: “The irony is that we still don’t know if postmodernism was the end of Modernism or just an interruption,” Ouroussoff quotes Koolhaas. “Was it a brief hiatus, and now we are returning to something that has been going on for a long time, or is it something radically different? We are in a condition we don’t understand yet.” That involves searching for context where none (or very little) exists, admitting the limits of architecture to supply complex details when the projects are so large, proceeding at full speed without a compass. Again Koolhaas: “A city like Dubai is literally built on a desert. There is a weird alternation between density and emptiness. You rarely feel that you are designing for people who are actually there but for communities that have yet to be assembled. The vernacular is too faint, too precarious to become something on which you can base an architecture.”

Ouroussoff makes you want to visit these massive developments housing tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, people. I couldn’t quite envision the urban mat-design of Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto, which stacks roadways, commercial buildings, parks, offices and housing towers. Designed for a site in China, the plan was finally built for a developer in Dubai. Zaha Hadid has built a couple of similar efforts, multi-use for a hundred thousand people. And Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid in Beijing uses sky bridges to connect towers at the 12 and 19th floors with bars and nightclubs that overlook an internal courtyard.

Holl extols the spirit of his Chinese developers: “We’ve become too backward-looking. In China, they want to make everything look new. This is their moment in time. They want to make the 21st century their century. For some reason, our society wants to make everything old. I think we somehow lost our nerve.” Of course, Linked Hybrid is for the wealthy, and Ouroussoff puts Holl in his place: “Climbing to the top of one of Holl’s towers, I looked out through a haze of smog at the acres of luxury-housing towers that surround his own, the kind of alienating subdivisions that are so often cited as a symptom of the city’s unbridled, dehumanizing development. Protected by armed guards, these residential high-rises stood on what was until quite recently a working-class neighborhood, even though the poor quality of their construction makes them seem decades old. Nearby, a new freeway cut through the neighborhood, further disfiguring an area that, however modest, was once bursting with life.”

We couldn’t be farther away from stodgy old Portland,
which Holl probably would suggest has lost its nerve, if it ever had any to begin with. Planning commissions? Citizen stakeholders? Review processes? Rules? And of course, we couldn’t be farther away from Leon Krier as advanced by Roger Scruton, either.

I have seen Krier speak in Portland, and he’s a very reasonable fellow, himself, as he argues for an architecture of human scale, a lot like the architecture of the European past, the architecture before Modernism. Many of his ideas — such as denser “walkable neighborhoods” that allow residents to amble to stores and parks, instead of drive — aren’t that alarming, even to architects and planners. The idea of massive developments with nightclubs on the skybridges? Uh, no. Too big and too ugly, meaning it’s nothing like the pre-industrial European village that is his model. Krier has designed a new town in the UK, Poundbury, which ultimately will house 10,000 residents, and though it has room for some architectural “expression” as long as it is expressed along traditionalist lines — materials, how buildings are sited on the lots (the front doors open directly onto the street), and the winding streets of the urban plan are all given.

Krier’s critique is more far-reaching and pointed, though, and it has a political dimension, which Scruton expresses quite forcefully. Basically, it comes down to this: Modernism and the cities it spawned are the result of various socialist/totalitarian schemes that diminish the human in service to the collective, not the individual. This isn’t the place for a full-throated rebuttal, but that isn’t remotely accurate. Awful architecture in the U.S. and Portland has nothing to do with socialist elites imposing their dystopian vision on the rest of us. No, it’s the millions of bad decisions freely made without any vision whatsoever, Modernist or otherwise. Sorry, you can’t blame it all on Le Corbusier (both Scruton AND Ouroussoff give HIM a good hiding). In fact, darn little of it (and I’m almost roused to a defense of Le Corbusier here, but we’ve gone on much longer than originally intended).

The China Ouroussoff describes is a weird hybrid — totalitarian politically, something else economically. The massive developments aren’t planned centrally, they are pursued by individual developers, who’ve attracted the world’s most famous architects to build new cities from the ground up. We in Portland would agree with a Krier disciple that the scale is crazy, but the population scale of China would seem crazy to us, too.

Are they creating monstrosities in China? Here, I turn to something that Brad Cloepfil said at the previous Bright Lights event — let’s see in about 50 years, when things have a chance to “grow in.” And add a point of agreement between Cloepfil and Fregonese: Perhaps the real measure of the architecture being created, whether the gargantuan developments in China OR the little village of Poundbury, is its adaptability going forward. Poundbury’s crooked little streets? Fregonese praised Portland’s grid on Monday night because of its flexibility. Those skybridges in China? Who knows what they’ll be looking down on 100 years from now? If the buildings, streets, cities don’t work for subsequent generations of users, then they were “wrong.” Which almost sounds like Krier, except that Cloepfil and Fregonese, again practical men, would argue that improving medieval design isn’t just possible, it’s easy — we can design safer, healthier, more energy-efficient buildings today than our architectural ancestors did, even if we are little people sitting on the shoulders of giants.

Maybe my biggest beef with both the famous architects in China AND Krier is a Portland complaint. Where are the stakeholders? How can the voices of the future users be heard? What kind of cities and buildings do they want? Krier thinks they all want medieval villages, but he doesn’t ask them. He doesn’t invite them to help figure out the details. In Portland, we expect that. We embrace the awful process (except for the Cascade Policy Institute, perhaps). We accept its limitations. At least for now. Because, say Metro is wrong; say we plan for 2 million and actually add 4 million or 8 million people in the next 50 years. What kind of cities do we get then?