Urban Charters

Urban Crossroads #94

 

 

The main issues facing cities throughout the world are concurrently similar and different. On the one hand, cities are greatly differentiated by factors including available human and financial resources, predominant systems of governance, social as well as cultural norms of interaction in and with public space, as well as openness to outside influences. On the other hand, all cities need to address influences such as the domination of the automobile in relation to other forms of movement through the city, whether public transportation, biking, or walking. All cities also need to address issues relating to zoning, which basically amounts to determining what activities in the city go where. And they all need to provide certain urban services such as garbage collection as well as water and electricity distribution, and, when possible, also provide public amenities such as parks and playgrounds. At a certain level, there is a commonality that binds cities everywhere in spite of the strong differences between them, and the experiences of any given city have lessons to offer to other cities.

There are numerous movements from the past 100 years or so that provide ideas and guidelines as to how the city may be best shaped and managed. For the most part, these have come out of the Western world and therefore are intimately connected to a number of its characteristics, whether it is individual and institutional affluence or considerable levels of participation in public life. These movements, however, still remain of relevance beyond that world.

One of the more recent of these movements is New Urbanism. The roots of New Urbanism are found in the United States in the 1980s, but took a more formal structure during the 1990s, with the founding of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). New Urbanism aims at promoting walkable, mixed-use communities that house diverse socio-economic populations - whether in preexisting urban settings or in new suburban developments. It also promotes protecting agricultural land and the wilderness, as well as preserving the built heritage. In doing so, it positions itself against “placeless sprawl,” and environmental degradation, and advocates a restructuring of public policies and development practices.

Like any movement with a significance presence, New Urbanism has its supporters and distracters. Interestingly enough, its distracters come from both ends of the spectrum. A number of those who promote urban values and the revitalization of cities criticize it for its active engagement in suburban development, and consequently for contributing to sprawl, while those who are in favor of suburbanization criticize it for attempting to increase densities in suburbs and thus limiting the sense of space and openness that suburbs provide.

Still, the movement does put forward a number of what I believe are positive urban ideas, and these are clearly explained in its charter, a relatively short document that the members of the Congress of the New Urbanism ratified in 1996 (and which may be accessed at www.cnu.org/charter).

The charter is composed of three sections, with each section containing nine points. The sections proceed from the macro to the micro scale. The first section deals with the region (metropolis, city, and town); the second deals with the neighborhood, district, and urban corridor; and the third deals with the block, street, and building. There is no need here to go through each of the nine points featured under each section as these are available on the CNU web site, but I would like to mention a few of them that caught my attention:

In the first section, the charter emphasizes that “farmland and nature are as important to the metropolis as the garden is to the house.” It also supports intensification, and specifies that infill development in the city should be encouraged over horizontal expansion. It adds that affordable housing should be built throughout a region to avoid concentrations of poverty. It also states that the use of public transportation, biking, and walking should be maximized, while the use of the automobile should be minimized. In regard to public policies, this section of the charter states that revenues and resources should be shared more cooperatively among municipalities and centers within regions. This would avoid destructive competition for tax base and would promote rational coordination of transportation, recreation, public services, housing, and community institutions (in this context, it would be interesting to explore various scenarios for how Amman and the nearby cities of Zarqa, Rusayfa, Salt, and even Irbid may share revenues and resources).

The second section emphasizes that neighborhoods should be compact, pedestrian-friendly, and mixed-use. It adds that many activities of daily living should occur within walking distance, allowing independence to those who do not drive, especially the elderly and the young. In addition, a broad range of housing types and price levels should exist within neighborhoods to bring people of diverse ages, races, and incomes into daily interaction, thus “strengthening the personal and civic bonds essential to an authentic community.” Finally, the section states that schools should be sized and located to enable children to walk or bike to them.

The third section admits that development must adequately accommodate automobiles, but that it should do so in ways that respect the pedestrian and the form of public space. It adds that the preservation and renewal of historic buildings, districts, and landscapes affirm the continuity and evolution of urban society.

In reading the charter, it occurred to me that while it deals with cities in general (with an emphasis on ones in the United States and the Western world), it would be a most interesting and useful exercise to develop city-specific charters. More specifically, I am referring to the idea of developing separate charters for the cities of the region. Cities such as Amman, Beirut, Damascus, and Cairo - to name a few - each can greatly benefit from an urban charter.

The cities of the region are facing very serious challenges in terms of unregulated population growth and geographic expansion that greatly surpass available infrastructure services. They are suffering from the destruction of surrounding agricultural land and also from the loss of historical continuity that usually provides a sense of collective memory for their inhabitants. It also seems that every time oil prices spike, the cities of the region undergo overwhelming construction booms that prove to be highly unsettling and disruptive to their natural urban evolution, whether in terms of the construction of large-scale buildings that the city infrastructure is not able to support, or the rise of real-estate values to astronomical levels, making them unaffordable to the majority of residents. The cities of the region simply are undergoing considerable urban stress, and there are no signs that such stress is relenting.

In developing those charters, it is important to avoid the process of having a few people with some knowledge and expertise in urban planning sit together and develop a document that they feel addresses the challenges, needs, and opportunities affecting those cities. Instead, the emphasis should be on developing inclusive participatory documents in which various stakeholders in the city are given the opportunity to have their opinions heard and represented through these charters. These would include, among others, residents from various parts of the city, public-sector representatives, members of the business community, students, and retired persons. Admittedly, this is an extremely difficult goal to accomplish as it involves identifying, articulating, and bringing together the thoughts, aspirations, and grievances of disparate groups - often with conflicting interests - into a single statement. Still, it has to be done, for otherwise, the alternative would be selective and one-sided documents that only present a narrow perspective. If carried out in an inclusive manner, however, these charters will provide shared visions, as well as very useful policy statements and guiding forces that will help the cities of the region navigate these difficult times.

Mohammad al-Asad

July 02, 2009

 

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