July 22, 2010

The tiring homogeneity of mixed-use buildings

One of the stranger changes in elite culture is the recently received wisdom that life will be most dynamic and exciting if only we can return to the sleepy small-town ways of the 1940s and '50s. Now, you might argue for the overall greatness of those decades based on, say, how low the crime rate was -- that these and other features more than made up for the lack of wild fun that would only arrive during the '60s (and last through the '80s). But since when did we forget that the Fifties were boring, compared to other periods? Trying to sell a return to that era based on how stimulating it was is nothing less than stupid -- but if the audience likes the idea, don't count on its stupidity to slow it down.

In particular I'm referring to the growing New Urbanist cult and their fetish for high-density, mixed-use community blueprints. Unlike the suburban dark ages that characterized the '60s through the '80s, with their stretches of homes, malls, and office parks all separated from each other, the rebirth of the city will see these various uses all jumbled up on the same plot of land. Whereas sameness reigns in suburbia -- house after house after house, and one storefront flanking another throughout the mall -- diversity will rule in the city, where a single building might have retail shops on the ground floor, office spaces right above, and from there on up a series of apartments.

Except that in practice these mixed-use buildings feel more homogeneous, not less, and they induce a dulling familiarity with everything, rather than poke us awake with novelty.

The first confusion is how they define "mixed-use" -- for them, the mix is across the spectrum of basic land uses, such as retail, office space, living quarters, etc. But is that the dimension that real-life people pay attention to when judging how varied the place feels to them? No. As these buildings really exist, they have the same tiny number of retail stores, all selling indulgences to their urban professional neighbors -- the hairdresser's / spa / tanning salon, the small organic grocer's, the cafe, and... that's about it. Maybe a shoe boutique, too. The tenants of the apartments will have chosen to live in this building over others based on what stores are there, so they will all be remarkably similar to one another in tastes and lifestyles. And the building's office spaces will either cater to these tenants or perhaps be their places of work, again ensuring a higher degree of uniformity than you'd find in a suburban office park.

So, although the uses to which the land is put may vary widely, the walks of life that the people come from and the social air they create around the building will be incredibly monotonous. And that's the way they like it! I mean, really now, can you imagine if they allowed the full variety of retail stores that gave the mall and even the shopping center such an anything-goes atmosphere? Jesus -- locksmiths, pet stores, toy stores, gadget / comic book / video game boutiques, fix-it / repair shops, gift card and party favor suppliers, and purveyors of sporting goods, martial arts training, army surplus / survival gear, and camping / hunting / fishing equipment... the whole mess is all so, well, tacky! By restricting the retail stores to those listed earlier, the building owners can ensure that people will only see impressive shops when they pass by.

Beyond the greater homogeneity found in such places, the second confusion is over what would satisfy our desire for novelty. Again, for them it is the mere encountering of various uses for land -- omigod, I'm in my apartment and, step step step, now I'm in a bagel shop! And let me just step step step over here, and now I'm at my dentist's office! Crazy! In reality, of course, stepping through such a variety of land-use areas in such a short time, day in and day out, will result in habituation and boredom. You can't fall head-over-heels in love with a girl who's raised in the same family as you. The ultimate reason that people behave that way is the Darwinian advantage of incest avoidance, but on a here-and-now level people just feel that total familiarity is a boner-killer. To really drive us to want to tear someone's clothes off, they must have something of a mystery that tempts us toward them out of curiosity. And afterward, what pair of lovers wants to be joined at the hip?

Thus, the New Urbanists have forgotten the wise old sayings that familiarity breeds contempt and that absence makes the heart grow fonder. By carving out distinct zones for our living space, our work space, our schooling space, and our free-for-all play space -- as well as keeping neighbors close enough but still separated by outside walls, a yard, and a driveway -- the suburban ecology prevents us from taking life's daily variety for granted. Indeed, the whole of Western literature teaches us what a fogging effect congested city life has on the mind, and how trivial our obsessions become there, while we gain a fuller perspective on what it all means when our movements cycle between downtown and the idyllic countryside, whether to reflect in solitude or to socialize in safety. The only change is that, where before only the wealthy could afford these travels from one realm to another, even commoners today may enjoy the spiritual envigoration of moving between different worlds in suburbia.

Both of these dehumanizing aspects of the mixed-use utopia -- homogeneity and habituation -- compound each other to destroy the sense of specialness in "going out." Where will you run off to in order to escape the nauseating familiarity of the shops in your building? -- to another mixed-use structure with yet another bagel shop, yet another salon-spa, and yet another group of apartments filled with people just like you? You are never pushed out of your provincial comfort zone -- "all within a 15-minute walk" -- so you will not experience the contrasts that are required to marvel at the out-of-the-ordinary. Whereas caravans of suburbanites used to venture far from home to join in the revelry of the mall, New Urbanists tremble at the thought of having to emerge from their cocoon and possibly get jostled by a bunch of fun-lovers out there.

Really, how different are they from Al Bundy, who wanted a recliner, a toilet bowl, and a mini-refrigerator all in a single chair so he wouldn't have to ever get up?

Since the rise of safe times in the early-mid 1990s, these city-worshiping trends have spread from a small group of dorky academics to the opinion and fashion leaders of just about every metropolitan area. Therefore a lot of historical revision has been going on, so let's be clear about how numbing these mixed-use places are. They may offer more quotidian hustle-bustle as you flit from your apartment to the tea room below to the light rail stop at the street corner, but that will never match the mind-clearing sublime of a trek out to the supermarket, the megaplex, or the mall.


  1. Great piece. While I agree with New Urbanism in theory, in practice it's become just another excercise in rampant yuppiness.

  2. lemmy caution7/23/10, 5:25 PM

    As these buildings really exist, they have the same tiny number of retail stores, all selling indulgences to their urban professional neighbors

    That isn't anything the old urbanists didn't know. As Jane Jacobs said "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings."


    search for "old buildings" and read from page 188 or so. Better yet read the whole book; it very good.

  3. New Urbanism is a way leftists romanticise pre-60s ethnic-white urban neighborhood.

    An old-school Italian-American city neighborhood where kids play in the street, butchers and vendors work on teh same street, and adults all look out for the kids and one another -- this is a huge cliche in new urbanist literature.

    And it's all good: I miss that America. Except that leftists like James Kunstler are forgetting that they are the ones who smashed it and spurred suburbanization via forced integration, bussing, and urban renewal politics. "The Smashing of Cities: is a good book on this topic.

  4. I don't believe you believe this for a minute. You're always waxing rhapsodic about Barcelona and your time there. I've been to Barcelona -- it's a pretty "monotonous" mixed-use city. Would you like it better if it were leveled and rebuilt like Dallas?


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