The Design Observer Group

Posted 09.07.09

Tobias Armborst, Daniel D'Oca, and Georgeen Theodore

Community: The American Way of Living

Ave Maria
Ave Maria Oratory. [All images courtesy of Interboro Partners]

Heaven is a place where you shall be united in the same interest, and shall be of one mind and one heart and one soul forever.

— Jonathan Edwards, Heaven, a World of Love, 1746

From the nature of things, every society must at all times possess within itself the sovereign powers of legislation. Our ancestors, before their emigration to America, were the free inhabitants of the British dominions in Europe, and possessed a right which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness.
— Thomas Jefferson, Summary Review of the Rights of British America, 1774

The Crack in the Picture Window
Ave Maria is a new, master-planned, gated community near Naples, Florida. Marketed to Catholics (and funded by the notoriously conservative Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza,) the town includes 800 residential units, a university and a large oratory. Yet despite opening in the summer of 2007, the Catholic-themed community lacked a proper place of worship for almost a year: because of the local diocese’s differences with the town’s founder, the $24-million, 100-foot-tall oratory meant to anchor the community remained at first unconsecrated. The result? Many of the community’s religious ceremonies were performed in a neighboring parish in the town of Immokalee, which serves the decidedly lower-income Creole and Hispanic Catholic population. The people of Ave Maria were not happy about this.

There is always a crack in the picture window. Within every closed community lies a little open city, a modest space of encounter that undermines the community’s integrity — and opens it to the larger world. It is a glitch in the system: something went wrong, not quite as planned, and the promise of Monaghan’s community was compromised. To be a good Catholic in Ave Maria, for a while at least, you had to leave Ave Maria and go where people are poor and do not speak English.

This is one example among many of how the open city pops up, where and when you least expect it.

Open City and America
In “City Life and Difference,” the late political scientist Iris Marion Young describes cities as “heterogeneous, plural, and playful, a place where people witness and appreciate diverse cultural expressions that they do not share and do not fully understand.” [1] This, in a nutshell, is the ideal of the open city, which has inspired architects, urban planners and artists for centuries, and which is the theme of this year’s architecture biennale in Rotterdam. Described by biennale co-curator Kees Christiaanse as “an arena in which diverse social and ethnic groups can coexist, interact, and generate complex relationships and networks,” [2] the ideal of open city is often contrasted with the reality of the American built environment, where a preference for what some call “purified communities” [3] has produced a landscape of homogeneous and often walled privatopias where meaningful encounters between diverse groups are rare. Because so many Americans are afraid of uncertainty, instability and disorder — so the argument goes — America has few open cities; mostly we have a sprawling, unplanned mess of homogenous subdivisions “organized in terms of a multitude of ‘we’ feelings.” [4] This argument was recently made by the journalist Bill Bishop; in the Bill Clinton-endorsed book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, Bishop warns that while America is diverse, “the places where we live are becoming increasingly crowded with people who live, think, and vote as we do,” and that “our country has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred, that people don't know and can't understand those who live just a few miles away.” [5] Similarly, Gerald Frug, in Citymaking: Building Communities without Building Walls, writes that “the overall impact of American urban policy in the twentieth century has been to disperse and divide the people who live in America’s metropolitan areas, and, as a result, to reduce the number of places where people encounter men and women different from themselves.” [6]

Indeed, in the past 20 or so years, many serious observers have investigated the various forms that these fear-based, purified “communities of we” can take. Kenneth Jackson focused on “the invisible fences that surround entire municipal jurisdictions in the United States,” describing them “as real and effective as both the fortifications of Medieval Europe and the gated communities of our own time.” [7] Mike Davis referred to the hyper-militarized downtowns of cities like Detroit and Los Angeles as “carceral archipelagos,” constructed to keep out the urban “other.” [8] Privatopias, tourist bubbles, leisurevilles: these are just some of the terms coined to describe the segregated (and segregating) spatial products of U.S. urbanization, and there is by now a substantial literature that positions U.S. development as the antithesis of the open city.

But this depends upon a very selective reading of American development (as the authors cited above would surely acknowledge). A closer look reveals that the open city is (and has always been) alive in metropolitan America. It is too easy to overemphasize the country’s tradition of Jeffersonian anti-urbanism, southern agrarianism, Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Broadacre City,” suburbanization, urban renewal, Escape From New York, and privatopia; after all, a Hamiltonian tradition of dense, industrial cities has undoubtedly influenced the American way of urbanization. Certainly Christiaanse’s “arenas in which diverse social and ethnic groups can coexist, interact, and generate complex relationships” are plentiful in the denser and more mixed-use public spaces of our older cities: the kind of spaces that exhibit Jane Jacobs’s “generators of diversity” and that look like what one would expect an open city to look like. [9]

But the pulse of the open city can also be felt in the newer, sprawling, middle landscape often disparaged as the enemy of diversity, where 63 percent of Americans now live, and which has been growing, developing and diversifying for at least the past century. How could the open city not have found some foothold here? To be sure, many Americans choose homogeneity over heterogeneity. Yet this does not mean that Americans — even suburban Americans — do not experience the positive qualities that Young and Christiaanse associate with the open city.

We base this argument on the following. First, contemporary suburbia is full of what we might call “spaces of encounter” and “spaces of opportunity" that encourage coexistence, interaction and the generation of complex relationships. Second, the like-minded clustering cited as evidence of America’s aversion to the open city is usually less harmful in effect than critics charge.

Spaces of Encounter, Spaces of Opportunity
The criticism that residential sorting produces homogeneity and precludes meaningful encounters with strangers has a fatal flaw: residents of homogeneous communities spend a lot of time outside their community, at shopping plazas, strip malls, movie theatres, stadiums, and other semi-public spaces that inevitably serve as spaces of encounter for multiple groups. Take a trip to the Arundel Mills Mall in suburban Hanover, Maryland, and you’re likely to encounter more racial, economic and lifestyle diversity than in the older, denser, more obviously heterogeneous city of Baltimore, ten miles away. These encounters might seem superficial (e.g., members of one race or religion selling Gap T-Shirts to members of different races and religions); but the “being together with strangers” that is a value for open city advocates like Iris Marion Young and Gerald Frug is plainly at work there. When you look for them, without bias, you find that Jacobs’s generators of diversity are everywhere in suburbia. Arundel Mills is such a place. Let’s consider three more such everyday places.

First, the AMC Star Southfield, near Detroit. In their contribution to the Biennale, Michael Haggerty and Raj Kottamasu write: "In a metropolitan region with a dwindling number of movie theaters, the AMC Star Southfield — a 20-screen, 6,000-seat multiplex — is something of an anomaly. Located on Twelve Mile Road in Southfield, halfway between Detroit's city limits and the region's wealthy suburbs, the Star occupies an opportune border zone and it captures multiple audiences. This successful venture, designed by the Rockwell Group as an elaborate Art Deco stage set, has became one of the highest-grossing U.S. theaters, and audience diversity has inspired unusual programming: mass-market movies play alongside the independents, and the audiences for each have started to blur. In a region where arts institutions struggle to stay alive, the Star has created something new: a cultural commons."

Second, the Peace Terrace, in Fremont, California. It is Christmas and Ramadan at Peace Terrace, a road in Fremont, in the Bay Area, where the Al-Masjid Ul-Jame Mosque and Saint Paul’s United Methodist Church share a parking lot and small park. Usually, Methodists fill the parking lot for Sunday morning services while Muslims from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan gather for afternoon prayers on Friday. Today, both groups need parking and Muslims have saved spaces for their Christian neighbors. Suburban Fremont is actually one of the most spiritually and ethnically diverse settlements in the country, and residents have become skilled at collaboration, cooperation and compromise. Peace Terrace illustrates a kind of extended open city moment, where interaction among different cultures is practically guaranteed by ongoing internationalization. A five-acre parcel nearby, jointly owned by the mosque and the church, remains undeveloped, and both parties plan to expand day care and religious schooling. Rumors of joint programs for children suggest that proactive collaboration between these unlikely neighbors will produce more than a shared parking lot.

Houston Vietnam Memorial
Houston Vietnam Memorial. [Photos by Erica Allen-Kim]

Third, the Houston Vietnam Memorial. In her contribution to the Biennale, Erica Allen-Kim describes the project: "It may seem surprising that a shopping center parking lot serves as the site of a Vietnam War Memorial. but it is one of many examples of the adaptability of the commercial strip to civic and cultural functions in Houston. Dedicated in 2005 and privately funded by Vietnamese Americans, it is the second memorial to both Vietnamese and American veterans in the U.S. The memorial fronts Universal Plaza, which is owned by Hubert Vo, a state representative whose office is there. And unlike the civic center location of the Little Saigon memorial in Orange County, this memorial inhabits an uneasy place that is neither vernacular roadside shrine nor official public monument. It is a testimony to how Vietnamese immigrants have appropriated and politicized their adopted suburban landscapes."

Life in any metropolitan region is full of such encounters with the unfamiliar. Whether one lives in the city center or suburbia, information flows are now too pervasive, and physical, psychological and social border crossings too frequent, for any community to remain closed or homogeneous. [10] And these spaces of encounter are being joined by what one could call “spaces of opportunity.” The 2000 Census revealed that — for the first time — more immigrants live in suburbs than in central cities. It also revealed that immigrants are now more likely to move directly to the suburbs, rather than using older cities as so-called gateways. Why? As demographer Audrey Singer explains, in The New Immigrant Gateways, newcomers increasingly find more opportunity and cheaper land in the suburbs. [11]

People Sort Themselves for Many Reasons
A few men with a large tract of land in the northern foothills of the Missouri Ozarks are looking for like-minded, agriculturally-inclined, eco-friendly artisans free from the bonds of organized religions and political correctness to join them in establishing a community in celebration of “all aspects of living from the times of our ancestors before the various diasporas into others lands and modern cultures.” A woman with some acreage outside Indianapolis wonders whether there might be others interested in starting a community “devoted to astral travel and telepathy, and possibly telekinesis.” An itinerant group of a dozen or so followers of “the way of the heart” are advertising availability in a bucolic new residential community called “Adidam.” The catch? To live there, “one must be a formally acknowledged devotee of Adi Da Samraj.” An advertisement for the “Alone Together Hermitage” invites people to join a community “of hermits and loners living together for the mutual benefit and protection of the whole,” where “great efforts are taken by all to ensure that the sanctity of that solitude is never broken under any circumstances,” and “a sophisticated process of communication and notification has been developed so that no member is required to interact with any other.” And in another neck of the woods, a self-identified loner is looking to connect with “free-thinkers and underground intellectuals . . . afraid to commit to communities” in order to “pool resources and start an outsider’s community . . . for those familiar with rejection.” [12]

While acknowledging the damage that America’s preference for purified communities has had on poor, mostly nonwhite citizens, we argue that like-minded clustering is more pervasive, and more benign, than typically assumed. [13] Beyond the well-known narrative of postwar white flight, people sort themselves for all sorts of reasons, as the advertisements quoted above suggest. Like-minded clustering has indeed produced racially exclusive communities whose legacies — central city depopulation and disinvestment — are unfortunately still felt; but it has also produced communities for golf, fishing, and horseback riding, communities for gay retirees, multiple-chemical-sensitivity sufferers, hipsters and suburban Muslims. A road trip through North America would show the tremendous variety of like-minded communities out there.

You might find, for instance, Peace Village, which looks at first like an average suburb. But closer examination reveals that the streets of this 265-home subdivision in exurban Toronto are named after prominent Muslim thinkers. And look inside the homes, where dual sitting rooms separate men and women at social gatherings, and where heavy-duty ventilation equipment extracts the strong aromas of Middle Eastern cooking from the kitchens. Peace Village was designed to accommodate members of Ahmadiyya, an Islamic sect that fled Pakistan in the 1970s and ’80s to avoid religious persecution. The neighborhood is a true refuge, where a community of Muslims lives according to their conventions within a modern, Western suburb.

Peace Village
Peace Village Mosque 

Peace Village Resident
Peace Village resident in sitting room.

Another intentional community is Arizona's Sky Village, at the foot of the Chiricahua Mountains, where residents indulge their passion for the night sky. Amateur astronomers, stargazers and outdoor buffs alike find solace in this low-light, sparsely electrified community of time-share haciendas. Far from any significant city and located in one of America's dark-sky regions, Sky Village denizens enjoy night-time hikes, evenings gazing through personal telescopes and cocktail parties with fellow astro-geeks. And in neighboring New Mexico is Rainbow Vision, a GLBT — gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender — community near the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Santa Fe. Rainbow Vision must have found an untapped market, as three more branches are scheduled to open in the Bay Area, in Palm Springs, California, and in Vancouver, Canada. Whether providing assisted-living services to the elderly, or offering Wednesday night drag shows, this resort community offers a range of activities and properties for those attracted to a GLBT-centric environment.

Toward an Everyday Open City
Whether or not suburban spaces of encounter are as open as the traditional public spaces of our older cities, these spaces are here to stay, and their open attributes — diversity, opportunity, malleability — should be recognized. But these attributes should be more than recognized. We have done our best to defend America’s suburbs against the criticism that they are the opposite of the open city; we haven’t said much about how architects and planners can help create a more open city in everyday suburbia.

Robert Venturi said: “Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect.” [14] Being sympathetic to the openness in the everyday environment is indispensable to making that environment still more open. This is a tremendous opportunity for architects and planners. To seize it we will have to avoid some misconceptions. The first misconception is to assume that the open city follows from any particular form or mix of programs. Many designers subscribe to Jacobs’s generators of diversity. But as we have been arguing, this theory is not just wrong; it is dangerous because it forces us to deny the very possibility of the open city in the suburbs. The second misconception is that the open city is a permanent place. An open city can be created not just from actual places but also from momentary experiences — from temporary encounters with the unfamiliar. As a profession we haven’t yet explored the transformative power of what Michel de Certeau, following Michel Foucault, called “bouts of surprise”: moments when “something that exceeds the thinkable and opens the possibility of ‘thinking otherwise’ bursts in through comical, incongruous, or paradoxical half-openings of discourse.” Henri Lefebvre’s “urban encounter,” Roland Barthes’s “punctum,” Leo Charney’s “moment:” all of these ideas are important to the development of a suburban, everyday open city. [15]

What if we reframed the open city as simpler, lighter, more everyday? What if, instead of striving to cook up the open city with aging recipes like Jane Jacobs’s generators of diversity, we strived to identify the open, inclusive experiences in everyday lives, and then concocted ways to enrich them? Could the open city be slipped into a suburban commute? A trip to the supermarket?

One can identify projects that approach the open city in this spirit. Relying for the most part on de Certeau’s “art of the weak,” all co-opt everyday phenomena in an attempt to slip open city experiences into our daily lives. For instance, in “Duck and Cover,” the Los Angeles urban designer Roger Sherman creates a community around big box retail. Arguing that big box retailers, with their strong brand identities and large tracts of underused land, “represent the next frontier of public life-cum-market-driven development,” Sherman proposes to thicken — literally and figuratively — Target’s logo and create housing on an over-scaled, sloping roof. Part billboard, part landscape, the project would be, as Sherman puts it,  “a Trojan horse for an expanded public realm,” attracting “an unlikely assortment of audiences.” Another example: DUB Studios, of New York and Los Angeles, proposes a “Suburban General Store.” The project calls for converting the typical suburban pool house — that underused community amenity found in so many American subdivisions — into a General Store selling everyday stuff and also offering that rarest of suburban amenities — walking distance. Pitched by DUB as a “fun and logical strategy” to reduce auto-dependency, the General Store would also function as community gathering space, complete with a Fed Ex window, business center, coffee bar, etc.

Roger Sherman
Roger Sherman: Duck and Cover 

DUB Studios
DUB Studios: Suburban General Store


Another pertinent project is “Malibu Public Beaches,” by the Los Angeles Urban Rangers, a collective of geographers, environmental artists and historians, architects, et al. Malibu Public Beaches aims to open the private beaches of Malibu to the public. Using maps and guided tours (called “safaris”), the Urban Rangers want to demystify Malibu’s 20 miles of beaches by identifying public spaces, access ways and easements that have been obscured by misleading signage and private development. In the authors’ words: “In a dense and diverse city hungry for public space, the Malibu Public Beaches project elucidates and activates the important public space of the beach . . . [and] offers an accessible format for navigating the often confusing interface between public and private lands, making these spectacular beaches easier to find, access, and enjoy.”

Malibu Rangers
Urban Rangers: Malibu Public Beaches

Another designer working in the spirit of an everyday open city is James Rojas, founder of the Latino Urban Forum, whose “design-based urban planning” process uses hands-on techniques — e.g., colorful, on-site interactive models — to demystify the planning process and help community members translate conceptual plans into physical forms. Because his goal is to increase community participation in planning, Rojas’s models translate abstract terms like public transportation, open space and housing into a physical language that everyone understands; this helps educate constituents about the value of planning. But the models also function — like Sherman’s big-box communities — as Trojan horses: Rojas places them in everyday spaces such parks, sidewalks and train stations, transforming them into “impromptu public urban forums where everyone, including children and non-native English speakers, can participate by reacting to and adding to the models.”

Center for Urban Pedagogy and Glen Cummings: Envisioning Development

Finally we can point to our project, the “arsenal of inclusion/exclusion," a dictionary we have compiled, with contributions from colleagues, of 101 tactics — or weapons — that architects, planners, policy-makers, developers, real estate brokers and community activists can deploy to open the city, or to close it. Some are traditional, familiar tactics that urban designers and policy makers have used to open the city, such as inclusionary zoning and forced busing. But there are less obvious, more modest tactics, undercover agents in the struggle for an open city, such as GPS navigation, flat fares, Halloween, jury duty, and designated smoking zones, among others. Architects and planners would be wise to figure out how to co-opt these tools, for our challenge is no longer just to build the open city but also to be alive to the moments of inclusion and openness that happen even in the most ordinary American suburb, and then think up ways to multiply these experiences.