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Issue 2: Community Scale Economics

The New Urbanism: To Whom Should We Listen: The Social Policies of Urban Renewal

by Michael Pyatok, FAIA

When we discuss strategies for redevelopment of older urban neighborhoods, fixing the real estate and its appearance is too often deemed the number one priority for resuscitation. Real estate renewal, or focusing on the “sticks and bricks,” as difficult as that may be sometimes, is often quicker and easier than importing businesses with decent jobs for local residents and revitalizing neighborhood schools to offer challenging and effective education. It could be argued that this is a chicken and egg problem, that sources of employment will not move into or near areas displaying severe physical signs of disinvestment. But this argument assumes that the only way to improvement is the importation of outside sources of employment, not the incubation of local home-grown businesses.

The latest efforts to refocus attention on the inner city, whether by the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), or local redevelopment agencies (RDAs), are showing signs once again of this tendency to quick, cosmetic physical fixes. We have learned that just fixing the real estate is not enough, and that wholesale removal of people and their neighborhoods is inappropriate. But the current mythology for cure promoted by HUD’s HOPE VI and many RDAs, is to import people with higher incomes, particularly in the form of homeowners, asserting that mixing incomes is healthier for a neighborhood than maintaining it as homogeneously low-income. This also has its drawbacks for the existing residents who have toughed it out during the leaner years. The social engineering of relocating the poor with rent vouchers as the HOPE VI program is doing, or the less sensitive strategy of one-time reimbursements for relocation in order to make room for people with stable and higher incomes, forces the same painful social and economic costs on those who must move as it had under earlier forms of wholesale urban renewal/removal.

Architectural Policies of Urban Renewal

In the same way that the implementation of this newer “mixed” income social policy has its flaws, so too does the architectural and urban design clothing in which it comes dressed today. We can all agree that importing neighbors who already have jobs does little in the way of providing new jobs for those underemployed or unemployed who are permitted to remain as part of the new mix, or who must move on and be excluded from the mix. In the same way that the social planners have made the importation of jobs, job training and micro-loans for small, home-based businesses a lesser priority for the existing low income residents than fixing the real estate to lure in those from the outside who already have jobs, the architects facing the design task for these policies also fixate on those picturesque architectural qualities that will attract people with somewhat more discretionary income. They do not design neighborhoods that can promote home-based, incubator businesses.

The architects sincerely believe that those who are unemployed or underemployed need the same types of frozen domestic stage-sets from yesteryear to feel like they belong with the higher income class of their employed new neighbors. Somehow having their own home and front porch is expected to catapult them into the middle class that this kind of domestic imagery purports to reflect. In this sense, the Martha Stewarts of urban design are intruding on the lives of people like those Studs Terkel has so often documented in their own voices, and in the process insulting their cultures and ignoring their more significant economic needs.

Some adjustments to these social and physical planning policies for revitalization need to be made to accommodate the realities of those who must survive on modest incomes. If we make local entrepreneurial activity on the part of the existing residents a prime social and economic objective, and not their relocation or architectural repackaging, then certain urban design and architectural responses may naturally follow to facilitate this type of live-work community. In fact, to the Martha Stewarts of urban design, the results may seem downright “grungy.”

Design Issues

Depending on parking requirements, at densities even up to 35-40 dwelling units per acre, it is still possible for dwellings to be ground-related with both front sides and back sides. Being ground related, with a back side not visible to the more public street side, sets the stage for the many untidy, but critical-to-survival, home-based businesses that require manual labor, such as repairing autos or appliances, making clothing or furniture, manufacturing home decorations, or providing hair and nail cosmetic services - all with their unique consequences for the physical appearances of real estate.

The presence of alleys, often promoted by the CNU, offers an excellent opportunity to those households who need to engage in these types of messier live-work ventures without destroying the proper street appearances so valued by today’s homeowners and policy makers.

All dwellings can be designed, without any appreciable increase in size, to permit a portion of the home to be cordoned off for either a messy income-producing activity or to rent out or sublet to a tenant (without necessarily adding a kitchen) for additional income to the owner or primary tenant.

We should not borrow from the early 20th century’s middle class and gentry notions of domesticity, which sought picturesque retreats from the dismal places of industrial work using fantasies of craftsman bungalows, mini-mansions, or other miniaturized references to the lives of landed gentry. Rather, if we need at all to look to our past for models, architects today perhaps should look for inspiration to our pioneering and urban immigrant days - or perhaps to today’s Third World - to find models of entrepreneurial neighborhoods, not to mimic or romanticize the physical conditions and images of struggling under poverty, but to borrow from them with appropriate revisions to meet, within reason, today’s standards for health, safety, and comfort.

Codes, Covenants and Regulations

Zoning regulations need revising to permit these uses with and in housing, which may often be considered light manufacturing. We have to carefully scrutinize the biases of those among us who produce home imagery in this age that worships exchange value over use value. Under the pressures of residential resale value, too often today’s housing sports frozen, nostalgic images and not the dynamic, lived-in and worked-in qualities of housing serving multiple economic development purposes. This is true for housing promoted by HUD, private developers, local public officials, redevelopment agencies, property management companies, or architects and planners of the CNU. As professionals and solid members of the middle class, many of us matured in an age long past pioneering and immigration days, when such diverse uses were normally included in homes out of necessity, with little complaint or sense of impropriety by neighbors. Those among us who matured under these conditions need to remind our colleagues who did not that rich opportunities once resided in such live-work neighborhoods.

We have to understand that as much as 25% or more of the population of many of our inner cities today live under those same difficult economic circumstances as earlier immigrants to this country, but are now disallowed by modern zoning, building codes, lending and insurance policies, and property management policies from having the opportunities that had been present during pioneer and earlier industrial times: the home used as a homestead, the block used as an incubator of small manufacturing and repair workshops, the neighborhood used as a thriving, messy exporter of goods and services, rather than a bucolic setting for retreat and home-based escapist consumption, relying upon local, cutesy retail centers to distribute goods produced elsewhere.

Rental property managers and lenders need to reconsider their policies to recognize that those struggling up from the bottom as renters have little concern about the long-term exchange value of their dwellings acquired by someone else when they move as they are in their dwellings’ use value for the here and now, that is, how their dwellings can be used to earn income for them now, not when they are sold. The less predictable and less tidy aspects of living in a neighborhood characterized primarily by its working features and less by its designed domestic re-sale features is what is being suggested here.


There were good reasons, at the turn from the 19th into the 20th century, for urban muckrakers and social reformers to see their factory districts as unhealthy, polluting, and disease-ridden neighborhoods. But over the remainder of this century, the gradual and systematic purging from our neighborhoods of the livelihoods needed by lower income households eventually became a means to separate classes and races. In the process of sanitizing the city, not only were the poor relegated to their own zones, but their zones were also denied the opportunities to engage in their life blood activities. The CNU, in collusion with HUD and its HOPE VI program, in their quest to domesticate low income neighborhoods, are not only perpetuating in part the tradition of displacing the poor, they are also imposing restrictive architectural and planning strait-jackets onto those who are privileged to remain, preventing them from engaging in forms of economic self-improvement.

As we open the 21st century, we need more sensitive policies that reflect the cleaner means available to us today by which we can manually produce goods and services, particularly at the micro-scales of the home, block, and neighborhood. In this way we may be able to reinstate a stable foundation for working class communities to raise their families with dignity, confidence, and more self-reliance, and not be just places of home-based consumption, but become working neighborhoods, exporting goods and services to the larger markets of the city.

Michael Pyatok, FAIA, principal of the Oakland California-based architectural firm Pyatok and Associates, has been an eloquent advocate for the rights of low-income populations, especially with regard to housing and community design.

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