Tuesday, June 16, 2009

St. Louis and urbanism

Is St. Louis ready for urbanism? Does the answer vary by neighborhood? Do people even agree on what "urbanism" means?

We are an old, brick city, with high density in lots of old city neighborhoods. Yet we are also fiercely independent and generally not comfortable with a centralized planning system. We like neighborhood control. It's part of our tradition.

Being central city makes us urban. Some say being racially diverse makes us urban. Should we expect more? If you think so, how would you make it so?

7 comments:

Alex Ihnen said...

I disagree that we particularly "like neighborhood control." I believe that we have tended to handle things that way because of a lack of political leadership and a failure to adjust to changes in the city (reducing the number of wards, for example). We also continue to suffer as a city because of those who left. We have been left to our own not-so-best devices.

Tristan Walker said...

It is my feeling that much of what gave cities like St. Louis their old urban charm was the very unplanned, decentralized nature of development.

Our centrally planned zoning ordinances are one of the primary factors that killed urbanism in the first place. I would also argue that the reason that everyone left St. Louis is that GM was allowed to rip out our street cars, and the Feds were allowed to carve our neighborhoods up with interstates.

Anonymous said...

What alderman is out there saying things like, "we need to be more urban"? Has anyone ever heard one say something like that? They use different words.

Rick Bonasch said...

I think "urbanism" is a elusive concept, with a different definition depending who you're talking to.

People in outstate Missouri think of all of the St. Louis region as urban. Statewide legislators talk of the urban and rural divide.

People in Chesterfield likely think of St. Louis Hills and Ted Drewes as urban.

When music industry reps talk about urban, they mean hip hop or rap (not country!).

I doubt any of the above think about architecture or neighborhood design first when you mention urban.

They might think "city". But do they think "neighborhood", probably not so much.

Do they think walkability? Kirkwood has walkability and it's known as a "streetcar suburb".

When people speak of "urban education" do they think of parochial schools? Probably not, but there are lots of parochial schools in urban settings.

For some city people, they probably don't feel comfortable being labeled "urban". They probably don't like being labeled anything

Andrew J. Faulkner said...

I agree with previous posters that the divide between city and neighborhood is often self-serving and completely artificial. If you look at paradigms of urbanism closely you always find vibrant neighborhoods. Exemplars of urbanity such as Venice and Rome had intense neighborhood feuds in pre-modern times that verged on bloody civil wars between neighborhoods. Yet, when the whole was threatened all came together for the good of the city (or city-state). New York is the best example of an urban city in this country and it could also be known for vibrant neighborhoods: Greenwich, Park Slope and Harlem come to mind.

In St. Louis shades of libertarianism (in a solidly democratic city!?) and "neighborhood control" are cannily used to keep the city fragmented by regressive politicians. These career aldermen typically use the specter of authoritarian central government to keep milking votes from under-served and often apathetic constituents.

It is vital to remember that St. Louis had a bicameral government with representation at large in the upper house. This was abolished by the charter reform of 1914 when the upper house was abolished and power was concentrated in the hands of a few alderman. Centralized government had been championed by the business interests who realized at the time that it made for more effective governance. Their loss may have been the root of the changes that swept the city between 1945-1960.

Council at large systems largely avoid issues of corruption because council members are responsible to the whole city. I challenge anyone here to defend the efficiency of unregulated aldermanic discretion over CBBG monies.

In terms of efficient governance it should be noted as an example that my birthplace of Columbus, Ohio (with representation at large) dedicated a restored theater as a performing arts venue in the midst of the fiscal crisis a month ago. Columbus now has five such venues (including 3 the size of the Fox or larger) that have been funded through careful public-private partnership and judicious use of federal monies. St. Louis is having extreme trouble even re-opening the Kiel. Is this any way to be a great city or are we merely content with mediocrity?

While not the source of a problem it is clear that decentralized and unaccountable government is a major contributing factor. Now we must find a solution.

victor said...

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