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Will There Ever Be Any There, There?

By Steven A. Watchorn, Assoc. A.I.A., LEED AP BD+C

Author Gertrude Stein once said “when you get there, there isn’t any there, there” of Oakland, California.

American planners and architects have been striving to create places of greater value since the end of modernism.  The Historic Preservation movement arose from the effort to protect the fabric worth saving, and more recently, Smart Growth and New Urbanism efforts have taken root in part to better emulate successful European cities. 

My pursuit of Architecture and Urban Planning was the result of my frustration with seeing more and more suburban sprawl, and the continued decay of our cities.  (Growing up outside of Albany, NY provided me with a vast visual inventory of poor planning and design examples.)  After being inspired by visiting some of the successful European cities, I wanted to be a part of the solution here at home. 

Some improvements have finally begun in providing transportation alternatives, mixed-use developments, form-based zoning, and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes.  These efforts have made a difference, but one must beware of the trap of thinking that we’ve solved the tragedy of American planning.  The solutions are few and far between, and in many cases planners and developers are making the same mistakes as before, only masking them under the cloak of Smart Growth and New Urbanism.  We still see these absurd failures every time we take a drive or walk around a downtown area. 

Inspiration comes in many forms.  For me, these failed examples are humorous, maddening, but also inspiring in a reverse kind of way.  For a project to be successful, the planner or architect must understand not only the problems we continue to face, but have an understanding of what constitutes good design.

Failed attempts should never be tolerated.  We need to be inspired by good design and the promise of there ever being any “there.”