In a earlier post on ‘Big Urbanism,’ I noted that in recent years developers have become interested in urban centers once again. Examples of this renewed interest are found in developments like Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn to CityCenter in Las Vegas and CityScape in Phoenix.
A common word used to describe each of these is ‘urban.’ In reality they are only ‘quasi-urban. Instead of enhancing places for residents who already embrace urbanism, these developments are aimed at luring suburbanites to spend money. Just as suburbs tried to entice shoppers by incentivizing mega-mall developments complete with water parks and roller coasters in the 1980s and 1990s, city cores are now trying to lure people back downtown with urban styled complexes. While these quasi-urbanist developments are better than their suburban consign (hence the use of ‘quasi), they still fall far short of creating a real urban experience.
One glaring example is in the use of windows. While many quasi-urban developments have windows facing the street, they are often ‘fake windows’—windows showing the backs of display shelves, covered by closed blinds or reflective film, or used to display advertising (even the once popular store window displays are increasingly being replaced by generic posters). Rather than providing porosity, light and opportunities for more ‘eyes on the street,’ these ‘faux fenestrations‘ become visual barriers that reinforce a feeling of isolation.
What these developers—and their government boosters—fail to understand is that people don not seek urban experiences purely for economic reasons. They definitely do not do it to increase their senses of separation and isolation. Rather, people seek urban areas for connection, vitality and local history. Most importantly they seek authenticity. Quasi-urbanism may have co-opted the urbanist language and even some of its forms; but until it offers more than blocked windows and generic products, it will never create truly authentic urban places.