Ver·nac·u·lar: of, relating to, or characteristic of a period, place, or group…
Most cities—even those with grand plans like Burnham’s Chicago or Haussmann’s Paris—derive much of their character from their locality. Their urban fabric is largely defined by factors such as local building materials, climate, access to water, history and most importantly, culture.
Alas, for most of the past 60 years, cities, especially those in North America have forgotten to look back. Instead, buoyed by quick and easy access to a variety of building materials and the dominance of the automobile, they have created generic places without reference to a city’s location, history or even its residents. These places have focused on the needs of business and commerce and ignored the necessities of people.
Vernacular urbanism is the antithesis of generic urbanism. It is an urbanism that is local in character, meaningful for its inhabitants, rooted to its surroundings and connected with history. It is based on the idea that the a city needs to know where it came from and how it relates to its past if it is to be successful in moving forward.
While the roots of vernacular urbanism are found in the history of a place, it isn’t simply about the old fashion and traditional. Instead, vernacular urbanism integrates the old and the new. It combines what a city has with what it needs based on local factors. By thinking this was, a city can economically, socially and environmentally sustain itself for generations to come.
On a philosophical level, vernacular urbanism can help us understand not only where we are, but who we are as a community and why we are this way. To borrow a line from the late historian Christopher Lasch, vernacular urbanism teaches us about “our basic disposition to the world around us.”