Scholars of citymaking

How do you embrace change in a small city that’s been around for a long time? Carefully. Very carefully, with the ideas of lots and lots of different people.

“We must continue to discuss how cities have become what they are and how they might continue to become — through individual initiative, collective imagination, and sheer will — just a little bit better,” wrote Cassim Shepard three years ago on his final day as editor of Urban Omnibus, an on-line publication devoted to observing, understanding and shaping citymaking. Shepard, a part-time academic who now makes non-fiction media, especially films and video about architecture and urbanism, introduced his book, “Citymakers: The Culture and Craft of Practical Urbanism,” in a talk under the auspices of the Fullerton Center for Culture and History on Grand Street in Newburgh this past Sunday afternoon. Thirty people attended.

Nine days prior to Shepard’s appearance, about 60 people had attended the Orange County Citizens Foundation’s annual placemaking conference, held at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center. Keynote speaker was another practitioner of urban planning, Marc Wouters, who discussed the revitalization process in New York State’s small cities. Wouters, who like Shepard has also worked internationally, has been an outside design consultant to the state in recent state-led $10-million Downtown Revitalization Initiatives in the cities of Elmira, Oswego and Oneonta. He’s also done work in Poughkeepsie.


Kingston is now awaiting state input on the distribution of its DRI award money among the projects for which it has asked support.

Wouters is also chairman of the New York chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism, which advocates for an inclusive strategy of placemaking. “It’s time to get away from zoning and things like that and start making places,” he said. Zoning is of course virtually certain to remain prominent in the regulatory landscape, but less as a sole determinant of use and more as an overlay within which careful considered placemaking and citymaking can occur.

I’ve always liked talking with artists and architects. They’re good at connecting how they think with what they do.

Close to 20 years ago, I attended a meeting in Kingston at which the guest speaker was architectural theorist Andres Duany, one of the founders of the New Urbanism movement. Duany and I chatted, and I invited him to take a windshield tour through Kingston with me.  It took about an hour, and I tried to let him see all the neighborhoods and streets I could. He looked and looked. Relying on what I had learned from Ed Ford, Tom Hoffay and Lowell Thing, I filled him in a little on the history of the city’s places.

At the end of the tour, Duany politely thanked me. Then he asked me if I had the time to repeat as much of the tour as I could, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood. I was floored. What an unusual request!

I obliged Duany, of course. And I’ll always remember the day this pioneer of urban placemaking  obtained his understanding of this particular small city’s sense of place.

In my view, the citymaking-placemaking universe faces the same continuum it did when Jane Jacobs took on Robert Moses (chronicled in Robert Caro’s wonderfully researched The Power Broker 44 years ago). On one end of the continuum is the fully designed community in which planning anticipates every need and deals with every want. On the other end is impressionistic work, often focused on individuals and often resistant to change, that portrays that gritty, often messy sense of rich context which real-life places have. Theory must make space for practice.

Both Wouters and Shepard are somewhere in the middle of the continuum.  They don’t put a major focus on the tension between top-down planning schemes and bottom-up community participation. In his talk, Shepard described how governmental planners and others played a crucial mediating role that took the design process beyond “the evil expert versus the resister” duality.  At the same time he covered his flank by classifying “the gap between the government and the people” as, along with climate change and inequality, among the core unresolved problems of society.

Wouters is employed in the New York State experiment of injecting pots of $10 million in state funds to bring about upstate community revitalization.  “How do you transform DRI’s $10 million into $30 million of development?” asked Wouters in a rhetorical question at the Newburgh Armory. “You need a concentration into the core of eight blocks first.” You need to attract local buy-in, secure private investment, and develop unique centers of attraction.

Though Wouters was talking about DRI planning in Elmira, it should be noted that Kingston’s core Stockade neighborhood, more evolved than Elmira’s, starts with eight blocks, too. It seemed from Wouters presentation that Kingston was, in terms of revitalization, a step or two ahead of Elmira.

A financial jumpstart offers an opportunity, but it’s just a start. To create common ground, placemaking also requires a full airing for subjective perspectives and sufficient patience to allow a growth in understanding, in Shepard’s words, of “those aspects of cities that are totally ineffable and can never be quantified.”

It seems to me these two articulate academics are trying to have it both ways.

At a 1964 White House luncheon about the time of the destruction via urban renewal of much of Kingston’s Rondout, the iconoclastic Jane Jacobs warned against shortsighted civic destruction “in the name of somebody’s idea of amenity.” She decried the top-down change in which “here and there our cities are given slick, artificial masks” while neighborhood context continues to deteriorate.

“The attractiveness of cities is not gotten by subtraction,” scolded Jacobs. “it builds up from lots and lots of different bits and details, lots of different bits of money, lots of different notions, all coming out of the concern, the affection, and the ideas of lots and lots of different people. The amenities of cities cannot possibly be planned or bought wholesale. It is so much more complicated and quicksilver than a choice between wall-to-wall pavement and wall-to-wall grass.”

Shepard’s contribution has been to tell long-form stories about people and to utilize a deeply visual sensibility.  He sees no ethical tension between his expertise as an urbanist and his film, video and journalistic work. They serve each other.


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