Facebook Urbanism: “Death of the CyberFlaneur”

In a fascinating if somewhat deflating opinion piece in the New York Times this week (Feb. 4, 2012), “The Death of the CyberFlaneur,” (link) Evgeny Morozov makes the case that the change in the way people inhabit the virtual space of the internet is analogous to changes in the way people inhabited the physical space of the modern city. Or at least that’s what he’s suggesting by focusing on the idea of the flaneur, that emblematic figure of modernity for Walter Benjamin.

Gustave Caillebotte's "Paris Street; Rainy Day," 1877.

Morozov came across a 1998 essay which predicted that the internet would herald the advent of the “cyberflaneur,” who would stroll through this brave new digital world “brimming with playfulness, intrigue, and serendipity.” What the street was to the flaneur, the superhighway would be to the cyberflaneur.

Passage Choiseul, Paris

The flaneur aimlessly and leisurely strolled the streets (mainly of Paris, the cultural cradle of the flaneur) absorbing the sites, sounds, and people of the city. He had no goal nor destination; quite the contrary. The art of the flaneur was to observe incognito and feast with his eyes on the sites of the modern city and its emerging consumer displays. He moved alone, in solitude, down the public and semi-public spaces of the city, in particular the new covered arcades, a kind of precursor to the department store. Heterogeneity, rich sensory experiences, disruptions and urban ambiguities were observed and accepted, even celebrated, as part of the culture of the city, and the friction of a burgeoning modern world.

Boulevard in Paris

Morozov then relates the familiar story of the birth of ‘modern’ Paris, such as the rise of the department stores, those private temples of modern consumerism, and the “Haussmanization” of Paris, in which the historic, narrow, crooked, often dark and mysterious streets were demolished to make way for the modern, wide, transparent boulevards. The openness, clarity, and linearity of the boulevards, later combined with the rise of the department store where consumer goods became categorically displayed within private temples of consumerism, made the flaneur’s vocation difficult; the pleasurable and anonymous ambiguity of the stroll was replaced by the purposeful walk within the “rationalization of city life.”

Much the same is happening on the internet now, claims Morozov, where the lack of privacy and the emphasis on social media ‘sharing’ has created a digital world far from the early promise of a kind of anonymous virtual spelunking. Rather than aimlessly “surfing the web,” following crooked sidestreets in the virtual world, users are much more likely to be tethered to their social media portals, and venture off them for specific utilitarian purposes only. He cites the rise of “apps” in support of single-purpose use, eclipsing the browser with its world of heterogeneous possibilities. In the modern city the advent of zoning regulations, which legislated the dedicated use of land upon a seemingly chaotic industrialized sprawl, was not so different. Today, are not large pods of single-use buildings, like shopping centers, corporate parks, condo developments, and single-family suburban sprawl the product of these analogous urban “apps?”

The tyranny of Facebook, that behemoth of all social networking sites, is the “tyranny of the social” according to Morozov. Facebook’s advent of “frictionless sharing” where all is shared except what you specifically prevent and keep as private, promotes a transparent world of familiarity and connection at the expense of solitude, mystery, exploration, and observation. Strolling incognito in the world of Facebook is impossible, the notion of solitary adventure is scorned upon as some kind of atavistic mannerism in the new shared world. In other words, according to Morozov in his Times piece:

“…if today’s Internet has a Baron Haussman, it is Facebook. Everything that makes cyber flanerie possible- solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking – is under assault by that company.”

The pleasure of the derive, the “psychogeographic” remapping of the city as practiced by the Situationists, could never occur with the culture of today’s Facebook youth. Facebook curates its users lives and connections, regulating what is socially acceptable (popular) and presents a consensus of tastes.

The promise of glass was the promise of utopian transparency at the advent of modern architecture, critically heralded by Bruno Taut, Paul Scheerbart, and Mies van der Rohe, amongst others. But of course this promise never ‘materialized.’ Transparency, once thought to be the architectural metaphor of a democratic and open society, has become instead the means of creating an uncurated public circus of private lives.

Still from Jacques Tati's 'Play Time' (1967)

Jacques Tati lampooned such cliches of transparent modern city life in Playtime. Almost fifty years later, perhaps Richard Meier’s elegant towers on Prospect Park or the Hudson River, are only more elegant embodiments of Tati’s circus stage set. Without the notion of veils, virtual or architectural, the Facebook generation gets the transparency of the Standard at the High Line, with the voyeuristic array of hotel bedrooms framed within its glass facade.For a generation of sexters and bloggers, that publicity is just accepted as part of Facebook’s ‘frictionless sharing’ (certainly a most apt euphemism for voyeurism!). Many architecture students today, whose social lives are transparently mediated by Facebook, default to glass buildings, regardless of use or urban context, seemingly as unaware of architectural notions of enclosure, threshold, shadows, or even the more metaphorical sense of Colin Rowe’s “virtual transparency.” I have experienced this with students at USC for years as well as other schools of architecture in Los Angeles, or in the popular architecture design blogs. A world in which all is open and on display, with little curatorial or critical understanding of transparency, in which lines between private and public are often unexplored, is undoubtedly a condition of both architectural design and online life today. Facebook architecture. Facebook urbanism.

At least below the Standard, that screen of frictionless sharing, is the High Line itself. Now that might have been one stroll the flaneur would have enjoyed, even from start to finish.


The Plazas of New Mexico


An Interview with Stefanos Polyzoides 

click above for book website

The Plazas of New Mexico, recently published by Trinity University Press, seems to be that rarity in architectural and urban research today: a panoramic study that looks at a well-defined subject in multiple ways. Such a wide exploration of a narrow subject contrasts to much contemporary urban academic discourse, which produces theoretically narrow readings of wide, heterogeneous trends and global phenomena.  The book looks at the form and cultural significance of plazas in New Mexico, one of the most important elements of American southwest urbansim. These plazas have evolved over time, and such evolution is an inherent part of this study. In this study, urban artifacts are alive and evolving, and assume different cultural significances at different points in history.  The book profiles twenty-two plaza-based communities in their own chapters, and covers about seventy in total. It is lushly illustrated and contains new photographs by Miguel Gandert specifically commissioned for this study.

Plazas is a collaboration between Stefanos Polyzoides, Chris Wilson, and Miguel Gandert. Polyzoides, partner of Moule and Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists, is a founder of the Congress for New Urbanism, and the author of numerous books and articles including Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles, a groundbreaking study of this architectural type. Chris Wilson is the J.B. Jackson Chair of Cultural Landscape Studies, and the Director of the Historic Preservation and Regionalism Program at the University of New Mexico.  Miguel Gandert is a nationally recognized photographer whose work focuses on the culture and people of New Mexico and has appeared in numerous exhibitions and books.  He is a Professor in the Department of Communications and Journalism at the University of New Mexico.

I had the opportunity recently to sit down with Stefanos Polyzoides to talk to him about this book and some of its implications for today’s architects and urban designers.

JOHN DUTTON:            I just received a copy of this very impressive new book of yours: The Plazas of New Mexico by you and Chris Wilson, with original photography by Miguel Gandert.  It’s certainly a larger book than your Courtyards of Los Angeles, one of the best typological studies I know of. Can your talk a little about your approach and the book’s organization?

STEFANOS POLYZOIDES:            There are various ways of engaging in documentation, all of which begin of course with observation.  One is by observing and writing; another is by observing and photographing; another yet, is by observing and drawing.

We were fortunate to have a historical record of some existing drawings and plans; writings by Bainbridge Bunting, J.B. Jackson and others; and a rich collection of mostly twentieth century photographs, by some of the most prominent photographers of the Southwest. Considering the vastness of the subject matter- the urban history of an entire state of the United States- it became clear from the book’s inception eleven years ago, that all of these techniques had to be used if this were to become a powerful document, distinguished by its scholarship, by the artfulness of its drawings and by the depth of its photography.

JD:            There are three parts to the book: History, Cultural Narratives and Place-making.  Were these seen as specifically germane for your study of New Mexican plazas, or do you see these as applicable in general to the study of architecture?

SP:            They are all relevant dimensions of the study of architecture and urbanism.  History is essential because it reveals the structure of time and place.  Cultural narrative is also important because it connects the design of buildings and public space to the needs and emotions of specific people living in specific places.  Place- making is about the instrumentality of received ideas and their translation through theory into new projects.

There is also a fourth crucial component of the book: Case Studies of some thirty key plazas.  Here, theory, history and place- making are brought together in the interest of understanding how to incrementally produce plazas unique to their city or town context. This is in sharp contrast to one of the more disturbing aspects of current architectural culture, producing buildings and places that are frozen in form, beyond further evolution.

Sectional Geometries

Plan Geometries

The plazas of New Mexico, as well as their architecture, are not closed compositions. Every plaza is actually a piece of a bigger process, an element of the construction of the city and the management of nature over time. How a building or place evolves is as important as what it is at the moment of its construction.

JD:            In looking through the book, it’s amazing to see the great diversity of plazas, as well as some often radical changes in their form over time. So can it be said that the type itself isn’t necessarily normative or fixed in any way but varies according to ritual, culture, place, climate, size of city perhaps?

SP:            The fact that these plazas have prospered in New Mexico beginning a thousand years ago, speaks to a number of things: To the enduring power of their imagery as the spiritual and public face of their communities.  To their serving as the central gathering places for their citizens in times of celebration or of trial.  To their climate-modifying design in a desolate border region where living has always been difficult.  It is notable that plazas were inserted at the heart of all New Mexico settlements, independent of who the settlers or their cultures were. The plaza form is simply being repeated and elaborated to our day.

JD:            How original are these particular plazas- are they a uniquely American, or a Southwestern, phenomenon?

SP:            Public space in the form of squares and plazas has been part of the design of towns and cities within all prominent American urban traditions, as well as English, French, German and Spanish.  What is unusual about the plazas of New Mexico is that they are first born out of the Native American imagination and its religious strivings.

Then, there has been speculation in recent scholarship that the invention of Hispanic public space in the Southwest of the US through the Laws of the Indies was not only the brutal cultural imposition of a foreign building model onto the native people of pre- colonial North America, but also in part, an adaptation to their space norms.

So, it may well be that the unique dimension of the first two phases of the urbanism of New Mexico is that it is an accommodation between European and Native American ideas.  This assimilation of design ideals persists through the design of Anglo American railroad towns in the 19th century.  An instrument of internal, American colonization through massive migration and real estate sales to be sure, but also patterned according to the fusion of indigenous and imperial design traditions that preceded it.

Hispano Plazas

Pueblo Plazas

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The New Los Angeles Greenway

In accepting the growing obsolescence of freeways- the clear failure of them to perform as promised, the inevitable ruins they will become (like many other historic urban infrastructures), and the social and environmental problems they have created- I am posting a conceptual (alas) project to convert Los Angeles freeways to greenways.

For the full PDF of the booklet select here: The New Los Angeles Greenway

Below is a brief manifesto and some images from the project:


A Greenway Manifesto: Slow Move Nation

 Los Angeles freeways promised speed and connectivity but delivered congestion and separation.  They are at their tipping point- dysfunctional and on the verge of obsolescence. Like many great cities that have reclaimed the ruins of their infrastructure it is time for Los Angeles to reclaim it’s inevitable and future ruins.

We must turn these concrete rivers of frustration and pollution into something good for everyone in the city.

 We propose to end this senseless preoccupation with speed, which has delivered anything but. We propose a Slow Move Nation, like the Slow Food Nation.  Freeways can be the source of transit and connectivity, as well as parks and valuable green space for an inexorably gray city.  Pedestrians, bikes, and light rail will now move along the old freeway routes instead of cars. Furthering the movement toward local community (and reducing the egregious transportation miles required by the global agri-industry), we are reintroducing agriculture to Los Angeles through the construction of vertical farms along the freeway.   Community gardens would also be created, and new public squares would be both transit hubs as well as farmers markets.

 We would ideally like to see the end of the reliance on private car ownership, and the increased use of shared car services (like Zip cars), and particularly transit. We envision all major boulevards and avenues having street cars that connect to the new greenways and their light-rail system. Streets of Los Angeles can be filled with the sounds of children playing and the whoosh of bicycles rather than the cacaphony of car traffic. 

We propose:

• Limit private car ownership citywide (decrease lanes, emphasize

            car sharing and taxis, reduce available parking, gas tax)

• Provide light rail and other transit on all major streets citywide.

• Trasform all streets to include bike paths and beautiful pedestrian sidewalks

• Develop freeway rights-of-way into GREENWAYS with no cars that contain:

Light Rail | Vertical Farms | Community Gardens | Bike Paths | Walking promenades | Parks | New Public Squares


Much like the Slow Food movement's resistance to the industrialization of food, and the failed premise that all food should be available to all people at any time, so too might there be a "Slow Move" movement. The desire to move people as quickly as possible to anywhere they want to go, the "industrialization" of transportation into the instantaneous global travel has caused similar problems of the globalization of food. Indeed a return to emphasis on the local, on balanced resources, on the affects of industrialization on community are very similar.


Plan showing bike access to the new GreenwaysPlan showing 1/4 mile walking radii (in orange) indicating that street cars on major boulevards are all accessible within walking distance. The street cars would connect to the new Greenway with light rail. The dashed red circle is a typical bike radius.View of Santa Monica Greenway (former 10 freeway) at Arlingtonlegend of proposed Greenway componentsView of proposed Greenway toward new light rail station

Diagram showing 1/4 mile walking radii. Street cars on major avenues are all accessible by foot. These streetcars connect to the light rail system on the new Greenways.


Components of proposed LA Greenway

View of proposed LA Greenway toward new transit plaza.

View of the new LA Greenway (former Santa Monica 10 Freeway)


Soft Infrastructure: Interview with Mario Gandelsonas

Last year for the USC School of Architecture’s journal IDNWS, I interviewed architect and urbanist Mario Gandelsonas who was on campus to give a lecture entitled ‘Soft Infrastructure.’  Gandelsonas is a professor at Princeton University (where I first met him when I was there as a graduate student). He is also a principal at the renown firm Agrest + Gandelsonas, Director of Princeton’s CAUI (Center for Architecture, Urbanism, and Infrastructure), and author of numerous books and articles on urbanism and theory.

I thought his ideas on the evolution of urban infrastructure were insightful and provocative, and also relatively optimistic in terms of the importance of public space in the new post-industrial, digital city (despite all forecasts to the contrary).

Penn Station: The 'hard infrastructure' of the industrial age had terminals at the beginnings and ends of routes dedicated to the movement of goods and peoples.

The new 'soft infrastructure' supports the production and dissemination of information. The mobile phone has turned us all into 'body-terminals.'

JD: Your recent work proposes that we need to rethink the idea of infrastructure, that ‘hard’ infrastructure is being replaced by ‘soft’ infrastructure? What is the difference?

MG: I call hard the infrastructure developed in the late 19th century and early twentieth century, on the basis of the technical advances of the industrial revolution. The late 20th century and early 21st. century softer technologies–of electronic information processing and of media and communication systems–are generating new possibilities of interaction and contact for the production, reception, and distribution of information. However, they do not constitute yet a soft infrastructure equivalent to the hard infrastructure of trains, cars and airplanes.

JD: What is the connection between modernist urbanism and hard infrastructure?

MG: Modernist urbanism was based pragmatically and symbolically on the machine which becomes a model for architecture and for the city.  There is a section of a New York street in Le Corbusier’s book “the city of the future” that describes the different underground infrastructural layers of the modernist city including water management, sewage, electricity and heating. With respect to mobility infrastructure the  modernist city created a condition of total fluidity for the car by “killing” the street produced by the historical city of fabric and replacing it with city of objects on a field.

JD: How is this emergent soft infrastructure replacing, subverting, or challenging our systems of hard infrastructure?

MG: I am not proposing that this soft infrastructure will just replace the existing hard infrastructure but that their interaction will modify, displace and in some instances render obsolete the 20th century hard infrastructure.

In fact, I am not interested in those infrastructures per se but in the “couplings” that are formed between hard and soft. i.e. in the sixties the coupling between the house and the tv or the coupling between the car and the radio.

JD: Do these ‘couplings’  undermine traditional notions of urban – and suburban-  experience?  The advent of soft infrastructures, say the radio, allowed us to extend our notion of the hard infrastructure, in this case the house, into cultural realms which weren’t inherently part of the domestic. Yet in this case the two parts of the coupling were still very much distinct and culturally legible.   Has the nature of these soft/hard infrastructural couplings changed with technologies beyond the TV and radio? 

MG: The opposition between urban and suburban has been undermined in the last 30 years by the development of the exurban city and now the monoculture of the car is being challenged by its incompatibility with the new media. Young people are not buying cars anymore in Europe and in Japan. Teenagers are not getting driving permits in the US: they rather get their parents to drive them so they can keep texting.

JD: What role does ‘traditional’ media and its terminals (radio, television) play in urban form?

MG: In fact we should use the past tense to refer to the “urban role” of the radio and the television because these two media have transformed, multiplying options and articulating new combinations with the internet– satellite radio, internet radio, internet tv, etc). The sixties and seventies the equation house/tv//car/radio provided an apparently stable opposition between the center city and the suburbs. With the arrival of the internet we have to talk about a fluid media environment that articulates multiple possibilities of combining radio/tv/internet. The effect is increasing demand of wireless public transportation environments and an increasing demand of indoor/outdoor public environments for “body terminals”.

JD: So if terminals of the modernist city were static, such as nodes of transport such as train stations, ports, the private garage, the terminals of ‘soft infrastructure?’ are inherently part of our body?

MG: Yes, as opposed to the twenty century terminals as fixed nodes in urban space, we carry the new devices with us and perhaps in the near future within us; we- each and every one of us-  are now the point of departure and arrival of information. I refer to “body terminals” to describe this condition.

JD: Has our notion of mobility therefore changed? Are the goals of speed and efficiency relevant still in the city?

MG: Mobility is not anymore linked to access the way it use to be, because the new telemediatization devices make contact possible without physical mobility. The cellphone and the internet have multiplied the possibilities of contact and one of the results is the increased mobility to provide the physical contact that complements the digital contact provided by the new media. Speed and efficiency are terms that describe only some of the possibilities and coexist with the desire of “lingering”, of slowing down, of “hanging out” and the need of urban spaces where these desires could be fulfilled.

JD: Is ‘telemediatization’ producing a sedentary life, as some critics predicted?

MG: Not at all. The research group at Pew Internet is constantly polling, describing and analyzing the effects of telemediatization and has been arriving to conclusions that contradict the common assumptions about them. Contrary to fears that email would reduce other forms of contact, there is “media multiplexity”: the more contact by email, the more in-person and phone contact. As a result, Americans are probably more in contact with members of their communities and social networks than before the advent of the internet. In person contact, implies displacement, and travel.  The new connectedness is increasing both the internet traffic and the real traffic, in particular because the new social networks include people who do not live nearby and therefore travel to connect.

JD: So can it be argued that telemediatization and the emergence of individual ‘body-terminals’ is creating new demands for public space?  If so, what kinds of public space and how do they differ from that of the modernist ‘machine-city?’  

MG: A multiplicity of publics spaces that result from “augmented” forms of public space, where the new soft infrastructure is overlaid to the old infrastructure. For instance publictransportation doubling as workspace or entertainment space. For the time being, there is no physical change or insignificant changes. However these augmented spaces represent a potential laboratory for the exploration of new configurations that result from the impact of the soft infrastructure on our design tools and fabrication processes.

Greenbelt Studies, Gandelsonas and CAUI



The Death and Life of Great American Freeways: The 710 Case Study

The recent weekend closure of the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles caused worldwide media speculation of a ‘Carmageddon’, a clogging of the automotive arteries of this city so severe it would bring a cardiac arrest to the urban body.  For most of us Los Angeles residents who have little choice but to travel by private car and suffer the congested freeways, Carmegeddon had already arrived. Despite warnings by most professional planners and traffic engineers that adding more lanes of traffic will have little long-term affect on traffic, and indeed will only invite more cars onto the ribbons of concrete, Caltrans was adding another lane of traffic on the 405, at mind-numbing expense, particularly in this age of diminishing government budgets.

At this time, I received a call from a journalist who was writing a story on Caltrans’ renewed attempt to complete the 710 freeway, where there is a 21 mile gap from Pasadena south. I had written on the subject years ago for the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design and this writer had dug up my piece as part of her research. It was the first I had heard that Caltrans was still considering such action. At the time, 15 years ago, it seemed already excessive, destructive, almost atavistic in the new transportation engineering world which was beginning to understand the importance of multi-modal transportation and the limits of single-mindedly maximizing automobile speeds and volume (both in terms of actual traffic flow, but also urban life). In 1994 after the Santa Monica 10 freeway was closed due to damage from the Northridge Earthquake, I wrote in the architecture magazine Casabella an article how the forced changes to commuters routes, suddenly having to drive through neighborhoods instead of “over” them, gave new urban awareness to the city’s residents. The way we map our cities comes from the way we move through them, and therefore freeways are like the synapses of forced urban consciousness.

Since that time, there has been growing evidence as well as popular opinion against the merits of building more and more freeways to relieve congestion. In fact, the removal of freeways has been heralded across the country- like the San Francisco Embarcadero, or a highway intersection in Milwaukee, or the ‘Big Dig’ of Boston (technically not a removal, but a disappearance).  So below is my piece, which unfortunately is still relevant.

the stub of the 710 freeway, extending south from the 134 freeway. Residential areas to the west, and downtown Pasadena to the east.




The stub of the 710 freeway would be one of the most significant infill development sites of any California city.

The death and life of great american freeways : the 710 case study

The highway is perhaps the most ambivalently celebrated feature of the post-war American landscape. On one hand, it is heralded as a symbol of modernity and growth, and on the other criticized as a symbol of destructive urban renewal. The highway connected new suburban developments, yet often divided existing urban neighborhoods. The roadside architecture of the 50s and 60s is celebrated, while the highway malls and power centers that clutter the countryside today are decried as eyesores. Highways promised speed and freedom yet often delivered traffic and road rage.

Despite such ambivalence, the impact of the highway on the physical structure as well as the cultural landscape of post-war America is indisputable. The highway has shaped not only the physical form of the city, town, suburb, and hinterland, but has served as an enduring metaphor of mobility and freedom well-ingrained in the American psyche.

It is easy to fetishize the physical form of highways. Their magnitude and scale, the surreal ribbon of concrete flowing over the countryside or soaring majestically above the ground, and the machine-like elegance of a stacked intersection are breathtaking to behold, and impressive as sheer engineering monuments.

It is also easy to mythologize the highway and its culture. Countless books, films, art and songs have contributed to the idea of the highway as a road towards self-discovery, escape, and freedom. The highway is the focus of such diverse works as On the Road, Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, Catherine Opie’s photographs, and Jonathan Richman’s seminal song “Roadrunner.” It is no coincidence that it is America, where mobility and freedom are often synonymous, which is the most mobile industrialized country as well as the country with the greatest linear feet of drivable roads.

But if the origins of the highway promised freedom, prosperity and connectivity, the results forty years later are quite different. The construction of highways facilitated the sprawling post-war suburbanization and the associated deterioration of urban centers. Highways decimated many first-ring suburbs, and spatially and racially fragmented cities. They have enabled commuters in their veritable mobile living rooms to speed comfortably above the “surface streets,” avoiding contact with the diverse cultures and communities on the sprawling plains below.

Indeed, nowhere is this more apparent than in Los Angeles, where, like so many neurons firing through the brain’s synapses, urban consciousness is formed by repetitive automobile movements. When the 10 Freeway collapsed after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, westside commuters were suddenly forced to drive through neighborhoods. The closure of the freeway created for many a new recognition of their city. When else would the Lexus commuter have driven along Adams Boulevard with its spectacular Craftsman houses and grand eclectic churches?

Freeways are incredibly costly, and not just the $300 million per mile price tag for the pouring of concrete itself. Some of the most irreparable costs are not financial, but comprise the loss of mature neighborhoods, historic fabric, and the dislocation of thousands of people (typically those of color and minimal income– i.e. those who offer the least possibility of political resistance). Highways have also irreversibly altered the development patterns of our cities and towns, enabling the centrifugal sprawl of suburbs and edge cities. Such sprawl development has proven to be economically and environmentally unsustainable. These ex-urban areas face continuous revenue shortfalls from the costs of new infrastructure, services, and schools that such development requires. The loss of undeveloped and agricultural land, and the associated air, water, and soil pollution are significant environmental costs.

Despite the massive highway-building program, traffic has become an insurmountable problem. The idea that more freeways and more roadway lanes decrease traffic has been proven a syllogism. (As one progressive transportation engineer puts it: “Fighting traffic by adding more lanes is like fighting obesity by loosening your belt.”).

In fact, the trend in highways these years is not building them, but dismantling them. San Francisco has demolished the earthquake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway, thereby reconnecting the city to its waterfront. (Despite Oakland’s Director of Public Works’ protestation that dismantling the freeway would back traffic up all the way across the Bay Bridge and snarl Oakland’s downtown streets.) Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist is trying to take $500 million in highway funds, earmarked to repair an offramp, to instead dismantle the section of the highway and build a new neighborhood and park in its place.

Other planned freeways in Los Angeles are not being completed. The 710 Freeway was designed about three decades ago as part of a regional highway network, much of which was never built. The 2 (Glendale / Beverly Hills Freeway), for example, was planned to continue along Santa Monica Boulevard through Hollywood, West Hollywood, and Beverly Hills. Caltrans only recently gave up control of this right-of-way. In place of a freeway, the City of West Hollywood is currently redesigning the 2.8 miles of right-of-way in West Hollywood to accommodate the thriving commercial and pedestrian activity. $15 million is being spent on wider sidewalks, a median, street trees and landscape, furniture and lighting. The result will obviously be a greater contribution to the community than an eight-lane thoroughfare, and at a fraction of the cost.

Driving onto the 710 (virtually unused) stub

710 freeway stub

So why, then, is the 710 freeway still being built? Why such transportation policy atavism? An impressive array of organizations opposes the freeway, including such diverse groups as the Sierra Club, the National Taxpayers Union, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The City of El Sereno, whose historic district will be destroyed, is also opposed, as is the City of South Pasadena which will be bisected by the freeway. Yet the City of Pasadena, holding little to no public debate, passed a vote in support late at night. (Note the vast contrast of Pasadena’s midnight vote to West Hollywood’s extensive public outreach during its Rt. 2 / Santa Monica Boulevard project.) Otherwise, the only groups supporting the freeway are Cal Trans, which stands to lose a lot of federal funds if it isn’t built, and some labor unions, such as Cement/Mason Workers Union, the Southern California District Council of Carpenters, and the Southern California Contractors Association.

The freeway extension will destroy nearly 1,000 homes and 7,000 mature trees, displace thousands of people , and disrupt five historic districts. Although it may temporarily relieve regional traffic, studies show that the 710 extension will actually dramatically increase local traffic congestion.

Although the federal government has given its approval recently to the 710 freeway, the responsibility for building the freeway has been given to the MTA. The MTA, cash-strapped and suffering from the collapse of its subway construction program and the decay of its bus program, may lack the strength and perseverance to see this controversial project through. The MTA must also balance all forms of regional transportation, and a five mile, $1.4 billion project for private automobiles may seem absurd even to them. Especially considering that a range of transportation alternatives (light rail, traffic management) may be much more effective at a fraction of the cost.

It is not very reassuring that we must rely on the incompetence of government to preserve our cities. But in the absence of enlightened bureaucracies, who can provide the necessary vision? The fate of the 710, a question of land-use at a grand scale, has drawn reaction from environmental groups, community activists, as well as progressive traffic engineers, but noticeably absent is the voice of the architect.

Indeed, if the 710 plan is abandoned, the 1.5 mile stub already built in Pasadena (just south of the 134 and west of Old Pasadena) could become one of the most coveted development parcels in the region. It is adjacent to both successful commercial areas as well as the mature and historic neighborhoods, and five minutes from the San Gabriel Mountains.

With no new freeway, the 710 stub will stand as a great urban artifact. The vast gully cradling the freeway separates two distinct sides. How does one, if at all, knit together the two sides? How can the bridges be utilized? What possibilities in section does the terrain provide? Should the land remain as open space? A new district or neighborhood? How does it connect to the rest of the City? How do the remnants of the freeway stub integrate into the future design of the site?

Just as the majority of building design in the near future will be retrofits of existing buildings, the challenge at an urban level will be infill sites such as these. The 710 Freeway site could prove a case-study in how to re-use the very infrastructure responsible for so much of the destruction of the post-war city as a site of reclamation and rebuilding.