beyond old versus new in the city, and why

Sixth in the new series, in the urban world, juxtapositions matter



The overlay—or contrast—of old and new is central to any policy analysis or planning exercise for the evolving city.

Not surprisingly, the opening post in this series also addressed the old/new overlay at the project level, through illustration of an abandoned, single-family house, next to an under-construction, mixed-use building.

But old versus new is perhaps the most simple juxtaposition in the city, and an incomplete expression of all the interactive forces that are really at play.

Regulatory tools such as design review define authenticity, and essentially approach change as an appropriate, compatible enhancement, or an undesireable imposition.

But the above photographs introduce additional, complementary parameters for discussion.  In the first photograph, the ancient Roman amphitheater in Fréjus, France, shows restoration to active use for concerts far removed from its original purpose.  In the second, a Starbucks store graces a refurbished part of the classic Rossio railway station in Lisbon, Portugal.

These photographs also show that analysis of change should be more qualitative and contextual, focusing on multiple overlays associated with the evolution of urban space, and not on just the change itself.

Regulatory approaches are not the only “media” that address alteration of urban settings.  I have often referenced The Genius of a Place, a cinematic critique of how Cortona, Italy underwent rapid, tourism-based change after the publication of  Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. The soon-to-be-released Genius emphasizes the unintended loss of age-old ways of life and associated economic and environmental consequences.

Whether you choose to agree or disagree with the cautionary tales of projects like The Genius of a Place, it is critical to understand that overlays of urban change are not always physical.  Benefits that go with urban redevelopment often include the initially invisible enhancements to local economic opportunity or governmental economic base.

As noted in the first post in this series, urban juxtapositions can often lead to discussions of who gets, and who pays.

Accordingly, not just old versus new, or physical structure—but several other forces at play in these photographs (and the Genius story) invite analysis and discussion.

How and should a Roman arena be reused?  Should an American coffee chain enhance (or compromise) the historic portal to a renowned capital city?  Should the commercialization of an American woman’s story redefine longstanding ways of life and sustainable practices in Cortona, Italy?

These are questions—beyond old versus new—that overlays, enhancements and impositions continue to provoke around the world.

Images composed by the author in Fréjus and Lisbon. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2014 myurbanistAll Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effortan e-book from Island Press.

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