May 15, 2019 - From the May, 2019 issue

Gerhard Mayer: U.S. Urban Planning Needs Complete Paradigm Shift

As California’s legislature debates replacing local city planning with by-right authority from the state, TPR spoke with acclaimed architect Gerhard Mayer to discuss “missing middle” housing and how the suburban model of American housing came to be. In the interview presented below, Mayer outlines how other cities in Europe and Asia have embraced design-level thinking to create best practices and develop livable, dense urban communities. He asserts: 

"We need to stop the suburban planning model and hook, line, and sinker embrace genuine urban design and quality placemaking again. Our urban vocabulary needs to add so many components that in our planning practice simply no longer exist (but which we had, in the past, before suburban planning). Our crisis is not a problem of having planned poorly, but of having built the wrong types of environments. Meanwhile, we lost a proper understanding of the differences between urban fabric versus suburban context, we lack the majority of the broad spectrum of building typologies, and we lack an understanding of how to efficiently and equitably use our common space; we simply cannot make all the components in a city work well together."

Gerhard Mayer

“Our planning model goes property by property; we amenitize the city with whatever we can squeeze out of a single development, rather than by creating a cohesive framework for the city and then asking developers to implement it.” —Gerhard Mayer

Your writing on urban planning paradigms in Europe and the U.S. often focuses on housing types, and the challenges America faces in creating livable communities and neighborhoods as it densifies. In the past, you’ve pointed to 1939 as a pivotal year for the United States and Europe in terms of urban living. Why is that?

Gerhard Mayer: Until 1939, urban development in European, Asian, and American cities was more or less aligned. We had regional stylistic differences and different reactions to environmental circumstances, but we all basically built in a closed urban form in which buildings surrounded open space—rather than sitting in the middle of the lot surrounded by open space. In the early industrialization period, however, we in the United States found a unique way of grappling with a new change agent: the automobile.

The 1939 World’s Fair in New York established a different way of living in the American mold. It was informed by the intellectual work of the Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM), which said that we should do away with the old form of city planning and shift to building, essentially, towers in parks with dedicated roadways between them.

The World’s Fair showed this model to the rest of the world with a theme park ride called Futurama, which consisted of miniature cities connected by freeways with self-driving cars. This model introduced the idea that people could get away from the city and live in undisturbed nature—that is, the suburbs—and that this would be made possible by the automobile.

This idea was hugely attractive. Cities were not positive environments at the time. They were corrupt. They were polluted. They were not run by well-intentioned landlords. Getting away from the city had substantial appeal.

After World War II, we passed the GI Bill and began to make this vision a reality. Then Eisenhower built the freeway system, and we were off and running. It looked like it would work out great; it looked like we had the solution for the rest of the word.

It was like a sugar rush: Early on, it worked like a charm. But though we didn’t know it at the time, this way of living was so resource-intensive that we didn’t even have enough land to realize it. Moreover, the externalized pollution made it difficult to sustain the positive parts of that lifestyle.

European cities discovered these problems earlier because they had less land available to spread out. And because people lived closer together, their pollution problems were more acute and obvious. In 1972, the Club of Rome issued its first environmental statement, The Limits to Growth, which said: Our resources are not unlimited, and we need to find a different way of growing.

What was the “different way” proposed by the Club of Rome in 1972?

Subsequent to that report, planners proposed a return to an old way of building cities, which reembraced urban infill and the closed urban form. Germany launched this vision in a giant event called the International Building Exhibition Berlin (Internationale Bauausstellung) (IBA), finalized in 1987.

European cities embraced this vision. They reinvented their planning mechanisms to bring back all the old building types: small apartments, stacked housing, row houses, etc.—all of which the U.S. used to have as well, but which didn’t fit the suburban model.

Ever since then, Europe has been on a roll—building efficient cities with far lower carbon footprints and better livability (as measured by a number of international reports). Moreover, the population generally doesn’t resist changes to the urban fabric. They are not antagonistic to new construction, because new construction actually makes their lives better.

Why has Europe’s successful embrace of urban infill and the closed urban form over the last three decades not been imitated by American developers and city planners? 

Our suburban model is very seductive to our culture of individualism. Our development and financing models are dedicated to suburbia. The way we sell cars and housing is still predicated on that message from the World’s Fair: You can get away from it all, alone on the road, in control of nature. Undoing all that will be a very heavy lift.

Of course, that suburban model wasn’t organically undone in Europe, either; the government decided that it was the wrong direction and moved things into a different groove. The more our current operating model is challenged by outside factors, the more we dig our heels into the way we’ve been doing things. It’s unfortunate.

Today in California, and around the country where jobs are abundant, there is a palpable political movement in favor of greater density. Does this present an opportunity for planners to move away from the suburban growth model? What are the impediments to a model that embraces both density and livability?

What Southern California is building right now is basically an intensified suburbia, and it is meeting increasing resistance from a population that doesn’t see it making their lives better.

If the street network in your city is already overwhelmed, how does adding one tall development that brings 1,000 cars to the already congested street improve your life at all? It certainly helps the person who makes money off of developing that property, but it doesn’t help anybody around it.

If, on the other hand, we extended a transit backbone to that location, dedicated some of the land to a park, and then allowed multiple developers to build around that park—now, that might convince a community that they stand to benefit from development. Not only are additional people being housed, but it also provides an alternative to driving and a place for kids to play.

Unfortunately, that’s not how our planning model works. Los Angeles’ planning model goes property by property; we amenitize the city with whatever we can squeeze out of a single development, rather than by creating a cohesive framework for the city and then asking developers to implement it.

That, I think, is the paradigm shift that we need to entertain. If we are to intensify growth, we can’t simply build bigger suburban projects; we must set out to build a city and invite as many people as possible to help us do that.

What you describe sounds much like the “city of villages” planning concept advanced by Gail Goldberg, former planning director of both Los Angeles and San Diego. How might California cities embrace a paradigm shift in that direction?

The only model I know of that has worked internationally is large-scale urban experimentation.

We need to get back to design-level thinking and urban experimentation. We need to try out integrated models that don’t address just one issue, but multiple issues in a cohesive environment.

If you think about it, this is how we arrived at suburbia in the first place. Suburbia wasn’t organically advanced by development or financing interests; we basically experimented our way there. But then we stopped experimenting.


Elaborate on how Europe and much of the the world’s urbanized metropolises have employed International Building Exhibitions to do just that.

The 1974-87 International Building Exhibition Berlin (IBA Berlin) was far from the only IBA. In fact, IBAs started in 1901 in Germany in the face of industrialization. An IBA has elements of what in the U.S. is called an ecodistrict—a way of organizing an area in service of equality, sustainability, and social integration. Add to that a mandate for experimentation in zoning and building typology, and you have an IBA.

In Germany, an IBA is a 10-year designation with goals set by a board of directors. In this experimental district, the city can pass different zoning frameworks that normally wouldn’t be possible. Then, they make land in the district available at conditions too good to reject, so that developers can come and build the outcomes that the city wants.

After 10 years, the city takes a year to hold symposia and conferences to evaluate how things turned out in the IBA—what worked and what didn’t. That learning gets extrapolated and multiplied in many locations when the next IBA begins.

IBAs have become so common in Germany that they now overlap in near two-year intervals, and have inspired many informal large-scale experimental projects. They have been picked up by nearly all other European countries, and similar planning models are being implemented in Japan and Korea. As a result, we are seeing an avalanche of urban innovation around Europe.

For example, Vienna is in the middle of an IBA for social housing that will go on until 2022. The Netherlands is pursuing an IBA in former mining region where they want to turn the economy around. Recently, Hamburg completed an IBA on how to create a sustainable city. Another recent IBA covered urban repair for the entire state of Saxony. Stuttgart is preparing to do an IBA, on the 100th anniversary of its first ever IBA, that will focus on the communication needs of a modern city. Heidelberg is having an IBA on the theme of a scientific city. There are IBAs that analyze the relationship of small towns to the countryside. And so on.

In California, the political debate in the state legislature relies on the state—rather than local government— encouraging density, such as through SB50. What changes would you make to the way state and local legislators use the blunt instrument of “upzoning” in our coastal metropolises to address the state’s current housing shortage?

If we simply extrapolated our current suburban planning model to higher densities, I think we would be inviting conflict and causing living situations to deteriorate rather than improve.

Let’s say you had a business distributing video content. If you stuck with the Blockbuster model, just making VHS tapes work better would not get you very far. You’ve got to switch to an entirely different model.

For us, that means switching to the urban, rather than the suburban, paradigm. If we can do that, I think we will see lots of openings to create positive density—with different building types, different zoning, different mobility services, and more open space. That is we need in order to have good quality of life in our cities.

Your comprehensive approach to how planning cities are planned does not appear to be part of the conversation at the state level at the moment. Are any cities within the state entertaining such ideas?

Some cities are. In San Francisco, the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure—the successor to the redevelopment agency—has been pursuing some positive urban models. Mission Bay, for example, is a very positive new urban environment.

In the Los Angeles area, Culver City is the shining star in terms of pursuing positive change. They are looking at building a city differently than the rest of us have built it. They are not averse to density, but they want to see density differently than they see it being built in the cities around them.

Speak about the need you have identified to enable the building of housing for the “missing middle."

My definition of an ideal city is inspired by the urban-to-rural transect model created Andrés Duany, one of the founders of New Urbanism. It starts with quality open space, which is surrounded by a variety of buildings at a variety of densities, ranging from single-family homes in the outskirts to taller structures in the center of the city. In between are attached single-family homes (duplexes or triplexes), rowhouses and small apartment buildings, and medium-sized apartment buildings.

This is how many of the more beloved transit villages Los Angeles were designed. But since then, we have legislated most of those middle buildings out of existence. Instead, we basically built suburbia, then jumped straight to large five-over-two apartment complexes and high-rises.

But for smaller cities, it’s much easier to swallow and adapt to the stuff in the middle. We need to enable that again, such that a small developer—like a dentist and a friend—could invest in a five- or six-unit apartment building, see it get built, and contribute to the community. We don’t need international investment mechanisms to build our cities; it should be locals building for locals.

Lastly, some have suggested that the effort to increase housing supply through one-size-fits-all upzoning is driven by Wall Street and international financial interests. Are those actors open to your suggested housing paradigm change? 

The market is quite resistant to change because they have a very successful model that basically guarantees good returns in the present environment. Almost anything you build new in an undersupplied situation will yield high returns. But more and different building types need not necessarily mean unwelcome competition to the existing developers. They have their successful niches, but I would like to see many additional development actors out there, building different typologies. There are many people who do not find development currently addresses their needs – like workforce housing, for instance.

Share with our readers your background and what informs your views. 

I grew up in Vienna and studied architecture there. At the time, I was not at all interested in urban design; frankly, it seemed like a given. Then I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to the U.S. in sustainable design, and I learned firsthand what happens when you don’t have an urban framework that makes sense—and how quickly a place can go awry without a cohesive, integrated model for a quality city.

I’ve now been in the U.S. for 35 years at a variety of firms, and I’ve also lived and worked all over the world at a few large companies. For a long time, I was in charge of large projects for Frank Gehry. I used to question why even he, with his level of fame and influence, couldn’t change the building typologies that he was forced to build with. That’s how I became interested in upfront entitlement and urban planning.

I’m now running the Los Angeles GGLO office. We specialize in housing and quality urban residential models. GGLO cut their teeth in the Pacific Northwest and are now working to make a positive impact in Los Angeles.


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