Necropoli pt 1: Urbanism of the Dead

No earthly state stands less fickle,
As with the wind that waves the wicker,
So waves this world's vanity--

Fear of death unsettles me.
Unto the Death go god's estates,
Princes, lawyers, Heads of state,
Both rich and poor in all degrees--

Fear of death unsettles me.

--Joe Scanlan, "Lament for the Makers"

Headstone at Greenlawn Cemetary, Columbus, Ohio.

This is the first part of a three part series that will focus on cultural/spatial responses toward death, the tenuous position that cemetery ritual has in modern culture, and a radical rethinking of burial practice as sustainable infrastructure.

Part One: The Emergence of the Cemetery

Burial grounds stand in cities throughout the world as memento mori or monuments reminding us of our own mortality. Intensely loaded with religious symbology and cultural allegory through their design, these places often represent the values of a culture most clearly. Originally intended as places of mystic ritual, burial grounds are the spatial reification of humanity’s struggle with that which lies beyond understanding.

Before the modern area burial grounds served as an anchor of community. People were born, families were created and members died within eyesight of their place of worship. In the western world the church graveyard served as an extension of the home. The church graveyard was so expropriated by its living constituents that “the church finally had to forbid such activities as gambling and dancing within cemeteries”1.

That such an idea seems alien to the modern observer is a result of the massive cultural shift in the modern age. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century numerous church graveyards had begun to give way towards organized cemeteries in many European cities. These early cemeteries were orderly necropoli containing a grid of small mausoleums where the dead were interred in an urban environment resembling that in which they lived their lives. Such cemeteries are rare in this country. The best examples can be found in New Orleans, which as a far outpost of France did not witness the post-revolutionary cultural change that the motherland did.

Lafayette Cemetery Number One, New Orleans, Louisiana.

After the French Revolution, the strict rectilinear order with elite districts of ostentatious interment was believed to represent the ancien regime. Those that laid out new cemeteries sought a more egalitarian design and looked to the culture of rural laborers for a new order. As this type of cemetery was built in England and the United States, this practice coalesced into a structured reinterpretation of a pastoral landscape. While such cemeteries strive to seem untouched idylls they harnessed the very latest engineering and hydraulic innovation to reshape the landscape.

As a result of their bucolic appearance cemeteries assumed the public life that once characterized the church yard. In the high Victorian area cemeteries, like asylums, were not seen as places of difference, but rather served as needed islands of nature in industrial cities. It was common for families to travel to the cemetery or asylum grounds for weekend picnics or recreation. Such practices led to efforts to create publicly accessible parks. Despite their popularity, cemeteries still were redolent of human mortality, and, as the nineteenth century ended, parks displaced cemeteries as grounds for recreation.

The idyll of death: landscape at Greenlawn Cemetary, Columbus Ohio.

While cemeteries were seen primarily as places of recreation that would provide religious and moral instruction in Victorian times, these sentiments have become incompatible with modern lifestyles. "There is no available ideology to integrate them comfortably into the rhythms of the metropolis."2 Cemeteries have again changed to reflect current culture. While burial once emphasized the deceased’s ties to kin with demarcated family plots, ornamental fencing, common design, and often communal monuments, modern monuments seem designed to accentuate the individual. The landscape has become an unsuccessful hybrid of the idyllic and the Euclidean with a gridded aggrandizement of individuality overlaid over an impotent derivation of a depoliticized peasant landscape. Furthermore, the loss of the cemetery as communal space has also led to the relegation of the dead to the margins of society.

In the premodern area, through shared ritual and spatial proximity the dead were allowed to exist within society. Today, disease is viewed from the lens of unproductivity, and death is the anthesis of the productive life that defines success. Our culture banishes death to the margins and refuses to contemplate its meaning, for “In a society that officially recognizes ‘rest’ only in the forms of inertia and waste, death is given over for example. to religious languages that are no longer current, returned to rites that are now empty of the beliefs that once resided in them”3. Today cemeteries exist as dualistic monuments: monuments to the desire of eternal memory in the face of death and monuments to the practices and customs of our ancestors.

Modern headstones contrast with empty attempts at romantic landscapes, Laurel Hill Cemetery St. Louis.

Works Cited in this Article:
1 Kearl, Michael C. Endings: a Sociology of Death and Dying. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. p. 50. 2

2. City A-Z. Ed. Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift. New York: Routledge, 2000. p. 92.

3 De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. p. 192

Coming Soon: Part 2: The Psycho-spatial disconnect of Modern Cemeteries

Open Source urbanism?

Via Baltimore Inner Space blog comes an interesting approach to participatory redevelopment. I have quoted Paul Davidoff's assesment of participatory planning in an earlier post: "Lively political dispute aided by plural plans could do much to improve the level of rationality in the process of preparing the public plan."

This level of lively discourse is often exceedingly difficult in developer driven projects where significant monies have already been invested. In many cases the illusive veil of a public participation process may be used to control and appease the opposition. The manipulation of statistics derived from resident surveys works to a similar end. These abuses continue to occur because the financial stakeholders of the new plan feel threatened by the efforts of resident and community members to challenge decisions. The often beneficial act of initial investment becomes the stumbling block for participation in the process.

While participatory planning processes began in the 1960's due to the enormous impact of Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Modern Library Series) and Davidoff's work, it rarely transcended a reactionary methodology. Some efforts did begin as the result of resident groups lobbying for improvements, but most public participation existed due to legal mandate or as a reaction to proposed developments.

While it might be dismissed as utopian to reverse the equation to emphasize proactive community participation and reactive development, such a process would have strong advantages. The community would become the major source for ideas and inspiration and developers would vet such proposals for economic feasibility. The major advantage for such a procedural change would be the Collective Intellegence available to developers by utilizing the community as an open-source network of proposals and focus groups. While this concept seems radical, it is currently the primary advantage between of design competitions and charrettes.

Even if one remains decidedly skeptical of a technologist viewpoint it remains impossible to ignore the impact that social networking and internet-based communication has had on activism in the last decade. While the power of such technological advances was aptly demonstrated in the last presidential campaign, urban professionals are using such methods to create coalitions and advocacy organizations that may reshape local planning organizations in the decade to come.

One example of effective citizen activism is the 8664 project in Louisville. 8664 seeks to prevent a massive and illogical 23 lane highway interchange expansion on Louisville's riverfront. Furthermore, this 10,000 member grassroots organization has proved that by replacing the proposed two bridge/multi-lane expansion with a single bridge and an urban boulevard their plan will save billions of dollars, improve on a civic amenity and retain 99% of the traffic efficiency of the government's proposed plan.

While 8664 is a case study for the organizational power of new technology and is an example of the current state of many civic-powered development advocacy organizations, The Baltimorphosis proposal for the Franklin-Mulberry corridor in Baltimore shows the full potential of technology to revolutionize participatory planning. The Franklin-Mulberry corridor is a unfinished urban spur freeway through some of the most abandoned and underdeveloped neighborhoods in Baltimore. Baltimorphosis seeks to replace the existing highway trench with a combination of light rail, commuter rail, an urban boulevard and multi-story development. By developing construction within the ditch larger 4-6 story buildings can be visually accommodated in a predominately 2 story rowhouse area.

A more intensive scheme involves capping light rail and commuter rail lines and creating a large multi-story parking garage in the remaining highway right of way with new construction on the surface.

The difference between Baltimorphosis and other similar civic proposals is the incorporation of open-source design. The images above come from dimensionally accurate 3-D sketchup models which can be downloaded and reworked by interested members of the public:
You can submit designs in a variety of formats, including straight Photoshop. Humorous ideas are okay, but we prefer ideas that have some bearing on the real world. Model 2 to the right is a good starting point if you like to work in 3D. The blue and brown buildings are just placeholders that you will replace. If you have are more comfortable with 3D modeling, you might start with Model 1, an existing two-block section of the highway ditch, which is more of a blank slate.
If enough people apply their brains to this challenge, the results will prove that Franklin Mulberry has too much potential to let slip away.
If you're really ambitious, you can take a stab at the Ice House or Social Security districts at the West and East ends of the corridor by downloading Models 3 and 4.
Whatever you do, send us images of your designs so we can post them to our Gallery section. Send your name and occupation if you like, but that's up to you
-- taken from

While this degree of public involvement is excellent for generating a vast array of proposals, it also works to build a wide coalition of citizens who can pressure government for a better solution.

Compare this process with the process that resulted with the aborted construction of the highway. In that case, a technologist
bureaucracy implemented a massive plan resulting in the demolition of hundreds of buildings and the destruction of a neighborhood. There was little civic participation and the planning took place using aerial maps behind closed doors. Today technology gives us the chance to work experientially in three dimensions and to consider hundreds or permutations of a design while utilizing the practical knowledge of residents. In effect a proactive participant planning process initiates the "lively political dispute" and will "improve the level of rationality" before development... a practice Paul Davidoff anticipated forty years ago.

Open source urban design (via Baltimorphosis Gallery).