1. The Future - Not
The easiest way for me to start a discussion on the city of the future is to tell you what it isn't.
It's nothing like a prediction that appeared in a circa 1950 popular science magazine depicting the house of the future. According to the writer, by 1980 house interiors were going to be made exclusively of plastic. Each room would come equipped with a drain hole in the middle so that when it came time to clean up you could just get out the garden hose and wash it down.
Neither is the oppressive monotony of endless rows of look alike, all concrete or masonry, multistory apartments in twenty million plus megacities our urban fate, at least not in the long term. It may come in many areas as a byproduct of world population peaking sometime in the next half century, but that depressing image could never be our conscious goal. That view of urbanity is totally devoid of feeling, beauty or sensitivity, and consequently it can't represent a vision of a desired or enlightened future.
It's also not a pastel on the outside but still festering on the inside, urban wasteland epitomized by Los Angeles with its fifteen suburbs in search of a city. Where visiting a friend might involve a fifty mile drive on a twelve lane freeway, or conversely where a person might jump in a car to drive 1/10 of a mile to their corner store - my own experience from the fifties.
Parts of it may look good enough but it is no less oppressive as a lifestyle than the high density, high pressure megacity. Smaller versions of the southern California megalopolis have their allure but the mall-based ※Jack每in-the-Box§ culture they represent is equally alienating, stultifying and vacuous.
The city of the future will be natural, organic, low tech.
The future encompasses a long timespan, so let me clarify. This is a view of a city that evolves in an era in which our progeny have advanced enough socially and spiritually to enable conscious decisions to choose and create the most enlightened, healthiest and people-friendly urban lifestyles. Small parts of this city, inklings of the future, already exist in many places. In truth, most of the concepts herein are merely reflections and expansions of the latest in urban planning.
This city could appear in whole form in a few selected places in as little as a generation with sufficient will and an enlightened urban populace, but this is really more a glimpse of the city of the twenty second century and beyond, because it awaits a time of reduced population pressure and reduced acquisitiveness, and by inference, increased spirituality on the part of world's people.
2. Twilight of Megacities
Megacities, the greatest accomplishment and simultaneously biggest failing of the twentieth century, are a natural outcome of the world's burgeoning population and its near total orientation towards the material plane. In this context people's spiritual and social development is barely an afterthought. That is not to imply that much of modern culture, as well as many subcultures, doesn't have a spiritual side, but rather the world's primary focus remains on the acquisition of materiel and cities are merely reflective of those base desires.
Further, the state of today's cities has to be seen in a very long term evolutionary context. Great improvement has taken place in recent history in our understanding of how cities work and what it takes to improve the lives of urban dwellers, but the preeminence of commercial goals and values is unassailable when livability vies with growth. Partial and piecemeal advances are taking place but the underlying motivation of today's commerce-bound society makes livability a peripheral, secondary, even foreign notion to the establishment.
In truth megacities are unnecessary and easily, theoretically at least, replaceable even today. We could live without them, but since there is tremendous inertia involved in the city as built they will be with us long after the realization manifests that we rather not have them around. We in this case refers to the citizenry, the political and economic leadership is solely and immutably focused on increasing size, wealth, power and status.
Those truisms are abundantly clear to the people who live in today＊s bloated urban areas. It's unlikely if not impossible to find a megacity in which a majority of its inhabitants actually like being there, wouldn't prefer being somewhere else. Even London, coincidentally the world's original megacity, which is very livable by big city American standards, is still rejected by the bulk of its citizens because of its sheer, oppressive size. There is an essential hassle of living that comes in tandem with bigness 每 massive cities are totally out of proportion to the kind of urban configurations that are able to fulfill people's fundamental needs, and even more, their desires for a comfortable lifestyle.
The relative wealth and related work opportunities of the megacity are often so much greater than the available alternatives that many people feel they have no economic choice. Also, because of the backwardness of rural or small town life in many places, they feel they have no cultural, intellectual choice. But a clear majority would still opt for a smaller, more livable city if it met their social and economic needs.
The reason is simple. Pressures, hassles and angst go up; livability, comfort and flora go down with every increase in population over a certain point - much past one million it's all downhill. Up to that point growth increases variety and opportunity, but the city is still small enough to afford relatively easy, uncongested access to all sectors and a comfortable lifestyle. After one million each increment in population makes life more difficult, more expensive, more tense and often more dangerous. It's less friendly, less relaxed, less dignified and increasingly divorced from natural patterns. Megacities can never, because of inherently and invariably congested and crowded conditions, function smoothly or efficiently, or provide a comfortable lifestyle for the majority of their citizens.
Today in most cases, especially compared to local alternatives, they are more stimulating intellectually. But concomitantly the essential hardship and dysfunction of megacity living carries the potential to have a substantive impact on the intellectual outcome. If, for instance, the backdrop on which life is staged is festooned with graffiti, can that not alter, even warp one's intellectual inclinations and outlook? Can the individual who witnesses life through a Los Angeles, Beijing or Mexico City haze not have a clouded perspective?
Megacities are centers of art, for instance, but if the artist has to earn a lot of money just to survive, his/her art may become altered even adulterated by his/her financial need. Potentially, an important part of its essence may have to be sacrificed in response to the pressure, the grind of daily life.
On the other hand the old saws: 'Struggle builds character' and 'One must experience the downside of life to beable to truly appreciate the good times＊, are also valid. Much of society's inspiration for change, as well as the breadth of an individual's perspective, stems from real life experience. At the same time the individual has to understand that kind of lifestyle decision as a bedrock, hard tack choice and that heavy personal burdens may have to be born as a result.
In the early sixties, at the age of 18, I migrated to New York. I was escaping from the cultural emptiness of suburban Los Angeles and exceedingly fascinated by the big city＊s power, energy, bustle, diversity, depth and even the dirt. Reality, activism, commitment to change and life was what I was after. Gotham had everything; every political movement, including the oddest and wackiest, had its New York contingent. Every imaginable cultural offering was available in abundance. Every street was so vibrant and full of life I could spend hours out walking, just witnessing the multitudes of happenings.
However, after a few years another reality sunk in: survival. There was not much activism since I was too busy earning a living to leave space for changing the world. And not much of a living at that; being at the bottom economic rung, I was always broke, burdened and frustrated. There were unlimited cultural opportunities, but I could rarely afford them, though I did at times take advantage of the many free offerings; music, Shakespeare in Central Park, etc.
The money I spent on rent for a dark cavern-like apartment could＊ve purchased a dignified and green lifestyle in any mid-sized American city. Giant cities can offer a reasonable lifestyle for those people who can afford adequate space and the means to get out to the countryside on a regular basis, but the average Joe and even many of those with above average income are relegated to living in tiny spaces for relatively huge sums.
That was before pollution controls; as a result the city was a cauldron of noxious air. There＊s a running lament about how it always rains on the weekend in New York and then turns sunny on Monday. Well, sure enough, a study a few years back actually documented twenty percent more rain on weekends than Monday and Tuesday. The only possible explanation the authors could come up with was a build-up of pollution during the work week 每 when upwards of three million people commute to the city 每 that gets washed out on the weekend which then gives the city a fresh start on Monday.
In the end, the noise, pollution and overwhelming pressure of life began to affect me mentally: The realization dawned that I was starting to talk to myself and descend into insanity. It seemed clear where I was headed if I didn＊t flee to greener pastures.
Many artists feel they must live in a megacity for the necessary, proper stimulation. However, the status of megacities as sole or primary repositories of intellectual or cultural prowess will be increasingly obviated in the future by the continuing revolution in information and communication combined with the rising level of intellect on the part of society as a whole. Megacities, even all big cities, will no longer be necessary. They'll exist only if/when they offer a healthy and superior lifestyle.
New York's former twin tower, 110 story, World Trade Center most succinctly exemplifies the dichotomy between livability and growth; the needs of the people against the goals of the powers that be. It was carried out by a public, or in this case, quasi-public body, The Port of New York Authority, and was undeniably a truly great and impressive accomplishment.
Meanwhile sixteen square blocks of quality, historic, restorable buildings were demolished in the development process. A walk on those former streets with their relatively low-rise human scale buildings, which included many fine examples of nineteenth century cast-iron-front architecture, evoked a wondrous and pleasant feeling of interest and surprise in every block. Those living remnants of our history turned nearly every glance into a treat for the eyes.
That unique and uplifting human-scale streetscape was replaced with neck-craning monoliths that did not significantly differ from the vast majority of new skyscrapers found dominating urban skylines everywhere in the world. It was turned into an experience of awe, sheer power and immensity that for the average person came tinged with sensations of alienation, discomfort and in some ways oppression. The individual felt overwhelmed by its mammoth scale and disoriented in its labyrinth of corridors and public spaces.
In the final accounting most of the people who worked there would have preferred being elsewhere, so ultimately, inthe most important sense, what was accomplished or gained? The World Trade Center represented blindness to the intrinsic value of people residing in livable, likable cities. Nothing, no imaginable mitigation could＊ve molded its fundamentally oppressive character into one that honored human needs and sensibilities.
Absent the 9-11 attacks, those towers would＊ve been around for a while. The economic forces that would＊ve been necessary to be mobilized for their removal would＊ve been awesome. The public＊s investment was so great and the city's perceived interest so overwhelming that they would＊ve both gone to great lengths to keep people working there regardless of the needs and feelings of the workers themselves.
In the case of the World Trade Center, 50,000 additional workers were added to a public transportation system which was already almost unbearably crowded. To offer some perspective, the 10,000,000 square feet of office space of the former towers is more than the total office space in downtown Portland, a mid-sized city.
Most people today are ruled by their economic situations and will go wherever they need to for livelihood and career, but base economic need will not always be people's prime motivator and those towers, gargantuan monuments to mammon, had they not been trashed by terrorists, would＊ve eventually been turned into hollow sculpture. The time will come relatively soon, in historic terms, when few people will be willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary to work under those conditions.
Sixty percent of New Yorkers surveyed a few years back said they would've preferred living elsewhere. The inertia of jobs, family and friends and the stumbling block of inadequate resources keep them tied down in undesirable situations. They feel bound to urban conditions they long to escape.
The first prerequisite of the city of the future city is that people want to be there. They will be drawn to it because it offers the excitement and stimulation that only urban living can provide without sacrificing the kind of green beauty and ease of living that should be everyone's right.
Not everybody desires a countryside or exurban lifestyle but the vast majority clearly desire at least a modicum of the green world in their lives. In a city of one million it is possible for most people to maintain a positive and direct connection to life's natural organic ways. Even if the urban space has been altered too far from the original to be truly natural and organic they will at least enjoy the sight of grass and trees all around them.
Massive investment in infrastructure makes it possible to agglomerate multitudes of people in giant cities but it's never easy for the people involved. New York has the world's most extensive urban mass transit system, but because the city is so big the average person still shoulders the burden of spending more than an hour each way getting to and from work, not to mention suffering the indignity of being stuffed in a train way past the point of comfort and far into invasion of one's personal space. That's especially true for many women who draw groping men. The only place Americans tolerate those kinds of personal intrusions is in its largest cities, but it happens as well in big cities throughout the world. New York also has a very widespread suburban complement to its urban subway system but because its environs are so large, this only adds more time to the average commute.
Contrast that to a well designed city of a million in which the average trip includes far less hassle and takes much less time. At the root of the problem is the pervasive, widespread belief on the part of the political and economic establishment in growth at any and all costs. How often are we confronted with the concept that a city, a business or an institution is dying if it's not growing?
There's never a thought, let alone a consideration, of balance, harmony or perfection. Stasis, symmetry, equilibrium, that transcendental point at which all systems are in perfect accord, making no waves, creating no disturbing anomalies, becomes a surrogate for death. The biggest places, already hardest to live, already two or three or ten times optimum sustainable size, can only see 'improvement' in getting bigger. Their leaders are totally oblivious or indifferent to the glaring and undeniable impacts on livability.
What of the four million New Yorkers who said they'd rather be elsewhere? Can a city be a good place to live at the same time that a clear majority want out? Obviously a contradiction in terms. Should we so choose to adequately fund our urban needs the burden in those kinds of overpopulated situations could be substantially eased. But it is impossible, at New York's size and density, to turn around the average person's fundamental negative attitudes toward the city.
In fact, large numbers of people leave each year to be replaced by immigrants who a decade or two later will, in turn, move on. So an important need is served but that doesn't fix the long term problem or realign the motivation of those who want to leave. Soon enough the desire to exit will overwhelm the draw to stay and the population will begin to drop dramatically.
Why not let them, even encourage them to go? New York at seven million, in the center of a much bigger metro area, can feel like hell, whereas at three million it could almost exemplify the best that city life has to offer. After all, those people who would be most likely to stay are the ones who really like the city, who constitute its artistic and cultural foundation.
As the depopulation process gets underway the leadership can save the best of the city's housing and raze the worst in favor of green space to compensate for the adjacent high density that remains. As they use their great resources to seek perfection instead of growth and the city is left to the people who really want to be there, it could be transformed into a relatively people-oriented, user-friendly city. Of course, every gain in livability would come at a corresponding loss in property values to the loud bewailment, not to mention implacable opposition of the vested establishment.
New York, as the world's most powerful as well as most powerful feeling urban area, merely stands as a metaphor for all large cities. All place heavy burdens on their populaces. Even those people who thrive on the special attributes only a specific megacity can provide, I would argue, have to sacrifice a good part of their well being, if not occasionally a portion of their sanity, for the privilege of participating.
However, as society as a whole advances and intellect grows, smaller cities will begin to reach closer to providing a high quality, diversified urban lifestyle. Social changes will enable small cities to support the arts and the higher forms of culture in a way that does not constitute a substantive loss to the individual from being in today's megacity. Though there may not be as much happening in simple numerical terms, they will not lack for breadth.Cultural opportunities in cities of ideal size may not equal the largest cities in quality for some time in the future, but in any case there will be found sufficient opportunity to fulfill the needs and occupy the interests of those people who are most involved.
We are all products of our environment. It is not possible to separate the individual from where he/she lives or has ever lived. If our daily environmental intake is beautiful, artistic, friendly, safe and enjoyable, we will be totally different people than if our experience is noisy, polluted, crowded, frustrating and dangerous. Environment is not everything but it takes a strong constitution to come out of long periods of living in a megacity to emerge mentally unscathed.
You are what you eat. All the sights, sounds, feelings and experiences of our daily lives have an indelible and irreducible effect on our beings and our well-being. In theory, in a spiritual sense, we can overcome, supersede the base impacts of our environment. The enlightened individual dwells in a heavenly environment though he/she may walk a harsh, ugly, unfair earth. Everyone else's totality is to some extent diminished by existing in daily lives which don't reflect, in at least minimal measure, life's greater spiritual values.
Many European countries place great emphasis on protecting and enhancing their urban environments. In America, in contrast, there is a prevailing tendency to aggrandize personal spaces while the ugliness and meanness of public spaces is ignored, and accumulate personal wealth while acting as consummate misers towards community needs.
America's middle and upper classes are able to ensconce themselves in exclusive enclaves but that only partially exempts them from the impacts of the gray urbanity they seek to escape. Not only are we all in this together in the sense that all suffer when any suffer, but the very need or desire to escape urban ills is a clear indicator of the lack of a vibrant, healthy city lifestyle, and the consequent downgrading of human intellectual potential.
Cities have always been society's prime repository of creativity and social progress. In those aspects thecountryside has always lagged behind. While the digital revolution has and will continue to reduce, and in some cases nearly eliminate the absolute need for urban interaction, for our spiritual needs nothing can ever replace face-to-face personal contact. No level of virtual reality can replace the real thing. No level of high tech prowess can duplicate the feeling of being there, as in the experience of attending a concert. The warmth, energy, feeling one experiences in person can no more be duplicated on a computer or TV screen than phone sex could replace the real thing.
And so it is with cities. Yes, we can carry on business from our homes through electronic wizardry, but we will be net losers without compensating real-life connections. Cities are the setting for human interaction that assures the widest possible potential. Unfortunately, as it now stands, most American cities are failing miserably in regards to providing venues for people to relate and mingle outside of the mall-based commercial milieu. The modern American city may boast a wide array of entertainment, cultural and educational opportunities but it leaves its citizens stressed and alienated.
Of course, every city has parks, squares and other types of public amenities that come with community consciousness, but more often than not their inclusion is an adjunct or afterthought to economic motivation which retains primacy. The establishment is not totally unaware of the benefits of livability but they are mightily diverted from that goal by blind devotion to growth. New York, for instance, has recently put immense resources into subsidizing the construction of first class office towers, without a thought, let alone a program to deal with, the impacts on infrastructure and livability of the increased density. That in a city that was mercilessly overcrowded a century ago.
At the same time, at the other end of the spectrum, vast tracts of land on the periphery of American cities is given over to a sprawl that is destructive of both the ambiance and productivity of the countryside. And further, that sprawl's urban function is extremely inefficient; it adds tremendously to travel time and its various ancillary costs 每 congestion, pollution, increased use of resources, etc. Unregulated growth raises the cost of daily living in both public and private spheres. Government pays in the form of increased infrastructure cost and provision of services, the individual pays in additional fuel, increased time and driving stress. To cap it off, tacky suburban commercial strips constitute the esthetic dregs of urban life.
The time is coming when we can look beyond economics and consider people first; when our cities can consciously begin to strive towards the emulation of higher values. This change will happen partly as a result of people having real alternatives/choices. No matter how powerful the inertia behind a city's ability or desire to survive, if the people decide they don't want to be there it will be abandoned. If it doesn't feel healthy they will naturally and spontaneously reject the experience. They will search out higher quality lifestyles and gravitate towards those urban places where their needs are given priority and where the design of the urban space that shapes their existence considers them first.
Unquestionably, it will be a long time before a majority of the world's people have the financial ability to make those choices. Even many or most developed world people find themselves constricted to places they don't want to be by economics. Those constraints combined with overpopulation will place the ability to have ＆real options＊ far into the future for the greater part of humanity.
In the US where large numbers of people do
have a choice, they have looked at many older cities, or in the case of New
York, parts of the city, and just simply walked away. American cities such as
St. Louis and Cleveland have half as many people today as they did in 1950.
Their suburbs have grown as their inner cities have languished.
Though the process may take generations, these macro American trends will undoubtedly expand to a global level as increasing numbers of the world's people become capable of lifestyle alternatives. The widespread embrace of the American socio-economic development model will eventually ensure a South-Bronx-style abandonment of undesirable urban spaces throughout the globe, including those places where population is now exploding. As soon as people achieve middle class living standards, whatever their country's development level, significant numbers will desert distressing overcrowded cities at the first opportunity their life situation allows.
A substantial portion of the housing that was abandoned in America's older cities was cheaply built, poor quality slum housing the day it was finished. Other times the individual buildings themselves were decent enough but were doomed because whole neighborhoods were subject to civic neglect. In the former situation meanness and ugliness are their own rewards, there can be no surprise when people walk at the first opportunity.
In the latter, the abandonment of worthy housing will often stem in some degree from skewed priorities on the part of misguided civic leadership. Detroit, for instance, spent great sums of money developing a walled, fortified complex of skyscraper buildings downtown while its neighborhoods were disintegrating, often from the lack of minimal resources for upkeep.
At the same time that Detroit was putting its urban renewal resources into a showcase downtown development, Portland was providing low and no interest loans to inner city homeowners for essential repairs and upkeep. Portland's program had a big part in preserving inherently high quality but threatened inner city housing and by extension was instrumental in revitalizing the city as a whole.
Federal priorities also helped to decimate
many of America's older cities. For decades the Federal Housing Administration,
provider of loans to large numbers of Americans, wouldn't touch an inner city
house, but instead restricted its resources to new suburban housing. Meanwhile
large banks redlined most inner city neighborhoods, secretly and unofficially
denying loans to otherwise deserving applicants on houses that were worthy of
Federal tax laws also bestowed large benefits to developers of first class downtown office towers whose workers came mainly from the suburbs. Generous tax breaks made such construction so lucrative that many were built far ahead of demand at the same time that small-scale neighborhood-based needs were starved for capital.
Vast sums of money were spent on the federal interstate highway system which made it easy to flee to the suburbs while cities were left to their own devices to fund mass transit, the far more rational and ecological alternative. Many forces combined to further the deterioration of the inner city. Many people who would otherwise have preferred to remain there were left with hollow choices.
Through the cumulative effects of these various factors, the denizens of America's older cities have been left primarily to two groups of citizens. The first are those people whose low incomes don＊t leave them a viable option. In America＊s rough and tumble, pioneer-spirit culture with its safety net big enough to drive a tank through, large numbers of people have been left to fend for themselves, to eke out livings by whatever means they can muster. The plight of the homeless, who number between 700,000 and 1,000,000, is never mentioned in a political context. Add the working poor and people on fixed low incomes and the cities have become the repositories of society＊s disposable people, those who don＊t rate the ＆good life＊.
The second group are those whose attraction to the diversity, culture and excitement of urban life compensates for its hardship 每 they don't mind, or at least are able to tolerate, living on the edge. They don't like the suburbs or can't deal with the extra travel time that living in the urban periphery necessitates so they are willing to gamble with danger and deal on a daily basis with dirt, noise, pollution and ugliness - aspects that make living in many cities a degrading experience. In most instances those gamblers are single people, parents, for good and obvious reasons, are much more conservative. The parents who do stay are those who can afford private schools for their children.
Notwithstanding the fact that the abandonment of America's cities was aided tremendously by government policy, it is a mistake to discount people's underlying desire for safer, greener, more spacious and peaceful environments. While most suburban tract neighborhoods can hardly be considered esthetic plusses, when compared to the typical dingy, depressing, graffiti-decorated neighborhoods of the inner cities they were designed to replace, it is easy to understand the motivations that created the urban exodus. Many more people would have stayed in the inner city under a more enlightened national development scenario but concurrently most people seek a more peaceful, pastoral life setting.
In much of the developing world, cities are in an intense expansionary phase. China, for instance, adds 100 million people to its cities every five to seven years. High birth rates in many developing countries combined with overpopulation in many others, have spurred great migrations to urban areas. This has been exacerbated by extreme poverty in many rural areas. Opportunities abound in the cities - compared to the backwaters of the countryside - regardless of the certain difficulties and low pay most migrants encounter.
Migration constitutes a large step forward for the people involved, both culturally and economically, but the receiving cities and their leaders are very poorly prepared to provide for populations that might as much as double in just a few years. They lack nothing of the kind of life and vitality that is woefully deficient in American cities, but they are far too crowded and commonly lacking in nearly all environmental amenities. The migrants are happy to be there but, along with older residents who have climbed the economic ladder, they will in time begin to long for respite from oppressive city life.
In my travels in the developing world I was often struck by a glaring, shocking dearth of urban open spaces. Excessive traffic, overcrowded public transit and other facilities are also far worse problems than in the developed world. Depressingly high levels of all forms of pollution sometimes combined with inadequate or completely absent sanitary facilities compound a horrendous situation.
They excel in life, energy, vitality, culture and economic opportunity but even much more than in the developed-world city they evoke a powerful desire to escape. As soon as the residents of those teeming cities feel they have a choice they will flee as quickly as they came.
There are two essential mutually-dependent considerations in designing the city of the future. First we must give people the greenery and tranquility they feel and know they want. Second, we must create/preserve a vital and exciting urban experience that they can easily and immediately recognize as important, valuable and enjoyable; one that can be found in most European and developing world cities, but barely exists today in America.
It's easy enough to see what most people want. The common idealized attributes of suburban living represent the primary lifestyle goal of the great majority of people: a house, a yard, a place for the kids to play.
The reality that life in the suburbs has most often not lived up to the stated or conceived ideal, or that a lot of societal detritus has been left in the wake of the great outward wave, is not pertinent here. Safety, tranquility, greenery, space and beauty, the reasons why people gravitate towards the suburbs, are a necessary adjunct of the good life and an extremely important if not always essential aid to mental health.
Now I don't mean to imply that everybody's environment needs to look like it materialized directly out of a Mary Poppins set. Dirt, ugliness and imperfection are a fundamental aspect of the human experience. Any attempt to dispense with them entirely will fail, if not directly, then indirectly in the sense that they always remain under the surface. No amount of pastel paint used to dress up a Los Angeles will change its essentially dark, polluted and stressful character.
To understand or change the world you must be of the world.
However far society has advanced in the next century there'll always be more to do, to learn, to experience. Regardless of how far the world has progressed or improved there will always be another challenge around the next bend. There's no need to seek out difficulty, hardship or entropy. No matter how close we are able to come to our idealistic social goals, for many generations to come there will be a surfeit of mundane examples of the downside of life to contend with without going out looking for them.
For most of us the need to escape the city is not really a reflection of a desire to avoid reality or responsibility, rather it is a natural response to obvious negative stimulus. We intellectual, social thinker, planner types can point to a great many evils inherent in the fall of the city and the rise of the suburb. We wish it were different. To the people who made that transition the choice was clear, simple and obvious.
The problem lies, deterioration begins to fester, in the life of the city in those situations in which the negative attributes are pervasive, unrelieved and inescapable. A neighborhood of dilapidated eyesores will most often be doomed, whereas a single decrepit building can give an otherwise saccharine sweet neighborhood a little character. Perfection is not an option in the real world; few people desire or expect it.
But some of us actually thrive on the biggest challenges and greatest difficulties. We feel energized by the frenetic pace of megacity life. To the New Yorkers who love their city, everywhere else is nowhere. Many of us need to be at a high density focus of urban energy to give life meaning, to feel like we are doing our part for change. When we so dedicate ourselves we fulfill a social need as well as a personal responsibility.
Diversity, variety and serendipity, as well as political challenge - areas where big city life excels - are the great failures of the suburbs. The city of the future will no more exemplify the oppressive boredom of the suburbs than the overwhelming inhumanity of dense ugly cities. Rather it will combine the best aspects of both.
It is not possible to satisfy the needs of families without including single family houses or row houses which include room for green outdoor space. At the same time a city insufficiently compact will be boring and inadequate to the needs of single people: and ultimately families also, for while they don't require or desire the attributes of density as much as single people, it is no less their loss to be deprived of the kind of culture, activism, entertainment and diversity that only a relatively dense, urban city can provide.
Because of America's dependence on the
private auto, the kind of density that provides excitement and dynamism can,
outside the largest cities, be found only in downtowns and a few other limited
places. In a wealthy society, without adequate density, public transportation
can never attain a convenient high-frequency level of service.
At the same time, the space necessary to provide a good life, a desirable life for families, puts a strict limit on city size. Lower densities demand a lot of space. Urban sprawl and all the evils that come with it quickly begins to degrade an area's livability after it grows beyond one million people. Yes, it is possible, as in Los Angeles, to provide low density living for most citizens in a city of fifteen million people spread over thousands of square miles, but anything gained by the individual is lost in the hassle of getting anywhere, the pollution that results, the frustration and tension of just living.
And in New York at the opposite end of the spectrum, world renown for high-energy and excitement, the hardship of daily life far outweighs the potential benefits to the average person. Large unrelieved high-density cities that separate their people too far from the natural have no future.
Neither the Los Angeles model nor New York model can survive. They'll be around only as long as population pressure and economic necessity requires them, not because they are wanted or desired by the people who are fated to live therein. Society's investment in them is immense so they will not fade away without a fight. Moreover, many powerful individuals, not just society as a whole, have mega-financial resources at stake.
Nonetheless, both undeniably represent a facet of urban living that must be replicated in the smaller scale future city. The challenge then is to create a city that is both tranquil and exciting. One that is spacious, green, beautiful and down to earth even while it is dense, diverse, and energetic. Any urban space that doesn't attempt to evoke a combination of "ultimate suburb" and "thrill of Broadway" will be hollow, lacking and insufficient.
Furthermore, we will need to create this advanced concept of urbanity by superimposing the new design on the existing city as built. Cities are continuous creations accumulated over long periods of time. With only the rarest exceptions, the city of the future, of the twenty-second century, already exists.
The preservation of a city's past through its historic buildings is essential to an all around livable city. The city of the future is not a plastic-fantastic sci-fi creation. In those current cities whose leaders already glimpse the future, most of the buildings you see today are the same ones you will see a century from now.
Garden cities, new towns, have largely failed in the past because they have been too planned, too organized, too beholden to rigid, imposed patterns. They are generally constructed in a single timeframe and context, leaving little room for accidents, surprises, serendipity or contrast. The emphasis on greenery is well meaning but counterproductive if it squeezes all the life and interest out of the city. New towns would not be a bad idea in some areas, considering the current worldwide urban population explosion, if natural, organic, incremental growth could be accounted for or planned.
Nonetheless, in nearly all cases, it will be necessary to work with existing cities, gradually transforming them into the advanced, future designs. Will it look exactly as I describe? Impossible. This is a template, maybe one among many. There can be no rigid guidelines: I make no claim to ownership of the design of the sole legitimate urban future. Every city is different, every situation is different. The prior conditions, the context within which very different cities in various countries exist will require vastly different responses to the same ends.
The much higher density of Europe and its age and history will evolve a much different future city than the typically American, recently built, wide-open-spaces type of urbanity. My own personal planning and community activist experience is largely American, and moreover its cities are, because of their low density, far easier to change and adapt to the future. Much of the emphasis therefore in this book will be on the American city, but in essence, the basics apply everywhere.
Certainly the world's future cities will closely reflect my main points regardless of their actual designs. That is: 1. They will include the beautiful and natural. 2. They will be dynamic and exciting. And still to be discussed: 3. They will be traffic free in the sense that mixing traffic and people uses is avoided at great cost. 4. They will be strongly oriented towards community and neighborhood.
Natural, organic, people-oriented, are the keywords that describe this vision of the city of the future. In the past, and still largely in the present, the process of urbanization has involved taming the existing landscape. With the exception of the largest, most impressive and immutable natural features, the land is left devoid of its original characteristics. The trees are cut, the hills are leveled, the valleys are filled, the wetlands are drained. The natural springs are covered and their water is diverted into the sewer system.
In the past even some of the steepest hills, as in San Francisco, had street grids imposed on them. No consideration whatever was given to the difficulty of movement on those very sharp inclines. Development patterns that follow and flow with topographical gradients require much less effort even as they necessitate going longer distances.
Fortunately we are no longer so obsessively committed to rectangular grids; they've essentially disappeared from new suburban development. Alternatives to the standard grid are now common in the suburbs but the curved streets generally have little or no relationship to the lay of the land, the existing trees are still cut and the land is still bulldozed. The off-grid street patterns of the suburbs have at least accomplished an important purpose in restricting inappropriate traffic. The newer suburbs have on occasion advanced the scope of the public realm by adding bike-walking paths and greenspaces separate from streets.
Unfortunately, as most new housing subdivisions are designed, they are inconvenient for any mode of travel but auto. This is especially true of cul-de-sacs in residential street mazes: they often require long circuitous walks to go short straight-line distances. A simple remedy for that deficiency is to connect cul-de-sacs to adjacent streets with walking paths.
Walking paths that are completely separate from the street system have appeared in various suburban areas. As little as 10 feet of right-of-way is enough to solve pedestrian access problems without detracting from the privacy and safety that cul-de-sacs afford or their benefit of absolutely minimizing traffic. People may occasionally stroll by, causing unease in local residents who are unaccustomed to that side yard proximity, but that has not been a problem where they do exist.
Traffic calming, the process of slowing down traffic in the urban residential grid, has become the byword of community planning over the past two decades or so. Speed bumps, diverters and traffic circles are used to soften the worst effects of the open grid, in a sense, attempting to bring the suburb to the city.
In Portland the process of protecting residential neighborhoods has been steady but excruciatingly slow at least partly because of the high bureaucratic standards 每 unnecessarily strict in my view - which tremendously increase its cost.
Moreover, the conversion to safe quiet streets has at best been haphazard and inconsistent; there's no overall plan or concept. Every street or small enclave is dealt with individually. This desire on the part of the community to mitigate the impacts of superfluous traffic occasionally meets with strong resistance from city staff, based on its need to adhere to the previously mentioned bureaucratic requirements.
Grids have their place in high traffic, center city areas as they provide ample street frontage and easy access, although here too it's really only the pedestrian passage that's important. Most people who drive downtown expect to have to do some walking so even there it would not be out of line to break the vehicle access grid in limited places with pedestrian streets.
The primary advantage of the grid is its ability to greatly assist in finding one's way. No other type of street layout can compare largely because the grid system makes numbering extremely simple. But of course that comes with the corollary disadvantage of ease of access.
In London only major streets extend more than a few blocks. In addition, a great many are curved and there are no numbered streets nor a consistent citywide numbering system. It therefore takes some effort and time to find an unfamiliar location on the first try.
When Europeans visit America, they frequently marvel at how easy it is to get around compared to the extreme complexity of their cities. The US gains in accessibility with a numbered grid and maybe even economically, considering how easy it is to pinpoint specific locations, but it loses tremendously in esthetics, ambiance and community.
In London each block is somewhat personal in the sense that it's a place where nearly all of the people who frequent the street either live or have business there. A visitor who loses her/his way might wander onto it, or an occasional sightseer might happen there but it really 'belongs' to the residents.
In Portland, in contrast, traffic depersonalizes neighborhood life in the many places within the open grid where anybody can drive. In the grid system many strictly local use streets are utilized to accommodate vehicles that have no purpose being there, outside of avoiding congested parallel thoroughfares. That superfluous traffic constitutes a one hundred percent negative towards neighborhood livability.
When you amble around in London every view is different, you get the feeling of being in a closed, defined urban space. In the American grid you see airspace and pavement, flanked by buildings, out to infinity. The view leads to nowhere, your eyes have only empty space to rest on. Grids are faster, cheaper, more orderly and economic but they lack life, individuality and flavor. The difficulty of getting around in an eccentrically and spontaneously designed old city comes at a small cost but it offers greatly enhanced livability and intellectual interest.
Grids oriented to the four points of the compass simplify land subdivision and by extension solar orientation. This is an unintended benefit, or would be were we environmentally conscious enough to take advantage of it. But including the sun in design of houses oriented in all directions is not a difficult challenge. It may cost a bit more but also has the potential to add interest to design.
The mechanistically minded planners of the nineteenth century established the street grid in response to the previous mode of urban land division which was seen as haphazard and incoherent. In the process of simplifying the street pattern and fostering access, all interest, surprise and uniqueness, all art, style and serendipity was extirpated from urban design.
An additional negative attribute of the American grid system is that outside of parks and very occasional public squares, the public realm is limited to the area between the sidewalks in the street system. All transportation and public need is forced to coexist in that narrow street right-of-way. Buses, cars, trucks, bicycles and pedestrian activity are all confined and constricted in the only community space the people possess.
'Grand' boulevards will occasionally appear with sufficient room for raised landscaped medians, or with sidewalks large enough to contain plantings or benches. Plazas, piazzas, public squares occur only very rarely in the American city.
Outside of those exceptions the sidewalk will be narrow and the traffic and its impacts - noise, pollution and danger - will be close at hand and ever present. Typically, as vehicle use increases, government responds to increased traffic congestion by reducing the people space, the sidewalks.
Those of us who can afford it don't begrudge the cost of art or beauty in our private lives. In the city of the future, esthetics and panache will take precedence over economics and utility on a community scale. It's still us and our lives. Our public shared space affects our viewpoint, our outlook and our mental and physical health as much as our personal, private spheres. As such, the absence of design represented by the street grid will have to be adapted to create urban places that are individual, unique, people oriented and artistically creative.