Sunday, November 7, 2010
I've been a big fan of Witold's books (like the recent Last Harvest). This essay--the first in a series for Slate.com--examines an important topic: "Do we want urban spaces that are big or small? Spread out or compact? New or old?"
Here's an excerpt from Part One:
The question is not whether we want to live in cities. Obviously, a growing number of us do—otherwise we would not build so many of them. The real question is: In what kind of cities do we want to live? Compact or spread out? Old or new? Big or small?
Judging from the direction that American urbanism has taken during the second half of the 20th century, one answer is unequivocal—Americans want to live in cities that are spread out. Decentralization and dispersal, the results of a demand for private property, privacy, and detached family homes, have been facilitated by a succession of transportation and communication technologies: first, the railroad and the streetcar; later, the automobile and the airplane; lastly, the telephone, television, and the Internet. In addition, regional shopping malls, FedEx, UPS, the Home Shopping Network, and Amazon.com have helped people to spread out. Even environmental technologies—small sewage treatment facilities and micro power plants—have allowed people to live in more dispersed communities than in the past.
This is not simply suburbanization. All the cities that have experienced vigorous population growth during the second half of the 20th century—Houston; Phoenix, Ariz.; Dallas; San Jose, Calif.; Atlanta, Ga.—have grown by spreading out. These are horizontal cities, with generally low population densities, typically fewer than 10 people per acre compared with 15 to 20 people per acre in the older, vertical cities. Horizontal cities depend on automobiles for mass transportation and on trucks for the movement of goods. In a horizontal city, the difference between city and suburb is indistinct. People in both live chiefly in individual houses rather than in flats or apartment buildings, and the houses are organized in dispersed, semi-autonomous planned communities that are different from the urban neighborhoods of the past. Versions of the dispersed city can be found in large cities such as Los Angeles, small cities such as Las Vegas, and in the metropolitan areas surrounding all cities, old and new.
--Chad Emerson, Faulkner U.