In my after-action report on the Arisia convention I mentioned that the "Future of Cities" panel had crystallized some ideas that had been floating around inside my head. The panelists spent a lot of time discussing problems that afflict modern cities, particularly the metropoli of the northeastern United States. Congestion, sprawl, and the need for affordable housing were the main topics.
Important note: I love cities. I grew up in one, and for most of my life one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon has been to just walk around in a big city.
The first thing that struck me was how many of the problems the panelists were trying to solve were the result of earlier attempts to solve other problems.
Consider the bugaboo of all big cities: traffic congestion. We call the morning and evening pulse of commuters "rush hour" even though one panelist pointed out that actual travel speed slows to a crawl. It's inextricably tied to the issue of urban sprawl, since as more people live outside the city, more people are trying to come and go at the same time. And this in turn is related to the issue of density: if more people could live affordably in the city, they wouldn't be traveling so far.
But go back in time a century or so and density was the problem. Slums like New York's Lower East Side had fantastic, Hong Kong-level population densities, with entire families crammed into one-room apartments. Nobody commuted because the parents typically worked right there, doing piecework, or "commuted" a block or so to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory or a pushcart on the sidewalk.
And social reformers of the era were dead set on getting people out of those grimy firetraps, out to "garden suburbs" where the kids could maybe see a tree now and then, and sleep only two or three to a room in a bungalow rather than a tenement.
Fast forward half a century or so and visionaries like Robert Moses were carving up whole neighborhoods to put in highways, to speed up the flow of traffic -- and to reduce everyone's dependence on railroads, which up till then had a virtual monopoly on long-distance transport. Midcentury architects and planners envisioned cities of huge towers, linked by absurdly wide avenues and highways, sweeping away all the street-level clutter of inefficient little shops and marginal businesses.
The second thing that struck me was how the solutions to the new problems were the same solutions that had caused them. Zoning rules, massive construction projects, and city planning destroyed the funky diverse neighborhoods of old, and now in order to encourage new funky diverse neighborhoods the answer is . . . more zoning rules, more massive construction projects, and more city planning. Ban the big-box stores to make people shop in their own neighborhoods! (Never mind that poor people will have to spend more to live, and someone's going to have to walk six blocks carrying a load of groceries.) Build more rail transit! (Never mind that rail transit in cities is incredibly bad at shifting to meet changes in demand and land use.) Et cetera.
What's particularly odd is that the model, the ideal that everyone (including myself, as I mentioned) aspired to was the cityscape of old European cities: walk-up buildings, narrow pedestrian-friendly streets, small blocks, lively street-level businesses, and an "organic" and visually diverse architectural landscape. It's odd because for the most part that landscape wasn't the result of zoning, massive construction projects, or city planning. People just built stuff. A few ambitious princes might put up a palace or two, or set Baron Haussmann to work carving out new avenues, but by and large the most charming towns in Europe just growed.
I wonder if the simple fact that a cityscape is obviously a built environment is what turns people into megalomaniacs when they think about cities. Just shake up the Etch-a-Sketch and draw a city that looks like what I want to live in. Use laws and policies to make people live the way I think they should.
Here's a simple question: has any city government tried simply responding to what the citizens do? Let people live and work where they want to? I know it's a pretty radical idea, but has it ever been tried?