Thursday, June 25, 2009

Space Shift: A Historical Perspective

-Part I of a series-
Click here for Part II: Technology and Social Change
Click here for Part III: The Basis of Good Space

New Urbanists and the like often claim that the suburbs are built for cars, not people. In reality, suburbs were built by people and sold to people. We should be precise about what suburbs are and what they aren't. While they are great places for people to go for a walk or a bike ride, all serious transportation--going from one place to another--requires an automobile.

The hot topic in urban planning circles is "modal choice", the idea that people should be able to choose how they handle their serious transportation needs. Walking, driving, biking, busing or training; in the cities of the future, the choice will be yours.

This poorly thought out idea must be fleshed out before the economy starts whirring again. The climate crisis makes it imperative that we avoid another 50 years of disastrous built space. We're currently seeing the gradual shift of the dominant paradigm away from the vast suburban areas to something quite different. I propose that we mentally skip over the intermediate phases of this shift that are heavily influenced by our current system to see if the premises being adopted by today's society will result in a sustainable future. In the end, I hope it will, but we must throw off the shackles of our current schemes.

Around 100 years ago, the premise that drove the dominant paradigm of urban development rapidly shifted, just as it seems to be shifting today. It seems worthwhile to examine that century old transition and the parallels to what's happening today.

For most of human history, the dominant paradigm of urban development was driven by one simple premise that was shared by most of society: closer is better. This was certainly not a necessity, but instead was based around the idea that cities drove societal and economic growth so their size should be maximized. Since all transportation was slow, functional size could only be achieved with high density. Steel production was impossible during this period so there was a fairly low theoretical limit on the absolute amount of space per given footprint. A handful of the densest of these places still exist and function at densities well over 100,000 people per square mile (150 people/acre).

The early 20th century brought two major technological advances based on plentiful steel--the skyscraper and the automobile. The implications of these technological additions are too big to pass over, I'll first address the skyscraper.

With the advent of the skyscraper, localized densities virtually lost their theoretical limit. While before, perhaps 20 families could share the same door, now that number increased by an order of magnitude and beyond. Strangers would literally come in and out of your front door. The notion of community that had been an integral part of cities from the dawn of time was obliterated. This is why we associate community with "that small town feel" instead of a street bustling with conversation.

More technically, skyscrapers resulted in enormous populations of people being able to live in the smallest (geographical) places. Developers no longer needed to look outward to expand, they could simply build up.But a younger generation of developers had a different idea entirely. With the advent of the automobile, land on the outskirts of the city could easily be connected to the city itself, allowing residents of those outlaying areas to reap the cultural rewards of city life while inhabiting a countryside villa. And all of this could be done without any serious investment in transit infrastructure, which had been the precursor of successful development. As time went on, engineers discovered better ways to move people in their automobiles (paved streets, signals, lines on the road, highways...etc), extending the area around cities that could be converted to clusters of private villas.To sell these outlying areas, developers really only had to convince people to two things. First, having to drive to get to most destinations is a good thing and second, that enjoying the culture that another community creates is just as good, or even superior than enjoying the fruits of your own community.

The first sell was easy. Americans jumped at the chance to drive a car; to a person who may or may not have even ridden a house, the automobile was the 19th century equivalent of the jet pack. The second sell was less easy, and indeed, communities persist in the hearts of cities that have been there for generations.

Often times, communities left urban areas en masse to set up anew in the suburbs. These communities often fared poorly. Suburbs, by their very nature, provide a competitive advantage to the import and consumption of culture, not the generation of it. All except the most tight nit suburban communities fell victim to the ravages of corporate America.

To convince people to make these decisions, these developers created a premise that few Americans at the time could resist: "Bigger is better." Bigger lots, bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger garages, bigger appliances...decency knew no limit.

The intense efforts of these early sprawlers shifted the course of American society. By the end of the 20th century, national pizza chains hawk "Chicago style or "New York" style pizza and intense effort is given to the parking provisions of new developments.

Now that it has been taken to it's logical extreme, the grotesqueness of suburban sprawl has spawned a new movement, one that rejects the basic premise upon which it was founded. We'll examine that new movement--and the technology that supports it--in detail in the next installment.


  1. I like that you're talking about this with a historical perspective; too often people take the current state of the built environment as something static. To your social argument, I would add that concurrent innovations in economic organization shouldn't be ignored: A shift from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing economy. Exponential growth in industrial production, entirely new markets created to absorb product. Identities shift from "citizen" to "consumer." Similarly, perhaps one cause of your "new movement" is the recent/ongoing shift to a post-fordist economic paradigm.

  2. I strongly agree with your assessment. My interest is the built environment--I believe it can support or derail any social movement. Part 3 of this series (probably Part 3) will be about how we can build "post-fordist" places within the current system, which strongly favors the dominant economic paradigm.