Surburban expletive deleted

July 25, 2010

When Nixon’s secret tapes of his White House conversations were released under duress as part of the machinations of Watergate, the phrase, “expletive deleted” from the typwritten transcripts entered the language.  Nixon’s chat was not always of an elevated nature.

There is a blog on the NYTimes Opinionator page about a contest to redesign (yet again) the suburbs, this time of Long Island.  What struck me most about this post was the comments:  they are vehement, often violent, and I have never seen so many editorial deletions of inappropriate comments.  Apparently, feelings about urban design run pretty high.  And I am a frequent reader of climate-change blogs, where emotions are not exactly, shall we say, cool.

One line of thought was that the entire idea was a crock.  The suburbs are hell.  They should be razed completely.  Tax auto use to the skies and force those jerks to take mass transit.

Another was that NYC life has become impossible for middle-class people with families, so why do you hate us so much?

Plans of all sorts abound, from utopian to totalitarian.  Everyone has the solution. Everyone should be happy to live in the suburbs that I design.

Confusion over the very nature of terms is fundamental.  Manhattan is an American anomaly.  Many local suburbs are as dense as cities elsewhere in the USA.  Most people who live in American cities live in regions that would at least look suburban to New Yorkers.

Sprawl is evil.  Suburbs are evil.  Cities are virtuous.  People in the suburbs live soulless, isolated lives.  As if you can’t be terribly lonely and bored in the midst of a crowd in Bryant Park.

For another post on the topic of urbanist-ideological ranting, visit here:  Facing the Reality of Sprawl.

Let’s recognize reality…

June 3, 2009


Kevin Lynch’s book, The Image of the City, is an investigation of how inhabitants of urban areas form an image in their minds of the city, and the implications of this for ‘urban design.’  The book is a classic, endlessly cited.  I have been thinking a lot lately about cities and urban sprawl, and I am wondering if our image of the city isn’t a big part of the problem when we start diagnosing and ranting about urban ills of today.

Many of us come to the city with a notion of what a city should be that is woefully out of date, and has nothing to do with the cities in which we live.  A true believer in the Lynch point of view, at least as I understood it as a student long ago, would say that people today have no clear idea of the cities in which they live because the urban form has spread, “metastisized,” sprawled, bled all over, etc. etc. the surronding area and that cities have no form, are formless, today.  Of course, everything has a form.  Maybe not the one you like…  The conclusion is that something is terribly wrong in everywhere-ville today.

To see the Ur-source of western city images, you could hardly do better than this book,which I heartily recommend:


click link

Cities of the World – the complete color plates from 1572 – 1617 by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg.  This was, perhaps, the golden age of city form, or at least of idealized versions of it committed to paper.  Looking through this book is a dizzying experience for anyone who is interested in urban history and European architectural tourism!  The plates are positively awe inspiring in their beauty.  They convey a powerful, nostalgic, and completely inappropriate way of looking at cities of today.  But who cares!

Here are some good cities!

urbino page_xl_braun_hogenberg_10_0809181220_id_138632

cambrayfull braun_hogenberg_III_2_b


They all are so clearly demarcated from the surrounding country.  They give such a clear sense of their structure and ordering principles.  Their enclosure by walls or moats makes them look like biological cells, prompting all sorts of fertile notions about urban growth, organic growth, sustainability, city-nature, etc.  Of course, this was a picture book.  Did the cities ever look quite like this?  To a great extent, yes, but any unsightly details such as squatters or gypsies, industrial outbuildings crowded up against the edge, and the like, were removed.

new-jerusalem-tapestryThis IS the image of the city we carry with us, at least those of us who have been properly educated, as I was.  The image has many sources, not the least of which are religious, as shown here in this scene from 14th century tapestry in which John views the Celestial Jerusalem.  Of course, there’s also Homer, in which the walls of Troy are for viewing the fighting going on in the plain below.

In his wonderful book, Sprawl:  A Compact History, (clever, that compact bit) Robert Bruegmann challenges a lot of these notions.  Sprawl, suburbs and suburbanization, development, edge-cities, exurbanity, and all that are the antithesis of the city.  Or so we think.  He argues, convincingly, and on the contrary, that there has always been sprawl, but that it was always the preserve of the economic and power elite.  Today, sprawl, or low-density urban living, has been democratized.  In his book, he doesn’t really evaluate sprawl as good or bad, except to say that it clearly has many good consequences and many that are not good.  This neutral approach infuriates some people who seem to feel that not declaring war on sprawl at the outset puts him in league with the devil, or at least with the Republicans.  Bruegmann feels that sprawl, and the cities with which it forms urban systems is too complex to yield to simple analyses:  first we must understand the history and nature of what we are ranting about.  Over and over again he marshals facts and logic to challenge, and sometimes demolish the pretensions of the anti-sprawl contingent, and a few of my preconceptions fell by the wayside in the process.

As I read through his book, it seemed to me that sprawl and global warming have much in common as causes – indeed many would join them in some way – in that they have a religious significance for many people.  To investigate scientifically is to violate sacred taboos.

Perhaps my favorite moment in reading was when he remarked on the monumental lack of curiosity regarding the reality of modern city life present in the writing of Lewis Mumford, a veritable god to me in my younger days.  Well, I still like Mummy’s prose – readers of this blog will be familiar with my weakness for apocalyptic cultural and political  critiques – but the fact is, he’s right.  I wonder, did Mumford ever speak to someone who liked living in the suburbs?

USA by the numbers

September 12, 2008

Where is everyone?  Crowded on your doorstep if you believe the group NumbersUSA, a group dedicated to reducing all immigration, even legal immigration.  (I heard about them from this NPR story.)  Whatever their real reasons for opposing immigration may be – misanthropy, nostalgia, bigotry, fear of change – their argument about environmental degradation in the USA is a lot of hooey.  The biggest problem with our treatment of the natural world here in the US of A is our history of gobbling up space as if there’s no tomorrow!  Consider these maps:

This is a map of the population density (people per square mile) in the lower 48 with 2004 Census data.  Note that nearly all of the land is settled at the lowest density on the map, less than 250 people per square mile.  (Much of it is at much less than that!)  The high concentrations are where the cities are.  If we weren’t so violently opposed to city life…

“I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man. True, they nourish some of the elegant arts; but the useful ones can thrive elsewhere; and less perfection in the others, with more health, virtue and freedom, would be my choice.”

–Thank you, Thomas Jefferson!

…perhaps we would concentrate our citizens there and leave the rest of the continent as a garden.  Even in those diseased parts of the nation that are highly urban, the density is not nearly so great as what is common in the rest of the world.  Consider this next map of the metro area around New York City.

Note how the higher density areas are relatively small, and are almost all within the five boroughs of NYC.  The area to the northeast of Manhattan, Bergen County, NJ, is one of the most densely populated regions of the country, but it is settled at about 2500 per square mile.  As I like to say, the USA is mostly unpopulated empty space.  To put these figures in world perspective, consider this chart:

 This graph shows many data items and has two axes.  The black curve on the top (refer to left axis) shows that about 97% of the USA population lives on only 50% of its land.  80% of the population lives on about 7% of the land.  (15% of the population lives within 50 miles of I-95 between Boston and Washington, DC.) 

The blue curve refers to the right axis, and shows that 90% of the land is settled at densities so low that they barely register on the axis. 

Manhattan, our most densely populated place, is only twice as dense as ALL of Bangladesh.  If you factor in Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island, NY City is about as dense as ALL of Japan.  Many world cities are much denser than American ones as few cities in the USA even approach the density of NYC, let alone Manhattan! 

The horizontal dashed lines show the densities of some modernized countries – clearly people are crammed in – comfortably from what I’ve seen and heard – at rates that far exceed what we have here in the USA.

So, if we want to pave over the USA and have everyone live in a McMansion, then maybe we should cut back on our immigration and population growth.  If we want to use resources wisely, I don’t see anything to worry about.


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