I spend a lot of time thinking about cities. I think about the way they look and feel, the ways in which we move through them, how they add or subtract from the common good. I don't know why cities fascinate me so much. But I do know why they are important to us as humans, and to the planet we inhabit. There is much at stake in the way that we inhabit the landscape, including economic prosperity, social and economic equality, physical health and environmental sustainability. For a long time, we got this right - we inhabited the landscape in a more natural pattern conducive to dealing with the issues above. Then, for a short period we went the wrong way (and we did so in our cars). Now, we are experiencing a national and international self-correction back toward better habitation.
A brief history of the evolution of cities
The modern city as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to the Industrial Revolution. However, the essence of what a city is has been around for thousands of years (here is a 4-minute synopsis of the evolution of cities). In the most basic sense, a city is a place where economic, social and cultural exchange takes place. It is the place where humans interact and connect on a daily basis to perform tasks. We grab a coffee and a bagel at the cafe before work. We meet a client for lunch. We get groceries on the way home, or grab drinks with a friend before catching a show. And ideally, we don't get in a car for any of it. This is why the city is often referred to as the organic response to the daily needs of humans. The most powerful feature of cities is that they mix uses - that is, they mix together activities in a central, compact and dense manner. Today, we think of mixing uses as clustering where we live, work, eat and recreate in close proximity to each other.
There is a singular tenet that is at the heart of the mixed-use, compact living pattern described above: walkability. Because more advanced transportation options did not exist hundreds and thousands of years ago, every task that needed to be accomplished had to be within walking distance of one's home. This led to a natural densification of communities; it wasn't practical for a city to take up a lot of space because it simply would have made it more difficult to walk between destinations.
Everything changed with the advent of the automobile and its partner-in-crime, suburbia. In 1908 Henry Ford's mass-produced Model T became the first affordable car accessible to the masses. The American love affair with the car began. With the advent of auto travel came the desire to spread out. And continue spreading. All of a sudden, we had a new living pattern, which peak-oiler and urban theorist James Howard Kunstler terms "entropy made visible." As more and more Americans were driving further and further, the need for a more robust road system arose. The federal government under President Dwight D. Eisenhower was more than happy to oblige, creating the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 and with it the dendritic, omnipresent freeway system we know today. This had terrible consequences. Especially one we know too well: sprawl.
The birth of suburbia and the American Dream
Though the federal government subsidized and incentivized driving and suburban home ownership (and still does), Americans didn't need much of a push. Industrial cities were not pleasant places; they were dirty, crime- and poverty-ridden, and certainly not suitable for human life. As such, with our cheap cars, cheap roads and cheap gas, coupled with the National Housing Act providing affordable mortgages to a ballooning middle class, Americans escaped the city and the country witnessed the birth of suburbia and the death of cities.
The American Dream soon became intertwined with suburban living; the detached home you owned in the country with the white picket fence enclosing a little front yard (read: nature), the car in the driveway that you drove to work and back, to the store and back...It was and is a very quaint notion, evoking a sort of 1950's Americana purity. The reality, however, is that this new living pattern has had very ugly environmental, economic, social and physical health consequences. In a later post I will delve into each of these factors and how they have been compromised by our unsustainable habitation.
For now, I will simply convey what the central tenets of suburbia are and how each tenet is at odds with urban living.
First Tenet of Suburbia: Separation of uses
This is perhaps the defining characteristic of suburban living. Separating one activity from another started with an innocent Supreme Court decision in 1926 to allow the town of Euclid, Ohio to zone its land according to activity so that its residents didn't have to live amongst the carbon-spewing factories. This decision had good intentions - people ought to have clean air where they live - but the precedent was set. Soon cities and municipalities all across the U.S. were adopting similar zoning codes, splitting their towns and cities into component parts. It was officially illegal to build mixed-use development; homes would be separate from work places, which would be separate from retail establishments and restaurants. These places would no longer be within walking distance so you would drive between destinations. Unless your destination was downtown, public transit would doubtful be an option as the country was getting too spread out to make transit feasible (and the majority of tax money went to new highways, not transit). As such, over time the country's landscape became auto-centric, which is the antithesis of walkable, mixed-use urban living.
Second Tenet of Suburbia: Low densities
Cities emerged from the outset as very dense places; they had to be in order to be walkable. With the advent of the car, that relationship between human and city disintegrated. If you have a vehicle that can move much quicker than you can walk for much longer distances than you can walk, you will naturally travel further distances. This is exactly what happened. The population had a desire to escape urban life, stretch its legs in the vast expanses of the countryside and "commune with nature." And, being Americans, we prized our independence dearly, which we expressed through our privatized homes and neighborhoods. These two factors led to the sprawling across the landscape at very low densities. With so much land, it only made sense to give each person a lot of it and keep his lot far away from his neighbor's. This afforded us privacy, but like the first tenet had damning, unforeseen consequences.
Third Tenet of Suburbia: Car-dependence
It is the vehicle (no pun intended) that makes suburban sprawl possible. With walkable communities all but outlawed and low-density lifestyles putting each destination far away from every other destination, the only way the system can operate is to be reliant on the automobile. Until we remade out our cities with freeways, there simply wasn't room for cars. The streets were too narrow, land was used for buildings and not parking lots and movement throughout a city was done on foot or by streetcar. But car-reliance is at the very core of suburban existence. The government gave us the roads and freeways and every possible incentive to fill them up. This represents perhaps the most insidious consequence of sprawl. It destroyed our ability to inhabit the landscape in a healthy, sustainable way by forcing us into cars for every conceivable task in our day-to-day lives. And as soon as we fill up the roads and highways that take us to our big homes far away, we are forced to build even more roads and highways to take us to big homes even further away. Unlike the towns, cities and regions of previous times which developed organically at the human-scale, modern day suburbia was an artificial creation that encouraged (and mandated) car-use.
The rebirth of cities
There is a silver lining in this discussion, and that is that we are in the midst of a system-wide self-correction. As you are likely aware, the population is showing renewed interest in urban living. Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) is actually declining, as is car ownership, and suburban and exurban home prices are recovering slower than urban home prices. These changes can be viewed through a number of different lenses: demographic shifts that have produced large Millenial and Baby Boomer generations, rising gas prices, societal changes in how we prefer to live and engage with the world. Ultimately, though, I think we are simply witnessing a system that is self-correcting. For hundreds of years we inhabited the landscape in a way that was a natural response to our needs. This created an equilibrium with the environment. That equilibrium was destroyed with the advent of the automobile and its sprawl-inducing effects. However, I believe we are beginning to understand that the artificial system (sprawl) was and is unsustainable. That is why we are seeing a shift back toward city-living. It represents a sustainable, equitable way of life in which we are better stewards of the land on which we live, as well as healthier human beings. In other words, it's better living.
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Nick Etheredge (@Nick_Etheredge) is a new contributor to Hug The Rhino who writes about better living in cities, urban living, and how all of that relates to sustainability and social justice. Nick is an ex-Mechanical Engineer who realized he had a passion for cities and urban design . Live in or near a big city? You’ll love his articles.
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