Throughout history, the treatment and arrangement of shelter have revealed more about a
particular people than have any other products of the creative arts. Housing is an outward
expression of the inner human nature; no society can be fully understood apart from the
residences of its members.
Kenneth T. Jackson,
A Brief History of Getting Away From it All
In much of the western world, and especially in the US, moving to a lower density environment has
become so commonplace that it has become accepted as a manifestation of base human nature. What few
people realize - or choose to ignore - is that not only is our current model of suburban growth a
recent phenomenon, it was primarily brought about as a reaction against something that is itself no
older than the development model it spawned. Prior to the Industrial Revolution there was no
significant popular desire to leave the city permanently. The advancements in transportation technology
from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s are certainly
responsible for allowing people the ability to conveniently live more than a mile or two away from
where they work, but it is important to remember that this same era of innovation was also responsible
for creating the conditions that made doing so widely desirable. Dickens' London was a
drastically different place from Shakespeare's.
The Industrial Revolution's second stage began to have strong negative effects
on people's daily lives at the same time as it began to offer a solution to
the problems it created. While the living conditions of millions dropped to
absolute squalor, rail lines and streetcars offered an alternative to tenements
and apartments. While factories generated enough smoke and other pollution to
make cities downright unhealthy, they also generated enough wealth that the
management could afford a lifestyle mimicking one previously only available
In this environment, the writings of a few people advocating a more pastoral
dwelling were understandably quite popular.
Catharine Beecher wrote several influential works on the importance of a
non-urban location for women to properly manage their domestic surroundings,
while a rather snobbish landscape architect named Andrew
Jackson Downing enjoyed great success with
his books detailing the proper sort of civilized living arrangements he
felt one should aspire to. His ideal was a villa "requiring the care of
at least three or more servants", although he was kind enough to provide
suggestions for people of lesser means as well. Combined with similar writings
by everyone from Olmsted to Thoreau, by the late 19th century the prevailing
wisdom in the US was that a detached home on a lot some distance from the city
was the better way to live.
The stage had already been set when the first Model T rolled off the line
in 1908. The general population had been seeing cities fall further and further
into an unlivable state for over 50 years, and a broad consortium of industries
consisting of automobile and tire manufacturers, oil companies, and the National
Association of Home Builders started seeing huge profit potential and began
joining forces in lobbying, marketing, and in the case of the case of streetcars,
intentional destruction of an industry (read
Crabgrass Frontier for a detailed look at how Detroit killed public transportation
in the US). The Federal Aid Road Act was passed in 1916; the 1920s saw tremendous
industry pressure to build more roads; and beginning in the 1930s the US Government
began to pass banking laws (Federal Home Loan Bank Act, 1932; Emergency Relief
and Construction Act, 1932; Home Owners Loan Corporation; 1933) aimed at encouraging
individual home ownership, lobbied to do so of course by the above groups and
by a banking industry desperate for income during the Great Depression.
[O]ur picture of how rural life is lived and the nature of the basic rural virtues is the
creation of mass media based in and directed from cities.
J. John Palen,
The Urban World
After W.W.II, the returning GI's demanded new homes for their families that
they had fought so hard for, and both the depression and the war itself had
brought new construction to a standstill. The veterans wanted families in clean
suburbs, and a man named William
Levitt saw a golden opportunity to capitalize on those dreams. The 1950s
were Leave it to Beaver and drive-in
diners. Mass culture was suburban culture, and it was being exported abroad
as well. The cities had improved a good deal during the first half of the 20th
century and still retained a certain cachet that the suburbs lacked, but the
1960s brought about a change that was very different from the Industrial Revolution,
yet did even more damage.
Dogs and firehoses, bombs and lynchings, riots and assassinations. The cities
are black, the blacks are pissed, and running to the hills never looked better
to the terrified white people. During the previous 100 years people had been
taught that you leave a place you are afraid of as long as you can afford to
do so. The middle-class could afford it, and they left in droves. The blacks
tended to be not so prosperous and they stayed behind, which suited the white
folk just fine.
New subdivisions are sold by purveying the image of a home in quasi-rural surroundings, but
conveniently located near the city. The fact that these semi-rural paradises rapidly become
urban areas distinguished from the city proper mainly by their monotony only serves as a
basis for promoting a subsequent round of flight to the new urban fringe.
Urban decay: barricading our cities, and our minds
The 1970s added another suburban ring to the cities as white flight reached
its apex. Building codes and deed restrictions were enacted to separate residential
from commercial from industrial. The city had mixed-use and the city was bad,
but people still demanded their stores and convenient access to services. Things
were built quickly and haphazardly. The city followed the people, but in a more
dispersed form and with an overabundance of harvest gold carpeting. Cars became
a necessity for each adult, and traffic worsened. Occasionally a black person
would move in. It was time to move.
The 1980s were wealthy. Two thousand square feet was the absolute minimum for a family of 3. The lots
got bigger, the stores got bigger, and the drives got longer. Traffic got worse and the city kept
following the people. The US began exporting culture en masse, and the rest of the world got
to watch Dallas and Miami Vice. At the end of the decade a recession hit and the bottom fell out of
the real estate market. Banks crashed and many chrome & glass office parks sat empty.
When the economy reheated in the 1990s, many looked around them and did not
like what they saw. Their homes were inadequate, traffic was terrible, and crime
had appeared on their doorsteps. They were fat with IPO cash, and it was time
to flee what they had created. A 2,500 square foot house on a 1-acre lot wasn't
enough for a family of two with no kids. They needed 5-acre lots and 4,000 square
feet. They needed to escape the city and finally live the bucolic dream. They
needed needed Wal-Marts and Home Depots, Circuit Citys and Starbucks. They needed
the city and it continued to follow them.
Other parts of the world watched the US carefully. They looked to the country for inspiration, awed
by its wealth. They took notes and they implemented what they saw. American Style homes are
big in China and Ghana. It is considered a sign of success by many to be able to get away from it all
and live in a manufactured pastoral setting close to the city, "just like the Americans".
- - - - - - - - - -
What You Believe to be True is Probably Wrong
[W]hen telecommunications were introduced on a large scale in all advanced industries in
the 1980s, we saw the central business districts of the leading cities and international
business centers of the world - New York, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Sao Paulo,
Hong Kong, and Sydney, among others - reach their highest densities ever.
Cities in a World Economy
Several years ago Nicholas
Negroponte, cofounder of the MIT Media
Lab, published a piece in Wired titled
Rural. This article is interesting for two reasons; first because it very
accurately describes how many people, especially those in the computer-related
industries, view urban -vs- rural life and what they believe the future holds
in store; and second, because so many of the base assumptions in it are most
likely completely wrong.
Negroponte wrote, "The digital world has no center and therefore no periphery."
This seems to be a common view held by many people, that the Internet is
truly placeless. However, any decent network administrator should see the fallacy
in that statement almost instantly. Saskia
Sassen has been closely studying economic globalization and its effects
on cities for over a decade. Her findings lead to the unavoidable conclusion
that not only are cities not going to disappear, a small number of the
largest cities are actually consolidating their importance and influence over
the rest of the world.
Sassen points out that multinational corporations and other key operators
in a global economy require a centralized location in which they work, and that
"even the most advanced information industries have a production process". Necessary
support for these companies, from clerical to facilities maintenance to the
people serving lunch are all required in close proximity. Telematics can only
accomplish so much, and no matter what industry you work in you will always
need some direct personal interaction with at least a few of your suppliers
or customers. The higher you are in the management chain the more important
this interaction will be, and the more likely you will be to have a large support
staff, as well.
The ultimate irony in the placeless world is that some places organize the rest.
Interviewed in Wired
One aspect of this concentration of global economic power is that cities are
becoming more attached to one another than they are to their surrounding geographic
location. Tokyo is much more important to New York's economy than Scranton,
PA is. A Mexico City exporter has much more in common with a London financier
than a Cancun scuba instructor. Meanwhile, the Scranton movie theaters are showing
films made in L.A. and the Cancun scuba instructor is using gear manufactured
in Sydney. The more removed you are from what Sassen calls Global Cities,
the less chance you have to make any real impact in the world.
Of greater concern is the income disparity and class division already plainly evident in every large
city in the world. First, at least in the US, the central cities are already devoid of the middle
class due to the out-migration detailed above. Yet even in places like Sao Paulo where the urban
demographic closely matches the national one, the city's global importance acts to drive up real
estate values to the point that people of moderate income are not able to find adequate housing. These
effects could very well result in a Gibsonian dystopia where only the very wealthy live in urban
centers - being served by the very poor clustered around the fringes in shanty towns - while they
control the economy and culture of a dispersed middle class that has very little say in how things
- - - - - - - - - -
It Happened in a City
...I want to argue that no one kind of city, nor any one size of city, has a monopoly on creativity
or the good life; but that the biggest and most cosmopolitan cities, for all their evident
disadvantages and obvious problems, have throughout history been the places that ignited the sacred
flame of the human intelligence and the human imagination.
Sir Peter Hall,
Cities in Civilization
The possibility of great differences in wealth suggested above at least offer
the potential to spark a great movement in the arts.
Sir Peter Hall, Professor of Planning at the Bartlett
School of Architecture has published a remarkably comprehensive book who's
central thesis is that throughout history the creative flame has always burned,
albeit only for short periods of time, in cities almost exclusively. The author
then sets about examining the social, political, geographic and economic conditions
that led to these belle époques for commonalties.
Hall's book divides cities into four sub-groups, the first being "The
City as Cultural Crucible", which encompasses Athens, Renaissance Florence,
Shakespearean London, 19th Century Vienna, Paris from 1870-1910, and Weimar
era Berlin, places all well known for their revolutionary contributions to art
and culture. One thread connecting all these places (Athens excepted) is that
at the times of their greatest cultural peaks they all contained huge disparities
in wealth between the richest and poorest members of society. Other elements
that, if not required, are at least highly beneficial to the creation of an
artistic milieu range from the obvious - a society accustomed to arts patronage
- to the surprising notion that class conflict was crucial in all instances.
"Great art is not produced by insiders, even though the artists may be patronized
The book goes on (and on) examining many other cities - from Glasgow to Detroit,
Rome to Tokyo, New York to the SF Bay area - looking at every conceivable aspect
that led to each gaining its unique moment of greatness. Government policy,
entrepreneurial drive, simple necessity, or even blind luck, all play roles,
yet one commonality that all posses is that only in an urban setting was there
enough confluence of both disparate and supportive forces to spark Hall's creative
flame. It stands to reason that a larger mass of people will produce a greater
number of innovations, yet what stands out is how few exceptions there are to
the rule that humankind most often reaches its pinnacle in an urban setting.
The history of the world truly is the history of cities.