Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The City Strikes Back

Since I do some work for SPC on Project Region I don't feel it appropriate to comment on my own too much about their regional town meeting last night. It was too late in the evening for there to be any media coverage today, though I am curious if there will be any items in the news tomorrow even. It certainly was more important than a lot of things that get coverage. At the Downtown site there were some insightful comments and discussion among those who attended the meeting at the Regional Enterprise Tower.

but there was one particular comment that really summarized the big historical picture of where we are when it comes to rationalizing city vs. suburban development. One attendee pointed out the history of how we look at cities. He reminded the audience that if you look back 70 years or so, the focus back then was clearly centered on moving people out of the city because of the perceived problems of crime, health and environment among other things. Even if some of that sounds familiar today, it's hard to really imagine what people thought of cities back then. Something I have mentioned before, but I encourage everyone to watch the archived documentary entitled The City (American Institute of Planners, 1939, available as an MPEG stream via the Prelinger Archives), which may be the single best explanation of how deeply ingrained that logic was. It is complete with an original score by Aaron Copeland if you can believe that... After first watching it I had to go re-watch the opening credits to make sure Frank Capra didn't direct it as well. He didn't, but it sure seems like he did.

Basically the film idealizes the suburbs as Utopian places to live and proselytizes massive city re-engineering with a lot of images of pre-war Pittsburgh as the ultimate scourge to be beaten back. If you don't have time to watch, the title text pretty much summarizes the film's message:
"Year by year our cities grow ever more complex and less fit for living. The age of rebuilding is here. The time to remould our old cities and build communities better suited to our needs."
All that is missing from that is the slow fading text scroll into a background of stars. For those who do get through the first part. Here is the link for Part 2. For the musicologists out there: listen to the score and realize it was written 5 years before Appalachian Spring debuted.

What should you take away from it? The policies put in place back then really set the stage for the depopulation of our cities and their growing uncompetitiveness with respect to the suburbs in following decades. By the early 1980's things had gotten so bad that urban policy in the US came close to advocating cities be abandoned entirely. We have moved away from that to some degree, but many of the policies that make cities uncompetitive places to live and work are still in place and affect almost all regional planning efforts across the country.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm continually amazed at the evolution of urban planning as a discipline. As Jane Jacobs points out in The Economy of Cities, 20th century urban planning was built on Weber's analyses of urban development, many of which were informed more by the Book of Genesis than by any rational study of urban economics.

The whole idea that we all need little patches of personal Eden to be self-actualized as humans is SO ready for the ash heap of history. And yet.

Thursday, February 15, 2007 1:12:00 PM  

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