Saturday, February 5, 2011

Down with suburbs, long live cities

Earlier this week Harvard economics professor Edward L. Glaesner wrote a post on The New York Times' Economix blog arguing that cities have been the starting point of social unrest for centuries. Glaesner is a fan of urbanism, writing in past posts in support of greater densities and the benefits inherit in large cities. Here he specifically mentions that Tunisia and Egypt could not have started their uprisings without the energy and vitality present in cities and densities large enough to overwhelm local law enforcement. And the narrowness and multitude of streets makes any counter effort difficult. It's hard to argue against the overthrow of repressive governments, but things are rarely that simple.

Baron Haussmann's transformation of Paris in the 1850-70's may have created some of the world's most elegant boulevards, but this was no city beautification project. This was a military project and therefore garrisoned the full support and resources of the ruling elite and city officials. For you see, Paris had already experienced two revolutions in the years proceeding the project and Napoleon III did not want a repeat. Wide boulevards meant the military could traverse quickly and efficiently and monuments such as the Arc de Triomphe doubled as military lookouts. As a bonus, the altering construction would cut through the heart of ancient neighborhoods and dispose of the rebelling poor. Paris experienced no further revolutions. 

After WWII, the US started construction of a national highway system, which despite the massive effort and costs involved, sailed through Congress and to date has cost taxpayers nearly half a trillion dollars. One cannot pretend that the government has spent, and continues to spend, that kind of money solely for the convenience of motorists, who for millennia got on just fine without cars. No, to President Eisenhower this was a military project, designed to cut travel from one coast to the other from two months to two weeks. As in Paris a century earlier, this military project had little trouble garnering the support of the ruling elite. That the highway system spawned suburbia is perhaps a bonus, whether planned or coincidental I don't know, but undoubtedly welcome to an elite who, even in America, cannot help being paranoid. America was after all founded thanks to a revolution, and liberal gun laws make a repeat far easier to accomplish than in Europe, that bastion of pacifists. As Glaesner points out, riots and revolutions are not the product of poverty, but of unemployment, something the US is struggling to contain

I grew up in suburbia and the stereotypes are true. Neighbors don't interact in the suburbs, there's no cheery front porch talk and no group discussions. People who move to the suburbs are for the most part perfectly happy to live their own lives. There's no pot to stir, no one's feathers to ruffle. And the clear separation of incomes that suburbs impose means one group doesn't know what the others are doing or feeling. In short, no riots in the suburbs. It's therefore no surprise to know that suburbs have always and continue to receive large financial incentives from the government and private banks such as FHA insured loans and zoning laws.

Summer in Manhattan
flickr : Majestic Moose
If indeed society is to avoid stagnation as Jane Jacobs warns in Dark Age Ahead, much more decisive steps must be taken to prevent the rise of suburbia, and not just in the US, but most importantly in the developing world, where at present suburbia is most fashionable. These quickly changing countries are most vulnerable to the threat of suburbia as they have seen countless changes in the past century. Whereas the Western world developed at a relatively slow pace and therefore preserved its culture, developing nations risk losing their culture and identity irreparably unless they make a concentrated effort not to. Most importantly, nations must look to urban cities, as they have in the past. None of this "but the people want suburbs" nonsense. There's a huge chunk of the population which has no choice. That choice must be reclaimed. It is in cities where the arts develop, where people of different race, wealth, and background intermingle, where spontaneous conversations are held, where one can walk to and fro, and where thousands can gather to have their voices heard. It is in cities where culture grows, develops, and adapts. In the suburbs one finds slow yet certain cultural deterioration. In the suburbs is only the end.