Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Question of Urbanity

[5th and Madison]

I recently finished reading The Life and Death of Great American Cities. This monumental work, written by the Urbanist Jane Jacobs in 1961, is an informative, and almost poetic read. If you haven't read it, do! Here are a few exerpts in the meantime:
  • "So many people want to make use of [successful city areas], so many people want to work in them or live in them or visit in them, that municipal self-destruction ensues. In killing successful diversity combinations with money, we are employing perhaps our nearest equivalent to killing with kindness."
  • "Life attracts life."
  • "To approach a city, or even a city neighborhood, as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life."
  • "Big-city government today is nothing more than little-city government which has been stretched and adapted in quite conservative fashion to handle bigger jobs. This has had strange results, and ultimately destructive results, because big cities pose operational problems that are innately different from those posed by little cities."
  • "Attrition of automobiles by cities is probably the only realistic means by which a better public transportation can be stimulated, and greater intensity and vitality of city use be simultaneously fostered and accommodated."
The fact that she argued so vehemently for the minimization of automobiles in 1961 is true evidence of here contemporary relevance.

Nonetheless, while her goal of a healthy, livable city (opposed to a town or village) still survives today, the obstacles and challenges are much different now then at mid-century. Preeminently is the debate of a sustainable planet. The issues of global climate change, dwindling resources, and overpopulation were not nearly as dire in Jacobs' days as they are in our contemporary world. With these problems in mind it is not only necessary to make cities livable, but also to minimize their impact on the global environment.

The dominant theme in Cascadia today is that density = sustainability. There are many obvious benefits from a more compact urban environment, specifically the increase in walkability and effective mass transit, thereby minimizing carbon emissions. But I think these arguments tend to miss a greater, and perhaps more important issue. Derrick Jensen, in his recent book, Endgame, points out the problem nicely:

"The story of any civilization is the story of the rise of city-states, which means it is the story of the funneling of resources toward these centers (in order to sustain them and cause them to grow), which means it is the story of an increasing region of unsustainability surrounded by an increasingly exploited countryside."

Jensen's point brings up a frightening question: Could it be true that cities themselves are inherently unsustainable? My soft spot for cities makes me answer, optimistically, no. But, at the same time, I know we are going to have to wholly redefine the way we visualize urbanity if we intend to save this planet. In any case, this daunting question is something I intend to explore constantly in posts to come.

1 comment:

James said...

Cities do not self stabilize. We must make the proper restrictions in order to avoid running further amok over the countryside. However, I wouldn't take Jensen too seriously. He advocates the abandonment of industrialized society, and yet here he is still living in it. No offense to the blogger, but Jensen is a hypocrite and a nutjob.