Tuesday, September 11, 2018

It looks like expert urban planning but it is frivolous fashion in concrete

From City Life by Witold Rybczynski, page 27.

I am already jaundiced by the tragedies and inequities our urban planners blithely, naively, and with insouciant self-regard, impose on their fellow citizens via their self-proclaimed expertise. But reading Rybczynski's litany of urban planning fads which come at great expense and disruption and often tragedy, is almost stomach-turning.
The Paris that I visited as a college student in 1964 had not yet been subjected to the heavy hand of Georges Pompidou; there were no expressways along the Seine, no Tour Montparnasse, and no Centre Pompidou. But even with these unwelcome additions, and even after Mitterrand's monumental building spree, the center of the city — its Renaissance and Haussmannian character — remains essentially unchanged. On the other hand, if I was returning to a North American city after a twenty-eight-year absence, I would be most struck by how much had changed. During the last three decades, cities across the continent have retired streetcar systems, demolished railroad stations, and built new subways and urban freeways, not to mention airports. One of the major innovations in many cities has been the creation of what are in effect enclosed sidewalks. In Houston, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis, one can now walk from building to building with-out ever going outside by using an elevated system of walkways and bridges; in Montreal, a subterranean pedestrian network has turned large parts of downtown into a huge underground shop-ping mall.

Downtown skylines have been altered by three generations of skyscrapers. First, the severe modernist flattops of the 196os; then the more picturesque postmodern towers, spires, and turrets of the 197os; finally, in the 198os, neoclassical and neo-Art Deco high-rises. The downtown towers are the work of our captains of industry — captains of sinking ships, it often turned out — but our city fathers have been busy too, financing new stadiums, convention centers, world trade centers, symphony halls, and a host of new museums.

Where there were once buildings, there are now parking lots; where there were once vacant lots, new buildings have arisen. A few of the old buildings remain. Some, having succumbed to architectural face-lifts, have become eerily ageless; many have fallen to the wrecker's ball. Old family-owned businesses on the main shopping streets have been supplanted by neon-fronted franchise retailers and fast-food outlets. Landmark hotels disappear or are converted into condominiums; downtown movie houses, with rococo interiors and chandeliered lobbies, are subdivided into dull cineplexes; department stores are giving way to downtown shop-ping malls.

This building and rebuilding of North American cities since the 195os demonstrates how much city planning is affected by changing fashions. One decade favors modernity and pulls down old buildings in the name of progress; the next decade discovers its heritage and promotes historic preservation. The artificial environment of tall buildings is a source of pride for one generation and a health hazard for another. A fad for closing streets and converting them to uniquely pedestrian use swept American and Canadian cities and towns in the 195os; two decades later many of the so-called pedestrian malls had reverted to their original form. During the fifties and early sixties, progressive politicians replaced slums with public housing; their successors denounced "The Projects" as responsible for perpetuating poverty and promoting crime, and in several notorious cases public housing was torn down. Also during the fifties, downtown boosters welcomed federal highway construction funds; during the 198os, they were more likely to be refusing them. In cities such as Miami, Minneapolis, Chicago, and New Orleans, proposed urban highways were rejected; some cities, like Toronto and Portland, Oregon, actually demolished sections of urban highway.

Mass transit has also been affected by fashion. Starting in Richmond, Virginia, in 1888, and until about the 193os, virtually every large North American city and many small ones had electric trolley cars. In Los Angeles, the "Big Red Cars" of the Pacific Electric Railway operated on over one thousand miles of track.* When diesel-engine buses appeared, with a few exceptions — Toronto, New Orleans, San Francisco, parts of Philadelphia — most cities dismantled their trolley tracks.
This was sometimes due to economic reasons (a drop-off in ridership), sometimes to political and lobby pressures, and sometimes simply to a feeling that trolleys were old-fashioned. Today trolleys are making a small comeback. Saint Louis has built an eighteen-mile line that connects downtown with Busch Stadium, the University of Missouri, and the airport (the Saint Louis trolley, unlike most mass transit, has turned out to be extremely popular with the public). Buffalo has a six-mile system. Detroit has built a two-mile trolley along the waterfront, and New York City is studying a trolley line that would run along 42nd Street from one side of Manhattan to the other. The old interurban streetcars that used to run into the suburbs and which ceased operation during the early 1900s are being revived in the form of high-speed light-rail systems in cities like Portland and San Diego.

* The interurban electric railway was spread over the entire Los Angeles basin, linking downtown to Santa Monica, San Fernando, Newport Beach, Pomona, San Bernardino, and Riverside. This is a reminder that it was the Pacific Electric, not the automobile, that created this sprawling metropolitan region.
Perhaps my discovery last night at a city meeting that the prior administration had elected not to implement the spending tracking mechanisms they had committed to do on a $250 million bond for routine road repair now means that most of the money has gone to political white elephants and the roads are bad as ever, has blinded me to the sterling attributes of planners and local politicians. But right now, I am not inclined to budge from the assessment that they are a blight; corrupt, incompetent, petty tyrants with few redeeming graces. Its one huge establishment patronage system. No one blows the whistle. No one rocks the boat. Everyone turns a blind eye. And when the citizenry start throwing the scoundrels out, there is a wailing and moaning about the uninformed voter, and extremism, and polarization, and white supremacy, and rising nationalist popularism.

Matthew 7:1-5 KJV
1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.
2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.
Behave well and with charity towards others with different views, don't steal, don't lie, don't deceive, do your best, look out for the interests of the whole community - its a reasonably low bar but the local establishment politicians and bureaucrats can't even achieve that.

But what caught my eye especially is Rybczynski's footnote. All my life, Los Angeles has been held up as an example of automobile driven urban sprawl. Was that really preceded, and perhaps, as he implies, created by an interurban electric railway? I can create a plausible scenario in which that is precisely correct. The interurban electric railway comes in and ties together disparate cities and establishes the patterns of trade and commuting which, when the automobile comes along, is then displaced by private cars.

While plausible, is it true? No idea. But aggravating if true in the sense that a falsehood should have underpinned so many conversations, i.e. urban sprawl is solely a product of the car.

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