Metropolis Unbound

A new form of human settlement has emerged in the twentieth century,
radically different from the cities of the past. The city has
become a city-region. American city-regions' population growth
is now dramatically outpaced by their geographic growth. In the
two decades from 1970 to 1990, the New York region had a modest
population increase of 8 percent, but it had an explosive growth
of 65 percent in its built-up urbanized land. While Chicago grew
4 percent in population, its urbanized land increased 46 percent.
Even places that were declining in their population were simultaneously
growing in their urban area; Cleveland, for example, had a population
decline of 8 percent, while it expanded geographically by 33 percent.
This urban growth cycle is similar across America. City-regions
are exploding into their surrounding countryside at growth rates
that are eight to ten times greater than their population increases.

What is new is not the size of cities, but a change
in their form. New York City, for example, used to have a concentric
form surrounding Manhattan that resembled the growth rings of
a tree. That was how it appeared when New York's Regional Plan
Association, a civic organization, published its first plan 60
years ago. The Third Regional Plan published in 1996, however,
describes a city-region with a population of 20 million people,
extending 150 miles across and covering 13,000 square miles; its
form now resembles a flower with petals radiating into five subregions
in three states.

map by Annie Bisset from a sketch by the author
Ominously titled A Region at Risk, the regional
plan warns of the dangers from the vast sprawl for New York's
economy, environment, social fabric, and quality of everyday life.
"Far more suddenly than people realize," write the authors,
Robert Yaro and Tony Hiss, "super-sized metropolitan regions—areas
hundreds of miles wide crowded with a dense mixture of aging cities,
expanding suburbs, newer edge cities, and older farmlands and
wildernesses—are emerging not just as a recognizable place but
as humanity's new home base."

The everyday consequences for suburb
and city alike are familiar enough: traffic congestion and inefficient
transportation, unavailable and unaffordable housing, water and
air pollution, social segregation and lack of community. In the
decades after World War II, millions of Americans fled the cities
to live in the suburbs, but in a sense the city has come after
them. Nonetheless, the persistence of old political boundaries
prevents the problems they face from being addressed together
or even discussed coherently. The problems of transportation,
housing, jobs, the environment, and social equity get scattered
attention in public policy, but there is hardly any notice of
the urban dynamic that lies behind them: the new form that American
cities have taken. Nor is there much debate about the alternative
paths of development that a few city-regions have taken in North
America that could be the basis of a new paradigm for city-regions
and neighborhoods in the next century.

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The emergence of a new form of human
settlement is relatively rare in human history. For thousands
of years, human settlements grew slowly and predictably. Generally,
they grew outward in concentric rings, each expansion being larger
but still recognizably the same as its earlier form. For example,
while the European city of Bruges was growing over a period of
500 years, its boundary walls were periodically moved outward,
but it kept the same kind of shape. As a pre-industrial city,
Bruges faced economic and technological limits on its size, such
as everyday walking distances.

The relationships between how things
grow and the shapes they take fascinated the biologist D'Arcy
Thompson. In his 1917 book, On Growth and Form, Thompson
analyzed both natural and manmade objects, from marine shells,
teeth, fleas, and dinosaurs to soap bubbles and bridges, observing
how and when their form accommodated and changed during growth.

If this pattern, as Thompson argued,
applies to mechanical constructions like boilers and biological
constructions like the marine shell Forminifera, it also applies
to social constructions like cities. Before the industrial revolution,
the size of towns and cities was constrained by natural limits,
such as the capacity of the surrounding countryside to supply
foodstuffs and the ability of people to move about by foot or
on animals without mechanized vehicles. Railroads changed city
form in two ways. Long-distance rail lines connecting to other
cities and distant agricultural areas meant that a city's population
size was no longer constrained by the food from its surrounding
countryside. And short-distance rail lines extending into the
country meant that the city's geographic size was no longer limited
by walking distances. The city's form evolved into a star pattern,
with new settlements—"railroad suburbs"—concentrated
around rail stations, spaced a few miles apart. The legacy of
America's dependence on rail lines and depots remains with us:
The New York region, for example, has a rail network that is aging
and somewhat disconnected but still includes 900 railroad stations.

The railroad suburb was a nineteenth-century
invention, but it is also an alternative spatial model for the
twenty-first century that retains some notable advantages compared
to the sprawl of the more recent automobile suburb. The advantages
of the star pattern come from its physical and social compactness,
its preservation of the surrounding countryside, and its economy
and efficiency of transport.

The automobile radically changed city
form. The private car provided extraordinary flexibility, adaptability,
and choice. Space and time were reconfigured. The city's edges—so
clear in the old pre-industrial city and still evident along the
finger-like corridors of the industrial city—melted away. Urban
centers struggled to accommodate their new inhabitants—moving
and parked vehicles. Centers kept their appeal—shopping centers,
research centers, sports centers, health centers, to name a few—but
each became a separate center. The city became a city-region of
disjointed centers. Today, at its best, it is a galaxy; at its
worst, it is chaos.


Historically, two massive shifts of
population have formed American city-regions. The farm-to-city
shift after the Civil War is comparable to the massive city-to-suburb
shift after World War II. Now more than half the nation's population
lives in the suburbs. Although still separate legal jurisdictions,
it no longer makes sense to talk of suburbs and cities as if they
were separate; they are economically and ecologically joined in
a new kind of human settlement, the city-region.

map by Annie Bissett from a sketch by the author
Periodically, a city seems to be the
embodiment and image of the new. Historians call it the "shock
city" of its time. Los Angeles has been the "shock city"
of our time, as Manchester, England, was in the nineteenth century
and New York was in this century's first half. Los Angeles is
now seen as the first American city to remove itself from the
European models of growth and form. Architect and urbanist Richard
Weinstein argues that "the structure of the built-environment
as it exists in Los Angeles now represents a paradigm of growth
that already houses more than half of the [United States] population
and is, with variations, the pattern of growth for most new settlements
in the developed world."

The Los Angeles paradigm is an extended,
open, unbounded matrix laced with linear corridors, from boulevards
to commercial strips, and overlaid by freeways. Its keywords are
fragmented, incomplete, ad hoc, uncentered. Concerning
the Los Angeles environment, Weinstein argues that the open extended
matrix, with all its in-between spaces, is more supportive of
environmental health than denser, more continuous urban structures.
There is more green, in-between.

But the Los Angeles urban form has
had inequitable social consequences. Ethnic colonies have become
isolated, the city fragmented. If the goal is to balance the economy,
the environment, and social equity, is the open extended matrix
of Los Angeles the inevitable model for American cities?


On the North American continent, Toronto
represents an alternative model of urban growth and form. In contrast
to Los Angeles, Toronto generates vitality in its centers. Toronto's
downtown is vibrant and pedestrian-friendly, and its neighborhoods
retain their strength as places of sociability. By developing
mass transit, Toronto succeeded, at least until the mid-1970s,
in linking its centers and retarding the land-consuming and smog-producing
dependence on the automobile. A key element in this achievement
was that Toronto managed its postwar boom with a system of governance
called Metro-Toronto that integrated urban and suburban decisionmaking.
Metro-Toronto had jurisdiction over planning not only for five
municipalities in the core metropolitan area, but also for the
surrounding communities. Among its achievements was a light-rail
transportation network financed by the core city.

map by Annie Bissett from a sketch by the Author
Toronto has thus become a more equitable
city than Los Angeles not only because of Canada's generous social
programs, but also because the city has not isolated its less
affluent residents. Ethnic minorities, the poor, and the elderly—thanks
to public policy—are less segregated in Toronto than in other
North American city-regions. Not only did Toronto build the transportation
connections; it has also created the continent's largest stock
of dispersed mixed-income social housing.

In recent decades, however, the Toronto
pattern of development has drifted away from this tradition. In
1972, the Ontario provincial government combined the surrounding
communities into four mini-metro governments (Halton, Peel, York,
and Durham), each having strong powers over their own region.
According to Gardner Church, a political scientist at York University,
the province failed to create any comprehensive planning authority
or to sustain the earlier commitments to contain growth and coordinate
transportation. Sprawl set in and the region stood in danger of
becoming, as observers put it at the time, "Vienna surrounded
by Phoenix." But recently, in an effort to reverse this backsliding,
the province has made Metro-Toronto the unified government of
the core metropolitan area and created a new super-regional authority,
called Greater-Toronto, for transportation, social services, and
economic development. The surrounding areas will share the costs
of social services with Toronto. Church believes this new system
"offers the potential for a return to comprehensive, progressive

model for the future comes from the Pacific Northwest, where a
chain of cities—including Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver—form
a city-region now often called "Cascadia" (from the
Cascade Mountains that parallel the Pacific coastline). Although
this new city-region crosses state and international boundaries,
the emerging idea of Cascadia provides an economically integrated
vision of the settlements along a regional corridor, a "Main
Street" called Interstate Highway 5. What is especially notable
is that it also includes an ecologically integrated vision of
the geology, vegetation, natural species, climate, and movement
of water throughout the region.

map by Annie Bissett from a sketch by the author
Cascadia shows that an equilibrium
of nature, society, and culture can still be the basis of city
building. Think of Cascadia as a candidate for the historians'
next "shock city." Its predecessors, Manchester, New
York, and Los Angeles, all drew their image from their built landscape.
Cascadia draws its power as a new paradigm from its natural landscape.

Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver have
each pioneered in planning for environmental protection and the
provision of greenspace (parks, riparian corridors, natural habitats)
as parts of the urban fabric. Today, however, greenspace is at
risk. The greatest challenge comes from rapid population growth
and a pattern of human settlement that, like other American city-regions,
is consuming land at an even faster rate. Sprawl development has
led to inefficient use of land, energy, and other resources and
has had profound impacts on air quality, the hydrology of watersheds,
and the environmental health of the inhabitants. The question
is whether Cascadia will go the way of Los Angeles. Or as Cascadian
urbanists Ethan Seltzer, Ann Vernez Moudon, and Alan Artibise
put it, "Will the legacy of our times result in the stewardship
of the environment, or the destructive consumption of one of the
most striking and abundant landscapes on the continent?"

Cascadia has also tried to meet the
needs of socially diverse residents by regulating the form of
urban development. Unlike most other city-regions, it has tried
to define "urban growth boundaries" to promote compact
development and "urban villages" with a mix of living,
working, and leisure activities. Portland, for example, has set
a growth boundary that is the most concrete commitment in North
America to reversing trends toward racial and class segregation
and the flight from inner cities. But Portland would never have
been able to undertake this process if it had not been for action
by its state.


In the American political system, cities
have little autonomy. The authority to enact policies and programs
that might effectively shape the development of cities lies with
their state governments. Two states, Oregon and New Jersey, stand
out as leaders.

Since 1973, Oregon has required each
city to draw a growth boundary based on its assessment of economic
development and community needs in the next 20 years. In turn,
the city develops a comprehensive plan, including the steps it
will take to create needed infrastructure for water and sewers,
roads and transit, and other public facilities within the growth
boundary. The growth boundary also influences state expenditures
for highways and other roads. By 1986, to meet the state standards,
all communities in Oregon had drawn up growth plans to limit their

Ethan Seltzer, who runs the Institute
of Portland Metropolitan Studies at Portland State University,
explains that the state expects land inside urban growth boundaries
to be developed at urban densities and, in fact, allows developers
to go to court for immediate approval if local jurisdictions fail
to process permit applications for approved purposes within 120
days. "This means that multifamily development occurs by
right and according to plan even in the suburbs!" Seltzer
says. But outside the boundaries, he continues, "you cannot
develop at urban densities, cannot get urban services, and face
strict restrictions on what can be built in farm and forest zones.
Even road widening for nonfarm uses is closely regulated outside
of urban growth boundaries."

Seltzer notes,

Creativity comes into play because,
especially in recent years, the state is committed to accommodating
growth through infill and redevelopment, and not just on vacant
land at the edge. Today, the market is responding. In the last
six months, 30 percent of our residential growth has been infill
development in the region, 15 percent has been in attached housing/townhouses.
. . . There is active development of housing in downtown Portland,
and we will probably see a new public elementary school in downtown
in the next few years.

The Oregon program directs cities and
investors to steward land committed to urban use much the way
a farmer stewards his or her fields. Rather than [allowing] disinvestment,
we pursue reinvestment. It comes at a cost. Currently we are struggling
with our popularity, and what it means to live not in a cheap
region but a desirable, valuable one.

I guess what we've proven is that pursuing
an end to sprawl is possible and desirable, but it won't by itself
solve the problems of poverty or provide needed affordable housing.

He adds that while urban growth boundaries
are not a "silver bullet," they "are great at what
they do: stopping sprawl on farmland, directing attention back
onto lands already committed to urban use, and in the metropolitan
region here, suggesting to local elected officials that their
future is a shared one best approached through a partnership with
their brother and sister jurisdictions living within the same

growth and form of cities are critical issues for New Jersey,
the only state to be entirely occupied by "metropolitan areas,"
according to the U.S. Census. In 1992, New Jersey produced its
first state plan to "coordinate public and private actions
to guide future growth into compact forms of development and redevelopment."
Its policies are like Oregon's: "encourage development, redevelopment,
and economic growth in locations that are well situated with respect
to present or anticipated public services and facilities, and
to discourage development where it may impair or destroy natural
resources or environmental qualities."

In New Jersey's search for a new model
of urban growth and form, the keyword is compact. Comparing
the traditional trends with the new policies proposed by the state
plan, James Hughes and his colleagues at Rutgers University found
that compact development would generate more jobs in accessible
centers throughout the region, thereby reducing the jobless rates
in inner cities. There would also be less destruction of the natural
environment because forests, watersheds, and farmlands would be
preserved. Local and state governments would save money because
there would be less need for new infrastructure. For example,
to accommodate growth until the year 2010, the traditional pattern
would need 5,500 lane-miles of new local roads. For the same population
and economy, the state plan would require only 1,600 new lane-miles.
But the greatest benefit would be in the revitalization of neighborhoods.


For revitalizing our cities, the "neighborhood"
is almost always cited as the basic building block. Today in America
there are two different concepts. The first is the idea of a "neighborhood"
with a core and boundary. Spatially and socially, this "neighborhood"
focuses on its core: local shops, a neighborhood school, perhaps
a library and other community facilities for education, health
care, and recreation. The neighborhood's population size and density,
its network of roads and paths, even its image and character are
linked to the neighborhood's core. At its boundary, the neighborhood's
edges are marked by landscapes—generally, roads or parkways, or
in cities, arterial streets. Neighborhoods, in this concept, are
given names and generate loyalty; they are also inward-looking
and intentionally static.

The city-building implications of this
neighborhood concept are clear: Clusters of neighborhoods can
create a district, and clusters of districts create the city.
This "cluster" concept of the neighborhood, district,
and city is the American vernacular. It is embodied in the postwar
comprehensive plans for restructuring such old cities as Philadelphia
and for the construction of such new cities as Columbia, Maryland.
It is manifest in the power of "community boards" in
large cities. And it is given lip-service by developers and their
advertising agencies for suburban tracts.

The second concept, a "street-neighborhood,"
is radically different. It does not have the spatial and social
clarity of the "core-and-boundary neighborhood." Instead,
it idealizes the natural cohesion that comes from "neighboring"
on the street and sidewalk. This sense of neighborhood is the
consequence of face-to-face, casual, informal contacts in everyday
city life. For the spatial setting of this concept of neighborhood,
the gridiron street plan of such cities as Manhattan is especially
useful. Paradoxically, the static, predictable, public structural
form can support and stimulate the dynamic, small-scale, ad hoc,
spontaneous life of everyone—residents and visitors, workers and
walkers, insiders and outsiders.

The key to this concept of neighborhood
is the street and sidewalk. The street is the armature, the skeleton,
the structure of the street-neighborhood. To the streets are attached
the social institutions that characterize a neighborhood: the
schools, food stores, coffee shops, library and bookstores, movie
theaters, local service stores, health clubs, parks and playgrounds,
and of course, the workplaces and homes of the neighbors. The
street-neighborhood is immensely popular. Throughout the United
States, for example, old loft districts are being used for new
living-working places; shopping malls are trying to simulate the
life of a downtown street and sidewalk; and cities are recognizing
that the key to the neighborhood is the street and its quality
of life.


How can these concepts of neighborhoods
serve an emerging new society profoundly affected by changes in
communication and information technologies? They offer both positive
and negative possibilities.

The core-and-boundary neighborhood
can create a human-scale community and sense of place within a
large city-region. Because it is a development unit that itself
has edges, it can help establish an urban growth boundary. But
the core-and-boundary neighborhood can turn pathological if the
territorial boundary becomes hard-edged and gated, excluding outsiders
from a segregated community.

The street-neighborhood has the advantage
that it does not intentionally create physical boundaries that
exclude people. At its best, it is open, welcoming, and place-making.
Diverse street-sidewalk places would be welcome insertions into
conventional core-and-boundary neighborhoods, or even more, into
the fabric of suburban sprawl. But the street-neighborhood also
has pathological possibilities: The streets can be the territorial
setting for intimidation and crime and, at their worst, these
threats can destroy our cities.

Increasingly, "Main Street"
is once again valued as a lively center of a surrounding neighborhood.
In Toronto, for example, the ethnic diversity of the city-region
is expressed by its many neighborhoods—Greektown, Chinatown, Portuguese
Village—each with its own "Main Street." What had been
St. Claire Avenue is now Corso Italia. Similarly, in northern
Manhattan, Harlem's neighborhoods are anchored by their crosstown
streets. The most famous is 125th Street, but others such as 116th
and 135th Streets are each a string of lively places, central
arteries for economic and cultural activity.

If, as Peter Drucker predicts, our
future organization of work will be more akin to that in pre-industrial
cities, with an intimate mixture rather than separation of living
and working places, then the neighborhood street will once again
be the vibrant setting for everyday life. More than ever, we will
value places to meet, to see and be seen, to drink coffee together,
and maybe, to bowl together.

But this will not happen automatically;
the form of a city is a consequence of public policies. Four kinds
of policies are needed: regional compacts to build and maintain
infrastructure for transportation, water, and waste systems; community
growth boundaries to contain the urban built-up land uses; regional
compacts to preserve greenspaces and natural ecological systems;
and public initiatives to support the centers of cities and neighborhoods.

Streets and sidewalks, buildings and
plazas, gardens and parks profoundly affect our everyday lives
and ought to be the subject of public debate. "By its form,
as by the manner of its birth," wrote the French anthropologist
Claude Levi-Strauss, "the city has elements at once of biological
procreation, organic evolution and aesthetic creation. It is both
a natural object and a thing to be cultivated; something lived
and something dreamed. It is the human invention par excellence."
We need the courage to create our cities again.

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