The traditional explanation of the power of cities now seems as grand and outdated as an old movie palace. "The dominance of the city, especially of the great city," wrote sociologist Louis Wirth in 1938, "may be regarded as a consequence of the concentration in cities of industrial, commercial, financial, and administrative facilities and activities, transportation and communication lines, and cultural and recreational equipment such as the press, radio stations, theaters, libraries, museums, concert halls, operas, hospitals, colleges, research and publishing centers, professional organizations, and religious and welfare institutions." In the six decades since Wirth wrote, most of the important functions he named have slipped across the city border. Today, more business services, manufacturing, wholesaling, and retailing are found in the suburbs than in the cities.
Five of the 10 largest U.S. cities--Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia--have fewer private-sector jobs than their suburbs do, according to a recent Brookings Institution report.
True, cities generally have held onto the theaters, libraries, museums, and concert halls, but the suburbs have grabbed the shopping malls and many of the sports arenas that have succeeded them as important civic spaces. Cities have also been left hospitals and welfare institutions, but rather than signs of cultural or economic dominance, these are at best reminders of what cities used to be. At worst they are reminders that it is the cities that house, and therefore have to pay for, the nation's poor. Other critical functions that Wirth cited as being in the city are now no place in particular. Our "communication lines," for example, are cables that bring information from everywhere to a computer terminal anywhere.
In most metropolitan areas, no single jurisdiction, whether city or suburb, has a concentration of all the facilities and activities that Wirth listed. Immigrants increasingly bypass cities and head straight to the suburbs, so cities have lost their monopoly on acculturation. National chain stores, the "malling" of downtowns, and the relentlessness of mass marketing create a common culture that is urban but not city-specific. The functional lines between cities and suburbs have all but disappeared. Only 20 percent of Americans remain in rural areas. As for the rest of us, we are all urbanites now.
In the first part of the twentieth century, sociologists saw "urbanism as a way of life" (to borrow the title of Wirth's 1938 essay) in contrast with rural traditions. Whether one lived in a city or in a suburb was less important than the fact that one had left the country-side. Before the suburbs exploded in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the distinction between city and urban could be elided. Cities were the undisputed sites of urban cultural, economic, and social practices. They were where urban people lived and worked. City and urban were functionally synonymous, despite the careful caveats of professors.
But over the course of several decades, we have deconstructed our cities, moving some elements out of the old core and into new settlements at the edge--and then the new edge, and the newer edge. It is easy to think of this process as the flat-out dismantling of the cities, but if any place has been lost, it is the stereotypical suburb, a cozy residential enclave for home and family, set off from the pressures of commerce, noise, dirt, and the psychological exigencies of work.
The Beginnings of Sprawl
The prototype for the kind of suburb we have now, with lots of jobs and lots of housing, can be found in Ebenezer Howard's 1898 plan for relieving congestion in the city of London. Howard proposed creating self-contained satellites called garden cities, which would be an idyllic union of town and country. Howard imagined the virtues of this hybrid to be "beauty of nature, social opportunity, low rents, high wages, plenty to do, field for enterprise, flow of capital," and, charmingly, "no sweating." What he did not imagine is suburban sprawl. Garden cities would, by definition, not sprawl. They would be limited to a population of 32,000 and girded by a greenbelt of agricultural and open space. Individual garden cities would be connected by a railway, not an eight-lane freeway.
Decades later and a continent away, Howard's utopian ideal seemed realizable, thanks to a combination of planning theories, governmental programs, and commercial optimism and opportunism. Like many utopian ideals, this one took shape in southern California. Greg Hise's Magnetic Los Angeles argues that California "community building"--what most people would call "suburbanization"--is a history of the planned dispersion of people and jobs, with jobs leading the way. Some of the people guiding this dispersion were professional planners, members of the Regional Plan Association of America, who felt that American cities were simply too crowded for efficiency and health. Others were federal agency heads and industrial leaders who realized well before the suburban boom of the 1950s that, as one put it, "[d]ecentralization is taking place. It is not a policy, it is a reality--and it is as impossible for us to change this trend as it is to change the desire of birds to migrate to a more suitable location." Their job was to inject an element of the rational into the inevitable. Probably the most forceful push came from the federal War Production Board, which promoted decentralization by its defense manufacturers.
Hise makes the case that metropolitan Los Angeles, not Levittown, was the model for postwar suburbanization in the United States. Housing was only one aspect of the suburbs, just as it was only one aspect of the cities. Hise calls his book's introduction "Suburbanization as Urbanization," and he is right.
But to say that the functional distinctions between cities and suburbs have blurred, and that people have overemphasized some of the differences, is not to say that cities and suburbs are identical. There is still one important difference: Cities create and encourage heterogeneity, otherness, and fortuitous interaction between different types of people, while suburbs preserve privacy and discourage chance encounters with the unexpected.
Both Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck and City Making by Gerald Frug address the public-private distinction between cities and suburbs. The books are like photonegatives of each other, as one might guess from the titles. Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck focus on the suburbs and their shortcomings and offer a practical guide for change. Frug concentrates on the damage that prevailing conceptions of local government law inflict on cities and suggests how to strengthen cities and draw the people of a metropolitan area into a public realm.
Duany and Plater-Zyberk are the founders of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., known as DPZ, a Miami-based firm that is a leading force in the New Urbanism; Speck is DPZ's director of town planning. Their book is a screed against the shortcomings of most postwar suburban development. Indulging a little in excessively dismissive rhetoric, they call the current model of the single-family house "the fast-food version of the American dream" and describe the suburban environment as "tawdry and stressful" and full of "banality and hostility." Across the board, they say, "life seems less satisfying to most Americans, particularly in the ubiquitous middle-class suburbs, where a sprawling, repetitive, and forgettable landscape has replaced the original promise of suburban life with a hollow imitation."
Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck are not, however, only making an aesthetic argument about the shortcomings of McMansion roof lines and big-box retail outlets when compared to the charm of front stoops, porches, and corner stores. They are also decrying an environment that isolates people from one another by design. They point out the "ruthless segregation by minute gradations of income" typical in many housing developments. There is also a concrete problem with the way suburbs are built. "Americans may have the finest private realm in the developed world, but our public realm is brutal." The public infrastructure that dominates the suburbs is not parks and sidewalks, but highways, collector roads, and cul-de-sacs. The suburbs have been designed for the movement of cars, not for the congregation of people. The rigid zoning codes in suburbs that keep residential and commercial uses apart and generally keep densities low make a car an utter necessity, and the car "is a private space as well as a potentially sociopathic device." The authors manage to work up a thin sympathy for developers, suggesting that they might be suburban sprawl's "greatest victim," but they give no quarter to highway engineers.
Renewing Public Space
The desire to get people out of their cars and onto sidewalks defines the New Urbanism. It means that it is really about urbanity rather than a romantic reinvention of small-town America. The New Urbanist developments in Kentlands, Maryland, Seaside, Florida, and Celebration, Florida, are brand-new subdivisions sited in the middle of sprawl, inviting the criticism that New Urbanism is actually a nostalgic retreat from urban life. Pedestrians, however, are a defining element of cities. Keeping various destinations, whether residential or commercial, within a five-minute walk is a key design principle to Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck.
Sidewalks, even more than parks, are the characteristic urban, public spaces. Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed most of America's great urban parks and park systems, described parks as places "to give the mind a suggestion of rest from the devouring eagerness and intellectual strife of town life," as zones where people experience "nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets." Public parks are important and necessary, but they lack the energy, the close proximity to difference, and even the literal collisions on the street that are characteristic of urban life. Indeed, in a chapter on how inner cities can fend off "suburban competition," Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck declare that "the most significant amenity that the city can offer potential residents is a public realm, with the vibrant street life that phrase implies." Here, their rhetoric is, if anything, understated. A public realm is more than an amenity; it is a necessity, and the basic premise of city life.
The authors' attachment to the older cities is at odds with their substantial practice in planning new suburbs. "About once a week," they write, "we receive a call from someone who has read about one of the new towns we've designed, and is prepared to move almost anywhere to experience the sense of community described. Our first response is to ask the caller to consider one of the older towns that has served as our inspiration." They recognize, though, that people want new houses in new developments, away from the real and perceived problems that are built into old houses in old neighborhoods, and they conclude that since new development is going to happen anyway, they must "reshape new growth into the most benevolent form possible." This benevolent form includes public parks; civic buildings on important sites; commercial, office, and residential buildings nearby; and a carefully thought-out network of streets and thoroughfares that encourages walking.
The City of Collisions
This is an attractive vision, as the housing prices in these developments attest. It is certainly more conducive to spontaneous public interaction than the car, cathedral ceiling, and cul-de-sac developments so common today. And yet it is hard to imagine that one of the new towns designed by DPZ with such care could actually have the intensity and diversity of a central city or could perform what Gerald Frug calls "the primary city function," which is "the cultivation and reproduction of the city's traditional form of human association." In Frug's view, "Cities ... ought to teach people how to interact with unfamiliar strangers, how to deal with their terror of the black poor or of whomever else they imagine as 'the mob.'"
This sense of "being together with strangers" is what Frug refers to in his book's subtitle, "Building Communities without Building Walls." The phrase is perhaps misleading because the word "community" is so overused--it's about as fixed in meaning as an amoeba is in shape. Hise uses the words "community builders" to refer to 1950s developers with big ideas; Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck speak of community as arising from the life of the "town square or local pub" where "people of diverse ages, races, and beliefs" can "meet and talk," but they also hint that it is a sense of connection, of neighborliness. Generally, community seems to suggest something cozy, comforting, and worthy--like watching a Ken Burns special on PBS. But Frug "seek[s] to avoid the romantic sense of togetherness often associated with the term 'community' by offering a much more modest goal: the purpose of community building is to increase the capacity of metropolitan residents to live in a world composed of people different from themselves." He sees community as a crude, jostling, heterogeneous public that co-exists without explosive tension. This is a pretty good way to think about a city, as a place that fosters not neighborliness, but negotiation.
Cities' public connotations have put them at a legal disadvantage compared to their suburbs, Frug argues. In law, suburbs have been associated with the protection of privacy, a homogeneous community, property values, and family, and states have given them the legal authority to defend these things. Cities, on the other hand, have been seen as threats to autonomy, as "examples of mini-sovereigns, linked more with the taxation and regulation of their residents than with their ability to protect them from state control. As a result of this contrast with the suburbs, the power of the nation's major cities has been subjected to persistent state intervention while suburban power has grown." In another conception, both cities and suburbs are "understood, like self-interested individuals, to threaten each other as well as the state." Frug argues that the border between city and suburb has been deemed as inviolable as a private property line or even a person's skin. There are only tenuous claims on and connections to what is on the other side.
Just as communitarian and postmodern philosophers have tried to redescribe the self, Frug attempts to redescribe the cities, comparing them to "situated" and "postmodern" selves, in order to get people to recognize that cities have justifiable claims on the suburbs--and, more broadly, that all jurisdictions within a metropolitan area have claims on one another. These alternatives to the existing legal view of cities are critical if we are to engage in the community building that Frug advocates, both because cities quite simply need more resources than they currently have and because Americans need to value public life. Not a well-groomed public, but an actual, messy, noisy public that does not pretend to share one's--anyone's--habits or values.
"City life has not demanded a feel-ing of solidarity or affection or acceptance," Frug writes. "It has held out no promise of commonality, no sense that persuasion can bring those with opposed views together. What it has suggested instead is that one needs to learn how to live with people--and to work with people--who are not like oneself."
We cannot expect America to save its cities because they are the home of high culture--city saving is a much more expensive and controversial undertaking than anything that the National Endowment for the Arts has imagined. We cannot depend on an impulse to save particular buildings or streetscapes. Americans have precious little respect for their built environment, probably because they can rebuild a pretty convincing replica in a more convenient location. And besides, not every city is art-rich or beautiful to look at. What cities give us are collisions--collisions that often have startling, though not unpleasant, results. They are the clashes that create culture and facilitate the birth and transmission of ideas. They remind us that there are alternatives to private life, private space, and private pursuits. This is not an easy basis for a defense of city life, but it is the right one if we are to see clearly what cities give us that the suburbs cannot. ¤