What’s old is new again – the American city

We as a culture, as a society, and even as a species are infatuated with the future. We look for trends that will tell us what stocks to buy, which team to win the game, which neighborhood to live in, and which type of car will save us money. Design tries the same thing as far as figuring out what the future will bring us, but the inherent problem with design trying to forecast the future is that it goes against the primary purpose for design – to solve problems. We design to solve problems, so if we don’t know what the chief problems are needing to be solved in the future then the design becomes art – philosophically inspirational, but functionally useless (unless the art is being used to prop a door open to allow a breeze in).

Design in the 20th century – especially in regards to architecture and urban planning – was paramount with redefining the 19th century city. The high density, mixed uses, and a focus on the pedestrian and centralized transportation were replaced with sparse development, separated uses, and a focus on the automobile with decentralized transportation. For the most part this modern approach to urban planning has failed (or at least is in the process of failing), and I guess it’s failed because it really wasn’t solving a problem. I think like other modern approaches to architectural design the new way of creating an urban fabric didn’t complement (or even try to complement) with what worked with the existing model of designing and constructing our urban environment. Instead of improving upon what already worked it started from scratch in an effort to redefine how people lived, and with that set itself up for complete failure.

So here we are, living in the early part of the 21st century. We’re already a full decade into the new millennium, and the trend in urban design does not involve blocks of equally spaced high-rises as far as thee eye can see, or living in large biomes designed to accommodate a million people, or space colonies that can be reached by space elevators. The look and feel of most newly designed urban environments look more like the 19th century American city.

As I read this article about the renaissance of streetcars in American cities, I began to think how future American cities will probably look more like 19th century cities. A lot of resources (money and materials) are devoted to the accommodation of automobiles in our cities. There is a fine balance between how many people a city can house with how many automobiles can be handled by its streets. If our cities are designed in a manner that requires every resident to own a car then there is a maximum number of residents a city can have before people have to move further away from the city.

In 2003 London created the Congestion Charge Zone in an effort to reduce the amount of automobiles driving through Central London. This might seem like a crazy idea, but I feel that larger cities will someday eliminate most vehicular traffic through their most dense areas. The less vehicular traffic means fewer resources and less land devoted to the automobile, which means more land to construct buildings to house more people and offices. And that translates a larger dependence on public transportation, which means less automobile ownership. And this ultimately means a city that looks more like the 19th century.

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