Sunday, August 15, 2010

Urban Density

Continuing on my fascination with cities, particularly NY, it strikes me how much suburban sprawl there is in America. While making 3D buildings on Google Earth I noticed that a lot of European cities are much denser than almost all American cities. Most people live in apartments in Europe, even in the smaller cities and towns. In the U.S. most people live in detached houses. That's always been the American dream.

Americans like owning houses and Americans like their space. Space is what the pioneers found when they arrived in the New World: a giant near-empty continent, sparely populated by Indians. So they spread out from the cities of the east, to the great plains of the Midwest, eventually reaching the Pacific. What we have as a result is miles and miles of suburban sprawl, aided by the invention of the automobile, and the domination of the "big oil" companies. The epitome of this is Los Angeles. Many American cities and towns are built around transportation by automobiles. European cities are not. They were built years before automobiles and thus remain tightly compacted for easy transport. A few tiny parts of a few American cities resemble this, most notably the Wall Street District of Manhattan, and Boston's North end.

That tight density gives European cities their distinct flavor. It gives them their street life. Most American cities with several exceptions, have no street life because everyone is in their car. What you'll have is a few strip malls or a single commercial district, where people park their cars in go right inside to do their shopping. No walking, no motorbikes, or any bikes. I was in Portland, Oregon a few months ago and was shocked at how dead it was on a Saturday night, there wasn't a soul around. That's one of the things I hate about American cities: they're too boring and void of life. NY is the obvious exception to the rule here. NY has great street life, and not in just the Central Business District. That's one of the reasons why Europeans like it here. That's also why so many American tourists from other cities are shocked at how many people are out walking on the streets of NY.

In LA (which I loath) the rich want to live in the sprawling suburbs, whereas in NY the rich often tend to want to live in the city. They city, and city life is what draws people to NY. Who would want to live in the suburbs of NY? They are practically just like suburbia of almost anywhere else in the US. No, it's the city that people want. The exact opposite is true for many other cities in the US. Consequently most inner cities look like shit and many people have to drive 10 or more miles to get to work. I wish that we would, as a nation, move towards a more urban way of living, less reliant on the automobile, and reinvest in our cities. This is beginning to happen but the problem with this is that the poor who are living there, are often kicked out as a result. How can we balance this? Well for one thing even without investment, the poor can make their communities look better by not polluting and taking care of their environments. "Don't shit where you eat" comes to mind. You don't need massive capital investment to clean up a neighborhood. This concerns me since I may never get rich, and I don't want to get pushed out to the suburbs one day if I can't afford to live in the city anymore. In the end money almost always wins out, which is why I had a fall out with capitalism recently. But I have not embraced socialism fully as a result. I'm still trying to find the type of economic system that's perfect for me. It's like capitalism but with elements of socialism intertwined with it. That's really for another post anyway.

The bottom line is: suburbia scares me, and I want American cities to look more like Europe's.

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