Features | On the Agenda
Cities and Suburbs
A Harvard Magazine rountable
Can our cities be made livable for all kinds of citizens, or are they condemned to be office ghettoes and entertainment zones used by suburban commuters? What has attracted the majority of Americans to the suburbs--and can those attractive qualities withstand congested traffic, environmental degradation, and changing economic patterns? Is there a way to reconcile our disdain for sprawl and for dense development? What public policies impede progress toward more satisfactory communities?
Harvard Magazineasked six experts on architecture, planning, urban design, and environmental regulation to explore the prospects for American cities and suburbs in a roundtable discussion at the Graduate School of Design. Participants included:
John P. DeVillars, M.P.A. '81, until recently New England administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (since 1994) and formerly Secretary of the Environment for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1988-1991), now affiliated with MIT's urban studies and planning department and executive vice president of Brownfields Recovery Corporation;
Alex Krieger, M.C.U. '77, professor in practice of urban design and chairman of the department of urban planning and design, and a principal of Chan Krieger & Associates, whose work focuses on planning for American cities--particularly their centers--and campus planning and design;
M. David Lee, MAU '71, adjunct professor of urban planning and design, and partner in Stull and Lee, an architectural firm involved in several urban transportation projects from Queens, New York, to San Francisco to Boston's Central Artery reconstruction;
Cathy J. Simon, M.Arch. '69, a founding principal and director of architecture at San Francisco-based Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Moris, where she has completed institutional and civic commissions and more than two dozen library designs;
Michael D. Sorkin, Ds '72, principal of Michael Sorkin Studio, New York City, which has undertaken projects from master planning in Hamburg, Germany, to campus planning at the University of Chicago; professor of urbanism at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna; and author of works including Exquisite Corpse: Writing on Buildings and Wiggle, a monograph of the studio's work; and
Robert D. Yaro, M.C.R. '76, executive director of the Regional Plan Association, the nation's oldest metropolitan planning and advocacy group, focusing on the Greater New York City region; previously associate professor of regional planning at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
The conversation, moderated by Harvard Magazine,ranged from historic preservation and aesthetics to the most controversial issues of racial inclusion and gentrification, and included broad critiques of contemporary planning and design theory and practice. Edited excerpts of the discussion follow.
Moderator: What are American cities and their environs like as places to live and work?
Yaro: The vast majority of Americans live in or near metropolitan regions. But within these areas, the center cities, like Boston, are home to only 20 percent of the population; in New York, it's 30 percent. In most cases it's somewhere in that range, so it's important to begin by noting that most Americans have chosen not to live in center cities.
One reason is push: cities have repelled most Americans. Or people, for various reasons, have chosen not to live there. And then there is the pull of the suburbs, which have typically provided the kinds of amenities most Americans were looking for.
There is flux now, of course, because for many Americans, the suburbs no longer deliver on that promise. An historic reexamination of what makes cities work and what we need to do to make suburbs and metropolitan regions work together is underway.
Krieger: It's an exciting time for the city. For the first time in nearly a century, Americans are rediscovering some of the benefits of the city--the city conceived with a vibrant center, rather than as endless suburbs ringing a semiabandoned core.
For most of the twentieth century, we have been reacting to the Dickensian city of the late nineteenth century, full of grime, disease, slums, and desperate, impoverished citizens arriving from the countryside. That is being played out right now in parts of Africa and Asia. In recoiling from that impossible situation--coal burning, squalor, inhumane densities--we began to imagine a different kind of city. In Europe, in terms of theory, and here, in terms of implementation, that prompted a more decentralized, suburban environment to which many Americans escaped, when they could financially, because they thought they were leaving behind all of the problems of the Dickensian city. Well, some of those problems, like traffic and crime, have followed them. Among the shocks of the massacre in Littleton, Colorado, is that it happened in the suburbs, not downtown.
It's the city that's showing appeal again for the three-quarters of the population who no longer live there. The suburbs are the norm--what people are accustomed to. Visiting the city is exotic--like foreign travel. To walk the Freedom Trail in Boston and catch a Red Sox game--we tended to overlook such pleasures when seeking open air and a better place to raise families. But for those who grew up out there, some boredom is setting in. A recalibration is going on between the desire to move still farther out and the rediscovery of the benefits of staying put or even returning to the city.
Lee: In thinking about cities, far too much effort has been spent on how to get people who are happily ensconced on their two-acre lots somewhere in the suburbs back into the city. We really need to focus on the people who are already in the city, either because they can't get out or because they want to stay there, plus those who are now starting to see the city as an exotic and interesting place to be, as Alex suggested. Immigrants are another very important group, those who come from urban environments and are not, at least initially, looking for the white picket fence with the big yard.
Sorkin: One characteristic of American cities continues to be the extremely uneven development of their populations and neighborhoods. Current conversation about cities is almost completely uninterested in this, but it is something we should discuss.
As Alex said, the whole apparatus of planning is the product of that Dickensian view of the city as a repository of disease--both social and physical. The modernist project of city planning, urban renewal, city rejuvenation--
Krieger: Cleansing it all.
Sorkin: Cleansing it all: a very "therapeutic" notion that remains the dominant model for the large-scale transformation of urban areas. Most of us acknowledge that this is a disreputable and inappropriate model. But we find ourselves in the difficult situation of having no alternatives, or insufficient ones.
What's being spoken about in the planning community today is essentially a suburban model, reimported into the city. What we have available as urban models is essentially the development paradigm or the Disneyfication of downtowns, which of course affects only very small areas. Somehow, in our anxiety about big urban-renewal plans and the anonymous slabs in which they incarcerate the poor, we've thrown out a willingness to plan at the appropriate scale for urban regions and cities of millions and millions of people.
Yaro: Michael and I both practice in New York City, which has had more success than any other great world center in sustaining a mixed-income, mixed-use core. It's the only one of the industrialized world's big four metropolitan areas--New York, Tokyo, London, Paris--that's actually had an increase in population in and around the central business district in the past 25 years.
That's because New York's been transforming former industrial neighborhoods: the Sohos, Nohos, Tribecas. In virtually every case that process has happened through the marketplace, through individuals making decisions, and through poor zoning enforcement--essentially, people moving illegally into warehouse and manufacturing districts, occupying them, and turning them into mixed-use neighborhoods. The city-planning response is after the fact--tightening up the zoning to reflect the change that has already occurred. It's pathetic that great urban transformations like that have, essentially, been contrary to the official planning framework.
The irony is that we have been creating these neighborhoods the way hermit crabs on the New England shoreline create their homes: you move into the shell created by another. In nineteenth-century America, we built the great cities we're talking about today, and we built them through planning--places like the Back Bay were designed in a single master plan with the leadership of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the City of Boston. We haven't been able to do a lot of that recently. There are only a handful of successful examples of neighborhoods created from scratch--Battery Park City and one or two others.
Krieger: I may be the Pollyanna of this group. I think the emerging optimism is not just a few people thinking it's fun to be in the city again. I see a long cycle of change.
The city is transforming from a place of production to a place of fun, or leisure. Some see this as a trivialization of the city. Well, the escape to the suburbs was about leaving the sweat and coal dust of the city for a healthier and more relaxed atmosphere, to attend to your family and enjoy the shade of some trees.
A reversal of sorts is taking place now. The city is shifting from being a place where you must go, for a job, to a place where you may wish to spend time. That transformation is fundamental. At the moment, the "attractors" may seem narrow--baseball games or Disneyesque venues. But as a city becomes a desirable place to be--not only an economically mandatory locale--that bodes well for its future.
Lee: At whose cost is all this fun? Look at Cleveland, and all the public funds that went into building those baseball and football stadiums so people from the suburbs could come in and be entertained. Meanwhile, the school system is in receivership. I don't deny that the city is fun to hang around in, and some of the visitors are starting to stay. But how can we make the city a better and more interesting place for everybody?
Krieger: The disinvestment away from the cities at mid century was no great shakes for urban dwellers, either. So the answer cannot be to ward off investment because some of it has narrow objectives.
DeVillars: The question about the current condition of the American city in many ways depends on what city you're talking about. We have Boston, New York, and San Francisco represented at this table. Those cities are vibrant. But there are many cities that aren't in that condition.
I grew up in Buffalo. At the turn of the century, Buffalo was about to host the Pan American Exposition. There was much public and private investment in public spaces and fine buildings, including what is now the Albright-Knox Gallery. Buffalo had the eighth largest population in the country then, and was the sixth busiest port in the world. Today, Buffalo has fewer people than in 1900. Its schools are in a very sorry condition. Major public investments in a university system and a public stadium have been made in the suburbs, not downtown. The four or five Olmsted-designed parks are very poorly maintained.
In Boston, on the other hand, today there is $21 billion in public and private investment underway. Public leaders have a laser-like focus on improving the schools. Blue Hill Avenue, the central corridor through some of the poorest, most neglected communities in the city, is undergoing $65-million worth of public investments to bring back business and reestablish a sense of scale and place, with tree plantings and street lighting to make it a more livable neighborhood.
Despite that tale of two cities, I, too, share the optimism about the future of cities that others have expressed here, for several reasons.
First, for the first time in 20-plus years, we're seeing a public commitment to and public investment in our cities. A lot of that $21 billion of investment in Boston is federal investment in a cleaner harbor and in achieving EPA's goal of having the Charles River fishable and swimmable by Earth Day 2005.
Second, there are thriving markets in our central cities that are not adequately served today. Some $28 billion of purchasing power by the residents of our 25 most populous American cities is being met not internally, but in outlying suburbs. As a consequence, we're now seeing the early wave of private investment in our cities, providing better commercial opportunities, and with it, jobs. So far, these are only robins in the spring; they are by no means certain.
Lee: One of the problems with cities right now is that they are still being viewed primarily as entertainment venues. People don't know how to live there anymore. If they see somebody dressed a little strange, or talking to themselves, they get really afraid. The essence of a city is often what happens by accident.
Sorkin: Someone brought up Tribeca, in Manhattan. My office is there, in a fine 1930s loft building. When I moved in, there was a very interesting mix of commercial tenants. I was the first architect, but there were printers and artists, lawyers and small manufacturers. Over the years Tribeca has become the most remorselessly fashionable place in New York and my landlord has decided to cash out. He is emptying the building of its commercial tenants in order to convert it into extremely expensive loft condominiums. Every building I can survey from my window is undergoing the same transformation. So although there seems to be a great froth of investment, and the street scene is becoming extremely lively--the limousines are lined up in front of the restaurants at night--the neighborhood is dying because its commercial content is being stripped away to provide residences for rich folks from uptown.
One notion we all share about the quality of a good city is that uses be mixed, and one of the crucial tasks of planning is finessing the specifics of that mix. I think the current notion of mixed use now devolves on the idea that a single building has not only apartments but also a Benetton and a multiplex theater. That's one sort of mix. But it slights the idea of genuine mix, which has to do with mix of activities, both working and living. It has to do with the creation of neighborhoods. It also has to do, as David points out, with the way in which people mix in the city.
I'm somebody who believes that accidental encounter is one of the things that cities are absolutely predicated upon--that accidental encounter is one of the bulwarks of democratic culture. To the degree that these kinds of accidents are precluded, either by the sterility of the mix or by more traditional forms of segregation, cities die as democratic institutions and are forced to become sterile service centers or entertainment zones.
Simon: San Francisco is very vibrant at the moment, and has tremendous potential to go in several directions because of the amount of open land that's still there, unlike New York, for example. San Francisco is the most diverse city in America. There is no majority. It's home to numerous immigrants from all over Asia and Latin America. Generally, it has housed them in quite good ways, without the Corbusian housing blocks separated from the ground and from the life of the city--historically, San Francisco had few of these. Instead, it had a plethora of small houses with backyards. Families could live in them quite comfortably.
Now that immigrant vitality is rubbing up against young people who want to live in the city, though they may work in Silicon Valley or Berkeley or Oakland. The immigrant communities, which have been incredibly stable and always refreshed by new people, are coming under tremendous economic pressure, particularly in the Mission District, the city's great melting pot. Now, all the really hip young people who come to San Francisco are finding housing there, and pushing out the working poor.
The greatest challenge in San Francisco is at once to create enough affordable housing, and to grow, so people can find places to live and work in the city. There is some land available thanks to the earthquake and the reclaiming of industrial sites such as Mission Bay. That district has been planned for 30 years, and is going to house a campus for the University of California. There will be 6,000 housing units; of those, nearly 1,200 will be affordable, thanks to the political power of the mayor and other advocates for affordable housing.
Since the late 1980s, the city has also been building in the public realm--revitalizing its Beaux Arts Civic Center; designing and building a new main library; METREON, an entertainment complex I designed, with 15 movie screens and numerous attractions; the new Museum of Modern Art; a Jewish museum; a Mexican museum; and so on. There is a new sense of the public realm being interesting and vital, a place that attracts people of all kinds and provides a common ground for the city's diverse population--something it didn't have before.
Lee: We're talking about top-tier cities enjoying this kind of resurgence. But as John said about Buffalo, a lot of others aren't.
I recently served on a jury for an urban design competition in Baltimore, addressing a phenomenon they have dubbed "under-crowding." That city has probably half the population it had right after World War II, so there is lots of excess housing. Even though we love the idea of preserving the fabric of the city, the supply so far outstrips the demand that maybe we have to start looking at other models.
Sorkin: Planned shrinkage?
Yaro: We've been talking about how to manage success in New York, Boston, and San Francisco. In fact, the big cities in this country are, for the most part, back on their feet--even places like Cleveland, Newark, and Detroit, that were on everyone's list of death-watch cities. There are some exceptions. Baltimore, Philadelphia, and St. Louis are probably the three that remain on this list. Baltimore has lost 20 percent of its population just in this decade, despite the downtown theme-park stuff that has gone up in the Inner Harbor. But a new mayor and revived civic leadership provide promise that its prospects can be reversed.
But I think John raised an equally important issue about the second-tier cities. You don't have to go to Buffalo to find the problems. Go to Worcester, or Manchester, or Poughkeepsie, or Waterbury--all over the country, the second-tier cities have been losing jobs and residents. Even their strongest cultural institutions have been losing altitude. One of the reasons such cities are in trouble is that a lot of the activities that used to be their mainstays have migrated to a handful of major cities. That's where the new generation of high-tech and advanced service jobs are being located. Those second-tier cities have lost their reason for being. We need to reinvent them.
Alex has described some of the techniques. Philadelphia, with Ed Rendell as mayor, has been pushing the theme-park approach, turning the downtown into a major tourist attraction. But I think we've learned that you cannot have a city of a million or two million people with an economy so narrowly based. Yet we don't have a lot of models for how to recreate a broader economy.
Lee: I'm working in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is now the second-largest banking center in the country. Even people from San Francisco are moving there [following the acquisition of BankAmerica by Nationsbank] because they want to be close to "headquarters." But at the same time, Charlotte is tearing down everything that made it a unique and interesting place, and its downtown is becoming a kind of a cleaned-up office park.
Krieger: There are all kinds of issues that need to be separated here. On the one hand, David, you're saying "Look at Charlotte, it's about to become someplace"--but then there is this immediate reaction among the planning professionals, "But they're doing everything wrong." It's too quick a reflex action.
Lee: Let me clarify. I wasn't saying that Charlotte was trying to find itself. It's trying to invent itself.
Krieger: And of course, through that process, things happen that we might find radical, or unusual--like being insensitive to historic preservation. The point is that because American culture is fluid and mobile, and produces a fair amount of redundancy, we have more housing than we need--it's just not distributed equitably. Historically, cities aren't on an even keel of development. They go through big spurts of growth, disinvestment, rediscovery, reinvention, and calamities like earthquakes or wars. Clearly, some American cities are transforming now in which gentrification or the narrowing of cultural values might be a problem. But for many cities, a little bit of gentrification would be a fine thing.
CITIES IN ELECTRONIC SPACE
Sorkin: One of the most abiding buzzes in the whole field of urbanism is the question of what effect electronic space and total personal mobility will have on cities. The dystopian, downside view is that cities are going to become homogeneous--or ultimately irrelevant--since any activity can be conducted anywhere.
In Charlotte, as David points out about the banking industry, one of the interesting discoveries of this period of "liberation from location" is that propinquity--adjacency in space--is absolutely crucial--and not simply to democratic and cultural life, but also to commercial life.
Lee: There is an interesting irony in all of this. While the automobile highway created a kind of sameness all over America, the electronic highway is going to reverse that trend. Because if you can live anywhere, why not live in a place that's fun, beautiful, exciting, and that has the best quality of life?
Krieger: I think this prediction about homogeneity tends to be exaggerated a little bit. Most cultures tend toward homogeneity. But the return to the cities--even if at present limited to a narrow segment of the population--is to some extent driven precisely by the drive to counter that homogeneity.
I want to support the counterintuitive supposition that place will be prized in the digital age. The challenge is to create interesting places, and maintain them where they exist, because we can't all move back to New York.
Simon: One way is to maintain the existing fabric of the city. Bob's hermit crabs are a very good example, but none of those really wonderful, serendipitous surprises could have happened in a place like New York without a lot of existing, wonderful buildings. They were so abstract and so general that they could be housing, or a little shoe factory, or Wired magazine's headquarters. Baltimore, on the other hand, is tearing down its row houses. So not only is its population dissipating, but the future population won't have any resonant structures to reinterpret or inhabit. That really is the problem.
Lee: That's a dangerous trend for cities. They are unique phenomena because they rely on a critical mass that allows you to support the special things that you simply can't put in seven different shopping centers. You can put a Gap store anywhere, but a Swiss watch-repair person who specializes in Art Deco watches is a one-of-a-kind thing. We need to focus on those things that are uniquely able to happen in cities.
I believe cities should have a signature, and that signature should be different if it's San Francisco, or London, or Chicago, or Charlotte, for that matter.
DeVillars: I wanted to get back to a point Alex made earlier about the change in the fabric of cities--the type of work that goes on there, and thus the type of places they are. In America, they are no longer dirty, foul-smelling, industrial hothouses.
One reason we can all have a good deal of optimism about the
future of American cities--and, I hope, transfer our knowledge and experience to the developing world--is that we have made the investment in the environmental integrity of our cities. Some of that has come with the change from an industrial to a service economy, but public investment has also led to pollution controls on automobiles and factories, and adequate waste-water treatment, safe-drinking-water provision, and the like. As but one example, the $4-billion Boston Harbor clean-up has increased real-estate values, brought people to the city, made it a more desirable place.
I would suggest four specific areas where public investment is needed. If you want a more homogenous urban society, economically and socially, if you want to have the energy and vibrancy of young families in town, you've got to have good schools.
Second is safe streets. One reason urban areas are coming back is because they're a lot safer. That, too, is an important investment we have to continue to make if the cities are going to come back.
Third is public spaces and parks. Cities that are maintaining and expanding their parks, and making them welcome places, are doing better than those that aren't.
The final public investment is affordable housing. That may be more of an issue for thriving cities. As places like Boston become more desirable, we're in danger of displacing the people who live there now. That's going to require a much greater commitment to adequate, affordable housing than we as a society are making today.
Sorkin: There is an interesting question behind the conversation about tearing down the existing fabric in cities. I think it speaks to the dominant conceptual framework for thinking about the good city, which, as I suggested earlier, is essentially based on a preservation model. Because the discourse of preservationism has been so dominant in planning for the last 20 or 30 years, the notion now governs that the most appropriate strategy is somehow to divine a city's original intent and then reproduce that by way of a planning strategy.
But maybe we need to modify this reverie of original intent. One of the agendas for planning must be to move beyond the notion that the ideal solutions for urban form were found in the nineteenth century, and that our job is essentially to reproduce them in modern materials, for modern lifestyles.
Lee: Let's talk about this "t" word. Instead of tearing down the existing fabric--I don't hold all the existing fabric sacrosanct--I would rather speak of "tuning" the existing fabric. Jazz musicians take more or less innocuous pop tunes and turn them inside out and upside down. You can still recognize the basic tune, but it is transformed for a different audience, a different era. I think cities inherently have the same ability to be transformed, if you keep some of this older stuff, with a little tuning here and a little pruning there.
Simon: I totally agree.
Sorkin: The conclusion of my argument was exactly that. If one agrees there is an assembly of forces tending to homogenize cities--and I think this is absolutely true in this culture--then the question arises, "Where will differences come from in the future?" I think we're all agreed that cities should have particular characters--that's what makes them great. And that makes artistic interventions by planners and designers even more important.
Nowadays, we decline to think at the large scale, the traditional plannerly scale, because we are so shy of planning mistakes of the past, and so cowed by phony preservation arguments. We need to reacquire the courage of planning, to make cities sufficiently different to play the role we all want them to play.
Yaro: The preservation movement was a product of the excesses of our profession in the 1950s and '60s, when a tremendous amount of damage was done. We're searching for middle ground here. One reason we're concerned about Baltimore tossing out its row-house neighborhoods is that this is an indigenous style unique to that city. If you lose that, then you've lost part of the city's unique quality. If, on the other hand, you start to look at what's happened in Baltimore and Buffalo as opportunities, these places do have unique advantages. The opportunity is there in a place like Baltimore to get it right the second time. But the caution would be that you want to be very careful when you're going in with a wrecking ball and tearing out the fabric of our cities.
I also want to go back to John's list of the things that cities are doing right, and that are causing a relatively small number of Americans to move back. If we want cities to work, we have to understand what motivates people to make locational decisions for themselves and for their businesses.
One reason American inner cities are in such dire straits is that we have had great success in creating an African-American and Latino middle class. Those groups are heading directly for the suburbs, not for Brooklyn and East New York, because they're looking for the same things most Americans have been looking for: safe neighborhoods, quality services, quality schools. They want to own a piece of property, because building equity is what the American dream is about.
Lee: But it really infuriates me that you have to move out of your neighborhood to find that.
Yaro: If cities want to succeed, they have to provide the same amenities. One trait John didn't mention is control. It's always looked at as a negative: suburbanites are trying to control local governments for exclusionary purposes. But in the suburbs, typically, you know who the local officials are. You're more likely to be active in local government. That local government is likely to be responsive to you--like getting the sidewalk fixed in front of your house. That's something you still don't get in the city. When they finish fixing up Blue Hill Avenue, it's still going to be a two-year adventure when somebody wants to get the sidewalk fixed.
Lee: Control is the operative word here. Everybody wants control of their environment. I've done the most recent plan for Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury. One of the reasons I was brought in was because they didn't want to do it piecemeal. They wanted something where they had some sense of the overall outcome--control of what the future might be like.
But I want to return to Bob's point. I think that the city has to be a viable choice for people, too. It really distresses me that in order for African Americans or Latinos to find reasonable schools and safe streets, they've got to move out and be a tiny minority in a neighborhood somewhere else. I want them to have that option in the city itself.
Krieger: We all do. Not all the African Americans in the Washington metropolitan area who left downtown did so because they couldn't find suitable places to live there. African Americans and Latinos are making some of the same choices other Americans have made.
Yes, in some sense the choice to go to the suburbs is being enhanced for them by public policies such as cheaper mortgages or highways. But you know what? The suburban model was a very powerful invention. It provides all kinds of benefits that living in a Baltimore row house without sufficient light, in crowded conditions, does not provide. We can't all of a sudden assume that no one will make that choice.
Lee: But the city is not a choice, because of those policies.
Yaro: Cities need to understand what all people are looking for.
Krieger: That's the power of the suburb, and has been all along. That is why the majority of housing investment in this country is still not being made in Boston, or Tribeca, or San Francisco. The growth is still pushing outside the cities. Before we dismiss the return of interest in the cities as being troublesome because of gentrification and homogenization, we have to remember that the majority of development in this country, our public policies, and people's desires are still pushing us to the urban periphery.
Lee: I think the interest in returning to the cities is a great thing. They'll never get the sidewalks fixed on Blue Hill Avenue unless white people decide they want to be in the city. That's the reality. Some of these improvements are happening because white, middle-class America has finally decided, "Maybe we don't want cities to just fall off the map."
DeVillars: Too many people who live in cities today don't have a choice. If they have the economic wherewithal, they can move to the suburbs for good schools, or they can stay in the city and live on an unsafe street, and send their kids to a poor school. And, of course, many of them don't have the economic wherewithal--so they have no choice but to stay. Half a mile west of where we're sitting, virtually everyone can choose whether they want to send their child to Cambridge Rindge and Latin or to Exeter. Half a mile east of here, very few people can make that choice. So the public responsibility is to make certain that Rindge and Latin provides every bit as good an opportunity as Exeter.
Sorkin: We fetishize local control, sometimes to the peril of larger issues. A change in the New York City charter allows local control of the planning process by the local community boards. This has not been entirely successful. Certainly one wants local control of matters like repairing the sidewalk and the street light. But as a strategy for planning an enormous metropolis, this devolution of power to local community groups, without any necessary professional expertise, does not get at the core of some crucial problems.
Yaro: That change was designed to stop bad things from happening. It probably has.
Sorkin: Sure. But it is also symptomatic of a general decline in the collectivity.
Yaro: What I was suggesting before is that most Americans are not stupid--they make decisions for themselves that are pretty enlightened. When it comes to deciding to move to the suburbs, this business of "The government made us do it" or "General Motors made us do it" is a lot of bunk.
Lee: They made it easier...
Yaro: But the fundamentals were there. Were there subsidies? Were there lobbyists in Washington affecting policy? No question. But did the values come first, or did the lobbying come first? The answer is the values came first.
As long as you're looking for some distant bureaucracy or industry to blame, you're not going to get at the heart of why people live where they do. Boston's mayor, Thomas Menino, and New York's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and their counterparts would do very well to understand what it is that motivates people to live where they do. It's John's list, as amended: quality schools, safe streets, quality parks and services, convenience, access to jobs, and access to the good life. People make quality-of-life decisions for themselves.
Lee: If you don't have those...
Yaro: You go to where you get the best package of those things. For most of America, it's been the suburbs.
Lee: We need to create the package where the people are.
Yaro: You begin by understanding the values, and then you deliver the package of services, if you want your city to be successful.
Krieger: But if you're referring to the inner city, the more desirable you make Boston, or the better parts of any American cities, the more conflict will exist between the more affluent who return, and those already there who are struggling.
Lee: It's not gentrification, it's "economic diversification" that's important. When we started this plan for Blue Hill Avenue, people waxed eloquent about the avenue they remembered from the 1950s. It had a kosher bakery, an Italian butcher, an African-American rib place. This isn't just about gentrification, it's about diversification. People talk about how they can't find enough places to live in the city, but there are still opportunities in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester [neighborhoods in southern Boston]. They aren't going to these neighborhoods for other reasons.
DeVillars: The basic services are not there.
Krieger: To the extent that we solve the school problem, that we make housing more affordable, that we repair sidewalks, there will be even more contested issues between those having to live in a neighborhood, those who happen to wish to stay there, and those who now want to move in.
It doesn't happen just in poor neighborhoods. The fears that people on Beacon Hill and Back Bay [affluent neighborhoods flanking Boston Common] have about new development are just as advanced. As a place becomes more desirable, other problems arise. We have to figure out a way to address those, too.
DeVillars: I think this issue of economic diversification is absolutely right. The key will be bringing jobs into the cities that aren't just for lawyers and insurance executives and the like, but are in manufacturing and other trades that can help support a diversified economy. The onus here is more on private investment and equity capital than it is on public investment.
Sorkin: Mayor Daley in Chicago is very gung ho on planting trees and fixing sidewalks. One of the most depressing things I have heard was when I was working on a project on the South Side and I met with a community activist. He said, "The worst thing that can happen in this neighborhood is infrastructural repairs, because I know it's the harbinger of the end for us."
Lee: That is such a sad commentary, and it happens all the time because we have people who believe that if they have safe streets, good schools, and they fix the sidewalks, it must not be for them. We really have to address that.
RECYCLING THE SUBURBS
Moderator: Let's turn from the cities to the areas where the rest of the population lives, where the issues concern the use of land and sprawl and conservation of green spaces.
Krieger: In some sense, the planning challenge lies neither in the center city, except for those who are economically disadvantaged, nor in the outer suburbs that can take care of themselves through some additional expenditure for roads, schools, and open-space conservation. The problems are becoming most evident in the area between the rings of affluent suburbs out on the periphery and the revitalizing city centers.
We are witnessing the marginalization of broad swaths of previously desirable suburban areas that have been leapfrogged by newer development. Those who can afford it are buying larger homes farther out--or, if their children are grown up, moving back into a condo in the city. It's the vast rings of development...
Yaro: Mostly after World War II.
Krieger: Right. It's those areas that are becoming burdens as we reinvest in our downtowns on the one hand, and control the periphery through growth management. That's where we need some new ideas--any ideas--about how to make these places desirable again.
Simon: If the inner suburbs could be torn down, we could make a greenbelt around the cities, and move people back into them, redensify them. We'd have great cities that could support a larger population, and we could return the inner suburbs to greenbelts: agricultural land, parkland, and so on.
Yaro: This is the kind of discussion about inner-city neighborhoods slated for redevelopment that occurred in the 1940s and '50s, among people who didn't live in those places, who didn't care about them or recognize their inherent worth.
I grew up in New York City and I have spent most of my life in cities. I'm living in a suburb of New York now. The railroad suburbs of New York are lovely--they're kind of the apogee of Western civilization. They have access to the cities and metropolitan services. They are green and leafy, attractive and comfortable. They are places that most Americans still aspire to live in.
I don't think you write off any place or any community. This country is going to add 60 million to 70 million new residents in the next few decades. We can't afford to throw any place away.
I'd like to suggest that center cities, and older suburbs, and the urbanizing exurbs all need creative thinking. The theme of American history a century ago was the closing of the frontier. I'd suggest that we may now be looking at the closing of the metropolitan frontier. Around the country, 15 or so states have adopted "smart-growth" plans. Literally dozens of places in several states, and dozens of other metropolitan areas, are adopting urban-growth policies--even places like San Jose, the ninth-largest city in the United States, and the center of the thriving Silicon Valley economy. We're beginning to look at the creation of green edges to growth in our metropolitan areas, similar to those London, Paris, and other major cities started making 50 or 60 years ago, and that Portland, Oregon, began 25 years ago.
Sorkin: One possibility is the convergence between a growing environmental sensibility--expressed in urban-growth limits--and the depreciation cycle working itself out in the outer ring of the suburbs. The model that comes to mind is a kind of black hole: the city expands up to a point, and then it collapses back on the inner ring. I would entertain arguments about the abandonment of the outer rings of suburbs and the densification of the inner ring.
Krieger: Let's be clear, Michael, because there are three rings. There is the city, the urban core. There are the inner suburbs, some of which are failing, and there is the increasingly expanding outer ring of suburbs, where those who have the most choice, for the most part, still are moving.
Simon: About writing off that inner ring--I was suggesting that somewhat facetiously, to make a point.
Lee: Maybe what we're talking about is densifying the suburbs and dedensifying certain areas of the city--returning some of it to prairie, park, or open space. There is some combination of all these things that some new models might offer.
Yaro: Around the country--and Vice President Gore's initiatives on sprawl reflect this--we're seeing this convergence of interest among cities that want to revitalize themselves, inner-ring suburbs that want to stabilize and rebuild themselves, and outer-ring suburbs that find they're outstripping their infrastructure and schools. They're finding the very amenity that people went to the new suburbs for in the first place--access to countryside, farmland, and so forth--is disappearing. The highways are becoming incredibly congested. So these three interests are coming together into a new vision for metropolitan America, which has cities that work--perhaps in some cases slightly hollowed-out cities that have added amenity by creating quality open space.
I'm very optimistic about the fact that across the country--in places like metro Cleveland for starters--we're seeing older suburbs getting together and demanding a fair share of the region's growth. They share a lot of the concerns that older urban neighborhoods have had until recently--encouraging reinvestment, rebuilding their tax bases, and so forth. And they're supported now by outer-ring communities that are saying, "We don't want to grow anymore. We'd rather see some of that development happen elsewhere in the metropolitan area."
Simon: The suburbs you're talking about are wonderful. They are like small towns, close to the big city. They are accessible by train, they always have parks, they have public life. They have a small downtown of sorts. I lived in one when I was a kid, and it was very nice. You could go everywhere on your bike. There was a sense of place there, and a sense of community.
But if you look at the suburbs in the western states, it's not like that at all. The equivalent neighborhoods in southern California, in particular, have no public life, no public amenities. They're just housing and shopping centers served by freeways, with the occasional school thrown in. The land has been completely raped by these developments that go on and on for mile after mile. It's an ecological and social disaster.
Lee: There, if you're 14 years old, you're too old to be driven all over by your parents, but you have no way of getting anywhere by yourself. If you're 84 and you don't want to ride the train and you can't drive, you can't get around, either.
Yaro: But we can't simply write off a half-century of places that may have been badly designed.
We're working now in several places in suburban New York on plans to essentially reinvent these faceless, amorphous suburban centers. This is where a lot of the action has to be. It's where most of our employment is, most of our retail, most of our housing. You've got to redesign these places so they begin to create the mix of activities, the mix of transit modes, and so forth, that we're talking about for cities. You can do it in the suburbs, too.
Simon: You could stop building them entirely and find new paradigms for these suburban settlements.
Krieger: It's the residential equivalent of brownfields, those obsolete industrial sites that are hard to clean and reuse. That's what Baltimore's clearance is largely about.
DeVillars: Where is that happening?
Krieger: In this middle ring, the older suburbs, where there is an absence of investment, or the housing is deteriorating. You don't see it in New England, but you can see it around St. Louis and on the outskirts of other city limits, in the mid-century suburban developments--the Levittowns.
Yaro: Is there empty housing stock?
Krieger: Yes. There are shoddily built subdivisions around Houston that never recovered from the boom and bust of the mid eighties. There is a whole segment around Minneapolis where cheap, 800-square-foot veterans' houses were built on high water tables with no basements. That has very little future. Those towns have a very hard time generating any kind of tax base to do something about those problems, so property values are continuing to decline.
Yaro: We're not seeing abandonment in these places, but a kind of disinvestment. In his book Metropolitics, Myron Orfield has looked at these issues in the nation's largest metropolitan areas, documenting the decline of tax bases, the decline of income, the increase in social and economic problems in older suburbs that we used to associate with inner-core neighborhoods. He concludes that there are higher crime rates, poverty rates, and other indicators of economic and social problems in many of these older suburbs than in nearby center cities.
Lee: A good symbol is the shopping centers that are now boarded up and abandoned, that aren't "megacenters" anymore.
Yaro: But these are the places we can begin to reinvent. That's where the next generation of new housing development is going to happen, a new generation of mixed-used development in the inner-ring suburbs.
Lee: We have to be absolutely affirmative about tying this redevelopment to public transportation. People tell me that the busiest time in the suburbs now, with the most traffic gridlock, is noon on Saturday--because everybody goes out and all the roads are just completely backed up.
Yaro: One of the reasons there is an expanding national smart-growth movement is the capacity limits of metropolitan interstates. We built a civilization around these interstate highway links, and we have basically used up the capacity. In most of metropolitan America, the real congestion, and the growth in vehicle miles traveled, is in the suburbs. One reason we can talk about transit in the suburbs now is that the highways simply can't handle today's volumes, much less those forecast for the future.
The first of our plans for transforming suburban centers was the Mitchell Field-Roosevelt Field area in Long Island, which was developed in the 1950s. It became one of these unplanned suburban centers, with 60,000 jobs, 25,000 college students, and 15 million square feet of retail space--and it's accessible only by automobile. The highway capacity has been used up on the Long Island Expressway, so we are planning a light-rail system connecting to Long Island Railroad lines that run through this complex--essentially by creating both mixed-use pedestrian- and transit-friendly nodes within a place that until now has been accessible only by automobile.
Roosevelt Field has all the attributes of a city, but all of it is separated into distinct districts and zones built at an FAR of 0.3 [a floor-area ratio permitting 0.3 square feet of developed space per square foot of land]. And everyone is talking about the place being built out! Where I work, in midtown Manhattan, we're at an FAR of 18. Roosevelt Field isn't built out--unless you're dependent only on single-occupant vehicles. If you begin to think about getting the people out of their cars so they can do trips on foot, there is all kinds of capacity for growth in these places.
Krieger: That reminds me of your earlier point about how most Americans have made intelligent decisions about where and how they are located. That's true, so long as people aren't thinking about what the consequence of that decision might be on the next person who makes the same choice.
Yaro: You're introducing a radical thought here--that there ought to be some sort of larger public purpose in the society...
Krieger: I think the same issue may confound the smart-growth movement. Some of the enthusiasm for growth controls is quite selfishly motivated: trying to make sure one's own suburban lifestyle doesn't get compromised by too many new neighbors moving in, or moving farther out and thus rendering your property less valuable. It's like the resistance to additional density in desirable urban neighborhoods.
Sorkin: This is in many ways an architectural question.
One of the problems with this new transit-oriented development Bob is talking about, and with all of the worthy things that are beginning to happen in the suburbs, is that the design palette is extremely limited. It's a kind of "deck chairs on the Titanic" syndrome, where we're taking the same limited set of suburban typologies--single-family houses, garden apartments, small office buildings, shopping malls--and tweaking them in the hope that we will produce something slightly more urban and slightly more rational.
But a city is a juxtaposition engine. It forces a whole series of adjacencies, both of people and of physical objects. These forced adjacencies tend to produce new design typologies. This is not yet happening at the periphery. And in the future, if we arrive at an era of great freedom because of the way in which location is set loose from geography by electronic technology, a flexible design typology is going to become very important. We will want buildings that could be office or residence or small manufacturer, assuming this juxtaposition produces no obnoxious consequences.
The loft embodies this in the city--a building of no fixed function ready to be reinhabited by the hermit crabs of culture. The architectural and legal environment is too unsympathetic to permit this kind of thing in the suburbs.
Yaro: I think you're wrong. These transformations are going on in the suburbs...
Sorkin: Something is underway. But I suggest the architectural environment is less sympathetic in the suburbs than in the city.
Yaro: There is tremendous ferment in these places. The same kind of deindustrialization that went on in the cities in the 1950s, '60s, and early '70s is now going on in the inner and middle suburbs. The best example is probably Silicon Valley. That's a suburban region, and a new civilization is being created out there. The analogy to the urban loft is the one-story factory in the 'burbs.
Krieger: The Tribeca loft of the next century might be the abandoned shopping mall. There are all kinds of new uses, including high-technology start-ups, cropping up in them.
Sorkin: This is the paradigm I want to shift away from, that a flexible space is, by definition, the space of abandonment, as opposed to the space of intention. There is a problematic aspect to lofts in New York City. We know that most of the early loft living took place in buildings of a very specific historical character: turn-of-the-century industrial buildings with a 5,000-square-foot floor plate, good light at one end, bad light at the other. It was great space for an artist, but when the artist suddenly had little Seth and Sasha, it became impossible.
Ultimately, places that fulfill that high modernist fantasy of flexibility--which means the maximum amount of undifferentiated, rectilinear open space--turned out to be inflexible. So I am very curious about the possibility of a building designed for no specific purpose that has a resistant quality, that acquires the best aspects of city living--a certain amount of flexibility, a certain amount of adaptation, a certain amount of aggregation and modification.
Lee: Maybe we need to change the definition of the city, and then we can get back to finding solutions to some of these problems. The seventeenth-century boundaries between Cambridge, Boston, and Chelsea are no longer really viable for problems we need to solve on a regional basis.
Yaro: In the Northeast and along most of the East Coast, where we have these distinctions between cities and suburbs, we have the last intact medieval English system of government and taxation anywhere in the world. The Blair government is now carrying out the third complete restructuring of local government in the United Kingdom since the Second World War. They realized 50 years ago that medieval government didn't fit the needs of the times. They're now restructuring metropolitan governance, creating a new government for Greater London.
We need to look at these metropolitan regions as units, within which there is a range of different kinds of places and people. The problem has been that, until recently, most city residents were stuck here, and most suburban residents were stuck there. We've been discussing suburbanites choosing to live in cities again, and city residents choosing to live in suburbs. That's positive.
Sorkin: These boundaries are absolutely critical in determining the viability of cities. One of the reasons St. Louis is in such decline is that its tax base exists on the other side of that invisible line defining the suburbs, to which it has no fiscal access. These boundaries are terribly destructive.
Krieger: Getting around that dilemma takes us back to the issue of self-interest versus social interest, or self-rule versus community rule, or neighborhood control versus regional planning. Can we overcome the fear of loss of autonomy for each local community?
Lee: You render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. Certainly it is possible to determine what things require regional cooperation, and what other things can be much more local.
Yaro: There are a growing number of places--Charlotte is one--where you have a consolidated city-county government. One reason Charlotte works is that its public schools work, its services are there, the tax base is regional. It's relatively well run. I think that most people consider that the quality of life there is not bad.
Our society has successful places and less successful places. The places that are unwilling to make these kinds of choices are suffering: metro St. Louis, or southeastern Michigan, where the whole region suffered from the near collapse of Detroit. The places that succeed are those that are willing to adapt. That's why it's interesting to see San Jose adopt an urban-growth boundary and Silicon Valley transform itself into a place that has a greater mix of transportation and housing types.
Simon: San Jose is a very interesting example, because it's a very large city in terms of area and population. In the last 10 years, it has decided to face the fact that it really is a city. San Jose has poured literally millions of public dollars into building parks, a transit system, and a downtown, in-filling with housing of all kinds for poor people, the old, the young, and the handicapped. All of that has created a sense of place that hasn't existed since San Jose was a mission town.
DeVillars: Is that public investment financed regionally?
Simon: The city's geographic boundary is very large.
DeVillars: Because in the Northeast, we need much more metropolitan-area planning and financing of services. But especially in New England and the Northeast, where the tradition of home rule is so strong, and where all the geographic boundaries are so embedded in history and culture, that's a very difficult challenge. It's an opportunity for leadership by governors, particularly around how and where public investments are financed.
Yaro: The Achilles heel in this region's successful economy is high housing prices. That's a product of the Balkanized political system we have. We have more than 100 municipalities in the Boston metropolitan area, and probably half of them have pulled up the drawbridge, limiting development with their land-use regulations, zoning and subdivision controls, and so forth. The thing that will end this boom economy--the same thing that helped end the last one--is overpriced housing: growing industries simply couldn't find the skilled people they needed. A growing number of graduates of institutions like this one decided to go elsewhere because they couldn't afford this market. So the economic success of this place depends on the Commonwealth's ability to come up with a new system that doesn't abolish local control, but strikes a balance that accommodates some reasonable growth and reasonably priced housing.
Simon: I think the only way you can do that is by creating new paradigms of design. In Silicon Valley, the prices are higher even than in Boston. How are you going to get new, bright kids to come work there if there is nowhere for them to live, period, in the entire Bay area--not within a two hours' commuting distance?
One way might be to take all the parking lots and all the corporate campuses that the biotech and computer companies have, and densify them. Build housing on them and put the cars underground. There are design solutions to these problems that no one has implemented yet--or even proposed. It does mean stepping outside the palette of what we normally think about--either a suburban housing pattern, or the layout of these freestanding corporate campuses. You have to say, "There is only so much land. Let's use some of this land more effectively."
Lee: It also speaks to mutual dependencies. We can go as high-tech as we want, but we still need people to do some of the low-tech jobs that make the community function. If they don't have a place to live, and a way to be here, the whole thing collapses.
Sorkin: Returning to the design questions, I strongly believe we must invent new forms for living in these regions that we're calling suburbs--forms that add the possibility of propinquity and of urban interactions among people. There is some movement in this direction--the people around this table are engaged in fighting the good fight.
But there is another possibility that I perceive in my more apocalyptic mode. In their flexible production schemes, corporations are shipping jobs overseas. They are capable of adapting fully to the possibility that people are atomized and dispersed--that the employee's computer is glowing in the third bedroom, affordable because it's 5,000 miles from corporate headquarters. It's a future where all the pleasures of the city have been eliminated in the name of efficient production.
As an architect and urbanist, I believe that one instrument of resistance to this possibility is precisely the creation of productive, exciting, functional alternative models. But we have fallen very short in doing that.
Krieger: I agree, so I want to ask Bob how we overcome the resistance to density, which affects your models to some extent, and is actually the force of resistance right now to much of what we're advocating here. Many of the so-called referendums against growth in this country were to preserve low-density environments. There are already towns and counties that have actively passed legislation limiting the number of bedrooms a house can have--to limit school-aged children in the neighborhood, because of the high cost of education and other services. How do we cajole the public to be a bit less resistant to density, to consider alternative designs and models of development?
Yaro: Americans hate two things: sprawl and density. Resolving that conundrum has made good business for planners, because there isn't a lot of room for compromise in there. The room lies in finding the new models. In a lot of cases the new models and the new places are found in the old places. There is lots of potential in communities like Mattapan or Worcester, Massachusetts, that want to grow. This needs to be a major focus of our public policy.
Krieger: Except that we're learning the wrong things from those places. We're copying the quaintness--pitched roofs and picket fences--but we're not learning about density, the interaction among people of varying backgrounds...
Sorkin: We are to blame for constantly reimporting European models of urbanity, and more recently the American small town, and representing them as the only possibility. These are nostalgic models.
On the other hand, Americans do seem increasingly to agree about the value of the environment. I think our job is somehow to represent the city, with its densities, in relationship to its periphery, as the most logical environmental solution to the problem of a country that is overpolluted and overcrowded. I see this as the only rhetorical access likely to succeed in persuading people to accept these ideas--which are the most sustainable ideas for organizing very large settlements.
Yaro: Last year I was a visiting professor at the University of Virginia. To catch an early-morning flight, I drove up Route 29 outside Charlottesville. I think it's 12 lanes. It was filled with traffic, and it was unclear whether I was going to make my flight. I did, by the skin of my teeth, and then took the subway into Manhattan from La Guardia. I got out at the Wall Street station. Lower Broadway is a two-lane roadway there, surrounded by skyscrapers--we're talking an FAR of 25 or 30. And I simply walked across the street. There wasn't any traffic. There is no congestion, in what ought to be the most congested place in America, because 97 percent of the people who work there get there on public transportation.
The things that repel Americans are congestion, air pollution, and the effects of sprawl. Everyone tells me they don't want to be "Manhattanized." I always ask, "Why not? What's the problem?"
The answer to sprawl is in-filling--rebuilding and adapting existing communities. I don't think there is anything romantic about it. Look at the places within an hour of Boston that have existing neighborhoods and need reinvestment. It's not just Worcester--it's Attleboro, Haverhill, Lowell, Lawrence--dozens of places that need the investment, that want the investment, that are willing to zone for density. The zoning is there. They need help from government to get back on their feet--and those places exist all over the country. San Jose is a good example, a place nobody would go to that has now, through its own exertions--and the good fortune of being in Silicon Valley--gotten back on its feet.
Simon: And that was accomplished through design, and a commitment to urbanism, brought to the city by people who were not from San Jose.
Krieger: People somehow need to be educated about that.
Yaro: We also need to think creatively about new models in the suburbs and cities. In Baltimore, that means retaining as much of the unique fabric as we can, and then in certain cases regreening spaces, and in others rebuilding with new models.
The same thing applies in the suburbs. The profession tends to look at the suburbs as a vast wasteland, but there are so many opportunities to redesign those places and make them work.
This is not Western Europe, where they've got declining populations. They're not building housing in Germany, for example. But we don't have a declining population. We're going to be adding 60 million or 70 million new citizens by 2020. We're not looking for places to throw away, we're looking for places to reinvest in.
Krieger: We're still producing an awful lot of redundancy in our development. I'm not sure we need to tear down an awful lot, but I also think that when we talk about invention, that somehow sends the wrong signal to the population at large.
Take Worcester as an example. I've been working there for six years. They don't so much need new design forms. They just need to believe in themselves. There is a great capacity there for reinvestment. There is lots of housing, still relatively cheap by Boston standards. But the typical consensus in the town is, "We're not good enough" or "Times have passed us by" or "It's all happening along 495"--the ring highway nearby. This is why public education has to be as much involved as invention in getting smarter investment and development underway.
Some notion about the value of density--or mixed use, or economic diversity, or whatever you want to call it--needs to be conveyed, because an awful lot of people don't understand the dynamics of urbanization, or what makes better or worse cities, or how a city can reverse its fortunes. Incorporating principles of planning into education more might get Worcester back quicker than a lot of invention.
Yaro: Although in this case, the reinvention we're talking about is just reconnecting Worcester to the eastern Massachusetts metropolitan region--saying, "Hey, we're a suburb of 495," instead of seeing themselves as losers to 495.
DeVillars: More than believing in themselves, the citizens of Worcester need people who aren't in Worcester today to believe in Worcester. That's where the private sector comes in.
One of the fastest-growing areas in Massachusetts is the I-495 belt outside of Worcester. If they believed in Worcester, the companies that are expanding their workforces could go a long way toward solving the city's problem. The town has a good redevelopment plan to help shape future growth. There is a lot of public money at work recapturing brownfield sites, and creating opportunities for those outside Worcester who don't believe in the city. This is a metaphor for many similar cities around the country.
Lee: Education and marketing are important tools because, unfortunately, not enough people value what they already have. My worst nightmare is that the African-American community will suddenly buy into the notion that a little cracker-box house somewhere out on the fringe someplace is really the way to live, and leave some really viable neighborhoods.
Yaro: For the most part they've already made those decisions. That's where they're moving. It's a done deal. And now we're talking about wiping that kind of development out.
Lee: Presto, what will happen is that the suburbanites will come back into the city, and they'll let gas prices go up because they don't need to drive around anymore.
Yaro: One concern I have about this proposed wholesale demolition of the suburbs is that when you look at who the new suburban residents are, it's the very folks who feel they just got chased out of the city.
Lee: But remember, 90 percent or so of the African Americans living in the suburbs live in about 1 percent of the suburbs--which are still not open for everybody. That's a still unpleasant reality.
Yaro: I understand that. But the vast majority of middle-class African Americans and Latinos either are in the suburbs already, or have their bags packed.
Lee: They don't want to be, in all cases. They want that choice. There are a lot of people who would love to stay in the neighborhoods they grew up in. But if the school is falling apart and they don't get any services...
Yaro: A lot of white middle-class Americans feel the same way.
We need a vision for metropolitan America. People who have the choice and choose to live in cities do so for their own reasons, whether because they no longer have kids, or because they have kids and they've got decent schools. One alternative for metropolitan America is that we start to look like metropolitan Paris, where the upper-middle class and the middle class live in the center city, and the poor and the minorities live in the inner-ring suburbs, and the fringe.
That's not the best model for us. I prefer a model in which everyone has some choice--that we have a range of incomes and ethnic groups in the cities and the suburbs, and people can make those decisions for themselves. And that we have a set of choices that don't end up destroying the quality of life, the environment, for the whole metropolitan area.
Sorkin: Choice is a beautiful idea, but we have to retain the notion that some choices are better than others. There was an idea that we might limit the production of gas-guzzling cars, because in some larger social sense they are unproductive and resource-wasting.
Yaro: You haven't been out on the highways recently, have you? We've swung the other way...
Sorkin: Yes, in the name of choice. For my money, that remains an irresponsible environmental choice. If we produce a range of choices in which bad choices are overwhelming, we have failed at our task.
DeVillars: This has been a very robust discussion about why we need to rebuild our cities, the perils associated with that, and the strategies for doing so. There has been very little discussion, though, about making the bad choice of ever expanding our metropolitan areas into greenfields and the environmental, social, and economic consequences of that expansion.
One bad choice that's very much available to us--and that is being made the wrong way every day in communities all across the country--is to keep pushing out. The environmental consequences are significant. Just here in New England, half our water-pollution problems now come from non-point sources--run-off from impervious parking lots, roads, and the like. Eighty percent of the endangered or threatened species in the region are endangered or threatened because of loss of habitat. Half our air pollution is from automobiles. We're driving one-third more miles this decade than we did in the 1980s, and we drove a third more miles in the '80s than we did in the '70's. There are very real environmental consequences, and fiscal and economic consequences, to say nothing of the psychic cost of losing a sense of place due to this endless expansion.
I'm optimistic that we will stop ourselves before it's too late, but it's getting close to being too late in many parts of the country. Part of my optimism is founded on a young, dynamic, capable cadre of inner-city mayors who are making investments in schools, in safe streets, in recapturing brownfields. Part of the optimism is founded on the fact that people in the suburbs have woken up and said, "We don't want our community, or the next wave of communities, to look like the last wave." Three-quarters of the 200 ballot initiatives for protecting open space voted on in 1998 were passed. People are voting to tax themselves to acquire open space--that's very important.
But we haven't created enough Bob Yaros. Local governments' capacity to plan their future is far too limited. Look at south coastal Massachusetts, the fastest growing area of this region. The population of the 50 communities there has grown 25 percent in the past 25 years. The amount of land consumed by development there has increased 250 percent in those 25 years--as much land has been developed from the 1950s, when the Southeast Expressway went into operation, until now, as from that point back to when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Of those 50 communities, fewer than half have a full-time planner. Only 20 of the communities have master plans in place, and only five of those master plans have been created or updated in the last five years. They're being overwhelmed with development. And they don't have the tools to control their own destiny.
Yaro: Those statistics came out of a studio that I led at the Design School a couple of years ago. That takes me back to Alex's point about education. One very important role for the University is developing the body of knowledge and getting it out into the hands of the public. That studio had an enormous reach, and resulted in a new civic-led initiative to create a growth-management strategy for southeastern Massachusetts.
In turn, that takes me back to the point about a larger vision for society. Benton MacKaye [A.B. 1900, A.M. '05], who taught here from 1906 to 1910, more or less invented regional planning in this country. He is well known for the Appalachian Trail--and less well known for the limited-access highway, another of his ideas. MacKaye felt that life was best for people when they had access to cities, and to countryside, and to wilderness--primeval places. Massachusetts has offered those things: cities, countryside, access to the Appalachian forest and the mountains.
That's what we're losing. One of the reasons we're now seeing a resurgence of interest across the country in managing growth and doing a better job of rebuilding cities, is the sense that people are not getting those things. Whether they live in cities, or suburbs, or in the countryside, nothing is bolted down anymore, everything is at risk. As a vision for what the Boston area could be, and should be--for what every metropolitan place could and should be--MacKaye's is not a bad one.
Krieger: But in championing the limited-access highway, MacKaye also hastened decentralization--what we today call sprawl. One generation's ideal becomes another's burden. Historically, a city was established for some strategic reason--commerce or defense of territory--and then people came to live and made it habitable. In a post-industrial age, the cycle may be reversed. People migrated to suburbs in search of a desirable place, and everything else followed: the shopping, the places of employment, the places for recreation.
If the lesson of the last half-century holds, making cities desirable places to live will eventually restore their other attributes. Then other problems will re-emerge--conflicts evolving from many people wanting to make use of the same space. But such contestation is a hallmark of urbanism.
Sorkin: The example of Benton MacKaye is an interesting one, because in looking back at grand schemers of this sort, one absorbs those things that seem constructive, and sets others aside. What I would like to see absorbed from the style of thinking that was abroad in those days is, first, the idea that these problems require thought at a very large scale. One shouldn't be shy about doing it. But, second, that very large-scale thinking was predicated on a theory of culture, of the desirability of certain kinds of cultural arrangements--be it access to the city, or to the countryside, or to the wilderness.
We have become very shy about being up front about a theory of cultural desirability that fuels our activities in terms of work, and the city, and the landscape.
Lee: I'd simply say that the suburbs are a part of the city. The sooner they realize they are dependent upon the city, the better off we are all going to be, and maybe we can start to find some solutions. There are more things that unite people than separate them, if we actually sit down and have some kind of dialogue. For all of their perceived exotica, there are a lot of things that people who live in the city want that aren't a lot different from what people who live in the suburbs want.
The problem for me is that, for the last 50 years, there have been diminishing choices for those who might want to stay in the old neighborhood and still enjoy an acceptable quality of life.
Simon: To me, it's really about diversity and how we create community, in a world of the single-family house, the single-person car, and the selfish attitude about public life that has prevailed during the second half of this century. What kinds of places are necessary for community to happen?
It particularly becomes an issue if you think about everybody working at home on their computers. Several of my students at Berkeley have done research about housing and community in the electronic age; they have become aware of the ever-increasing importance of places for people to come together, whether they're in a suburban community or in a city.
Cities naturally have places which support public life, which support accidental meetings, which support conversation, which support mutuality. These are "places of agreement." That, to me, is why "cities" and "civilization" have the same root.