I recently watched the documentary Urbanized by Gary Hustwit. I can appreciate the approach of the filmmaker and how urban dwellers can and have adapted to the ever expanding populations in urban centers. A simple 2011 study by the UN already predicts over 50% of the world will be living in cities, or urbanized areas, right now, with that figure continuing to grow. This presents as much of an infrastructural challenge as it does a social challenge. Can people live in large cities, and how should they do so?
First, some issues with the documentary…I understand that we’ve made great adaptations as a global culture to adapt to the population influx of urban centers. Projects like the High Line in New York City and even movements left unmentioned in the film, like Lagos, Nigeria or Seattle’s own Tent Cities represent creative and clever means of adapting to urban conditions and social deficiencies. But certain elements of the film seem to decry the adaptations that urban centers had to make.
The advent of the car
There always seems to be such vitriol surrounding the sprawl of suburbia and the infrastructure of cities. When cars became commodity items and gas was cheap, didn’t it make sense to move away from filthy urban centers? Cities used to manufacture and produce, not simply house people. They were dirty, and humans were figuring out how to live in large cities alongside industrial activity for the first time in history. People, rightly so, wanted to flee cities. The car gave them that escape to a cleaner, more peaceful life. It makes sense that sprawl occurred.
Granted, suburban sprawl is now a problem that has to be solved, but why are people so hesitant in public discourse to admit that sprawl happened for a very good reason?
The state of cities
And, this is WHY people wanted to move from cities. They were dirty. Infrastructure was insufficient. I’ve heard too many times that Robert Moses maliciously tore apart the fabric of urban neighborhoods with highways and cars. He built more parks than anyone in history! Still, he was working with the accepted model (championed by none other than Le Corbusier) that cars and infrastructure would rule the day, that they were necessary evils that should be somehow separated from people and different “speeds” of transportation, and that cars weren’t going away (far from it). Suburban dwellers still needed access to the city.
But this is just a small part of the problem. Solid and liquid wastes were not being dealt with appropriately. Too often are city planners in New York confounded by the fact that the city never built by the water (considering it is an island). Well, the water used to be akin to a sewer. Only recent efforts by the City of New York have fixed this problem. Forget highways tearing apart the city…who wanted to live next to a sewer?
The social state
Infrastructural problems are either poorly realized or completely unforeseen during planning. Solutions may seem somewhat reactionary, evolving problems require adaptive solutions. For instance, we still haven’t solved the problem of the ultimate civic institution, the library. What will the library become when we don’t have books, but simply information?
What appears even more nebulous is the social state of cities. Recent tragic natural disasters brought out the best and worst in people and their government. How do cities socially adapt to expanding populations and the events that test those constructs? Social “tools” seem to be able to topple governments, but Twitter’s offshoot ability to both influence discourse and socialize problems is simply a nice side effect of the tool. Other tools merely tell you nice places I like to eat and drink, should I choose to broadcast that information. What about rapid response services tailored to individual needs? What about social management in the era of cellphones? How will cities, combinations of infrastructural and social manmade constructs, adapt?