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Urban Core: Lessons

This is the second in a series on cities in the USofA. I don’t yet know how many there will be total. The first entry can be found here:

Urban Core

In the 1960s, many people realized that cities in the USofA were dying. There simply wasn’t any strong purpose for them as we moved from a manufacturing based economy to an economy that � well, I don’t really know what we do most of the time, but we sure don’t make stuff. That process, which accelerated in the 1960s, was one where many neighborhoods were deemed disposable, meaning that the people who lived in them were disposable, too. As these neighborhoods started to look like so much trash chucked out of a car window, gradually entire cities became disposable.

The first response was called “Urban Renewal”. The idea was that if a big pile of money from the Federal Government could solve the Depression (then just one generation earlier) there was no reason this problem couldn’t be solved the same way. This was combined with highway building to provide the transportation infrastructure that would make neighborhoods shine.

Then something funny happened – it didn’t work.

To understand how badly this failed the image along the freeways of Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and many other cities will show you the problem. That’s where all the public housing blocks were built, and for a reason. These large concrete apartments were built generally to house the people displaced by the freeway itself. The entire process became known as “Urban Removal” as intact but struggling neighborhoods were simply paved over to make more modern and fancy slums than we had before. At great cost.

In my own town of Saint Paul, the neighborhoods that are the most stale and desirable are the only two that do not have freeway access within two minutes – Highland and Mac Groveland. Every other neighborhood has E-Z access to I-94 or I-35E and clearly suffers for it. But isn’t access supposed to make neighborhoods great? It clearly doesn’t. And if it doesn’t make neighborhoods great, why should it make cities great?

Many lessons were learned from this whole process. But just as surely as every generation of children has to sit in a warm school desk under humming fluorescent lights learning their multiplication tables, the lessons of Urban Removal have to be taught over and over again. We have an impulse in the USofA to believe that any problem which can be solved with money is not a problem; more importantly, we also believe that anything can be solved with enough money. The lesson of Urban Removal runs counter to something deep in our culture. It has to constantly be re-learned.

The latest incarnation of this belief is that transit systems are the key to revitalizing our cities. Freeways are no longer seen as viable partly from experience and partly because the physical storage needs of so many cars is outrageous; parking and streets take up a ton of space. The deep troughs cut by freeways have divided and isolated many cities and left them alone and afraid. Trains provide a good solution because they simply take up less room and cut a smaller swath.

That’s not to say that a train can’t cause problems, however. In any urban design issue, the key is always one of scale. A very large train can create the same barriers a freeway does. The car caught on for the same reasons the internet did – it is a distributed network that allows access from source to destination. The problem with the car is that it costs a tremendous amount of money and land to do this. A transit hub is more compact but generally requires economies of scale that run counter to the need for a distributed network that provides excellent service. What can be done?

There are Streetcars which provide a chance at a distributed network with significantly lower cost than the automobile. These systems, in use in Portland and Seattle (and being installed in Albuquerque, Atlanta, Kansas City, and many other cities) are a hybrid between large rail systems and smaller bus based systems which are nearly as expensive as cars. But the larger rail systems still have the allure of solving urban problems with a great big pile of money and one large project. For those who did not learn the lessons of Urban Removal, they have great appeal.

The problem that those who push these larger systems have yet to understand is a very simple one: What is a city for? What is its purpose? If you honestly believe it is all about shuttling mass quantities of workers into some kind of urban core, a large rail system with an economy of scale makes sense. But that’s yesterday’s model, based on bias and boosterism. It’s a different way of making the same mistakes made before.

10 thoughts on “Urban Core: Lessons

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  3. good article and i will include a few comments: I once scanned mostly and read a backlog of magazines (christian century and time) to get an idea of how the century unfolded. Some of the housing in the fifties was deplorable we needed new buildings. I’m not exactly talking jacub hus here but it was bad.
    Also after losing my career job at age 50 I now drive others for a living. There are some neighborhoods that could be enhanced (?) by better freeway transport. I live in st. anthony park and we have access to 94, 35W, and 36. the problem for many families is that they may not have much choice in who their next employer is and relocating is hard and employment may not be assured long term. Also remember mac groveland, highland, and my neighborhood have access to very good education jobs, govt. jobs and Ford. plus a lot of private real estate selling that is done from generation to generation. Also the work of catholic parishes has been notable. You may notice this someday if your children play junior high sports.

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