4.241J | Spring 2013 | Graduate

Theory of City Form

Lecture Notes

Lec 24: Cases III: Post-urbanism and Resource Conservation

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Lecture Summary

Melvin Webber’s seminal 1963 writing in defense of the large-scale American metropolis asserted that, despite large distances, such cities could still be places of “order in diversity: community without propinquity.” Such an argument rests in part on the ease of contact made possible by individual transportation and the infrastructure of roads to support it. It has also been argued that machine-interposed communication technologies reduces the need for body movement and, if the city is essentially a communications network, changes in the scale of communication would lead to a different city form. But the decentralization of American cities precedes the advent of the new electronics, and the substitution of face-to-face contact by machines has not yet shown to automatically produce a decentralized city or region; in fact, the last significant communication technology, the telephone, made the skyscraper as possible as it did suburbia. H. G. Wells, writing over a century ago, predicted dispersal through electronic connection but at the same time he foresaw a homeostatic reaction in the form of an increase in the need for citizens to be together in the center, “a very spacious, brilliant, and entertaining agglomeration.” The increased footlooseness of industry has led to new kinds of places such as Alliance, just north of Ft.Worth, where a new non-passenger airport, is the center of an intermodal rail/highway/air node. High-technology industries have also been attracted to special historic places with high amenity, such as Cambridge in England. But in the new connected world which Castells calls “the space of flows,” there is yet little indication of what kind of urbanism will emerge. As 20 million non-farm employees in the U.S. now work at home as part of their primary job, automobile traffic has increased, partly because more road space is now available. The consequences of machine-interposed versus face-to-face contacts keep on being explored. Some, like Putnam, are concerned by the decline in collective interests in American cities as television has made American communities “wider and shallower,” yet the same cities now boast health clubs, Starbucks cafes and single’s bars. Whether the ability to communicate anywhere virtually free, the Economist’s “death of distance,” affects the perceptual form of cities any more than the form of so-called “global” cities has been affected by globalism, is yet to be seen. Certainly cell phones have not contributed much to public life: cities have much greater difficulty providing the physical infrastructure for the passage of material things than it has in dealing with costless electronic flow.

The idea of an ecological city which stresses sustainability has not been as provocative as the image of a city wired electronically. This is partly because the ecological city depends in many respects on formulae that smaller and older cities have been applying for a long time now but have since been replaced by more wasteful and environmentally destructive practices. The future of the resource conservative city rests less on technology than on changes in the behavior of its inhabitants and its institutions. For instance, the air in Los Angeles is unhealthy two of every three days. To help reduce pollution, the city has undertaken a wide variety of actions. It has the world’s toughest limits on emissions by cars. To reduce automobile use, the city of Santa Monica will buy its workers running shoes if they walk to work, and incentives to carpool have taken various forms including firms offering dry cleaning, shoe repair, grocery and other services to avoid people using their cars for errands. The city is often subject to drought: cities in the region are considering sea-water salination but also banning lawn sprinklers, offering rebates for replacement of inefficient toilets, urging using high-efficiency car washes rather than washing cars at home and even allowing new construction only if the builders pay for water conservation programs in schools. Scientists have shown that by replacing dark roofs and pavements in Los Angeles as part of normal maintenance, and the planting of new trees, the city would be cooled by 5 degrees in about 15 years. Reducing garbage and recycling material; building according to sustainable standards; implementing a water run-off policy; instituting a tree-planting program; zoning housing where transit and services exist; ensuring that pedestrian paths to transit stops are safe, sheltered, and direct; banning the use, sale and manufacturing of ozone-depleting compounds; providing special cycling lanes on roads; encouraging housing close to workplaces; pricing road use: these are some of the actions that cities are already taking and many of them involve political conflict. There is no ideal city of ecology: cities which continue to educate their citizens to conserve and introduce policies which sustain and enrich their natural resources, will over time come close to the ideal.


Handout for Lecture 24 (PDF - 6.4MB)

  • Pages 1–4: Beinart, Julian. “The American Downtown: Stories for the Present.” Institute for Urban Design, 2001. (unpublished)
  • Pages 4–8: Transcript from Panel Symposium, “Will Information Technology Help Improve City and Regional Form?” April 12, 2001.

Referenced Texts

Webber, Melvin. Explorations into Urban Structure. University of Pennsylvania, 1964, fig. 4. ISBN: 9780812274158.

Examples, Precedents, and Works

Fort Worth Alliance Airport (Texas, United States)

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