Saturday, September 23, 2006

Octopus Reflects on Mass Suburbia as Anti-City

Every now and then, I take Lewis Mumford's The City in History (1961) off the shelf and reads bits of it. When I was making my big push to read through the book back in 2001, I got mired somewhere around Venice in the Middle Ages. This morning, I was thumbing through Mumford's observations on Mass Suburbanization and Los Angeles; his observations, though obvious now, still seem interesting:
Under the present dispensation we have sold our urban birthright for a sorry mess of motor cars. As poor a bargain as Esau's pottage. Future generations will perhaps wonder at our willingness, indeed our eagerness, to sacrifice the education of our children, the care of the ill and the aged, the development of the arts, to say nothing of ready access to nature, for the lopsided system of mono-transportation, going through low-density areas at sixty miles an hour, but reduced in high density areas to a bare six. . . .

By allowing mass transportation to deteriorate and by building expressways out of the city and parking garages within, in order to encourage maximum use of the private car, our highway engineers and city planners have helped to destroy the living tissue of the city and to limit the possibilities of creating a larger urban organization on a regional scale. . . . By discouraging and eliminating the pedestrial, by failing to extend and to perfect mass transportation, our municipal officials and highway engineers have created a situation that calls for extremely low residential densities. Here again the monopoly of private space not merely reduces the social facilities of the city but sacrifices public space to open space to private.

The absurd belief that space and rapid locomotion are the chief ingredients of a good life have been fostered by the agents of mass suburbia. . . . The reductio ad absurdum of this myth is, notoriously, Los Angeles. Here the suburban standards of open space, with free standing houses . . . has been maintained: likewise the private motor car, as the major means of transportation has supplanted what was only a generation or so ago an extremely efficient system of public transportation.

Los Angeles has now become an undifferentiated mass of houses, walled off into sectors by many-laned expressways, with ramps and viaducts that create special bottlenecks of their own. These expressways move but a small fraction of the traffic per hour once carried by public transportation, at a much lower rate of speed, in an environment befouled by smog, itself produced by the lethal exhausts of the technologically backward motor cars. More than a third of the Los Angeles area is consumed by these grotesque transportation facilities; two-thirds of central Los Angeles are occupied by streets, freeways, parking facilities, garages. This is space-eating with a vengeance. The last stage of the process already beckons truly progressive minds--to evict the remaining inhabitants and turn the entire area over to automatically propelled vehicles completely emancipated from any rational human purpose.
Sure, I can blog about the bus and try to promote public transportation, but it often feels hopeless: Los Angeles seems beyond saving. As Mumford noted back in 1961, so much of this city, a beautiful landscape between mountain and sea, has been senselessly paved over and imprisoned by freeway and endless on and off ramps, massive parking lots and parking garages; one wonders how all of this space will be reclaimed when, inevitably, the era of the private automobile comes to a close. Perhaps we'll be able to rip much of it up. Or perhaps the thousands of miles of asphalt will fall into disuse and disrepair, and nature will inexorably crawl back, break through the asphalt, climb over these massive public works, blanket the highway dividers and ramp supports, and bury them, the evidence of the height of Automobile Culture in the lost American Empire.


1 comment:

MK said...

You should read Jane Jacobs "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", a very readable classic, as well as her last work "Dark Age Ahead".