Planning movements tend to fall because something materializes in the urban mix that they did not anticipate, and which they can not easily correct. Changes in the planning guard have coincided with significant shifts in population, technology or the economy. Modernist planners embraced suburban principles because the low-density, single use neighbourhoods, in moderation, combined the benefits of country living with the presence of city services. When the restrictions of depression and war were lifted, developments surged forward in the Modernist style. After twenty years, we began to realize the problems associated with having too much of a good thing.
Today, our cities are sprawling. As our population continues to move off the farm and out of small towns into the big cities, we are consuming vast tracts of wilderness and viable farmland, building low density subdivisions where an automobile is a necessity of life and where a sense of community is weak. The outlying areas of our cities are not economically, environmentally or socially sustainable, but they keep on being built. Some would say that this shows that there has to be a market for what is happening, and that trying to counteract this is backward socialism; why else would people spend so much for homes in the hinterlands unless they wanted to live in the suburbs?
Actually, some polls suggest that as many as 75% of the people in North America don’t want to live in the suburbs. When asked about their housing preference, a plurality preferred small town living. Big city living and suburban living fought it out for second place, with around 25% support each. This was followed by rural living, with support in the teens.
The suburbs get points for their reputation as being safe for children and less polluting. The fact that parents become chauffeurs for their children, the fact that pollution is just as bad, if not worse, than our transit-friendly downtown cores, and the fact that our inner cities’ reputation for crime is exaggerated, doesn’t get as much press, but it’s less the issues of safety and cleanliness that brings people out to our suburbs. The biggest reasons why people head to the suburbs include: the housing stock is cheaper, and (most importantly) the housing stock is available.
Middle class families might like the diverse experience of city living, but they’re probably unable or unwilling to pay an additional $200,000 for the privilege. Inner city neighbourhoods where housing stock is as cheap as the suburbs might not be comfortable places to live for parents of young children. These parents see that the housing prices for better stock get cheaper the further one gets from the core, and so they are drawn. Vibrant downtowns, such as Toronto, are quickly becoming the reserve of the young and single, the old and rich, and the very, very poor.
However, remember those polls saying that most people prefer small town living? Even those who prefer to live in big cities but can’t afford it would probably like to live in a small town with its stronger sense of community and amenities that one can walk to, but our small towns are losing population to our bigger cities and their suburbs. Why don’t our middle class families looking for cheap housing suburbs fly completely off the map and locate themselves in an old town two-hundred miles away from the central core? Because while the cheap housing stock of the suburbs is pulling them out of the central core, something in the central core is keeping them in.
This dynamic between inner city, suburb and small town has been at the heart of planning movements since urban planning began. The relationship really hit home to me during a course that was supposed to be about environmental statistics, but which had an ecclectic mix of course material indeed.
The two previous environmental statistics courses I’d taken were very math-heavy indeed, so I was more than a little surprised when our professor pulled out the television and popped in Michael Moore’s Roger and Me. If you don’t know the movie, it’s a documentary about leftist activist Michael Moore’s attempts to confront GM CEO Roger Smith about closing the factories in Flint, Michigan. The movie did an admirable job of showing the connections between the economy, the environment and the social fabric of a city as the devastating effects of the GM factory closures cycled through Flint in some rather unusual ways.
Next up was a lecture on the construction of London, England’s original sewer network, what sparked it and how the construction changed the city. In our third class, we talked about the information economy, and the ability of people to work from home. Then it hit me what our professor was saying.
Few people realize just how closely linked technology, the economy, the environment and the social fabric is within our cities. The very profession of urban planning was created by a change in technology known as the Industrial Revolution. Before, when agriculture was the economic mainstay of the civilized world, we didn’t need to plan our cities, we hardly had any. Industrial growth, however, produced belching factories and massive shifts in our population. Very quickly, we learned that there was a limit to how many people could live in close quarters without measures being taken to improve sanitary conditions. Very quickly we learned that there were widespread public health consequences to housing people next to the places they worked. Very quickly, we learned that there was a need for social organizations such as police and firefighters in order to maintain safety and public order. Everything, from the establishment of our sewer systems, our police forces, our firefighters, our first zoning bylaws, dates from the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Beforehand, planning was the purview of great leaders, who designed cities along architectural rather than environmental/economic/social lines. The realities had changed, and so many new considerations had to be added that a whole new profession was born.
Since then, planning has proceeded in cycles, as I have said, as each new generation attempted to fix what the previous generation did not fix, often by throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Changing technology also had an influence; our first planned cities were limited to the distances that people could reasonably walk from home, to shopping, to work. When the railroads appeared and public transportation became viable, our cities grew out in radial spokes, with development located within a ten-minute walk of a streetcar line. When cars appeared, the limits to living were almost completely removed, and we sprawled.
But through all the changes, and through all the different schools of planning, there was one constraining factor: people lived in our cities because they had to work. They might want to stay away from polluting factories, or live in areas of good sanitation; they might want open spaces, a diverse neighbourhood experience or a safe place to raise their kids, but there is one thing they could not live without, and that’s an income. People had to show up at their jobs, and that meant that people had to live within commuting distance of their jobs.
Modernist planners embraced the automobile’s freedom of movement and gave people the ability to live in wide-open spaces, so long as they had access to a car and a road. The Modernist movement did not anticipate the problems that would arise from unrestricted urban sprawl. The New Urbanist movement seeks to redress these oversights with their own prescription, but it’s operating under the same principle: that no matter where people live, they have to be within reasonable commuting distance to work. As jobs concentrate in our cities and as our cities get bigger, that “reasonable” distance is lengthening, to commutes of two hours or more; a far cry from when you only needed to be a ten minute walk from a streetcar line.
And this is where New Urbanism can encounter its own unexpected toppling factor: the Industrial Revolution, the foundation of all schools of planning thought, is coming to an end. The Information Revolution promises something completely different. Although still slow in growing, telecommuting is already a fact of life. The link between home and work is about to be severed, and people will suddenly find themselves with the ability to live anywhere. Remember the polls that show that small town living is the most popular form of living; this is the reason why subdivisions are leapfrogging Caledon at the edge of the GTA and are building up around Orangeville. Not coincidentally, these new subdivisions are being built with four phone-lines to every house (phone, fax, computer, teenager).
New Urbanism can embrace aspects of this revolution. Telecommuting makes it easier for families to find a place that’s cheap and yet has walkable access to amenities, but the isolation that has characterized the results of Modern planning could well be reinforced. People no longer need to leave their homes to shop, either, or eat out, or see a movie, or interact with people. Not only is telecommuting a word to describe an element of the Information Revolution, but so is cocooning.
Then there is the fact that these changes promise significant shifts in population, something which developers are hard-pressed to handle after the bricks and mortar have set. There will be winners: the larger urban centres will remain viable in a post-industrial planning age; people will always be drawn to the diverse experience and the easy access to entertainment. It’s no coincidence that, after long years of urban decay, our downtowns across North America are coming back. Suburbs could suffer: too long a compromise between cheap housing stock and access to one’s job, now that people don’t have to commute two hours each way in order to earn an income, they are unlikely to want to travel hours in other directions in order to spend that income. You are already seeing signs that our fifties and sixties suburbs are fading, with the emergence of greyfields even as the brownfields of our urban centres are revitalized. Small towns have their own challenges; they’ve have never had to deal with growth of this scale before, and strains have appeared as people have moved in from the cities.
Planning doesn’t change just because a new school of thought comes along to fix problems left unsolved by previous schools of thought; the emergence of new technologies produce changes which ripple through our urban fabric in unexpected ways. In many ways, New Urbanism has appeared on the scene just when technological change has reached a fever pace. The original rules around why our cities need to be planned are about to disappear. And though, in my arrogance, I’ve laid out some of the challenges ahead, there is no way that I can predict a fraction of what will come, and what our cities will look like in 2040. I can only guarantee that they will be different.