Pages from a Popular History of Grand Rapids

New River Free Press, June 1975/Reprint

OUR CITIES—Survival as a

Human Environment


By William F. Thrall

A leading G. R. [Grand Rapids] architect examines our images of the city and concludes: “It seems fairly obvious that the survival of the city as a viable human environment demands a radical reassessment of our needs and priorities.”

Since the origin of permanent human settlements (cemetery, cave, shrine, and village), men have sought communal environments, which offered security, diversity, convenience, and social intercourse. During the centuries-old course of this quest, great cities have been born: Peking, Athens, Rome, Paris, London, Florence, Petersburg, New York, Chicago, San Francisco; cities which at their best express those varieties of region, culture, and personality that promote stimulating urban life.

As Lewis Mumford has pointed out, the development of the urban organism takes place in a creative tension between the urge to be both village (mothering, life-promoting, and stable) and citadel (concentrated, powerful, and aggressive). Where either of these tendencies has been allowed to gain unbalanced primacy, critical urban processes have become unstable and endangered.

Today, the crisis of our cities is bemoaned so often that it threatens to become one of the supreme clichés of contemporary semantics. Week by week new facets of the urban dilemma become popularized: racial segregation, inadequate housing, civil insurrection, traffic congestion, pollution, and waste disposal, rising taxation, metropolitan sprawl.

At a time when the very survival of our cities is in serious question, it is perhaps forgivable to speculate abstractly about historical and cultural causes.

It has been argued that the American Dream is essentially anti-urban. The agrarian ideal of the self-sufficient individual, isolated in sylvan solitude and free from social attachments, can be traced back to Thoreau, Emerson, and Thomas Jefferson.

A puritan desire for the hygienic, domestic values of rural life and a distaste for the many-sided life of the city, along with the pioneer’s fascination with mobility and open space, runs through much of our cultural heritage and accounts for not a few of our modern hang-ups.

Mumford suggests a devastatingly sarcastic analysis of suburb as pre-fab substitutes for wilderness, where the Palaeolithic hearth has been replaced by the pressed charcoal barbecue grill.

We also stand accused of a philosophy of expedience. The absence of rational limits has led us to equate unimpeded growth with progress. The betterment of life has been achieved through the profits of industry and commerce and the quick use of natural resources. Our megalomania for unrestricted growth and more and bigger “firsts” (e.g., --Chicago’s John Hancock building, New York’s World Trade Center) has led us to see the City as a consumable commodity rather than as an agent of continuity.

Our tempestuous wedlock with technology has finally led us to question whether men or machines are ultimately “in charge.” Faster and faster, we accumulate systems of automation (vs. human regulation), centralized remote control, and planned obsolescence. With greater frequency, we rely on technology to provide the solutions to social and cultural problems.

* * *

It was perhaps inevitable that the two greatest architects of the 20th Century would produce the definitive symbols of anti-urbanism under the deceptive guise of utopian city plans.

Le Corbusier, in his Radiant City and Plan Voisin for Paris (1920s and 1930s), envisioned the city as a vast park punctuated by enormous glass towers and linear apartments, interwoven with a network of high-speed expressways.

Implicit in his concept is a belief in the machine-made, standardized environment; nature as unused visual open space; the dominance of the automobile; the destruction of historical districts and landmarks; the denial of the diversity and confusion of urban street life; and the absence of social and civic criteria.

Nevertheless, this image persists in the minds of many city planners and architects, and is to be found wherever urban renewal has performed its usual emasculations.

In the United States, Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Broadacre City” gave physical expression to the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal of total decentralization. Wright envisioned the urban populace dispersed across the rural countryside on one-acre lots, reached by a rectangular network of automobile highways and arteries. Civic, commercial, cultural, and social institutions would be scattered at remote locations throughout the reclaimed prairie. Endless suburbia, of course, but legitimized by the aura of the master.

As Vincent Scully, has pointed out, both Radiant City and Broadacre City, although vastly different formal concepts, have the effect of divesting the city of its traditional density and destroying its street life.

* * *

Today, in the 1970s, we are enjoying the results of our shortsighted attitudes toward urban life.

Leapfrogging land speculation, which consistently places private interest above the common good, sweeps us along toward Megalopolis. At the rate of 3,000 acres per day, our countryside is systematically divided off into the simplest monetary units and sold to the highest bidder. This process is assisted by federal programs (which are traditionally geared to private interests), obsolete zoning laws (which produce uniformity, compromise, and segregation of social classes and activities), and our property taxation system (which encourages speculation on properties at the urban edges and deterioration of the central core).

Bowing dutifully in homage to the automobile, we view the city as a traffic problem rather than as a place to live. The street, once promenade and play place, becomes a dangerous and congested traffic artery. (In New York City, in 1907, the average speed of a horse drawn carriage was 11.5 miles an hour. Today, the average speed of an automobile in downtown New York is six miles an hour.)

Large portions of valuable suburban and downtown land are relegated for the movement, storage, and servicing of the automobile (66% of the land in downtown Los Angeles). High-speed throughways divide communities (Grand Rapids is a perfect example) and feed the endless outward sprawl. It has been suggested that the cloverleaf be named the national flower.

In our longing for escape from urban chaos, for contact with virgin nature, for privacy, hygiene, and autonomy, we created the suburb. Unfortunately, the original suburban ideal disappeared with its universality.

Unspoiled nature becomes the seeded and bull-dozed lot; true solitude and real community are lost in an environment which never lets us be really together or really alone; neighborhood units become dispersed and ineffective; the expenses of low-density development (costly utility services, school systems, energy/transportation efficiencies) begin to overwhelm us.

The absence of socially and economically balanced communities, together with reliance on second-hand experience through the remotely controlled media, often produces an unreal image of the world.

As the affluent population is dispersed further and further into space, the decaying inner cities are left to the tenancy of the have-nots, who do not accept this bequest graciously. Since 60% of the population has been shown to prefer the suburban environment, we should not be surprised that our less fortunate brothers and sisters are frustrated to discover that the keys to the middle-American Paradise are enough money and the correct skin color.

The central city, awakening tardily to the mass exodus of its taxpayers, merchants, and businesses into suburban subdivisions, shopping malls, and industrial parks, undertakes “renewal” of its “downtown.”

Urban renewal (which always seems to consist of banks and governmental offices) proceeds to thin-out the central core and delivers it to Ford and General Motors, substituting, in the process, compulsory open space for creative urban design. Underlying the planning processes are the kind of anti-urban assumptions one might expect as a result of the philosophical and professional heritage earlier described:

  • The street is undesirable social and physical environment (buildings should be oriented towards malls, plazas, or playgrounds. This principle is seldom realized because cars come higher on the priority list. Corbusier’s “City in a Park” becomes a “city in a parking lot”).
  • Primary uses should be rigidly separated into distinct physical zones (cultural district, shopping district, office district, industrial district, etc.). This is normally accomplished at the expense of the social and historic city fabric—the finest landmarks usually being the first to go.
  • High densities (usually greater than 40 living units per acre) are undesirable. Optimum residential development would be based on conventional single-family lots.
  • The financial structure of the city is totally dependent upon speculative land development.
  • The “neighborhood,” defined as that area containing the population necessary to support an elementary school (roughly 5,000 people), is the basic unit of urban design.

As a consequence of these assumptions, urban renewal in the United States has consistently been “cataclysmic, automotive, and suburban” (Scully).

As the rural suburbs gradually “fill in” and the central city “thins out,” the metropolitan environment becomes a vast, low-grade urban tissue (the “slurb”). The “slurb” is pseudo-nature and pseudo-city; not dense enough for vital urban diversity, yet too dense for personal solitude and contact with unspoiled nature.

As Gertrude Stein once said about Los Angeles: “There isn’t any there there.” As a result of this process of “conurbation,” 98% of our land remains open and virtually unused, while 2% has become unbearably overcrowded and congested. If this trend is allowed to continue unchecked, and if population projections are accurate, by the year 2000, 174 million of a total population of 310 million will live in vast metropolitan corridors (containing 20-25 million people per city), which are already forming at an alarming rate on the East and West coasts. “Megalopolis” has arrived. The consequences of urban sprawl are obvious:

  • unselective exploitation and destruction of the natural environment;
  • increased congestion and longer journeys to home, work, and recreation;
  • lack of personal autonomy and first hand social and cultural experiences;
  • monopolistic concentrations of production and consumption;
  • the reliance on what Mumford calls “tentacular bureaucracies”;
  • unprecedented visual squalor and ugliness.

To quote from The City in History, Megalopolis produces “control without kingship; conformity without choice; power without the intervention of personality.”

In anticipation of evolving urban forms, architects and planners are busily designing complex, comprehensive utopian environments (“megastructures”) based on automation, systems technology, multi-directional transportation networks; and mass produced environmental modules, many of which frighteningly resemble space capsules. Uniform conditions become ideal conditions; minimal environments are designed for minimal life; human factors and feedbacks are ominously absent.

* * *

Are there no rational alternatives to megalopolis? In our commendable concern for the survival of natural organisms, have we not neglected an urban ecology? Is there not a “climax stage” beyond which our cities can no longer maintain diversity and balance, beyond which further growth produces terminal deterioration?

* * *

It seems fairly obvious that the survival of the city as a viable human environment demands a radical reassessment of our needs and priorities.

Perhaps the most widely discussed is the need for more rational regional planning. The urban environmental crisis is not just a problem of the cities, but of the suburbs, the farms, the remaining natural preserves.

Any logical regional development must be based upon a more balanced transportation system (which gives public transportation its rightful role); an analysis of regional ecology, which will determine where transportation routes and human settlements are most advantageous, at the same time protecting natural floodplains, watersheds, regional characteristics, resources, and vistas; and the imposition of limits upon regional density and capacity.

The welter of independent suburban governments, many with conflicting interests, makes genuine regional progress impossible. Townships and property holders whose lands are marked for “open space” claim that their tax base and potential land profits have been destroyed, and cry “condemnation without compensation.”

New regional forms all would seem to call for sweeping governmental, legal, and fiscal reform (such as federated metropolitan governmental agencies, federal “carrot and stick” programs and regional or statewide land use laws and redevelopment agencies).

There is also danger that “open space,” if established arbitrarily, will be indefensible. The success of the establishment of greenbelts and open spaces seems to hinge on their usability, irregularity, and accessibility.

If the city is to survive, or if life in the city is to have even minimal human qualities, we must begin to re-establish truly urban priorities and processes, and to discard those processes which are destructive to the metropolitan organism. What needs to be done is probably obvious:

  1. A re-analysis of the values of private land speculation and present systems of property taxation (reversing the present process in order to tax land higher than improvements).
  2. The reintroduction of urban values into city planning theory and practice, including:
      • re-emphasis on the value of city street life and the rights of the pedestrian;
      • a return to the judicious mixture of primary uses and socio-economic classes in urban (and even suburban) neighborhoods. As Margaret Mead has suggested, “to the extent the child’s community reflects the scope of life in the world at large, to that extent will the child grow strongly”;
      • re-structuring of the neighborhood as the primary organ of social life and behavior;
      • inter-disciplinary planning teams including sociologists, ecologists, economists, and behavioral scientists as well as professional planners and designers; maximum citizen participation in the planning process;
      • a massive realignment of national and local priorities (from “money” economy towards a “life” economy). If our annual growth rate is 50 billion per year, it does not seem unreasonable to expect that at least half of that amount be devoted to the alleviation of public squalor rather than increase of private affluence. In a recent year in which one South African city provided 10,000 low-income dwelling units, we provided 20,000 for our entire country.

Finally, we must place wo/man and her/his experiences at the center of urban life. Even Harvey Cox, the prophet of anonymity and mobility, has spoken movingly of the need for wo/man to have a “sense of place”—a feeling of identity, belonging, personal control; and environment within which s/he can expand and become her/himself. This requires continuity and scale in objects and spatial relationships. There is some evidence that when this sensory orientation is removed, perception or reality is dangerously undermined and pathological behavior follows. We must begin to give “imageability” to our environment through intelligent urban design based upon visual and spatial experiences.

In the process, we professionals will certainly have to check the tendency towards total clearance and aesthetic control, and learn to live with a great deal more accommodation than we have been comfortable with in the past. We will often be forced to content ourselves with the careful treatment of urban “bits and pieces,” and be prepared for a great deal of experimentation.

Herbert Gans has warned architects and planners against “physical determinism”—the tendency to equate a change in the physical environment, patterned according to the designer’s preconceived ideals, with producing a change in the user’s attitudes and life style. He suggests that social class and peer group pressures are more significant, and that most people obviously don’t want “what architect’s want.”

His point is well taken. In defense of the design professionals, however, Wolf VonEckhardt replies that we should not confuse lack of alternatives with real approval, and that “good design cannot be created by Gallup poll.”

In any case, non-professionals cannot stand idly by and expect the planners to reshape a deteriorating urban world into the heavenly Jerusalem. “Art can only adorn something which the (human) spirit has created.”


A New River Free Press Reprint/June. '75

New River Free Press:

Your Friendly Guide To Urban Survival & Improvement

From 1973 to 1977 Grand Rapids' Independent Voice

This community newspaper was lovingly hand-crafted on an
IBM Selectric. All of its Bookman headlines were produced by
individually hand-pressing transfer lettering.

--Michael Chacko Daniels, Editor & Publisher

Reprinted as part of a new, continuing
Grand Rapids, Michigan,
Popular History Project

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