Urban Legend: Remembering Why Cities Matter

Downtown Los Angeles seen from the Angeles National Forest

Cities are hot.

That's true physically, for they are energy sinks, pulling in massive amounts of mega-wattage to light up their expanse; an ocean of fossil fuels to generate heat and drive transport.The release of all that energy, when combined with the reflectivity of skyscrapers, highways, and roofs, of glass, steel, and concrete, turn urban centers into heat islands that are capable of producing their own micro-climates. Los Angeles, like Atlanta, New York City, Chicago, and Phoenix, is a towering inferno.

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The Heat Island Effect on Atlanta | Image via UCLA
They are overheated in terms of population growth, too. Since the mid-20th century, the urban southwest has exploded in size and spread: in 1950, L.A. was the only city in the region among the nation's ten largest metropolises; it is now joined by San Diego and San Jose; Phoenix, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston. Each has added more people and cars even during the economic recession, each has been able to increase the number of jobs--or at least the potential for them--that continues to lure migrants seeking a more stable life. (A prospect that works globally, too: in China and India, across Africa and Southeast Asia, it is to cities that labor is most drawn).

The phenomenon seems counter-intuitive, especially now as an urbanized Greece and Italy--and other developed countries--teeter on the verge of financial collapse; as multinational corporations continue to shed skilled workers and pink-slip white-collar employees; and the prospects for growth in the once-roaring engines of international trade--the U.S., China, and the European Community--are sputtering. Given these dim prospects, it hardly seems the best time to head to the bright lights of the city.

Couple this discouraging news with the surge of calls for folks to head back to the land, to hunker down on the farm, a cozy image of a more sustainable, self-sufficient life amid the cratering of modern economies and the troubling gyrations of a climate-changed planet, and you'll understand why the rural margins--the peripheries--might seem more attractive, more plausible.

Except that they don't. To get a sense for some of the reasons why, check out the September 2011 issue of Scientific American. Although its glossy cover title--Cities: Better-Greener-Smarter, superimposed on a Legoland-like built landscape--says it all, the articles deepen these claims.

The lead editorial, "In Fairness to Cities," probes the critical need to level the federal (and state) policy playing field between city, suburb and countryside, and is spot on:

In matters of housing, education, transportation, the environment and social services, existing rules and spending priorities give cities a raw deal. Cheap gas, highway subsides, tax incentives for home ownership, complacency over urban education and the apportionment of legislators all give preferential treatment to suburbs and rural areas. Even national leaders who should be cheerleaders for an evenhanded urban policy have faltered. Barack Obama, the most urban president since Theodore Roosevelt, skewed the stimulus bill toward more dollars for rural America. The five least populated states got twice as much money per capita as the rest.

Incentivizing density not sprawl--the reverse of what legislators have done since World War II--ought to become a national priority in our quest to adapt to climate change: "To keep our carbon emissions in check, we will need to edge closer to our neighbors."

Propinquity is a social good, too. Humans might even be hard-wired for density, argues blogger Tim De Chant. The experience of hunter-gather societies whose populations have increased is that they do not expand their foraging range by an equal proportion; this suggests that they discovered what we also know, that there are greater efficiencies with more people, that scale intensifies complexity. As De Chant puts it: "complex societies didn't just evolve as a way to cope with high-density--they evolved in part because of high density."

Of late, this evolutionary impulse has been working over time. In 2008, for the first time in human history, the global population officially became majority urban. That preponderance will swell over the next forty years. The U.N. estimates that by 2050--and it's probably safe bet that it will happen before that date--six billion of the predicted nine billion people will call cities home.

Yet does it necessarily follow that denser equals greener? That cities, despite their heat, light and reflectivity, are more sustainable than rural or suburban landscapes? The latest data suggests as much. The "bigger cities get, the more productive and efficient they become," argue theoretical physicists Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West: "cities do more with less." In this case, 'less' means that urbanites have a smaller per-capita appetite for resources and a narrower carbon footprint than their counterparts in suburbs and rural areas. The trick will be whether this current pattern can be maintained as the world's population--and its concentration in cities--soars.

Life Magazine
That has long been the question about urbanism's inventive energy and innovative power. In 1965, for example, Life Magazine published a special double issue dubbed "The U.S. City: Its Greatness at Stake," a challenge that would be met, its editors and writers assumed, through its megalopitan growth, through the creation of a suburban nation and the high-rise city: these sites were the glorious antitheses of historically dense neighborhoods that had once housed most of America's urban dwellers.

Although it conceded that these districts, filled with "block upon faceless block" still provide "the modern city's gut power, for here live the average people who make it function every day," Life's focus wasn't on the durable and everyday. Instead its gaze was fixed on the mobile elite; in short, its affluent readers. "Once the city was a self-contained unit; today its most productive people surge in from the suburbs in the morning, and ebb out at night. As the upward thrust contains the city's energy, the outward ebb releases it."

Those left behind, the working class, minorities, and the elderly, were but this shiny new civilization's flotsam and jetsam.

Jane Jacobs would have none of that. In a pair of brilliant books that bookended the publication of Life's special issue, she asserted the unalterable significance of urbanness. Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), remains a vivid articulation of the architectural excitement, social engagement, and human dynamics of city life--its hustle and bustle; it also offered a withering indictment of then-contemporary urban planning that with wrecking ball and bulldozer flattened compact housing for high-speed highways; ripped out marketplaces for grand plazas; and uprooted the poor to benefit corporate capital.

As a screed against the hollowed-out core, Death and Life has no equal, but in different ways, her next book, The Economy of Cities (1969), is every bit as penetrating. Here, Jacobs argues compellingly that civilization's pulsating heart is the urban marketplace. Its centrality--as a physical place and an imaginative construct--gives shape to her expectation for the nation's future metropolises, about which, she wrote, "we can absolutely certain of a few things." They will not be "smaller, simpler or more specialized than cities of today. Rather they will be more intricate, comprehensive, diversified, and larger than today's, and will be even more complicated jumbles of old and new things than ours."

Jane Jacobs | Photo: Library of Congress
Nor did she held a brief for the homogenized urban form that Life had so praised: "Conformity and monotony, even when they are embellished with a froth of novelty, are not attributes of developing and economically vigorous cities. They are attributes of stagnant settlements."

The "great, growing cities of the future," Jacobs declared, will be filled with people who, "faced with acute practical problems which we cannot now imagine, will meet these challenges by engaging "in the unroutine business of economic trial and error," by adding new work to old.

It this powerful, regenerative function of cities that makes them so hot and cool.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

The top photo used on this post is by Flickr user bobtravis. It was used under a Creative Commons License. The heat island image is via this UCLA lesson plan.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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