Moving from the city to the country to get away from the problems of the city doesn't work because once in the country we recreate the city, with all of its problems. But what else can we do? Certainly we shouldn't just keep on living in the city as we have been.
What I propose is that city dwellers who are displeased with urban life change the environment around them instead of running away from it. What if we could take the elements of the country that we desire and reintroduce them into the city? It sounds impossible, but I believe that it could be done, although radical changes would have to be made.
Imagine an urban forest, densely populated yet filled with woods and meadows, ponds and streams. The air is clean. Instead of exhaust, one smells the fragrances of flowers and herbs. It is quiet. At night, one can look up at the sky and see not an orange glow, but a sky thick with stars. There are no cars. In fact, there aren't even any streets. People move about on sidewalks, bicycle paths, and in silent trains that move on elevated tracks.
How could a city like this be possible? It all depends on a careful reorganization of the components of the city - homes, businesses, transportation, government, and people, in a way that efficiently makes the maximum use of the land. At the root of many of the problems that make urban life so difficult is a broad and deep redundancy of resources. In our society, individuals make many investments on their own that could easily be shared with neighbors or the larger community.
Cars are the most obvious example of this phenomenon. In every city there are countless individuals who take the identical routes to and from work every day. If groups of these people got together and pooled the money that they spend on their own cars, they could probably afford to ride a limousine together every day. That sounds extravagant, but why couldn't it be done?
Just imagine if everyone in a city took just half of the money that they would otherwise spend on a car and its maintenance and gave it instead to the local public transportation system. With that kind of money a city could build a luxurious public transportation system that would allow anyone to get anywhere at any time with ease for a very low price, or maybe even for nothing at all. Even small towns could fund transportation systems in this way, allowing people to go to and from the city without having to drive there themselves. Citizens would also still have that wad of money left over from not buying a car and keeping it running. So, if we could just commit to a reinvestment of the money that we all spend on our cars, we'd be quite a bit richer, as a society and as individuals.
A switch from individually-owned automobiles to publicly-owned transportation systems would bring a great number of incidental benefits to urban society. Air pollution would go down by huge amounts, and with it the medical problems that are associated with breathing in poisonous substances day in and day out. The noise pollution produced by automobiles would also end. One would walk outside in the morning and hear nothing.
Personal productivity would also skyrocket. Imagine if, instead of waiting for the traffic light to turn green, you could be letting someone else do the driving while you paid your bills, worked on a laptop computer, called friends, or just took a nap. 30 minutes to an hour a day would be added to your life - that's 2.5 to 5 hours per week, or 130 to 260 hours per year. What would you do with that time?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. So you've got a plan for some sort of urban Utopia. Join the club. These are awfully ambitious ideas you've got here. Do you actually think that they'll work in the real world today?
No, I don't. These changes are too drastic to be implemented right away. So what can be practically accomplished, starting right now?
We can start moving toward this ideal urban setting by making a few practical, immediate changes, little steps to make the big steps possible.
There's also reason to believe that a completely public transportation system would decrease the social alienation that urbanites currently take for granted. City dwellers currently don't have any reason to get to know their neighbors. Whenever they go out, they move straight from their houses to their cars, then right out of the neighborhood. Many new housing developments don't even bother to put in sidewalks. No one uses them. What if we walked through the neighborhood, past other peoples' homes, to the local transportation depot, where we all waited together for the same ride. Such an arrangement certainly would give us all a lot more opportunity to get to know one another.
If a well-planned rail system were built, the number of streets could also reduced. If one doesn't have a car, why does one need driveways and side streets leading to one's home? The space that we devote to driveways and side streets could be used for a number of things, such as public walkways, parks, or plazas. In such a city, no one would have to worry about letting their children out to play in the front yard - the yard would all be one big open area in which children could play in safety.
Another example of the redundancy of urban resources is housing. Although people have been living in cities for generations, many urbanites still cling to a rural form of housing. Once one leaves the core of the city, one goes through mile after mile of diffuse neighborhoods where everyone has their own house with their own small lot of land that they maintain but otherwise make very little use of.
What is the amount of privately owned land in a city per household? I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that it runs somewhere from half an acre to a tenth of an acre. I'll settle on the lower figure, a tenth of an acre, just to be on the safe side. Some of us have much more, some of us don't have any, but on the average, we've got each got a tenth of an acre to call our own.
What can a family do with a tenth of an acre? Not much. One could have a barbecue or a cocktail party outside. One might put a swingset up in the yard for the kids. Mostly though, that tenth of an acre just sits there, unused.
Now, what if everybody pooled their own little bits of land together? Let's take one neighborhood to see what would happen. If there were 10 houses in this neighborhood, each with a tenth of an acre, and the neighborhood was constructed in such a way that all of those little pieces of land were put together, well, the neighborhood would have a whole acre of land to itself.
A lot of things can be done with an acre of land. The neighbors could build a park, maybe with a small sports field. The neighbors could have a group garden and a large lawn. The kids could all play together on a large playground. As a result of the pooling of otherwise useless bits of property, there would be enough space for everyone to go outside and relax.
But what about the houses? How would they go together? Would they all be back to back, side to side? Well, that would be one way to do it, and it might work out. A better way, though, would be to stack them up on top of eachother into a small tower. That way, even more land would be available to the neighborhood. Cities are short on land area, but they have plenty of sky. Ten households, each with one story, would fit into a 10 story tower and have probably somewhere about two acres to use in whatever way they wanted. The neighborhood would be converted from a row of houses with tiny yards into a single building with a lot of breathing room.
Once again, each household would save some money by living in such an arrangement. Instead of a collection of little furnaces, they would only have to buy and maintain one large furnace. Heating and cooling bills would go down as outside surface area per household decreased. Many of home expenses would be shared, and therefore reduced.
Take this idea a step further now, and try to imagine an entire city of these towers, with no fences or busy streets separating the property between them. There would be vast stretches of land open for sustainable food production. Why couldn't city-dwellers produce their own food? In every city, underneath the concrete, lies the Earth, waiting.Perhaps, if we really wanted to loosen up, we could let a significant portion of this newly-cleared land remain unclaimed. Owned by everyone and no one, the space between the towers could become a complete urban forest. Country and city would be reunited, passing harmlessly through one another.
|Such an arrangement would have obvious environmental benefits. The truth is, most of us don't even really think of our cities as environments at all anymore, but they are, and we have the potential to make them healthy again. An urban forest would promote clean air and clean water. It would provide a complex habitat for a diversity of species to inhabit. Most importantly, it would provide city-dwellers with a sense of the immediacy of environmental problems. No longer would our focus of concern be drawn away to environmental emergencies in exotic locations like the Amazon. We might instead think about taking care of our own problems first.||
A planned city with common living spaces, governmental regulations, and publicly-owned transportation systems sounds like some kind of communist experiment to me. Don't you know that the communists lost?
The communists may have "lost", but that doesn't mean that the capitalists should be allowed to win.
This vision is has a certain aesthetic appeal to it, but seems distant, an impractical utopian fantasy that would be nice but not particularly necessary. Most of us really don't see the environment as the most urgent of problems. We're more concerned with the difficulties we have in our interactions with other people. Our most significant problems are social problems.
We have the sense of increasing alienation from others as communities and relationships fall apart, ending in violence or cold distance. As our careers progress, it seems that we enjoy our work less and less until we're only in it for the paycheck. In a world full of strangers, purpose seems lost, and we have no one left to work for but ourselves.
A city rebuilt for more efficient use of resources through sharing might break down the walls of urban society that keep people apart. People walking to work past their neighbors' houses instead of driving by in a closed car, co-workers of all professional levels living in the same areas of town instead of in neighborhoods segregated by income, people from all walks of life riding together on public transportation, and the sharing of literal common ground would all help to bring people together into communities of diverse heritage but shared interests.
The possibility for the development of healthy urban communities is the most compelling reason for the restructuring of cities in the way that I have described here. Social stability and ecologically sound urban environments are mutually reinforcing. As citizens begin to appreciate their local natural environments, they come together in order to protect them. Moving about naturally through their local forests, people would build relationships with the trees, rocks, and waters, as well as the other people with whom they are shared. In a time of violence and social dissolution, a new focus on bringing nature back to the cities may be the catalyst that our urban societies need to bring their diverse populations together in cooperation.
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