Sunday, September 06, 2009

Spare the "vision"

"Map of the city" translates as Stadtplan in German. But can one have maps even when there are no plans? While there are many grand designs for cities (Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago shows up in many textbooks), there is also much of the "urban fabric" which comes about bottom-up. The interplay of bottom-up and top-down forces is discussed in this review of Anthony Flint's Wrestling with Moses, by Ed Glaeser (HT to Sandy Ikeda).

As my previous post suggests, when it comess to cities, statements like "size matters" or "density matters" are much too vague to be useful. The International Council of Shopping Centers reports that there are 102,000 shopping centers in the U.S. But there are many more small agglomerations of shops that do not rise to the level of a shopping center. There are also many places that can qualify as activity centers without being a shopping center.

Statements about "density" are meaningless unless the area considered is specified. This is why the report that "Los Angeles is more dense than New York" (true since 1990for the census bureau's urbanized areas) is so maddening to so many people. As the lens zooms in on both places, the picture changes dramatically. But these two (and all the other) vast urban areas are punctuated by an almost uncountable number of "centers" that come into being for the simple reason that all of us find social and economic benefit from various clustering opportunities. This suggests once again that open-endedness is essential. There can be no one grand vision for cities to guide city growth and development.