How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken by Alex Marshall

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Posted 2005-04-20

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

This book shows how cities work by the confluence of people and goods moved about and concentrated by transit. Marshall's main critique of present cities is the focus on just one transit mode--automobiles--to the exclusion of all others.

Through examining the question, "Where do cities come from?" Marshall shows how cities work by the confluence of people and goods moved about and concentrated by transit. He shows how modes of transit foster different modes of settlement. For thousands of years, cities were based on human beings walking. Transportation modes such as rail and streetcar concentrated cities, but human beings still walked in cities as these modes were introduced.

However, the introduction of the automobile changed the scale of cities. Interstate highways fostered settlement at exit ramps based on automobiles coursing throughout a system of ramps and streets, with requirements for high speeds, wide streets, massive parking lots, and the elimination of pedestrians.

Marshall observes ironies in comparing Kissimmee's modest downtown with Celebration's mall-like downtown: "People don't want to live in a real Florida small town! They want to live in a fake small town where they can pretend to live in a real one" (p. 26). As Marshall observes, this desire comes out of a near-obsessive need for control and security. I wonder why people have such a need? Why don't people believe they can pursue happiness in a "real" small town? Why do they instead put their trust, in the case of Celebration, on the Disney brand name, for reliable and responsive safety and security? Why can't a municipal government offer safety and security to its citizens? Indeed, why do some cities often establish and preserve a permanent urban underclass in the central city? (See, for example, Orum 1995.)

In the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens, New York, Marshall observes a "ladder for an emerging middle class" (p. 113). Marshall traces this success to mass transit, which supports a city form and street-level life in which people must mix and get along.

Marshall suggests that the way to prevent sprawl is for regional governments to plan for transit, a grid of streets, and an urban growth boundary. Pressure must be kept on development so that it is concentrated, human-centered, and served by transit. Marshall criticizes forms of New Urbanism for ignoring the primacy of transit and the need for an urban growth boundary (he also critcizes New Urbanism concepts as shown in Celebration as being "fake").

Marshall's analysis of the role of government in building cities sheds a great deal of light on issues of sprawl. Marshall maintains that it is not cars that cause sprawl, but roads, "And roads are a public decision, not a private one" (p. 135). In essence, Marshall in this book asks that the urban form should not be left in the hands of traffic engineers whose efficiencies eradicate the human element (literally, in the form of pedestrian deaths). Government does have a role in creating not just a physical infrastructure, but a framework for a marketplace, and a rule of law--thus setting the form--and letting the private sector fill in the details (p. 154). In other words, when people say that sprawl is the expression of the "free market," they are mistaken--sprawl is the expression of government policy which systematically eradicated urbanism (see, for example, The Wealth of Cities or The Geography of Nowhere).

Marshall explores how retailing is an expression of the policies of sprawl (p. 192). Wal-Mart fills the market niche created by the framework of sprawl set at all levels of government. We elected officials who decided that the automobile would be the sole mode of transit everywhere in the United States (and world) and that pedestrians would be punished (including by death). We should not be surprised that retailing followed suit and became efficient at using sprawl as its setting--or else it would not survive. Consumers thus must go to sprawl stores or starve. Sprawl sucked so much retailing out of downtowns that Marshall observes a city councilman in Norfolk running a one-room grocery store (p. 199). This shows how niches develop for retailers who can address the need for practical goods at a reasonable price in the city's downtown, far from the sprawl. I see edited-selection stores meeting this niche by providing a limited line of products in a smaller store (for example Save-A-Lot) in urban environments, thus making it possible for people who work for a living to go to a nearby store (perhaps even walk!) and buy something practical--something unusual in downtown retailing.

My favorite quote from this book is: "Having a real downtown, and, I would posit, having a sense of place at all, are not possible where the car reigns supreme" (p. 183). I hope politicians and planners who seek to re-invigorate urban areas take this idea to heart and look at how the infrastructure they build influences what can grow there.

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