We Built This City… Well, Not Really

Two interests tend to consume my mind. One is history, of course. The other, oddly, is urban planning. I’m by no means an expert on this topic, and I tend to focus on theory rather than action. Recently, I read “Geography of Nowhere” by James Howard Kunstler. He’s a bit of a whiner, but overall, he made some good (if obvious) observations that reaffirmed my opinion that there should be a growing movement to change the nature of our cities.

Specifically, I’m thinking of the cities within the Red River Valley… naturally.

fort worth stockyards downtown trinity best

(That’s the Trinity River, but still).

The “Old Southwest” was built by roads. Only in the southern parts (Louisiana, Arkansas) did rivers serve as a transportation route; otherwise, people traveled by foot, horse, stagecoach, buggy, railroads, streetcars, and automobiles. Naturally, our cities grew to accommodate these modes. Kunstler posits that this is the reason many American cities are built horizontally, with wide swaths of vacant land and acres of parking lots. While he has a point, I think the real culprits are the politicians who run the cities. It seems that the primary goal for council meetings is not to advocate for ideas that would create better communities, but rather what will make the most money. I once sat at a council meeting in my hometown and I swear, there were more “developers” in the meeting than there were media, citizens, and city employees. Not that construction is necessarily bad; it’s just that the kind of construction that tends to get the “go-ahead” by elected officials, many of whom don’t have any backgrounds in planning, repeats itself in every town. The big box stores made of pre-fabricated cement walls, large steel sheds, low roofed stripmalls, and bland suburban tracts that are approved by councils do not appeal to the aesthetics or the needs of those who have to live and work in the spaces. Literally, they create pockets of space that only suit their purposes but have no real connection to the city that surrounds them. The developers mostly don’t even live in the cities that they are developing, and without having a stake in the community, they have little interest in boosting the city’s appeal. While the council people do live in the cities, they usually have no way to not approve projects that meet the city code without protracted fights. And then we have to live in places that are depressing, ugly, and unwalkable.

Downtown Ardmore is really nice.

Downtown Ardmore is really nice.

One prime example is Texarkana. Up until the 1940s, this city had a vibrant downtown, filled with street cars, theaters, and home-grown businesses.For the majority of city-dwellers, department stores, grocers, and hardware stores were either a simple walk or a short trolley ride away. But then the interstate was built. The city approved new projects along this behemoth, neglecting its core in favor of  cheap land, hastily-imagined building codes, and the promise of future tax revenue (usually an unlikely source of potential revenue, as abatements often outlived the businesses they were supposed to help). The very leaders who were charged with advocating  for citizens’ welfare instead sold off the future of the city, and didn’t give themselves any recourse to stop this strangulation of its core.

The interstate put a damper on downtown Texarkana.

The interstate put a damper on downtown Texarkana.

I love to daydream about how to re-imagine our cities. I wish I could push for the end of strip malls in the middle of nowhere, and instead have businesses line the streets around downtowns. I’d make front lawns obsolete – seriously, what are they good for? – and make homes and businesses vertical to compact the space. I’d maintain all sidewalks and bike lanes, and rid cities of one way streets.

The nerd has spoken.

Published in: on April 17, 2013 at 4:31 am  Leave a Comment  
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