Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Cities of Bones: Traditional Development of Cities

If you read a lot of urbanist writing, or material about cities the phrase “a city’s bones” will almost inevitably come up. In every context I have seen it used it is a positive comment about the foundational structure of a city and how it established the city with a strong starting point for its present and future conditions. The best bones seem to come from older cities. Cities which were largely build before World War II and the rise of automobile-oriented development.

The better the core structure of the city is, the older the road network and basic infrastructure the more capable it is with dealing with our current problems. Our solutions are largely “back to the future” in their orientation. The concentration of wealth and employment in our cities’ centres make them the bustling cores that are attracting swarms of people to settle within them. As a result the densely populated city is the model that will reassert itself after the experiment of a bedroom suburb and inner-cities that shut down after 6 PM.

Sprawl is basically the antithesis to good bones. The booming, groaning suburbs that have been constructed in the Post-War period seem scarcely able to adapt to changing circumstances. When suburbs face challenges residents with means typically abandon them for greener pastures, often literally, with new green-field construction. This is not the case in cities with good bones. Cities such as London, Paris, New York, and Philadelphia are rooted in a deep strength. Despite deep hardships in the last few decades cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Hamilton (Ontario), Boston, and others have shown real resilience.

I think there’s a certain logic that suggests there is a natural order to cities that automobile-oriented development abuts against violently. Cities from pre-antiquity to the early 20th century share a great deal in common. It is hardly surprising to me that as cities revive it is often in the oldest neighbourhoods.

I worry that Canadian cities have undersize cores and have grown beyond their healthy bones and have become unsound. A report on my hometown of Brampton referred to our downtown as undersized. Instead of growing naturally and expanding overtime Brampton’s downtown remained quite small for decades until massive suburban development hemmed it in from all sides. Now heritage neighbourhoods prevent homes from being torn down and replaced with 2 to 4 storey brick mixed commercial-residential, as cities have densified naturally for centuries.

Our move away from the grid pattern to the cul-de-sac and twisty side roads may be the ultimate osteoporosis that dooms some of our cities. Suburban development as it has been seems hardly able to adapt to the changing circumstances of cities. The metaphor of bones is a valuable one because one’s skeleton is permanent and inescapable. One would think they would want the strongest most resilient structures to be at their core, but development patterns indicate otherwise. I’m not suggesting every city needs to look like the downtown core of a major city, but there is a kinship between the downtowns built by small towns a hundred years ago and what we see in those cities now. They stand in stand contrast to the tumour-like growths on the edge for our big-box stores and other sprawl.

Traditional development accounts for human needs and provides a natural form of growth and development. Ultimately cities will have to look to the past to find structures that are durable and better capable of adapting to change.

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