The End of Cities?

Whether I remember them very well or not, I’ve lived in large cities most of my life: Boston, Minneapolis, Houston, London, Dallas, New Orleans, and now, San Antonio. Although Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas rank fourth, seventh, and ninth respectively, in terms of population within the US, all three of these Texas cities are quite spread out geographically, with few limits to sprawl. Therefore, an urban lifestyle in San Antonio, for example, is often essentially suburban (perhaps even exurban), when compared to living conditions in many other cities in the US, and most of them elsewhere in the world. My workplace is not in downtown San Antonio, but even if it were, I could nevertheless live a few miles away and enjoy a stand-alone house with a yard of about 0.1 acre, for not much more investment than my current suburban residence required.

Because of my choices and specialization within academia, and my refusal to commute long distances (and, admittedly, to consider living in small town/rural US), I am tied to urban areas with health science centers and medical/dental schools. Accordingly, I’ve become increasingly interested in urban issues, and in particular, how varieties of city-dwelling strategies can in fact be green. I’ve started reading books on these subjects, and would like to discuss some of the ideas and controversies here at City Limits, as well as to hear about the experiences and thoughts of any other city-dwellers in the comments. As a disclaimer, these will NOT be zombie apocalypse/doomed urban dwellers posts, nor do I intend to be smug about my own (definitely non-exemplary) lifestyle (you can go blog-elsewhere for all that).

The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born. When the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins.
~ Italo Calvino


San Francisco, CA (Photo by G. Bobrowicz)

Are we beginning to see the exhaustion and dissolution of city-forms, and the end of cities, in the developed world? At his blog Aardvarchaeology, Dr. Martin Rundkvist links to a series of haunting photographs of abandoned buildings in a Shrinking City. Detroit, Michigan has been particularly hard-hit by the recession, with a dwindling population and a corresponding increase in residential vacancies; Yves Marchand and Romaine Meffre have documented architectural indicators of this decline in a photogallery titled Detroit in Ruins.

In The New York Times, Jonah Lehrer writes about the work of physicist Geoffrey West, who, with a team of researchers, analyzed huge amounts of data on cities worldwide, and developed elegant equations to describe urban variables. Lehrer reports that West can use these equations to predict numbers of violent crimes, or to estimate the dimensions of the sewer system, for cities of different sizes in a particular country. Such analyses of city infrastructure and consumption arose from West’s earlier work on the relationship between the metabolic rate of an animal and its mass. As in the animal kingdom, there are economies of scale in a large metropolis; in other words, big cities have the potential to be centers of sustainability. It’s that positive “green” potential, as well as the flip side, of urban sprawl and blight, which will be the main focus of this blog. There will be other stuff too – art journal images, silliness, natural history – and I’d love to read about the experiences of others living in cities, large and small, across the globe.

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10 Responses to The End of Cities?

  1. Cromercrox says:

    Welcome aboard Kristi!

  2. ricardipus says:

    …and welcome from over here, too. Occam’s T is gaining new bloggers every time I visit, it seems. 🙂

  3. KristiV says:

    Thanks for the welcome, cromercrox and ricardipus!

    @ricardipus – Hope I’m not going against the OT motto … I’ll strive for quality AND variety.

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Yay Kristi! I’m so glad you decided to join us!

    I really like the idea behind this blog, being a city person myself – I grew up in a suburb of a small city, a town really, but have moved to progressively larger cities over time. Our local media are very interested in these issues, too – Vancouver’s urban planning is apparently world-renowned (there’s even something called “The Vancouver Model”), and issues such as transit and bike lanes are surprisingly hot-topic issues in local (city and provincial) elections. This is all because of our geographical constraints – with the mountains to the north, US border to the south, and Pacific ocean to the west (plus lots of inlets and rivers to contend with in the core), you have to build either eastwards (where people have to cross lots of bridges, i.e. major traffic bottle necks, to get to the city), or build density in the city’s core. They’ve just started to allow people to build small dwellings (“laneway housing”) at the back of single-family properties, for example, and there are constant discussions about increasing the maximum allowed building height in the downtown core while preserving the view corridors to the mountains.

    It’s all very interesting! Can’t wait to read more!

  5. rpg says:

    It’s great to have Kristi on board. We’re going to let things settle down a bit now, before opening up any new blogs. I’m really pleased with the mix of people and topics we’ve got; well done all!

  6. Frank says:

    Hi Kristi. Good to see you here. Cities are fascinating for me too so I look forward to reading more here.

    Did you see the post by Grrlscientist about using phone data to define regions? not exactly about cities, but relates to the question of where a city begins and ends.

  7. KristiV says:

    @ Cath – Vancouver has always seemed like a “model city” to me in several ways, and I’ll be very interested to hear about urban planning and your experiences as a resident. Cultural diversity in particular seems a real plus for Vancouver, as it is for San Francisco, London, and Houston, just to give a few examples with which I’m familiar. Though the Intercontinental Airport for Houston is, as discussed elsewhere at OT, pretty awful.

    @ rpg – Thanks again; I’m thrilled to be here amongst some of my favorite bloggers.

    @ Frank – I hoping to explore a variety of city-related topics here (fitness, food, pets, transportation, museums, green spaces, etc.), and of course I’m open to suggestions. That post by Grrlscientist is great, and would fit in nicely for a discussion on communications; thanks for linking it!

  8. steffi suhr says:

    Yay Kristi!! So happy to see you here!!

    Interesting topic: I grew up basically right in the middle of Hamburg, which is the “European green capital” in 2011. I am very skeptical whether anything actually useful will come out of this, or whether it’s just politics and PR…

  9. KristiV says:

    Hi Steffi! I’m currently reading a book called Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development, by Joan Fitzgerald, and so far Germany seems to be a shining example of sustainable urban design. In particular, Fitzgerald starts the book with a description of a green neighborhood in Freiburg, and a discussion of how German companies have been innovators in solar energy technologies.

  10. Stephen says:

    A rather belated but still heartfelt welcome to OT Kristi – I like the theme you’ve mapped out for yourself (though secretly hope that you’ll also be sharing your sketchbook from time to time!).

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