A suggestion for urban space in Fort Worth, TX

Skyscrapers are cool. This is the principle that has been embraced by peoples worldwide since they arrived on the scene in the 1920’s. Other than that, popular culture in the United States has taken little active interest in issues of urban planning beyond the mere suggestion that “we should think about putting a mall here.”

Urban planning, or urban studies as it’s sometimes called, really is about more than just beautifying cities or building subways: it’s about patterns of human settlement. And because everything is connected, urban planning is more a reflection of settlement patters in all of its forms – urban, suburban and rural. It speaks to the very way we set up our lives to occupy space, of which there is a lot in the US. The most common critique of new urban planning concepts is that they are not applicable in the vast expanses for which our country is known. It comes off like wishful thinking.

It isn’t. The American suburban phenomenon has been under assault for a long time, but as long as the automobile was a useful scale for planning (and the oil economy is functional) there was no arguing with the prices. Today the story is different: oil companies are resorting to extreme measures to find new oil (tar sands in Alberta, eww), and the effects of Climate Change are, well, becoming apparent with the hottest summer recorded in world history. To top it off, the United States is no longer the innocent country-girl claims to be in collective consciousness: as of the 2000 Census, the American population living in urban areas was at nearly 80%, to say nothing of where it is now in 2010. In essence, the United States has changed greatly while the picture we have of ourselves has stayed much the same; so we are not coming up with solutions to problems, because we pretend they don’t exist.

I have pretty strong feelings about all this: As long as the automobile is a practical scale for planning, we will continue turning farmland into cheap housing and create real-estate crises. As gas prices rise and the economy remains in recession, the proportion of the American population that can take advantage of a car-scale lifestyle drops. It becomes taxing to get to school, buy groceries, run errands, commute to work – and of course, to have fun. In an era like this, suburbanism becomes a luxury – but I won’t talk too much about suburbanism, which I will save for another time.

Instead, there have been a lot of great articles in The Times about New Urbanism that have been a breath of fresh air. It seems that the gasping age of the automobile is leading many to rethink settlement patterns, and to begin pointing fingers at Suburbia, long despised by urban planners and geographers alike (I have had many long, lovely conversations on this topic). The Congress for New Urbanism looks like a group I can really support, running projects to rejuvenate dying areas in cities across the country, among them New Orleans. The article about the hoped-for destruction of the Sheridan Expressway made me feel proud that citizens are taking back their cities (read: their homes) from the automobile, making urban life livable. Philadelphia just opened “The Piazza at Schmidts,” an urban market-shopping-entertainment space in an otherwise crowded neighborhood. The examples keep coming.

Even if the automobile recovers from the fuel crisis, this way of thinking is the sort of stuff that changes the quality of life for people and helps combat urban social issues. Even Times Square is now a pedestrian “mall” (which, as some people already know, is a term that I strongly dislike for pedestrian streets). I am amazed, proud, and encouraged. Which brings us to the final, awkward issue of malls – what is a mall? Even that seems to be changing, and probably for the better.

These spaces don’t need to be unreal or futuristic, just functional, human and (yes) sustainable. If there is anything that the environmental movement has taught us, it’s that we can’t keep trudging along the same ruinous path, especially when we know the dangers ahead of us. Our lifestyle and how we arrange it in space is the root cause, and it’s one whose costs we cannot afford to bear, or pass on to the rest of the world.

"Mall" concept-art.