The Exploding Metropolis

Despite how it may appear, in the 1950's when the car was starting to take over the city, there were people concerned. William Whyte Jr., along with Francis Bello, Symour Freedgood, Daniel Seligman, and the famous Jane Jacobs each wrote a chapter to contribute to the book The Exploding Metropolis. Their topics ranged from designing downtown's for the pedestrian instead of from a birds eye view, slum creation, urban sprawl, and the strength and power of government officials.

What is most fascinating about this book is reading it fifty years after it was written and finding a combination of ideas that I am glad were never realized and many that I am glad were. Some of the more shocking perspectives that show what society was like back in the 1950 and 60's prior to the Civil Rights Movement were contained in Daniel Seligman's chapter titled "The Enduring Slums." He said he talked to leaders in the black community who would agree to caps on the number of black residents in a neighborhood to ensure the white residents did not move out. I am glad that today we are beyond that kind of thinking, realizing that the best neighborhoods are not homogeneous at all. 

Early criticism of housing programs such as Title I proved true. In Seligman's view the "government in effect, ends up paying landlords for their violations," in order to buy up land for redevelopment in blighted neighborhoods. Most planners believe the various housing acts that began in the 1930's and continued through the 1960's were unsuccessful. They were clearing whole neighborhoods and putting up dense housing projects that we are now tearing down at a similarly rapid pace. What surprised me about these high rise projects is management was supervising and watching the families living there and forbid such basic actions as walking on the grass. No wonder they were unpleasant places to live.

There were contradictory messages mixed throughout the book. In Seligman's view, old houses invited slum expansion and the solution to rid the city of slums was to build new housing on a large scale. Jacobs however was of the opinion that cities needed a mix of new and old to provide the distinct character and affordability that allowed all types of people and businesses to inhabit them. It seems time has shown that preservation of old houses and buildings has won the battle against demolition. Some of the most expensive apartments are in renovated warehouses or the oldest neighborhoods in the city.

It was agreed upon by all the authors that sprawl was bad and to be avoided at all costs. Much of the message fifty years ago was 'buy up as much land as you can to save it from development in the future.' Buy first, plan later. It may not be the most fiscally responsible idea, but if the land proved to be unnecessary, the city could always sell it. In the end though, it was recognized that to fight the car, planning was necessary. Jacobs said "the best way to plan for downtown is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and exploit and reinforce them." Too often as planners we get so busy writing staff reports or going to meetings we forget to take time to sit and watch what people are doing and how they interact and move about the city. When it was nice out, I spent my lunches doing this at the plaza in downtown Minneapolis. 

So while this book is over fifty years old, it still has a few lessons to impart. It guides us in what we should be doing not only as government officials and planners, but as residents living in a city too. It steers us away from the bad ideas of the past and towards a brighter future.