fredag 30. juli 2010

Jan Wiklund: The meaning of the city is short distances

This article by Jan Wiklund, Stockholm, is translated from the swedish web site Alternativ Stad (Alternative City).

I like the reference to Versailles as the unsustainable model for suburban sprawl.

Audun Engh

Jan Wiklun

The meaning of the city is short distances

It doesn’t pay to beg the public for ever more money for more permanent infrastructure for the ever more dispersed city. It is better to build a city that meets the logistical needs from the beginning. I.e. build close.
The city’s purpose is to facilitate division of labour, by shortening the distance between people who cooperate. It is designed to minimize the distance between the maximum number of events.
First, economic activities, like those that we live from, but also other productive activities that never result in any records, like production of good ideas. As an extra icing on the cake, it also minimizes the distance for consumers, but that’s a side issue.
The city’s raison d'être is to facilitate the creation of values, by facilitating the logistics.

Sprawl is expensive
It is therefore strange that throughout the twentieth century urban development has been on the opposite course. It has ignored the important principle of ”nearness”. It has thinned out, it has separated, it has created barriers, sometimes unintentionally as when building roads, sometimes even deliberately like when you created the so-called Neighbourhood Units in the 40’s. It has made the distance between human activities longer and longer, and hampered the creation of values.
The costs that have caused all of us, not just in money but also in trouble, can hardly be measured fully. The city of Göteborg tried thirty years ago to measure the cost of building in the periphery compared with the core, and found that it was twice as expensive if the infrastructure were counted [1]. But this took into consideration only the costs for the construction sector - costs for us all day in and day out for extended travel were not counted. Nor were the economic costs of meetings that never happened because of the prohibitive logistics.
Why have has they done it like this?

There are two strong driving forces.

You can move closer to an understanding if you read how the city builders themselves describe it. They are not talking about cities, least of the city as a location for production. They talk about housing. It’s consumption instead of production. And family idyll instead of cooperation and activities. The productive parts of the city has become something they are ashamed of, something that is shunted away to places that are not visible.
Meanwhile, the model, or dream, that informed this ”housing” has been fundamentally aristocratic. The model was Versailles and its successors, the English country seats during the 1800s, diminished into bungalows. Noble, consuming ”resorts”, parasitically separated from the city life instead of contributing to it. And then, when the model would be realized even for the lower classes, the palaces were replaced by apartment blocks which do not produce anything either, where no cooperation is assumed to take place outside the family, preferably where no activity at all would be permitted, not to disturb the idyll. The vision of the good life has been to do nothing, at least nothing productive.
This policy has been sold to a skeptical audience [2] under the precondition that most people's ”activity” has been a soul-destroying toil, that no one wanted to be reminded of. The model has therefore been a perfect materialization of Fordism, with its murderous work-pace compensated by leisurely consumption. Nevertheless, the model has been expensive, and therefore, paradoxically, demanded even more soul-destroying toil to be paid for.

Fast roads disperse

But probably a more direct driving force is that the government has subsidized this development. The easiest way for a developer to reach a maximum land value increase is to build on cheap peripheral land. But this requires fast communications, otherwise people wouldn’t care of buying. This is provided by the municipalities and the state in the form of fast roads. According to Anders Hagson at Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg, fast roads are the most powerful thing state and municipalities can do to speed up urban sprawl [3]. The benefits accrue to those who exploit the periphery, the costs affects those who use the city as a place of production, in the form of longer distance and higher taxation.
For several reasons it is impossible to continue in this way. We will, in terms of productivity, be outpaced by cities without our overly expensive infrastructure. And the fuels that keep up the infrastructure is becoming even more expensive: no non-hydro energy sources can match the efficiency of oil, and extracting oil is becoming increasingly difficult.
There is no future in using hundreds of billions for new highways and new urban sprawl, it is in the projects of the type Värtastaden in Stockholm and Northern Masthugget in Göteborg, dense blocks close to the city core. It is good that the one-sided confidence in the blessings of thinning has been challenged.
Still, it is surprising that governments and businesses on the whole still sponsor motorways and ”edge cities” much more vigorously than short distances. Apparently, the land speculators are still all-powerful – to the detriment of the productive businesses.

Shrink suit
Our cities need to shrink their excessive costumes. We need to change incentives so it becomes more profitable to build centrally than peripherally. We need to change the planning process so it becomes easy to build dense city in the semi-central locations. We need to change our thinking so we can see the city as a place of production rather than the city as a place of consumption.
And above all we need to stop the rapid build roads, which are the most powerful sprawlers that are.

January Wiklund /
Alternativ Stad (Alternative City)

[1] Göteborg City Planning office: Byggnadsekonomisk utredning, 1978, referenced in Björn Alfredsson: Staden och ekonomin (The city and the money), Stadsförnyelsekommittén 1980
[2] The audience has always appreciated centrality. An gallup reported in the Stockholms Stads Betänkande och Memorial in 1947 or 1948 shows that flats in the suburbs were stunningly unpopular. Inner city or a house were the alternatives people accepted.
[3] Anders Hagson: Stads- och trafikplaneringens paradigm, dissertation, Göteborg 2004