The Plenary City

The difficult question is not how to build a shelter.  It isn’t how to make structures resist collapse, or floodproof, or blast-resistant.  Architects and engineers can do all of those things.

The question is how to change the patterns that put people in the way of harm.  Or, puts certain people in harm’s way, with no alternatives.  The wealthy can escape the consequences through insurance, resources, families and networks.  Their property values go up after a storm, repaying the investments they have made in waterfront communities.

The others… their net worth drops with every setback.  The contents of their freezer constitute their life savings, and unlike a safe deposit box, when the power goes out, the contents don’t survive.  Thus the depopulation of New Orleans, evacuated to Houston, Atlanta, or Chicago, who had nothing to return for – no car, no house, no savings, no community.  The clothes on their backs and the kindness of strangers and the novelty of a new life led them to stay, spending their Red Cross dollars to change their life.

To change the pattern of building in the wrong places, planners have to look beyond the obvious.  The poor lands are not the only land left, they are the only lands where the poor won’t come in contact with the rich.  They are the brownfields, the floodplains, the toxic, the wasteland.  These are the places where durability doesn’t matter, because the units and occupants are sacrificial.  Neighbourhoods which grow in population in the worst of times, but never empty in the best of times.  They are the end of the road.

Before cities were re-shaped by cars, divisions by wealth couldn’t happen with such strict and absolute boundaries.  The wealthy kept the poor nearby to run their factories and wash their clothes.  Cities developed in walkable pockets, later extending along streetcar lines, but poor and rich were never far away from each other.

Automobiles allowed the urban pattern to extend, but cities already occupied the good land – the tree-canopied, the highlands, the riversides.  Suburbs extended into cleared fields and charmless plains, busy streets and lowland edges.  It signalled a shift away from density and into zones of exclusion, where the wealthy could buy distance from their neighbours.

Today these suburban neighbourhoods are threatened by wearying commutes, choking pollution, flooding streets, and high heat indices.  Another shift is taking place.  People are returning to cities, and density is rising once again.  Young and old are choosing to live in places where a car is an unnecessary burden.  They are moving back to cities at a time when the reasons for originally siting the city are compromised: high ground is subsiding, good water sources are pumped dry, views and ventilation are obscured.

Is it too late to recover?  Or is this moment the opportunity to shift the paradigm and reclaim the best lands for new settlements of dense urban systems, with transport links, mixed neighbourhoods of workplace and commerce, with open space nearby?  Perhaps a proportionate number of units could be reserved for the people who need this access most fiercely?

The resilient city isn’t rich or poor, but inclusive.  It doesn’t safeguard the people on one side of the wall and leave the others to drown.  It no longer privileges by gender, race, education.  It must become the city for all, and as a result, the diverse group will survive together.  The baker needs his banker; the gardener, her attorney.  Proximity breaks down barriers.

Will cities with smaller footprints and greater density foster happiness?  Will the mixed-income inhabitants of the new Brooklyn or Bridgeport depend upon each other in the next storm?  Urban scale and design may be the key to resolving old prejudices and ancient grudges, and necessity the catalyst for re-knitting the neighbourhood to include everyone, once again.