Saturday, June 9, 2012

Density Needs More 2/2

The second school of thought is diversity of interaction. The Atlantic recently ran an excellent article detailing the pitfalls of a pure density philosophy. The essential thesis is that a sustainable city is one that “fosters a diversity of interaction.” The more people are able to freely exchange ideas with each other, the better the city becomes. The problem with sprawl is that people are so far away from each other that a real sense of community is disrupted. Who cares about a neighborhood when it is the homogenous clone of every other neighborhood in the country? Yet in cities where mobility between diverse groups is stifled by separate parts of town for the rich, the poor, the right, the left, the ethnic minorities, and the whites there is little sense of community there too. A city flourishes when community and place have meaning.

By creating skyscraper canyons where people can safely hole up away from the din below, there is little difference from a sprawl city. Diversity is not enough to make a thriving cityscape.

Here’s an example. Remember Boston before the Big Dig? Maybe you don’t, or maybe you think Big Dig has something to do with the mob. The Big Dig was an effort to bury Boston’s freeways under the city. Before the freeway was raised above the city; a double-decker design similar to the Viaduct in Seattle and the Embarcadero in Oakland. There were many reasons to bury the freeway such as earthquake safety.

But it also had the added benefit of unifying the city. Before the city was divided by the freeway; little cultural exchange occurred between the two portions. Noise pollution ruined the value of land in the region. There was high crime in the area. And yet it was dense.

In Boston, the freeway served as a dividing line that kept the city from being friendly to the interactions and exchanges necessary for a productive city. Even now the divisions remain quite visible as remnants. Neighborhoods shaped for decades under the divisions of the freeway. Despite this, Boston now moves freely. It was already well known for its walkability but now there are few parallels in the world. There is no place in the city where a pedestrian feels uncomfortable crossing the road—excepting the Masshole drivers.

To sum, accessibility is yet another metric from which a city must be measured in order to fully address all three tenets of sustainability. While density is an excellent indicator for many economic, environmental, and social impacts it fails to fully explain many of the more nuanced questions of a sustainable city. It is about building and maintaining a culture which often does not have such concrete numbers. A sustainable future relies on innovation and creative thought, where the layered elements of a flourishing city are reflected in the academia.