The constant growth of the population and defective high-rise buildings have been gradually destroying cities. What is the solution to this urban-social problem?

It is expected that by 2050 around 11.4 billion people will live on earth, and 15.3 billion in 2100. The incessant increase in the world population and urban space in cities is a problem that has been posed for years and that has caused headaches among urban planners and architects.

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World population estimate growth_ ©Robin Hammond

Long-term population growth affects cities in very different ways around the world, depending heavily on the socio-economic context. In many urban regions of the United States, it has led to a notable increase in “expansion”, a term that is still rare, but it is a big problem due to the development of the metropolitan area.

The very definition of expansion is open to debate. For some people, it is represented by rows and rows of separate houses with large patios, wooden fences and a large single volume (or two) in the garage.

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American suburbia_©Devon Zuegel

For others, such as the social critic James Howard Kunstler, it is defined by eight-lane highways bordered by self-service stores and supermarkets. A real disaster. His definitions of this lack of control of the population are: “marginal neighbourhoods of national cars” or “a belt of asteroids of architectural garbage.” Critical and ingenious in equal parts.>>

The tragedy of the suburb – “places without value”, which are not worth taking care of – J. Kunstler

During his The Ted Talk (How bad architecture wrecked cities), James Howard Kunstler discusses the ugliness and the deplorable state of urban deterioration in American cities as a result of the erroneous urban development policies undertaken after World War II. These policies promoted the privilege of the car, the abandonment of the city to expand development into the suburb, with the unreal and utopian idea of “introducing” the nature and tranquillity of the countryside in the city where we sleep. And in the process, this resulted in them destroying the countryside, that desired nature and tranquillity, with thousands and thousands of kilometres of streets, roads and hectare after hectare of paved fields for parking, which would allow the eternal pendulum movement by car between the workplace and the place of sleep; an increasing number of cars, at increasing distances and more and requiring more travel time.

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Interchange in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin_©Tutor Perini

It is obvious that this idea turned out to be self-destructive and extremely expensive in terms of the continuous destruction of the environment, waste of non-renewable natural resources, deformation of civic, social, aesthetic and cultural values in the population, technological backwardness in the development of modern, efficient and less polluting means of transport…

In the vision of James Howard Kunstler, public space must be “The Place”, it must be an inspiring centre of civic life and the physical manifestation of the common good. Instead, he argues, that in the United States what they have is a nation of “worthless places”, which are not really worth taking care of.

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Quote from James Howard Kunstler_©By Rob Hopkins

This problem has not been reduced, but things have probably gotten worse: the population continues to grow with the notable concern for a space to live. And of course, each person, from their social step, will value one or the other characteristics: for some people, it will be important to think about the environment when designing our cities; for other people, that problem probably does not seem at all significant to them as long as they have a good room to dine and eat with the family. Individualistic thinking will probably continue to cause us problems if we do not know how to take the necessary measures to this unstoppable population growth, which causes us to misuse the space we have available on our planet.

Possible solutions

Smart Growth America researchers published a report entitled “Measuring Sprawl”, which analyzes certain metropolitan areas for their tendency to expand more and more, increasing dependence on cars and costing the general public a large amount of money to design new roads and other essential infrastructure.

Arguments in favour of the suburban lifestyle value greater privacy, less noise and air pollution, less crime and better schools. However, for architects, urban planners and other professionals (as is the case for James Howard Kunstler), this dispersed growth is unsustainable. If we study an architectural solution to this problem, a natural starting point would be to observe the opposite pattern: the recent megastructures that form vertical cities, combining a multitude of residential and civic uses with a minimal footprint.

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Carbon emissions in Atlanta versus Barcelona_©Better Growth, Better Climate, World Resources Institute, from The Urban Fix.

However, tall buildings also bring side effects that raise many environmental, social and ethical concerns. The restriction of light at ground level is currently a hot topic. With long shadows cast by numerous structures in our cities, we would lose one of nature’s most precious gifts: natural light. To whom does the horizon belong? Given the intensity with which we live and given that the sky provides us with natural light, do we really have the right to steal it?

Moreover, there are social implications as well. Urban plans with high-rise buildings, in the background, have a great lack of community spirit. Is it possible to design a vertical city that promotes a sense of community cohesion without damaging the environment or people’s health? 

Is there a way to take advantage of the best qualities of both conditions? Countless professionals in architecture and urban planning try to find that magical balance, and some have come to the same conclusion: that the “Low Rise High Density” designs, low height and high density, offer the best solution.

Low Rise High Density Development_© Peter Barber Architects

This concept is nothing new. Low Rise High Density emerged 40 years ago when the need for space and better living conditions led to alternatives to high-rise public housing.

Conclusion

Although these proposals are by no means idyllic, they are admirable for their basic premise: to increase the density and accessibility of cities without sacrificing the suburban ideals that many appreciate, such as private outdoor spaces and the possibility of living within a social and connected community. This type of hybrid construction has not yet been perfected, but it is essential that it plays a significant role in future debates on urban design for our constantly growing population. It would be something in between fixing what James Howard Kunstler criticizes but still being aware that a drastic change is just not realistic. 

Should we urbanize or build? Perhaps we just need to build with more social and environmental awareness.

References:

  1. 2007. James Howard Kunstler offers an in-depth analysis of the suburbs.Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1ZeXnmDZMQ> [Accessed 13 May 2022].
  2. Fink, C., 2022. The Problems With Suburbs Are Numerous. Is a Change of Course Possible?. [online] Planetizen.com. Available at: <https://www.planetizen.com/news/2018/11/101570-problems-suburbs-are-numerous-change-course-possible> [Accessed 16 May 2022].
  3. M Allen, R., 2021. The road to ruin — how the car drove US cities to the brink. [online] Ft.com. Available at: <https://www.ft.com/content/27169841-7ee3-481e-919d-41b247e401f6> [Accessed 16 May 2022].
  4. Creed LA. Equitable Economic Development. 2018. The Case for Urban Density: Building Upwards Instead of Outwards. [online] Available at: <https://creedla.com/the-case-for-urban-density-building-upwards-instead-of-outwards/> [Accessed 15 May 2022].

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