It Smells A Rat – America’s Collapsing Cities

Attending Antonio Di Mambro‘s lecture last night at Boston Public Library, it was amazing to see the giant crowd that packed Rabb Lecture Hall.  Who would have thought that an urban planning talk — stoked with dire warnings and gloomy facts — would bring out such a vibrant cross-section of the city?  It is almost as if, after thirty years of vapid hand-wringing and self-gratifying acts of “green” living, the mass of architects, planners, designers, and technocrats are beginning to realize that if they do not actually change the way America is built starting immediately, that our cities are literally going to fall apart.   Cities can only take so much pillaging by the greed heads, then they go belly up.

It’s not as if we did not see this coming.  It’s been like a runaway train that travels at one-millionth the pace of a snail.  Since the ecology movement of the 1970s and the brief moment of hope for alternative energies and sustainable development that blossomed after the oil shock, we fell into the truly insane frenzies of Reaganomics and Supply Side Economics.  Is that era finally over?  The financial mess we are in today seems to indicate that it is…but what will take it’s place?

Into this vacuum steps the formidable architect, Di Mambro, who points out that our future cities will either be collapsed cities, resilient cities, divided cities, or ecotopias.   We are already living in an age of collapsed cities:  Detroit, Gary, Haverhill… pardon me if I didn’t name your collapsed hometown!  As James Howard Kunstler  has been warning us in his excellent books [Geography of Nowhere, The Long Emergency], “We’re literally stuck up a culdesac in a cement SUV without a fill-up.”

Di Mambro predicts that, the way things are going, we are very unlikely to end up in an ecotopia city, where humans and the natural environment are harmonized, where our energy use is ratcheted down to a sane level, and where sustainability is possible.   On the contrary, he predicts that we will end up in divided cities, where small pockets of perfection exist for the super-rich, while the mass of humanity toils in unworkable filth on all sides.

Who is to blame for this state of affairs?   Di Mambro says his own generation did not fulfil its obligations for stewardship.  But also to blame are the basic tenets of the 20th century; that growth is equal to progress, and that technology will solve everything.   We need to balance growth and development with rational methods for preserving our air, water, and soil so that their carrying capacity comes back into line with our population.   But the trends do not look good.  In fact, we have an automobile industy in total denial, and burgeoning populations along the coastlines in the face of rising waters…we are in for a right awful mess!

Di Mambro did offer some concrete ideas for what we have to do, but he stressed that this is not a design issue, nor is it a choice.  Our backs are already to the wall and it is now long past the point where hesitation is acceptable.  Only serious action, vigilance, advocacy, and a unified society will be able to transform our dysfunctional urban – suburban axes of evil into liveable habitats.   The sad thing to me about this situation, is that all of these so-called planners and architects have been reading the works of Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford for forty years!   Why did they wait until the situation deteriorated to this point before coming out in huge numbers to applaud Di Mambro?   Where was their spine over the last three decades when I was out raving against the supremacy of the automobile, against the madness of suburban sprawl, against the rape of our wetlands and trashing of our forests?   Will the plan that Di Mambro advocates for South Dallas be acted upon, or just shelved along with all our good intentions as the ship sinks?   Even as Di Mambro’s animated historical maps showed the highways snaking through the center of South Dallas, gutting neighborhoods and turning them into wastelands of scrap metal yards and born-again churches, I suspect that the malaise is somehow more deeply entwined with our automobile-based economy than any planners can fix.   It’s not that I don’t respect what Di Mambro is trying to do, don’t get me wrong:  the man is a hero!  But when he brokered a deal between the resident’s advocacy groups and the municipal government of Dallas, the “Memorandum of Understanding” was refused by the city officials because “we don’t have those kind of words down here in Dallas…”   As Di Mambro said of the deal the city first proposed for South Dallas:  “it smells a rat!”  And that pretty much sums up my feeling for what we will get from any Bechtel, from any Parsons-Brinkerhoff, from any Bovis, until we hog-tie the bastards who have stolen all the public wealth for the last forty years and get our money back!

The way in which we built our cities in the first place is now strangling us with our own idiocy.

See also unrelated talk by Di Mambro on urban planning in Boston and Italy:  16 minute video  [Di Mambro talk begins at 30:00, ends at 46:30]