The City: The First Suburbs Were Called “Green Cities”

I found The City, a documentary from 1939, at the library. Copland does a fantastic score for it, by the way. I wasn’t sure what the expect but what I got was truckloads of insight into why we have suburbs today.

Cities were hell holes.

The first part of this doc shows the Utopia of farm life. It functions well, the air is clean, and communities are strong. Then it starkly contrasts this dream with factory-laden cities where everything is filthy, there’s not a tree in sight, kids play in slums, smoke stacks, hunger, traffic accidents, poverty. “Smoke makes prosperity, no matter if you choke on it.”

The big shocker for me was the turning point of the documentary. It starts showing suburbs with plenty of trees, space, and sidewalks. It shows highways in a positive light, people biking and walking, and peaceful buses picking up commuters in the middle of nowhere. “Factories are set apart from living quarters, but close to rail and motor roads, with space to set about it. People can even walk to work and have lunch at home sometimes, just like the kids.”

After watching this, you can completely understand why urban sprawl happened. The motives were (if not racist and sexist) completely pure.

What do we know now that they don’t know?

Spread-out plans can cost more and eat up a lot of land, especially when population grows exponentially.

People like Robert Moses had to be born and car-obsessed, subsidizing cars so much that trains and public transit were pushed out of many communities.

Good planning doesn’t necessarily make good communities or happy people. Just watch the 9 million movies that cast a negative light on Utopian suburbia.

Schools would somehow become places for police supervision, even in the suburbs and subdivisions. Kids don’t walk to school anymore, even in suburbs and subdivisions. Somehow after building all of these suburbs and subdivisions we still don’t feel “safe.” Perhaps suburbs don’t create peace at all. Getting away from the inner city and the minorities who live there doesn’t create safety. (Didn’t Columbine poke a hole in that belief?) Maybe it just reinforces segregation and racism.

What they saw that we’ve lost sight of

Cities are (still) broken. No one should have to live with the messes that urban life can create.

Cities shouldn’t grow too large to be managed.

The “green communities” described actually fit the exact description of New Urbanism. “Houses clustered together, close to schools, the public meeting hall, the movies, and the markets.” Produce comes from nearby farms.

What went wrong

Suburbs became places only navigable by car, with garages shooting out to the driveways so that neighbors are less likely to know each other. Highways split part cities and, in Detroit’s case, somewhat killed them. Zoning compartmentalized commercial, residential, and industrial areas to be too separate, creating risky climates for success on the commercial properties’ part.

What we’ve done right

Putting farms and gardens back into the cities.

Moved industry away from living quarters (though we still need to cut down on pollution)

Local food is increasing in popularity by day.

Here’s a clip from the documentary, which is entirely on Youtube in four parts.

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