Inertia in Urban Form and Modes of Occupation

October 10, 2009

Matthew Yglesias describes the cycling-friendly city of Copenhagen and how it got to be that way:

Back in the 1970s there were a substantial number of cyclists in what I guess you would call the “pre car” mode where people ride bikes because the country is too poor for everyone to afford a car. Then came the oil crisis and driving got even more expensive. And alternative policies started to be explored where for the first time the country started consciously trying to encourage bicycling. And the policy was never really dropped. So you have lots of cyclists which creates a constituency for more infrastructure which leads to more cycling which creates a constituency for more infrastructure.

He sees something similar, or at least the potential for it, in New York and D.C.  This cycling example exemplifies a dynamic of change that is to some degree inherent in the built environment.  His term “path dependence” sounds a little too rigidly causal, though.  Not a path so much as a field of ongoing interactions – between social and cultural norms, economic facts, political actions, and the physical form of the built environment.

I would especially emphasize the last.  Urban form is in some ways a repository or embodiment of modes of living, but form is less fluid and slower to change than lifestyles – due to the simple fact that it takes time and money to build things, and once built, all things being equal, they tend to remain.  This inertia of physical form is constantly challenged by shifting modes of occupation, so that the same urban fabric is “lived in” in different ways at different points in time.  Most obviously in different historical periods, but equally different times of day, seasons, on special occasions, during public emergencies.  This means that a given urban situation inherits both limitations and possibilities from its past.

Thinking about cities this way introduces a temporal, historical aspect that makes for more sophisticated analysis than categories like the “European city” vs. “American city” – or even “car-oriented” vs. “pedestrian-oriented.”  Yglesias places the subject here, Copenhagen, not just spatially but also within a time frame, the 1950s-70s-present, in which people have used bikes for varying reasons, and partly due to the chance timing of larger historical events (the oil crisis) car-driving never took off.  This is an interesting case for thinking about structure and agency.  The timing of both structural shifts (oil crisis) and key decisions (bicycle policy) were crucial to producing the city’s present – its built environment, lifestyles, and social norms.

Highlighting this question of timing in a more comparative analysis illuminates similarities and differences outside of usual categories.  Consider the U.S. in a similar timeframe (1950s-present), where enormous resources have been directed toward building urban landscapes that are difficult to live in without a car.  From the standpoint of 1960, the difference reflected the relative wealth of the U.S., the ready availability of open land, and a whole bundle of cultural attitudes.  A place like Copenhagen would appear constrained – economically, spatially, socially.

One point here is that urban inertia (or the lack of it) can be both favorable and unfavorable, an opportunity or a limitation, and the assessment might change based on a shorter or longer time frame.  Another point is that although we can draw a historical contrast the reality was not a simple dichotomy.  Perhaps cycling as a mode of urban transport largely disappeared in the U.S. (if it ever was much of a factor), but some places – notably the older cities on the East Coast – still had an older urban fabric amenable to that use.  Not just the East Coast, but anywhere with a similar urban typology, like downtown Portland.  The present gradual shift toward more bicycle use operates differently in places like that than where the infrastructure is primarily car-based.  A further point is that, in a place like Portland, the story is different outside downtown.  And for that matter, plenty of European cities have automobile-oriented districts.

Urban reality usually fits in multiple categories, and in gray areas between categories.  It is dynamic – over time new things are built, old ones taken down, and at a more rapid pace, the mode of occupation shifts and new modes arise.  For these reasons analysis benefits from finer-grained comparison (which often means finding both differences and similarities) and from consciousness of temporal change.  The way new or revived uses (for good or ill) are latent in inherited urban form is both a challenge for designers and an ethic for historians.

That the past both circumscribes and generates possibility can be said of any social reality, but the physical reality of cities and experiential reality of our lives in them make the senses of possibility and limitation especially vivid.  I would even venture that cities, seen from this perspective, can help us understand the workings of social structures that, having less physical form or offering less personal engagement, are more difficult to grasp.

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