Friday, December 30, 2011

Downtown is for People

"It has sometimes been urged that this [low residential density in American cities] is largely the result of the development of the electric street railway in America, but the causal connection is not apparent. . . . It should rather be said that the American penchant for dwelling in cottage homes instead of business blocks after the fashion of Europe is the cause, and the trolley car the effect." -Adna Ferrin Weber, The Growth of Cities in the Nineteenth Century (1899).

"By the end of the [nineteenth] century, if not earlier, downtown was synonomous with the business district virtually everywhere in urban America. ... As well as a new word, "downtown" was, as Webster's noted, an American word.  It was virtually unknown in England and other Western European countries. Well into the early twentieth century English travel writers thought it necessary to explain the meaning of "down town" to their readers.  ... American reporters and public officials routinely refer to "downtown" in cities all over the world, but the word does not have much meaning outside the United States.  For downtown was not only an American word, it was also a uniquely American place." -Robert Fogelson, Downtown, Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950 (2001).

The "penchant for dwelling in cottage homes":
"Sprawl" circa 1900, Rochester, NY.
As the excerpt from Adna Ferrin Weber's book shows, the study of suburban growth in America goes back much further than 2001's Suburban Nation, 1993's The Geography of Nowhere or 1985's Crabgrass Frontier.  A distinctively American pattern of low-density residential expansion in single-family detached homes was starting to be noticed by writers as early as the late 1800s.  Nearly 150 years earlier, a perceptive observer might have noted the significant differences between the small towns of Europe and those of North America, differences which portended the dominance of the "cottage home" in the United States, and Canada, in the centuries to come.

As Robert Fogelson points out, however, the existence of a small central district devoted to business and commerce was perceived as normative, rather than as a distinctively American feature.  Even today, of the hundreds or thousands of extant books and studies critiquing the form of American cities, the majority focus on suburban sprawl, with fewer specifically addressing downtown areas, much less critically.*

More typically, the 19th century commercial downtown is set up as an object of nostalgic admiration in spite of its generally unimpressive 20th century track record.  The reasons for its decline, whether absolute or relative, are not usually attributed to anything inherent in its conception or layout, but in the damaging acts done to it: among them freeway construction, urban renewal, street widening, and a rash of anti-urban regulations ranging from parking minimums to setback requirements. If downtown died, the cause was malpractice based on a faulty diagnosis, not any underlying illness.

Could it have been, though, that downtown was doomed to decline or stagnation from the start, at least in the form envisioned by 19th and early 20th century Americans?  The fundamental problem was this: for a large and growing city, continued high-density commercial growth in the center and omnipresent low-density residential growth elsewhere were ultimately incompatible.  Incompatible, because low-density growth required rapid outward expansion, and that same expansion carried increasingly large proportions of the urban population beyond a reasonable travel distance from the center, at least before the arrival of the automobile.

The story of downtown, as Fogelson tells it, is of increasingly desperate attempts by downtown merchants to fight the effects of this trend without sacrificing their monopoly on commercial space.  It was ultimately a losing battle, however, since the very transportation devices perceived by the commercial interests as great centralizers the omnibus, the streetcar, and at last the automobile were perhaps, as Weber observed, only symptoms of an epic decentralization. 

Each device, moreover, led inexorably to its successor: the omnibus and railroad carried the wealthy to outlying mansions, whose dispersal created a built-in market for speedier streetcar service; the streetcar suburbs, in turn, with their low-density and segregated uses, created a built-in market for the automobile. 

Transportation, in this view, was in the United States** often a lagging indicator of land use changes driven partly by personal preference, partly by increasing wealth, and partly by the sheer growth of urban populations and the arrival of heavy industry. The auto, at last, shattered the monopoly of fixed-route transportation lines and, by connection, the monopoly of downtown itself. 

The tendency, at this point, is to fault the automobile for the decline of downtown, as though a different approach to transportation policy in the critical years from 1890-1930 might have altered urban trajectories.  But this seems unlikely.  Fogelson describes how large and wealthy cities like Detroit and Cleveland did launch major, but ultimately failed, efforts to construct subways in the 1920s.  It could be said that Detroit was a city built around the automobile before the automobile existed.  Low-density, use-segregated, single-family detached homes on wide streets lent themselves to motorized personal transport much more than mass transit.  And once the car had arrived, why not simply move the department store, the supermarket, and even the workplace itself closer to one's residence? 

Downtown commercial interests, however, were convinced that downtown's problem was not its form and land use patterns, but in its lack of accessibility to shoppers and commuters.  The suburban preference, rightly or wrongly, was taken for granted in most places.  Once cars began to proliferate in the 1920s, the response was not, in most cases, to entice suburbanites with visions of urban living, but to either make valiant attempts at mass transit systems or, more often, to turn over large swathes of the downtown to the car.  As Norman Garrick and Chris McCahill have shown, this policy sometimes (as in the case of Hartford) resulted in an absolute decline in downtown jobs, indirectly assisting the ongoing decentralization of business.

Jane Jacobs knew better.  In the early days of urban renewal, and only two years after the passage of the Highway Act of 1956, she proclaimed in Fortune magazine that "Downtown is for People," by which she meant not only commuters and shoppers, but residents as well.  For decades her advice went unheeded, but it's still one of the best rallying cries out there for rethinking the American downtown.

*For just a small sampling, see Sprawl: A Compact History; Streetcar Suburbs; Crabgrass Frontier; Bourgeois Utopias; Suburban Nation; Building Suburbia; Geography of Nowhere.  Books focusing on downtown are much rarer: Fogelson's work and Alison Isenberg's Downtown America are the only general, book-length treatments I'm aware of, setting aside Death and Life, but if anyone knows of others I'd be glad to learn.

**Kenneth Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier describes how streetcars were generally much slower to catch on, and ridership lower, in European and Japanese cities, even though these were denser than the great majority of American cities.


  1. A splendid post.

    One of the big problems with "downtown" in the U.S. -- think Chicago -- is that it is a 19th Century Hypertrophic pattern, of relatively giant buildings on giant streets. This is not such a bad arrangement for a business district, but it is inhospitable for families, women, children, the elderly, etc. The drive for "suburbanization" in the U.S., to return to a more comfortable pattern which is essentially the Small Town America pattern of farmhouses on 1/4 acre plots, dates from well before the automobile -- as you say, this desire in some ways drove the development of streetcars and so forth, with the automobile really just the final stage of a long process.

    The abandonment of the 19th Century Hypertrophic downtown area came about basically as a result of the automobile, as you say. There is simply not enough parking, and too much traffic. Just try driving across Manhattan. This is why the post-1950 "urban planners" were single-mindedly focused on more parking and larger roadways.

    All of the "New Urbanist" types who are unwitting champions of the 19th Century Hypertrophic format seem to fail to realize that we have already conducted an enormous continent-wide, 150-year experiment that was a failure.

    At the same time, hundreds or even thousands of Traditional Cities, all around the world, remain beautiful today, and many are prime tourist destinations.

  2. As a father I'm in full agreement with Mr. Lewis' comment about inhospitable American downtowns. Integrating cars and people appears to be a losing battle, but most American's accept it as a fact of life; like death and taxes.

    Portland has experimented with smaller homes, densely built on the block. Sometimes they are rather well laid out, even. But if you don't change the bigger pattern of wide streets that the block exists in, all you're really doing is increasing the number of auto-dependent residential units. It's little different than a condo or apartment building that takes up an entire square block and is bounded on all sides by 2-4 lanes of traffic.

  3. The Geography of Nowhere describes how some of America's earliest settlers - the Puritans in New England - *did* initially settle in what were essentially reproductions of medieval European villages.

    Kunstler argues that this European settlement pattern had all but disappeared by the mid-18th century. By then we had stopped building true "villages" and were instead building scattered, vague clusters of detached single-family farmhouses. Kunstler also described how this dispersed "cabin in the woods" settlement pattern led to an extremely isolated, depressing agricultural lifestyle, quite contrary to the generally more "social" atmosphere in European agricultural villages.

    The antiurban mindset is a deep, intractable part of the American psyche. Our cities grew in tandem with the turbulent Industrial Revolution, and we hated them from the start. Before then we had only a few settlements built strictly on maximalist "get your goods to the market/dock and then leave" principles,* and when the IR ramped up we only added several extremely unpleasant collections of smoky factories (with dormitories attached) to our small roster of already-imperfect settlements.

    *The Geography of Nowhere even discussed how one US region, the South, decided to go without towns altogether! (Save for a handful of exceptions like Savannah and Charleston.) Southern plantations had their own docks and markets, eliminating the most basic impetus for town creation.

    Unfortunately we Americans have no idea what it is like to live in a real Traditional City, so we keep experimenting with failed 19th century settlement patterns (business block downtowns arranged around a grid of supersized streets, streetcar suburbs composed of carpets of single-family houses, etc.) because that's all we know.

    Keep in mind: the rest of the world isn't doing too well with Traditional Cities either. The ones we all know and love are relics of the pre-WWII era, and those are the places the tourists visit. There aren't that many postwar "Traditional Cities" that are nearly as nice. There are only a few exceptions (Tokyo, informal settlements in Latin America and in the third world) where the Traditional City format is still holistically used, but otherwise Europe and Asia and SA are just as bad at building new Traditional Cities as we are.

    The VAST majority of new settlements in these places are either tower-in-the-park superblock districts (see Seoul) or some variation of the 19th century orthogonal street grid + tenement block pattern. The Chinese gov't is eagerly clearing its Traditional Cities (hutongs) to make way for tower blocks (against the sometimes-violent protests of hutong dwellers). China is building superblock cities from scratch. The ME (Dubai, for example) is also engaged in tower-in-the-park experiments. Australia, Canada, and NZ are more or less following the American 'ranch house in the wilderness' model. Europe still hasn't gotten over "social housing" superblocks and garden apartments. Compared to all the crud being built out there, the new settlements being built on Traditional City principles are VERY rare indeed.

  4. Today, the 19th Century Hypertrophic downtown is unpleasant for families, children, moms and old people generally because of the super-large buildings, traffic-filled roadways and a general lack of human-centric outdoor space.

    However, I think that is mostly a twentieth-century phenomenon. What was it like in, say, 1850?

    At that time too, the brick factory buildings of the time were very "hypertrophic" compared to earlier examples. However, I think the main dissuasion was a combination of other things. Charles has talked about Portland's problems with paving the super-large streets of 19th Century Hypertrophism. Small Town America's streets weren't paved either, but it was probably more pleasant with less traffic, not to mention less horse poop which was a problem in those days. But mostly, mid-19th century industrialism was rather unpleasant, with noxious coal soot blackening the sky at all times, and the stinking factories (see the old descriptions of Chicago's meatpacking industry) filled with underpaid, overworked laborers. Also, the city centers were the prime destination for immigrants in those days, as today, which tended to dissolve notions of community and civil behavior. Crime, disease, and generally unsanitary conditions were the norm.

    So, I wouldn't blame Americans' now two-century fascination with quasi-rural suburban living, and long commutes, entirely on the 19th Century Hypertrophic city form. However, it should be said that places like Paris and Tokyo also went through the grimiest part of the 19th century, but didn't have the same pattern of suburbanization.

  5. I'm not sure I get Fogelson's claim that the "downtown" term is a uniquely-American concept largely unknown to the rest of the world. We may use the word "downtown," but Europe uses similar terms like "city centre" or "Innenstadt" or "centre-ville" or "rynek" which essentially mean the same thing: the heart of town.

    Before American downtowns were rebranded as "central business districts," they already contained the city halls, public libraries, department stores, market halls, banks, courthouses, and churches (just like European "city centres"). I guess we Americans just decided to put *everything* downtown (including overwhelmingly-scaled industry and commerce) whereas Europe decided/was forced to decentralize many of these things early on (Paris and Berlin were colossal 19th century industrial and commercial powerhouses too, but these hyperscaled activities never contaminated the residential quarters).

    Also, the "cottage homes" preference in the US may not actually be as strange or aberrant as it seems. Yes, many American cities (all of them except New York, really) prided themselves on being "cities of homes" and frequently asserted that "European apartment living will never catch on here." But the modern apartment is just as much a product of 19th century hypertrophism as really wide streets, cartesian street grids, and CBDs are!

    Before the IR there really was no need for the kind of apartment living we are familiar with today, and it was comparatively rare. Big apartment buildings are not mainstay features of preindustrial Traditional Cities, rather single-family houses are! (They're often attached and are mistaken for multifamily buildings.) It's perfectly possible to build Traditional Cities with single-family houses, even with detached ones (many districts of Tokyo function like this), so the dominant American preference for detached single-family homes does not necessarily contradict the Traditional City format.

  6. @Nathan: regarding the city of 1850, one thing I took away from Fogelson's book was that the Americans of that time actually liked the downtown, yet saw it as a place to visit at specific times for particular purposes. There was no positive vision for urban living in most large cities and virtually all small and medium-sized cities. This had a lot to do with the things you've mentioned: industrialization, disease, crime and perhaps mass immigration, but I do think there was also a failure of leadership by city governments and downtown real estate interests. They spent enormous amounts of time lobbying for commuter mass transit systems, pushing for street widenings, accommodating traffic, seeking to annex outlying areas, etc., while doing virtually nothing to consider how to make the city a desirable place for people to live and raise families. Paris, on the other hand, went through a massive 19th century remodeling aimed primarily at increasing the attractiveness of the city for upper and middle class residents. Vienna went through an equally rapid wave of 19th century growth and accommodated almost all of it in elegant apartments on narrow(ish) streets. Ditto Barcelona, and Berlin. This was as much conscious planning policy as it was a reflection of personal preference, I think.

    @Marc: Thanks for the great comments! Terrific observations. Re: the "downtown" concept: Fogelson does in fact bring up the "centre ville"/"centro storico" terms for the sake of comparison, but distinguishes them on the ground that, in the American conception, downtown is a use-segregated area, containing offices and frequently cultural assets, but not residences. The "centro" of an Italian city, on the other hand, refers to a geographic central area of settlement, and often the pre-industrial core of a city, but rarely if ever signifies a high-rise business district.

  7. @Marc: That's an excellent point about the preference for single-family detached residential homes ("SFDR"), also. Nathan and I each ran a series of posts earlier in 2011 speculating on how this style might be presented in traditional format for an American audience. Japan, a country which has historically had a very strong preference for the SFDR home, provides one model. Vince, who commented above, has shown some promising examples out of Portland. For small and mid-sized cities (and there are plenty of those), it could be an excellent option, although Tokyo shows it can work in large cities as well.

  8. Excellent post and excellent comments. I would mirror much of the sentiments, and use Chicago as a prime example. During the industrial revolution downtown Chicago was not a place anyone would want to live. It was grimy and polluted. Getting people away from the fetid waters of the river and the coal fired smoke plumes of downtown's factories greatly increased the qualtiy of life. Europeans marveled at the density of the loop's business district.

    That said we are seeing an emergence of a more European style downtown. Building are being repurposed residential, and condominiums, a European invention, are commonplace downtown. Even European style balconies are becoming common. And downtown is becoming a nicer place to live. Pollution is down due to the post-industrialization of America and violent crime - always high in American cities - is way down.

  9. Thanks, James. I did see on your blog how the Loop has had success in greatly increasing its residential population during the past decade through new construction and conversion of older office buildings. Hopefully that trend will continue.

  10. I live in a small town in Vermont called Rutland. It's been a transportation hub of the west-central part of the state for its entire history, but was passed over for an interstate highway in the 50s. As a result the town today remains largely defined by the railroad that came through in the 1840s. Basically, on the east side of the tracks the downtown developed, if there was any focal point it was the passenger station, and on the west side of the tracks the factories, coal sheds and warehouses were built, as well as railroad infrastructure like switching tables and repair shops. The downtown lies at the bottom of a hill. At the top of the hill is the intersection of two major roads which formed the original town center (the roads, I should point out, have always been major having originally been 18th century military roads connecting forts on Lake Champlain to southern New England) with a town square where the court house was located. Once the railroad came through everything moved down the hill, except for the court house, which moved halfway down the hill. The slopes of the hill, meanwhile, were filled with residences not more than a minute or three from downtown. People might not have lived in the high rises, but they lived close and I think that's a pattern you see more in the 19th century than in Chicago. Most of the traditional residences of Manhattan have been converted into offices or knocked down and replaced with office blocks.

  11. I think it's nice to have balance. Downtowns have all the disadvantages that you guys have wisely appointed, but they also come with advantages: People interaction, Public transport, walkability... Likewise, suburbs do have advantages and disadvantages. But if there are only suburbs the people will be very disconnected, and only downtown, traffic will be hell.

    I may agree that Downtown could be worse for family life, but it should cater well to young people. And if you bring a lot of (young) life into the Downtown it can help with crime. There's nothing more scary than a huge downtown empty at night.