The University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Quality Communities has developed a website that offers superimposed maps of major American cities. The maps cover identical territory in each city, and you can slide a line in the middle to reveal the difference between now and then, then being 50 or 60 years ago at the height of the onset of urban renewal.
It is said that the phenomena of major highways cutting through cities, combined with the elimination of finely grained neighborhood fabric and its replacement with urban renewal and superprojects, has ushered in progress. I think that is debatable. Jane Jacobs, in her Death and Life of Great American Cities, makes a compelling argument that many of the changes were to the detriment of progress, at least in the livability of cities.
Small blocks – granularity – are among the requirements Jacobs identifies for superior economic activity, civility, mobility, walkability and safety in cities. Given what granularity implies, a bounty of beauty would also have been a boon of its retention in cities.
The United States during the period of the early maps benefited hugely from being the only economy left standing after World War II, and to the extent that we avoided the socialist economic policies of our competitors, to that extent our nation would probably have been able to expand upon that postwar economic advantage – as to a great extent our society did as a whole, but with cities paying a steep and unnecessary price.
(It is fair, nevertheless, to wonder whether the relative stagnation of socialist societies in Europe helped them retain the small grain of their famously beautiful cities.)
Our economic power and its resulting riches and social benefits certainly did not depend on embracing the sort of urbanism foisted upon cities by Robert Moses (in New York) and his ilk. Superhighways punching through city neighborhoods; commerce, industry and community splitting into different quadrants of cities; not to mention urban renewal and subsequent superblocks and megaprojects stomping on city life – these were not required to sustain economic progress. They were a mistake pure and simple, based on modernist planning and design ideology that was not thought through adequately prior to implementation.
Over time, the mistakes revealed so searingly by these maps can be reversed, if we have the wisdom and the courage to make the effort. In the meantime, I hope the folks at the Institute for Quality Cities at Oklahoma will add some eastern cities to their absolutely fascinating collection of slide-over paired maps from the 1950s and our time.