The granularity of cities


These superimposed maps of Cleveland now and then are easily used. (University of Oklahoma)

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.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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7 Responses to The granularity of cities

  1. Reblogged this on ramblinginthecity and commented:
    Fascinating! Can we reverse the mistakes made by modern planning?


  2. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    These are interesting – if you follow the main link, be aware the images take a little while to load, and then you use the slider to compare before and after.


  3. Hi David – the question you raise is a fascinating one, namely, “did we really need all those freeways and functional segregation to achieve economic growth?” While it’s impossible to answer a hypothetical, I think it’s fair to say that the strategy “worked” — in the same way that crack cocaine “works” to produce a high, but at a terrible cost, and it isn’t sustainable.

    I am with you that cities have their own inherent dynamics of social and economic interaction, spillovers, innovation and growth. That’s how a city like New York was able to take penniless immigrants and turn them into prosperous middle class people with much higher quality of life (and here I think “quality” is a suitable word! Better food, healthcare, arts, education, life choices, etc. And remarkably, without a higher impact on natural ecosystems, and perhaps even a lower one…)

    AND they were able to do it WITHOUT huge injections of fossil fuels, or the functionally segregated mechanical planning that I spoke of.

    One of the most exciting things going on in economics and related urban fields is a much clearer understanding of how this all works. (It is really at the core of the current hubbub over the so-called “science of cities.”)

    On the other hand — it is possible to inject massive amounts of resources, including fossil fuels, and get a huge amount of growth and innovation too. You can effectively replicate those natural catalytic and spillover networks of cities, and make the needed connections with cars, telephones, computers, corporate office buildings and campuses, etc. That’s what many sunbelt cities do today. That’s what China, India and many other countries in the world are going after — and getting, to astonishing degrees.

    The trouble is, this is the crack cocaine of economic development. It gives you a powerful high, followed by one hell of a health crisis. And so we have.

    But we should not doubt the complicity (though not the origin, as some might claim on both sides) of CIAM modernists in this regime, then and now. They were, and are, the cheerleaders of this formula, packaging it as a heroic struggle for human progress and political liberation, symbolized in great art. That’s the delusion — or the con. In the words of Le Corbusier, 1935:

    “The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, and consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work… enough for all.”

    I don’t think we should deny that this regime “worked” – and still works. But it works in the same way that crack cocaine works. It carries an unacceptable toll in the end.

    So our urgent task is to get back to the inherent dynamics that still work to create human development — aiming for better-quality human development, by the way — but without massive and unsustainable injections of resources. That’s about as close a description of the challenge of our age as it gets, I think.

    Cheers, m


    • I wonder, Michael, whether it is logical to assume that, however society may have benefited from the injection of economic crack cocaine, the challenge of “getting back to” the dynamics of creating human development necessarily implies that those dynamics, if they had been carried forward instead, would have resulted in a richer society today – maybe not with as much GNP, but with a sustainable prosperity and more happiness. It may be logical to assume that without its necessarily being true – which we’ll never know, and which could have stumbled in its course on any number of other unknowables. In all essentials I think we are in agreement.


      • Yes, David, I tend to think we would have been wealthier, in the wider sense of that word — not just the GDP sense, but the full sense of human development and quality of life. If we assessed the total stock of all forms of capital, including social capital, natural capital, quality of life — and of course, the inherent wealth of urbanism, which has been degraded irrevocably — I think it would be a different picture. I think this website really shows above all that great poverty with which we are left.

        The point I raise is only that I think we have to understand the allure of this “crack cocaine of economic development” — and the job we still have to end that addiction without a heck of a withdrawal… Cheers, m


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