Downtown Areas as Reflection of City Efficiency

More people are living out their lives in cities. New cities, old cities, smaller cities on their way to becoming bigger cities, and big cities. The city life sprang up to give people a space for opportunity, collaboration, and access to services in a more efficient way. The city versus the town concentrates more services in a way appropriate to a larger population in order to support the human life cycle of sleep, eat, work, play, business, and government interaction.

Conceptually, the city will do this more efficiently assuming the earliest planners for a city consider population growth. On the surface, that is a simple assumption but the truth is more complicated. The reality of city growth is it is organic. Common experience may suggest that some cities more or less emerged as smaller cities but nonetheless cities compared to towns. However some of the largest cities came to be, the present condition of those spaces is they are definitely different from small and mid-size towns.

Past descriptions of cities has seen them as concrete jungles. Desmond Morris is quoted as saying in his book, The Human Zoo, “Clearly, then, the city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.” Cities contain a varied assortment of different cultural legacies, architecture, and approaches to the allocation of communities assembled under the city umbrella. The city contains a multitude of experiences by virtue of the numerous venues and activities that are possible.

I’ve lived in both towns and cities. Visitors to a town bearing more of a big city lineage often have the same critiques of their town experience. The town is too small. Okay, that is a geographic observation. The town doesn’t have enough to do. Perhaps it is just that the town has as much as the city but in a different way. What escapes the notice of most persons looking at the arrangement of towns is that once you are fully accustomed to a town, it generally has advantages unmatched by a big city. Chief among them is navigation and concourse to various destinations within the town.

Examine downtown areas in a big city for example. Several cities have reputable downtown areas known for eating, entertainment, or art. Tourism is big business, but is it sustainable? Downtown restaurants, attractions, and places of assembly and business are becoming more cramped. Many downtown areas suffer from the same issues as the cities themselves. Except, the problems are more intense. Bad parking, limited parking, possibility of being towed, long, long lines in popular restaurants. As population surges, fewer of these places will be accessible. When I look at downtown areas, I see the starting point rather than the terminus for city efficiency.

Referring to downtown areas, I am primarily referring to traffic flow and parking. However, you can also extend that critique to residential and commercial districts as well. Part of the reason is I speculate that downtown areas are a reflection of the broader design criteria for the city itself. Granted, some parts of a large city will be better developed than others, but overall, the big city will generally have a preponderance of areas of stymied traffic, parking, residence, inefficient commingling of commercial and residential traffic, potholes, ineffective road and building signage among other issues. Usually, this will be more of a mixed bag in a metro area in which you have a collection of towns tied together to form a larger city. Some of those towns may be better apportioned than others in the metro area but the aggregate nature of overall city design can diminish the overall quality of experience conversing through and existing in the city.

A problem exists at the core of America’s cities. It appears that the spaces are filling up with more people in spaces not originally designed for the numbers of people born in and coming into the city. The cities work as designed, but poorly. Exceptions do exist, but they are increasingly rare. The destiny of each city is to become like its bigger, more successful alter ego. That can happen slowly or happen fast as investment arrives or successful business springs up. However it happens, the problems of more established larger cities will eventually become the problems of the up and comers.

When you live in a small town, you look with awe at the idea of the big city. One day, you come to big city and you see many things and possibilities you may not see in a small town. The transformation of towns into cities and cities into even bigger cities is generally an organic process. What springs up in one part of the world-fashion, for example-eventually its way to the city and has an impact of the balance between communities and businesses, roads, open areas, and outdoor lighting among other aspects. What is in the big city, eventually makes its way to the small town. I’ve seen small towns become cities and the contrasts cannot be more different. As the big city goes, so does the rest of the landscape. Growth problems are inevitable.

Trees are banished or in the wrong places. Ever see a tree obscure important road signs and building addresses? How about a consistent pattern of such trees dotted all across a big city? At night. Aggressive commercialism may result in a homogeneous landscape in which shopping centers are duplicated across the landscape destroying useful navigational tools such as unique landmarks. Then, you have longer roads with greater wear on vehicles with greater costs in vehicle maintenance. Ever see a daily procession of heavy 18-wheelers mixed with normal traffic? That helps develop potholes that contribute to higher costs and lower productivity. I am not talking about 1 city, but aspects of big cities I’ve observed.

The roads are a big problem across America. City streets that started out small or under ordinances that worked for a community of 100, 1,000, or 10,000 now becomes a main entry/exit way for a larger traffic inflow/outflow supporting a community of a few hundred thousand to several magnitudes above. Congestion is inevitable. Old roads weave into new roads, the results of earlier architectural landscape choices merge with a larger city context and you end up with very inefficient concourse in travel and getting around. Such conditions then take energy away from people and can be an indirect contributor to low civil coherence and productivity.

The big city takes more of your time away. A high cost comes with living in a big city. You lose a lot of time. You will never get that time back. Whether a long commute, a long distance visit to the grocery store, or the need to travel in a big long circle to get to a unique place. On the other hand, in such city designs, back roads make the problem worse in some cases as more cars just spill out at specific times of the day depending on your route. While you focus and concentrate on driving or getting around (Uber or Taxi even), you are losing time. Lots of it every day.

Will big cities ever become so crowded and over capacity for their designs that they just fail to work at all? I do not know. What I see today is the big city design, however awry, does work if sub-optimally. Is migrating out of the big city an option? Some people can do that, but the reason big cities exist is that is where commerce, industry, and occupational work is at its most intense. By their very nature, the big city will draw people in and people will make do in order to make it through. Why is any of this an issue?

I think these issues will affect future progress in America and other countries modeled on the American design. A situation develops in which people live their lives more or less in stasis. A kind of overall immobilization takes place. Skills, new concepts, and motivations to grow in substantial ways become dormant. Advancing the whole society becomes increasingly difficult as the weight of infrastructure becomes heavier and more difficult to adapt in compelling directions. That is not exactly the worst of outcomes, but it is potentially tragic. On the other hand, maybe delivery drones and driver-less vehicles will alleviate some issues. Maybe new cities will spring up that are designed from the beginning for the long-term based on lessons from today’s cities. When building a city, always assume a very large population, because human multiplication is a certainty.


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