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by Robert Bruegmann
(University of Chicago) $27.50
Cities Without Cities
by Thomas Sieverts
Anyone interested in the city—in the close press of strangers, in surprise, class-mixing, cosmopolitanism—has long since left the bourgeois pleasure grounds of the center to explore the urban landscapes springing up in the margins of the metropolitan area. In Seattle, this is as easy as a bus ride to White Center, where Hispanic and Southeast Asian mix with the remaining Scots and Irish, then south into close-packed Des Moines (the state's fourth most densely populated city), then east through Tukwila and Renton, with its huge Sikh population, then north into Kirkland (home of the region's only Bollywood cinema) and Bellevue, where the Crossroads shopping center has made a bustling market square inside an old mall—a culinary and cultural entrepôt that draws the Eastside's considerable Persian population to mix with Japanese, Korean, Anglo, and the area's upper-class South Indians, who want little to do with their Punjabi cousins in Renton.
What is this landscape? Neither city nor countryside, and starkly unlike what we've come to know as suburbs, this endless fabric of two- and three-story buildings—laced by highways, marbled with car parks, and swamped by traffic—carpets every inch of the metropolitan terrain that does not prevent it by law or custom. It is a landscape shaped by indifference to older norms of city life such as pedestrian scale, historic preservation, permanence, or face-to-face exchange, and so it repels us—a baffling, ugly place, seemingly without pattern. Yet, this is where the virtues we've long called urban (including, increasingly, density) now reside, having fled the center long ago.
The pattern is even more pronounced in Vancouver, BC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—larger, denser cities where the margins have become home to a globally mobile population whose patterns of settlement contradict our deepest myths about the city. No more the crowded, polyglot center surrounded by white-bread suburbs: Now the world spreads out across a patchwork landscape.
This is often derided as "sprawl." The term neatly homogenizes a terrain so varied and nuanced it cannot be understood without traversing it street by street, a task as daunting as was navigation of the dense forests that surrounded pioneer settlers 150 years ago. In differing eras, the woods and sprawl have repelled city builders in strikingly similar terms. Here is David Neely, assessing the forest near Kent in 1863: "This featureless wall of trees without pathway or welcoming hearth presses in on us from every side..."
Today's city dweller gazes out at sprawl from his Capitol Hill redoubt with a similar sense of alien threat. Like the pioneers, he sees only one way forward, which is to make a clearing in this new wilderness, carve out a space of civilization—another downtown or a New Urbanist village—and redeem an otherwise soulless place.
But huge imaginative shifts eventually turned pioneer hostility to the woods into a broad, secular worship of wilderness. Beginning with the detailed chronicles of early naturalists such as John Muir and John Audubon—and aided by a heaping dose of romantic projection—we came to grasp (and largely shape) the logic and beauty of the wilderness.
A similar turning point presents itself now, one as fraught with the risks of projection and misunderstanding. The first naturalists of sprawl are making their forays out of the old centralized city to bring back reports. They are urban historians and planners and social critics, almost all of them saddled with a polemic agenda, either to condemn or defend this burgeoning landscape.
Among the most visible are the new defenders of sprawl, chiefly Joel Kotkin (a restless compiler of lists and neologisms—he gave us "Nerdistan," to describe places like Redmond—and author of The New Geography) and Robert Bruegmann, whose popular history, Sprawl, finds the origins of that condition as far back as Rome. Bruegmann reminds us that the term "suburb" began with the Roman wall (urb) that delineated the city. Activities that could not be tolerated inside—tanning, rendering, undertaking—set up shop outside, at the base of the wall, the suburb.
As has happened ever after, the close press of strangers inside the city drove the rich to build villas beyond the walls, and the term "suburb" morphed to include them. For the next 2,000 years, Bruegmann's history goes, cities grew whenever the rich found ways to move away from the poor and the poor chased after them so that the rich would be forced to move again. Thus, in the 20th century, the American city lost its wealthy and middle class to postwar suburbs, which the lower-middle classes then flooded, driving the wealthy further outward or back to the center where they have conjured the bourgeois paradise of our newly revitalized downtowns.
Bruegmann's lively book is animated chiefly by this drama, which he renders as a tale of good versus evil, the evil being "urban elites" who decry any landscape polluted by the poor—first the inner city, now the suburbs—for its failure to be "livable" or in good taste. His defense of sprawl is appealing to those of us who root for the underdog, but the dichotomies he relies on, especially the division between urban and suburban, ultimately make the book unsuited for any activity beyond cheerleading. So long as the mythology of the urban center persists, it really doesn't matter whom we cheer for.
Bruegmann's failure is common. Kotkin and, earlier, Joel Garreau (Edge City), James Howard Kunstler (Geography of Nowhere), and Deyan Sudjic (The 100 Mile City), among many others, also managed to chart these shifts in human habitation without disrupting the primacy of the urban center. Highways proliferate, towns lose their shopping streets to box retail, farmlands become dense carpets of housing, light manufacturing and corporate headquarters string along ring roads reversing the commutes of workers buying cheap real estate in the first-generation suburbs—in short, a great diversity of change transpires—and every analysis returns to the fate of the centralized city. The preoccupation afflicts everyone, from populist pundits like Kotkin to deeply informed observers of global urbanism like Rem Koolhaas. We cannot stop mourning the loss of the city, nor strategizing its return.
A handful of writers (principally social economists charged with understanding the effects of global capital on settlement patterns, including David Harvey, Manuel Castells, and Saskia Sassen) no longer speak of the city, yet none offer an instrumental replacement. The city stubbornly remains with us as the subject of our politics, now locked in the final act of its tragedy: the disappearance.
Against this background, the contribution of German urban historian Thomas Sieverts, in his book Cities Without Cities, published in 2000, is uniquely far-reaching. This disarmingly compact text regards the built environment—from city center to suburb to ex-urb to rural reserve and protected wilderness—as a single totality, a field of effects shaped in common by forces indifferent to distinctions such as city, suburb, countryside, and nature. He calls this continuous field of development the Zwischenstadt (or in-between city), because it collapses a raft of once-solid polarities by standing "in-between," as both city and countryside, centered and centerless, temporal and spatial, anchored to place and yet global in reach. More important, Sieverts seeks to make the Zwischenstadt "intelligible and legible" so that it can take on "an independent identity in the imagination of its occupants and as a subject for politics."
Here is Sieverts's unique contribution—to help politics fix on a real subject, no longer the dissolution of cities but the shaping of the Zwischenstadt (just as Marx debunked myths of religious strife to expose the underlying dynamics of class as the proper subject of politics). "We must throw away a whole raft of rhetorical debris," Sieverts warns, "in order to re-create access to the reality of the city."
That debris includes common presumptions about the vitality of cities. First there is "urban-ness," which Sieverts describes as a social phenomenon of "openness to the world, tolerance, intellectual agility, and curiosity." Our perceptions of this attitude, he warns, are "based not so much on social and political qualities as on an idealized image of the bourgeois European city of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, recorded in travelogues and novels." And so we look for market squares and coffeehouses and unified façades pressing closely onto narrow streets (the markers of an older constructed urban-ness) and decry their absence, while failing to see, for example, the polyethnic dynamism of Highway 99—because the highway doesn't look urban.
Another overriding concern is the automobile. Both socially and ecologically, the predominance of cars undermines the sustainability of urban values. "Politics," Sieverts says, "must seek to minimize use of the car." But cities have proven no more effective at this than have outlying areas, and the crisis of car-dependent culture presses on the whole of the Zwischenstadt equally, because decisions that could actually reduce dependency cross municipal boundaries to affect the whole fabric of the Zwischenstadt. Sieverts stresses the importance of a robust, decentralized transportation network, connecting the Zwischenstadt's many nodes directly, rather than going through the old center, which remains the predominant pattern in Seattle. In Portland, by contrast, a strong regional transit authority is already building peripheral light rail; further, that city's most densely populated "suburban" county, Washington, has balanced jobs with residents for a "zero commute" in relation to the city. Car dependency does not reliably distinguish the suburb from the city.
A third characteristic is density. Our expectation that city neighborhoods are densely built, and suburban ones not, leaves us unprepared for the patchwork reality. In Washington State, Seattle is the only city with higher density than what we call suburbs: Mountlake Terrace, Des Moines, Edmonds, Kirkland, Burien, and Shoreline round out the state's top 10 city densities. (The much smaller cities of Mabton, Mattawa, and Toppenish, all less than 10,000 in population, are second, fifth, and sixth.) In Oregon, Portland is actually third in density, well behind neighboring "suburbs" Beaverton and Gresham.
Bruegmann, the polemical champion of sprawl, uses these figures to argue for the vitality of the suburbs against the smug elitism of the emptying city centers. But Sieverts makes a more far-reaching claim, which is that the data simply shows how meaningless city boundaries have become in sorting out evolving patterns of urbanity.
Sieverts never casts this as a victory of the suburbs over the city. Rather, the old logic separating the two has failed. In the Zwischenstadt there are many intensifications, and no center; urban concentrations multiply like knots in an endless net. Among these, the historic center is unique and should be protected, Sieverts affirms, but as a kind of museum of an older urbanity. Nearly every American city has done this, as in Pioneer Square where planners arrange the trappings of a disappeared history as a stage on which revelers can enact a shadow play of the city. Meanwhile, one block away, an abandoned lot may give rise to new green space, while beside that a glass tower rises. North of downtown, Vulcan has embraced this as a strategy, spatchcocking the fine grain of the Zwischenstadt willy-nilly onto a compact swath of the city. Block by block, the whole patchwork of this great ecosystem, from green space to car parks, unfolds.
Increasingly, these dense microecologies are viable in every part of the Zwischenstadt. Wetlands lay pinioned between off ramps downtown, while a vibrant urban mix grows from a repurposed suburban strip mall backed by mid-rise condos. In such a dynamic landscape, urban planning that proceeds from center to edge will inevitably fail. There are too many "centers," shifting too quickly, resolvable only at the micro-level of the block or street or, in broad planning terms, at a much larger regional level. The old city is, in sociologist Alain Touraine's words, "too big for the little problems and too small for the big problems."
So, how to live here now? How to move past the divisive dramas of city boosters and make the Zwischenstadt the "subject of our politics"? Sieverts calls for better art, novels, and music. Architects cannot help us now. "The reading of texts of modern literature, or the experience of certain pieces of nonclassical music, [will] possibly lead us further than the futile attempts to create order with architecture. For architecture and architecturally shaped urban space form only individual, important components, but can no longer determine the form of the Zwischenstadt." Old stories, reflecting our nostalgia for the 19th-century city, must be displaced by new stories. To cultivate them, Sieverts calls for "internal tourism," trips into the fabric of the Zwischenstadt, like those of sprawl's naturalists, but minus the alienating presumption of otherness underlying their studies. Sieverts quotes John Cage: "Our intention is to affirm this life, not bring order out of chaos or to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we are living, which is excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of the way and let it act of its own accord."
Sieverts's slim, remarkable book brings no news, nothing novel or surprising, only a stunningly simple argument. In this, Cities Without Cities is similar to Thomas Kuhn's landmark The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the 1962 book that crystallized the notion of the paradigm shift as a description of intellectual change. Like Kuhn, Sieverts marshals a mere handful of well-known examples to make his point. Like Kuhn, he simply reorganizes these pieces to reflect current conditions and helps us see our place in them.