Sociologists have tackled with the idea of urban alienation for well over a hundred years. Key theorists such as Ferdinand Toennies, Emile Durkheim and Georg Simmel each identified confronting aspects of city life. Simmel in particular, in the “Metropolis and Mental Life said that the city dweller becomes intellectual, blase’ and reserved because of the influence of money and calculation, and also because of the great press of people and sensations. However, modernist architects such as LeCorbusier took a counter position, and proffered a great enthusiasm for the speed and excitement of city life, and for the destruction of the old to make way for the new. Many, contemporary cities would offer both sensations; the intense excitement of the new, combined with social disconnection strong enough to force some people to ‘rent a cuddle’ in order to secure any kind of intimacy in their urban lives.
However, a key part to understanding urban alienation is to understand that not all cities are the same, and that the shape, size and interconnectivity of the city can isolate people. As Benjamin Ross notes, since governments in the USA started sponsoring the expansion of suburbs after both World Wars – as part of the New Deal, and later as part of the Post WWII Housing boom and the subsidising of interstate highways through gas taxes – suburban sprawl and the highway have become the defining features of contemporary cities. This has had many adverse effects, including the demolition and building over of existing urban natural spaces, heritage areas, and cohesive ethnic villages. It was the kind of technocratic, top-down development that Jane Jacobs fought against in the 1960s, oblivious to the existence of street level communities and multi-use urban design.
It also lead to the rise of Los Angeles style ‘post-modern cities’, characterised by large expanses of suburban sprawl spanning several, disconnected urban centres or nodes (rather than around one central CBD). Edward Soja describes six qualities that characterise cities of this type in his book “Postmetropolis’, including i) post-Fordist cities shifting to post-industrial modes of production; ii) the cosmopolis characterised by globalised flows of urban capital, labour and culture; the iii) turning of the city inside out as the sprawl creates suburban ‘exopolises’, (exurbias) lacking natural social centres within which people can connect and socialise, and sometimes built around the junction of highways as ‘Edge Cities’; iv) the fractal city, characterized by new polarizations, inequalities and stratifications, instead of the old capital-labour and black-white divide (e.g now have the urban working poor); v) the Carceral archipelago, the institution of ‘hard control’ processes, such as fortress cities, surveillance technologies, and the substitution of police for private security guards, and vi) Simcities, ‘soft-control’ hyper real cities and neighbourhoods oriented to ‘lifestyle communities’. Many of these features can be seen in the major Australian cities today (just Google the controversy over Westconnex, or an image of the intersection of the M5 and M7 in Sydney’s west, to see these points).
However, the final piece the suburban sprawl puzzle, particularly in Australia, is the suburban obsession with the automobile. Peter Newman notes that Australian cities were amongst the first in the world (Perth perhaps the very first) to transform from Walkable Cities into Automobile cities. He notes Marchetti’s Constant; the rule that spending more than an hour a day commuting creates dissonance, reduces personal wellbeing, and will push people to seek other work-life arrangements. However, he argues that instead of enabling us to accord with this rule, our car culture has undermined it. He notes that the freeway lanes we have invested in so heavily can move a maximum of 2,500 people an hour, compared to heavy rail which can move up to 50,000 people an hour, so it is no wonder that highways have created gridlock more than freedom. There are now few opportunities to avoid this debilitating commute; after all, the jobs are in the centre of cities like Melbourne and Sydney, where very few people can afford to live (and certainly not live the Australian suburban dream). Newman argues for the need for more infill and urban renewal, public transport, high speed rail, and value capture to fund these activities.
We need to plan carefully to preserve and create social, sustainable communities with integrated public transport and high-speed rail (not highways) connecting (rather than gutting) cities. And we need to look at ways to take back public space from the dominance of cars; one example is that of inner city councils in Sydney experimenting with Sunday street closures to encourage children to re-emerge from the homes and play on the streets, as their suburban parents did once years ago. If we don’t look for new ideas, will we instead be looking at the spread of car-locked McMansions as far as we can see north and south along the coastline, and the rise of Australia’s East Coast Exopolis – a post-sustainable sprawl?
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