Monday, February 18, 2008

World Cities Close Up
Maimon Schwarzschild

Here is a fascinating website about world cities: Urban Tours by Rental Car.  The authors have posted shrewd and very realistic essays about cities around the world, with lots of photos that capture the look and feel of each city.

Urban Tours by Rental Car offers perspectives on urban development obtained by automobile tours through urban areas. Rental cars are not the favored method for visiting cities, especially those outside one's own country. Instead, tourists and urban planners favor packaged tours or local public transport systems. Both are splendid ways for seeing the city as it used to be --- the very reason for most tourist visits. The historical core areas contain monuments, prime government and religious edifices and quaint neighborhoods that are often centuries old. This is particularly important to tourists from the newer urban areas of the American, Canadian or Australian West, where history extends not far before World War II.

For the urban planner interested in understanding the whole urban area, it is not enough to study the core alone.  Both public transport and packaged tours miss the larger part --- the expanse of sprawling residential and business development that rings virtually all major urban areas. They may be of little interest to many urban planners, but they should be.

It is no wonder that tourists return to the United States thinking that all Paris looks like the second arrondissement (less than one percent does)...  For any seeking to study the urban area in its entirety - not just the favored haunts of core-dwelling elites - there is no alternative to "getting behind the wheel." Thus, "urban tours by rental car."

The authors are scathing about "smart growth" and other restrictive land use schemes, which they rightly see as usually amounting to bureaucratic NIMBY plans that protect the fashionable and well connected, and marginalise or impoverish everyone else.  But each essay and photo album is also wonderfully evocative and specific about the city it portrays.  I found the website when I searched for information about Delhi, where I travelled recently.  The Delhi posting is spectacular and revealing.  But there are posts about many other cities around the world.

Have a look at your hometown.  Or journey virtually to cities far away.

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Maimon Schwarzschild


The way to see the British outer cities is by double-decker bus.

Posted by: dearieme | Feb 18, 2008 8:06:05 AM

I agree with your substantive point, but as to Paris I think almost all tourists there see the 1st (Louvre), 4th (Notre Dame), 5th (Sorbonne), 6th (St. Germain des Pres), 7th (Tour Eiffel), 8th (Champs d'Elysee) Arrondisements as well as the second, and probably see the 9th (Place Pigalle & Sacre Coeur) and parts of the 12th (Bastille), 14th (Montparnasse) and 16th (Princess Diana "monument" & Trocadero) as well. Paris is physically very small, 2/3rds the size (and 3 times the population) of San Francisco, which is one of the most compact U.S. cities and I think most tourists probably end up having some acquaintance with close to half of it, not just 1% of it. I have spent much time in the outer arrondisements and other than having few well known monuments, they are similar to the inner arrondisements in building height and general density. Parts of the 13th arr. are perhaps less typical with many postwar (and ugly) housing projects. The 11th, 19th and 20th arr. have some typical Parisian neighborhoods but also large areas occupied mostly by immigrants.

What is different is the banlieue, the close in suburbs. Some areas are opulent, the immediate West and Southwest--e.g., Neuilly sur Seine, Versailles--and some other areas or pockets--e.g., Vincennes, Enghein les Bains. But there are large swaths of poor and desparately poor areas, towns with huge housing projects, many now occupied by immigrants--these are the areas of periodic riots and property destruction. Many of these latter areas are neither pretty nor even safe. But they are interesting to tour (using some care in certain areas). Maisons Lafitte (north of Versailles) is particularly interesting because it is the closest one comes in France to an American suburb.

In the U.S. or England, much of the banlieue would likely be part of the central city--the equivalent of the outer boroughs of London or the further reaches of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. But, in economic terms, Paris has mostly well to do residents in the central core and the poor are in the outlying areas. (This is true of most French cities.)

But, I agree, visiting all parts of major urban areas is an important educational experience. One of the most interesting are the eastern areas of Dresden, incidentally--beyond the zone of destruction resulting from the air raids at the end of WWII.

Posted by: Paul McKaskle | Feb 18, 2008 10:23:39 AM

Fantastic site.

The entry on Los Angeles is fascinating, as it attempts to dispel some myths. For instance, Los Angeles is the *least* sprawling of the world's megacities, and has the "best" transportation system. The author defends both of these claims with facts and analysis. As I said, fascinating.

Corkie the Dog

Posted by: Corkie the Dog | Feb 18, 2008 1:40:14 PM

Buses: The best way to see the British cities, outer and inner, is indeed on top of a double decker bus. But best of all used to be London's Routemaster buses - they were a classic, beautiful design; they were almost infinitely hardy too. They've now been taken out of service and replaced with clunky, bureaucratically designed new buses that depress your spirits as much as the Routemaster always used to raise them. To add insult to injury, a few Routemasters have now been brought back as a kind of Disneyland item on a few London "tourist" routes. Not good.

Paris: I think the Urban Tours people meant "2nd arrondissement" as a metaphor for all of inner Paris (i.e. all the arrondissements). Inner Paris has become something of a museum, with far more people living and working in (mostly very unlovely) outer Paris.

Posted by: maimon s. | Feb 18, 2008 6:29:13 PM

I'm actually sympathetic to Cox's basic premise--that cities work best when they cater to the suburban, car-oriented lifestyle that most ordinary people actually prefer. But that bit of wisdom alone, plus a few maps, photos and statistics, doesn't come close to producing an insightful portrait of a city.

I looked at the two listed cities I know best on his list, Toronto and Montreal. Cox correctly notes that Toronto is a sprawling city with large highways, like Los Angeles, and that its mass transit systems are focused on moving people to and from downtown, and hence do little for people both living and working in the suburbs. What he neglects to mention is that Toronto has deliberately developed its downtown so that *everything*--shopping, dining, entertainment, even outdoor activity--is available there. As a result, the core-oriented transit system is well-used, and the downtown thrives at night and on weekends as well as during the workday, preventing it from becoming the typical large-city ghost town. As for the highways, they're horribly congested at this point, arguably as a result of poor planning--not so much anti-car prejudice, though, as years of spectacularly booming growth. As Yogi Berra might say, nobody wants to drive in Toronto anymore--the roads are too crowded. That's what happens when a city turns out to be much more popular and attractive than planners expected.

Cox's analysis of Montreal is even more off-base. He praises the city's ample highway system as "planning at peace with the future". What he doesn't seem to understand is that the highway system is ample for the same reason that Buffalo's is--decades of stagnation. A combination of corrupt, dirigiste local and regional government and the instability produced bitter, violent etho-linguistic conflict has produced numerous huge public works boondoggles, of which the highway system is only one, that are built with the excuse of accommodating growth that simply doesn't show up. Indeed, by Cox's standards, Montreal is a paradise--the roads are empty and housing is cheap and plentiful. Of course, the economic torpor, political corruption and linguistic tensions--not to mention the weather--don't seem to enter into his calculations.

There's lots more that could be said about both cities--their history, their culture, their politics, their demography--that have a major effect on their urban planning choices and decisions. One single metric--how well they accommodate cars and single-family homes in the suburbs--simply can't do justice to any real-life city.

Posted by: Dan Simon | Feb 18, 2008 8:27:41 PM

I'm not sure about some of these claims. I grew up in LA, and would not think of moving back there for a second. The amount of traffic is more than I can handle, but obviously millions of people dont mind enough to stay there. But more importantly, the environmental consequences of sprawl and the car centered culture is whats really devastating. Even in San Diego, its possible to see the layer of smog covering the city, get sick from swimming in ocean water polluted with street run off, etc. Huge government spending on infrastructure is what built these highways to begin with, and it would be nice to know that any future big government funding would go to alleviate some of those environmental externalities.

Posted by: law student | Feb 19, 2008 7:36:27 PM