horizontal line

Is There Still a Reason for Cities?

Henry Hart Rice Urban Policy Forum, New York University, New York, NY
April 12th, 1999

Thank you. I am delighted to be here, both to honor Henry Hart Rice and his remarkable contributions to the shaping of New York, and to have the chance to think for a moment about what cities may mean at this moment in our history, a time when our culture seems, in so many ways, to be sending completely conflicting signals about the whole notion of urbanity. We hear that cities are finished, that they have no purpose in the age of cyberspace. And then we can look outside here in Greenwich Village, or in Queens or Brooklyn or all sorts of places in New York and see a level of vibrancy that seems far greater than it was even a few years ago, and in complete conflict with what the anti-urban theorists tell us. Which is true? The Silicon Valley argument that cities are obsolete in an age of mass communication? Or the Silicon Alley or Greenwich Village evidence before our very eyes?

The answer is both, and neither one. Both are right, and both are wrong. For many people the city is obsolete, and many cities are more obsolete than others. Some have urgent continued purpose, and others do not. And those cities that continue to have sustained and important life, New York paramount among them in this country, are not the same kinds of cities that they were fifty or twenty or even, perhaps, ten years ago.

Normal definitions, of course, hardly apply to cities any longer. It is not easy to sustain a real city — which is to say an old-fashioned, dense city — at the end of the 20th century. Almost everything, in fact, argues against it. For a long time, economic and social pressures have seemed to push out of downtown as if by centrifugal force. I say politics aside not to deny that we have a long history of anti-urban public policy; we do. Yet I do not believe that people and businesses would today be automatically gravitating toward downtown, as they did in the 19th century and for the first half of the 20th, even with more enlightened public policy; it would be naive to pretend that this alone is the problem.

The reason, of course, is that the alternative to urban life is simply too easy. It is easy to get into a car and zip down a freeway; that is easier than walking, even if it is less satisfying. It is easy to walk around a covered mall; that is easier than walking on an actual street, even if it, too, is less satisfying, less stimulating, less able to provide us with the elements of surprise and change that are so critical to a real urban experience. And it is easy to communicate via modem and computer – that, too, is easier than getting up and getting out and meeting people face-to-face.

Most people, so long as they can afford it – and I realize that this eliminates many whose destiny is tied to the city – but most who have the choice opt for the easy, not the most satisfying or rewarding. It is like entertainment, or food, or almost anything else – we do not always like the rough and hard edges of reality. The dullness and easy predictability of People magazine is so much easier than The New Republic; the standardized but acceptable quality of fast food is easier than real cooking, Danielle Steele is easier than John Updike, and so forth.

As a result, the traditional, dense city for which busy, active, people-filled streets are the measure of success is less and less an American paradigm. It is increasingly being replaced by a model that values automobile access more than pedestrian accomodation, a model that seems designed to offer the ease and convenience of the suburbs – again, for those who can afford it. Yet – and here we get into the key fact about this moment in the history of American urban form, what differentiates it from the simple suburban exodus of the 1950’s – this new model of American urbanity that we see today seems determined to demonstrate that it can offer many of the benefits of traditional cities: a variety of shops, restaurants and public gathering places; facilities for the performing and visual arts, and the general level of excitement and stimulation associated with older, street-oriented cities.

That the new generation of urban places are characterized by sprawl more than density seems, oddly, not to matter to many people. It is not street life that attracts people to Charlotte, or to Minneapolis, or Dallas, or Seattle, to name just four cities that have become known as attractive places to live and work even in an age of urban decline. The magnet these and other so-called attractive cities possess might be described as a combination of ease of living and the presence of a gentle sprinkling of those aspects of traditional urbanism that middle-class residents value in small doses: lively shopping, a mix of places to eat and meet others, and cultural institutions. It is surely no small factor in their success that such cities are able to dangle before their residents a sense of relative freedom from the serious problems of crime and poverty that are so conspicuous in such cities as Detroit, St. Louis, Los Angeles and New York.

The desire is clearly to have certain benefits of an urban place — energy, variety, visual stimulation, cultural opportunities – without exposure to the problems that have always come along with urban life. It cannot be an accident that the cities that have marketed themselves most effectively in recent years as appealing living environments have not had substantial immigration or significant Third World populations. Indeed, providing some measure of urban experience without encouraging the mixing of different kinds of people might be said to be the new urban paradigm: making the city safe for the middle class. If traditional cities have always demanded engagement, the new urban paradigm seems its absolute opposite. It sanctions disengagement, even as it professes to celebrate the virtues of urbanity.

The new urban model is less truly urban than a kind of blurring of the traditional differences between city and suburb. While numerous older cities now attempt to market themselves as lively, vibrant, culturally active environments, the purest examples of the new urban paradigm are surely the so-called "edge cities" that now exist on the outskirts of most large cities, combining shopping malls, hotels, office buildings and occasionally housing at a density that is greater than traditional suburban density but significantly less than that of older core downtowns. Such places as City Post Oak in Houston, Tyson’s Corners outside of Washington, Buckhead north of Atlanta, and Las Colinas outside of Dallas mix high-rise buildings with shopping malls and hotels; gleaming and relatively new, they would seem to have every quality of cities except streets. Each of these places represents an attempt to take on the more benign characteristics once associated with larger cities without acquiring any other qualities of urban downtowns. The message is obvious: urbanity is attractive, so long as it can be rendered friendly and harmless.

These edge cities (an awkward term; I have always preferred the less high-sounding "out-town," which does a better job of putting these environments in their place) – in any event these out-towns have now grown to the point at which they have taken on many of the public functions once reserved for central cities. They possess not only stores and offices, but also sports stadiums, arenas and cultural centers, once the last vestige of conventional urban form. One of the most significant developments to have come to Southern California in recent years was the opening of the immense performing arts center in Costa Mesa, in Orange County, which for many southern Californians who already lived and worked in Orange County removed the last reason they had for going to Los Angeles. The Costa Mesa center, a huge granite complex situated opposite a cluster of shopping malls and hotels, is not a small-scale, "local" arts center: it competes with Los Angeles as the southern California locale for major national bookings. And not far away from the Costa Mesa Performing Arts Center is the Newport Harbor Art Museum, an institution whose trustees have taken as their mission the determination to create as high and serious a profile in the visual arts as the Costa Mesa center seeks to create in the performing arts. The agglomeration of high-profile cultural facilities in prosperous Orange County, quite intentionally rivaling those of Los Angeles, may be extreme, but it is not unique. I mention it only to make the point that the traditional dense city no longer commands the unique ability to offer certain things that it so long possessed.

This new urban paradigm began as a product of the automobile, and flourishes now partly for the same reason, but also for another one, as a result of the explosion of technology. In an age of faxes, of computers and modems, an age of instant communication via the internet, no one truly has to be anywhere. Where we are is the result of other factors. Let us not fool ourselves: The factors that brought the traditional city into being no longer exist. If the city has a continued function – and I believe that it does – it is essential that we not naively believe that it has an automatic, market-generated right to existence.

It doesn’t. For the city – the traditional, dense city, that is – to survive, it will have to prove its value in an age that offers so many pseudo-urban alternatives. That will not be difficult for such cities as New York and Los Angeles, which by virtue of their vast size serve as powerful magnets, and continue to attract creative people who, thankfully, seem now as in past eras drawn to the bright lights of the old-fashioned city. But smaller cities that do not have this allure will have a much harder time competing with the edge city, the out-town, the whole who-needs-cities-anyway attitude of the age of electronic communication. And some may not make it at all.

That was painfully evident in one of the most fascinating exchanges I have read in some time on the subject of the city, the dialogue between Tom Peters and George Gilder in Forbes on whether technology would mean an end to the city as we know it or would give it a continued future. Gilder saw no point to the old city, which he saw only as a tired relic of the industrial age; he celebrated the way in which electronic communication was rapidly making it, in his view, obsolete.

Peters took a more measured, and ultimately wiser, view, pointing out that, as he put it, there is a "fundamental human dimension" of real contact that cannot happen on the internet, and which real cities were designed to facilitate. "The richness, the exuberant variety of cities, is the fount of economic creativity and business growth," Peters said.

Let me say a word about what a city at its best means. The role of the city, the role of any city, to put it as bluntly as possible, is to be a common place, to be common ground, and as such, to support us and to stimulate us. "Now, the great function of the city is…to permit, indeed to encourage and incite the greatest possible number of meetings, encounters, challenges between all persons, classes and groups," wrote Lewis Mumford, "providing, as it were, a stage upon which the drama of social life may be enacted, with the actors taking their turns as spectators, and the spectators as actors."

Notice that Mumford spoke of the city not only in terms of meetings and encounters but also of challenges: he knew that the city is difficult, and did not attempt to pretend otherwise, to pretend that it is the easiest route. But he knew that in meeting challenge there is also a kind of satisfaction that cannot come from easy routes, and that the challenge the city represents can, at its best, be enobling.

The urban impulse is an impulse toward community – an impulse toward being together, and toward accepting the idea that however different we may be, something unites us. But what do we do in an age when every force pushes us away from cities, pushes us apart rather than together? As we move more and more into an age in which we do not automatically build cities, we have to think hard about how the experience of being together will come to pass. In this society we desperately lack a sense of community, a sense of common ground – a sense of the public realm. In an age in which we travel from private houses in little enclosed metal boxes on wheels into private office cubicles and then back again, an age in which we are almost never in a large public place save for an occasional visit to a sports stadium, an age in which the private experience of television and the VCR has replaced for many even the limited public experience of going to the movies, there is previous little sense of shared experience in our lives, previous little sense that there is such a thing as a common physical place that is designed for us all to come together and that, in and of itself, symbolizes our commonality.

Does the new urban paradigm, where urban values are increasingly suburban values, do this? Only marginally, I think, if it does it at all. And by suburban values of course I mean much more than matters of geography, and much more than accommodation to the automobile, though this is surely a part of it. But far more important than the physical facts of the automobile are three much more subtle, but ultimately far more profound, aspects of suburban values: racial and economic segregation, the presumption of disengagement and, going hand-in-hand with the first two, an acceptance, even an elevation, of the notion of private space. Indeed, the truly defining characteristic of this time might be said to be the privatization of the public realm, and it has come to affect our culture’s very notions of urbanism.

Suburbs have traditionally valued private space – the single-family, detached house, the yard, even the automobile itself – over public space, which they have possessed in limited enough quantities under the best of circumstances. And most suburbs now have even less truly public space than they once did. Not only are malls taking the place of streets in the commercial life of many small towns, the privatization of the public realm has advanced even more dramatically with the huge rise in the number of gated, guarded suburban communities, places in which residential streets are now technically private places rather than public ones. In literally thousands of such communities, entire neighborhoods become, in effect, one vast piece of private property. They exist to exclude, whereas traditional cities existed to include, or at least have the effect of inclusion.

The rise of suburban values means much more than the growth of suburban sprawl, then. It has meant a change in the way public and private spaces work in both suburbs and cities. And it has meant that many cities, even ones that pride themselves on their energy and prosperity, have come to take on certain characteristics once associated mainly with the suburbs. Now in both city and suburb, expressions of urbanity, which we might define as the making of public places where people can come together for both commercial and civic purposes, increasingly occur in private, enclosed places: shopping malls, both urban and suburban; "festival marketplaces" that seem to straddle the urban/suburban models; atrium hotel lobbies, which in some cities have become virtual town squares; lobbies of multiplex cinemas, which often contain a dozen or more theaters and thus exist at significant civic scale, and office building gallerias, arcades, and lobbies. All private, all closed.

How did we get to such a moment, where urban experience seems to occur mainly in private space? Let me answer this by taking a step back to the mid-1960’s, and quoting from an extraordinary essay, an essay I like to think of as marking the begining of that important academic discipline, the modern field of Disneyland Studies. This essay, published in 1965 in the Yale architectural journal Perspecta, was entitled "You Have to Pay for the Public Life," and within that wonderful title was the whole point: that there is a certain kind of public, communal, urban life that once took place in the streets and squares of great cities and small towns and villages, but now exists only in private places – places like Disneyland. It is a paradox of our time that the free public life now takes place in places that are not really public at all – in private cars as we pass each other on the freeway – while the truer public life goes on in private places.

"By almost any conceivable method of evaluation," Moore wrote, "Disneyland must be regarded as the most important single piece of construction in the West in the past several decades. The assumption inevitably made by people who have not yet been there — that it is some sort of physical extension of Mickey Mouse — is wildly inaccurate. Instead, singlehanded, it is engaged in replacing many of those elements of the public realm which have vanished in the featureless private floating world of southern California, whose only edge is the ocean, and whose center is otherwise undiscoverable. Curiously, for a public place, Disneyland is not free. You buy tickets at the gate. But then, Versailles cost somebody a lot of money, too. Now, as then, you have to pay for the public life."

Moore went on: "Disneyland, it appears, is enormously important and successful just because it recreates all the chances to respond to a public environment, which Los Angeles in particular does not any longer have. It allows play-acting, both to be watched and to be participated in, in a public sphere. In as unlikely a place as could be conceived, just off the Santa Ana Freeway, a little over an hour from the Los Angeles City Hall, in an unchartable sea of suburbia, Disney has created a place, indeed a whole public world, full of sequential occurences, of big and little drama, of hierarchies of importance and excitement, with opportunities to respond at the speed of rocketing bobsleds or of horse-drawn streetcars. An American Main Street of about 1910 is the principle theme, against which play fairy-tale fantasies, frontier adventure situations, jungles, and the world of tomorrow……Everything works, in a way it doesn’t seem to any more in the world outside."

It is absolutely true, of course – it is in the theme park, within this contained, private world, that we play at urban life, since the real world we have around us offers so few chances for acceptable public life any more. Charles Moore got it: Real cities are noisy, dirty, crowded, tense and dangerous. They may not be worse in this respect than they were in the 18th and 19th centuries, but we believe them to be, and that is all that matters, for we no longer trust them – we no longer trust cities to work for us, to protect us and to energize us. Yet implicit in all of this is the assumption that we want some kind of urban experience. The real question is whether, as a society, we even believe in the ability of real cities to give us this urban experience any more. Do we even want them to?

I think everything I’ve been trying to say in the last few minutes adds up to the conclusion that we do not. Charles Moore’s observation that Disneyland serves as a kind of replacement for the urban experience explains a lot of the subliminal appeal of Disneyland, and now of so many other places. We like to play at urbanity, without getting ourselves messed up in it. What we want most to do is satisfy the urban impulse and be entertained to boot. The private realm, with Disneyland as its model, has taken over. In 1955, Disneyland was extraordinary: there was nothing in the world like this stage set in which we could all wander, like this pretend urban place. But now, there is urban make-believe everywhere.

We see it in real cities, where mini-malls and so-called "festival marketplaces" replicate the urban experience for nervous suburbanites, and do so by providing an entertaining, sealed-off environment. We see it in the biggest of the sprawling suburban malls, where the parade of shops, itself a series of changing stage sets in the manner of Disneyland, gives way every few hundred yards for some form of entertainment – often children’s rides right out of an amusement park. Perhaps by now many of you have seen CityWalk, that pseudo-city in Los Angeles produced by Universal, which raises the curious question: is it a city street masquerading as a theme park, or a theme park masquerading as a city street? We are not quite sure, and that is precisely how the designers of this place want it.

There is nearly as remarkable an ambiguity in the upmarket version of CityWalk, 2 Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. That is Disneyland’s Main Street for grownups; instead of cute little shops selling mouse ears and stuffed animals, there are cute little shops selling Tiffany jewelry and Hermes scarfs. The triumph of the theme park as the new urban form has made its way into art museums, where marketing art as entertainment has become part and parcel of the way business is done. We see it in science museums, where IMAX screens make dazzling, entertaining images the central part of the experience of being there – more important, to many visitors, than the actual objects on display. We see the triumph of the theme park in mega-stores, in the vast emporiums like the new Barnes & Noble "superstore" bookstores that have cafes and have become gathering places, public places.

Is this a good thing? Well, better to have a bookstore taking over the functions of a public square than to have no public square at all. Better to have an art museum behaving as an entertainment center than no art museum at all. We have to admit that there is at least some sort of urban impulse at work, however feeble, and I am the first to admit that all of this clearly serves people̥s needs, or it wouldn̥t exist. We may choose on this basis of this marketplace evidence to call the glass of urbanism half empty or half-full, but whatever else can be said, it̥s clear that all of this straining for some kind of urban experience Рhowever false, however contrived, however suburban in its sensibility Рshows that the urban impulse has not disappeared from this society altogether.

That will not happen, of course. But in the triumph of the theme park, and its evolution into the new urban paradigm, there are real questions to be asked about whether the urban impulse and the entertainment impulse in our society are increasingly becoming the same thing. Is that so? And if it is, is it entirely bad? Cities, after all, have always been in part about entertainment: 19th-century Paris, that high point of Western urbanity, was an entertaining public culture; sitting in a cafe to watch the world go by was in every way a form of entertainment. There have always been close ties between the urban impulse and the entertainment impulse. The city grew up as a marketplace, but it flourished also as a stimulating, entertaining environment.

But if that is so, what, then, is the problem? Isn’t this simply a matter of urban form evolving to respond to new needs and new technologies? Of course thatÕs a part of it. But to leave it at that – to say that the new model of urban form we now see, in which the urban impulse and the entertainment impulse have become increasingly the same thing, is therefore just fine is to deny an essential truth about great and even not-so-great cities, which is that they are deeply, profoundly, absolutely and utterly public. Public means for everyone, and it also means, by implication at least, that they are not entirely controllable. In a real city we accept messiness as part of the deal – unevenness, disarray, complexity, a mixture of people and things, a certain amount of chaos, are all a part of the price we pay for the extraordinary creative energy that emanates from real cities, for the way in which they continually reinvent themselves like organic objects, for the presence of what I described earlier as true common ground, and, most important, for that elusive, difficult to define quality we might describe as a sense of authenticity.

We are in an age in which it is easy to think that artifice well executed is the only authenticity that matters — or at least the only authenticity our time is capable of creating. Certainly as technologies such as virtual reality continue to develop, and the entertainment impulse and the urban impulse continue to blur, it is hard not to think that authenticity in the urban environment is one of those old-fashioned values that holds no weight today. Sense of place? Why should anyone care about such a tired value? What does it when we can see the Eiffel Tower at Walt Disney World, when a new Las Vegas mega-hotel includes a reproduction of the New York skyline, not to mention a mini Venice and, for those who canÕt get to Walt Disney World, another Eiffel Tower?

Those of us in this room believe it does matter, I suspect, but will others? Will they care? I am not entirely sure. But I do know that our sense of authenticity has to change, powerfully, as a result of such things. For all we believe in the traditional city, it will do us no good to pretend that its physical form and its meaning will not change and evolve as a result of the technological world in which we live. In fact, the refusal to admit this – the insistence on believing that what once was is better than anything than can come – feeds directly into the idea of the theme park. Not the least of our problems in urban design today is the tendency on the part of those who love traditional cities to believe that they can, and should, be recreated precisely as they once were. The results, the so-called neotraditional cities and neighborhoods and projects we see all around us today, may be better than the sprawl they seek to replace – but they are often sentimental, and sorely lacking in authenticity. They show that we have learned one lesson, which is about the failure of the suburban model, but not that we have learned another, which is that you cannot build only out of sentimental yearning.

Yet as we ponder the impact of technology and entertainment on the city and on community, there are some other points that have to be made. One is to raise the paradox – and it is indeed a paradox that the more technology we have, the more "connected" in one sense we are, the more we seem to be distant from each other, the less we seem to be a community. We are all wired, we are all instantly in communication with each other, and distances are as nothing. In a flash you can talk to anyone, in even less time you can receive data, and in just a little bit more time you can physically be anywhere in the world. And yet, at the same time we seem to be more and more confirmed in our separate cultures. As we all connect, we seem to splinter, or to break off into separate groups. This may be the age of connection, but it is also the age of factionalization, the age of breaking apart.

What connotes common ground today? What value does our society even put in the notion of common ground? We’ve talked already about gated communities and pseudo-theme park malls, cut off from the world; and even these limited public experiences, really private versions of public experiences, don’t play much of a role in most people’s lives on a frequent basis. Remember the "isolation booth" of 1950’s quiz shows? That’s what each of us seems to have created, at home, for ourselves.

How did we get to this place, stuck in this paradox of more connection and more isolation at the same time? "Technology," Max Frisch said, is "the knack of so arranging the world so you don’t have to experience it." Exactly. Virtual reality has its pleasures, but it is not reality. Long before cyberspace, technology was pushing us away from public places and public experiences. Think back, if you will, to the great ages of urban life – at least we like to think of them as the great ages of urban life – say, Paris in the 19th century. "Street life" was a sign of the city’s health; the public life was lived in cafes and on the streets, and as you know a sophisticated person-about-town was even called a "boulevardier" – a presence on the boulevards. The term underscored how important the street, the public place, was in the value system of the time. Contrast it with our phrase today, "street person" – a euphemism for the homeless, the down-and-out at the bottom of the social ladder.

The automobile, as I said before, with its ability to make suburbia possible did a lot to change our attitudes toward public space; so did the growth of the middle class, and so did other forms of technology. Think, as you ponder this, about the amount of entertainment we now consume in private. Once, entertainment was entirely public: fairs, music halls, circuses, theaters, cinemas. If we go back enough in time we might add strolling minstrels and street pantomimists to this list. About all anyone consumed at home was a book.

Recorded music, then radio, then television, then the VCR, shifted the balance, and made it possible to consume more and more other kinds of entertainment in the privacy of home. And now there are more and more options ahead — the 500-channel systems, the "information highway," the systems by which we can magically order up any kind of film or program and have it digitally produced and transmitted to our own television sets or computers. All of this can happen, and much of it will But – and this is a very big but – certain fundamental things are not going to change, and one of them is the desire of people, at least some of the time, to be with other people. And it will remain alive, for the simple reason that people do not always want to sit in their houses. Give them 50 or 500 or 5,000 channels on their televisions and they will still want to go outside. Indeed, I think the number of options we are giving people now can be so frustrating that there is more inclination to go outside and walk the street or the mall or whatever when there are 500 channels than 5, since so much choice can be confusing and stressful.

Yes, it is true that the computer has become an extraordinary means of communication; no one can deny the immensity of the internet, of America Online and all the rest. For people who are without other means of making direct human connections technology here serves as a wonderful door to human contact. But that is presuming that the baseline is solitude, not real urban interaction. If you begin by presuming that the baseline is face-to-face contact, then conversation in cyberspace is a weak substitute.

The bottom line: I do not believe that people will stop wanting to be with each other, however enticing the technological imitations of communal experience can become. There will always be a place for a true public realm. If there were not, it would have died long ago, for the car, the telephone, the fax, the computer, the television, have already made it technologically out of date.

We hold onto it anyway, because we want it. And we also, I hope, believe in our history, and in the idea of commitment to a place. That is a part of the urban idea that I have not yet talked about, but perhaps it is the most important part of all: belief in a place, and a willingness to stake ourselves to our cities because they are there, because they exist. Sometimes I wonder if no other reason is necessary. The city is what we have and what we are. We may deny it, but it is so — it is where we have invested our lives as Americans, if only rarely our hearts. It is an investment we cannot write off. It is where our destiny is — it is the frontier that is not our beyond us, but the one, more challenging still, that is back within us, in the heart and soul of our culture and our communities.

How we will express the urban impulse for the next generation, while still making civilized living environments in which we can all somehow function together, is the crucial question for us all. It is the real city that makes things new, that challenges us and enlivens us. If the real city is doing its job, it stimulates and excites us in a way that leaves the theme park in the dust. It is not as easy as the theme park – nothing is, after all – but its rewards go deeper by far, for it makes us look forward, not backwards. The city is the common ground we have been seeking; its physical form connects us, brings us together, and makes concrete the ideas of community that we all seek. That is the real authenticity. That is why we need cities – to make manifest our ideas of community, which so many technological and economic forces in our time work against.

We cannot function alone – no man is an island, and no matter what technology brings us, we will not want to be alone all the time. We want to get outside, to be in public, to take the risk of doing what only the real city can do – which is to energize and uplift and inspire us and, yes, challenge us with the sense, as Lewis Mumford put it, "that we are all, each and every one of us, simultaneously actors and spectators on a stage."

The city is what we have and what we are.

horizontal line