Dense, Denser, Densest: Americans like Their Cities Spacious. Will Concerns about Costs and the Environment Push Them to Rein in Sprawl?

By Rybczynski, Witold | The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Dense, Denser, Densest: Americans like Their Cities Spacious. Will Concerns about Costs and the Environment Push Them to Rein in Sprawl?


Rybczynski, Witold, The Wilson Quarterly


LAST FALL, FOREIGN POLICY PUBLISHED WHAT IT called a global cities index, a list of 65 world cities ranked according to a variety of economic, cultural, and social indicators. Compiled by the consulting firm A. T. Kearney and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the index measures business activity, the size of capital markets, and the flow of goods through airports and ports. It also takes into account cultural and information resources such as the number of performance venues, the extent of broadband access, international coverage in the local press, the degree of political engagement as measured by the number of think tanks and conferences, and university enrollment and education levels. The 2010 list predictably included global powerhouses and national capitals such as London, Paris, and Tokyo, but the United States had no less than six cities in the top 20--New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles (in the top 10), as well as San Francisco, Washington, and Boston.

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Lists such as these have become commonplace, and American cities are often among the top ranked. It is hardly surprising that the United States contains so many leading global cities; after all, it is an economic superpower and a very large country. What is striking is that these cities are physically so different--large as well as small, old as well as new, horizontal as well as vertical, and sprawling as well as concentrated. Clearly there is no one-size-fits-all American urban template.

Consider New York, Los Angeles, and Washington. The popular image of New York, the oldest of the three, is of a small island crammed with skyscrapers. The reality is different. Manhattan is at the heart of a metropolitan region that stretches over parts of three states, more than 3,000 square miles of cities, suburbs, and small towns. Even within the five boroughs there is considerable variety between, say, Queens, where homeownership is the norm, and Manhattan, where a majority of residents are tenants.

Compared to New York, Los Angeles is very new; 100 years ago the city had barely 100,000 inhabitants. Metropolitan Los Angeles has a reputation as a sprawling, spread-out place, yet its urbanized area is half the size of New York's. The Angeleno city fathers have worked hard to create a distinct downtown--with limited success so far-and Los Angeles continues to be a city of many subcenters (in that sense, at least, it resembles London). Unlike London, Los Angeles is not a walkable city, yet it is dense, with mile upon mile of cheek-by-jowl dingbats, boxy two- and three-story apartment buildings.

Washington resembles neither Los Angeles nor New York. Although there are tall buildings in Rosslyn, Virginia, just across the Potomac, downtown Washington has no high buildings at all, thanks to the District of Columbia's roughly 10-story height limit. Historically, many American cities had height limits--Los Angeles as late as 1957. The difference is that in Washington, thanks to congressional inertia, the height restriction has persisted, making Washington look more Parisian than American. The skyline consists of civic landmarks rather than skyscrapers--the Washington Monument standing in for the Eiffel Tower--and downtown is dominated by bulky office and apartment buildings. This mid-rise pattern extends quite far toward the periphery, instead of dropping off quickly to single-family houses, as it does in most American cities.

What about the other top-rated dries? Chicago's downtown Loop is as clearly defined as Manhattan--and similarly vertical--but the flat midwestern topography has allowed the urbanized area to extend unchecked in three directions--north, south, and especially west, far past O'Hare Airport. As a result, Chicago covers a larger area than any of the other six leading American cities except New York The historic center of Boston is compact and walkable, and although there are some skyscrapers, there is no memorable skyline. …

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