A Communications Theory of Urban Growth

By Richard L. Meier; Resources for the Future | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
USES OF TIME AND SPACE

A truly urban way of life, as distinct from various compromises with rural patterns, has developed only in the course of the last century--after cities acquired more than a third of the total population of the societies within which they were embedded. The trend toward urban modes of living, however, was evident long before.

If clarity about what is meant by urban is to be achieved, brief description must be made of the manner by which the transition was effected. When cities first come into being they organized their own food production through the direct efforts of citizens. The city population was never very far removed from distinctly rural activities. Most artisans retained gardens or small fields or herds which were maintained by members of the family, slaves, or servants. Merchants and nobility could afford to keep fruit trees and herb gardens in courtyards and manage estates in the outlying hinterland, while palaces when they came into being developed formal gardens of many styles, often highly eclectic since they also served as the botanical collections. The temple gardens were rarely public, but devoted to the sumptuary needs of the priests. Civic institutions in turn were designed to provide such vital services to outlying villages and tributary populations as irrigation, defense, and justice. Commodities for commerce were limited to salt, condiments, metals, skins, and handicraft type artifacts such as baskets, mats, fabric, etc. Very little of the basic diet was obtained through the market.

In Rome, for the first time on record, this independence of the market for short-run consumption was lost. Virtually the whole population become dependent upon the import of staples from a distance. The distance to the ancillary rural areas became too great to be negotiated daily on foot, or even regularly by a member of the household, so it had to be entrusted to middlemen. Wheat and oil came in by ship from whatever territory could produce a surplus most cheaply. The villas and estates on the outskirts of Rome and the provincial capitals led to a now compromise between urban and rural styles of life for those who could afford the expense. The summers, in particular, were spent in rural retreats. Movement from the center to the fringe became more and more frequent as the roads were widened and surfaced. Many villas eventually became the permanent residences of the rich and powerful. The Renaissance recalled these patterns and added a few borrowed from the Orient.

The symbol of the house-outside-the-city percolated through the gentry to the middle classes by the early nineteenth century. Thus it is no surprise that when the street railway and inter-urban lines came into being, the new suburbs took on villalike characteristics, although many effloreseences were pruned. "Garden city" type solutions were opened up to the middle classes around 1900, and by 1950 some of the working classes were being introduced to new towns as adjuncts of the welfare state.

The contemporary American design of tracts of suburban housing must find a combination of symbols and standards that will sell in a competitive market. The outcome, whether "ranch," "Traditional," or "Cape Cod," stresses a romantic attachment to the rural scene without yielding many opportunities for such satisfactions. However, the

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