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Cities Beyond the Horizon

The data artist and Creative Director of the Data Arts Team at the Google Creative Labs, Aaron Koblin, likes data points. The digital representation of information— flights, sounds, physical addresses— provide an oddly relatable medium. It brings the digital into the analog; it’s impossible not to be enthralled by his most ambitious projects because they tend to have people just like you as willing collaborators. Flight Patterns, a hypnotic blizzard of national flight paths musically backed with kitschy and endearing electronica, announced Koblin’s rise to infographic stardom. The most fascinating part of the piece is also the most mundane: the bursting eggs of light along the edges of the central shape (as well as two or three in the center) create a web of fireworks that is oddly mesmerizing but in reality those explosions of static are flights leaving from JFK, LGA, LAX, MIA, DFW, ORD, and ATL.

The significance of the light concentration in Koblin’s work shouldn’t come as a surprise. The CIA Factbook —something of a clearinghouse for geopolitical factoids—puts the United States’ urbanization rate at 82%, or about 255 million people, but what does that really mean? According the U.S. Department of Transportation, the entity in charge of city planning because, well, think of how much money a given area needs to spend on getting around, tells us that “[a]n urbanized area is comprised of one or more places and the adjacent densely settled surrounding area together include at least 50,000 people.” A nebulous definition, at best.

The blurred definitions of town, city, and urban area potentially negates the entire concept that many of us have of the traditional American city: a densely populated core with tendrils expanding out towards a less populated, but still packed, periphery. Beyond that are the suburbs and exurbs, which endure those monikers because they are so inherently “un-citylike”, but they are still included in the calculations behind urbanization rates. When did a part of the landscape that urbanists disdain so much become an inextricable part of the movement towards making cities important? And how do we fix it?

Being at the mercy of outdated metrics seems to a global pastime. Most famously, Robert F. Kennedy’s criticism of Gross National Product as a measure of prosperity, and by proxy a majority of the drier economic rubrics, offered that “[GNP] tells us everything about America except why we are proud to be Americans.” Kennedy was not an economist but had a singular talent for accessing the most beatific notions of being American and attempting, until his tragic assassination in 1968, to drive progressivism by appealing to the more emotional angels of magnanimous patriotism. What he was asking for was a more complete way to judge our surroundings and, more specifically, how well people were doing in their every day lives. While concepts like purchasing power parity (how much that paycheck is really worth) and consumer price index (how much things actually cost) have caught on in the U.S., our economic well-being is still based upon the statistically sharp but practically enigmatic concepts of Gross Domestic Product and Gross National Product.

The same argument could be made for cities today. Does all 579 mi2 of Houston, Texas (twice the size of Singapore in terms of land mass and a little more than half the population) count as a city? Of course not, and for everyone that has been to Houston it’s obvious that there are pockets of density where most of the people live and stretches of bucolic perpetuity where people, well, don’t. The USDOT, whose lexicon apparently hasn’t been updated since we used wagon trains to go west, labels the areas of a city with more than 1,000 persons per square mile as “densely settled”.

To put that statistic into perspective New York City has a density of 26,402 persons per mi2 while Farmington, New Mexico has a density of 1,613. In terms of urbanization rates these two places are siblings of similar weight but different heights; adobe and steel. The blindly empirical approach to judging how many of us live in “cities” is starting to fray at both ends: we are mathematically urban because of our suburbs, but we are functionally rural because of our cities.

In a vacuum, cities will always be defined by population. A town of 30,000 living on a plot of 30 mi2 in Arizona may look as dense as some parts of Los Angeles on paper but that, as geographically prejudicial as it may sound, does not qualify a place as a city not its people as urban. Urbanization rates need to be reconciled with the unkind realities of affluent modern America: suburbs and highways dominate our landscape. 82% of us do not live in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago but more likely live in Hamden, CT (pop. 58,119) or Lorain, OH (pop. 70,263). Are the latter two cities? According to government definitions, yes. But are they urban?

Aaron Koblin’s Flight Patterns gives us a stylized view of America: making out the concave edges of the east coast and the vertical beach chair of the west is easy if you just follow the lights. Cities, usually where those points explode from, are surely the centers of innovation, creativity, and dynamism that thinkers like Richard Florida and Edward Glaeser make them out to be, but they are not where most of us choose to live. More and more young people are attempting to regenerate cities from the inside out and are, as young people are wont, recoiling at the thought of moving back to their detached family homes. Real cities with tangible urbanity are still the exception. We’re not static though, we can shift the demographics and data and give Mr. Koblin and his team another movement to track; not planes but people.

  • http://twitter.com/mp3architect James Petty

    Have you actually looked at Houston on a map? Go check that out. Can you show me these pockets where people dont live? Houston is a very very different culture than London. London is very very dense. Where I lived, in SE16 Rotherhithe, was far more dense than almost anything in Houston. There are not pockets of density followed by pockets of space. That is in fact how it was originally developed in the 1960s. It was economical to not build the next group of houses beside the previous set, but to skip a few plots and then build cheaper. This created the sprawl. But since then, everything has been infilled. As a city overall, nothing is “dense.” Every house has so much space around it. And so many people have their own houses that really don’t need one (and definitely wouldn’t have one had they lived in London). Every shop has a parking lot almost twice the size of the already too big store. We have huge freeways running right through the city eating up so much space. One freeway is 26 lanes wide at one point. no joke. Peter Zumthor has a lecture he sometimes gives calling the division of cities as the tuscan town, the small town, London, Houston. He even did a study on what he called “super Houston” a few years ago… some of which is starting to come true by now. I hate it. But its what it is. And, thank God, no European city is sprawled like that. 

  • http://neilfreeman.net Neil Free

    Someone’s wrong on the internet! Major factual errors: the USDOT is not “an entity in charge of city planning.” It’s an entity that administers transportation fundiing. There isn’t any federal body “in charge of city planning” – although the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development would be a closer fit. City Planning in the USA is handled at the local (and sometimes state) level.
    The definition of an “urbanized area” isn’t nebulous at all, it’s carefully defined by the US Census Bureau. It might be nebulous if you quote from a memo from a different agency, but why would you do that? Go to the source: http://www.census.gov/geo/www/ua/2010urbanruralclass.html.
    (The 2010 definition is not finalized yet, this document describes the proposal. Your crack about wagons is idiotic.) 

    I don’t know where you get your definition of a US city, but for a long time our cities have not been characterized by tendrils extending into a “packed periphery.” it’s been long noted that American cities have loose, undefined edges, with patches of urbanization interspersed with rural land extending far from the core.

    The Census’ has classification that attempt to track the different kinds of US urbanization – “Urbanized Areas” are complemented by “Urban Clusters.” These definitions aren’t perfect, and one could easily argue that they are imperfect.

    It’s not clear what you mean by defining cities “by population,” but in now way could and definition exclude Farmington NM, which is a core of population occupying a developed area, surrounded by a rural, un-populated area. How is that not a city? Maybe not a metropolis like New York or London, but undoubtedly a small city.

    Is it an example of “tangible urbanization”? Who knows, you don’t define that. Are you arguing that most Americans live in a cultural wasteland? That most Americans care more for their families and work than for the cultural attractions of the coasts? That many American cities don’t have the same range of housing and neighborhood types as European or coastal US cities? 

    • Brownth

      USDOT administers all Federal planning funds (PLs for planning, Section 5303 for transit) to Metropolitan Planning Organizations. USDOT takes action on behalf of the US Census Bureau to request that an MPO be formed if a given area surpasses 50k people in a contiguous space (county is usually the bar). In that sense, yes, the USDOT is responsible for city planning as it funds MPOs through SDOTs in the form of Federal grants.

      • http://neilfreeman.net Neil Free

        DOT does not certify MPOs “on behalf of the Census.” The Census doesn’t care about MPOs any more than it cares about the Rotary Club. Don’t confuse MSAs with MPOs. The first is a purely statistical unit, the second is a governmental body that operates within that unit.
        And no, USDOT doesn’t makes grants to MPOs. USDOT dollars are allocated to states based on a formula, one of the elements of which is the population in urbanized areas. SDOTs then allocate that money based on applications that have to reflect some kind of transportation plan. So the USDOT is in no way in “charge of city planning”, unless the mostly-formulaic allocation of transportation dollars is “city planning.”

        • Brownth

          Haha, it is. Read a UPWP and you’ll see what I mean.