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The City After the Automobile

by Moshe Safdie,with Wendy Kohn

In 1961, when Jane Jacobs wrote about the “attrition of cities by automobiles,” Moshe Safdie had just begun his now-famous career as one of Canada’s most imaginative and successful architects. More than 35 years and millions of automobiles later, Safdie (with collaborator Wendy Kohn) offers a provocative take on some of the ideas once posed by pioneer urbanists such as Jacobs.

Namely, the city is not, as it appears, a collection of buildings and monuments, but rather an organic entity defined and transformed by transportation and the mobility needs of its inhabitants. And the automobile – agent of congestion, pollution, and death by accident – is the main inspiration for post-war city planning. As Safdie describes it, the “paradox of the contemporary city” is worrisome: the more that ever-growing cities indulge their historic dependence on the car, the more likely they’ll resemble dispersed, isolated, decaying mega-cities like Los Angeles.

What Safdie brings to this complex situation is the sensibility of a naturalist, someone who convincingly identifies the organisms of the urban ecosystem and brings them into sharp historical and practical focus. The rise of the modern urban mega-project, he says, has sapped an appropriate sense of human scale from cities. The random dispersal of land, homes, and businesses within this post-war urban sprawl creates an austere environment that isolates human activity. And, where historical cities provided a wide variety of spaces for public gathering, the modern city donates most of its “public” space – up to 40% of a city’s land mass – to pavement and asphalt.

In describing all of this, the book exhibits a literary sensibility for material that too rarely escapes the dry, technical ghetto inhabited by planners, bureaucrats, and developers. The other unique quality Safdie shares with readers is his experience in the building of human environments. Case studies abound, specific examples illustrate how superior design can often be thwarted by market forces, the bane of visionary planning.

While Safdie makes a good argument for more integrated urban management, his proposal for an ambitious system of public utility cars comes at the expense of dismissing micro-solutions – low-cost, low-tech alternatives like bicycle transport and car co-ops that can provide immediate relief to cities in car crisis. As such, the book’s final section occasionally abandons the voice of the practical urban naturalist for a less convincing planner-futurist role, an expert with a high-tech master plan.

In a Disneyfied world, we desperately need more human-centric, alternative visions of urban space, if only to combat our flagging civic imagination. In the best sense of the word, The City After the Automobile is a manifesto for visionary urbanism in the late-1990s: offering reflection, description, and a thoughtful call to action.