Sunday, June 29, 2014

Florence vs. Atlanta

Florence, left, and an Atlanta highway interchange compared in photos of the same scale
This comparison of two satellite photographs has been making the rounds over the past few years. It originally appeared here on a blog post written by Steve Mouzon. We see from the two photos that an unnamed highway interchange in Atlanta takes up roughly the same amount of space as the entire city of Florence.

Despite his blog's objectives spelled out in its title: Original Green: Common-Sense, Plain-Spoken Sustainability, Mouzon argues against the 20th/21st Century American paradigm of devoting so much space to the automobile in strictly economic terms:
Busy streets, for almost all of human history, created the greatest real estate value because they delivered customers and clients to the businesses operating there. This in turn cultivated the highest tax revenues in town, both from higher property taxes and from elevated sales taxes. But you can't set up shop on the side of an expressway.
In another blog post that revived the above photographs, Lloyd Alter writes this:
You could spend days walking the streets of Florence... and find three hundred and fifty thousand residents shopping, eating, selling wonderful leather goods, going to fabulous galleries and palaces and museums...
Because of the need for speed, Atlanta has a great big expensive hole the size of Florence that does very little beside getting a small fraction of Atlanta workers to their jobs a bit sooner, barring any accidents.
Compelling as these two photographs are, finding any real meaning behind them is not as easy as it might seem on the surface. With two entirely different cities built in different times in different cultures, you could spin this comparison any number of ways. Florence is the size it is precisely because the automobile was about 400 years from being invented during the Renaissance when the city took its current shape. Had the Tuscan city been planned in another technological era, Florence certainly would be a much different place. The same is true of Atlanta.

Perhaps the most prescient words I've ever read about the automobile came from the author Booth Tarkington in his 1918 novel, The Magnificent Ambersons. Responding to the comment, "Automobiles are a useless nuisance", the character Eugene Morgan, himself an early pioneer in the automobile industry, takes a philosophical view of his life's work:
I'm not sure he's wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization - that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men's souls. I am not sure, But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men's minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of the automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can't have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that spiritual alteration will be bad for us. Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with him that automobiles had no business to be invented.
The urbanologist Jane Jacobs argued that it was not the automobile per se that altered civilization, but the way we designed our cities in order to accommodate it. The thriving street culture of Florence as seen in the photo and described by Lloyd Alter above, compared to the relative emptiness of area surrounding the Atlanta highway is a perfect illustration of her point. With the exception of the River Arno, one can explore on foot practically every nook and cranny of Florence as I can personally attest. I don't know Atlanta that well but I've certainly experienced similar landscapes as the one pictured on the right. Super-highways create no-man's lands of inhospitable landscapes divided by impenetrable borders. It's unlikely that anyone would choose to get from any given point A to point B in the area shown the photo on the right on foot as the journey would prove to be not only hazardous, but highly unsatisfying. Boring streets Jacobs argued, made for boring cities that people would ultimately move away from. Her prediction sadly became reality as we have seen time and time again in great cities across America.

The city of Florence today does not exclude cars, it just puts them in their place. On the other hand, Atlanta and similar cities, continue to put cars front and center.

I'll get on the bandwagon and spin this story in the direction of my own biases by using two instances that I've sited before, one personal, one taken from the news:

My parents retired to a community in greater Phoenix, another sprawling city where car is king. They had a very nice life and my wife and I greatly enjoyed our visits, in fact we were married there. My father's health eventually deteriorated and as my mother was caring for him in his final days, she was diagnosed with macular degeneration which rendered her legally blind, unable to drive. Not having something as basic as a grocery store closer than two miles from home, and no public transportation whatsoever, my fiercely independent mother could only rely on the kindness of her friends and family for so long. She ended up moving back to Chicago where at eighty-something she continues to live a very independent life, relying on public transportation to get her to the places too far away to walk. Ironically, "The Valley of the Sun", a region that draws retired people by the score, was unable to provide a sustainable life for her once she could no longer drive.

In Atlanta earlier this year, a mere two inches of snow completely incapacitated the city. Commuters were stranded in their cars for up to 24 hours as the city's three snow plows were no match for the unusual weather event. One only has to look at the two photographs above to understand why Atlanta was in such a sorry state. It might take an hour to transverse the distance from one end of the area represented by each photograph to the other on foot. Despite the two cities being somewhat comparable in population, that distance represents the entirety of Florence but only a small fraction of the average commute in Atlanta. I have no idea how well Florence is equipped to handle snow, but I'm sure two inches of the white stuff would hardly incapacitate a town where you can walk everywhere.

Time and time again we have seen how putting all of our eggs in the same technological basket is not a good idea. Technology is a wonderful thing, that is until it stops working as planned. Anyone who has gone through a power outage of any length of time can testify to that fact. The internal combustion engine and the automobile, great, earth shattering inventions as they may be, still have their limitations. The real question we must ask ourselves in the 21st century is this:

Are we to control our technology or are we going to let it control us?

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