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What cities do to us and what we do to cities

The Mecca of madness: the sprawling agglomeration of concrete, asphalt, steel,
brick, glass, billboards, traffic lights, and glaring neon;
the cacophonous din of growling autos, buses, trucks and trains,
the screech of sirens, the metallic staccato of jackhammers, the shrill whine of jet engines.
The city.
Millions live here.
But is it really worth it?


OUR PARTY has just returned from Rome.

Four and one half hours. That's what it took from time up in the morning at the hotel to lift-off at Rome's Chiampino airport.

Most of that time was spent in Rome's traffic snarls, with the driver alternately cursing under his breath, or leaning nearly half-way out the window to punctuate his remarks with that peculiarly Roman gesture of combined unbridled irritation and futility, the turned-up hand, with fingers lightly clenched, waving in agonized resignation.

But if Rome's endless traffic snarls, due to entirely too many vehicles winding their way through too narrow streets between buildings too old to use and too historic to tear down, is a problem which grays the hair of tourists in a hurry, it is no more so than the problems of practically every major city on earth.


Our Vulnerable Habitat

Traffic is what you see — what you hear — what you struggle through each day. But equal in their sluggish, barely functioning inadequacy are increasing rapid-transit systems, electrical systems, water supplies, sewage disposal systems, waste removal systems, anti-pollution systems, and practically everything else upon which normal city life depends.

Our cities have matured.

Now, they can simply stop.

A massive power failure, a transport strike, a sudden winter storm — even prolonged temperature inversions and resultant death-dealing air pollution — these can all grind the massively moving operations of a city to a stop.

"What bothers me," says W. Willard Wirtz, former U.S. Secretary of Labor "is the possibility that our population figures are such that a number of our basic systems will just stop working." A lawyer and consultant on urban life, Wirtz is vitally interested in the interrelationship of population and the environment." It wouldn't surprise me a bit to pick up the phone some day and find the whole telephone system had just collapsed from the sheer number of people using it," Wirtz said in a 1969 AP release.

As our cities have grown, they have become more and more complex.

More and more people, consuming more electricity, water, goods and services, have required more and more power, streets and freeways, shops and factories, more schools, hospitals, fire stations, and more policemen.

Today, the budgets of most major cities are strained beyond the breaking point. The operation of a city — keeping life somewhat palatable for the millions of inhabitants, each of whom expects to "do his own thing" without his neighbor (freely practicing the same compulsions) interfering — is becoming increasingly impossible.

Like the day some two years ago the whole Montreal Police department went on strike. On this "Black Tuesday" of unbridled rioting and looting, two were killed (including one policeman), 48 were wounded, 7 banks were held up (that's almost ten percent of the yearly total!), 17 other armed robberies took place, 1000 plate glass windows were broken, and at least $1 million worth of goods were looted from defenseless merchants. Also, over 200 burglaries were reported (the normal daily total was less than 50).


The Anatomy of a City

What is a city?

What keeps it going? What makes it at once terribly desirable to millions, yet obnoxious to the point of revulsion to millions more?

A "city" is technically a political entity — an administered area, granted a charter by a state (in the United States). Its boundaries are in constant flux — determined usually by archaic and ill-defined criteria.

Precious few attempts have been made, and even fewer have been successful, in determining what a city really is, or should be, and fewer still have successfully limited the population and area of a city.

Only with decades-late hindsight have programs of "urban renewal" or "civic redevelopment" begun to envision master planning of a total urban complex.

Unfortunately, these programs usually end up being as short-sighted as were the original street routes in, say, Boston.

By the time most urban renewal programs are completed, the continual massive onslaught of more and more population, more and more automobiles, disturbing patterns of changing ethnic groups, or additional sprawling suburbs have rendered the renewal programs obsolete.

From metropolitan centers we have grown to the modern term "urban agglomeration," which is to say, many, many smaller cities being gradually merged into one massive, urban sprawl.

From such agglomerations, such as the Los Angeles multi-city complex, have grown terms such as "Megalopolis" and "strip city."


The Making of Megalopolis

Dr. Herman Kahn, formerly head of the Hudson Institute, characterized the growing strip cities as a huge urban development, unbroken over a large land mass, eventually absorbing and overreaching even state boundaries." Bosnywash" was a term he used for the massive urban development ultimately bounded by Boston to Washington, D.C., including New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and everything in between, among, and around.

"San-San" meant a huge complex stretching from San Francisco to San Diego, with the ugliness that is Los Angeles somewhere in between. Some have joked that San-San should expand to stretch from Marysville, just north of Sacramento, to Tijuana, just south of the border in Mexico. The new strip city would be named Marijuana, one of its chief consumer items.

"Chipitts" was the term formed from the strip city ultimately gulping the whole territory from Chicago, and environs north to Milwaukee, and east to Pittsburgh. But this would only be the beginning.

World population will pass four billion by 1975. Demographers and population experts estimate that world population will double within another 35 years to EIGHT billion in 2010, and DOUBLE AGAIN 35 years later!

Most of these additional billions will flock to the cities.

Cities grow slowly — and change slowly. Witness Rome, London, or Paris. The shuddering impact of technology upon cities originally designed around narrow cart trails, canals and footpaths is everywhere evident.

Most urban planning envisions city growth in terms of a decade, or so. Few, if any, are remotely concerned with a period of 50 or 70 years. At a speech delivered in Los Angeles, a past President of the National Chamber of Commerce spoke glowingly of the beautiful "50-storied high-rise apartment complexes" with shopping centers, swimming pools, rooftop restaurants, and a "magnificent view of the sea." But when dozens upon dozens of such buildings are built, the only ones with such a "magnificent view" remain those crowded the closest to the ocean. The others simply stare at the balconies of other apartment dwellers.


Denseness Breeds Tenseness

But people actually seem to desire city life — the opportunity to trade a pleasant country environment for a small apartment in a huge building. More than half of the American population lives on less than 1'percent of the land, with 70 percent of all Americans clustered together in 250 metropolitan areas. In Australia, nearly half the population lives in only 2 large metropolitan concentrations. In Britain, the most urbanized nation on earth, nearly 80 percent of the population is crowded together into cities. Judging from present trends, more than half the people on the planet will be living in and around cities of more than 100,000 population each by the late 1970's.

Generally, the older the city, or the more poverty-stricken its various ghettos (oftentimes ethnically oriented), the more densely packed the human inhabitants are.

In London, 30,000 people live within each square mile. In Manhattan, it's 78,000! Parts of Paris have 73,000 people per square mile, and Tokyo bulges with 80,000 Japanese for every square mile of inner city.

If the entire American population were compacted together as are the black and Puerto Rican peoples of Harlem, the entire United States population could be housed in only 3 of the 5 boroughs of New York City.

The only comparable example in the whole ecosystem of earth of such incredible crowding would be insect colonies. Yet, there is nothing precision-like about human crowding, as in the case of ants, or bees.


The Tragic Effects of Crowding

To obtain some data on what the simple pressure of "too many" can do, Dr. John Calhoun of the National Institute of Mental Health pioneered what is called "experimental overpopulation." In one experiment, Calhoun confined thirty Norway rats in a ten-by-fourteen-foot room, partitioned into four interconnected pens. The nests resembled modern boarding houses. The rats were left alone for sixteen months, while researchers watched.

Soon, the thirty rats multiplied to eighty, and a "rat slum" came into being. As the population kept rising, with no controls, all instinctive patterns if behavior disintegrated.

Mothers began neglecting nests, and abandoning their young. Many rats wandered about in dazed, random, senseless pattern. Some rats even developed aberrant sexual habits, such as homosexuality. Others became cannibalistic. The death rate of the rat metropolis soared to overwhelming proportions, surpassing 90 percent of all live births in the more congested pens. It is probable that had the experiment continued, the total population would have perished.

All this took place in just sixteen months.

In 1968, Calhoun and his staff built several mouse "universes" (little pens of tin, of varying sizes) inside a barn-like building on the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) animal research farm. Four males and four females were placed in each one — and soon the populations began doubling, and redoubling. Behavioral changes were again carefully noted.

In the largest "universe," which was intended for 100 mice, 2,000 animals struggled to survive.

The whole social order disintegrated. Pointless physical attacks became the order of the day. Groups mauled "innocent" passersby for no apparent reason. Mothers neglected their young. Most males lay listlessly about, gnawing on others' tails. Females developed aggressive, masculine tendencies. What little sexual activity remained was usually abusive, and degenerative in character.

The males became too defeated to attempt procreation. The females became too self-assertive to allow it — normal roles became completely reversed.

An unexpected result of the study was the emergence of a new class of creatures who obviously withdrew into some inner sanctum of their own, and became somewhat oblivious to their intolerable surroundings. These mice devoted themselves to an excessive degree of washing — working for hours on keeping their skins clean.

The behavior of crowded rats was not an isolated phenomenon. Consider two further experiments in crowding.