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Since ancient times the city builder's sacred duty has been to wrest order from chaos. Architect Moshe Safdie takes up the torch in The City After the Automobile as he examines North America's most conspicuous urban form, the dispersed megacity. Such creatures typically consist of a towering historic nucleus surrounded by vast anarchic sprawl. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver fit the category as readily as Houston and Los Angeles.
The paramount catalyst of sprawl has been the private automobile, mindless slayer of the traditional close-knit urban streetscape. Car-oriented development consumes twice as much land as development geared to foot or mass transportation. The Main Street of suburbia is a roaring freeway lined with detached homes, scattered high rises, monster malls and oceans of parking. To restore order and esthetics to urban form, Safdie proposes no less than a transportation revolution but more of that later.
The dawn of mass automobile production early in this century inspired certain visionaries in rose-colored glasses to develop an ideological basis for urban sprawl. For Le Corbusier, the car, by extending the practical distance between home and work, could improve the quality of life by transforming the crammed cesspot city of the Industrial Revolution into an airy plateau of stand-alone structures interlaced with greenbelts and exhilarating autoroutes. To Frank Lloyd Wright, the prophet of suburbia, the car ("the most democratic mode of locomotion," he asserted) heralded an egalitarian, decentralized society. The future city, Wright proclaimed, would be everywhere and nowhere.
Wright's view is fairly convincing today when from our living rooms we live in virtual camaraderie with the entire global village. So who needs the city's hypertense warrens and cattle-car transit and layers of human detritus?
Safdie answers that the compact city economizes on land and energy use. Above all, the myriad encounters and collaborations of everyday city life grease the wheels of culture and commerce. The essence of the city is the bringing together of people and "as our roles in society become ever more specialized (and thus more isolating), our basic need for interaction increases." Safdie recoils at the prospect that the car-dependent future world may be an endless "no man's land" connecting a series of privately controlled malls and gated communities. Sprawl portends the dissolution of civilization.