The “cities vs suburbs” trope prompted me to muse about another term that we often misuse in the United States – urban area.
The ancient term –Urbs – referred to a walled in town characterized by cohesion, population density and to an extent size. And as the story goes, when Constantine re-built Byzantium into Constantinople he knew exactly what he wanted. And his directions were closely followed by its planners, engineers and builders. This is why, from all the kingdoms and their mighty Urbis , Constantinople was the last to fall to the successive invasions of the middle ages.
Uban area, as it is understood today is mainly defined by density and to an extent size, while the core requirement of cohesion has been long lost in the United States. What we call today an “urban area” is in fact a multitude of fractured municipalities located in the immediate vicinity of a major city – a high density area with a relative administrative unity that is playing an important role in local economics and in certain cases could be defined historically.
Consider the city of Pittsburgh and the suburbs in the nearest vicinity that are the Allegheny County municipalities. The actual urban area stretches further than Allegheny County’s borders, but in order to simplify the argumentation we shall limit ourselves to the places that are within its borders.
The map featured above paints the diversity of the sa-called Pittsburgh Urban Area .
Imagine yourself as the person in charge of developing a functional transportation network. Transportation , the brick-and mortar infrastructure of an urban area , is as important as your body’s circulatory and nervous systems. A good flow is vital – any clogging, any interruptions in each of the systems will lead to illness. A good transportation flow is equally vital for the urban area you are living in -if people and businesses cannot achieve the mobility/access they desire , they are very likely to move on and move out…
To achieve this steady, healthy flow in the Pittsburgh urban area , the planner needs to deal first with an unfriendly topology –rivers, streams and high steep hills, the need for bridges and tunnels.
The second challenge — having to deal with each individual municipality – and there are 130 municipalities “all with a strong tradition of statutory municipal independence and self government.” One hundred thirty fragments that do not make a whole is a serious problem for someone who is trying to build an uninterrupted, functional transportation flow through the area.Especially as each place holds to its history, its rules …
You have 88 neighborhoods in the city and 130 municipalities in the county, therefore you would have to deal with 218 individual communities, some that are so obsessed with preserving their identity that they are now enclaves among larger communities.
And only 305,704 of the 1,526,006 county residents live in the actual city –that is only 20%. The rest 80% live in communities as diverse as
- old cities -McKeesport , Borough of Leetsdale
- walking suburban areas -Mt. Lebanon, Crafton, Bellevue, Avalon;
- suburbs that are very similar with the city neighborhoods they border – Dormont, Beechview, Brookline or Brentwood, Carrick, South Baldwin ;
- suburbs with an older, walkable core sprawling into the new driving only type –Baldwin Borough, Ben Avon, Shaler and surrounded by sprawlites – Bridgeville.
- Typical sprawling suburbs – North Fayette , Monoreville, Pine, McCandless etc.
- Typical suburbs that are yet still close to the city borders –O’Hara, Whitehall (the South part of it)
- Enclaves – Mount Oliver (that’s a sore spot) , Oakdale, West View, Bridgeville, Bradford Woods, Pitcarin
Some municipalities are actual old cities , that were in the old times cribs of prosperity and growth. Old, walkable cities outside of the actual city with their own satellite boroughs and townships that had once sprawled from their prosperity. With their own customs, traditions and the desire to preserve themselves as independent entities (one example is MonValley).
Some municipalities combine the old borough with sidewalks and mom and pop shops with sprawling areas of the typical drivable suburban sort -they look like snakes uncurling their tails towards the borders of the county , stealing space between other boroughs and townships.
Some municipalities sprawled in the typical American way – that is towards the outskirts and beyond. Some municipalities found themselves enclosed by borders and took advantage of the topology to sprawl towards higher altitudes. Some municipalities are enclaves that resisted the growth of neighboring boroughs and found themselves encircled by those.
How can you achieve that healthy transportation flow when some will encourage cars, some public transit and you have to pass through one municipality to get to another. Plus you cannot build highways in the older boroughs and a transit system grows ineffective because the sprawl. Not to mention that a municipality your transit system has to pass through can make its roads quite unfriendly for it….
Admit it , there will be no solution to the transportation flow without the cohesion of the Urbe.