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.

2 responses to “Urbs

  1. > Admit it , there will be no solution to the transportation flow without the
    > cohesion of the Urbe.

    Well, the problem is what is a reasonable solution to providing such cohesion. Is it the current fad: complete merger of the city and county? With the 129 other municipalities adding to the city’s current 89 neighborhoods, will this really solve any of the problems you have identified?

    I think not. Such a merger would be a simplistic, so-called solution, while most of the problems you identified would remain. The politics to solve these problems would simply change, most probably giving advantage to special interests who can more effectively lobby a more centralized governmental unit.

    My preferred solution would be to take the current Councils of
    Government model and expand it to be a truly regional forum (a “SuperCOG”) where truly regional problems can be debated and resolved, while local problems continue to be resolved at the local level.

  2. Glenn,

    First, thank you for visiting and for the comment. You’re the first for this blog…
    I am not an urban planner and I do not have much experience in urban planning, so my guess on the best solution is as good as any other‘s Pittsburgh resident.
    What I wish is that all parties involved, not just the local governments but also transportation providers, developers and urban developing initiatives, transportation planners and transportation technology developers, community groups should meet and work on some type of solution.
    The idea of a superCOG looks good, I am a firm believer that you cannot have community without communication and a city (urban area) without civitas (which is a lot about community).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s