Sarah Palin in Context: The Real West is an Urban West

Sarah Palin knows how to hunt wolves. She can skin a moose. She lives way up there on America’s last frontier. So, we might think, here’s a national candidate who represents the “real” American West, not its Hollywood imitation.

That’s a tempting image, but it’s flat out wrong. Nancy Pelosi, fast-talking, hard-edged urbanite from San Francisco, is a much better stand-in for the real American West. So is the sister team of Loretta Sanchez and Linda Sanchez, who represent parts of Los Angeles County and Orange County in the U.S. Congress. Add to the list Washington State governor Christine Gregoire from the busy urban corridor along Puget Sound. And then there’s Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, a New Yorker happily transplanted to Phoenix.

Many Americans like to imagine the West as a vast land of sagebrush and deserts, mountains and forests, cougars and caribou. Sure, it has plenty of landscapes to match the western movie image, but almost nobody lives in the empty West. For more than a century, the West has been the most urbanized part of the country. City people shaped its development in the nineteenth century, tilted the nation’s center of power westward in the twentieth century, and control the future of the region–and in large part the nation–in the twenty-first century.

That’s right: The West is the American region with the largest share of its population living in metropolitan areas (cities of 50,000 and the adjacent counties with close economic ties). The metropolitan percentage is higher from the Rockies westward than in the crowded Northeast or the Middle West with its constellation of aging industrial cities.

Eight of our twenty biggest metropolitan areas are located in the West. More than 80 percent of Californians, Coloradans, Arizonans, Nevadans, and even Texans live in large urban areas. In 2000, 28 percent of ALL Americans lived in the metro area of the nineteen western states.

The urban West is not new. The West was settled and developed outward from its gateway cities. In the pioneer century of the 1800s, Denver was essential to the development of Colorado. That city sent railroads, mining experts, and investment dollars into the Rockies. Its smelters and refineries processed the gold and silver ore then the railroads hauled it out of the mountains. Portland was the gateway to the great Columbia River valley of Oregon and Washington. San Francisco–remember Nancy Pelosi–guided the fate of California and Nevada. In the twentieth century, Seattle, Dallas, San Antonio, Albuquerque, and Phoenix played similar roles in their own parts of the West.

As early as 1890, the federal census recognized that “the urban element in the western division” was growing faster than rural population. That is the same census, by the way, that famously declared that there was no longer a discernable frontier line on the national map. The turning point was actually a decade earlier, when the census numbers showed that the level of urbanization of the Rocky Mountain and Pacific states had passed that of the older parts of the nation.

Even Sarah Palin’s Alaska has always been an urban frontier. Its founding city was the Russian capital at Sitka. Nome and Fairbanks served the needs of prospectors. Juneau housed territorial and state offices. By the start of the current century, almost two thirds of Alaskans lived in the metropolitan areas of Fairbanks and Anchorage, Palin’s home base as a suburban mayor. With more than 300,000 people, Anchorage is in the size range of Eugene, Oregon, Rockford, Illinois, or Tallahassee, Florida.

So don’t be fooled. Alaska is intriguing, but its center of gravity is a modern metropolis. It’s not quite as urban as California, but it’s on the way. If we want to find the real West, we need look for tree-lined streets in Austin, working class neighborhoods in Oakland, sprawling suburbs on the Colorado plains, and multi-ethnic communities in Los Angeles, perhaps ending with a latte at a Seattle Starbucks where we can power up our Windows-driven laptop to bang out an email message to an old acquaintance still living among the sagebrush and cougars.

Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett: New Regionalists

Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett: New Regionalists

Link to PowerPoint slides for this presentation

Forget the pictures!

Forget those jewel-box depictions of civic temples and ceremonial boulevards and awesome public squares.

The pictures take us backward to golden cities in distant lands—to an imagined Byzantium, to a Venice redesigned at elephantine scale . . . The visual rhetoric is as practical as a Faberge egg.

The illustrations are exquisite—darn it, they depict a “city beautiful”—but they were not relevant to the basic goal of the Plan of Chicago. They show a city that is impractical in scale and aristocratic in form, designed to overshadow the doings of ordinary Chicagoans. They’re the reason that poor Daniel Burnham sometimes gets unfairly tagged as a precursor of totalitarian design in the style of East Berlin’s Stalinallee or Warsaw’s Soviet-era Place of Culture.

The renderings support the interpretation that the Plan of Chicago was “primarily about urban beautification” (to quote Donald Miller) . . . or that it “focused on the theme of beauty” (from Chicago Metropolis 2020) . . . or that it centered its attention “only on design of public spaces as a city beautiful effort” (from Ed Kaiser and Dave Godschalk).

But we know that both Daniel Burnham, the plan’s entrepreneur and public face, and Edward Bennett, who managed the project and performed much of the analysis, were eminently practical.

We know that Burnham was successful in commercial architecture, politically astute in city and nation, and capable of harnessing divergent talents to a complex task.

We know Bennett as one of the most successful planning consultants, also able to organize teams of assistants, skilled at large and small projects, able to reinvent himself from Beaux-Arts architect to zoning specialist and then to chair of the Board of Architects charged with realizing the Federal Triangle in Washington.

What is most striking about the Plan of Chicago is the practicality and prescience of its regional scope.

1) The Plan of Chicago appeared -arrived -at a time when Americans were thinking through the implications of horizontal growth and the emergence of large urbanized regions:

One reaction was municipal annexation and consolidation. There was the great consolidation of greater New York in 1898. My home town tripled in area in 1891 in order to keep its population temporarily ahead of Seattle. The city and county of Denver consolidated into one. Pittsburgh absorbed Allegheny. Los Angeles used its control over water to absorb the vast San Fernando Valley.

At the same historical moment, the Census Bureau was figuring how to measure newly sprawling urban regions. It defined thirteen “industrial districts” in 1909, using data on from the 1905 census of manufactures.

In 1910 the term was “metropolitan district,” using virtually identical criteria as the year before. There were 29 of them—cities with 200,000 people or more plus jurisdictions within ten miles of the city that had densities of 150 people per square mile. Chicago, of course, was No. 2, with 2,456,000 metropolitan residents putting it comfortably ahead of third place Philadelphia.

2) The Plan of Chicago offered a dynamic spatial counterpart to the time-bound measurement of the metropolitan district.

It was regional in scope.

Its focus was circulation and the effective specialization of land uses. It put the metropolitan area concept into motion.

The city had already taken important steps toward a metropolitan vision. Annexations in 1889 tripled Chicago’s land area and extended the city from the damp backwaters of Lake Calumet to the border of legally dry Evanston. The new Sanitary District of Chicago covered 185 square miles and would soon turn the Chicago River around. Discussion about a regional park system—the future Cook County Forest Preserves—was already underway.

The Plan of Chicago at its heart is about movement – Places to assemble people and materials . . . ways to move goods and people . . . nodes and corridors . . . hearts and arteries. It tried to frame the real estate market and the work of private city builders within a regional infrastructure of rationalized railroads and new highways. It knit downtown and neighborhoods, city and suburbs and surroundings, to a distance of sixty miles. It took the regional booster vision of the nineteenth century and transformed it into a concrete form and format for shaping a vast but functional cityscape.

Economically comprehensive as well as spatially unifying, the plan envisioned a Chicago that located management functions, production, and transportation in their most efficient places. It assumed that Chicago would continue to be a fountainhead of industrial employment (despite a growing history of labor-management violence).

Every critic and historian has their own view of the legacy of the Plan of Chicago. What I’ve chosen to emphasize is not Wacker Drive or the transformed lakefront but the regional/functional changes: The Forest Preserve system, improvement of freight terminals and circulation, movement of harbor facilities to Lake Calumet, arterial street widening, and regional highways as would be coordinated in the 1920s by the semipublic Chicago Regional Planning Association.

3) When we trace the heritage of the Plan of Chicago beyond northern Illinois, Edward Bennett comes first as the author during the 1910s of city-region plans for Detroit, Minneapolis, Portland, and Ottawa. These were comprehensive in topical coverage, advanced in technique, and spacious in their regional coverage.

An example is Bennett’s plan for Ottawa in 1915. He defined the underlying issue as coping with economic growth:

Growth, expansion, is the most potent factor in this study. Wherever there is growth there are powerful forces at work, needing only to be directed to produce fine results, the linking together and relating of various sections of a city plan . . . Commerce and economy must underlie this study.

The Ottawa plan dealt with railroads, traffic, streets, zoning, and regional parks. It too came with beautiful, distracting watercolor renderings, but as planning historian David Gordon points out, the report contained the components of a comprehensive plan as would be suggested by John Nolen in City Planning (1916) and Thomas Adams in Outline of Town and City Planning (1935) . . . transportation, regional parks, street extension and regional highways, railroads and freight movement, and central business district..

The consultants of the 1920s and 1930s may have marketed themselves as advocates of the City Efficient and City Scientific, but their work tended to elaborate on the “City Beautiful” model of Burnham and Bennett. In Bob Fishman’s typology, they were “metropolitan regionalists” (as opposed to Mumfordian ecological regionalists).

4) To conclude, let’s leap ahead to “New Regionalist” and “New Urbanist” planners as the true heir of the Plan of Chicago.

The challenge for metropolitan-regional planning around the most recent turn of a century has been the same as faced by Burnham and Bennett—to find ways to “control” and channel fast-growing population and expanding economic activities in ways that increase efficiency and maintain metro areas as integrated, functional wholes.

In 1909, the metropolitan frontier was fast-growing industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago. In recent time it has been new economy cities like Seattle and Phoenix, Atlanta and Miami. These are places that have been hotbeds for regional growth plans that have reenacted the fundamental goals of the Plan of Chicago. There’s the Puget Sound Regional Council’s plan for a multi-centered Tacoma-Seattle-Everett region and, across the border, the Livable Region plan from the Greater Vancouver Regional District. There’s Peter Calthorpe and John Fregonese’s work for Envision Utah and for Portland’s “2040 Growth Concept.” All of these efforts look at metropolitan regions on a Burnham/Bennett scale. They emphasize the integration of centers and suburbs through a system of nodes and arteries, they look for ways to build in open space (that’s what we now call parks), and they recognize the need to allocate space for the production segments of the economy.

Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett gave us an agenda that we’re still working on.