Last week, George Monbiot of The Guardian sounded the urbanist alarm.
The cause? In order to offset strains on infrastructure, an Australian provincial initiative is offering stipends to Sydney residents who leave town.
Monbiot’s response included a headline which was nothing short of an international clarion renouncing this short-term fix. “Sustainable cities must be compact and high-density,” he said, while arguing for strong planning laws to stay the course.
Monbiot joins a legion of many who embrace the thesis of David Owen’s New York City-based “Green Metropolis“— and aptly suggest that the compact, less auto-dependent city is our necessary, sustainable future.
Monbiot’s tout towards planning is appropriate, but just what does it mean? For one thing, we must ponder the impacts of displacement, because there may no longer be enough room for life—or death—as we know it.
If our cities are to become more dense, what will become of uses and properties which do not present optimal uses of urban land? As the disfavored car dealerships, warehouses and low-rise strip malls reconfigure and yield to more concentrated uses, policymakers should be forward thinking in their prescriptions for the changing city.
Will some positive or necessary, low density urban traditions also be dispossessed? Where will they go in a gradually reshaped, sprawl-free urban system?
My choice of Latin words above— “clarion,” “legion” and “thesis”— are not accidental. In classical precedent, there are thought-provoking lessons, still visible at will.
Consider Rome, and learning from the landscape of an iconic walk in the Appia Antica Park on its outskirts.
Opened in 312 B.C., the Via Appia (the “queen of the long roads” of ancient military transport and commerce) traversed ancient Italy from Rome to the Adriatic port of Brindisi.
All along the walk today, over original paving stones, ruins flank the roadway—remnants of burial monuments, statues, tombs and towers.
Sometime after 200 A.D., burials were banned in the city, because of crowding and land values. Catacombs on the periphery offered mass internments to the growing religious population. Along the main thoroughfares, further beyond the city walls, the wealthy adorned the roadsides with personal and family tributes— now an outdoor museum of bygone sprawl.
In ancient Rome, density drove out the dead, and changed the landscape in unanticipated ways, still visible today. It’s a legacy worth noting after two thousand years.
If our cities must be dense to be competitive and sustainable, we must also look with care to the potential displacement of uses, institutions or traditions—not to mention the artifacts we will leave behind.
All images composed by the author.