Five American Urbanisms

Legacy American cities manifest five urban morphologies, each with distinct planning and economic opportunities. Cities more than a hundred years old are formed by successive street networks developed for the prevailing transportation technologies of their time, from the walking city of the pedestrian and the carriage, to the streetcar city, and eventually the automobile city of the twentieth century. Street networks shaped for walking sponsor compact blocks with mixed land uses that provide essential services within a half-mile radius. Streetcar city extended the reach of the pedestrian into mixed-use suburbs, also optimizing connectedness for walkability. Automobile city introduced a new scale, density, and geometry to the city based on overcoming distance and time through speed. Automobiles and arterials made single-use zoning feasible.

Each pattern or operating system carries its own set of urbanization processes, opportunities, and limitations. Rather than villainize or lionize one pattern over the other, it is important for cities to understand each one’s niche and fit within a larger urban ecology. This classification of network topologies facilitates the “fair-costing” of planning decisions toward achieving smart growth and financial solvency.

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