Sunday, September 4, 2011

Technology and the City: For Better and For Worse

Roosevelt Center
Greenbelt, MD
The city was created by technology. Technology has also made the city a poorer place to live. This cycle of creation and degradation has gone on since people started building their mud and straw huts close together. The by-products of cohabitation, whether sewage or air pollution or even epidemic diseases, has been the price one paid for living close to markets or places of work.

This pattern was reinforced for me by a film I happened upon entitled simply The City. The  film is a documentary created for the 1939 New York World's Fair City of Tomorrow which was part of the Futurama exhibit.  The film was the brainchild of Catherine Bauer Wurster who was the leading member of a small group of idealists known as "The Housers" who were committed to improving housing for low-income families. The New York architect, Robert D. Kohn, shared her interest in low-income housing and commissioned the documentary.

The film focused much of its attention on the planned community of Greenbelt, Maryland which was constructed under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal as a model community. The idea was to build an ideal community near Washington, D.C. to relieve a severe housing shortage in the area of the Capital which existed at that time.  Two other cities were also planned and built - Greendale, Wisconsin (near Milwaukee) and Greenhills, Ohio (near Cincinnati).

The film was originally written by FDR's filmmaker, Pare Lorentz, but was re-scripted by the noted architectural critic and advocate of planned suburban communities, Lewis Mumford. Interestingly, the documentary's music was the first commissioned film score for composer Aaron Copeland and had largely been forgotten until this film was rediscovered in the archives a few years ago.

When I watched the film (which is available on YouTube in four parts), I was struck by how many of the problems we face today were already there in 1938: traffic congestion, over-crowding, air pollution, and terrible housing for low-income people. The model city of Greenbelt, MD looks like a little utopia compared to the squalor of the mill towns and the congestion of New York City. In many ways, however, the future longed for in the film has come to pass. Many of us live in nicely laid out suburban communities with good roads, schools, housing, and shopping. Yet many of the problems are still with us or have even grown worse over time. Despite our advancing technology, the city remains challenged to perpetually come up with new - mostly technical - solutions.

Quite coincidentally, the latest special issue of Scientific American is about the future of cities.  Must be something in the air about cities lately. I keep coming across all these connections. In any event, the 1939 documentary is linked below. If you want a better view, click through to the YouTube site and watch it as a 480p video.

Parts 1 to 4:

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