Thursday, April 19, 2012

Looking at rivers in cities

I have always been interested in the morphology of cities: What are the component parts that make a city a city?  Another way to ask this question: if you were to create a "City Building Kit", what would you include in it? Christopher Alexander and Allan Jacobs, both of Berkeley, are famous for their analysis along these lines.  A Pattern Language and Great Streets are seminal works in the field and have had long-lasting impact on people's understanding of urban places.

One meme of a city might be "River". Most great cities are located on rivers. It makes sense evolutionarily.  Early human settlements needed fresh water. Rivers were places for that, and for food.  Good land locations would not be abandoned, leading to a continuous line of habitation to today's modern version.  Think of Paris (Seine), London (Thames), New York (East, Hudson), Shanghai (Yangtze), Boston/Cambridge (Charles).

I think of rivers because today I saw two of them:

Bucolic, in a 19th century way
River #1  Medford, Massachusetts.  A city of 55,000 people north of Boston has the Mystic River rolling quietly through the downtown.  19th century buildings back up onto the river giving it a characteristic New England feel, but very much opposed to today's understanding of how to treat a river -- as one of the prime natural assets that city might have -- not something to turn your back on but something to celebrate for its restorative powers and its beauty. Nevertheless, the scene in Medford is both quaint and picturesque.

De-humanizing, in a 20th century way

River #2  Somerville, Massachusetts. Medford's neighbor just to the south is Somerville, a city of 75,000 residents. Somerville also reaches the Mystic, but the river I saw is a different one. It's the elevated concrete river called the McGrath Highway (MA Route 28), one of the Boston area's great urban planning disasters of the 20th century. At the point at which the roadway crosses over Washington Street, one enters an urban wasteland, the proverbial urban war zone. Built in the 1950s to increase traffic speed along the route, this flying river of cars also sits in stark contrast to the current thinking about cars in cities -- make the pedestrians the priority. Give it all a human scale.