Pessimists have so much to revel in nowadays. Climate change is happening. Fossil fuels are running out. Cities are clogged with cars and their fumes. And anyone born in a more affluent country will most likely be paying for that with their obesity. Doom and gloom. Doom and gloom.
If pessimists are revelling, evil geniuses are in seventh heaven. Speaking as an academic with an interest in cities, I have to say, I am delighting. There is no way I would ever get ethics approval to lead an experiment if the captives of my laboratory city were anticipated to get fat and die early, and be stripped of their wealth. But that’s precisely the experiment denizens everywhere ask their governments to conduct with their lives. The local government in the city I live in has been elected with a mandate to add more car parking, and make the roads faster and wider, until the only spots not covered in asphalt and white lines are the few with heritage buildings. The corners of those buildings will have steel angles attached to protect the brickwork from bumpers. Who would want to cut such an experiment short, by warning of the logical outcome?
My hypothesis is the city will totally die, economically, before the total paving scenario can ever be reached—although in the case of Launceston, Tasmania, we’re going to get very close. Fewer and fewer plebs will drive into our cities because they will have found shops, free clinics and social security offices out in the suburbs, that will have more convenient parking. Ageing hipsters like me will not go to the city because we will have found coffee roasters, brew pubs and student haunts cropping up along our favourite bike routes, in former industrial districts.
Ultimately, the city will be a prize of no worth, fought over by two tribes: retarded trogs who think the city looks just like the set of 2 Fast 2 Furious X, and marginally more intelligent do-gooders who have learned the name Marcus Westbury, and who have it in their heads that the city centre must never be allowed to look like the setting of Grand Theft Auto XVIII. But that is exactly what small Australian cities seem on track to become.
Having always followed American town planing examples, Australians are lucky. We have crystal balls. If we look to America, we see urban life is migrating from Main Street to the most unlikely quarters. The best spots for nightlife and commerce are no longer those propped from behind by big parking connected to “turnpikes”, “outlets” and “distributers”. The liveliest spots are all on the wrong-side-of-the-tracks, in districts like Ballard in Seattle, where I found myself a few months ago. All the pubs here are hemmed with parked bikes. You can walk or ride down the middle of Ballard Avenue, and cars will go slowly around you. It’s the place to be—just ask anyone.
If we leave experiments in urban decay to run their course, then eventually there will be panel beaters and drug dealers occupying the foyers of office buildings downtown, and the highest paid professionals will be working out of old wrecking yards in the hipsterized badlands. Historians will write of an unpredicted reversal, more bizarre even than SoHo New York now having Prada, or the Meat Packing District being filled with flash nightclubs.
You would be helping cities find their next shape if you flicked this link to Marcus Westbury, with a polite request: leave the lid on the petri dish, buddy! Let city centres in Australia be race tracks for hoons, and let industrial areas become the new hot spots.