Thursday, April 23, 2009

21st Century Decivilization

There's a recurring idea in science fiction that the rural-to-urban population shift is a temporary one, and with the right combination of technological advancement we'll all start filtering back to the countryside and once again leaving the cities to rot. Transhuman Space includes this as "decivilization," with one of its supplements detailing the demolition of multiple blocks of Manhattan to expand Central Park, and the 1946 Arthur C. Clarke short "Rescue Party" takes time out to describe how the advent of the personal helicopter "brought universal transportation" and enabled people to return "to the fields and forests for which they had always longed."

Personally I can't take the idea of "the death of the city" too seriously. The city has been the foundation of human civilization ever since one brick was stacked on top of another at Jericho, and I don't believe that a transportation revolution or sophisticated communications technologies will make the abandonment of the metropolis feasible. To me it's a relic of twentieth-century modes of thought that still refuse to take externalities into account. The environmental cost of the cities emptying, of people dispersing through the countryside but still demanding the same amentities available in an urban area, would be disastrous.

Nevertheless, cities will empty, by degrees. As it happens, it's not necessarily a negative thing.

Flint, Michigan is far from ground zero of the recession. As Michael Moore spared no detail to demonstrate in Roger & Me, Flint was already screwed a full twenty years before the markets went south; the crisis of the last year has only been kicking the city with steel-toed boots until it coughs up blood. Flint's crisis is one of overextension, and the City that General Motors Built now may as well have been founded on quicksand. On Tuesday, the New York Times' David Streitfeld reported on the newest idea to save Flint from collapse: decivilization.

"The population would be condensed into a few viable areas," Streitfeld writes, with the remainder of the city being demolished rather than left to rot. "A city built to manufacture cars would be returned in large measure to the forest primeval."

This is an excellent idea, and I wholeheartedly support the concept. Partially that's just my surprise that people in positions of authority are recognizing reality; that sometimes there's no going back to the way things were. Flint overextended itself back when times were good, and a consolidation of the city around a functional core may be the only real way to save it from collapse. Furthermore, the rationalization of cities into smaller, more compact forms not only enhance livability through a reduced necessity to rely on cars, but have environmental bonuses via land returned to nature.

Today, I see reflected in Flint the future fortunes of the world as a whole. Since the days of Levittown we've invested more and more time, energy, and resources into spreading, taming, harnessing, and exploiting as much as possible so that the markets will always keep climbing. Back in the 1950s it was as if Prosperity had been handed down by Moses from Mount Sinai. Fifty years later the assumptions of our ancestors are increasingly transparent.

I do hope that through the admittedly drastic measure of shrinkage and demolition, Flint can turn its fortunes around. It may be a dress rehearsal for far larger things in the years to come.


  1. Thanks to a recent pro-Ottawa tourism campaign that got its authors and my home city into some small degree of deserved hot water, we ended up hearing an argument that Flint's already been turning their game around.

    Whether there's truth to it, and how much...not sure.

    As to your main argument overall, not sure how to reply to that yet.

  2. Good lord that campaign is in exceedingly poor taste. Since when was anyone comparing Ottawa to Flint to begin with?

    Considering the foofaraw that's been kicked up lately over the Virgin Radio ads in Toronto that make light of subway suicides, I'm surprised this is the first I'm hearing of this campaign.