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VOL. 5, NO. 3 -- SUMMER 2003

The Inevitability of Civic Change

If there is one immutable quality of towns and cities, it is that they are all susceptible to change and adaptation. The types of people who walk their streets, the structures and transportation routes that comprise their form, and the economic factors that drive their daily activities remain in constant flux. To describe any community as "frozen in time" is a fallacy, since all human settlements are created, modified and adapted by successive generations to fit changing needs. Consider lower Manhattan's Wall Street; its name has a literal derivation, for it was the location of a defensive barricade in the late 1600s. Now, of course, "Wall Street" has an entirely different connotation worldwide. The bustling streets of downtown Chicago were once silent grasslands and wetlands until civic boosters and a lakeside location allowed for the rise of America's third largest city. The majority of San Francisco's financial district is built over a shallow cove once known as Yerba Buena where Gold Rush-era sailing ships were hastily abandoned by fortune seekers. To this day, old hulls are occasionally unearthed during skyscraper construction projects.

My wife and I witness urban change on a daily basis because our San Francisco apartment lies within an area known as South of Market, epicenter of the short-lived "dot-com" boom. It is fascinating to explore the neighborhood and contemplate the frenzied pace and unbridled optimism that characterized it less than three years ago -- and how quickly it vanished. All around are numerous vacant offices where young millionaires with now-worthless stock options had their 15 minutes of fame. Many buildings that once housed atmospheric cafes and trendy shops also sit empty as commercial building owners adapt to changing times by lowering rents, with mixed results. It is as though the stage upon which the Internet economy unfolded retains all of its original set pieces, but the urban drama now taking place has a new cast and script.

Personal experience, narratives, and history tours help to trace the evolution of civic change, and now Internet technology is allowing us to analyze this topic in exciting new ways. For those interested in cartography as a tool for this line of study, do not miss the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection at This site allows visitors to superimpose ultra-high resolution maps of certain cities from different time periods. Because each map is spatially aligned with the others, I was able to perfectly overlay a hand-drawn map of my neighborhood in the mid-1800s with a satellite photo from 1998. By slowly fading each image in and out, I learned that the site of my apartment building was once a block from the coastline. Since then, thanks to massive filling of the bay and decades of development, the water's edge is now a quarter-mile distant. Manipulating the same pair of images allowed me to watch old plank roads fade into busy concrete canyons in the modern satellite image. I was mesmerized; never before had the process of urban evolution been made so visible and immediate.

Again I was reminded that towns, by their very nature, are crucibles of change. The rapid suburbanization of America in the last century has made this axiom truer than ever because at no other time have such pronounced changes to our environment been achieved so rapidly. The short- and long-term consequences of the conventional suburban development pattern -- segregated land uses, automobile domination, costly infrastructure expansion -- have been well-documented in The Town Paper. However, what may be less readily apparent is how poorly positioned our suburbs are to reworking and remaking themselves over time. Most of today's zoning regulations ensure that land uses remain locked in -- legally preventing, for example, a corner market from entering a conventional subdivision. The structures in suburbs are also typically designed to accommodate a single type of activity and do not easily lend themselves to meeting future needs. Introducing viable alternatives to the status quo tends to worry financial institutions and citizens who have become accustomed to the ins and outs of the sprawl development around them.

The evolution of older, traditional towns, which serve as inspiration for today's new urbanists, took a much different path than that of their suburban counterparts. The historic neighborhoods we cherish today grew incrementally and organically and are infused with a sense of permanency, a quality that often seems completely absent in today's mass-replicated communities. Not so long ago, it was widely understood that towns would outlast their builders. It is doubtful that the same will be said for the strip malls and hastily constructed homes that cover our country today. The challenge to today's civic designers, therefore, is to learn from the wisdom that their predecessors embraced so easily. They must make manifest in their plans the notion that towns will (and must) grow and change over time to meet the needs of their inhabitants -- and remove impediments to this natural process. Our experiment with suburban sprawl, hopefully a short blip in our nation's historic record, can offer lessons on what to avoid in this regard.