The city made up of various buildings, organized by streets, and populated by the people. While we can interact with the city in its various spaces: the corners, plazas, squares, and other places people go, we cannot interact with the city while seeing it in its totality. Here’s Las Vegas, for example, in its totality from a vantage point that renders interaction with it impossible:
It’s almost as if the city grows like an organism in a petri dish. If we adopt that analogy the question becomes what is the fuel for that ever-expanding outward growth? What perpetuates it? The patterns that these developments take are different in different countries, but tend to be very similar in cities of the United States where the geography allows it (i.e. where the growth’s tentacles don’t run into water or mountains, although less so in the latter’s case).
As people in the roles of the financier and developer take ownership, appropriate, and extract value out of the land, growth typically comes in the form of sprawl. Sprawl gives consumers less expensive housing, wide variety of spacious floor plans, and often a sense of security and convenience, not to mention a yard for the kids and dog. It has been the dominant form of housing production over the last 50-60 years. While that may be changing, it is still entrenched in Thurston County. Only in scale, would Thurston County look that much different from the Las Vegas video over the same period of time.
Our city-organism that I describe here results from individual action that appears so chaotic is controlled by market forces personified as developers and regulators which are the personification of the community itself. The government should be the manifestation of citizen action, but our democratic process goes both ways: it can either be the citizens or the developers. Both are necessary, but in many communities the balance isn’t exactly healthy. (In our own community, for example I heard often enough on the OPC that the developers are absent.) Whatever the case, the development occurs in the form in question not because of developers, any more than it is due to smart or obtuse planners, or even community activists. It occurs because people buy the houses, shop at the stores, and otherwise undertake the role of consumers in this paradigm. These consumers are the only absolutely necessary ingredient because they provide the fuel that drives the process itself.
This growth is a continuation of a process that began here 150 years ago. Imagine the initial homestead land claims. Imagine the parceling out of various lots. Imagine the guy 100 years ago who decides to build a store and live in the second floor. These are the individual actions which ultimately create a town or city. They continue on an individual level expressed socially to this very moment. Therefore we need to observe the development not only spatially, but temporally.
It is extremely difficult to believe that through some kind of coordinated comprehensive plan, we could change the behaviors that weed out undesirable expressions of growth—at least when those processes elicit conscious desires—because at issue is individual actions that are inseparable from the whole. The city of Olympia has spent thousands perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars and staff hours with the idea of somehow furthering the creation a desirable city. I spent what seems now like hundreds of volunteer hours thinking that was possible. Assuming the planning process is sound (and I wrote several pieces about my disgust with the SMA, and hear now that the planning commission is repeating most of the problems again with the comprehensive plan update) these public processes are still a sideshow to what is really going on. Regardless of planning efforts, the same developments that are discouraged through these public processes continue because the fuel that drives them are individual consumer choices, that are not even connected consciously by those who undertake them.
So we’re left with the uncomfortable notion that while the individual—including fictional individuals like corporations—can shape the city by building particular projects, there is little that the city (if we consider that the collection of the individuals who comprise it manifested through the municipal government) can do to shape itself consciously.
I’ve concluded that our subconscious behavior shapes the city much more than our conscious actions, things like our desire for more space and yard at a price we can pay, how we satisfy our hunger, and desires we have for our consumer-ables, and the uncompromising desire for an easy parking space, have more to do with our city looks and feels than what we say we want. I leave you with a question: what individual action can we take to make our city closer to the one we want it to be?
Update: I revised the first paragraph after initial publishing. The revision will hopefully clarify my point.