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Libyan Writer Ghoma
الكاتب الليبي غومة

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Friday, 25 December, 2009

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A 19th Century Solution to 21st Century’s Problem?

(Part I)

By: Ghoma

        On the face of it, it sounds great! Why not, give the “bride of the Mediterranean” a Subway too? A well-tried solution to one of the most intricate problems of cities in the past two centuries. A solution to how to move vast amount of people cheaply and conveniently, without causing further jams. A network of mixed crisscrossed system of underground and aboveground lines. An innocuous addition to the other modes of transportation. The challenge was how to empower the teeming masses, in the old and new sprawling ‘metropolis,’ to move and circulate around cheaply and speedily. Thus, the Subway certainly met some of those expectations back then when. But can it be expected to still be the solution when the conditions, which had accompanied its birth, are changing as we speak? The answer is not a sure thing anymore!

        A brief history! The Subway came to use in the 19th century, to meet 19th (and 20th) century’s urban traffic turmoil. As we know, the industrial city had shot up fast, bulging by attracting rural surplus population without end. These migrant workers were employed in huge factories and housed as well in tenements of disproportional sizes. A tremendous bottleneck jams thus had resulted. The urgent task was to move people back and forth from different locations to relatively few poles of attractions in the city. Thus how to do such a task efficiently and in the same time not to cause further traffic jams in the competing and still relatively slow modes of moving in the city -the horse and the buggy, the tram, the train, etc- was the challenge. The puzzled had occupied many a manager in the still growing and teeming industrial city, and became a main concern for those whose job to think ahead of the pack. For instance, Haussmann had to dismantle the medieval fabric of Paris to make way for the new modes(s) of circulation.

        The still labor-intensive processes of industrialization had required huge numbers of workers to be hauled back and forth from their residences to the few places where factories were located. Industrialists logically had preferred to locate their factories in proximity of raw materials, water and transportation routes. Other activities which demanded face-to-face relations, as the necessary ancillary services to industry –companies‘ headquarters, banks, law firms, insurance joints, engineering consultants, etc. as well as retail establishments, the sine qua non of industry, had chosen to locate close to each other, in the center of the city. Thus the center of the city, downtown, became the primary real estate for the movers and shakers of industry. The most intensive and expensive land in the whole region. This high concentration of primary activities in primary locations had made it almost impossible for most workers to afford to live in proximity to their workplaces, except in proper company towns! Thus workers were to be hauled back and forth every day from their tenements to the factories. Land speculation had made it almost prohibitive, except for the few, to live where land is highest in market value. That is how workers’ living quarters found their locations on the fringes of cities. Actually were pushed further a nd further to the outer edges of urban centers. Hence the birth of what came to be called suburbs, satellites, dormitories, etc. Out there where land was relatively cheaper, in the ever and ever-expanding metropolis’ radius, farther away from downtown, that’s where the industrial workers, the proletariat, were located. Trains, trams, and later subways were used to haul these workers, in the morning into the city proper and then hauled them back out in the evening to where they lived, to spend some time with their families and get some sleep to be ready to repeat the cycle all over again in the next morning.

        Industrialization had created an urban form, a conglomeration, which took the shape of hub and spike. The concentric or ‘oil-stain’ shaped sprawling form. These fuzzy and most of the time irregular forms had their axial spikes along the train and subway lines. All lines meet in the hub. Thus to go anywhere, if it’s not along the line, one has to go to downtown and then catch the next line. The fixed rail lines on the surface were rigidly repeated in the underground lines of the subway. Barring speculative interests, these lines followed the so-called donkey-path to trace the shortest and most convenient routes. But because of their rigidities these modes followed more or less straight lines, which favored some at the disadvantages’ of the many.

        Late 19th century saw the advent of the automobile, and with Ford’s assembly line, the private- car began slowly but consistently to assert itself as the most preferred mode of transportation. The car soon had overtaken all other modes and became the dominant way to move around. If for nothing else, the freedom and flexibility the car offered has made it the preferred way to moving around. With the car came the highway network and thus the exurban, the edge city, the region, etc. New urban configurations, therefore, had started popping up, such as New Towns, the Rings, industrial enclaves, research parks, medical centers, university parks, etc.

        Almost a century after the advent of the car, a new technological revolution started unfolding. The communication revolution! Another mode of transportation, a this time around virtual one. The two modes of transportation, the old and the new, the mechanical and the virtual, have still to find way(s) to live in harmony with each other, to accommodate one another, and where equilibrium could be obtained. But one thing is sure. They will certainly revolutionize most of the concepts of space and time we know of. Because, for the first time in human history, space location is no longer an obstacle or a barrier to humans cravings for meeting with each other. One could be located anywhere on the planet and be in contact with as well as work on some tasks without necessarily be close or even meet with the interlocutors. Thus the age-old relations, based on space, are now going through drastic changes as we speak. Points of contact and concentration, intersectings, etc. are coming under revision. Factories, banks, offices buildings, retail, no more have to be located in some allotted parts in proximity of a city but rather follow their users. They can be located anywhere in the national or ultra-national territory. Folks have only to sign on to a server, the Internet, and the commute is history.

        The city, as we knew it so far, is in crisis, and will go into humongous modifications and changes in the near future. Indeed, new land use concepts and new activities’ locations, have to be invented for the whole national territory. Whether the old metropolitan concept will still survive is a big question. Or whether the region will prove to be the best minimum unit of allocation is still to be seen? No matter what answers are given, new ways to allocate human activities and people are needed. Before that phase is reached a few questions have to be addressed: What are the best ways to use the new technologies without aggravating the old modes of existence? What are the new ‘urban concepts and forms’, which will accommodate the freedom to locate anywhere one finds it convenient? Will still be need for compact piles of brick and concrete? The fact of the matter the old notions of center and periphery are becoming old fashioned and will soon be under scrutiny from different quarters. If people have no more need to go to downtown, will there be still need for downtown? If the stadium, the theater, etc. could be located where its catchment area is, then what will future cities be made of? And if what the future will define as factory, office building, government building, etc. could also be located either in the virtual space or in proximity where are more needed, then, the city as we know it, will definitely be a relic of the past!

        If the emerging new trends in renewable energy sources come to pass then a decentralized form of human settlements will be possible. The new sources of energy as wind, sun, etc. will further liberate humans to locate anywhere convenient for their comfort. New communities with their schools and places of worship, etc. have to size themselves according to their own economies of scale. And their location will depend only on the ingenuity of how best to harness, in the most convenient use, the new sources of energy.


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More Articles Written By Ghoma

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