I thoroughly enjoy the magnificence and elegance of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and design. A tour I tour took of the Robie House in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood this summer highlighted many innovative and artistic features that make him America’s premiere architect. Four stunning homes here in Greater Lansing also bear his design.
On the urban planning side of things, many of Mr. Wright’s visions of the future that were depicted in the Broadacre City turned out to be spot on. However, that is also where he and I diverge paths. While no one, including me, can dispute the fact that he accurately predicted our sprawling, low-density future, one can certainly differ with its anticipated benefits, actual implementation, and its degree of success.
When the concept of the Broadacre City was first visualized, the Earth appeared to have boundless reserves of oil to power such a design. But, that begs the follow-up question, should Mr. Wright and fellow futurists have also recognized the adverse impacts that the Broadacre City could bring to our society, the potential for accelerating the depletion of fossil fuels, and the subsequent warming of the atmosphere?
Certainly, depletion of resources was nothing new in Frank Lloyd Wright’s heyday. One only need look at the rapidly depleted timber forests of Michigan as a case study from the 19th century. Similarly, the polluting effects of fossil fuels were well-known – just ask residents of cities like Pittsburgh or Birmingham.
The Broadacre City concept of one-acre lots for each family sounds bucolic, but it is the very antithesis of today’s smart growth, walkable community, or new urbanism tenets. The question begs, could the negative impacts of such a sprawling urban form (partially listed below) have been foreseen, advocated against, and thus avoided?
- losses of productive farmland
- greater infrastructure expenses
- abandonment, decline, and decay of the central city, the midtown and older suburban locations
- greater carbon footprint
- increased obesity and diabetes rates
- longer and more expensive commutes
- loss of environmentally sensitive features
At the very least, the loss of productive farmland and greater infrastructure costs should have been very evident to those advocating the Broadacre City format. It would have been an inherent result of spreading a city over an enormous geographic area. However, in an ironic twist, the very failure of some urban settings have led to renewed gardening and farming in abandoned sections of cities like Detroit and Youngstown. This may have not be the intended design outcome as seen by Mr. Wright, but it sure lends further credence to his visionary focus.
While some of the negative environmental impacts such as global warming would have been difficult to predict, I believe a number of the potential socio-economic impacts could have been foreseen. Granted, in 2011 we have the benefit of hindsight, so it is unfair to play Monday morning quarterback. Instead, perhaps the best lesson is that we should be spending spend more of our planning efforts considering the potential impacts of our decisions than we currently do. This is not to say that every possible negative impact can be foretold to us in our magic planning crystal ball, but if more questions had been raised about the Broadacre City concept, we might not be spending so much time, money, and effort today trying to reverse our course.