Prairie cities in North America remind me of The Great Divorce

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Every time I come back to visit my hometown of Calgary after being in Seoul, I'm struck by the emptiness of the neighborhoods and the (comparatively) massive houses that generally house maybe three, four, five people. Even neighborhoods that have been around for decades still have little to offer a visitor besides houses and sidewalks. Here's a typical neighborhood in the city:


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Within about an hour's walking distance is a library, about three coffee shops, and a few stores. Only the neighborhoods nearby downtown and a few others that have been relatively well designed are worth living in for anyone without a car.

On Google Maps it's interesting to compare the size of two locations by opening up two maps with the exact same scale and switching back and forth between them. Allow me to show the comparative size of Calgary (1 million) and Seoul (technically 10 million in the city itself, but 25 million in the metro area):


Seoul ends up somewhat larger than Calgary when you include the metro area, but the city itself (the area in the centre shaped kind of like the Cheshire Cat's smile) alone is smaller than Calgary, and a rough approximation of the comparative density of the two places would be about 15 to 1. That is, for every person you find in Calgary you'll find fifteen in Seoul.

This makes a huge difference in public transportation. Calgary is as sprawly as a city can get, with the only barrier to expansion being a native reservation in the southwest (Tsuu T'ina). Seoul has the sea on the west, and a number of hilly/mountainous areas as well. Those mountainous areas are the grey spots on the map, by the way. As a result the million spread out people in Calgary means the subway (C-Train) has but 37 stations, while Seoul has over 300 stations, with dozens more under construction.

Calgary is not unique either, as urban sprawl is directly related to the amount of fuel used, which means more dependence upon cars and less of an impetus for public transport:

Vancouver is an example of the opposite, a city that has a number of natural boundaries (sea on the west, US border to the south, mountains to the northeast) that keep urban density high, and as a result public transportation there is excellent.

So what is the solution? Hard to say, as I believe the problem to be more to do with state of mind than anything that better planning could solve. As long as people believe that one can only be happy living in a big place far away from others (the city in The Great Divorce was a good example of that), they will be willing to take out as big a mortgage as can be obtained in order to make it happen.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a talk at Ted.com about the problem, peppered with curses.

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