An imaginary journey

How you view the city varies according to who you are, where you come from, your culture, your status, your life stage and your interests. Yet some experiences of the city are the same for everyone. The city announces itself a long way off through the senses: sight, sound and smell.

Take yourself on an imaginary early morning journey from out of town in summertime to a big city, the most common journey on Earth. We could be in Europe, the US, Australia, China - anywhere city-bound.

The manifestations of the city become apparent early on, although you are 30km from the urban core. The once agricultural land left and right is speckled with windowless, uniform aluminium industrial sheds which are, on occasion, brightly coloured. Further out they are larger, the asphalted service areas more spread out, with articulated lorries in the forecourt. Closer towards the city the sheds compact in, they have a more cluttered feel. The three-lane highway itself has an urban feel - an expanse of pounded asphalt that stretches endlessly into the horizon. Compactly massed and close-set cars purposively batter the road, prancing fast-forward en route to the city. Some have blacked-out windows so the driver can maintain a private world in a moving sea of metal. It is very difficult to stop anywhere. Later in the day the asphalt will give way a little, especially in the heat, but it is still unresponsive and dead in look and in feel.

Instructional signs begin to escalate, telling you to slow down here, speed up there and where to veer off into suburbs before you reach the outer ring road. And in the distance, still 15km away, shimmering against the morning sun that breaks through the clouds, a high-rise building reflects a sharp shaft of sunlight. You get closer, structures pile up.

It is getting denser - the sensation of asphalt, concrete, glass, bricks, noise and smell mounts and spirals. Adverts swell, passing with greater frequency: 'Do this', 'Do that', 'Want me', 'Desire me', 'Buy me'. Your radio is on, with continued interruptions. That makes 52 exhortations to buy since you left home. You protect yourself from information overload by selectively half-closing and half-opening your ears; but you need to know the traffic news. The car windows are closed, the air conditioning on, but the air is stale, so you need a waft of fast-moving air from the outside. Either way, you are driving in a tunnel of pollution and you are beginning to smell the approaching city. The petrol vapour is warm, fetid and globular, perhaps even comforting. It causes a light-headed giddiness. It is the urban smell par excellence.

The hard surfaces of the city intensify. You are in a completely built-up area, but the multi-lane highway means you can zip along. The road has just been widened to four lanes at this point. Now you're in a secure funnel guiding you straight into town. You remember that argument with the eco-guy. You think to yourself, 'I am moving fast. What was that nonsense about induced traffic transportation that planners dread?' You recall that this is where despite highway capacity being increased when it becomes congested, over time more cars on the road drive longer distances to access the same services, and the new highway becomes just as congested as the old one was.

'Forget all that. Any problem will be solved in the near future by technologies that are currently just around the corner, like satellite guidance.'

The urban street patterns are not yet clear; the sight lines are obscured by underpasses and overpasses. They are made from concrete. Inert and lifeless, they throw an unresponsive deadness back at you. Concrete's shapes can on occasion lift - the swoosh and sweep of a concrete curve - but it ages disgracefully. It leaches, stains and cracks, not to mention cancerous concrete that breaks up to reveal rusty steel, or graffiti.

Reinforced concrete24 is the material of the industrial age and you are seeing more of it now. Endless concrete garden walls, rashly constructed. Cheap housing estates. Cheaper breeze-block accommodation for the even poorer. A grey concrete car park on the horizon greets you with a garish red sign: 'All Day Parking - Only $5.'

But still there is some green. A tree-lined street eases by in the once middle-class outer suburb of single detached houses. It is now a lower middle-class area with rented accommodation divided into units. A few abandoned cars, perhaps, but the place seems perfectly fine from a distance. It might just revitalize and become the new outer urban chic, maybe for those that moved to outer-outer suburbia and found auto-dependency too much.

Over the last 80 years the transformation from walkable to automobile-dependent has been extraordinary. It didn't just happen. A set of policies at all levels of government have favoured cars over all other transport.

You're on a flyover, which explains why this area originally went into a downward spiral. Who wants to live under a motorway? But for you it provides a vista - you can see the urban panorama. Is that IKEA in the far distance? Closer by there is a colonnaded shopping mall within a sea of car-parking and brand names. You can read the signs from a distance. The mighty M sign is one, the famous golden arches - that's four or five within the last 3km. Then there's Wendy's, Burger King, Nando's, KFC, Subway. BP, Texaco. Wal-Mart or Tesco or Carrefour or Mercadona. As signs they are as recognizable as a smile or a wave. The ads are everywhere now: mobile phones ('Stay in touch wherever you are'), finance deals ('With interest rates this low, who can say No?'), banking ('The bank you can trust'), telecommunications ('Global connectivity at a switch of a button'), and property ('Buy into urban living, the art of sophistication').

You should have left ten minutes earlier. The exit lanes are jamming up and the three sets of traffic lights ahead always cause a problem. You're on the outer-inner edge of town. Brick and concrete give way to glass. The street is segmented into big blocks, with huge setbacks, with forecourts embellished by public sculptures in their ubiquitous red and their abstract forms; these are buildings that pronounce themselves, they shine in glass and marble yet feel as if they are warding you off and keeping you at bay. They are buildings that say 'no', and buildings which pretend to say 'yes'. It's down into the car park. There is still lots of space at 8.15am.

For every person living in the US there are eight parking spaces. That's over 1.5 billion.

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