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On the Record

An Urban Age in a Suburban Nation?



I want to congratulate Ricky Burdett and the LSE team for pulling together the Urban Age initiative and holding the first forum in New York City. I also want to thank Andy Altman, head of the D.C. Waterfront Corporation and a visiting fellow at Brookings, for coauthoring the address that I will give today.

The proposition put forward by this initiative and this conference is bold and visionary:

      “The late 20th Century was the age of economic globalization. The first part of the 21st century will be the age of the city, the ‘Urban Age’…. The design of the built environment, the distribution of urban density, and their impacts on social inclusion and the quality of life, are at the forefront of political discussion in towns and cities across the globe.”

Is an Urban Age possible in our suburban nation?

A decade or two ago, many Americans would have scoffed at this notion. An urban age in the land of strip malls, exit ramps and big boxes?

Our nation, from its very inception, has been ambivalent, if not hostile, to the city. From Thomas Jefferson’s “Pestilence City” in the 18th century, to the nativistic movements of the 1850s and 1890s, to Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Vanishing City” in the 1930’s, to futurist tracts more recently, the city has always been perceived as dirty and unhealthy, bureaucratic and antiquated, home to people and concepts that were not quite American.

Or as Thomas Jefferson famously wrote: “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.”

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