I didn’t used to consider city planning a particularly interesting issue. Just uttering the phrase “high-density urban areas” was enough to induce a deep yawn from me, invoking images of a roomful of guys in horn-rimmed glasses pouring over stacks of incomprehensible blueprints. To me, city planning had all the relevance to my life as the design of rotary engines for milkshake machines. My attitude has since changed radically.
The more research and interviewing I did for this issue’s feature, the more I came to the frightening realization that city planning can actually be a matter of life and death. Take my home town of Baltimore, for example. During the industrial boom the town saw during the Second World War, city planners built an almost entirely residential area in the southwest area for those working in the factories. When the war ended, so did the jobs. Instead of reaching out to this community by developing industry in the southwest, city planners instead began widening the road, separating the neighbourhood from the city centre, changing the road, eventually, into an expressway. The result was swift: the neighbourhood, cut off from the city’s core of goods, services and jobs by an expressway, found itself plunged into poverty. Today, southwest Baltimore’s most profitable industry is the corner drug trade, with murders occurring on an almost daily basis there, at the highest rate in the US – all because of shoddy planning.
Reykjavík is at a crucial juncture, poised to become either a divided town – like Baltimore – or a thriving, sustainable city. One of the things that I love most about living in Reykjavík is that you can walk from your residence to your job, to the shops, and to any number of cultural activities. That’s an example of a successful planning strategy called “integration”: easy access to all the needs of your daily life. In talking to the various players with designs on dealing with Reykjavík’s growing population, I was pleased to find that many people want to continue the city’s integration strategy. On the other hand, I was horrified by some of the ideas of others, whose plans seemed based more on unrealistic nostalgia than creating a sustainable city. I mean, building houses on tiny islands might sound like a sexier idea than “good integration of urban space,” but in the end, I’ll always choose a plan that works over a pretty idea destined to cripple the city.
This is why city planning should be of interest to us. The heart of planning has nothing to do with how many pine trees are planted on a traffic median; it rests on nothing less than whether or not the city can keep us alive.
Reykjavík is a long way from being like Baltimore and hopefully will never take on my home town’s more tragic aspects. As City Council elections are coming up this spring, this vote might prove to be the most important one we cast. Ultimately, it’s a question of casting our ballot for Reykjavík’s transformation into a successful city or a failed dream.