Compact cities Part 2: Atlanta and Barcelona
STREET LIFE - Nigel Paul Villarete (The Freeman) - October 16, 2018 - 12:00am

Whenever the concept of compact cities is discussed, the comparison between Barcelona in Spain and metro Atlanta in Georgia, USA is usually mentioned first. This was part of the research done by Mr. Alain Bertaud, a part of which focuses on comparing densities of world cities.  The choice of these two cities is probably led by the fact that their population figures (in the 1990s) are almost the same – 2.5 million for Atlanta and 2.8 million for Barcelona. They have roughly similar lengths of rail lines, too, a little less than 100 miles.  But their built-up area is so grossly dissimilar – Atlanta is more than 20 times larger than Barcelona!

Since these refer to the built-up environment, meaning the place where most of the people live and have daily jobs and thus, where buildings are built, the areas compared are what we always refer to as “the city.”  Imagine two cities, one less than 5 percent of the other but with the same population. You’d probably think of the latter with the descriptor “packed like sardines.”  But this is not necessarily so if we think of congested, unlivable cities.  Rather we can imagine multi-level residences, mixed-use and self-contained neighborhoods, with plenty of opportunity to walk and maybe bicycle, and very accessible to public transportation. Surely, with the same length of transit lines, the “smaller city” will be served better than the wide expanse of the other, making it easier for commuters.

On the other hand, having a wide expanse of land with the population spread all over means it would be much difficult, if not hopeless (financially), to serve everybody with public transport.  Then everybody not only wants, but must have, a car.  This is the norm in North America, catalyzed by the “American dream” in the middle of the last century, with wealthy middle-class Americans having their “bungalow” style, houses in the “suburbs” (really, sub-urban areas).  Like today’s “homes,” “villages,” “subdivisions,” “townhouses” and what have you, we have these “sprawls” not only in the city proper of Cebu, Mandaue, and Lapu-Lapu, but in the neighboring towns around us, where people who work in the cities go home to “in their cars.”  Low-density development affects one aspect of city life, negatively while higher densities make them efficient.  And livable.

What is apparent, generally and maybe grudgingly agreed-on but seldom emphasized, is that the American dream of a sprawling suburbia, with its sparkling, spacious, but closeted family-sized structures has generated the equivalent car-centric society which produced the high motorization rates of wealthy countries (and cities) today.  On the other hand, the new emerging cities which focused on livability and economy and social interactions favored the more dense or “compact” cities.  But as sprawl results to car dependence, compact cities are analogous to more walking and cycling and use of public transportation.  On top of the transport mode choices, compact cities also bring with it an affinity to public space and heightened social interactions.  But it’s not just about transport… (To be continued)

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