from the world's big
Ground-penetrating radar allows the non-invasive virtual excavation of Falerii Novi.
- Using ground-penetrating radar, layers of an ordinary field in Italy are pulled back to reveal a lost Roman town.
- Without disturbing a single artifact, an incredible level of detail is uncovered.
- The buried town, Falerii Novi, has been quietly awaiting discovery since it was abandoned at the start of medieval age.
Technology and patience<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM4NzE4MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNzQxMTY4MH0.DIOloya9PvQywFEed7II9NiUJzaCUv5aqslmE4bQTDo/img.jpg?width=980" id="f1a3f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="71904c4627c2cc05a5ef7ca3f904cdb4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="ground-penetrating radar equipment scanning the field" />
Image source:Frank Vermeulen/University of Cambridge<p>Falerii Novi was unearthed using <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0926985118305846" target="_blank">ground-penetrating radar</a>, or GPR. With each pass across that field, the bike pulled a rolling frame outfitted with a GPR instrument that bounced radio waves off of whatever lay beneath it. The device took a reading every 12.5 centimeters, eventually imaging the entire 30.5-hectare area. Without disturbing a single ancient artifact, GPR generated a remarkably detailed look at the lost city, with its various different layers depicting changes that occurred over time.</p><p>In the end, the researchers were confronted with 28 billion GPR data points to be processed, an almost impossibly huge task. Each hectare takes about 20 hours to work through, and the team is currently developing automation techniques that will allow them to fully explore the data collected by the GPR.</p><p>Corresponding author of the study recently published in <a href="https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/groundpenetrating-radar-survey-at-falerii-novi-a-new-approach-to-the-study-of-roman-cities/BE7B8E3AE55DB6E03225B01C54CDD09B#fndtn-information" target="_blank">Antiquity</a>, Martin Millett of Cambridge's Faculty of Classics, is <a href="https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/roman-city-rises" target="_blank">clearly excited</a> by the project:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"The astonishing level of detail which we have achieved at Falerii Novi, and the surprising features that GPR has revealed, suggest that this type of survey could transform the way archaeologists investigate urban sites, as total entities."</em></p>
Falerii Novi<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM4NzIwNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODE4NjMxMH0.eVrydFSBZs3xLaAhgAA1XFnUeIaI6FGtmggJ4N519BI/img.jpg?width=980" id="263e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6446619be28f954d75a17884b6af1690" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="A preliminary version of the Falerii Novi map" />
A preliminary version of the Falerii Novi map
Image source: University of Cambridge<p>Quite a bit was already known about the walled town of Falerii Novi. It was first occupied in 241 BC, and lasted until around 700 AD., the early days of the medieval period. It's located about 30 miles north of Rome. The town, which was about half the size of Pompeii, has been the subject of other scanning research before, but has never been so thoroughly revealed until now.<br></p>
What's new/old?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM4ODQxNC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5ODQwNzE4NX0.L_sXdQqYN191hbSqBu3_DRmEKCoid5yf5v10Jw_gA-c/img.png?width=980" id="bd6e5" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c9eee6cf0614e5eb43e0c7b8e7e3845c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Falerii Novi" />
Image source: L. Verdonck/University of Cambridge<p>The visible Falerii Novi contains a number of surprises.</p><p>In a broad sense, the town's layout appears less standardized than archaeologists would expect for an ancient Roman community, with a number of notable features.</p><p>There's the mysterious pair of large structures facing each other within a porticus duplex located at the town's northern gate at the upper edge of the image above. Experts have no idea what these buildings are, though they conjecture that they may have been some sort of massive monument overlooking the city's edge.</p><p>In addition, for a small city, the temple, market building and bath complex are unexpectedly elaborate.</p><p>GPR also revealed the existence of an intriguing network of pipes that may have been a large public bathing system featuring an open-air natatio, or pool. The pipes terminate at a large rectangular building and run not just along the town's streets, as might be expected, but also under its city blocks.</p>
Looking forward<p>With the Falerii Novi project serving as such a stunning reason to keep using this technology for archaeology, Millet envisions many more such projects: "It is exciting and now realistic to imagine GPR being used to survey a major city such as Miletus in Turkey, Nicopolis in Greece or Cyrene in Libya. We still have so much to learn about Roman urban life and this technology should open up unprecedented opportunities for decades to come."</p>
Gallup found that in 2019, movie attendance didn't even come close to library visits.
- Of all public cultural destinations, libraries are the most often visited.
- Libraries' expanded offerings make them more attractive than ever, especially to lower-income groups.
- Women are far more likely than men to visit a library.
Not even close<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjYzNzEzOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzE0NTcwOX0.aUVez6i0tSzKXXd33GhZcGerTk45HQXtXX6fCevTJio/img.jpg?width=980" id="680d7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4721a3d934dde95f3544adde2a3b7a37" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Tobias Messer/unsplash<p>The overall average number of trips we made in 2019 to various cultural resources:</p> <ul> <li>Go to a library — 10.5</li> <li>Go to a movie at a movie theater — 5.3</li> <li>Attend a live sporting event — 4.7</li> <li>Attend a live music or theatrical event — 3.8</li> <li>Visit a national or historical park — 3.7</li> <li>Visit a museum — 2.5</li> <li>Visit a gambling casino — 2.5</li> <li>Go to an amusement or theme park — 1.5</li> <li>Visit a zoo — 0.9</li> </ul>
The survey<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjYzNzE0Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5NDEyODU3MX0.VLEWB-UuQlZy2oAY6ZsM6_hYtFIYd84OBaOM8wjln9M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a1f00" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a1a62fe51d4d9b10dda1a4ae683950d2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Robert Bye/unsplash<p>Cellular and landline telephone interviews were conducted December 2-15 of last year. There were more cellular respondents than landline, which seem right these days. 1,025 adults were questioned from all 50 U.S. states, and the results have a sampling error margin of ±4%.</p><p>This is Gallup's first survey update since 2001, and reveals a 1,3-trip reduction in the number of movies attended, though again, this could simply mean we're choosing to view them more often at home.</p>
Who’s making all these trips to the library?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjYzNzE0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDMxODY2MH0.YU_qEQbh7B11r7mjnlA75jrF3jVcyVcbzFvAoIABCfE/img.jpg?width=980" id="fb44c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0c060991ad9f6465431b51c1153efd25" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Danny/unsplash<p>Gallup found that women are almost twice as likely to visit la bibliothèque, with 13.4 visits as apposed to men's 7.5. On the other hand, men were more likely to frequent casinos, sporting events, and parks.</p><p><strong>Income insights</strong></p><p>Today's libraries offer, of course, more than books, most notably, computers for internet access and WiFi, and so it's not surprising that lower-income respondents paid them a greater number of visits. They're also the group most often visiting casinos.</p><p>The people who use libraries the least are those who make more than $100,000 annually. These people, conversely, are the most frequent attendees of events that carry higher ticket prices such as movies, shows, and concerts.</p><p><strong>Age</strong></p><p>While it's no shock that the age group most likely to visit a library are those of student age, 18-29, the group with the highest overall attendance record for all cultural activities are those from 30-49. Their average, 7.4, is more than three points higher than older adults and more than twice the number of visits for younger adults. Gallup suggests this may reflect a time of life when one is still relatively young but is more likely to have the money to pay for entertainments.</p><p><strong>Regional variations</strong></p><p>Gallup found certain clear regional preferences among the cultural destinations they tracked. Residents of the eastern U.S. are the most frequent museum-goers, while those in the West, more often visit parks and casinos.</p>
Exceptional U.S. libraries<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjYzNzE1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTc4MTMxMH0.LjujPx9KNu6Oi2MTaATWszCEueqqhkQ-LVfv6gwqpes/img.jpg?width=980" id="f74cb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="db300d24af793b42e9b91e9b2e1b78ac" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Checubus/Shutterstock<p>Gallup's not the only organization with an interest in library attendance, and <em><a href="https://lithub.com/the-12-most-popular-libraries-in-the-world/" target="_blank">Literary Hub</a></em> has identified the 12 most popular libraries globally, three of which are in the U.S.:</p> <ul> <li>New York Public Library, New York, NY — 18 million visitors annually</li> <li>Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn, NY — 8.1 million visitors annually</li> <li>Library of Congress, Washington D.C. — 1.9 million visitors annually</li> </ul> <p>The American Library Association publishes a list of the <a href="https://libguides.ala.org/libraryfacts" target="_blank">25 biggest</a> U.S. libraries, and some of these places are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, as demonstrated by <em>Curbed's</em> list of the <a href="https://www.curbed.com/2017/2/9/14551106/best-libraries-architecture-united-states" target="_blank">20 most beautiful</a> American libraries. <em>Huffington Post</em> tells you where to find the best library <a href="https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-best-library-in-every-state_b_59b6e4b7e4b0465f75880935" target="_blank">in each state</a>.</p>
The national library picture<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjYzNzE2Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTUwNDM1Mn0.DXzPEDguagRgo-xQ6shOEmAjvDHD_rD3RU_vl8GFQ0s/img.jpg?width=980" id="eacc0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="817cb662622fb82e07cb9a79b891b3f7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: American Libraries Magazine's April 2019 Special Report<p>Libraries' ever-expanding offerings have likewise expanded their importance as community centers in addition to being a place from which to borrow books. <a href="http://www.ala.org/news/sites/ala.org.news/files/content/2019-soal-report-final-accessible.pdf" target="_blank">American Libraries Magazine's April 2019 Special Report</a> concludes that library attendance is on the rise. 2016 saw 1.4 <em>billion</em> visits to public libraries, which works out to 4 million visits a day and roughly 2,664 visits per minute. There are more public libraries (16,568) than Starbucks (14,606).</p><p>In line with Gallup's findings that libraries are of particular importance to people with lower incomes, some of the largest U.S. libraries are <a href="https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/library-late-fees" target="_self">abandoning fees for overdue books</a> to ensure that they're not penalizing — or worse, turning away — the people who most depend on free books and the other services libraries supply. </p><p>Though ample data supports the benefits public libraries provide to communities, the rise of anti-science, anti-education, and anti-diversity attitudes are posing new challenges for libraries, ranging from conflicts over acceptable content to budgeting. The Trump administration, for example, has advocated the last three years running that Federal funding of public libraries be <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/for-third-year-in-a-row-trumps-budget-plan-eliminates-arts-public-tv-and-library-funding/2019/03/18/e946db9a-49a2-11e9-9663-00ac73f49662_story.html" target="_blank">eliminated </a>. Fortunately, the proposal faced sufficient opposition that funding was <a href="http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2019/12/fy-2020-library-budget-signed-final-bill-includes-increases-lsta-and-other" target="_blank">increased</a> in the final legislation. Funding for public libraries on the state and local levels continues to be often insecure even as libraries continue to assume their place as brick-and-mortar community centers for the modern world.</p>
An Italian firm has put forward an idea for a green city that would be completely self-sustaining, modern, and green.
- An Italian architecture firm has proposed a sustainable city for Mexico.
- The plans call for a 100 percent self-sufficient metropolis, with renewable energy, Venetian canals, and endless green space.
- This design is one of many "smart city" proposals as of late that point to a new form of urbanism.
Eco-Utopia?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjA5MzU5NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzQ4NzEyNn0.u7NCkt3nOkHQpvVC1YuicZv4yPdS68gSBAIoSo3HbUc/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=40%2C148%2C62%2C0&height=700" id="43a8d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b8209c37caa45aa01f4d6e477cbe4845" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
An aerial view of the proposed city. Notice the surrounding green space and extensive canal system.
Image source: Stefano Boeri Architetti<p>According to the firm's <a href="https://www.stefanoboeriarchitetti.net/en/project/smart-forest-city-cancun/" target="_blank">press release</a>, the city will cover 557 hectares, 400 of which will be green spaces containing 7,500,000 plants. Designed for 130,000 people to live and work there, it will feature a wide variety of housing types to accommodate the needs of its residents.</p><p>The economy of the city will be circular, with all of its food, water, and energy needs being self-generated. The designs also include a grand research center so that the city can host university departments, conferences, and curious scholars of all ages. </p><p>The city even has plans to improve the way we interact with our data. The architects told <a href="https://www.dezeen.com/2019/10/25/smart-forest-city-stefano-boeri-cancun-mexico/" target="_blank"><em>Dezeen</em></a> that "Big data management is used to improve the governance of the city, hence, the life of its citizens. Sensors are distributed within the building fabric: they collect and share relevant information, which is then centrally analyzed and turned into suggestions in support of everyday life. For example, by mapping on an app the expected outdoor comfort experience within certain areas of the city."</p><p>This data will be handled with "full respect of the privacy of the citizens."</p> If all goes according to plan, the city will be built on an area currently used as a sand quarry for hotels that is tentatively scheduled to become a shopping center.
Can it really be self-sustaining?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjA5MzYzNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTA3NzAxOX0.lcfdnkWau8tCVIoQaGVgOvEJgb5IA1veJQIQweRihUs/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C25%2C0%2C187&height=700" id="da28d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b5613babdafaa1d65a88746fe459971f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Artist's impression of the fresh water canals.
Image source: Stefano Boeri Architetti<p>The city is designed to fully sustain itself through an ingenious system of energy production and water desalination. A ring of solar panels will surround the city, generating enough power for all of the inhabitants. Water will be pulled from the Caribbean and desalinized using a solar tower. This water would be used to irrigate crops through a system of navigable canals.</p><p>Transportation will be handled by an entirely electric public "Mobility in Chain" transit system. Cars will all be left outside of the <a href="https://interestingengineering.com/architecture-firm-designs-smart-forest-city-cancun-thats-fully-self-sufficient" target="_blank">city</a>. </p><p>What carbon emissions there are will be captured by the endless <a href="https://www.dezeen.com/2019/10/25/smart-forest-city-stefano-boeri-cancun-mexico/" target="_blank">plants</a>. The firm notes, with evident pride, that "thanks to the new public parks and private gardens, thanks to the green roofs and to the green facades, the areas actually occupied will be given back by nature through a perfect balance between the amount of green areas and building footprint. The Smart Forest City will absorb 116.000 tons of carbon dioxide with 5.800 tons of CO<sub>2 </sub>stocked per year."</p><p>While it currently only exists on paper, the visionaries who have dreamed this plan into existence hope the city can be an example for the world and a testing place for ideas on sustainable urbanism. It will join the ranks of several other smart cities that have been <a href="https://www.dezeen.com/2019/10/28/five-smart-cities-north-america/" target="_blank">proposed</a> as ways to improve our existence, make the world more <a href="https://www.dezeen.com/2017/06/28/liuzhou-forest-city-stefano-boeri-proposes-plant-covered-city-to-eat-up-chinas-smog/" target="_blank">sustainable</a>, and move beyond the limitations of our current urban planning paradigms. </p>
Clusters of bot boats may offer cities dynamic solutions to rising waters.
- Amsterdam is working with MIT to develop a way to move activity from the streets to the canals.
- A paper announces that the boats can now assemble themselves into various shapes.
- Flexible urban infrastructural systems such as this are likely to grow in importance.
Image source: MIT and AMS Institute
Dynamic urban infrastructures for the future<p>While the Roboat project is currently focused on Amsterdam's congestion, as coastal waters rise around the world, other cities will require this kind of enhanced flexibility in meeting the needs of their populations. Roads will submerge, waterways will grow, everything will shift around, and developing dynamic infrastructure systems will take on a new urgency as conditions evolve too quickly to be adequately addressed by long-term, fixed, traditional construction projects.</p><p>The first major mission for the Roboats will be the "<a href="http://senseable.mit.edu/roundaround/" target="_blank">roundAround</a>," a moving "bridge" built of connected autonomous boats circling the canal and ferrying people between the <a href="https://www.nemosciencemuseum.nl/en/" target="_blank">NEMO Science Museum</a> in Amsterdam's city center and the rapidly growing Marineterrein district. Currently, it takes about 10 minutes to walk a kilometer around the waterway to travel between the two locations, but the bridge will shorten that time to less than 2 minutes.</p><p>One aspect of the roundAround challenge is getting the autonomous Roboat units to play nice with obstacles and each other as they self-navigate. Another aspect is getting travelers safely onto and off the vessels' ramps. The designers expect to get plenty of feedback from passengers that will inform refinement of the system going forward. </p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMTEwMjA2Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwMjE5MTA0Nn0.e94t5v0hjUz9o2wMjY5ZTkvuDp0qEaIKg1O4EhiVmwQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="f5d6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91d19608c78f57d05a9ae09f29073314" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="NEMO Science Museum" />
The NEMO Science Museum, with an illustration of the roundAround system.
Image source: MIT/AMS
How Roboats work<p>The Roboat project involves sets of interconnected Roboat structures, each of which is a "connected-vessel platform," or a CVP. A CVP is comprised of two types of Roboats: A coordinator — the CVP's brain — and a number of workers. Multiple CVPs can be assembled to make larger structures.</p><p>Both types of Roboats are outfitted with four propellers, a wireless-capable microcontroller, automated latching mechanisms, and a sensing system with which it can communicate with other vessels.</p><p>The coordinators use GPS for navigation, as well as an IMU (inertial measurement unit) with which they can plan the CVPs' trajectory, orientation, and speed. In just a little over 100 milliseconds, a coordinator identifies collision-free regions to work out the shortest safe route. It also estimates its own final position and wirelessly commands its workers into the desired configuration around itself.</p><p>The new paper documents the capabilities of low-cost, 3-D-printed, 1/4 scale boats operating in an MIT pool. The boats demonstrated their capabilities by starting in one shape — side-to-side straight lines and squares — and flawlessly separating and reforming into rectangles, "L" shapes, and end-to-end lines. It's a promising start: "A set of boats can come together to form linear shapes as pop-up bridges, if we need to send materials or people from one side of a canal to the other. Or, we can create pop-up wider platforms for flower or food markets," says co-author Daniela Rus.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMTEwMjEwNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkyMTc3M30.LHdVdf_Cpoc0_vG7PgXWak9rUsahlk_p6dlTen2pdNc/img.jpg?width=980" id="97a34" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="09b4f5f7b3ef662ac640e860512d7e8b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Roboats" />
An illustration of the Roboat concept in action.
Image source: AMS
How the half-hour commute and motorised transport changed our cities into huge metropolises.
- The average commute, from antiquity to now: half an hour
- That's Marchetti's Constant, and it informs the growth of our modern cities
- But we're stuck in traffic, and waiting for the next great leap forward.
The curious constant
Charles T. Harvey, president of the West Side & Yonkers Patented R.R., New York City's first elevated railway, demonstrating in 1867 that a car would not fall off the track.
Image source: public domain
What do the citizens of ancient Rome have in common with those of modern Atlanta? The duration of their daily commute: an hour, at most. No matter whether we move on foot or by car, half an hour either way is about as long as we're prepared to travel to and from our place of work.
That timeless truism is called Marchetti's Constant, and it has a curious effect on the size of our cities. For as our modes of transport improve, the result is not that our commutes shrink, but that the distance between our homes and places of work increases. That, Jonathan English explains in a fascinating article over at CityLab, is why ancient Rome was tiny, and modern Atlanta is huge.
When in Rome
Even when it was the biggest city in the world, Rome was tiny by modern standards.
Image source: David Rumsey Map Collection courtesy Stanford University Libraries, CC-BY-NC-SA; image credit: David Montgomery/CityLab
For most of history, walking was the main way to get around cities. Since a mile (1.6 km) is about as far as you can walk in half an hour, that's the maximum radius of a pre-modern city. Actually, ancient Rome is a good example: for several centuries at the start of the Common Era, it was the world's biggest city. Yet its one million inhabitants were packed like Latin-speaking sardines into an area with a diameter of just two miles.
That's about the same distance as from the Bastille to the Louvre, the extremities of medieval Paris. And, as Jonathan English remarks in his article, "the historic City of London is named the 'Square Mile' for a reason." Up until the Industrial Revolution, urban growth meant cities got denser rather than bigger, leading to horrific levels of overcrowding. Escape to the country was a luxury available exclusively to the very rich — only they could afford both a rural mansion and an urban pied à terre.
The advent of modern transport brought the ideal of an escape from the city within reach of ever greater numbers of city-dwellers — but the effect was ultimately self-defeating: the growing size of the urban exodus meant they brought the city with them. But that change didn't happen overnight: our current cityscapes are the result of centuries of experiments with transportation modes — always with Marchetti's Constant as a yardstick for growth.
Philosopher on the bus
Medieval Paris was a bit smaller than Rome, a thousand years earlier.
Image source: Analyse Diachronique de l'espace Urbain Parisien: Approche Geomatique, Open Data Commons Open Database License 1.0; image credit : David Montgomery/CityLab
- The first public transit system was introduced in Paris in 1662 by none other than Blaise Pascal, the philosopher. His system of horse-drawn buses followed a set schedule, along fixed routes, for a distance-based fare. However, the system wasn't much faster than walking, and collapsed after 15 years due to increased ticket prices.
- In 1830, Liverpool and Manchester were connected by the world's first steam-powered public railway. Railways caught on quickly in major cities across the world. Moving people at speeds of 10 miles or more per half hour, railways allowed those who could afford it to live in "railroad suburbs" along the stops outside the city proper. Examples include Philadelphia's Main Line suburbs and West London's Stockbroker Belt.
- From the 1880s, the introduction of electric trams and "safety bicycles" (i.e. not the high-wheeled penny-farthings) extended the commuter range of more lowly-paid workers. They now could travel in half an hour to 4 miles. This enlarged the potential size of cities from a diameter of 2 miles (i.e. 3 square miles) to a diameter of 8 miles (i.e. 50 square miles). Over the next decades, cities all over North America, and to a lesser extent Europe, adopted tram networks, and started sprouting new suburbs.
- Elevated trains, suspended above their straight streets avenues, further spurred the growth of American cities. These "el trains" and later subways, allowed the working class to live as far as 8 miles from their places of work. This allowed New York to spread out north to cover the entirety of Manhattan, for example.
London was one of the first cities to transcend the ancient limits of urban development.
Image source: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, CC BY-NC-SA; image credit: David Montgomery/CityLab
- Lacking an American-style grid, London's streets were not amenable to elevated trains. Because they couldn't go up, they went under, and in 1863, the first London Underground line opened. The 'Tube' would soon become instrumental for spreading out the city over the surrounding counties, eventually annexing large parts of them. The county of Middlesex was almost entirely absorbed by Greater London (see #605), and disappeared off the map.
- In 1908, Henry Ford launched the Model T, the first mass-produced car. Despite its eager adoption by the middle classes, the automobile did not create huge urban growth in the 1920s and 1930s. That's because the roads, built for non-motorized traffic, quickly choked up. Only after WWII would cars would start to transform cities — thanks to the introduction of expressways, which allowed people to move to and from cities with greater speed.
- After WWII, urban planners developed two competing methods to finally overcome the problem of inner-city overcrowding. The mainly European method, developed by Le Corbusier, was to concentrate people in free-standing high-rise towers, set in parkland ringing the old city centers.
Welcome to Chicagoland
The sprawl of 'Chicagoland' was made possible by the street car.
Image source: Harvard Map Collection, Harvard College Library; image credit: David Montgomery/CityLab
- The predominantly American method, developed by Frank Lloyd Wright, was based on the car, and proposed dispersing the population over a much wider area, on individual plots of land — a recipe for what has become the classic American suburb. This model allows for a 20-mile commute in 30 minutes, and that extends the metropolitan diameter to 40 miles. An "expressway city" can thus cover more than 1,250 square miles.
- In the 1970s, Wright's model proved so successful that North America's inner cities emptied out; except for its African-American inhabitants, kept out of the suburbs by various means of institutional discrimination. These days, the standard commute in North American metro areas takes around 26 minutes — about the same as that of the average citizen of ancient Rome.
- In the last few decades, the dispersal model has become the victim of its own success: traffic has multiplied, slowed down and become congested. Los Angeles, Atlanta, and other "expressway cities" have hit maximum capacity.
Sprawl ad infinitum?
The dispersal model, the latest (and perhaps ultimate) phase of urban expansion.
Image source: U.S. Census; image credit: David Montgomery / CityLab
So, what's next after 'stuck in traffic'? Jonathan English suggests three technological solutions, with varying degrees of feasibility:
- First option: high-speed rail. Downsides: very expensive, and facing "formidable ideological opposition" — at least in North America.
- Second option: self-driving cars. Downsides: still a pipe dream, will not improve road capacity, and may even increase congestion.
- Third option, and the most viable one: telecommuting. Working from home is already technologically feasible and holds "the greatest promise" for enabling Wright's vision of the complete dispersal of population. But employers are resistant: they want their staff on-site, their physical presence the ultimate guarantee for productivity.