This story originally appeared in the June 20, 1960, issue of U.S.News & World Report.
Why the decline of the cities? And how can they be adapted to the age of the automobile?
Victor Gruen, an expert in city planning, proposes a solution in this exclusive interview.
At New York
Q Mr. Gruen, can the downtown areas of big cities be restored and given vitality again?
A The answer is "Yes." But the answer is a conditional one, and the condition is that we engage in forward-looking, creative, integrated planning. It will not happen by itself. It will take thorough planning and effective implementation of such planning. And it cannot be done by superficial measures. We will have to do something important and deep-going.
Q What is the basic trouble with big cities?
A At the root of the trouble is the fact that, in our urban areas, we have not caught up with the tremendous technological development which we have had over the last 50 years.
In these last 50 years, we have had new inventions all the way from the automobile to rockets to the moon. And yet our cities, in their patterns and organizations, have not changed at all. Our city cores, especially, have the same functional pattern they had in the 1900.
Q Do you mean that automobiles are the main cause of the modern city's trouble?
A They are. The automobile has come to be used as a means of mass transportation. Instead of people riding street cars, subway, buses or trains downtown, they now try to drive their own automobiles. And our cities are simply not built to handle the number of automobiles that it takes for everybody to go downtown in his own car.
It isn't the automobile per se which cause the trouble. It is the misapplied usage of it for mass transportation in heavily built-up areas. The automobile is also responsible for urban sprawl and suburban scatterization.
You may have heard the expression "megalopolis." This is a word that is used to describe a new phenomenon: the phenomenon of many city areas growing together into one tremendous, disorganized and amorphous "over-city," which has lost many of the characteristics which a true city should have.
Q Aren't most cities now building big freeways to handle the growing auto traffic?
A Yes. The construction of freeways, toll roads, parkways, new automobile bridges and automobile tunnels has been carried on with the investment of billions of dollars during the past 10 years.
I regard this as part of what might be called a murder plot against our urban areas. The murder method is that of slowly poisoning the city by the injection of foreign particles into the bloodstream in increasing doses. These particles, in the form of automobiles and trucks, cannot be absorbed by the urban body and therefore cause serious circulatory diseases.
The plotters are assisted by fifth columnists within the city who—by facilitating automobile traffic through widening of streets, one-way traffic, construction of gigantic garages—see to it that the poison is spread in the heart area of the city, until it attacks the tissues of the most important urban cells.
Q Is it really as bad as that?
A I certainly believe it is. The qualities that make a central city area truly urban are compactness and cohesiveness. If we level downtown buildings to make room for more and more cars, we destroy these qualities. Some of our cities, indeed, today resemble tremendous parking lots made inefficient by the islands of buildings which remain within them.
The result is that our downtown areas are becoming such a nerve-racking environment that people are not going downtown as they used to. They are avoiding the downtown area. In city after city you will find that, although more cars may be entering the downtown districts than ever before, there are actually fewer people getting downtown. And the downtown business districts are suffering.
Q Then you don't regard freeways as the answer to a city's problem?
A They never can present a complete solution. Private automobile transportation, even with the largest amount of freeway construction, cannot solve the transportation problem for any large city.