According to Pete Saunders (Urban Planner and Writer) our cities are entering a new era in the development of cities which he calls the “Congealing Era”. It’s probably better described as the ‘cluster era’ but he’s got a good point about the way that cities are shaped by the social, economic and technological changes through the different generations.
While the story relates to American cities, the concept is relatable to the development of Australian cities. There was the Early Era, Industrial Era and Auto Era which each brought about different patterns of development. The Early Era saw people living in closely settled cities because travel was limited. People ‘clumped’ together with the majority of (limited) essential services within walking distance. The Industrial Era initially saw ‘workers’ live close to large manufacturing businesses that were usually located very close to the city centre, while the wealthy started becoming more mobile and chose to live in leafier suburbs or escape the pollution with weekend houses. The Auto Era brought about the ability for more people to choose to commute to work. Urban areas were seen as unclean and more people ‘dispersed’ to the clean and green suburbs with a backyard and garage for their shiny new motor cars.
Today, many of the inner city areas have been gentrified, manufacturing industries have been pushed out of the cities (and mostly moved off shore) and ‘urban’ is the new ‘suburban’. Much like fashion, what was old is new again. The Gen Y’s have a taste for the walkable neighbourhood like its 1899. Cars are now considered a waste of money (give me a plane ticket with a carbon offset thanks) and ye-olde style bikes are retro cool (is that a Penny Farthing you’re riding?).
The populations of our cities are bigger now though, and the metropolitan areas are better connected with trains, trams etc. so the daggy old suburban strip shopping centre is making a comeback and planners are encouraging this with higher density living and shopping around these where they’re close to transport nodes – providing a diversity of housing to attract a diversity of people, all clumped together like the old days, but in nodes along major public transport routes… and so the lumpy, clumpy city is born with its clusters of people all bumping together (while staring at iPhones) in concentrated urban centres, linked by railway lines and bike lanes across a sea of leafy suburbia while staying connected wit. To congeal is unreal!