Boswash: capital B, lowercase w. The right way to say it is perhaps in a whisper, the way Jean-Luc Godard speaks over his long camera pans across the Paris outskirts in Two or Three Things I Know about Her. Geographers and regional planners are the only ones who ever zoom out far enough to “see” it as an entity. Although the material imprint of its territory on the continent is quite real, Boswash is first and foremost a series of economic and political processes, migrations, commutes, constructions, all crisscrossed and made specific by the daily lives of its citizens. Among its inhabitants, Boswash is, at best, a fleeting moment when their private lives on its territory seem like an accidental agreement for an impossibly collective identity of forty-nine million people.1
Herman Kahn and his colleague Arthur J. Weiner used the name Boswash to identify the urbanized northeast region of the United States in their 1967 study, The Year 2000.2 The future of cities occupied a slim portion of their expansive engagement with alternative scenarios in global politics, armament, and other doomsday varieties. Their “demonstration of the new techniques of think tank methods” was understandably less alarmed by sprawl then by the effects of nuclear war; in fact, if anything, in their futurological investigation, high on cold-war anxiety, decentralization of the urban fabric made perfect sense as the first order of defense from all imaginable projectile threat. The geographic area these futurologists nicknamed Boswash corresponded perfectly with the region spanning 600 miles “from north of Boston to south of Washington” described just a few years earlier by French geographer Jean Gottmannn in a similarly period-specific, commissioned report. His eight-hundred-plus-page report written in 1961 famously called the stretch of more and less urbanized territory from north of Boston to south of Washington, D.C. “Megalopolis.”3 And if its first name, Boswash, never really stuck in general parlance (and it was undermined instantly by Kahn and Weiner, who on the same page offered “Portport” as perhaps an even more precise name for the region), the second very quickly transcended Gottmann’s specific use to become synonymous with the urban condition it described, rather than its first and particular geographic manifestation.4
© Höweler+Yoon Architecture
Gottmann’s ability to conceptualize qualitative novelty of this urban condition on a regional scale, the “northern Atlantic seaboard,” has set the tone for all subsequent studies of the American city, and of the region. There have been numerous attempts to update and revisit Megalopolis since 1961.5 Kahn and Weiner’s Boswash was predicated on Gottmann’s definition of the megalopolis. Perhaps even more significantly, Gottmann’s French eyes nonjudgmentally saw in it an interesting American reality, a new condition in which “old distinctions between rural and urban” no longer applied. Although Gottmann importantly connected the term Megalopolis to the northern seaboard, a territory covering nearly 56,000 square miles, the term megalopolis was in some circulation before Gottmann’s usage, not only as the name of an ancient Greek city, but in the early twentieth century urban theories of Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford. For both of these theorists, megalopolis was a developmental stage and not a happy one at that; it was a cautionary possible future of American cities. If their development and proliferation went unchecked, such was Mumford’s narrative in The Culture of Cities, the cities declined through a set of predictable historical stages from eolis, through metropolis and megalopolis, to necropolis.6
Höweler + Yoon Architecture
Höweler + Yoon Architecture
Megalopolis was not an actual place for Mumford and his Scottish mentor Geddes. Their interest and imagination were invested in visions for regional planning in which the dichotomy of the city and the rural context would have been maintained via a networked constellation of reasonably sized and smartly interconnected cities. Thus Gottmann’s particular attribution of the name to the Northeast cities strung together multiply—by the Atlantic coastline, by U.S. Route 1, and, from late 1950s on, by Interstate 95 (I-95)—and importantly to everything in between them, was a retroactive theorization of the condition that American pre-World War II theorists of the city preferred to avoid. Gottmann saw this regional urban entity both as a historical “gateway” and as the “main street” of the United States. Once his report was illustrated and rewritten by Wolf Von Eckardt as the first public-relations guide for its inhabitants and visitors, it spoke candidly of the aesthetic dimension of this urbanized region: “An often gaudy, often dismal ugliness pervades much of the Megalopolis, as it does many an American Main street. There are the beer cans on the highway, the billboards and the jazzy, Disneyland roadside stands and motels. In many of its cities the air is no longer clean. The noise is deafening. The water is polluted. Traffic and transportation are becoming a nightmare. Slums and “grey areas” continue to spread. Yet, despite these much-criticized facts, the crowded people of Megalopolis are extremely fortunate. They form, on the average, the richest, best educated, best-housed and best serviced group of similar size in the world.”7 In direct opposition to Mumford, who thought that “in its various and many-sided life, in its very opportunities for social disharmony and conflict, the city creates drama, while the suburb lacks it,”8 who warned against bigness and fought for planning, Gottmann celebrated both the size of and the unbounded entrepreneurialism in Boswash, with a sense of inevitability. He saw the region as an incubator of new urbanization and, therefore, for experiments in social relations. He also evaluated the region in terms of “averages” (as in on average the richest and the best educated) because they allowed for the very conceptualization of continuity, at the cost of describing disparities that were then and are now constitutive of the region’s functioning.
Höweler + Yoon Architecture
Höweler + Yoon Architecture
Various researchers that have studied the region since Gottmann described its edges in different ways, depending on the type of economic and census information used.9 Whether Boswash comprises 124 municipalities, as John Rennie Short included in his 2007 revisit of Gottmann’s region, or 142 counties as the Regional Plan Association counted that same year, is of little consequence to its inhabitants’ capacity to identify with it.10 Generally associating themselves with the five metropolitan areas in whose orbits they live and operate, whose sports teams they support, and whose smog zones they contribute to, the citizenry of Boswash has grown since 1961 by 17 million, and, although many of those people are in the cities, it is the suburban regions between the urban areas that have densified at a much higher rate since the sixties. Their commute to and from the city centers and between homes and office parks, for business transactions and pleasure, is supported by an outdated “fast” train—Amtrak’s Acela—as well as regional trains, a variety of commuter-train networks, shuttle flights, buses with and without Wi-Fi, and an estimated 24 million cars.11
It is not surprising that someone who owns a house and a two-car garage somewhere in the “grey goo” of Boswash, and equally someone who occasionally drives a car borrowed hourly from Zipcar’s 9,000-car fleet within one of the metropolitan centers of Boswash,12 might not have enough reason to fire up their regional imagination, or consider their regional identity on a daily basis.13 Perhaps equally foreseeable, regional imagination and action in urban and infrastructural planning has not been the norm.14 The history of this region’s infrastructural development, from dirt to macadam to modern asphalt, from portions of privately owned roads and rail lines to a national infrastructure, describes a painstakingly piecemeal process, especially compared to the network of Roman roads that still vitally crisscross much of Europe, or compared to Germany’s pre-World War II autobahns, which did help to inspire Federal action in the United States. The bitty process by which the infrastructural network in this region was produced was the very embodiment of the American species of private entrepreneurial ingenuity and the political structure that regulated it across 142 counties and twelve states.
Höweler + Yoon Architecture
When buzzing down I-95, whether along vital suburbs of Connecticut and New Jersey or the dead malls of Baltimore, it is hard to appreciate just how extremely young is the interstate highway system. The Federal-Aid Highway Act was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, and the full extent of I-95 projected by this act has not yet been completed. I-95 is, however, 1,917 miles long, and it takes more than three days to drive. If one drove onto the interstate in Maine he or she would have 670 exits to choose from on the way to Florida, approximately five hundred gas stations to fill up at, and at least seventy-seven rest stops to help recover from the drive.15 Although I-95 may be only middle-aged in human years, much of the infrastructure that networks to it in Boswash is among the oldest in the country. Currently, Boswash, or its expanded Northeast Megaregion, as a 2005 University of Pennsylvania research report called it (including both the urban core and its support zone), loses $13.8 billion in congestion costs, including1.3-billion gallons of gas and 772,000 hours in traffic, annually on its roads.16 Highway traffic is projected to escalate 86 percent between 2002 and 2025, and the United States Department of Transportation anticipates the region’s trucking traffic to increase at an even steeper rate than passenger traffic.17 All of this, of course, leads to more road rage, but also greater loss of time and greater pollution, both of air and land.
The escalating traffic congestion is directly linked to suburban life patterns: owning a house and a car (or two), and the spatial and development patterns that have been both capitalized upon and instigated by developers and car dealers across the urbanized landscape of Boswash; it is further perpetuated by the eternally underfunded and inadequate rail system. A mass of potential rail passengers, who remain unconvinced by Amtrak, speeds to work in their own vehicles every morning, or flies in and out of one of the most congested airports in the country. The Japanese Shinkansen and the French TGV average 152 miles per hour and 162 miles per hour, respectively, and Amtrak’s Acela high-speed train runs at an average of eighty-one miles per hour between Washington, D.C., and New York City and sixty-nine miles per hour between New York City and Boston. Archaic tracks, unreliable power, overpriced fares, and inefficient scheduling turn the passengers away, and in a tragically tautological cycle of economic and political cause and effect this loss of passengers results in the lack of political support and funding for improvements for the most environmentally sustainable mass-transportation option—and the most scenic one, even if the scenery were to move at substantially higher speeds. Amtrak’s great hope, $1.3 billion from Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, was in 2009 slated for the repair of several dangerous bridges, stretches of tracks and train vehicles, not for a major overhaul and installation of a truly high-speed train infrastructure for the Northeast (although that might happen in an imaginable future in California).18 And yet, if ever there were a population that was willing to commute via public transportation, it would be the northeasterners of Boswash, where more than 50 percent of all U.S. public transit riders live.19 This is to say that, although the dominant narrative of the American dream has been hard to awake from, for the citizens as well as for architects and planners of Boswash, the statistics already speak of alternatives contained in the daily realities of the region.20
Höweler + Yoon Architecture
Höweler + Yoon Architecture
Lewis Mumoford’s rather sterile idea of what goes on in the suburb was probably never true. As one of the suburb’s chief historians Dolores Hayden suggests, suburbia has been “the site of promises, dreams, and fantasies. It is a landscape of the imagination where Americans situate ambitions for upward mobility and economic security, ideals about freedom and private property, and longings for social harmony and spiritual uplift.”21 It is precisely suburbia’s particular species of “drama” that, at the end of the twentieth century, was celebrated in a number of epic TV shows, from the Simpsons to the Sopranos. Mumford’s ideas about the need for regional planning, however, might be what Gottmann’s Megalopolis needs in order to overcome the choking congestion on one end and what Hayden has called the “culture of easy obsolescence” on the other. The culture of easy obsolescence equally easily sacrifices a picturesque enclave as it abandons yesterday’s shopping mall structures. Two recent studies of the region, from the tri-state Regional Plan Association and University of Pennsylvania, both called for a series of elements already contained in Mumford and company’s ideas about regional networks: fortification of the infrastructural network, preservation of the green support zones, and densification of the urban areas around multimodal nodes. But as long as these kinds of research-based regional optics are relegated to politics and academia only, Boswash will remain merely a hallucination for its population, and, as such, despite its tangible consequences on their daily lives, its complexly intertwined operations will continue to seem irrelevant to its aspirations. As Hayden warns, for “almost two hundred years, Americans of all classes have idealized life in single-family houses with generous yards, while deploring the sprawling metropolitan regions that result from unregulated residential and commercial growth.”22 Don DeLillo’s line from Americana perfectly sums up this dynamic: It may be much “simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams,” and especially so when “reality” is as complex, overlapped, opaque, and multivalent as Boswash’s.23
But imagine—in a soft whisper again—desiring to live in a Boswash where the public transportation zips down the Northeast corridor at 160 miles per hour and cars are co-owned, parked in a collective garage, and taken out for a ride only on occasion, mostly for pleasure. Of course, when you filled out the early surveys on co-ownership with contempt for the “clueless” researchers, you could not have imagined that it would be so easy. The drive down I-95 is filled with monuments to Boswash’s wasteful era, whose developers and designers’ ideas about progress were at least as destructive as they were productive. Some of those abandoned carcasses of remote office parks and shopping malls, cut off from vital supplies of customers, function as reminders of that simultaneously entropic and heroic version of progress. For some time, garages lingered next to houses, just as ashtrays did in trains and airplanes well after wholesale bans on smoking took hold. And then there are other leftover infrastructures that helped catalyze new collective dreams, the other Americas that were always present even though their mythologies did not seem as profitable in the short now of the twentieth century developer world.
Höweler + Yoon Architecture
- Regional Plan Association, NY, NJ, CT, “Northeast Megaregion 2050, A Common Future,” November 2007, p. 7.
- Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener, introduction by Daniel Bell, The Year 2000, A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-three Years (The Macmillan Company, New York, copyright: the Hudson Institute, Inc., 1967).
- Jean Gottmann, Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1961) and also Wolf Von Eckardt, The Challenge of Megalopolis: A Graphic Presentation of the Urbanized Seaboard of the United States (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964, copyright: Twentieth Century Fund, 1964).
- “Portport” was a combination of Portland, Maine, and Portsmouth, Virginia, which was according to Kahn and Weiner a geographically more precise description of Boswash’s boundaries.
- To list only a few recent ones, John Rennie Short’s Liquid City, Robert E. Lang’s research report, “The Megapolitan Areas: New Geography, New Opportunities,” Denver Regional Council of Governments, 2007, Arthur C. Nelson and Robert E. Lang, Megapolitan America, A New Vision for Understanding America’s Metropolitan Geography (Chicago and Washington, D.C.: American Planning Association, 2011).
- Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities (The Harcourt Brace and Company, San Diego, 1996, first published in 1938), pp. 285–295.
- Wolf Von Eckardt, The Challenge of Megalopolis, A Graphic Presentation of the Urbanized Seaboard of the United States, p. 13.
- Lewis Mumford, “What is a City?” Architectural Record, 1937.
- Recently, John Rennie Short claimed that Gottmann’s analytical description of that nearly “continuous stretch of urban and suburban areas from southern New Hampshire to northern Virginia and from the Atlantic shore to the Appalachian foothills,” was defined within at least six different boundaries even within his own 1961 study. See John Rennie Short, Liquid City: Megalopolis and the Contemporary Northeast (Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 2007).
- Regional Plan Association, NY, NJ, CT, “Northeast Megaregion 2050, A common Future.”
- Number of cars from John Rennie Short’s estimation in Liquid Metropolis.
- From Zipcar’s own promotional text, accessed May 2, 2012: http://www.zipcar.com/is-it/greenbenefits.
- Although it has been in some circulation already without attribution, the first usage of the term “grey goo” was by Alexander d’Hooghe, associate professor of architecture at MIT, in Crisis! What Crisis?! Suburbia After the Crash, Volume # 9, 2006. For d’Hooghe the term is polemical and matter of fact both, not a reason necessarily to go back to some impossible pastoralism, or even picturesque towns instead, but an opportunity to install civic architectures on the territorial scale of the “grey goo.” But if we see the grey goo as being constituted primarily by the sea of surface parking lots, then the most focused researcher of this phenomenon might be Eran Ben-Joseph, see Eran Ben-Joseph, Rethinking a Lot. The Design and Culture of Parking (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2012).
- For an excellent, illustrated, and very detailed history of road networks in the United States, see, America’s Highways 1776–1976 (U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, 1976). Accessed April 25, 2012: http://www.archive.org/details/americashighways00unit.
- The length of the highway varies according to the source, the value given here was from the I-95 Corridor Coalition website, accessed on May 4, 2012: http://www.i95coalition.org/i95/Home/I95CorridorFacts/tabid/173/Default.aspx. The rest of the statistical information was provided in National Public Radio’s special story on I-95, accessed on April 30, 2012: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129473151.
- University of Pennsylvania School of Design, Reinventing Megalopolis. The Northeast Megaregion, Spring 2005. This University of Pennsylvania City and Regional Planning studio research report has been cited by a number of nonacademic research teams, including researchers at the Regional Plan Association, who specifically thank the University of Pennsylvania researchers and offer the document for download on their America 2050 website, last accessed on May 3, 2012: http://www.america2050.org/2005/11/reinventing-megalopolis-the-no.html.
- University of Pennsylvania School of Design, Reinventing Megalopolis.
- March 13, 2009, U.S. Department of Transportation 30-09 briefing, “Vice President Biden, railroad Administrator, Members of Congress Announce Funding for Amtrak in Recovery Act,” Last accessed, May 6, 2012: www.dot.gov/affairs/dot3009.htm.
- University of Pennsylvania School of Design, Reinventing Megalopolis, p. 7.
- The Buell Center’s “Buell Hypothesis: Rehousing the American Dream,” distributed as a pdf document by the Buell Center that was the core document for MoMA’s Foreclosed workshop and show, which opened to the public in February 2012, precisely ends with the provocation that one might be able to change the city itself by convincingly rewriting the narrative of the American dream. The workshop based on this document was thus set out to test the extent to which the American dream, the mythological entanglement of prosperity and ownership, might be limiting the architects’ very imagination, and vice versa to what extent the narrative that might logically end in a foreclosure crisis (with some help from the machinations in the mortgage market) can be transformed before it becomes “un-American.” See Reinhold Martin, Leah Meisterlin, and Anna Kenoff, “The Buell Hypothesis: Rehousing the American Dream,” (The Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, copyright The Trustees of Columbia University, New York, 2011). Last accessed, January 3, 2012: http://buellcenter.org/buell-hypothesis.php.
- Dolores Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, original in 1984, revised and expanded in 2002).
- Dolores Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream, p.4.
- Don DeLillo, Americana (London: Penguin Books, 1989, first published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 1971).