Machine Cities and Ghost Cities

Drew is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Kneeling Bus.

“We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”   -Henry David Thoreau

New York and New Jersey have a first world problem: The Bayonne Bridge, which connects the two states, will soon block the entrance to the largest seaport on the East Coast, the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal. In other words, New York City and its surrounding region have too much infrastructure, and the older infrastructure is starting to interfere with the newer infrastructure, forcing a public evaluation of priorities.

The Bayonne Bridge, which fulfills the modest task of enabling people in cars to cross a river between Staten Island and its namesake city, needs to be raised: Its 151-foot navigational clearance is too low for Post-Panamax ships (the mega-vessels that will become the ocean’s biggest and most efficient movers of goods after the Panama Canal is widened in 2014). If the bridge remains in place, the port conveniently located closest to the Eastern seaboard’s largest population center will potentially stagnate as a Norfolk or Savannah arises to take its dominant position (just as Port Newark itself surpassed similarly obsolete facilties in the mid-twentieth century). If the Bayonne Bridge does not get out of the way in time, the global freight network will re-optimize itself at a slightly less efficient level, forcing goods to travel farther and more expensively. The plan is to raise the bridge 60 feet higher.

Throughout history, the city has concentrated and centralized the many complex activities and institutions that make civilization possible. Advanced commerce, culture, and technological innovation all begin when people leave their scattered rural settlements to move into closer proximity with one another, and we call those denser living arrangements cities. The rituals and enterprises that characterize cities are too numerous to list here, but they have typically been harmonious with one another: The agora was a hub of economic as well as political life at the most accessible and central part of the city. Before the automobile, streets served a variety of complementary purposes, only one of which was transportation. In the later industrial era, the docks that lined Brooklyn’s waterfront were an interface between the commercial activity of shipping and the neighborhoods where those workers lived, together forming a cultural fabric that was recognizable as a coherent physical place.

The modernist twentieth century fragmented the unified, harmonious city. Le Corbusier famously called the house a machine for living, and his influential La Ville Radieuse extended that metaphor to the metropolis at large. Like any good machine, the modernist city’s functions began splitting off into distinct and specialized parts, and a variety of innovations arose to enable these changes: single-use zoning, cars, grade-separated highways, high-rise office and apartment towers, and bedroom suburbs. Scale and speed ensured that this separation was more than philosophical—a car traveling at 60 miles per hour could hardly share its path with other stationary human activities. The holistic city, woven together in a complex and delicate fabric, found itself on the wane.

Le Corbusier’s idea of the city as a machine ushered in the infrastructural era, as his vision relied heavily upon infrastructure and the engineers who designed and optimized it. Freeways, bridges, tunnels, towers, and standardized housing units were the building blocks of that city. In practice, as seen in the postwar United States, people lived in residential places (the suburbs) and worked in commercial places (downtown). Land use suddenly existed as a concept. Infrastructure carried those people—now called commuters—from one specialized place to another.

Many of New York City’s bridges and tunnels, including the Bayonne Bridge, are products of this imperative to move huge volumes of commuters between increasingly separate homes and workplaces in the modernist city. Robert Moses, who built much of that infrastructure in New York, helped to fulfill Le Corbusier’s prophetic vision, and Moses waged war on the premodern city in doing so (even trying unsuccessfully to ram crosstown highways through Midtown and Lower Manhattan). The close-knit, vibrant districts that thankfully still flourish throughout New York, in the eyes of Moses and anyone obsessed with efficient, machine-like urbanism, were simply in the way. In a sense, the city itself—the traditional, un-optimized, and human-scaled city—was in the way.

Now, the Bayonne Bridge is in something else’s way. The bridge finds itself superseded by a new, global logic that cares little about the flow of commuters from home in Staten Island to work in New Jersey. As Robert Moses needed to bulldoze old neighborhoods in order to make way for his bridges and highways, the bridges and highways now need to make way for forces best described as anti-urban. Two infrastructural developments that exploded in postwar America—commercial passenger aviation and container shipping—epitomize this new era.

Le Corbusier’s modernism segmented the city by function, stretched it out, and increased its scale while leaving it in a recognizable form. The world-spanning (and world-shrinking) systems of air travel and container shipping atomized the metropolis and sprayed it into the air, letting it circulate wherever the wind carries it. Airports and seaports are simply the visible points where these globally-networked abstractions make contact with the city.

You will know these new systems, of which air travel was just an early example, by the extent to which cities are in their way and extraneous to their purposes. Early airports, such as Chicago’s Midway, were built relatively close to city centers, but they rapidly retreated from urban areas as capacity needs grew and jet takeoff trajectories became shallow. In the United States, the trend peaked in 1995 when Denver International Airport opened on 53 square miles of land far outside of Denver itself. Airports require passengers, which is why they’re anywhere near cities at all, but every other force pulls them outward. Newark’s huge container port, similarly, replaced and undermined the Brooklyn and Manhattan waterfronts that supported entire social ecosystems, and gained untold efficiency by minimizing human involvement in shipping. Cities, in both examples, are sources of supply and demand—model input values—that these systems would gladly bypass if they could afford to.

The logic that gave birth to cities now dictates that we gather in the abstract, transitory space of the network, and build our civilization there. Marshall McLuhan, in 1967, proclaimed that “the city no longer exists except as a cultural ghost for tourists.” Cities, of course, will stick around for a while, but McLuhan realized early that their role was increasingly symbolic. Metropolitan vapors, to borrow a phrase from Lars Lerup, may originate in cities but they rapidly diffuse via a multitude of physical and digital channels. Like a vampire, the global system drinks the city’s vitality and nourishes itself. The Thoreau quote above, then, is just as apt today: We don’t ride our networks; our networks ride upon us.

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About Drew Austin

Drew Austin is a New York based technologist. His ribbonfarm posts explore the nature of the changing nature of urban environments . Follow him on Twitter.


  1. You might be interested in an OPED I wrote about the raising of the Bayonne Bridge. It was published by the Staten Island Advance in NYC, and a few online outlets. You can see it here at

  2. This is exactly like the opening sequence in Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, when Dent’s house is being demolished for a new freeway while Earth is being demolished for an interstellar bypass.

    The effects of the widening of the Panama canal are going to be quite interesting. With really huge ships, the boom-bust cycle in container shipping might get even more extreme.

  3. Le Corbusier “living machines” didn’t work AT ALL, many of his hideous raw concrete buildings have been demolished, he was well within the zeitgeist of the era in between world wars dominated by stalinism and nazism.
    I think he is a shame for both the French and the Swiss (his former nationality), though, alas, he is still revered as a founder of “modern architecture”, IMHO nearly all contemporary architects deserve to be hung by the balls until they are well dried…

  4. An economic system and the technologies that are intrinsic to it become self justifying. An “is” becomes an “ought” and as its utility inevitably declines we try harder to make it work. Empires (of any kind) expand the fastest as they are rotting from the inside.

    I remember talking to a resident of Palmyra NY and remarking on the beautiful 19th century storefronts up and down the main street. He said that they were lucky in that the urban renewal of the 70s passed them by. Other towns had bulldozed all those shabby old buildings and replaced them with shopping-mall-mansard monstrosities. But hey, it was economic development – who could stand in its way?

    As an aside, I was in Palmyra as a crew member of the Lois McClure, a modern copy of an 1862 class sailing canal boat. For a century the small (70-150 ton) canal boat was the workhorse of the canal system in the northeast. 85% of NY state residents live within 20 miles of a navigable waterway, and that’s why.

    I just pulled the starter cord on my crystal ball. It sputtered to life and told me that the era of the Panamax will be mostly over before it reaches its full potential. China can’t continue to expand at 7-10% a year for much longer. It would require a doubling in world raw material output in the next decade. (The U.S. can’t run a massive trade deficit forever either.) That endless stream of 40 foot containers has to slow down, and relatively soon. It’s basic geology.

  5. I love the idea of the distance between airport and city as a measurable, surface manifestation of the deep tradeoffs between various civilizational/economic pressures. I take most of your post to be an exploration of those tradeoffs, but the measurability of the airport example is especially appealing to me — as though you might be able to make an economic index out of it.

  6. Did you read “Aerotropolis” by John D. Kasarda? It’s a lot about this, though it has nothing to say about bridges.

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