Carcentauropolis Screwed the World

Development Policy27 May 2010Richard Register

…..That’s pronounced CAR-cen-taur-OP-olis.

While I was living in Lost Angeles in the 1960s, lost in the smog, back when each breath seared your throat and lungs and hot tears rolled down your cheeks under dark mid-day skies, this European journalist came touring through town. He was writing an article about the city of car centaurs, the LA citizens that were half car and half person. “Truly said,” I said, “this here is Carcentauropolis, for sure.” It was the city to coin the term, piecing together smoke and fog. It was the city of the future with its own PR department called Hollywood, leading the charge to super mobility, the envy of the world – and the world is still dreamily following. Carcentauropolis victorious!

Also visiting town in those days was architect Paolo Soleri. He lined up lectures where he could and told us the paradoxical thing that the city of all these scattered little houses with front, side and back yards, plus their asphalt and cars, was the world’s biggest and most wasteful infrastructure. The more compact city of apartments linked together in a three-dimensional community, compact and well arranged like a normal everyday complex higher living organism would mean far fewer pipes, wires, building materials and far less paving, gasoline and smog – that was the way to go. We’d better pay attention and fix the city or we’d be sorry!

LA set what looked like reasonable goals at the time: clean air and healthy lungs. Who wouldn’t think it a good idea, fun and profitable to sell the clean air lifestyle from skiing the nearby mountains to surfing under the sun and bright blue skies of balmy South Seas beaches right there on the mainland of the USA? So they did the most immediate thing they could think of and put a smog device on their cars. They fixed the car instead of fixing the city, and cleaned up their local air pollution problem about 95%.

And, forty-five years later, delivered to the world climate change.

And now we have hundreds of offspring carcentauropolises spreading around the world, some like Beijing even bigger than LA and doing their best to best it at its own game. Said a young Chinese man to me last time I was there, “Well, if I don’t have a car how can I get a wife?”The question now is will we ever get around to giving up on the car and finally fixing the city, the whole thing all at once? Or shall we ride Carcdentauropolis right over the cliff? Whee!