Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Lost Agrarian City of Pennsylvania

Agrarian urbanism challenges the way we think about cities, and particularly their relationship to the countryside. While is is a new idea, there are historic precedents. My favorite example is Pennsylvania's lost agrarian city, which most people know by its other name-Philadelphia.

21st Century Philadelphia may be the Commonwealth's most dysfunctional place. Its slums are large and legendary. Philadelphia boasts the most dangerous neighborhood in Pennsylvania and the 16 most dangerous in the nation.

Ironically, William Penn purposefully planned the city to be something very different. Penn had seen major changes to agrarian England in his lifetime. The Enclosure movements had dispossessed poor country people from once common grazing lands. displaced and landless laborers ended up in places like London, living at high density and squalor. When not robbing, or being beheaded for stealing, they grew sick and died. This squalor was a direct factor in the great plague 1665-1666, which left one in five Londoners dead. as the City recovered from plague, a bake oven started the great fire.

I saw a fire as one entire arch of fire above a mile long: it made me weep to see it. The churches, houses are all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made and the cracking of the houses." Samuel Pepys

When Penn was granted Pennsylvania, the Quaker reformer saw his chance to not only give the persecuted of Europe a safe haven, he saw a chance to remake the ideal of a City.

Penn's vision was the antitheses of London, with its extreme density of buildings, and narrow crooked streets. He wanted to avoid the overcrowding that created disease and fire. The streets were wide and the Town lots for each family were either just under a half acre or a full acre. He planned prominent squares in each district, which modern planners assume to be parks. I suspect he was planning for common grazing of house cows. He envisioned it all as a "green Countrie towne".

The size of lots are particularly important from an agrarian perspective. The Quakers were keen vegetable gardeners and their concepts of family were child centered (They were years ahead of their time in this respect) Penn was seeking an urban form that would allow even a poor family the ability to grow cabbages, have a fruit tree, or keep a house cow on their lot. The greater light and air created a more healthful environment for children.

What Happened?

Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the plan Thomas Holme drew for Penn, Europeans began subdividing the spacious lots, and erecting buildings that covered the entirety of the smaller lots.

By the time our Constitution, Philadelphia only had about 28,000 people, but looked like a smaller London. By 1793, Yellow Fever was raging through the City and Philip Freneau was lamenting that:
Nature's poisons here collected,
Water, earth, and air infected--
O, what a pity,
Such a City,
Was in such a place erected!

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