Tim Sullivan has reported for several western newspapers and magazines, including The Salt Lake Tribune and The Oregonian, and now works as an urban planner and designer. A native of Salt Lake City, he currently lives in Oakland, California. The following is an excerpt from the preface of Sullivan’s book No Communication with the Sea: Searching for an Urban Future in the Great Basin (University of Arizona Press, 240 pages, $19.95).
The Great Basin, that vast, dry hole in America, is not often associated with great cities. It’s understandable. The region is the most sparsely inhabited in the continental United States. The cities at its edges, chiefly the metropolitan regions surrounding Salt Lake City, Utah, and Reno, Nevada, are regarded as overgrown mining camps, Wild-West theme parks, zealous religious colonies, or—worst of all—bland American suburbia. The lore of the Great Basin, instead, is gleaned from its exoticism, from its differences from the rest of the country: the unbounded freedom, the space, the natural resources, and the scenery. The Basin has the loneliest road in America, bombing ranges and chemical incineration plants, and the legendary steep-and-deep skiing made possible by its strange hydrography.
But great cities are possible here. They’d better be. Ghost towns dot Nevada, and the old Mormon farm towns along the wagon road are emptying out or converting to bedroom country for the growing metro areas. The seemingly paradoxical urban life of this region, the core of the Intermountain West that lies between the West’s two great mountain chains, the Sierra-Cascades and the Wasatch-Rockies, is the subject of this book. When you think about it, the Great Basin is a logical place to study the American city. In recent years, more people have moved to this region than to almost any other part of America. Some have begun to call the interior West the “New American Heartland” because of its growth, the attraction of its airy, recreational lifestyle, and its increasing economic importance and political sway.1 And, almost everyone who lives in the Great Basin lives in an urbanized area. In fact, a higher percentage of Great Basin residents live in urbanized areas than in almost any other part of the United States. The cities of the Great Basin also face extreme degrees of the environmental problems that challenge much of urbanizing America. Here in one of the continent’s driest deserts, we have a tough time matching our neighborhoods, downtowns, suburbs, and streets to the Great Basin’s environmental reality of scarce resources and the inhuman scale of its vast, stark spaces. The cities of the Basin are some of the largest consumers of water, fuel, and land per capita in the nation. We are hard-pressed to temper our grand visions for the Basin’s spaces and to read the real opportunities that lie in its patterns.
In late 2006, at the height of a long real estate development and employment boom, I set out to explore these changing cities. As one developer told me, ground was hard to find: It was being carved and scoured like a desert flood event, and the rapid changes taking place were telling in the manifestation of both bad ideas and good ones. Over a few years, I visited the cities’ centers and their edges, encountering people who wanted to escape the city into the wide open of the Basin and people who were looking inward to rebuild the city. I encountered rural dreams and urban activism. I encountered connection to the natural environment and utter disconnection from it. Most important, I found people who were grappling with the fact of urbanization and struggling to make urban places in the Great Basin—places that might endure through the booms, busts, bounties, and scarcities of decades to come.
This book is about urbanism, the shaping of the city, the city not just as a collection of buildings and streets and parks but also the way people occupy them. Urbanism is different from urbanization. While urbanization is the movement of population to cities often brought on by largescale economic forces, urbanism is a smaller-scale change within that reality—making the best of urbanization by making humane places. The conditions of urbanization created by economics are alleviated by the solutions of urbanism: designing densely packed houses or apartments to be livable homes, leveraging the economic activity of a city into proud public parks, bringing economies of scale down to a human scale, and making busy thoroughfares enjoyable streets. It’s a kind of lemons into lemonade. If suburbanization was the great cop-out to America industrializing into cities, urbanism is the cop-to. Urbanization is a force that is manifested over regions by swaths of humanity and the whims of economies. Urbanism is a choice that can be manifested in as small an area as a street, a block or a building, by just a few people. The process of urbanity can lead to the result of functional, enjoyable urban places. Urban is tradeoffs and balance. Urban is a diversity of land uses—residences, stores, offices, parks—put together compatibly in a small physical space. Urban is private buildings engaging with the public realm of the street through its entrances and windows. Perhaps most important today, urban is the predominance of a form of transportation other than the automobile. The automobile thwarts functional, comfortable, and enjoyable urban places in a number of ways: It takes transportation to the private realm, therefore diminishing the public realm; a motorist doesn’t interact with the places he or she passes the way a pedestrian does; and the sheer amount of space to accommodate autos in streets and in parking lots distort the scale of the built environment to something inhuman. Most of the autos we drive today—and the way we drive them—pollute the air, demand nonrenewable fuel, and endanger the safety of people walking and biycling. Urbanism doesn’t have to look like New York City or Paris. What it looks like depends on what there is to work with. There is, for example, an urbanism to be pulled from the Great Basin Desert. I was out to find it.
And so this book is also about the land of the Great Basin, the famous Basin and Range, the salt playas, the hundreds of miles of seeming emptiness that has some of the most interesting ecology in the world. The Basin is lonely mountain peaks, it is crowded wetlands, it is gradients in between. It is adaptations of plants and animals to water, salt, and elevation. These adaptations are like urbanism: fitting into an environment, learning to live with one another in constrained space and with constrained resources. We can learn from their patterns. What is the marriage of urbanism to the Great Basin landscape? This is what I hoped to discover.
What is at stake here in the dry lands between the mountains is pertinent to all of America. In the Great Basin, we see the state of our nation’s obsessions with growth, good jobs, quality of life, space, environmental transformation, and escape. The building of the Great Basin’s cities shows us how people today are fitting themselves in by the thousand to one of the nation’s most baffling regions. The Basin is at once inhospitable—in its high-desert climate, its lack of water and navigable waterways, and its isolation—and attractive—in its space, its affordability, its protection, and its promise for rebirth. The cities of the Great Basin, as throughout the West, are surrounded by some of America’s most beautiful, unique landscapes. One of the best chances we have for preserving these landscapes is to build better cities that use resources efficiently and make urban living comfortable and enticing enough to reduce the urge of so many to flee to the unbuilt edge. While it may be an impulse of someone championing the land to cast a wary eye toward the region’s urbanization, I focus my attention in between these coarse grains—to urbanism, the process of creating the great city.
From No Communication with the Sea: Searching for an Urban Future in the Great Basin by Tim Sullivan © 2010 Tim Sullivan. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press.