Recently, as I was scrolling through some blog post comments, I noted that more than one person feared that new development would make their city “a concrete jungle” (or worse still, lead to “Manhattanization.”) After a little Google searching, I learned that the former term has not been limited to high-rise neighborhoods, but that neighborhood activists and the media had suggested that Chicago, Houston, Chattanooga, Philadelphia’s Main Line suburbs, and Pompano Beach, Florida were or might become “concrete jungles” if the wrong thing was built.
It seems to me, therefore, that this sort of term can be used to describe anything that even slightly varies from the status quo. If you live in a rural area and someone wants to build a one-lot-per-acre subdivision, one of your neighbors will probably argue that this extremely low-density subdivision is turning your patch of paradise into a “concrete jungle.”
If you live in one-lot-per-acre sprawl, and someone wants to build a more conventional four-lots-per-acre subdivision, one of your neighbors will probably argue that this suburban subdivision is going to turn your area into a “concrete jungle”- even though, to someone living a truly rural life, your area is just as much of a jungle.
If you live in four-lot-per-acre suburbia, and someone wants to build some garden apartments or duplexes or smaller single-family homes, one of your neighbors will probably claim that these small dwellings are turning your neighborhood into a “concrete jungle”- even though to residents of estate-home suburbia, your neighborhood is a concrete jungle.
And if you live in a streetcar suburb full of duplexes and small-lot houses, and someone wants to build a walk-up apartment building near you, one of your neighbors will probably claim that these apartment buildings will turn your neighborhood into a “concrete jungle”- even though the buildings may look more like Paris or Copenhagen than midtown Manhattan.
And if you really do live in Manhattan, and you live in a fifteen-story high-rise that seems unimaginably urban to the residents of streetcar suburbs and walk-up apartments, this does not mean your neighbors will be immune from density-phobia. If a developer wants to build a twenty- or thirty-story high-rise near you, your neighbors as well will complain that the new building will turn your neighborhood into a “concrete jungle”- even though to 99 percent of Americans, your neighborhood will already seem so far gone that another high-rise here and there won’t matter.
In sum, terms like “concrete jungle” and “Manhattanization” can mean nearly everything, which means they mean absolutely nothing. And because these terms are meaningless, they should usually be treated as schoolyard insults rather than as a form of rational argument.
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