The English essayist, Cyril Connolly, wrote that, "No city should be too large for a man to walk out of in the morning."
If Connolly were a resident of San Diego today, he would probably join the ranks of Prevent Los Angelization Now!. PLAN is the reconstituted Citizens for Limited Growth, which placed two measures on the November, 1988, ballot that failed to gain approval. PLAN's membership is now sponsoring another growth-control initiative. As PLAN sees it, the issue is whether it will be possible to drive out of (or into) San Diego in a morning.
Very much on the minds of many urbanites, and particularly many San Diegans, is the question of city size. San Diego is getting too big, or it's already too big, we hear and read. Something has to be done or we'll end up like Los Angeles, an oversized metropolitan dinosaur choking to death on its own hydrocarbons. San Diego might get like Mexico City or Calcutta, grotesquely pumped up with that awful urban steroid--population growth. Such concerns should not be trivialized, but they also should not be accepted uncritically.
The problem is that simple associations of population size and rapid growth with decline in the quality of urban life--the stuff of political rhetoric and popular intuition--obscure enormous complexities in the relationship between urban size and other variables.
The question of what is the "right" size for a city, or when a city becomes too big, has been around for a long time. Many intelligent minds have been bent to the question, but with inconclusive findings.
Plato calculated the ideal size of a city to be 5,040 free citizens, which means it might have to be anywhere from three to seven times larger to include the supporting unfranchised citizens. In practice, the size of Greek cities appears to have been dictated by the capacity of its environs to supply it with food and water.
Da Vinci arrived at a figure of about 30,000 people, as did Sir Ebenezer Howard, father of the British new-towns idea; but neither Italian cities, nor British new towns conform even closely to these figures. More recent estimates of "efficient" city sizes range from 50,000 to more than 1 million people.
Most serious students of the subject recognize that there are too many complex, and often changing, variables to postulate an ideal or optimum size for a city.
For example, many people intuitively associate a large population with crowding; but, in fact, although many urban areas have become more populous, their population density per square mile and per living unit has declined. In general, that is because newer cities are geographically bigger and because many homes are larger and families smaller.
Also, transportation and communication technology have served to reduce densities while retaining many of the economic advantages of large urban size. And they have begun to reshape metropolitan regions into multiple centers that challenge traffic-congestion projections based on the traditional outside-to-inside commutation pattern.
Some aspects of urban-life quality are positively associated with large size, others negatively and some have no strong association at all.
Taxes and housing prices may tend to be higher in larger cities, but so are incomes. And large size generally carries with it richer cultural and employment opportunities and more economic stability. Furthermore, many smaller and stable or slow-growing cities suffer from urban problems to a greater degree than large cities.
Take San Diego, now the 6th most populous city in the nation. It ranks 67th in property taxes per capita, 69th in homicides (a figure that seems contradicted in every evening's newscast), 77th in the overall crime index, 28th in unemployment. Thus, there are many smaller cities with more crime, higher taxes and greater unemployment.
San Diego does rank high on the air-pollution index and housing costs. And the number of people per living unit in San Diego is the same as Chicago, and greater than in New York and L.A.
Yet in people per square mile, San Diego ranks 70th, nearly 10 times less dense than New York City. And traffic, a major concern among stop-growth advocates, is more congested in Austin, Anchorage and Denver, among other cities smaller than San Diego.
These data challenge the easy assumption that increases in urban population growth are the basic cause of our urban difficulties.
Size does make a difference, but in different ways under different circumstances.
This is not to suggest that we ignore the question of urban size; but we shouldn't assume that there exists a right city size, or that controlling growth alone will effectively address such urban problems as crime, pollution, traffic congestion, taxes or high housing prices. In some cases it might make them worse.