Sunday, September 30

The fruits of our labor

Missoula's own Ten Spoon winery held its annual grape harvest this weekend. Members of the community were welcomed onto the vineyard, fed very well, and put to work with a pair of scissors. The Ten Spoon winery is an example of a valuable asset to Missoula nestled in the high-property-value Rattlesnake valley.

Jen and I topped off the day by driving another mile up the road and biking into the Rattlesnake wilderness area. I've been told that the Rattlesnake is the closest federally protected wilderness area to a major metropolitan area. Mount Rose is pretty close to Reno, and Mount Sandia abuts the suburbs of Albuquerque, but we're at least in the running.

Friday, September 28

Book: The City in History

By Louis Mumford. This work from 1961 is often recognized as the top of the list in the urban planning canon. While it took a little while for me to get used to his incredibly erudite style, I found myself being drawn into his vision more and more as I read. He writes in a style of history that moves seamlessly between hard archaeological facts and wildly philosophical speculation, maybe a little reminiscent of Gibbon's history of Rome. I'm personally not put off by a mixture of intellectual history and "actual" history, but I can understand how it may frustrate some. He's also very selective in his focus, but that also makes his own argument much more cohesive. One important caveat: It really should be titled, "The City in Western History."

Overview: [this is painfully brief]. Humans moved away from a low-density hunter and gatherer system as the Neolithic era arrived. Villages became centers of the sacred as well as agricultural storehouses, merging "feminine" domesticity and civilization with "masculine" drive for dominance. Technological innovation, moral and legal systems, political and religious bureaucracies, and a market economy all fed and were fed by urbanization. All elements of urban space were in place by 2500 B.C.

The city functioned as both a magnet and a container. Various forces drew the population together, and literal walls were in place to protect from military aggression and maintain the density necessary for civic life. Walls, whether physical or not, are a trans-historical and essential fixture of urban space.

Early Greek civilization developed because distinct city-states were formed, geographically isolated from each other. This allowed strong urban and rural interaction and kept governance local. Human expression flourished despite lacks in sanitation and elaborate infrastructure. However, eventually, the Greeks turned the polis into a god itself, a testament to mankind's own dominance. Utopian dreams of Plato and the empire of Alexander unraveled Greek society. Rome followed in this mold, failing to respect natural limits to growth and the moral decay it leads to. "Barbarism captured the city from within."

Christianity, which embraced suffering, began a revival of the localized city, even in the midst of economic collapse. The monastery and the citadel were the central features. The medieval city grew organically and fostered a rich and diverse social life. Sanitation standards were low, but this was offset by the availability of open space outside the boundaries of town. Corruption in the Church and among feudal lords began to challenge the medieval city.

The baroque period brought the cycle back to "centralized mass organization." Static and rigid planning was imposed from above, rather than organically ushered from below. Grids replaced meandering streets. Military objectives were in the forefront of city design. Nationalism drew large populations to the capital centers. Class stratification intensified. The city was pitted against nature. Commerce and politics became the most important functions of the city. The industrial revolution and rise of full-fledged capitalism intensified this process.

There were many reactions. Some pursued the mistaken belief that a proletarian revolution would solve the problem. Many others began to flee this city, while enjoying the benefits at the same time. "cult of nature" merged with the "horrors of industrialism" to provoke suburbanization. It started out as successful, but became a disaster as it grew in popularity. Surburbs are "anti-city." The old credo of the planner Unwin, "nothing gained by overcrowding" should be supplemented by "something lost by overspacing."

A modern faith in technological progress and totalitarianism is currently leading to a dystopia of "post-historical man." But history is not deterministic. The solution is to decentralize, privilege organic growth, respect natural limits to human society, promote "invisible" networks between cities (foreshadowing the internet?), and restore a sense of the divine that transcends our thirst for material power.

Engagement: The combination of Mumford's passion, encyclopedic knowledge, and and sustained focus made this book a treat to read, even if he does get carried away at times. It is fascinating to see how he relates big-picture values to something as mundane as the layout of a city sewer system.

The clear message throughout: small, organic, and diverse over large, organization, and monotonous. Pre-socratic Greek and Medieval civilization is preferred over Roman and modern civilization, although his stance is not entirely without nuance. A good example of this is the difference between the medieval winding streets, based on the visual and accessible scope of a human pedestrian, and the straight baroque avenue, designed for military and elite wheeled vehicle access and as a means for displaying power with parades.

Arising from the discussion (302) of this difference, he writes,

"Organic planning does not begin with a preconceived goal; it moves from need to need, from opportunity to opportunity, in a series of adaptations that themselves become increasingly coherent and purposeful, so that they generate a complex, final design, hardly less unified than a preformed geometrical pattern."

Saturday, September 22

Specialized experts, specialized places

In a lecture given a few months ago, Andres Duany expressed some frustrations involved in trying to implement New Urbanist principles in development, even though wide-spread public support is already there.

"Developers are specialized. One of the reasons that mixed-use is difficult is that developers will come up and say, "I'm greatly sympathetic with what you are doing, but I only do houses." And another one says, "I only do rental apartments." Another says, "I only do shopping malls" ... It's all absolutely normative so it plugs easily into that system."

He expands this further. The transportation analysts are well-acquainted with the current traffic models. The environmentalists only know their respective watersheds or animal habitats. The bankers want to finance the projects they have experience with. Each niche seeks to influence a project toward its own goals using its own skill set, and this leads to a preference for a system that can be easily dissected and quantified.

This is an interesting thought: could specialization of professions and expertise into tight niches lead to the specialization of urban land use into separately demarcated zones?

Steve Hardy, of the blog Creative Generalist, explains the need for people who can synthesize ideas and facilitate a cross-pollination between the various specialties. From his manifesto:

"Nothing substitutes depth of analysis and there’s proven value in the methodical and incremental process of specialization—it’s what education, career paths, scientific research, and technological innovation are built on—but generalism is the hidden talent, the missing link. With so much complex information, that is fragmented in so many ways and developing faster and faster, it is increasingly important to have generalists around to make sense of it all. People who appreciate diversity, who are in the know about the wider world, and who understand how things interact are invaluable observers, matchmakers, and pioneers of the inteeconomy."

Is this the role the planner?

Thursday, September 20

An open space bond at work

New West has been running a series of stories about how Missoula's open space bond is being used. In the most recent installment:

"It's not just for treasured viewsheds like the hills around Missoula. Traditional agricultural and timber lands -- working lands -- protect Montana's heritage, too."

The story is about the Hayes' family farm, sitting on a location in the Blackfoot valley that may be enticing to developers. Money from the open space bond is being used to purchase the development rights for the farm, ensuring that the property will never be sold and subdivided into separate parcels. It can only reasonably be maintained as a working farm.

This has the feel of a win-win situation. The family gets relief from the constant pressure to give up their legacy of farming, which goes back to 1887, and the wider community benefits from the maintenance of the rural landscape. A true success. The only challenge left to Missoula is to find an affordable place to put those people who would have moved onto the land. Open space and urban density are two sides to the same coin.

Tuesday, September 18

The farmer's market fixture

Missoula's thriving farmer's market has been our Saturday morning entertainment and food scavenging ever since I've lived here. I sometimes imagine a juxtaposition of the outdoor market and the standard supermarket. On one side is the hard florescent lights, the tinny Bee-gees song in the background, the constant assault of flashy marketing, the check-out line tabloids. On the other side is the sunlight, the local street musician, the vibrant colors of the arranged produce, and plenty of quick conversations with friends. That's not to mention the quality of the food itself.

Farmer's markets are growing in popularity around the country, with about an 18% increase in quantity in the last 10 years. And many folks are finding that the local market, contrary to established wisdom, is not necessarily the more expensive option. The economy-of-scale advantage of the supermarket is offset by the lack of the local farmer's "value-added" elements (processing, packaging, marketing, distributing). Jen and I probably do end up spending more at the farmers market, but it's cash so we don't really keep track of it. And I'm reminded of the benefits by the pork ribs currently stewing in the oven.

It's great to see the resurgence of this most ancient fixture of city life, that original connection between the urban world and the countryside that sustains it. Its organically formed system of commerce will hopefully never be fully replaced.

Sunday, September 16

Bicycles are Not Transportation ...

and neither is walking.

So says U.S. Secretary of the Transportation, Mary Peters, who claimed that bike paths and trails were partially to blame for the Minneapolis bridge collapse last month. Here's the transcript of the PBS NewsHour appearance.

I have to jump on the bandwagon with this one, even if the bloggers and various transportation organizations have been all over this for weeks. I spent a half an hour reading through the blog search results for "Mary Peters" and I could not find a single voice of support. Why the (obviously contrived) attack on alternative transportation? One would think a transportation secretary would want to support practices that spare congestion and save infrastructure costs.

A article from a couple of days ago theorizes about what could be behind this:

Peters is on a campaign to quash the idea of raising the gas tax, as she editorialized recently in the Washington Post. A key proponent of raising the gas tax to fund bridge restorations in the wake of the Minneapolis bridge collapse is Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, who has advocated for bike and pedestrian paths in his district. By putting a culture-war spin on the bridge collapse, Peters is hoping to run his gas tax proposal off the road.

Friday, September 14

Confronting my inner NIMBY

From what I read, anyone involved in land use planning butts heads with the ubiquitous NIMBYs over and over again. NIMBYs (not in my backyard) are folks who may agree with a certain project in principle, but will fight tooth and nail to place that project somewhere else; anywhere else. For example, a homeowners' association may oppose the placing of a charitable group home in their neighborhood, fearing that it could lower property values and sully the "character of the environment." Last month residents in a posh British locale did just that to a proposed house for soldiers recovering from war casualties. Not a good PR move, as it turned out.

But it's not just the unusual requests that stir up controversy. In a survey last year, the Saint Consulting group found that "73% of all Americans oppose new development in their communities." That's why so many of us can wax poetically about the spiritually degrading suburban sprawl and we all nod our heads in approval. But what do we really want? We want enough sprawl to justify our own living situation, but not quite so much that we have to share it with others. We'd rather have that preserved woodland abutting our property than another damn suburbanite. That's why we escaped the city in the first place!

In my more cynical and depressing moments I wonder how much of the political steam for many good endeavors - conservation easements, smart growth regulations, open space bonds - comes from these motivations.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant, in all his hyper-rational glory, famously suggested that morality rests on the principle of duty: "act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law." This is the first expression of what he called the Categorical (for everything) Imperative (do it). Kant poses the question to us NIMBYs: what if everyone succeeded in pushing out these necessary services from their immediate surroundings. You don't want a water treatment plant, but do you want treated water. I chose to approach this from Kant because it lends this simple principle an air of sophistication, but I could have just as easily gone with Jesus (or your grandmother): "do to others as you would have them do to you."

This is harder than it looks.

I want to keep this in mind as I pursue a vision for what our built environment can look like. Sustainable, equitable, beautiful - all of that good stuff means precisely nothing if I am personally not willing to shoulder my share of the burden when it unfolds in reality. I'm convinced that the major obstacle that lies before creating the types of communities we all want lies in the individual human heart, not primarily in our social and political machinations.

Wednesday, September 12

Doing something about Missoula's growth

Missoula is an attractive mountain town and people are moving in ... lots of people. While this is an inevitable reality, the question of how to accommodate this growth is pretty controversial. Up to this point, Missoula has pretty much accepted the standard practice of creating sprawling low-density subdivisions. There is still plenty of rural land stretching west of town toward Frenchtown, but it's starting to become clear that this pattern is not sustainable in the long term. Nor does it maintain the local charm that drives people here in the first place.

The Missoulian ran a story today about the difficulties local planners face in providing enough housing for the influx, and housing people can afford, without the undesirable consequences of sprawl.

From the article:

"There are few places inside the city limits that provide enough space for multiple single-family homes anymore, Millar said. Missoula is bursting at the seams in that respect. So, developers are building in the green fields in the urban fringe.

One option is encouraging a mix of housing products such as condos and townhomes, Millar said. That could prevent Missoula from encroaching as quickly on Frenchtown and Lolo.

Millar foresees a potential struggle when it comes to defining what is considered “the country.”

Where sewer lines are extended to outlying areas, local planners intend to allow developers to pack more homes into subdivisions. That means areas many Montanans for considered “the country” will now be the city."

I can't say I understand all of the politics involved in Missoula's planning, but the impression that I get from the article is that city officials feel a vague distaste for "sprawl" yet they are not really willing to do anything about it. There is a difference between speculating about options for encouraging density and pursuing those options, especially when the clock is ticking all of the time.

Book: Home From Nowhere

By James Howard Kunstler. Home from Nowhere: Remaking our Everyday World for the 21st Century is a continuation of his ground-breaking attack on American suburbs, Geography of Nowhere. It's intended to add some constructive hope to his previous scathing critique. I like how Eric Jacobsen describes Kunstler. He's the "raving prophet of the New Urbanist movement." The fact that he is an unaffiliated writer, without any clients or voters to appease, gives him the flexibility to made audacious pronouncements. A true voice in the wilderness.

Summary: America has become a "theme park" nation. Instead of creating worthwhile places in which to live, we have opted to use our wealth to paint a superficial veneer in order to mask our unhappiness. Because our cities were associated with the dirty industrial revolution and undesirable people, Americans sought to escape from this reality either to a prototypical "little cabin in the woods" or to an "English manor." We have given up on the common good, and its physical manifestation in the public realm. We no longer think of ourselves as citizens but as consumers.

The automobile was expected to usher in an era of freedom, but really it enslaved us to itself. Car ownership is required for first-class citizenship, and the poor, children, elderly, and disabled are automatically dependent. Technological progress does not always live up to its expectations. Often spiritual and social costs, which cannot be quantified, are ignored. Some states are starting to reform their transportation policies.

We yearn for an organic connectivity with the world and a chronological connectivity to our tradition. The suburbs mimic, but inevitably destroy, these desires. Moral and aesthetic relativism, popular with intellectuals in the 60's, has effectively relegated all decisions to mass-market consumption. Age-old principles for human-scale architecture are replaced by analytical modernist theory. Vibrant neighborhoods are cut up by single-use zoning. Family life is diminished by being isolated from the wider community.

There is a way out. Communities should have diverse uses mingled together, manage growth carefully, build a consensus on principles for civic art, provide a seamless interaction between public and private space, increase density and affordability, simplify laws, and take tradition seriously. Sooner or later, economic forces will mandate many aspects of this organization anyway.

These changes are happening in some places. Seaside, in Florida, has become a model, although it is a decidedly resort community. DPZ and other architectural firms are building New Urbanist communities throughout the country, and they are finding them to be financially successful. Unfortunately, many of these projects are greenfield developments, built from scratch, but that is only because the status quo in existing urban areas is protected by impenetrable bureaucracies and resident NIMBYs (not in my backyard). Hopefully, local governments can be reformed.

Livable communities can range in size from Saratoga Springs to Manhattan. The revival of our traditional urban areas can provide a model for our future urban development.

Engagement: This book can certainly feel fragmented and a touch hyperbolic, but in my opinion, that only contributes to its rhetorical power. Kunstler considers himself a "prose artist." He is not writing a step-by-step architectural manual, but rather painting a broad picture intended to evoke a sense of disgust for what we have made and hope for what is possible. Trying to categorize him into our neat Left and Right camps is a maddening exercise (believe me, I tried). He is at once a self-sufficient populist railing against government regulations, and a visionary seeking to reinforce the common good. Sometimes in the same page!

I think his vision is the right one, even if it may take folks with a more pragmatic inclination to actually get us there.

Tuesday, September 11

Marriage of Town and Country

Thomas Sharp, a prominent British town planner in the early 20th Century, delighted in smaller compact towns that were scattered around the countryside. Throughout the years, he watched these country towns begin to disintegrate, as many of the residents wanted to merge pastoral ideals into the center of urban life.

I love this tirade of his against "hermaphroditic beastliness" (insert an enraged British accent as you read this):

"The town, long since degraded, is now being annihilated by a flabby, shoddy, romantic nature-worship. That romantic nature-worship is destroying also the object of it's adoration, the countryside. Both are being destroyed. The one age-long certainty, the antithesis of town and country, is already breaking down. Two diametrically opposed, dramatically contrasting, inevitable types of beauty are being displaced by one drab, revolting neutrality. Rural influences neutralize the town. Urban influences neutralize the country. In a few years all will be neutrality. The strong, masculine vitality of the town; the softer beauty, the richness, the fruitfulness of that mother of men, the countryside, will be debased into one, sterile hermaphroditic beastliness."

Sharp goes on to consider the relationship between town and country as a marriage, unified and mutually reinforcing yet kept distinct and diverse at the same time. A unity in diversity.

If you happened to be inclined toward archaic theological disputes like I am, you could also consider this admixture a reflection of the Monarchianism heresy. Just throwing it out there.

Monday, September 10

Against Smart Growth

I'm seeing the name Wendell Cox of the organization Demographia pop up here and there as an ardent opponent to "smart growth" and public transportation. He lays out a few of his arguments in a recent op-ed piece in the Toronto Star. I'm not yet persuaded by them, but I've always found well-focused antagonism to be more helpful than nice platitudes when it comes to forming an opinion about something.

Here are two of his points ...

1. "Smart growth" is driven by elitist ideology and enforced by government regulations, which stifle the free market. Regular people should get to choose where they want to live.

A blogger at 295Bus writes in response:

"While [Cox] may portray himself as a type of less-government/less-spending conservative, like many conservatives, he's pretty selective in what spending and what regulation he criticizes. He apparently sees no contradiction between opposing subsidies for transit while lobbying for handouts for highways. And whatever merits there may be to his criticisms of growth limits in this article, he is most vocal, in fact relentless, in attacking "smart growh" regulations such as Portland's--rather than the zoning that actually produces scarcity of housing, that which enforces low-density sprawl, and prohibits the kind of efficient land use that can boost the supply of housing units."

So, both sides use government regulations and need government funding. Sprawling suburbs are not necessarily the "choice" of the invisible hand of the market. In fact, this blogger goes on to speculate that perhaps if all regulations were actually abolished (roads became toll roads, for example) public transportation may actually flourish, and with that smart growth would follow. That's an interesting thought experiment.

2. Condensed urban neighborhoods may produce an even higher level of greenhouse gas emissions per capita than lower-density suburbs do.

This assertion is based on a study from the University of Sydney (presented in this web page). However, Brenden of the blog Where casts some doubt about whether this data can be used to support Cox's thesis.

"If this seems counterintuitive, that's probably because the findings are slanted. It is true that Inner Sydney has the highest per capita output of GHG, but there is no mention of the fact that a huge chunk of this area is taken up by office towers, which consume massive amounts of energy for heating and cooling, thousands of acres of fluorescent lighting, and other energy-consuming systems that often continue running long after employees have left for the night. Being the central business district, Inner Sydney is also the destination of much of the auto traffic that originates in the surrounding sprawl. Outside the CBD, other neighborhoods include other offices and large tracts of industrial land (and factories are often very large producers of GHGs) that are much less likely to take up space in more far-flung areas."

The Toronto Star also printed a counter-point position from Mark Winfield, a professor at York University.

Thursday, September 6

Book: The City: a Global History

By Joel Kotkin. I wanted a bird's-eye-view history of urban development. The City: a Global History seemed to be the best starting point, and it didn't hurt that it was packed into 160 pages.

Summary: Throughout history three forces have worked together to form the city: "the sacred, the secure, and the busy." The earliest cities from every culture were centered around a temple and reinforced by a shared religious belief system. As imperial powers emerged, the sacred space was shifted from various smaller city-states to a central megacity. Babylon was the first case of this. The imperial power brought military protection to the city, which allowed it to flourish.

Finally, cities established themselves as centers of commerce, acting as trading and shipping hubs. Rome became the archetype city, and it's immense population forced the intentional creation of urban infrastructure and order. Rome eventually fell because of decadence and the lack of a cohesive moral vision.

By the 7th century, cities in the vast Islamic world began to rise. Islam itself has its roots in Muhammad's urban development and proved to be a catalyst for further city-building. At the same time, Chinese cities grew as important administrative capitals.

The Italian renaissance mixed the classical Roman philosophy with an intense focus on commerce. Western cities were revived. Eventually national capitals (Paris) replaced city-states (Venice) as the most powerful cities. Colonial expansion greatly increased the wealth and size of several European cities.

The industrial revolution in England and later in the U.S. spawned explosive growth of cities based on mass production. New York quickly became a global commerce center, and because of its geographical barriers it grew upward to accommodate a dense population. The horrific conditions of these industrial cities created a backlash against city life in general. Those who could afford to moved out to the periphery. Suburbanization was later accelerated by technological advances in transportation.

Millions of people in the developing world are moving into cities, but these metropolises don't have the economy to support them. The exceptions are various cities in East Asia.

Engagement: Kotkin contends that the three principles of urban growth are universal. A city must be a sacred place, offer physical protection, and have a thriving economy. He suggests that the first point has been lost. Cities lack a religious and moral core. They have become ephemeral, obsessed with fads and entertainment. He essentially calls for a civil religion, much like Rousseau had, to provide a common moral structure. The trouble is that he does not provide much guidance, beyond hinting at some enlightenment ideals, for how to do this in a pluralistic culture. Furthermore, it isn't clear to me that a pragmatic civic religion can be truly transcendent at the same time.

This prescription, however, does make sense:

"A busy city must be more than a construct of diversions for an essential nomadic population. It requires an engaged and committed citizenry with a long-term financial and familial stake in the metropolis."

There is one glaring omission in this book. There is very little mention of the environmental impact of city planning. Kotkin sees the ideal of suburban home-ownership as universal to human nature, but he doesn't question whether suburbanization is a sustainable trend.

Tuesday, September 4

Finding a Walkable Neighbohood

The web site Walk Score offers a great resource for selecting walkable neighborhoods to live in. They tap into the Google maps engine to find the proximity of various activities - the nearest grocery store, coffee shop, park, school - to your house. It then calculates a score, based on how accessible these places may be by foot. The creators admit to several imperfections in simply plugging a bunch of distances into a formula, but it is certainly a good starting point.

Here's how they define a walkable neighborhood,

A center: Walkable neighborhoods have a discernable center, whether it's a shopping district, a main street, or a public space.
Density: The neighborhood is dense enough for local businesses to flourish and for public transportation to be cost effective.
Mixed income, mixed use: Housing is provided for everyone who works in the neighborhood: young and old, singles and families, rich and poor. Businesses and residences are located near each other.
Parks and public space: There are plenty of public places to gather and play.
Accessibility: The neighborhood is accessible to everyone and has wheelchair access, plenty of benches with shade, sidewalks on all streets, etc.
Well connected, speed controlled streets: Streets form a connected grid that improves traffic by providing many routes to any destination. Streets are narrow to control speed, and shaded by trees to protect pedestrians.
Pedestrian-centric design: Buildings are placed close to the street to cater to foot traffic, with parking lots relegated to the back.
Close schools and workplaces: Schools and workplaces are close enough that most residents can walk from their homes.

The Lower Rattlesnake, where we live, scores a 71 out of 100. Since it doesn't take into account a major highway running through the neighborhood, the score may be artificially inflated. Still, looking at the map, we really do take advantage of many of these assets right around the corner. I do think this may impact any moving decisions.

Saturday, September 1

A Stop on the Tour de Fat

New Belgium Brewery's Tour de Fat came through Missoula today and provided an enjoyable afternoon of crazy bikes and beer. The purpose of the event was to promote bicycle transportation as an environmentally-friendly alternative, and they gave away a free bicycle to my coworker's roommate for agreeing to donate his car and get by without it. All of the alcohol proceeds were given to three local non-profits, Mountain Bike Missoula (recreational bicycling advocates), Free Cycles, and Missoula in Motion.

Where Fires Meet Development

It's still fire season in Montana, a particularly harsh one this year. Before moving here I held to the simple notion, probably instilled in me from the Smokey the Bear of my childhood, that the reason we fought forest fires was to protect the forests. Fires are bad, so we must put them out.

From talking to people around here, I've gathered that I was a few decades behind the curve. It's actually much more complex than that. Fires serve a vital role in replenishing the ecosystem and need to run their course on a cyclical basis. Earlier efforts at absolute suppression made matters worse by artificially allowing for the build-up of fuel and intensifying the inevitable fire. It turns out that the primary reason we fight fires today is to protect houses and other human structures.

That's great. I know that I want my house protected. But as our cities in the West continue to decentralize, the line between development and forest, called the "wildland-urban interface", continues to grow in size and shape. This tends to stretch the resources for protection pretty thin.

The Missoulian ran this story last week:

"Fighting wildfires will continue to cost the government a billion dollars or more annually as more houses are built in wooded, rural areas, the nation's top forestry official said Wednesday.Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said 8.4 million houses were built in wildfire-prone areas during the 1990s, complicating firefighting efforts and driving costs to a record $1.4 billion last year."

You can't say that's made fire seasons more severe, but you can say unequivocally that it's made firefighting more expensive,” Rey said.The following map is of the wildland-urban interface based on 2000 census data. It's from a University of Wisconsin study. Click on for the full size.
One of the original purposes for the creation of consolidated urban areas was protection. Residents in ancient cities needed to live within city walls or they would be subject to endless raids by bandits or enemy city-states. Since walls could not be strewn willy-nilly all across the landscape, this need for protection encouraged higher density.

Today in North America we hardly have to worry about bandits hiding deep within the forests. But we are still not without need for protection.