Bigger Isn’t Better
For most of human history, cities were remarkably small by today’s standards. This does not mean they were never populous. Ancient Rome at its peak had a million inhabitants, but its land footprint was almost unfathomably modest compared to what we would expect of a city of a million (say, Jacksonville) today.
This wasn’t because our ancestors culturally prized small spaces more than we do. It was, rather, for a pragmatic reason: because people walked. Everything you needed for life had to be accessible on foot in a reasonable amount of time.
With space at such a premium, it was almost never wasted. In fact, throughout history, wasting land has often been the primary way that the rich flaunt their wealth. Grassy lawns became a status symbol in Europe for this reason.
Design that maximizes delight per acre—resulting in towns rich in sensory detail, intrigue, and serendipity—is an adaptation to the reality of a world in which many people want to occupy the same small area of land. It makes such living arrangements not only tolerable but appealing. Cities prior to modern sanitation could be nasty places in some respects, but the efforts of their inhabitants to make them delightful anyway are still in evidence.
Mass car ownership has resulted in a radical experiment in abandoning these efforts. Cars completely blow up the relationship of urban scale to the size of our bodies and the range of our senses. We can now travel from interesting place to interesting place with little concern for all the uninteresting (as far as we need know or care) places we’re zooming by.