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"The Space-Time-Money Continuum"

by National Building Museum curator Susan Piedmont-Palladino

Susan Piedmont Palladino

Well, that was easy. Get rid of a car and pocket eight grand. Feel better? If only it were that simple.

It doesn’t work that way, of course, because none of us is a statistic. We are each entangled in our own complex circumstances, taking exception to every generalization. Besides, you’re not just going to curl up and stay at home once you’ve shed a car. You still have to get around, so some of that money is going to go to bus, subway, moped, bike, bike-sharing, car-sharing, roller blades, taxis, new shoes, and outerwear.

Let’s see where that money can go: $8,485 spread over a year gives you $707 more money each month. For your alternate wheels and outerwear, let’s take back $10 per day. You’ve still got a bit over $400 and that can buy a lot of space. Literally. Add that to your rent or mortgage and maybe you can increase your living space. Or, you can pay down the distance between you and the places you like to go. Move closer to a transit stop, or to a neighborhood with more things to do. When you buy space—distance, really—you get time for free. Buy one, get one. Buy space, get time. Now, the grocery store is around the corner, not around the Beltway. The hair salon is next door, not in the next county. The movie theater is a 10 minute walk, not a 10 mile drive. But, what you’re really buying are choices. Simple, right? Hardly.

Your city has been making decisions for you for a long time. Those decisions have led to this point: You’re standing in your driveway, keys in hand, wondering why you don’t seem to have a choice. You need socks or cereal. You want to see a movie with a friend. Each of those mundane tasks seems to require a journey of some distance. Why are these things so separated? For reasons that once seemed perfectly logical, if not always benign, we have separated, segregated, and compartmentalized our cities over the last 100 years. The late 19th century city gave us beautiful buildings, but the city itself during the industrial era was a crowded and unhealthy place. It also gave birth to planning, a new profession dedicated to taming the industrial city.

Space, time, and money have a complex relationship to one another in the modern world. If time is money, and space is time, is space also money? And what does that really mean? What does it mean to say that the movie theater is “10 minutes away”? At a roaring 60 miles per hour, that would be 10 miles. A 10 minute walk at a brisk urbanite pace takes you from the National Building Museum to the E Street Cinema. Google claims that same journey will only take 4 minutes in a car, but you wouldn’t want to miss the opening scenes betting on it. In rush hour traffic it can take 10 minutes to go one block. Time is money is space.

For a long time in human history we were either in the city or outside of the city. And where we were wasn’t always our choice. We now have more choices about where to live, work, shop, play, and worship than our ancestors could have imagined. There’s no longer a clear inside or outside. The walls came down a long time ago. Do we even know how to define “the city” anymore? Do we know one when we see it? Our technologies have only further manipulated space and time but now they also illuminate and can show us the costs and consequences. The end of the 19th century is still echoing, but the industrial city has the potential to transform into the Intelligent City.


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Submitted by Anonymous at: August 22, 2011
This is a fantastic brief on a complex issue. You've boiled down the essential issues without using jargon or bias. As a DC-based architect, I'm sick of the many design professionals railroading the conversation - to the exclusion of laypeople, who are living out these choices! You've shown that this elitist behavior is not necessary and these issues are common to all of our lives. Great piece! I will surely share.
Submitted by Anonymous at: February 22, 2011
I think we are more or less buying choices as you have put it. Our decisions to buy is based on a choice of convenience over the need to buy it. This is an interesting topic
Submitted by Anonymous at: February 13, 2011
Thank you for your great suggestion to explore the connection between car use & poverty. The Center for Neighborhood Technology has created some fantastic research connecting housing & transportation costs that gets to this larger economic issue. Keep the suggestions coming!
Submitted by Anonymous at: February 11, 2011
The fact has to be faced that in e-terms the city is obsolete The reasons for it, having been the centralization of all resources and amenities has ended with the Information Age. All that can be done is to patch the existing ones up. The model has to change for the developing world - as they are not sustainable socially or economically
Submitted by Anonymous at: February 11, 2011
This is the new realistic Rural Renewal Imperative from King Zwelethini : “Our Vision is for KwaZulu-Natal to be to South Africa what California is the United States - an economy in its own right - not more just building houses - but creating New Rural Towns that are community-based with the renewal of appropriate Conservation Agriculture" For more details contact
Submitted by Anonymous at: February 7, 2011
@Anonymous, you've made an important point about transportation equity. It isn't merely a "lifestyle" issue. The financial burden of keeping a car in working order falls most heavily on the working poor. Furthermore, the lack of other viable transportation options in too many municipalities also marginalizes the elderly, the young, and those medically unable to drive.
Submitted by Anonymous at: February 6, 2011
Perhaps a follow up with regards to car usage and poverty? What is the baseline cost of car ownership and how does that interfere with cities and schools trying to grapple with endemic poverty.

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