Machine Space Table of Contents | Urban and Economic Geography Working Group | The Virtual Geography Department

Introduction to the Research Problem

You are to consider how much of a city's built environment is claimed by machine space (space which is set aside exclusively for the care and use of machines). Much of an urban area's built environment is, for example, devoted almost exclusively to use by automobiles, buses, and trucks. Streets, parking lots, driveways, and loading ramps occupy well over half of all surface area in some parts of the city. But other machines and equipment occupy -- and dominate -- other space as well. Cooling towers for ventilation systems take up a notable amount of space, as does equipment needed to maintain telephone, electrical, water, and wastewater systems. Most people fail to perceive how much of the urban environment is given over to machines. Yet, machine space has tremendous effects. The concrete and asphalt used to pave streets and parking lots can change the microenvironment of the city. Average urban temperatures rise (the heat island effect) and concentrations of dust and particulates in the air increase. These changes are sometimes powerful enought to change patterns of precipitation over some cities. Machine space also adds to the impervious cover that alters the flow of rainwater through the urban ecological system. Finally, machine space can be a source of pollution as runoff and wind sweep hydrocarbons, chemicals, and other pollutants into the water and air.

Your task is to explore how much of the urban built environment is occupied by machine space and whether the amount of machine space is correlated with landuse and distance from the center of the city. The map to the right illustrates how you will present the data you gather. It presents a small section of Austin, Texas, zoned for single-family housing. The shaded areas designate machine space in that neighborhood.

The Concept of Machine Space

The concept of Machine Space was introduced by Ronald Horvath in a 1974 Geographical Review article. According to Horvath, ". . . technology has been viewed largely as an aspatial phenomenon, and one of the major tasks here will be to translate technology into explicitly spatial terms. If geographers are to participate more fully in planning and monitoring future technological growth, explicit recognition of the spatial dimensions of technological change will be necessary. Machine space, or territory devoted primarily to the use of machines, shall be so designated when machines have priority over people in the use of territory. Automobile territory in modern American cities exemplifies the concept of machine space." (Horvath 1974, 167-168).
Between 1950 and 1970 one of the key spatial expressions of technological change was the rapid expansion of the Interstate Highway system and other improved roads. During this time the number of automobiles in the United States grew very rapidly. It is estimated that in 1950 there was 1 car for every 6 Americans. By 1970 that ratio had grown to nearly 1 car for every 2 people. At the same time, the number of highway deaths also grew significantly. Horvath's article appeared at a time when pedestrian spaces were being expropriated by cars. Machine Space was increasing at the expense of people space.

The degree to which the urban environment is given over the machines varies according to the predominant land-use. Residential areas tend to have less machine space -- industrial areas, more. But, all machine space is impermiable cover. The amount of machine space in a city has implications for air and water quality, as well as the quality of life in the city.

Effects of Urbanization on Environment: An Overview by Kenneth E. Foote and Katrin E. Molch

The interaction between society and environment is a fundamental theme of much geographical research. Cities are an excellent place to study these interactions. The process of urbanization results in large numbers of people gathering in relatively small areas. There the effects of habitation are concentrated and focused. Human effects on the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere are often so pronounced that cities can be said to create their own environments. They do this in a number of ways:

1) Effects on the Atmosphere and Climate

Cities create their own environments and, as they do so, they exert powerful effects on the atmosphere and climate. Among the most important of these are:

2) Effects on the Lithosphere and Land Resources

Urbanization has similar effects on land resources. Natural land cover is disturbed as cities are built leading to:

The first picture shows the University of Texas at Austin as seen from the Capitol before 1895. On the second picture a part of the University of Texas campus and downtown Austin as it is today can be seen.

3) Effects on the Hydrosphere and Water Resources

Urbanization has a great effect on hydrology, for a number of reasons.

Click here to see examples of flood damage in Austin.

Click here to see examples of flood control measures in Austin.

Click here to see examples of pollution of Austin rivers.

5) The Interaction of Effects

One of the most interesting aspects of these processes is that they interact to reinforce one another. Atmosphere disturbances caused by urban activities increase precipitation, which increases erosion, which carries more sediment into river channels. Disturbances of land can cause disturbances of aquatic environments and increased levels of dust in the atmosphere. These cyclic and cumulative effects mean that urban ecological relations can become particularly complex. One change leads to another and another in a complicated, spiraling series of feedback loops.

6) How These Effects Develop

Sometimes it is easy to see how urbanization shapes the environment, particularly in peripheral areas were large suburban developments may consume hundreds of acres per year. But the impacts of urbanization begin early. Sometimes, the period of initial urban settlement produces the most radical changes in watersheds as tracts of land are cleared for the first time. Encroachment continues long beyond initial settlement as an almost continuous process. These maps of "machine space" show how the area of impermeable surfaces increases through time.

Click here to see examples of encroachment of Austin rivers and streams.

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Created 10/30/96 by Shannon Crum. Last updated 10/30/96 by slc.