Yesterday, The New York Times informed us: “Urban planning is in vogue — again.”
Yes! It’s true! Cities are B-A-C-K!
Here’s the thing though—they never left.
In the second half of the twentieth century, cities got a bad rap. In the United States, suburbs became all the rage after World War II. The tangible American dream as we know it today, and as it has been for over fifty years, is owning a single family home, a car, and not much else.
Levittown, N.Y., a mass-produced suburb on Long Island farmland, completed in 1948. Via: NYT.
Much to the chagrin of urban visionaries worldwide, other countries followed suit, and over the past half-century, American-style suburbs have popped-up everywhere from Colombia to China. There has been a global boom car-ownership and rampant sprawl, and walkability and density fell by the wayside in popular thinking.
Sprawl in Tigre, Argentina. Via: elinmobiliario.
But in the meantime, urban visionaries kept rethinking the space and functionality of the city (not just Bucky Fuller, heralded in this Times article, who is a genius, but not the only genius). Urbanists are experimental, they have to be by nature—the city is a constantly changing, conflict-ridden, chaotic organism.
Bucky Fuller's Geodesic dome at the U.S. Pavilion for the 1967 World’s Fair, in Montreal. Via: NYT.
Of course there were blunders. There are mistakes in anything that involves applying ideas to reality. Planning is the fundamental challenge facing cities – how can new elements be successfully introduced into the urban environment without causing a breakdown of pre-existing and often delicate ecologies?
Build a stadium or train station or shopping center or a new apartment building, and suddenly layers of seemingly solid infrastructure have demands made on them that cannot be met (hello Atlantic Yards!). It’s all seemingly much more complicated than just building up a whole new community in an open field. Less negotiation needed.
Even as suburbs became the norm, cities still persisted. In the United States, they shrank, become poorer, endured urban riots, and a neglectful federal government. Cities were not in vogue as their wealthy taxpayers left in droves and urban renewal projects destroyed perfectly decent, often historically valued—although perhaps only post-mortem—neighborhoods and landmarks.
LeCorbusier's design for a Radiant City. Via: Wesleyan.
And all the while, our oft-misunderstood pals Le Corbusier and RoMo were coming up with what seemed to them (and many others) like great ideas—tower in the park, huge public housing projects, massive highways through the center of the city, crazy master plans. While the glamour of car culture was being extolled, urban activists and critics were fighting these ideas, which threatened to destroy the vitality and livability in the city.
In her groundbreaking book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," Jane Jacobs harshly criticized both RoMo and LeCorbu. Via: Janeswalk.
Urban planning as we know it emerged while cities were not in vogue. What architects, designers, preservationists, and even everyone else values about the city, says about the city, thinks about the city was shaped by he showdowns between Jane Jacobs vs Moses and Robert Mumford vs Le Corbusier, whether we are aware of it or not.
As the twenty-first century enters its second decade, more than fifty percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas. (We'll take the UNDP's word on it.) Now, after decades, people other than these urban visionaries are thinking about the city again. It turns out the suburbs are isolated and unsustainable. Quel surprise.
And urban planners everywhere are voguing.