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Is there an urban planning pendulum?

Take a look at this tweet I came across yesterday:


A different way of thinking, a century apart.

— Darren Proulx (@dnproulx)

May 5, 2014


On the left is a picture of some crowded and dense city at, I presume, the turn of the 20th century. And on the right is a picture, today, of your generic suburban city with lots of cars, a broad street and auto-oriented signage everywhere.

As the captions say, the city on the left is what modernist architects like Le Corbusier and powerful city builders like Robert Moses were trying to fix. What we ended up with, as a result of these efforts, is the city on the right. Now, today, we–architects, planners and urbanists–are all trying to correct what we see as a huge misstep in the way we designed and built cities.

But is it really an anomalous misstep or is it simply a preferential pendulum that swings back and forth from generation to generation? One generation thinks cities are dirty and evil and that they need to be evacuated. And then the next generation loves them and wants to move back into them, which is what’s happening today.

Dogma–particularly when it comes to cities–takes a long time to percolate through the system. Le Corbusier was espousing his city building ideals of “towers in parks” in the 1920s. That’s when he proposed to demolish 2 square miles of Paris (Plan Voisin) and turn it into what most people today would think looks like a New York public housing project.

But for these new ideas to take hold, young architects, planners and builders first need to become indoctrinated in school or wherever they’re learning the ropes. Then, they need to get out and start practicing and mature to a point where they’re starting to influence and control substantial city building decisions. That’s why, I think, Le Corbusier’s ideas of the 20s really only became widely accepted as planning principles in the post-war years.

Because of this though, I sometimes wonder if I too am just following the natural cycle of changing tastes. When I went to architecture school, we were taught that public transit is more efficient than private cars, density is good for the environment and for economic development, and that Le Corbusier was generally a crappy city builder. And if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that that is generally the view I take here.

But when I ask myself this question, I think of a few things. First, if you look at the urbanization of ancient cities, they were always organized around strong public spaces. The desire for human beings to be able to walk around, conduct business and socialize with each other is not a new phenomenon. And our post-war planning ideals put a strain on that.

Second, take a look at the world and what’s happening. The majority of people now live in cities and we’re continuing to urbanize at a frenetic pace. Shenzhen in China went from a population of just over 300,000 people in 1979 to over 10.5 million people today. That is the pace of urbanization that city builders need to deal with. It’s unprecedented.

And to even begin to make that manageable, I don’t think we can continue to build cities like the ones on the right side of the picture, above. It’s unsustainable both environmentally and from a mere space planning standpoint. There simply isn’t enough room.

So call me a product of the times, but I just don’t see our current planning goals as one side of a swinging pendulum. I see them as a return to what cities have always been about: a place for people to interact, socialize and generate wealth.

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