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The city and the plan

Throughout history the vast majority of people have lived and worked in the countryside. However the various industrial revolutions of the last 200 years have gradually reversed this pattern, propelling more and more people into the expanding cities and newly built towns; and now for the first time the majority of humanity lives in an urban environment. This ranges all the way from appalling slums and shantytowns through spacious well-planned suburbs and modern inner-city housing to the new vision of the eco-city. Much thought is necessarily being devoted to this phenomenon, and the question of how we can make urban dwelling a healthy and socially positive experience is inspiring architects and town planners all around the world.

It is appropriate at this point to recognize that city planning is not a recent invention; it has existed in some form or other since human beings started to live together in large settlements. The ancient conurbations of the Indus Valley, particularly the twin cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa dating from around 2000 BC, show evidence that the streets and smaller alleyways were laid down before the actual buildings were constructed. Although most of the cities in Europe grew up organically around a cathedral or castle and a city hall, there are still notable instances where city planning supervened – London after the great fire of 1666 is one good example.

In the nineteenth century, the combination of mass migration into the cities all over Europe and the US with little or no municipal control over housing gave rise to huge problems of squalor and disease that was epidemic in proportion. This problem was eventually addressed by public health acts that, in Britain for example, mandated the supply of clean water to every dwelling and the construction of an effective sewage disposal system.

This was the political environment in nineteenth century Britain in which a remarkable idea took root. The philanthropist Ebenezer Howard had seen the devastatingly unhealthy social and medical effects that slums had on the people who were condemned to live in them; he also noted the lack of social, educational and artistic facilities of small rural settlements. These observations led him to develop the concept of the Garden City. The purpose was to create a living environment which combines the benefits of living in the countryside with the benefits of living in a town, while offsetting the negative features of both. A Garden City would have spacious boulevards radiating out from the centre. The houses would be of a high quality but affordable and would have sizeable gardens in which people could, for example, grow their own vegetables. Moreover, it would be limited in size and be surrounded by a belt of undeveloped land. He believed that such cities would be the perfect blend of city and nature. They would be managed and financed by the citizens who had an economic interest in them. Powerful support and financial backing enabled Howard’s idea to gain its first manifestation in 1903 as Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire, England.

Following the end of the First World War, the idea really began to take hold and we can find examples of suburbs built along these lines at Kapyla in Helsinki, Finland, Orechovka in Prague, the Czech Republic, and Denenchofu in Tokyo, Japan; while Colonel Light Gardens in Adelaide is considered the most complete and representative example of a garden suburb in Australia.

However, after the Second World War, many housing developments, particularly in America, took the form of urban sprawl. Major characteristics of this are discontinuity of community, increasing distance between home and work, and huge dependence on the motorcar. So it is not surprising to find from the 1960s onwards a movement away from dysfunctional sprawl into a new vision for urban dwelling.

The developer, Robert Simon, planned and built the city of Reston Virginia in the early 60s, taking a number of elements from the Garden City movement, including a buffer of parkland surrounding the city and 10 acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents. Simon’s goals for the new city included high standards for structural and natural beauty, as well as opportunities for living and working in the same community. Today Reston is considered a model utopian suburb and its central plan is a blend of urban activity with country beauty.

Then, after another period of dormancy, the idea of building idealized communities was re-born in the early 1980s as “New Urbanism”. This movement emphasized liveable, walkable communities that utilize mass transit and the more intelligent use and re-use of previously developed buildings and land. One of the motivating powers behind it was the pioneering work of Jane Jacobs.

Born in 1916, she moved to New York in the middle of the Great Depression. In spells of unemployment, she explored New York on foot and became fascinated by the hustle and bustle and the sheer variety of the city’s life. Later, she said that this period in her life taught her a lot about how a city really works, and the social-economic dynamic it radiates. She confronted what she saw as the stupidity and arrogance of the “top-down” planners with their grandiose schemes. “Cities”, she said, “have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”. Jane Jacobs saw cities as living entities and ecosystems. She suggested that over time, buildings, streets and neighbourhoods function as dynamic organisms, changing in response to how people interact with them. She advocated “mixed-use” urban development – the integration of different building types and uses, whether residential or commercial, old or new. According to this idea, cities depend on a diversity of buildings, residences, businesses and other non-residential uses, as well as people of different ages using areas at different times of day, to create community vitality. She saw cities as being “organic, spontaneous, and untidy,” and viewed the intermingling of city uses and users as crucial to economic and urban development.

In broad agreement with Jane Jacobs on the importance of mixing different types of activities within neighbourhoods is the work of Christopher Alexander, whose work has a definite spiritual note. He also agrees with her on the importance of people themselves being given much more control over the process of designing what gets built in their neighbourhood. Indeed, his theory of urban design,1 arrived at through collaboration with colleagues and tested in simulation by his students, is fundamentally concerned with the process of healing communities, so that every building and every open space makes a positive contribution to the wholeness of the community. His theory therefore challenges the existing ways in which zoning, planning, economics and land ownership currently work, and is fundamentally concerned with the creation of right human relations. His magnum opus, the four-volume The Nature of Order,2 provides a metaphysical and ethical justification for this approach, along with a wealth of examples of cities, buildings and objects that do exhibit this property of wholeness and healing, a property he identifies as life itself. A central theme in his work is that buildings and settlements must unfold in response to, and in close relationship with, what surrounds them. This idea of unfolding, of respecting the inner ‘self’ of the settlement, building or object, can be compared with the way in which the soul builds the outer man from within outwards. He proposes that modern development tends to fix the specification of buildings and settlements too early and too exactly, preventing the natural unpredictability which unfolding produces. And he notes that, “the very idea of city images, or plans, and the very idea of city planning as an activity, is itself inherently at odds with the idea of unfolding, and at odds with the idea of the land giving rise gradually, and of its own accord, to natural extended city form.”

Alexander’s perspective is in stark contrast to the old grandiose ideas, which have continued to be supported by powerful interests and governments. In the last four decades, several new cities have been planned and constructed on previously empty sites, and it is instructive to examine two of these to see where problems arise.

Brasília

In 1954, when Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira was elected President, he ordered the design and construction of a new capital city for Brazil. The city was built to house 600,000 people, primarily in superblocks, large apartment buildings, grouped in a very orderly manner. Each group of four superblocks was supposed to serve as a single neighbourhood unit with a church, a secondary school, a cinema, a youth club, and recreation fields, creating a sense of community and making a car unnecessary. The buildings were only six stories high, so that in theory a mother would still be able to call to her child below. In between the superblocks were lower buildings for commercial businesses. Perhaps the most important aspect of these superblocks was that they were intended to be egalitarian, so that people of all income levels could live together and would interact on a personal and classless level. A vast highway network was built to provide access to Brasília from practically everywhere in Brazil.

However the consensus view is that Brasília was largely a failure. It is not thought of very highly by either its own inhabitants or other Brazilians. There is very little casual social interaction in the superblock areas, as there are no convenient meeting places. The city was built for the unrestricted movement of the motorcar, and is therefore without the traditional street corner. There are few opportunities for people to walk anywhere because the city has only superhighways. For a pedestrian to cross these highways is especially dangerous. It is estimated that at least one person a week is killed attempting to cross one, making accident rates five times higher than in North America.

Brasília demonstrates the flaw in the modernist view that an ideal city would produce an ideal society. To quote Paul Forster in Capital of Dreams, "Perhaps if they had taken note of Frank Lloyd Wright, who wrote in 1932 that ‘Architectural values are human values or they are not valuable’, the city would be more suitable for pleasant living rather than efficient working”.

Abuja

Another new purpose built capital city is Abuja in Nigeria, planned and built over the last 30 years. A Nigerian co-worker writes: “Abuja is indeed a well-planned and beautiful city with very good road networks, impressive office buildings and world-class hotels. Unfortunately there are still the perennial power outages. The main city itself provides residential areas for the top class government officials and wealthy business men and women but these are completely out of reach of the majority of the workers who can only afford to live in surrounding suburbs some as far away as 40 km from where they have to commute daily to work in the city. As can be imagined, the roads and other amenities of life in the outlying areas cannot be compared in any way with those in the Abuja City and traffic jams can be very frustrating during the rush hours in the mornings and evenings.” Once again, we see that the car and monumental buildings are effectively being given priority over humane living conditions.

Future Directions

In the 100 years since the beginning of the twentieth century humanity has developed the idea of the garden city and then strayed into the nightmares of tower blocks, shanty towns, the drear of soviet collective flats and capitalist sprawl, and the anti-individuality of inhuman, mechanical cityscapes. Now we have come full circle again and are revisiting the ideas of some of the visionaries cited earlier, with their emphasis on community and respect for nature, this time for reasons of economic, social and now environmental necessity – the new factor that is entering the city equation. We urgently need to make all our environments as sustainable as possible. One result is the concept of the eco-city. As Richard Register remarks: “Is the city for people alone, for their self-referential conversation with themselves and devoid of relationship with the world outside?…We might just catch on too late that we have banished nature from our experience in our cities. Why climate change and why are we hurtling toward an energy crisis of no less than the end of all the available oil the planet could accumulate in 200 million years? For more than any other reason it’s because we have ignored nature as we built cities.”

1. A New Theory of Urban Design by Christopher Alexander, Hajo Neis, Artemis Anninou and Ingrid King. OUP, 1987.

2. The Nature of Order by Christopher Alexander. The Center for Environmental Structure, 2005.