Humanity in city planning; Jane Jacobs
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 17 February 2016)

Lurking in the shadow of every building in the modern world there's a fierce argument about how it came to be the way it is. Theories clash, careers flourish and then die, and young architects never cease to believe they can do it better than their predecessors. The victories and defeats in these Oedipal struggles are as crucial to humanity as the political campaigns to which we give far more attention.

Architectural movements are usually discussed one at a time, mainly by the adherents of a single approach. Wade Graham, a Los Angeles designer and cultural historian, sets out to consider several of the main trends in one book, Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas that Shape the World (HarperCollins). He's written a skeptical account of high hopes and large disappointments but he delivers a fair assessment of how each dream was born and why it seemed promising for a time.

He describes, for instance, the modern imitations of the ancient world. He calls that style the Romantic City, relating it to the Mediterranean colours and forms he saw around his home when he was growing up in Santa Barbara. He traces that style to a trip made in 1901 by Bertram Goodhue, an accomplished architect who toured the Middle East and imported its images to create what became the California style.

Graham outlines Le Corbusier's concrete slabs-in-apark, Frank Lloyd Wright's version of the suburbs and the Techno-Ecological City promoted by Kenzo Tange in Japan. Within that last group he includes Montreal's Expo 67 for Moshe Safdie's stacked apartments in Habitat and Buckminster Fuller's geodesic U.S. pavilion.

These powerful styles, widely publicized and praised, become so embedded in the conventional wisdom that architects and builders sometimes unconsciously copy them. As John Maynard Keynes said about his profession, "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

The present tense in Graham's title, Shape the World, indicates that most of the theories he's studied are still in use, often in a degraded form. People visiting China sometimes remark that the Chinese kept building poor imitations of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's modernist buildings long after they were discarded in their birthplace, the United States.

The heroine of Graham's story is Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), the greatest adopted Canadian intellectual ever, who brought an original mind and a warm heart to this subject and sorted it out better than anyone before or since. She's often been praised, deservedly, but rarely with the all-encompassing passion that Graham brings to her work.

She was the first writer who applied a critical intelligence to the failures of town planning. By the time she studied it, in the 1950s, the planning of cities was a tragedy of good intentions carelessly applied.

Planners came to believe that cities needed to be rethought from the beginning. Districts that were "blighted" should be torn down and replaced by logical constructions imagined by architects and planners in the name of Urban Renewal.

The new versions, as any architect could explain, would include tower blocks of apartments surrounded by large spaces devoted to parkland or schools. But Jacobs, who never went to university or studied planning, saw the results obtained by professionals who were blinded by theory. The empty spaces they planned turned out to be barren landscapes that people avoided as much as possible. The tower blocks were crimeridden, usually called "the projects" and widely hated. These were the best that the best brains in planning and government could produce.

Where did these monstrosities come from? Jacobs singled out a major villain, Ebenezer Howard, the Englishman who founded the Garden City movement. He dreamt of Utopian projects that would create environments in which people lived harmoniously with trees and flowers. He felt that would reduce the alienation of humans from nature.

Jacobs decided that Howard's many followers disliked streets and density and were therefore against cities. They considered the presence of many people "a necessary evil." They favoured isolation and suburban privacy. She argued against Howard's most dedicated advocate, Lewis Mumford. He had fallen for a Utopian dream that never existed or could exist in cities. Mumford replied condescendingly that she wasn't trained in the field. But that was her great advantage.

She saw that successful streets were created through the trial-and-error accretion of human experience. They are self-organizing, growing organically like a coral reef building over time. They do not divide functions into separate zones, like so many town plans. They put work, housing, play, shopping, nightlife all in roughly one place. They may need help now and then but they do not need to be obliterated for the crime of being "blighted."

A writer in the New York Times noted recently that in the war of ideas over the future of cities Jacobs brought down Utopian city planning, "armed only with a typewriter and a pair of eyes."

A resident of Greenwich Village, Jacobs saved her own community and others when she defeated the "slum clearance" plans of Robert Moses and his proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have cut through several districts.

Later, when she and her husband moved to Canada so that their sons could avoid the Vietnam War, Jacobs saved her Toronto district, the Annex, by inspiring the movement to cancel the Spadina Expressway.

Wade Graham's Dream Cities describes how easily many of us can be persuaded to approve misguided plans when they are presented by professionals with the proper credentials. The career of Jane Jacobs illustrates how much we need the humane understanding of original thinkers.

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