Plan of La Mancha
Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century, by Peter Hall, Boston: Basil Blackwell, 480 pages, $37.95
What is it about "planning" that brings out the worst instincts in some of the best minds?
As Peter Hall notes in Cities of Tomorrow, the concept of "land-use planning" has been around a long time. The pharaohs were planners when they built the pyramids. Louis XIV was constructing a "new town" when he broke ground at Versailles. In fact, planning seems to work best with highly centralized, authoritarian regimes. The Nazis were great planners. Hitler was still reviewing Albert Speer's models for the new Berlin as he headed for the bunker.
Once in a great while, a visionary mind looks at a swamp or tenement district and conceives a grand design that changes the way people think and live. Chicago architect Daniel Burnham's revival of Pierre L'Enfant's original Washington, Baron Haussman's broad-avenued Paris, Frederick Lewis Olmstead's Central Park, Burnham's own design of Chicago's Grant Park—all are landscapes and cityscapes that are imprinted in our hearts.
Yet municipal planning, as it is practiced today, is an exercise in redundancy. As Hall puts it: "Somehow, everything must be watched; nothing must be allowed simply to 'happen.' No house can be allowed to be commonplace in the way that things just are commonplace; each project must be weighed and planned, and approved, and only then built, and only after that discovered to be commonplace at all."
Modern planning arose out of the conviction that the private market could not provide decent housing. Nineteenth-century reformers, appalled by slums, drew up plans for "garden cities" in which the poor would live in comfortable, self-sustaining communities ringing the cities. Ebenezer Howard, the English visionary who started the idea, actually managed to get a few garden cities built in his lifetime. They never became self-sustaining, however, and were quickly absorbed by the suburbs.
Patrick Geddes, another eccentric Englishman, is the "father of modern planning" and source of the notion that all urban development should be directed by generalists schooled in the arts. "Survey before plan" was Geddes's dictum, and he spent hours pacing the rooftops of Edinburgh, trying to figure out which way the city should grow next.
When brought back to earth, however, Geddes's observations often proved a bit more commonplace. After taking a flat in Edinburgh, he enthused how he and his wife had discovered "flower-boxes for dull windows and color-washing for even duller walls (than which there is no better, no simpler, and no brighter beginnings for city improvements)."
At its worst, planning imposes the visions of the politically powerful on an unwilling public. At its best, it pushes the market where it is already going anyway. All of the numerous planned communities—Radburn, New Jersey; Forest Hill Garden in Queens; Garden City, Long Island—began as social experiments where rich and poor would live in foreordained harmony. All attracted only the affluent and eccentric and ended up as pricey suburbs.
Without popular or financial support, planners usually move from one administrative level to another, hoping to find some unmanned vantage point from which they can dictate policy. Lewis Mumford helped found the New York Regional Planning Association in the hope of drawing a line around New York's outward growth. Mostly he produced unread volumes of unheeded recommendations. Yet Robert Moses—to whom Mumford was spiritual kin—used the same regional vantage point to redesign New York City's landscape.
It's rarely a matter of architecture, only of ego. Le Corbusier (his real name was Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) couldn't just design buildings. He had to imagine a whole new industrial society in which houses were "machines that people live in." When his dreams were finally realized in high-rise public housing, it proved to be a disaster. (The problem was that the poor, with many children and few recreational outlets, cannot be piled in large buildings as painlessly as can the rich, who have cars and summer homes with which to escape.)
"The greatest architects have all been failures," Hall quotes one astute critic. Only Frank Lloyd Wright's "Broadacre City," proposed in the 1920s, showed any tolerance for the landscape people seem to prefer—"suburban sprawl."
Even then, it was Wright's own social maunderings that predominated. As critic Herbert Muschamp wrote: "[W]hen all the Whitmanesque windbag rhetoric extolling the pioneer spirit is swept away, what remains is a society constructed upon the strict hierarchical principle…: a government of architecture, a society in which the architect is granted ultimate executive power.…It is easy to view Broadacre as proof that within every self-styled individualist is a dictator longing to break free."
The question at the heart of planning, then, is why do we have planners at all? The very concept implies that people who build parks or carve out suburban subdivisions aren't planning themselves. They are—and when they do, their microdecisions usually combine into a mosaic that is far more vital, imaginative, and interesting than the phantasmagorias of the master builders. The world's best monument to urban planning may be the broad boulevards of North Korea, magnificent to behold but completely devoid of people or cars.
Hall—who claims credit for the idea of enterprise zones—is a planner with a healthy sense of skepticism. While sharing some of the enthusiasms, he also understands the limitations. For every Grant Park or Capitol Mall, there are 100 sterile urban renewal zones. For every Champs Elysées, there are a dozen British or Swedish "new towns" in which "national planning" has deprived millions of what they want most—a small, detached, suburban home.
Planning? Zoning? Couldn't we just limit it to "Parks and Recreation"?
Contributing Editor William Tucker is the author of The Excluded Americans, Progress and Privilege and Vigilante.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Plan of La Mancha".