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September 13, 2013 5:15 pm
We like to think we are free agents, entitled to some individual expression in our built environment. But if world history is one long stumble towards emancipation, are planned cities – the imposition of urban order in which a single design process dictates the pattern of our lives – really a good idea? Do we need our cities to be organised along functional lines, so that they better organise us? Or do good plans end up being fatally compromised by our whims?
It is a pressing question. According to Kent Larson, director of the Changing Places initiative at the MIT Media Lab in the US, 300m Chinese people will move to cities over the next 15 years, meaning the equivalent of the entire infrastructure of the US will need to be built. Ninety years ago, when “modern” was coal smoke, the telephone, and a few trundling Model T Fords, the influential architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) said: “Modern life demands, and is waiting for, a new kind of plan, both for the house and the city.” We are still waiting.
History is on the side of the urban planner. The Chinese Rites of Zhou, from the 3rd century BC, said: “The master craftsman constructs the state capital. He makes a square nine li [9 x 416 metres] on one side; each side has three gates. Within the capital are nine north-south and nine east-west streets. The north-south streets are nine carriage tracks in width.” In 30BC Vitruvius wrote his encyclopedia of planning and building when the Romans built the same town everywhere: a playing card shape with a cross through the middle where the public buildings sat.
So if rigidly planned cities are an ancient concept, what should the modern city form be today? More geometry and measurement for its own sake, or a radical concept suited to a more technocratic lifestyle?
A young Le Corbusier was certain of the value of formal planning to impose order, as “the design of cities was too important to be left to the citizens”. And there are some surprising consistencies in planned cities that suggest a planned order timelessly suits the human condition.
Compare Winchelsea in Sussex, laid out in 1288, and Manhattan of c.1807-11. Both have a grid of streets: Winchelsea’s seven “avenues” are five fewer than Manhattan’s. But its blocks were numbered east to west, as Manhattan’s avenues were, and bounded by a watery ditch to each side in lieu of the Hudson and East Rivers: both depended on their docks for trade.
At the heart of both grids is greenery. Winchelsea churchyard offers a place for reflection, where the living encounter the dead, which is pretty much Central Park’s reputation after dusk. And Winchelsea’s Hogtrough Lane leads to the Monday Market in the south, its “meatpacking district”. That the friary of the Franciscans – an international religious order established for peacemaking – was more or less equivalent to where the UN building sits on 1st Avenue might well be stretching it, especially since poverty was embraced by the Franciscans as a solution. But you get the point.
Le Corbusier said of New York “a hundred times have I thought: New York is a catastrophe, and 50 times: it is a beautiful catastrophe”. The catastrophe, for him, was a vertical one: that the horizontal order on paper gave way to a skyline expressive of the chaotic boom and bust of the free market. (The current world leader in vertical banality is of course London, the “City of Glazed Expressions”). It wasn’t an objection to skyscrapers. His “Plan Voisin” for Paris of 1925 envisaged tearing down the city’s outmoded historic centre from Le Marais to the Place Vendôme, and replacing it all with uniform residential tower blocks arrayed like North Korean troops. The roads between the units allowed the freedom of expression that the car could afford, should you wish to commute, or perhaps flee. Though it was never built, the US lapped up the concept: it had the space to commit to mid-century modernity on its own terms. Russia liked it even more.
The problem, we all know, is that modernity changes as disconcertingly as Miley Cyrus at an awards ceremony, and cities planned around cars are going nowhere fast. Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasília is a case in point: as an adherent to the Corbusian vision, Niemeyer designed a series of beautifully sculpted civic buildings for the new capital city, opened in 1960. Today, the huge squares and boulevards are generally absent of people, who live in the suburbs. The problem is that a civic centre is not a city. Brasília is a stage of superhuman scale, a place for people in suits in the daylight hours, before they commute home to the fringes for bars, beds, boutiques, and a place to belong. The city’s population has dwarfed expectations fivefold and the suburbs – and slums – continue to grow.
Planning can only anticipate so much, and Brasília is young. So order cannot be the whole picture. In the evolution of any city, people will impose their will and assert their needs. Services just have to be updated to cope. London was a useful experiment in people power. When it burnt in 1666, a grand plan of boulevards was dreamt up by Sir Christopher Wren. It was not his best work. But it never stood a chance, as the citizens quickly rebuilt houses within their old boundaries while private speculators developed plots for profit. The result is a city still defined by its twisting medieval streets, offering constant surprise in the juxtaposition of grandeur and intimate details. Many enjoy living within its linked metro villages, me included.
Should we leave it to people to build where they like, and trust that patterns of city life will gain a dynamic logic of their own? The problem then is one of unchecked sprawl, in an age of industrialised construction. A paper in the World Applied Sciences Journal of 2010 using 50 years of aerial and satellite imagery over Isfahan in Iran vividly revealed an ancient pattern of land grab. Within a loose planning regime, agricultural land and common gardens were gradually absorbed by a growing population hungry for residential land. But a precise photographic record of organic growth over time can offer insights for a research-led approach to modern planning that better understands patterns of settlement.
So how is liberty to be expressed in the 21st-century city? Smart thinking is moving toward a more generous melding of geometry and greenery. When Le Corbusier was still in short trousers, the Garden City movement sprang up in leafy Letchworth, Hertfordshire. Ebenezer Howard’s theories provided for a smokeless, slumless city of 250,000 (his “version No. 7”), which allows neither topography nor human nature to interfere with its rigidly prescribed circuits. But the verdant terminology of the suburbs, like “Rurisville” spelt in medieval type, hint at the city meets nature. For established cities, a Garden City retrofit is occasionally possible. In Phoenix, Arizona, the empty plots held by investors have left a doughnut hole in the middle of an immense sprawling grid. Now they are being turned into pop-up gardens, while vacant bank buildings have become restaurants serving local produce. In Seoul, a major road has been turned into a canal basin, a place where people want to walk and cycle, freeing congestion and encouraging passing trade.
Some of the new cities in China are being conceived on these lines. Shenzhen – where the population exploded from 30,000 in 1989 to 14m in 2010 – is to be a trial “eco-city” covering 250 sq km. This new Garden City concept involves design consultation with communities, mini-green belts to break up sprawl into “compact urban cells” linked via arterial footpaths and cycleways allowing a low-pollution, high engagement life that considers responsible energy use and economies of space. Yet the smartest plan cannot anticipate what people may want in the future, or how technology will change. So compromise must be expected, if it cannot be inbuilt.
Le Corbusier himself had to admit the modern world would have to compromise his grand visions. “You know, it is life that is right and the architect who is wrong,” he said in 1948. And life is complex. But it seems to me there are certain principles that hold: we need urban order for efficiency, and regulations to protect what is commonly held valuable. Even so, a sense of belonging comes from the subtle patterns that everyday life imposes. And you can only encourage that – you can’t impose it.
Dr Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain
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