As a child I had aspirations to become an architect and perhaps even an urban planner. I was especially captivated by an article in the May, 1960, issue of National Geographic titled, Brasilia: Metropolis Made to Order, about the newly inaugurated capital city of Brazil, the brainchild of President Juscelino Kubitschek, who sought to move his country’s population away from the thickly settled coastal region. I admired the illustrations of the modern-looking buildings set amid the spacious plains of Brazil’s interior. Designed by urban planner LÃºcio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer (who died last year at the age of 104), the new capital’s public buildings were impressive, giving an aura of a vigorous adolescent finally coming of age as a great nation. I imagined that Brazilians were experiencing something of the pioneer spirit that had motivated Americans to settle their own interior a century earlier, and I found it inspiring. Brazil was the land of the future, and it now had a seat of government to match its larger-than-life ambitions.
There was just one problem: Brasilia is a walker’s nightmare, boasting one of the highest rates in the world of traffic accidents involving pedestrians. It is virtually impossible to get anywhere on foot, as the distances between destinations are too great, and so are the dangers to life and limb of trying to get there. Having admired Costa’s and Niemeyer’s handiwork for so long, I eventually came to understand the drawbacks of planning an urban centre from the top-down, with its flashy expressions of artistic modernism but with little sense of what it takes to build a genuine human community.
It had all been done before, of course. The fourth-century Emperor, Constantine I, moved the capital of his empire from Rome to the town of Byzantium on the Bosphoros, which he rechristened Constantinople and rebuilt on a grand scale. At the turn of the eighteenth century, Russia’s first emperor, Peter I “the Great,” constructed St. Petersburg at the mouth of the River Neva on land recently captured from Sweden. One hundred years later, Americans opened their new capital city of Washington, whose architecture was modelled on Greek and Roman patterns, befitting the outsized dreams of a new colossus assuming the ancient imperial mantle in a new continent.
Indeed, planned cities have an irresistible appeal to many. First, they carry with them the prestige of modernity with its promise of conquering nature through technocratic means. The prospect of constructing a new city along rational lines—with roads, buildings, public parks, and monuments laid out according to scientific standards—sounds like a good idea, especially when the alternative seems to be chaotic patterns of settlement, spread haphazardly over the landscape, with shantytowns springing up at its periphery, grinding poverty a perennial problem, and traffic clogging the often-narrow streets. If we begin anew, we can be sure to banish all of the foibles that accompany so much of the human project simply by excluding them from our plan. If we can only manage to come up with the right recipe, we will create de novo the good life in the good community.
Second, an imperial ruler typically covets a capital with impressive monuments to his own claimed glorious exploits, as well as broad boulevards to accommodate his parades and processions. Even a revolutionary junta thrives on spacious thoroughfares, if only to be able to make a show of strength before a cowed populace by filling them with military equipment and personnel.
These factors are undoubtedly what motivated Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who became Emperor Napoléon III in 1852, to remake Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century. For this monumental task he called upon his Prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, better known (though not altogether accurately) as Baron Haussmann, who would finally realize the goals set by the revolutionaries of 1789. As reconstructed by Haussmann, the French capital came to take on its current shape, so familiar to foreign tourists during the twentieth century and after. The old medieval city, with its cramped alleyways and crowded and unsanitary living conditions, was deemed unsuited to a progressive nation attempting anew to assert its position in European and global affairs. The result would have a profound effect on urban planners around the world in the next century.
The new Paris was characterized by wide boulevards connecting several prominent landmarks, including the Arc de Triomphe, the Place de la Concorde, the Louvre and, after 1889, the Eiffel Tower. This was not exactly the grid pattern that would come to define the layout of American cities west of the Appalachians. Parisian boulevards resembled great spokes extending outwards from these central points. Huge swaths of the city were ploughed under and replaced by the typical five- to seven-storey buildings in which Parisians were henceforth to be housed and whose lower levels contained the shops and cafés for which the French capital has become famous in the intervening decades.
As we might expect, Haussmann’s Paris had its detractors, even at the time. The Dutch Christian statesman Abraham Kuyper decried the artificial uniformity imposed autocratically on the city, much preferring bottom-up organic development of urban life. Indeed, “the modern spirit of Haussmann . . . violates even the consecrated soil of Montmartre to run a straight line through the circular pattern of its boulevards. . . . All the poetry of our cities vanishes, all the quaint gables disappear. The plasterer’s trowel covers up in grey the white panes around the red bricks, and before long all diversity has been removed.” Haussmann’s reshaping of Paris might be viewed as a dark precursor to the totalitarian politics—or, better, antipolitics—of the twentieth century. If a municipal government arrogates to itself the right to uproot longstanding settled communities in the interest of building a better city, it is effectively going well beyond the normative task of government to do justice in the context of ordinary human diversity, ill-advisedly taking on the gigantic project of remaking social life as a whole, a conceit Kuyper traced back to the French Revolution.
Nevertheless, Haussmann’s vision captivated American architect Daniel Burnham, who, along with landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead, had planned the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. In 1909, Burnham, with the support of the Commercial Club of Chicago, published the Plan of Chicago, an ambitious effort to capture the imaginations of, not so much ordinary Chicagoans, but the city’s political, social, and financial Ã©lites. So influential was this plan that it even made it into the hands of President William Howard Taft. Its vision was bold: to refashion the city into a Paris on the prairies, with symmetrical lines, wide avenues, and monuments sufficiently worthy of a world-class metropolis. The Plan was never implemented in its entirety, and one might argue that it could never be put into effect, given the realities on the ground. Yet its major features were indeed realized in subsequent decades. The Chicago River was indeed straightened south of the central business district, known to one and all as “the Loop.” Michigan Avenue was extended across the river to Pine Street to become a Parisian-style boulevard lined with trees and upscale stores. A lakefront park was indeed built on landfill extending down to Jackson Park, site of the 1893 fair. The Chicago River was spanned by bridges and lined by a cut stone embankment reminiscent of the treatment given the Seine.
The crowning achievement of the plan was to be a broad boulevard extending west from Congress Street culminating in an impressive civic centre with somewhat narrower boulevards radiating outward in all directions. The civic centre was to feature a monumental dome reaching upward. Not quite a skyscraper, it would nevertheless be visible from a distance, as the surrounding buildings were to be the massive horizontal structures resembling those of Haussmann’s Paris rather than the vertical buildings actually taking shape in the Windy City. The roman-style dome would give the civic centre the feel of the Capitol building in Washington, DC., with its allusions to Roman grandeur.
This never came about, at least not as visualized by Burnham and the Plan‘s chief illustrators, Fernand Janin and Jules Guerin. Nearly half a century later Congress Street was indeed extended westward, but not as a Parisian-style boulevard. Instead it took the form of the first of the great expressways that would connect Chicago to its burgeoning suburbs in the years following the end of the Second World War. As the Chicago Tribune‘s Gary Washburn observes, the expressway came at the expense of $183 million, hundreds of buildings in the right-of-way, 3,000 graves that had to be moved, and a tunnel through the city’s main post office. The expressway further led to the premature death of a perfectly good electric rail line used by commuters from the turn of the century. Neighbourhoods were bisected, mostly for the convenience, not of long-time residents of Chicago, but for the new army of suburbanites fleeing for the surrounding bedroom communities but continuing to pursue their livelihoods in the city. In a final irony, the site of Burnham’s proposed civic centre became the Circle Interchange, popularly known as “Spaghetti Junction,” connecting four expressways in a complicated pattern of overlapping on- and off-ramps.
As for the city’s neighbourhoods, many of which were divided by the expressways, they were never quite the same again. Chicago’s south and west sides in particular deteriorated into ghettos trapping an urban underclass in dysfunctional communities plagued by crime and poverty. More than seedy and dilapidated, these neighbourhoods were positively dangerous for residents and outsiders alike. Why? Not because the people themselves were necessarily worse than their predecessors who had fled for the suburbs, but largely because misguided efforts at urban renewal and rational planning had run afoul of living communities, with all of their seemingly backward prejudices, social mores, untidy open-air markets, and self-policing mechanisms, which had maintained order from as far back as the early nineteenth century.
In their place came planned housing developments, such as the notorious Cabrini-Green, which, despite the best intentions of the Chicago Housing Authority, quickly became a breeding ground for criminal activity. As Jane Jacobs reminds us in her 1961 book about American cities, good housing and good schools cannot by themselves produce good behaviour and vital community. Indeed, residents were no longer interdependent in the way they once were; they were now isolated in their apartments, fearing even to use the stairwells, and dependent on, well, the Chicago Housing Authority and the police! Neighbourhood solidarity had been supplanted by a plethora of patron-client relationships exacerbated by mutual fear. In the meantime, just short of a mile to the west lay the Kennedy Expressway, speeding those who could afford them to their homes in the comfortable suburbs north and west of the city, taking their property taxes with them, to the detriment of the city’s social and physical infrastructure.
What went wrong? The causes, as everyone knows, were multiple and complex. Nevertheless, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that local, state, and federal governments suffered from more than a mild bout of hubris, stemming in large measure from a failure to recognize a rather basic distinction to which I called attention some years ago, namely, that between two meanings of our word city. The first definition is a political one: the city is “a municipality, a differentiated, explicitly political subcommunity within the larger body politic.” As such the city is responsible for those tasks related to maintaining public order, protecting life and property, and possibly for performing a number of public services, such as garbage collection and basic infrastructure maintenance. The political city may have a mayor or city manager, a city council, police and fire departments, and other municipal offices called to specific tasks of service to the public.
The second definition is a more broadly human one: a city is “a multifaceted network of local, differentiated communities—a community of communities—defying easy identification along social, economic, political or religious lines.” It includes neighbourhood associations, little league teams, church congregations, small businesses, labour unions, revolving credit associations, chambers of commerce, museums, schools and universities, symphony orchestras, and a wide variety of other social forms collectively labelled civil society. These are tied together by a dense network of largely unspoken customs and mores. New York City is considerably more than its municipal government; it is a cultural centre for the eastern seaboard of the United States, boasting a plethora of activities and communities all of which partake of a peculiarly “New Yorkish” character.
The political city cannot ultimately create the human city, and if it pretends to do so, it will likely exacerbate the very ills it attempts to heal. Moreover, sometimes the human city manages to develop its own vitality around and despite the plans of the political city. James C. Scott completes for us the story of Brasilia by observing that the candangos, the manual labourers brought in to construct the new capital city, unexpectedly claimed their own share of the living space as squatters, developing an unplanned human city that would eventually come to house three-quarters of Brasilia’s people. This “real Brasilia” was quite different from the austere and colourless planned Brasilia envisioned by political leaders to house the country’s administrative elites.
The lesson to be learned is not that the political city should refrain from planning. There will always be a need for good sanitation systems, public parks, monuments, transportation infrastructures, libraries, and similar common spaces enriching urban life. Yet the political city will always occupy only a portion of the total human city, whose welfare it can never presume to guarantee by itself, though it can certainly do much to encourage within the constraints of its own proper sphere of competence. It can do so only by facilitating rather than attempting to control the full potential of the human city in all of its diverse manifestations.