I enjoyed a podcast in which poet John O'Donohue chuckles at an old story about a bank robber. When asked, "Why do you rob banks?" the robber says: "Because that's where all the money is." O'Donohue goes on...
Why do you read books? Because that's where all the wisdom is.
One of the books assigned to me in grad school was Cities of Tomorrow by Peter Hall. There were a handful of chapters and excerpts deemed required reading, but the whole book was recommended. Virtually the whole library was recommended actually, so you have to prioritize and make tough reading choices as a student. Anyway, I remember opening this book and being shocked to realize it was not only a page-turner, but quite funny. Peter Hall's writing was so beautiful to me that I caved and bought my own copy of the book in order to read it more leisurely and mark it up. I have been reading it, clearly leisurely, since.
Humbled by History
Sometimes I'll stare at awful buildings that sit on the grave of decent old ones and think, "How did that happen?" Or I'll facepalm at our road system and wonder, "Could they not do math or give an ounce of thought to human behaviour?"
It is tempting to do this because I like to think that I have learned from all of our mistakes in the past and that my hindsight is 20-20.
Reading this book, which guides you through the schools of thought and obsessions de jour in city-building throughout the ages, it's clear that everything we think today has been thought before. And everything we've thought before is still alive in little nuggets of contemporary discourse. You see the contrails of different historical theories criss-crossing our own body of knowledge and practice. And when you examine each historical obsession in its context, you can kind of see where they are coming from. We may not agree with practice of the past, but you can follow their logic to an extent. And yet, our retrospective critiques were tossed around even in the heyday of each movement. Plenty of folks thought Corbusier was trouble back in the day, they just lost the battle. And so the only way forward is humility, to know that you could be just as wrong as everyone else.
Finding myself in the past
The chapter list of Cities of Tomorrow gives a quick snapshot of urban development history (mostly of the Northern Hemisphere - by no means comprehensive globally):
- Cities of Imagination - Alternative Visions of the Good City, 1880–1987
- The City of Dreadful Night - Reactions to the Nineteenth-Century Slum City: London, Paris, Berlin, New York, 1880–1900
- The City of By-Pass Variegated - The Mass Transit Suburb: London, Paris, Berlin, New York, 1900–1940
- The City in the Garden - The Garden-City Solution: London, Paris, Berlin, New York, 1900–1940
- The City in the Region - The Birth of Regional Planning: Edinburgh, New York, London, 1900–1940
- The City of Monuments - The City Beautiful Movement: Chicago, New Delhi, Berlin, Moscow, 1900–1945
- The City of Towers - The Corbusian Radiant City: Paris, Chandigarh, Brasília, London, St Louis, 1920–1970
- The City of Sweat Equity - The Autonomous Community: Edinburgh, Indore, Lima, Berkeley, Macclesfield, 1890–1987
- The City on the Highway - The Automobile Suburb: Long Island, Wisconsin, Los Angeles, Paris, 1930–1987
- The City of Theory - Planning and the Academy: Philadelphia, Manchester, California, Paris, 1955–1987
- The City of Enterprise - Planning Turned Upside Down: Baltimore, Hong Kong, London, 1975–2000
- The City of the Tarnished Belle Époque - Infocities and Informationless Ghettos: New York, London, Tokyo, 1990–2010
- The City of the Permanent Underclass - The Enduring Slum: Chicago, St Louis, London, 1920–2011
Each chapter dives into the people, ideas, and milieu that drove each movement in city-building. Each chapter follows the arc of an idea from conception, to development, to hype, to experimentation, to critique, to failure, to moving on. I've been trying to place my own city-building philosophy (influenced by Strong Towns and much more) in historical counterparts. I want to know in what other context these ideas emerged, who led them, how, and how it turned out.
I didn't see much reflection of my ideas until The City of Sweat Equity. This chapter explores the stability of self-built environments such as Brazil's favelas and Lima's barriadas. It follows Patrick Geddes to India and watches him open a can of whoop-ass on imperialist over-engineering:
He immediately began to criticize the practice of driving wide roads through traditional quarters.
He wrote: "Since drains are for cities, not cities for drains, Town Planning cannot but reverse the customary procedure for Engineering, and begin with the general problem of City Improvement, though with drainage of course one of its many factors." The engineer's approach led to absurdities like provision of water-closets that cost twice as much as the cost of the houses.
Of course it did not endear him to engineers. Nor did his insistence that their road widenings and clearances were mostly unecessary.
In the City of Sweat Equity, we hear Jane Jacobs and Richard Sennett lambasting top-down planning in favour of the organic and messy approach of traditional neighbourhoods. The challenge of that sweat equity coming from "yuppies" and "gentrifiers" is introduced, but left to interpretation. Finally, we meet pioneers of "community architecture," à la Christopher Alexander in which locals drive the design and construction of the housing they want with assistance from pros.
I was waiting for the big reveal of how this great idea of Sweat Equity turned out to be a massive, irreparable mistake. It never arrived, although the chapter detailed some flops and warned that the technique was most successful for the working class and up, not the poorest among us. In the historical context, this was not a solution so much as something that managed not to spiral into a black hole of egoism and self-destruction.
The City of Sweat Equity was one of the only chapters that didn't end horribly or follow an idea into the hands of tyrants. It's not a perfect philosophy match or a universal theory on how to build strong, fair, beautiful cities, but it's a start. I'm routinely reminded that my ideas and revelations are in fact old news, and I take heart in that. What I wonder now is why have these ideas not gained more ground? Is it just because this is a messy, chaotic, unpredictable approach to "planning," and not at all profitable to the power-hungry? Can this method serve and include people living in deep poverty? I need to do more research.
A version of this article was originally posted on Strong Towns.