Urban Planning: Urgent Necessity or Dangerous Distraction?

Today's Guardian has a story that describes the urban mega-city as "the greatest design challenge" of our time. Given the numbers that ...
by | April 2, 2010

Today's Guardian has a story that describes the urban mega-city as "the greatest design challenge" of our time. Given the numbers that author Justin McGuirk cites, notably the UN's recent prediction that three-quarters of the world's population will live in cities by 2050 -- slum cities like Kinshasa or Karachi, where most of these accommodations will be built from scratch -- it's hard to disagree with some of his larger points. (Although New Urbanists certainly won't accept that their creations are "escapist fantasies designed by people who hated cities.")

Yet at the same time McGuirk is summoning designers to think about how "we [can] create cities that are not just containers for tightly-packed populations, but pleasant and equitable places to live," architectural historian Witold Rybcyznski sounds a different note on the online publication Slate. Breaking with the conventional wisdom (and with Obama administration urban "czar" Adolfo Carrión Jr.), Rybczynski warns against the cult of the "smart plan." Instead, he praises the accomplishments of what he sees as the forces that have turned around so many American cities "private organizations such as park conservancies, downtown associations, historic-preservation societies, arts councils, advocacy groups, and urban universities," as well as, who could forget them?, private developers.

"The simple truth," writes Rybcyznski, "is that successful city-building is less about big moves and more about perseverance and day-to-day management. 

In the present economic downturn--as tax revenues diminish and cities face fewer jobs, no new construction, fewer tourists, fewer conventions, and less state funding--older cities will struggle to repair and replace aging infrastructure, and new cities will be challenged to maintain their growth. Talk of economic stimulus packages raises the temptation to undertake large publicly planned projects again. This temptation should be resisted. The lessons of the last 50 years should not be forgotten. To rephrase that great city planner, Daniel H. Burnham, make no big plans, only many small ones.

John Buntin
John Buntin  |  staff writer
jbuntin@governing.com  | 

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from View