Planned Cities

The back and forth between Steve and me about his proposed pedestrian-oriented city led me to think more about planned cities, as his is. Although it’s normal among urbanists (for example, Jane Jacobs) to contrast organic cities with planned cities, there are really two aspects of planned cities, one economic and one design-based.

A city can be planned in terms of its urban design. A master plan came in and created its street layout, which is in some way regular. For the purposes of this discussion, it does not matter whether it was planned according to the principles of the Enlightenment, the Garden City movement, or modernism; however, this city will typically have grander major boulevards than unplanned cities, because they are meant to be the focus of civic and state power. A city can also be planned in terms of its economy and location: it was built out of scratch, typically to serve as a new national capital. Those two aspects of planned cities are more or less independent, and criticisms of one do not always carry over to the other.

We can present this using the following table of examples:

Economically Planned
Economically Organic
Organic Design London, Tokyo, Boston, Rome
Planned, Enlightenment principles Washington, Toronto, St. Petersburg New York, Philadelphia, Paris, Chicago
Planned, Garden City Kuala Lumpur Tel Aviv (Old North)
Planned, modernist/postwar Brasilia Singapore, Mumbai (ex-slums), US Sunbelt, Tel Aviv (north of the Yarkon)

There are several things one should note about the above table. First, there are no economically planned cities with organic design, at least none I’m aware of: a city that exists only because of a national master plan will also have a master plan dictating its urban form. The closest things to it are a preexisting organic city that became larger when the national capital was moved there, for example Rome or Bonn, and a planned city that had some spontaneous development before being subsumed by a master plan, for example St. Petersburg. In fact the reason I found Steve’s proposed city a little weird is that it tries to approximate the features of an unplanned city (very narrow streets) in a setting that is completely planned (the city is plopped in a new rural subdivision).

Second, economically unplanned cities usually have downtown districts with no urban planning, regardless of how the rest of the city looks. This is true in New York (Lower Manhattan), Tel Aviv (Jaffa, pre-1920s Hebrew neighborhoods such as Neve Tzedek), and Singapore (the older parts of the CBD, Chinatown, Little India). When a city has no pockets of unplanned areas, for example Paris, it’s often because the entire city was razed and rebuilt according to a master plan; this is equally true of planned parts of cities, which contain few hints of the areas that were razed to make room for them.

Third, many, though not all, problems that Jacobs and other traditional urbanists associate with planned cities are problems of economic planning and not urban planning. A good example is Jacobs’ attacks on the Garden City movement, in particular Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes, for hating traditional cities. Such an attack could be justified by looking at new suburban subdivisions as well as Kuala Lumpur, built from scratch to be the capital of Malaya.

In contrast, Jacobs’ criticism looks misplaced when one looks at Tel Aviv’s Old North, a dense and walkable neighborhood built entirely according to a master plan specified by Geddes. If you reread my criticisms of Tel Aviv, you’ll see that they are more about what more modern planners have done with it than the Old North’s basic urban form. The urban form is walkable, and the narrow streets are inherently less car-friendly than those of New York or Paris, but the traffic engineers have nonetheless optimized traffic for cars, and the national government rejected a subway in the 1960s for anti-urban nationalist reasons.

In other words, although the urban form of Steve’s Triangle City is likely to be similar to that of Rome, Tokyo, Kyoto, and other unplanned cities, its social and economic characteristics are not. They are more likely to be similar to those of Kuala Lumpur, Brasilia, Washington, and master-planned suburbs.

At the same time, some of the problems of modernism remain true in both planned and unplanned cities. Singapore’s projects and cul-de-sacs are as socially isolating as those of American suburbia. The arterials are not walkable, and the government’s response to huge pedestrian volumes at the intersection of Orchard and Paterson was to construct pedestrian underpasses. The same is true of the newer parts of North Tel Aviv, north of the Yarkon, though the high incomes there prevent the gang problems common in American projects.

Fourth and finally, it is rare but possible for a city built from scratch to become a true import-replacing city, depending on circumstance. Toronto did; although it was built from scratch as Upper Canada’s capital, safely away from the US border, it grew and became Ontario’s primate city, and eventually eclipsed Montreal as Canada’s largest city. The same is true for numerous cities built or designated as imperial capitals before industrialization, e.g. Beijing, Berlin. I cannot tell whether Kuala Lumpur has achieved the same feat, but its size suggests it has. Washington has not – its economy depends almost entirely on government. Master-planned suburbs practically never do.

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15 Responses to Planned Cities

  1. Steve says:

    Dude, I think you’re overthinking this…pot calling the kettle black, I know…

    My goal was always to solve an interesting urban design problem that Charlie from Old Urbanist suggested in the comments. Nothing more, nothing less.

    By the way, while Philadelphia’s grid was initially planned, it was subsequently replicated purely organically. And then a dumbed-down variant replicated itself all across the continent. There was no overarching master-planning process. Just lots of little plans and lots of organic growth.

  2. Benjamin Hemric says:

    Hi Alon, hope you don’t mind me slipping into dialog format as it helps me write more quickly.

    – – – – – – –

    Alon wrote:

    Although it’s normal among urbanists (for example, Jane Jacobs) to contrast organic cities with planned cities, there are really two aspects of planned cities, one economic and one design-based.

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    While economic planning is different from physical planning, I think a greater confusion lies with the term “planning” itself. When someone says they are talking about “planning,” “urban planning” or “planned cities,” what do they really mean EXACTLY? Are people actually using these words in the same way? It seems to me that they aren’t — and that’s a big part of the problem.

    – – – – – – –

    Alon wrote:

    . . . many, though not all, problems that Jacobs and other traditional urbanists associate with planned cities are problems of economic planning and not urban planning. A good example is Jacobs’ attacks on the Garden City movement, in particular Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes, for hating traditional cities . . . . In contrast, Jacobs’ criticism looks misplaced when one looks at Tel Aviv’s Old North, a dense and walkable neighborhood built entirely according to a master plan specified by Geddes.

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    I think this is a greatly mistaken — although not uncommon — misinterpretation of Jane Jacobs’ work. This doesn’t really discuss what Jacobs wrote, said or did, but rather discusses what some people are “saying” Jacobs wrote said or did.

    Essentially, Jacobs was interested in what makes cities thrive and grow or stagnate and decline over time. (Later she wrote about what makes economies thrive and grow or stagnate and decline, and what makes civilizations thrive and grow or stagnate and decline.)

    Plus she was not categorically against of what is often called “planning” — and, in fact, her work often contains alternate prescriptions for what is often called “planning.”

    Her criticisms of Garden Cities weren’t so much about Garden Cities per se, but rather twofold:

    1) The Garden City movement was, essentially, an example of “false advertising” (or, perhaps more precisely, “mindless” thinking). The Garden “City” movement is not a way to solve the the problems of real cities, but rather a way to allow the problems to fester unsolved and a way to offer an alternative to real cities. But it was being offered up, in essence, as a way to solve the urban problems.

    To explain via an analogy with business consulting, imagine if a businessman (a city mayor) asks a business consultant (an urban “planner”) for advice on how to solve the problems that are being caused by too much growth in his business’ (city), and the business consultant (urban “planner”) who actually hates the business of the businessman does the following: instead of directly attempting to solve the businessman’s problems, the consultant (urban planner) attempts to indirectly “solve” the problem by advising a competing company on how to take away business from his client!!! This isn’t solving the problems of cities, but rather an attempt to, more or less, to kill them off!!!

    2) Also, Jacobs is always concerned with how systems (which is how she sees cities) survive OVER TIME. And Jacobs sees Garden Cities as, essentially, static places that aren’t offering a viable alternative to real CITIES.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Thursday, June 30, 2011, 9:40 p.m.

    • Alon Levy says:

      To be honest, I don’t know what Geddes proposed for existing stable cities. But Tel Aviv, whatever it was, was not a stable city. It was a rapidly growing city, in which massive horizontal sprawl was inevitable; for a city the size of Tel Aviv in the 1920s, high-rises were pointless. It had gone from 3,600 people in 1914 to 34,000 in 1925, and subsequently went up to 120,000 by 1936. The application of Garden City planning there was not abolishing the old parts of the city, but developing new parts according to principles that Geddes considered to be natural, for example development along the sea, or building design optimized for hot semi-arid climate (white exterior, flat roofs, balconies, first floor set back farther from the upper floors to provide a shaded walking area).

      The other point is not really a criticism of The Death and Life – it’s more a criticism of both The Economy of Cities and how some people interpreted it. Jacobs attacks planned cities there, especially Brasilia and Washington, poking fun at the idea that one could just build a capital and make it into a great city. The problem is that the criticism then spills over to the urban form, and those two different forms of planning create different issues.

  3. Danny says:

    I’m a little confused as to what you define as economic planning and what you define as urban planning. Admittedly there are blurred lines between what I see as appropriate planning vs inappropriate planning, but I don’t really see them as a dichotomy between economic vs urban.

    Which category would you say that euclidean zoning falls under?

    • Alon Levy says:

      To me, Euclidean zoning is urban planning. Anything that impacts a city’s urban form is urban planning: zoning and other restrictions that are associated with zoning codes (e.g. parking minimums, setbacks), street network, transportation, public housing projects. Economic planning is creating a city from scratch for some political purpose, usually to serve as the new capital. New York has a lot of urban planning (the grid), but it exists because of its good harbor and the industrialization it spawned, including the Erie Canal. In contrast, Washington exists because as part of a political compromise the capital was to be placed in the South, on the border between two states; even today, it doesn’t have much of an economy beyond government and businesses that serve it.

  4. Patrick says:

    Alon, it’s a small point, but why do you call US Sunbelt cities “Planned, modernist/postwar”? Many large Sunbelt cities, say Atlanta, are surrounded by suburbs that look like organic cities designed for the much larger scale of automotive transport, with only a few governmental interventions.

    If you browse the suburbs of Atlanta, you’ll see an unplanned network of older rural roads, expanded and filled in with subdivisions in much the same way that London’s footpaths became streets and filled in with buildings. Atlanta is simply an organic city built for cars.

    What do you think?

    • Nathanael says:

      Atlanta started out economically planned — the city basically existed to house railroad workers — but it has, indeed, grown to be economically organic. Not in a particularly good way.

      This raises an interesting point. A city planned to be the center of government, or of the military, or of education, or of any other single industry, won’t usually develop into anything much…. but a city planned to be a center of *TRANSPORT* will turn into a major city.

      Atlanta had nothing going for it except its location at a railway junction and look where it is now.

      Chicago literally bribed the railroads to go around the edge of the lake rather than stopping at Michigan City or Gary, and that’s why Chicago is the big city and the others aren’t.

      Examples abound.

      • Alon Levy says:

        Cities that arise as junctions aren’t necessarily planned. Go far enough in time, and London and Paris both arose as places where the Romans built a bridge over a river. Even cities that started out as capitals but became much more, for example Tokyo, should go in the unplanned category. The distinction is whether those cities’ growth is predominantly economic or political; junction cities tend to be economic, as they provide services and convenient connections to other regions.

        Chicago grew as a canal town: it occupies a strategic position on the Eastern Continental Divide, and the British and French fought over it in the 18th century. It grew with the railroads and the Midwest, but the original portage is why it even existed to begin with.

  5. Joseph E says:

    Re: Patrick said “Atlanta is simply an organic city built for cars.”

    I don’t think this is true. Atlanta was built up after the advent of zoning laws which specified what each piece of land could be used for, and each subdivision was also planned by the “developer” that built it. And since the 1950’s, many of the houses have been built all at once, by the same builder, in each “neighborhood”.

    Atlanta and other sunbelt cities may not be centrally planned by one designer, but they are not unplanned, “organic”, or market-based.

    • Patrick says:

      Joseph, the analogy is that London’s footpaths are similar to Atlanta’s rural roads and London’s buildings are similar to Atlanta’s subdivisions. One developer designs the whole subdivision, just as one developer builds the whole building. The parts are the same, but at a larger scale.

      It is true that zoning was enacted by the time Atlanta’s suburbs developed, but I don’t think that truly counts as planning, at least in Atlanta’s case. For one thing, zoning in Atlanta primarily serves so solidify the preexisting urban form, rather than prescribing a use or form. It is axiomatic that Atlanta developers get whatever zoning they want, so long as they’re building on undeveloped land.

  6. Benjamin Hemric says:

    Alon wrote [added text with within brackets is mine -- BH]:

    The other point is . . . more a criticism of both “The Economy of Cities” and how some people interpreted it. Jacobs attacks planned cities there, especially Brasilia and Washington, poking fun at the idea that one could just build a capital and make it into a great city. The problem is that the criticism [of planned economies] then spills over to [criticism of] the [planned] urban form, and those two different forms of planning create different issues.

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    Given all the writing you do, it’s understandable that some of it’s going to be somewhat cryptic — thus sometimes it’s hard for me to understand exactly what you are saying. So I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “the other point is.”

    Offhand, I don’t recall Jacobs attacking planned cities, particularly Brasilia and Washington, in the “Economy of Cities.” (I haven’t re-read the book in a while — but I will take a quick look.) But I’d be surprised if she “attacked” or “poked fun” at them in this book, as both were built as capitals and, thus, weren’t even meant to be economic cities in the first place.

    Yes, Jacobs cautioned against (what I would call) “highly planned” cities; and yes, Jacobs cautioned against (what I would call) “highly planned” economies. But I don’t think the criticisms really (unfairly) “spill over” from one to the other. While there are similar bases (sp?) to each criticism, and each area can the other, it seems to me that Jacobs’ criticisms of planned economies and Jacobs’ criticisms of planned cities are really made independently of each other (and are on target), with each being criticized on their own terms (with their own arguments and facts, etc.). (But, as I’ve said, I haven’t reread “Economy of Cities,” in a while — but when I do, I’ll be on the lookout for what you writing about.)

    However, I also think it’s unfair to criticize a writer (any writer) for what other people make of her (or his) work. One should look at what the writer herself/himself wrote, and criticize or praise that — and not look at what she, or he, did NOT actually write. (The other ideas, can, of course, be criticized separately — without linking them, erroneously, to someone who did not actually espouse them.)

    Benjamin Hemric
    Saturday, July 2, 2011, 12:25 a.m.

  7. Benjamin Hemric says:

    Alon wrote [numbering and added text within brackets is mine -- BH]:

    The other point is . . . more a criticism of both “The Economy of Cities” and how some people interpreted it. Jacobs 1) ATTACKS PLANNED CITIES there, especially Brasilia and Washington, 2) POKING FUN at the idea that one could just build a capital and make it into a great city. 3) The problem is that the criticism then spills over to the urban form, and those two different forms of planning create different issues.

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    Last night I took a quick look at “The Economy of Cities” to see what Jacobs had to say about Brasilia and Washington, D.C. This was very easy, as both cities are listed in the index and only a few pages are mentioned — the pages relevant to this discussion are actually only two, 138 and 141: Brasilia, 141; Washington, D.C., 138 and 141. (Page numbers are from a 1969 hardcover edition of the book.)

    After reading these pages and also skimming the chapter that they are contained in, again I have to say that it seems to me that Jacobs work is being seriously misunderstood (and thus misrepresented).

    In the first place, although Jacobs has expressed caution in her writings (somewhere) and interviews about planned economies, “The Economy of Cities” is NOT really a work concerned with a discussion of planned vs. unplanned economies. The focus of Jacobs’ concern in this book is rather on actually understanding (in a deep way) how economies (unplanned) work in the first place, and why some economies grow and thrive and others stagnate and decay over time (i.e., systems analysis). Chapter headings include titles such as “How New Work Begins,” “How Cities Start Growing,” “How Large Cities Generate Exports,” “Capital for City Economic Development,” etc.

    The pages in question are in the chapter “How Cities Start Growing” and in a section (“Specious ‘Causes’ of City Growth”) devoted to dispelling some myths about why and how cities grow. One of the myths that Jacobs wants to dispel is that the naming of a city as a capital of a country will necessarily make it grow into a great city.

    Jane Jacobs wrote [capitalized added emphasis is mine -- BH]:

    “At the time Washington [D.C.] was designated to be the capital of the young United States, Americans seem almost universally to have believed that because it was to be the capital it was destined to become a great commercial and industrial city too, a London, paris or Rome. But cities simply cannot be “explained” by their locations or other given resources. Their existence as cities and the sources of their growth lie within themselves, in the PROCESSES and growth systems that go on with them. Cities are not ordained; they are wholly existential. (Page 138).

    “The great capitals of modern Europe did not become great cities because they were capitals. Cause and effect ran the other way . . . . Paris became the genuine capital only after it had already become the largest (and economically the most diversified) commercial and industrial city of the kingdom. . . Berlin . . . London . . . .” (page 140)

    “A settlement to which the work of government is given as its chief or initial export work MAY BECOME a great city. Constantinople did. BUT IT IS MORE COMMON for small settlements that are selected arbitrarily as capitals to develop no other appreciable economic reasons for being. Washington[, D.C.], Ottawa, The Hague, New Delhi and Canberra are examples; PROBABLY Brasilia will prove to be another . . . A capital with government work as its initial or chief export work has much in common, economically, with a COMPANY TOWN [over time, economically speaking, not a good thing in Jacobs' opinion]. (Pages 140-141).

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    As far as I can tell, these are the only relevant mentions of D.C.. and Brasilia in “The Economy of Cities.”

    Regarding [1]: They do not seem to me to be an “attack” on “planned” cities.

    Regarding [2]: They do not seem to me to “poke fun” at the idea that a capital city can become a great city. (Jacobs says that it can happen, but that in reality it is very rare — and cites the evidence and gives the reasons she believes this to be so.)

    Regarding [3] Jacobs’ criticism of the “specious ’causes’ of city growth” here does not seem to me to be a criticism so much of planned economies, but rather of company towns (like, for instance, Detroit). And it doesn’t seem to me to imply a criticism of “urban planning” — although Jacobs has cautioned against both “highly planned” cities and economies elsewhere in her overall work.

    But, of course, each person will have to decide for themselves whether the original comment misunderstands and misrepresents Jacobs writings. Thus I present these comments and quotes in the hope that people who are interested will read “the Economy of Cities” for themselves and make up their own minds. (I’d also like to highly recommend Jacobs “The Nature of Economies.” Even though it is a later book, I think it can be read first and might actually help people get a better of idea of what Jacobs was getting at in the earlier book.)

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sat., July 2, 2011, 1:35 p.m.

  8. Benjamin Hemric says:

    P.S. — Whoops! At the beginning of my last post I meant the following:

    Alon wrote [numbering and capitalized added emphasis is mine -- BH]:

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sat., July 2, 2011, 1:50 p.m.

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