Dan's Reviews > Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century

Cities of Tomorrow by Peter Geoffrey Hall
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's review
Jun 29, 2009

it was amazing
Read in June, 2009

Cities of Tomorrow well-deserves its place on Planetizen's list of Top 20 Books Every Planner Should Read . For anyone who wants to understand the knotty intellectual origins of 19th and 20th-century planning, or, put differently, see from a bird's eye view what has led urban planning to be such a mess, this books offers a marvelous armchair tour.

Hall's narrative jumps considerably around in time, ranging from the 1850s to the 2000s, and across the globe from Berkeley to Chandigarh to London and Brasilia. He apologizes in the preface for this apparent jumble, explaining that it's necessary given the convoluted course that ideas followed from brain to paper to built environment. This is the intriguing thesis of his book: that modern planning has often been such a mess because the most influential visions, by the likes of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Raymond Unwin, Daniel Burnham and others were rarely applied as, when, or where their theorists intended, leading often to disastrous results.

Some ideas were ahead of their time. In other cases, political conditions were unfavorable in a theorist's country of origin. For example, Le Corbusier's model for working class housing blocs never took hold in the prosperous, homogeneous European cities for which they were designed, but did so as underfunded projects in Chandigarh, India and the inner cities of Chicago (e.g. Cabrini Green), Baltimore, and St. Louis (e.g. Pruitt-Igoe), with disastrous results. Likewise Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of a self-sufficient, linear countryside-city (which he called "Broadacre City"), strung like a row of beads along an attractive parkway, was ultimately realized as the ugly, sprawling strip malls of middle America, now reviled almost unanimously by distinguished architects.

Some ideas fared well in translation. L'Enfant's plan for a "city of monuments" in Washington D.C. was superbly emulated in Canberra, the Australian capital, which also incorporated elements of the "Garden City" envisioned by Raymond Unwin and Raymond Parker in the U.K. Burnham's grandiose plan for modern Chicago was largely implemented, thanks to support from local business leaders who saw in it a great tourist draw, although the grand, European-style plazas he designed never did, and his master plan for San Francisco was scrapped in the wake of the 1906 earthquake. These exceptions aside, Hall seems to say that reality and the filter of local conditions often thwarted planners' noblest ideas and intentions.

The book is broken into chapters that suggest a progression of movements and ideas, yet also a circular, almost Sisyphean cycle in urban history. We move from The City of Dreadful Night (the age of the Victorian slum), through the City in the Garden and the City in the Region (a flourishing time of utopian visions), to The City on the Highway and The City of Enterprise (rapid urbanization and sprawl), and finally back where we started to The City of the Permanent Underclass (the seemingly unchanging fate of the inner-city poor). While conceding that the urban experience has generally improved since 1850, Hall doesn't heap any praise on planning for the progress. In his closing comments, he suggests that planning, in part because of its ambiguous political stature, and to a great extent its muddled intellectual legitimacy, has left a very mixed track record in addressing the health, prosperity and happiness of low-income urban populations.

Yea, this book will certainly not inspire legions of would-be planners. From Hall's account, enlightened ideas in planning have an abysmal rate of successful implementation. Most have been distorted or obstructed by wars, economic downturns, the changing winds of politics, or the tides of intellectual fashion. Only single-minded visionaries (e.g. Haussmann, Moses, Delouvrier, Burnham), backed by enormous power, could cut through the inevitable thicket of citizen protest, legal obstruction, physical obstacles and budgetary constraints to give form to their ideas. This style of top-down planning, Hall notes, has largely gone out of fashion (thank you, Robert Moses). But the response, community planning, has also shown its limitations. According to the natural cycle of things, big-picture planning may be on the ascendant again. Paris looks ready to fulfill the grand regional vision Delouvrier built in skeleton form with the RER in the 1960s. Even the U.S. seems ripe for bold new regional and urban visions. But if the meta-narrative in Hall's book is any indication, what comes next, however new it may seem will be for any informed historian of cities a fresh round of deja-vu.
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