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City Visions 1910 and 2010

Burnham Plan

Proposed boulevard across the Chicago River in the 1909 City Beautiful plan.

The preparation of City Visions is celebrated in an exhibition currently on display in the Lighthouse, Glasgow, after previously being in Berlin and London.  It focuses on four cities: Berlin, Chicago, London and Paris. It celebrates the centenary of the ‘General Town Planning Exhibition in Berlin’ in 1910, but also looks at the same 4 cities in 2010. What can we learn for today from this exhibition?

Town Planning concerns everyone

The opening panel begins with the dramatic assertion that “Town planning concerns everyone”. It goes on to explain that it “influences not just where and how we live and work, and how much we move around, but ultimately our happiness and well-being and that of our descendants”. Such expansive sentiments are rarely heard today, as the micro-management of land use has come to dominate planning practice in many countries. However, in stating that “Planning creates hopes and visions for a better, more liveable city”, the exhibition provides a rallying call for a different way of looking at planning.  

 The exhibition shows that in the nineteenth century, despite the influential grandeur of Haussman’s Paris, the predominant understanding of town planning was more limited. Town planning sought above all to put some order on new suburban extensions to existing settlements.  It was about “defining the border between public and privately owned land, the regulation of building heights, and initiatives to improve the city’s technical and transport infrastructures”.

However, by 1910 the “big urban plan” was an international fashion , ushering in the more holistic approach to planning that was to dominate for the next 70 years. The graphics, and in particular the birds eye views of a future city, were integral to the exercise, a way of selling the visions to politicians and the general public. Not surprisingly, Daniel Burnham is quoted: “Make no little plans: they have no magic to stir men’s blood…”

The cities today

Turning to the present, the exhibition argues that issues of mobility continue to dominate. It has a quotation from Lester R.Brown in 2006, suggesting that “the balance between parks and car parks could be the best indicator of quality of life in our cities”. However, the illustrations make clear that this is not the only concern. As well as comparing transport initiatives in the 4 cities today, there are also presentation for the four on recycling of brownfield land, and alternatives to urban sprawl.

It appears that in Berlin there is an impasse because ownership of former port land alongside the River Spree is unclear, though why that should be the case is not explained. Temporary uses are being pushed out as the city tried to attract media businesses.  In Paris there is a masterplan for the ‘North Window’ between Gare du Nord Gare de l’Est, which envisages conversion of redundant railway tracks into a green corridor fringed by apartments. From London there are illustrations of plans for the Royal Docks and the Lower Lea Valley, while in Chicago Rem Koolhaas has designed a masterplan for the Illinois Institute of Technology campus which would put the elevated railway inside a noise absorbing steel tube above the new campus centre.

Similarly, ‘Alternatives to Suburban Sprawl’ are evidenced by major projects in all four cities, without much in the way of explanation of how they implement strategic policy. Rather the emphasis is on ‘new models to contain sprawl’. There is the Val d’Europe suburb for 40,000 people near Euro Disneyland. This entire town is being planned and managed by Euro Disney.

The US example is Prairie Crossing, a ‘conservation community’ of 359 houses some 35 miles from downtown Chicago, but easily accessible to a couple of heavy rail commuter stations. Its green credentials include an organic farm powered by a wind turbine, energy efficient homes built from sustainably sourced materials, and some 350 acres of land protected from further development.

The theme of greening the city is illustrated in a number of other projects showcased in the exhibition, including: an international garden festival on the former Tempelhof airport site: Millennium Park (adjoining Grant Park, one of the great legacies of Burnham’s 1909 Plan, in downtown Chicago); and a scheme from Paris for ‘ecological micro-centres’ and ‘market roads’ which look just like ribbon development.

Competition, quality of life, sustainability: today’s strategic plans

The concluding section of the exhibition attempts some synthesis with a focus on ‘The Strategic Plan’. ‘Competition’, ‘quality of life’ and ‘sustainability’ are rightly identified as generic buzzwords. Similarly, the challenges of industrial decline are a shared agenda. While major pilot projects are a key means of addressing strategic issues in all four cities, the designers point up some important differences between the four.

Paris, London and Chicago are hailed as ‘prime examples of the new renaissance in strategic planning’. However, the patrons for the plans differ. The London Plan is ‘the central planning tool of the Mayor of London’, and in Berlin it was the Senate Department for Urban Development that produced a city-wide plan in 2006. ‘Le Grand Pari(s)’ was a city region study initiated by national government, as President Sarkozy sought ‘a sustainable “post-Kyoto landscape”’.  In contrast, ‘Chicago: Metropolis 2020’ was commissioned by the Commercial Club, the same non-governmental body that instigated the Plan for Chicago 1909.

Importantly, but rather blandly, the exhibition observes that a strategic plan ‘needs close cooperation between representatives from politics, administration, civil society, economics and science’ with ‘public discussion around common targets and projects’.

The metropolitan region

More critical questions might have been posed.   Are such city visions left-overs from an age of strong governments? Or, conversely, are they the kind of innovations needed to kick-start economic recovery through a mix of Keynesian investment in major infrastructure and clear messages to developers about where development will be looked upon favourably?  What lessons are there from the rejection of utopian plans prepared by those Jon Gower Davies famously styled ‘Evangelistic bureaucrats’?

The rate of urbanisation in the developing world and the extensive functional urban regions in more profligate economies mean that there is an urgent need for strategic planning. Metropolitan growth is a phenomenon that continues to defy attempts to wrap it in suitable institutional arrangements. Yet unless we can find ways to manage urban change across a metropolitan area, we will reproduce social exclusion and ecological damage on ever grander scales.

‘Town planning’ really does impact on the well-being of our descendants, and so does need to be concerned with everyone. Too often this is still not the case, and the poor and marginalised remain as invisible as they were in Burnham’s City Beautiful, which Lewis Mumford, all those years ago, called ‘municipal cosmetic’.

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