Our Next Cities II - The Cycles of Planning


Previous Article: The Arrogance of Planners

Urban planning, like fashion, goes in cycles. It even has phases of retro nostalgia. The planners of today plan in reaction to the planners of twenty years ago. Because of how important urban experience is in daily life, any problems left unaddressed for a while become major headaches for all citizens, and planners line up to try to fix things.

Consider New Urbanism (also known as Neo-traditional Neighbourhood Design): a post-modern planning ethic that advocates the return of pedestrian-friendly communities with more densely-packed houses, corner stores and porches in front instead of two-car garages. Already New Urbanist neighbourhoods have developed in this province, in such cities as Markham, Cornwall and Orangeville (to varying degrees of success). This school of urban design is a direct attack against the Modern planning movement that favoured vast swaths of single-use development, low densities and communities that can only function if everybody drives a car.


These reactions go further back and back. The Modernists embraced the automobile's freedom of movement and sought to "fix" our downtown cores which were then dying under the suburban onslaught. The suburbs themselves were created in a variety of movements, from Modernism to City Beautiful to the Garden City Movement, all with the goal of bringing the good of country living to the air and greenspace-impoverished city folk. Every generation of planners has seen something about the cities we live in that was simply not working, and every generation has sought to correct that imbalance by tossing out everything that has come before.

As for the retro angles, New Urbanism talks of a return to planning values espoused before the Modernist ideals of the 1950s, from porches to back lanes to street grids and on-street parking. A lot of things old are new again. Critics of New Urbanism call this a romanticization of the past and, to some degree, they are right, but it is also an acknowledgement that the Modernists threw out the baby with the bathwater, giving up perfectly good planning ideals in the drive to be new. New Urbanism restores that by throwing all of the principles of Modernism out with their own bathwater.

All of this makes me wonder if the grass is always greener on the other side of the planning divide. For over 150 years, we have had movements rise, all full of promise and optimism that they would be the ones to turn our cities into urban (or rural) utopias. Thirty-to-forty years later, our cities still have their problems. At the same time, as all of our planning movements have risen and fallen, our cities have remained. People continue to live, work and shop. Businesses continue to do business and our children continue to learn. Somehow, our cities continue to function in spite of different planners telling them differing things at different times about what to do. There have been great architectural and planning achievements throughout history, and there remains a need for planners, but our cities also have a strange, inate ability to plan themselves...

Knowing history, I think it is safe to say that New Urbanism will eventually become the planning style of choice within the next ten years, and it will have another ten-to-twenty years of being the party line until something else comes to challenge it. Knowing history, I think it's safe to assume that New Urbanism will fail -- not totally; even Modern planning has its achievements, but it will be unable to address some issue or some problem and, left to itself, that issue or problem will come to dominate city issues come 2040. Knowing history, perhaps we can anticipate where this problem will come, and maybe in our planning arrogance, try to fix it.

Next Article: What's Coming Next

blog comments powered by Disqus