Urbanism and Community Planning



When that I was but a little tiny lad there existed in America a fairly substantial organization devoted to realizing the city described in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. When I came to youth’s estate I marveled over the cities of the future, those illimitable geometrical icebergs that calved from the fertile Conté crayon of Norman Bel Geddes. In early manhood I was sold the radiant city of Le Corbusier because I had never seen an actual building by the man. Now the city of the future is here, and you can look at it in the pages of the picture magazines and the news weeklies. It looks just as pretty as it ever did in the pages of Vanity Fair. Living in it is another matter.

A recent lavish cover story in Time portrays the years of urban renewal as a spectacular success where squalor has been replaced by splendor to the satisfaction of all concerned. This is pure bunk. The first years of urban renewal were used simply to try to expel Negroes from potentially valuable property near the city centers. What resulted were acres of rubble punctuated by a few expensive, uncomfortable vertical ice-cube trays surrounded by a hard doughnut ring of doubled-up and redoubled slum dwellers. This, in cities where high-rise apartments and condominiums were already overbuilt. Across Thirty-Fifth Street from Lake Meadows, Chicago’s Negro slums are doubling in density of population, which means that they are increasing geometrically in the social sicknesses known as “slum conditions.” Northward the rubble stretches away where once stood the finest examples of America’s finest domestic architecture — the work of Richardson and Sullivan and their contemporaries.

The pretty cover story describes San Francisco’s urban renewal — called “Western Addition Number One” — as an accomplished fact. It is nothing of the sort. It is still mostly vacant lots, or as the French so appropriately call them, terrains vagues. Urban renewal, however, marches on to a new slum clearance, Western Addition Number Two, its slumification the result of the forced evacuation of Number One. So it goes across the country, except in some of the smaller communities where urban renewal has renewed the community practically out of existence — as witness a tragico-comical story in a recent Nation about a moribund small Texas town which died on the operating table.

Some of us who have been around a long time watching the rise and fall of modern architecture and its child or parent, urbanism, now realize that both are almost complete failures. A few young architects and planners too are beginning to revolt, but the orthodox urban revolutionaries now have a mass audience, tax funds, and plenty of fellow travelers in the legislating bodies. Things are going to get worse before they get better.

There is little hint of this state of affairs in any of these books. David R. Hunter’s The Slums may have been written for the great audience of self-informing laymen. It has more the character of supplementary reading for high-school seniors. It is not that it avoids controversy. Quite the contrary. Mr. Hunter presents “all sides” in such nicely nonpartisan terms that they cancel each other out. If you had nothing else to go by you would believe that the slums and all their attendant ills were certain to come out clean and new from the laundromat of the democratic process. Alas, it’s not true. Slums are essentially a frame of mind, a subjective state produced by economic and social forces which have little to do with architecture or city planning.

Up until two hundred years ago, every city in the world was all slum in the physical sense, with the possible exceptions of Venice and Hankow and, before them, Constantinople. The genuine urban revolutionaries are often accused by the planners of being archaistic and anti-city on principle. This is not true. A functioning city, a real polis, is a very good thing indeed. It is the optimum environment for the development of all the humane virtues. Humanism could well be defined as the way the inhabitants of a good city habitually behave. A good city is structured like an inclusion series. Built into it is an efficient hierarchy of social functions. If you have a society which is atomized, whose people have themselves no functional hierarchy but who are atomized and self-alienated, the places they live in are going to be slums no matter how much rent they pay or how much open space there is between the buildings. This has little to do with commercialism as such. The builders of Renaissance Florence — actually most of the city was completed in the Middle Ages — certainly built the buildings to make money. The builders of Magnitogorsk did not. Yet the first has not become a slum to this day while the second was born a slum. However, imagine what would happen to the old town of Florence if the present population were evacuated and replaced by the inhabitants of either Harlem or upper Fifth Avenue.

As far as the architecture and the planning are concerned, it is easily demonstrable that we are building worse slums than those we are tearing down, whether they are subsidized, low-rental housing or fantastically over-priced high-rise condominiums. The first, in fact, run a good chance of being better built than the second, especially in New York City, due to the stricter controls of Federal Housing. Outside the cities, of course, millions of acres of agricultural and recreational land have been destroyed by tract houses which will not outlast their amortization, and which are essentially congested even when they are on one-hundred-foot lots.

Victor Gruen, the author of The Heart of Our Cities, is in the business of correcting the City of the Future. There’s nothing wrong with his plans but then there’s nothing wrong with Plato’s Republic or Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops either.

Gruen’s basic ideas are traditional in the best sense. They go back to the founding fathers of urbanism. His central concept is a vision of the metropolis and its satellites structured in a hierarchy of organically interrelated facilities. This can be reduced to a schematic modulus which looks rather like the cross-section of a lower marine animal. Such an organism decorates the book jacket.

If Jane Jacobs’s book defending the old Faubourg communities of New York City [The Death and Life of Great American Cities] was dismissed by the planners as sentimental and anachronistic, it nevertheless shook them up. Everybody admits now that we have to restore the neighborhood community. Mr. Gruen’s plans in the last analysis add up to this. Each step towards the concentration of the center is a step from one functional community to another with a steady increase of scope and intensity of public demand. This is the basis of city planning. What does it mean?

The outer ring of the city would consist of residences, shops, and services for daily use; the next ring, multiple dwellings with the same essential services, larger shops, and occasional services, for instance, doctors. The center of the city would consist of long-term services, banks, brokerages, hospitals, and high-rise apartments and the largest stores, closed to automobile traffic and set amidst parks and promenades. Here too would be concentrated the major cultural activities of the entire city. Factories and other mass employers of labor would be confined to the outskirts and would communicate with each other and with the residential areas by encircling freeways and by a limited number which would cross the city and divide it into semi-self-sufficient segments.

This in fact is a schematic picture of the way most cities are structured at present. The difference between Victor Gruen’s modulus and reality is a difference of efficiency. If a city were rationally planned or reorganized in terms of its inherent functional patterns, it would presumably not only be more orderly but more beautiful — a wholesome environment of the civic virtues.

There is nothing wrong with this, but who is going to bell the cat? Just one example out of many — the automobile is obsolete. Everything about it is obsolete. The internal combustion engine, the drive line, the control mechanism, the fuel, the sales organization, and the production methods with their attendant labor structure. Of course it is destroying the cities of the world — Paris, Florence, London have become unlivable. As Frank Lloyd Wright said, it is easier to get someplace in New York crawling over the tops of the taxicabs than inside one. Los Angeles is an illimitable rose-covered slum gashed with freeways, all its potential foci of community long since devoured by parking lots, its population dying of anomie under a mile-high blanket of carcinogens.

As Katharine Mansfield said when she read James Joyce’s Ulysses, “This is the future and I’m glad I’ve got tuberculosis.” What can Mr. Gruen point to? A few pedestrian malls on former Main Streets. His favorite is Rochester, which looks a little brassy to me and which certainly cannot solve alone the urban diseases which afflict that city. Better still is the adoption in a simplified and improved form of his own rejected spectacular Forth Worth plan by the city of Fresno, California. So far this has worked out very well indeed. The pedestrian mall is a tremendous success commercially as well as socially and most of the city is enthusiastic for the further development of the plan. Fort Worth, alas, had lost the chance to become one of the handsomest and most efficient cities in the world. There the Gruen plan was defeated by a united front of parking-lot interests. It is this class of small-minded, large-scale but still petty bourgeois business interests which, with the real-estate operators, makes up the irreducible opposition to any kind of civilized urban planning whatsoever.

I think Gruen believes that we are at a technological tipover point where private enterprise can once again make money out of urban and interurban rapid transit. I hope so, but I see little evidence of it. Suburban trains and city autobuses lose money now running on four wheels. I don’t think they’ll suddenly become profitable if you just take off two wheels and turn them into monorails. People have been talking about moving sidewalks since Bellamy and H.G. Wells, but free enterprise has never shown any inclination to build one of any length.

Whatever its faults, and they are largely those of optimism, Victor Gruen’s book is by far the most stimulating and illuminating treatment of the subject to be published in many years, and unlike many of the early epochal works, like Le Corbusier’s, it is written by a man who knows what he is talking about, a man in the business of redesigning cities with a vast experience in all the human, economic, and political problems involved in the struggle to achieve an operable human ecology.

The Federal Bulldozer is a point-by-point devastating criticism of Federal urban renewal. In fact it is so devastating that it is hard to believe, but I have yet to see a convincing denial of any of its charges. However, its conclusion that private enterprise can do better is most dubious. If it can why hasn’t it? A very large proportion of the population of our cities is spending 25 percent or more of income on housing. What would have happened to the class of birds if at some time in its evolutionary history all birds would have had to spend a quarter of their time every day in the year building their nests? Urban renewal under the pressure of the civil-rights organizations is being forced to undertake more and more subsidized housing. That may not be much of a gain but it’s better than nothing.

Scott Greer’s Metropolitics is the story of efforts to restructure the metropolitan areas of St. Louis, Miami, and Cleveland. It is a scientifically objective study with all sorts of apparatus and “discipline” which is really concerned with subjects which in a ruder day Lincoln Steffens handled more discursively and subjectively. It would not be properly scientific and value neuter today to call a book The Shame of the Cities.

Behind the charts and statistics moves a sad, sad comedy of ignorance and covetousness. In all questions of urbanism the enemy is not in the “bastions of entrenched greed” but in thousands of foxholes and pillboxes of stupidity and selfishness, and of course behind the scenes in all the battles of American urban affairs there move almost invisible, like the political commissars through the trenches of a Bolshevik Army — plain, ordinary criminals. What is wrong with American civic life is not the magnificos at the glittering pinnacle of the power structure. It is the great middle class, small business, petty executives, and crooked politicians, those people with the well-shined shoes whose activities make up what the rest of the world calls the American way of life — and the Mafia.

Scott Greer’s concluding sentence might well end any book ever written on urbanism: “The efforts to make the Heavenly City may be compared to fish eggs, spawned by the million, lost and devoured by other organisms, but occasionally producing a new model which could not have been predicted or designed but may have virtues of its own.”

Nobody likes to face the fact that an ever-increasing percentage — long since the majority — of the population prefers to live in slums. Few apartments ever built are structurally anything else. Adequate baths, separate kitchens and dining rooms, separate baths and water closets, even separate sleeping rooms, high ceilings and even large rooms as such are actively disliked by most of the customers for real estate. Apartment houses which discard all of the amenities are very successful financially even in the bedroom suburbs. On the other hand, new or remodeled town houses where they have been adventured as part of urban renewal have proved very difficult to sell.

There are a number of “neo-Victorian” townhouse projects going up around the country but their sale seems to be limited almost exclusively to mildly eccentric and exceptionally affluent intellectuals, while warrens of massive gimcrackery take over the best sites in Greenwich Village. This does not reflect just the vulgarity and rapacity of the real-estate operators; it reflects conscious choice. People who demand good homes, in either single or multiple form, can find developers who will provide them. Where most Americans prefer to live, only Roman slaves were domiciled in any previous time and they were there presumably against their wishes.

There is another aspect of this problem which is never mentioned. Perhaps we have already passed a point of no return and the problems now confronting people in their attempts to live together can never be solved with the solutions we want. The Malthusian problem may not be an economic one at all. A Jesuit demographer has proven conclusively to his own satisfaction that the earth can support eleven billion people. The crux is the definition of the word “people.” Perhaps the Malthusian problem is an ecological one, or, if you will, an aesthetic one. There may be a point, and a rather low one, at which our species, as we know it, can be said to have saturated both the earth’s surface and its local environment. Beyond that point it will start turning into something else, something that we, as humane humans, would find very disagreeable. Maybe that point has been passed and nothing now can reverse the process.

Chicago has the finest promenade in America, Michigan Boulevard. Not only was it the home of what may well be the greatest domestic architects who ever lived, but most of the city for an eight-mile radius from the civic center was built by contractors under very strict building codes and in sound imitation of the work of those great master architects. It has had an urban general plan all this century unequaled in the nobility of its conception. Most of that plan has long since been realized. The city is a network of parks and boulevards and playgrounds. It is surrounded by a greenbelt recreational forest preserve. For thirty miles it faces on a beautiful lake lined with parks and beaches. From Evanston to the Indiana line and indefinitely west into the hinterland it is all one intolerable slum from which people escape if they can, or endure in truculent misery if they cannot. The best thing to do with Chicago would be to walk away and leave it to the archeologists of the year 5000. But where to? Los Angeles? Leopoldville? Irkutsk? Jakarta? Manhattan?



Every month enough human beings to make a city the size of Detroit are added to the world’s population. In a few years it will be a city the size of Chicago — every single month. The annual growth of India’s population is equal to the total population of Australia.

We are all aware of the population explosion, although with our present economy of abundance and our still uncrowded country, we are, most of us, only intellectually aware of it. And very few of us are aware of how rapidly its effects are being felt in many parts of the world. It is a pity that we can’t travel in time and space and visit Madras and Canton and Java in 1850, in 1900, and today. Those of us who are old enough can at least compare life in our own cities, in Paris and London and New York, a generation ago and today.

Man creates his own environment — and at an accelerated pace. Create is hardly the word, so far he has simply made it, in the sense in which we say, “Well, you’ve made your bed, now you’ll have to lie in it.” It is obvious that it is on the verge, even in the richest and most highly developed countries, of getting beyond him.

Most speculation about the dangers of the population explosion are concerned with economic factors — especially with the dwindling food supply and the exhaustion of natural resources. There is another, graver danger, the aesthetic danger. This may sound frivolous to some, but indeed it is not. On the organic, physiological, neurological, emotional response of man to his environment depends his health as a species.

We make fun of the word “togetherness,” but there is nothing funny about the increasing failure of our own togetherness with ourselves and the rest of life on this planet. Ecology is the science of the togetherness of living things and their environment. Man is so radically altering the ecological situation out of which he emerged as a species, and altering it in such an irrational manner, that he is endangering his own future.

If in the next century the world grows to five billion people (and at present rates it will grow to far more than that), all living in a hundred thousand or more Calcuttas and Harlems, it may be possible to feed everybody on tanks of algae in the cities, the farming of the sea, the synthesization of foodstuffs from minerals, and the growing of vast mountains of living meat in reservoirs of culture media, but something will have happened to the human species. If it survives under such conditions it will certainly survive only by beginning to turn into another kind of animal, and, from our point of view at least, not a very nice kind. We talk of the waning of the humanist tradition. It is specific humanness itself which is threatened. Montaigne or Sophocles could not flourish in present-day Jakarta. What are the beings that will be the fittest to survive when such communities have spread over the surface of the earth?

The probabilities are that man will discover ways to limit population during the next generation. Or perhaps the too probable nuclear war will solve the problem out of hand and reduce the population to a few millions in the tropics and the Southern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, the inchoate spread of inhumane communities goes on. Urban renewal, what the French call urbanisme, suburbia, exurbia — aseptic slums proliferate.

We all remember the aquarium in our high-school biology class, where the colony of volvox grew over in one corner, in the spot of optimum light and temperature. Man is altering, as it were, the temperature and light and salinity of his own aquarium, irrationally, and with no knowledge of the possible results. Nobody knows what may happen.

Nature makes man. Man makes culture. Culture makes man. Man destroys nature. Consider the ecologically stable environment out of which man as a species probably developed. It must have been something like the climax formation of the Eastern United States, a vast deciduous forest broken by parklands — only probably somewhat warmer. Where is that forest now? Does the present manmade environment of the Eastern United States bear any resemblance to it? How much of this kind of change can we stand? It is already greater than the ecological changes that set in in the late Jurassic and doomed the giant reptiles.

Archeologists and cultural anthropologists, and of course economists, often talk of culture as though it was just a mass of pots and arrowheads, ruined buildings, kinships, initiation ceremonies, food crops, value, price and profit — things and their relationships, sweeping inexorably through time, with no self-conscious chunks of human vitality around at all. Are we just vehicles for the evolution of our artifacts — which will eventually overwhelm and exterminate us?

This is the role of the architect, the landscape architect, the community planner — the creative reconstruction of our ecology. Today we have the knowledge and the techniques. It is perfectly possible to rebuild deliberately the human environment, in such a way that the ultimate result will be the widening and deepening of the life of the species as such, the augmenting increase of lifescope, aesthetic enrichment in the most profound sense. This, I suppose, is the only kind of “creative evolution” of which we are capable. But it is possible that we are capable of that.

This is the purpose of a book such as Serge Chermayeff’s Community and Privacy: Toward a New Architecture of Humanism. What he is talking about is much more than the efficient organization of the shelter of a community. At least his discussion is posited on an unusually profound sense of the meaning of the word “efficient.” Le Corbusier was wrong, a house is not a machine for living in. The ideal community structure — the actual fabric of buildings and land — should be like a culture medium, like the optimum part of the tank where the volvox flourished, a culture medium that stimulated and enriched, like a circumambient food, the creative responses of the community to its most human life.

We have a long tradition of community planning of this sort. We have a great deal of rather general or philosophical discussion. Geddes and Mumford are names known to every educated layman. But I know of few works that approach the problem so directly in terms of the actual physical structuring. What do we need for a biological optimum? How do we define these needs in terms of cubic feet of filled and empty spaces?

It would be easy to call Chermayeff’s book a sort of exercise in human bio-technical engineering. It certainly is that, and masterfully so. It seems to me it is more than that. It is an exercise in creative or constructive humanism, but in a special sense. The guide here is such a work as Werner Jaeger’s Paideia. We are to think in terms of a kind of higher hygiene — the planned ambience of the most abundant life.

What good will it all do? Can we possibly stop the avalanche of our own insensate constructions? I don’t know. There are so many negative factors operating against the survival, let alone the evolution of the species, that the outlook is gloomy indeed. However, such books as Chermayeff’s are a powerful force in the other direction. Who knows what single flicker of cosmic radiation once altered a gene somewhere back in geologic time and made all the difference? Certainly one book is a small but potent dose of creative evolution. Enough like it and the vast tides of our own biological history may, just may, turn.



The first essay was based on reviews of four books on urban renewal that appeared in 1964 in Book Week and the New York Herald Tribune: Victor Gruen’s The Heart of Our Cities: The Urban Crisis: Diagnosis and Cure (Simon & Schuster, 1964); David R. Hunter’s The Slums: Challenge and Response (Free Press, 1964); Martin Anderson’s The Federal Bulldozer: A Critical Analysis of Urban Renewal, 1949-1962 (MIT Press, 1964); and Scott Greer’s Metropolitics: A Study of Political Culture (John Wiley & Sons, 1964). The second essay originally appeared as the Introduction to Sergius I. Chermayeff and C. Alexander’s Community and Privacy (Peter Smith, 1964). Both essays were reprinted in The Alternative Society (Herder & Herder, 1970); the second one was also later reprinted in World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1987). Both essays are copyright 1964. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Of related interest at this website:
Banning Cars from Manhattan (Goodman)
Formulary for a New Urbanism (Chtcheglov)
Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography (Debord)
Situationist Theses on Traffic (Debord)
Elementary Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism (Kotanyi & Vaneigem)
Territorial Domination (chapter of Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle)
The Blossoming of Free Communities (section of Knabb’s The Joy of Revolution)

Other Rexroth Essays