Monday, November 19, 2012

A Passionless but Comprehensive History of American Urban Design

Many years ago, I had a meeting with the community development director of the small Oregon city where I lived and worked.  Our business completed, I made ready to leave, but she asked me to wait a moment, pulled a book from her shelves, and offered it to me, suggesting that I would find it insightful.  She and I had often discussed the philosophy and history of land use, so her recommendation of “City Life” by Witold Rybczynski was in keeping with our previous conversations.

(At a later time, she also recommended a perceptive tome on the evolving role of labor in an increasingly technological world.  We need more community development directors like her.)

I read “City Life” quickly, then bought my own copy and read it again.  I was fascinated by the presentation of the full historical scope of American urban design, from the Massachusetts colony to our world today.  It was the beginning of a long-term relationship with Rybczynski, all of whose books I read.

With this blog up and rolling, it seemed time to return to my old friend “City Life” and reread it yet again, with an eye to sharing my thoughts here.  Unfortunately, my third reading disappointed slightly.  Rybczynski remains as careful and comprehensive as ever.  And he offers keen insights.  But compared to the urbanist writers of more recent times, he lacks passion.  He writes more like an academic, which he is, and less like someone who wants to change the world.

His writing style isn’t a bad thing.  Not everyone needs to carry around a flamethrower.   But reading him when writers like James Howard Kunstler are on the shelf is like hanging with the bookish guy at the party when a guy in the other room is dropping bon mots like firecrackers on the 4th of July and attracting all the girls.

However, there is value in listening to the bookish guy.  You gain a deeper knowledge that puts the Kunstlers of the world into better perspective.

You also gain the occasional insight that connects together the history of American urban design in new and perceptive ways.  The City Beautiful movement grew out of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Spearheaded by Daniel Burnham, it proposed the revisioning of American urban cores to look more like Paris, with vast areas of midrise office and residential buildings and with civic buildings providing the focal points.  Despite broad public interest in the concept, the desire of business to construct ever higher skyscrapers overcame the City Beautiful vision.

Rybczynski describes the end of the movement as City Profitable replacing City Beautiful, a turn of phrase that evokes the pivot point perfectly.

Rybczynski also provides an expanded perspective on Ebenezer Howard, the eccentric Englishman who is often credited as the inventor of the suburb.  In my review of “Pocket Neighborhoods”, I expressed surprise at the praise author Ross Chapin offers Howard, especially compared to the brickbats thrown by Jane Jacobs.

Rybczynski offers a transitional view of Howard, bridging the two perspectives.  He notes the excellent land uses that were developed in the early 20th century and, although he had disappeared from the scene, were based on Howard’s ideas.  As Rybczynski presents his timeline, it was only after World War II that Ebenezer Howard’s vision was warped into the drivable suburbia that bedevils us today.  So Howard can be seen as father of both the good and bad examples of suburbia.  Rybczynski thereby reconciles Chapin and Jacobs, while giving a broader viewpoint than either.

There are two points on which I disagreed with Rybczynski, or at least on which I found his approach unsatisfactory.  First, he glosses over the post-World War II changes to suburbia.  He notes the changing economic factors, but as the land use patterns that resulted from the change now dominate much of the country, his acknowledgement of the transition seems deficient.

Second, after a careful review of the evolution of shopping centers, he grudging accepts them as the replacements for historic downtowns.  He admits a longing for the downtowns of earlier times, but seems resigned to shopping centers serving as the new community centers.  As his words were written in the mid 1990s when the new urbanism movement was already underway, Rybczynski seems overly willing to concede a battle that others had only begun to fight.

Despite these quibbles about the final chapters, “City Life” remains a readable and worthwhile book.  If you’re only going to read a single book for more insights into walkable urbanism, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.  Try something with fire in its belly.  But if you’re going to read three or four books on the subject, “City Life” is a fine place to start.  Its broad scope gives a great map of where we’ve come from, where we might be going, and where we turned away from walkable urban.  It’d give needed context if the next book on your reading list was written by a flamethrower.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. I'm gonna have to read me some Kunstler, but I just started to listen to the Strongtowns podcast interview with him, and he came off like the most conspiracy-theorist guest you'd hear on KPFA or Coast-To-Coast AM. Lots of assertions about energy policy that, if true, would be easy to make a ton of money on. Arguments which consist of a bunch of barely plausible factoids shotgunned out, with the pretense that they cohere to support a thesis.

    Which suggests that I may prefer Rybczynski's style. Will have to check him out.

    1. Yup, Kunstler has moved progressively to the radical fringe, the part where logic has an increasingly limited role. Rybczynski is a stolid, dependable college prof.