Unfinished Cities

Pessimism about the transformative possibilities of urbanism has reappeared since the triumphant reconstruction of Barcelona before and after the 1992 Olympics rekindled the pursuit of what might be called big-picture planning.

Sometime in the second half of the 1960s it had become clear that the public in most of the developed world had lost its faith in planning. And a lot of the planning professionals agreed. It is not hard to see why. The utopias of post-World War II planning had conspicuously failed to live up to the promises made for them. Dynamiting the Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St. Louis was a huge and visible signal of all that could go wrong. But perhaps of greater significance to the low regard in which planning was held was Sir Peter Hall’s book Great Planning Disasters, published in 1981. Hall, one of the most influential urbanists of the second half of the twentieth century, took a scalpel to five fiascos, all of them intended to have been exercises in transformative planning. He looked at the absurdly expensive and inconclusive story of London’s strategy for a third airport, a story that more than 40 years later is still no nearer resolution. He was no more sympathetic to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, which San Francisco did build, at least in part, and to the Opera House in Sydney.
Opinion on the effectiveness of at least one of these projects has changed in the interim, but the book summed up a view of the dangers implicit in adopting big ideas about planning. They are expensive, they take too long, and often they don’t work.

If even some professionals saw things this way, it was no wonder that in the wider world of activists, intellectuals and politicians, as well as the everyday victims of slum clearances, and motorway construction, there was revulsion against any further evisceration of Europe’s and North America’s great cities, from London to Brussels, and Paris to Manhattan. Even in Japan, a country that has shown no reluctance to embrace break-neck modernisation, a generation of radical students spent a decade fighting riot police to stop the building of Narita Airport. The claims of rice farmers working on ancestral land were far more important for them than giving Japan a modern gateway to the world.

From her vantage point in Greenwich Village, Jane Jacobs stopped Robert Moses’s road building plans, and published her devastating attack on those who attempted drastic surgery on the fabric of the city. Small, she believed, was the future. Cities should be nurtured, not transformed. Not everyone believed her. Lewis Mumford reviewed The Life and Death of Great American Cities for the New Yorker, under the headline: ‘Home Remedies for Urban Cancer’.

But when Robert Caro wrote his onslaught on Robert Moses, The Powerbroker, he made the very idea of urban transformation suspect. Robert Lee, Mayor of New Haven in the 1960s, a Robert Moses for the Kennedy era, appeared on the front pages to boast that he had rid his city of what he called the shame of the 10,000 rats evicted from just one run-down block in his campaign of scorched-earth planning. But after New Haven burnt in race riots, Lee’s approach looked a lot less plausible and planning took a much lower profile. It merely became a statistical analysis, or, at least, it was now shaped by many small steps, rather than in a single coup de théâtre.

Barcelona changed all that. This was a city in which architects, planners and politicians had suffered in the same prison cells during the Franco years, and were close enough to each other to be able to embark on the renewal of their city once the dictator had gone. It is true that there were protests about the gentrification of the red light district, and the destruction of the El Poblenou community on the waterfront. But the massive investment in infrastructure after the punishment of the city in the Franco years really did transform Barcelona in a universally popular way. Barcelona went from darkened, crumbling neglect to an architectural showcase that brought jobs, tourists and creative energy. It became a world city. And as a result it became a model for other attempts to transform cities around the world. From John Prescott, Tony Blair’s hapless planning minister, to the Mayor of Shanghai, everybody came to learn the lessons of Barcelona.

It was at least a more worthwhile lesson than the idea that a single building, in the Bilbao style, can transform a city. But a Spain in the grip of economic trauma no longer looks such a promising model for the world to learn from. Valencia in particular is a city that wasted a fortune on the vain glory of Santiago Calatrava. Barcelona did a lot of very sensible things to transform itself. But from the shuttered and empty Forum designed by Herzog & de Meuron, and built in a bout of hubris, to the Design Hub, designed by Martorell, Bohigas, and Mackay, and built under the shadow of Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar, without a real brief, it has shown itself better at starting things than it is at sustaining them.

Nowhere has this pessimism about the transformative potential of planning become clearer than in the idea of big event planning encapsulated by the idea of staging an Olympic games in the name of urbanism. For Barcelona it worked. For London it probably will too. The eastern fringes of the UK’s capital city had been the subject of long-term plans for decades. The Olympics finally put the infrastructure in place, and Stratford really has had the kick-start it needed to reverse London’s endless prejudice for looking West rather than East. But for Montreal, the Olympics, and the Expo that preceded them, were almost as much of a financial catastrophe as they were for Athens. It is curious how in all the forensic analysis of the Greek economic meltdown associated with its membership of the Eurozone, little attention is paid to its borrowing spree to finance the Games and build all those pointless landmarks, now empty, in accounting for how things went so wrong. All these disasters make it easy to flinch away from any attempt to address the large and real problems that cities face, and to believe that they can be dealt with in small, comfortable, almost invisible steps.

Sometimes it seems as if all the complex arguments about how we should understand the future of cities might boil down to the resolution of just two questions that represent polar opposites. Are we best served by high- or by low-density models of urbanism? Is the market a better guide for shaping development than the State? They are models that keep appearing and reappearing around the world.

But perhaps, there is another, even more fundamental, question to face up to. What can we really do in order to address what might be described as the urban bigger picture, in order to transform it to achieve positive effects? Are urban transformations actually possible? Or should we avoid the fall-out from taking risks, and confine ourselves instead to small, incremental steps, and attempt to deal with one pothole, and one traffic jam at a time? If for nothing else, because we want to avoid the law of unexpected consequences? Critics of big-picture planning characterise it as being concerned more with the image of development, than with its substance. It is presented as the product of egotistical politicians and their officials, sometimes incompetent, or corrupt, and always tending towards hubris. And instead they argue for a bottom-up approach.

Putting the argument that image building has always been a vitally important contributory factor in creating successful cities to one side, the greatest example suggesting that big-picture planning could work used to be the Paris of Haussmann and Napoleon III. For those who understand city planning on such a scale as primarily political in its motivations, it is true that the glory of the city of light did not keep Napoleon in power, or dissuade Prussia from invading France during the year of the Paris Commune. So on these terms it might be said to be a failure. But Paris is still a model for those who see the city as a work of art; a city that is capable of being completed, and as a result ready to accept a steady state. This is not an entirely positive model. The Paris that is defined by the limits of the Périphérique is incapable of the kind of change that brought the city into being in the first place. Paris, if present trends continue, is fated to become a large-scale version of Venice, while the banlieues would be happy if they were able to turn into Mestre. Paris’s success was also the source of its failure. The Grand Projets of President Mitterrand in the 1980s could only change the architectural language, not the basic structure of the French capital.

Haussmann did not just build boulevards, and visually highly regimented streets. He installed the sewers that allowed Paris to escape from the medieval scourge of cholera. The dispossessed of Paris had to pay a price. For those who are looking to find a negative impact from the transformation of Morro da Providência in Rio into the Porto Maravilha, the city’s promised glittering new waterfront, or the pacification of the Complexo do Alemão, or, for that matter, the rebuilding of the centre of Mumbai and of Shanghai, Haussmann’s Paris provided a clue about what was to come. Paris was a century and a half ahead of Rio, Shanghai and Mumbai in seeing the eviction of existing communities from the homes they had occupied for a generation or two, to barrack life on the outer edges of the city, while wealthy speculators have profited from their forced departure. The same pattern was repeated in each city.

It is an example that for 20 years provided an extraordinarily seductive model for cities looking to use big events as catalysts for large-scale urban transformation. Barcelona’s recent history in the past 25 years has a lot to do with the continuing willingness of cities to bid for the chance to pour billions of dollars, pounds, roubles or reais into bouts of stadium building and mass transit construction. And it is behind the fetish that the Olympic commission has made of the concept of legacy since the Beijing games, or earlier. Legacy and sustainability are an inevitable part of the rhetoric of the modern games now. Even Athens was able to persuade itself for a moment that it was bankrupting Greece for the sake of the Games in order to secure its future. The danger is that in regarding the big picture with suspicion, we end up with the worst of all worlds when we cannot avoid the challenge.

Rio is far from alone in facing the difficult questions about big-picture planning. The history of social housing in Britain, where in some areas there have been three cycles of demolition and rebuilding to different models in a single lifetime, would suggest the difficulty of expecting a big-idea approach to cities to work. Whatever we do, no matter how much we invest, gains are only temporary; one generation’s modernist utopia inexorably seems to turn into the slums of the next. The argument in London, about how to deal with Heathrow airport that is choking with passengers to the point that it is undermining the economic future of London, and so of Britain as a whole, reflects the reluctance, both of governments and the political class, to face up to large questions. But it is worth pointing out that Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, was not the product of a grand plan, but a series of accidents, and unintended consequences. London’s first international airport in the 1920s and 1930s was in Croydon, far to the South of the city. Heathrow was an accident. Its first runway was built at the end of World War II as a jumping-off point for British bombers to attack Germany. In the postwar period, it became a civilian airport by default, with a tent for a departure hall. And it has gone on growing ever since.

Britain is divided between those who see Isambard Kingdom Brunel – the great nineteenth-century engineer – as a hero, and those who regard him as a heroic failure. Of course, Brunel’s idea of a broad-gauge railway was technically superior to the standard gauge that almost the whole world adopted. If all the existing railways had been torn up and relayed to Brunel’s broad gauge, it would have produced a better railway. But it was already too late: the world was full of expensive locomotives that could only run on the existing tracks. There was no point in wasting time on what might be better. Broad gauge was better than standard, but it was not the best possible railway. A more effective engineer would have focused on making the best of the possible.

The fundamental questions for any city in search of a transformative future are; does it have the ability to articulate a vision shared by its citizens, and does it have the ability to make the vision possible? Rio saw the consequences of big-picture planning half a century ago, when Brazil’s president Juscelino Kubitchek decided to follow the promises of the country’s constitution, and move the national capital to the entirely new city of Brasília. The problem for those who question how appropriate big-picture planning can be is that the issues facing cities have only grown larger and more complex. No matter how much we might wish to address them differently, big problems require a response on an appropriate scale.

Ignoring the issues of mobility, of poverty, of security and development, can only make matters more difficult. Leaving those who can afford the cost to create private enclaves with their own police, energy, and services, is clearly an approach that only creates more problems in the future. There are big things happening to the world cities, whether we want them to, or not. Years ago, I compared urbanism to meteorology. If you look carefully enough, you can tell when it is going to rain, but you can’t make it rain. Technologically, that is probably no longer true. Beijing certainly did its best to modify the weather during the Olympics.

But if weather is no longer an appropriate analogy for understanding cities, then perhaps it is also important to understand that art is neither. When Jane Jacobs wrote The Life and Death of Great American Cities (1961), she also suggested that a city cannot be a work of art. But that does not mean we should abandon the idea of facing up to the large and troubling problems that cities must address if they are to flourish. The point is that there is no one single plan. Just as the city is never finished, there is never just one plan either: there is always the need to formulate the next one, and to explore the idea of another transformation.

Deyan Sudjic is Director of the Design Museum, London and co-editor of Living in the Endless City.