Learning about cities of yesterday from Cities of Tomorrow

One of the books assigned to me in grad school was Cities of Tomorrow by Peter Hall. There were a handful of chapters and excerpts deemed required reading, but the whole book was recommended. Virtually the whole library was recommended actually, so you have to prioritize and make tough reading choices as a student.

I remember exactly where I was when I sat down to read the first two chapters of this book, on loan from the library. Riiggghht here:

Forgive me! This was the only place I could get a normal coffee with cream (the UK doesn't really do coffee cream).

The whole book is sprinkled with gems like this.

The whole book is sprinkled with gems like this.

Anyway, I remember opening this book and being shocked to realize it was not only a page-turner, but quite funny.

Peter Hall's writing was so beautiful to me that I caved and bought my own copy of the book in order to read it more leisurely and mark it up. I have been reading it, clearly leisurely, since.

Humbled by History

Sometimes I'll stare at awful buildings that were built on the grave of decent old ones and think, "How did that happen?" Or I'll facepalm at our road system and wonder, "Could they not do math or give an ounce of thought to human behaviour?"

It is tempting to do this because I like to think that I have learned from all of our mistakes in the past and that my hindsight is 20-20.

Reading this book, which guides you through the schools of thought and obsessions de jour in city-building throughout the ages, it's clear that everything we think today has been thought before. And everything we've thought before is still alive in little nuggets of contemporary discourse. You see the contrails of different historical theories criss-crossing our own body of knowledge and practice. And when you examine each historical obsession in its context, you can kind of see where they are coming from. We may not agree with practice of the past, but you can follow their logic to an extent. And yet, our retrospective critiques were tossed around even in the heyday of each movement. Plenty of folks thought Corbusier was trouble back in the day, they just lost the battle. The chess pieces change shape, but their rank and movement remain. And so the only way forward is humility, to know that you are probably just as wrong as everyone else.

Finding Strong Towns in the Past

Consider the chapter list: 

  1. Cities of Imagination - Alternative Visions of the Good City, 1880–1987
  2. The City of Dreadful Night - Reactions to the Nineteenth-Century Slum City: London, Paris, Berlin, New York, 1880–1900
  3. The City of By-Pass Variegated - The Mass Transit Suburb: London, Paris, Berlin, New York, 1900–1940
  4. The City in the Garden - The Garden-City Solution: London, Paris, Berlin, New York, 1900–1940
  5. The City in the Region - The Birth of Regional Planning: Edinburgh, New York, London, 1900–1940
  6. The City of Monuments - The City Beautiful Movement: Chicago, New Delhi, Berlin, Moscow, 1900–1945
  7. The City of Towers - The Corbusian Radiant City: Paris, Chandigarh, Brasília, London, St Louis, 1920–1970
  8. The City of Sweat Equity - The Autonomous Community: Edinburgh, Indore, Lima, Berkeley, Macclesfield, 1890–1987
  9. The City on the Highway - The Automobile Suburb: Long Island, Wisconsin, Los Angeles, Paris, 1930–1987
  10. The City of Theory - Planning and the Academy: Philadelphia, Manchester, California, Paris, 1955–1987
  11. The City of Enterprise - Planning Turned Upside Down: Baltimore, Hong Kong, London, 1975–2000
  12. The City of the Tarnished Belle Époque - Infocities and Informationless Ghettos: New York, London, Tokyo, 1990–2010
  13. The City of the Permanent Underclass - The Enduring Slum: Chicago, St Louis, London, 1920–2011

Each chapter dives into the people, ideas, and milieu that drove each movement in city-building. Each chapter follows the arc of an idea from conception, to development, to hype, to experimentation, to critique, to failure, to moving on.

I'm halfway through The City on the Highway at the moment. Reading up to this point, I've been trying to place the Strong Towns message in historical counterparts. I want to know in what other context these ideas emerged, who led them, how, and how it turned out.

I didn't see a ton of Strong Towns until The City of Sweat Equity. This chapter explores the stability of self-built environments such as Brazil's favelas and Lima's barriadas. It follows Patrick Geddes to India and watches him open a can of whoop-ass on imperialist over-engineering:

In the City of Sweat Equity, we hear Jane Jacobs and Richard Sennett lambasting top-down planning in favour of the organic and messy approach of traditional neighbourhoods. The challenge of that sweat equity coming from "yuppies" and "gentrifiers" is introduced, but left to interpretation. Finally, we meet pioneers of "community architecture," in which locals drive the design and construction of the housing they want with assistance from pros. This won the heart of Prince Charles and the chapter closes with a quote:

In his speech, the Prince delivered yet another of his memorable quotes for the assembled media: he spoke of the need to overcome the “spaghetti bolognese of red tape” that held up the efforts of ordinary people to create their own environment. As one television program after another followed the battles of the community-builders with the entrenched bureaucracies, it seemed that Howard, Geddes, Turner, and the anarchist tradition in planning had achieved ultimate respectability at last.
— Peter Hall, Cities of Tomorrow 3rd Edition (2002), P. 293

I was waiting for the big reveal of how this great idea of Sweat Equity turned out to be a massive, irreparable mistake. It never arrived, although the chapter detailed some flops and warned that the technique was most successful for the working class and up, not the poorest among us. In the historical context, this was not a solution so much as something that managed not to spiral into a black hole of egoism and self-destruct in a fabulous manner.

In an interview I recorded with Chuck last year, he said something to the effect of: "At Strong Towns, we don't think we can predict the future and we don't try. What we can do is see what worked in the past and try to understand why."

Reading Cities of Tomorrow, I see this. The City of Sweat Equity was one of the only chapters that didn't end horribly or follow the idea into the hands of tyrants. It's not a perfect match for our philosophy, but I wanted to share in my recurring revelation that nothing is new, and we should take heart in that.

If you haven't read Cities of Tomorrow, join me in the delight. You won't regret it, and will probably finish far sooner than I at this rate. Too good to skim!

GRACEN JOHNSON is a communications designer living in The Maritimes. While she finished her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats trying to crack that nut herself, including as the designer and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.