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Learning From a Century of Bad Urban Planning

Classic city design is a lost art, but is being recovered.

The Art of Classic Planning: Building Beautiful and Enduring Communities, Nir Haim Buras, Harvard University Press, 496 pages.

Despite the fact that there are more urban planners than ever, the built environment only seems to grow steadily worse. So architect Nir Haim Buras takes early aim at this core paradox of the 20th century in his new book, The Art of Classic Planning. His voluminous study draws upon a wonderful range of real locations for taking lessons. Buras’ argument, in large part, is that the prior canon of planning literature had access to almost all of these things, and yet persistently drew either the wrong or incomplete conclusions. 

There is a hubris to city planning, which often leads to the conceit that the planner’s invention will improve on others that have come before. New technologies often provide the most disastrous launching pads for these concepts, none more so than the automobile. “To structure urban fabric for high-performance roads before choreographing the urban experience is to put the cart before the horse.” In any case, a pattern of novelty fixes can soon lead to persistent cyclical problems. 

“Independent of history and context, architects and planners are forced to reinvent the wheel. Solving problems that their predecessor created, they are often left holding the bag. At the heart of those failures lies the belief that ultimately, technological innovation will single-handedly save the world.”

Part of the problem—even for modest planners or authors with no ambitions to radically disrupt patterns of life—is that prioritizing one or a few factors in plotting out the urban environment can end up wrecking or diminishing the complex interplay of the larger. As Buras avers, “The nurtured myth of professional expertise led to the field’s ever-expanding fragmentation and growing inaccessibility to the communities it is meant to serve.” Plastic surgeons deliver the results that clients want all the time; they might have done an exemplary job at their specific task but end up delivering even greater problems. This is often the fate of planning. Even an author who Buras praises, the 19th-century Austrian Camillo Sitte, is faulted for his central interest in expediting circulation, obviously a less-destructive priority before the age of highways and yet a faulty aim to elevate above other aspects necessary to a healthy city. Buras likes the well-known work of Kevin Lynch, and yet the aspects he emphasized—paths, edges, and nodes—are quite a partial means of grasping any place.

Another planning tendency that Buras critiques (first in Sitte’s work but then in subsequent entries) is a tendency of planning experts to neglect the buildings themselves. Sitte produced all sorts of shaded maps from above, which is obviously what maps do, and yet soon became symptomatic of a larger problem in planning, which was offering suggestions for everything but buildings. Sitte provided analyses of all sorts of grand European plazas, but Buras notes that one will never have a grand plaza without (at least some) great buildings around it. His point is concise: “There is no good urbanism without good architecture.”

It is a sort of fill-in-the-blank urbanism: “In all of this, the aesthetic dimension is notably lacking. It is subject to a vague expectation that aesthetic qualities will mysteriously arise from an unwilled relation between buildings, streets, squares, and parks in a diagram.” I’m not sure that Buras provides a completely satisfactory answer to this question but it is without doubt an elephant in the room that many planning texts persistently elide.

Not unsurprisingly, Le Corbusier’s Athens Charter, its legendary 1933 manifesto, “reduced the experience of the city to functional efficiency” and other high modern planning schemes come in for much-warranted obloquy. But Buras takes a dim-to-measured view of developments both before and after the modern planning movement that has done much harm to cityscapes.

He dates one problem to the Romantic era, and to single-minded efforts to achieve the Burkean sublime and dispense with beauty. He faults the examples of 18th century European architects (such as Boulee, Piranesi, and Ledoux) and subsequent examples of overscaled and domineering architecture following it.

Even sounder schemes often were a bit askew to his mind. Twentieth-century Garden City plans and their revivalism in New Urbanism have many very good elements but he argues that most are establishing better-than-average suburbs, not genuinely flexible spaces for living. Their arrangements can  hover awkwardly between suburban and urban scales to his mind, and they are frequently forbidden through zoning to develop in one or the other direction. He certainly believes that planning has become better in recent decades, and withdrawn from some excesses of automobility, but it is often concerned with addressing individual symptoms.

Buras seems to have been everywhere, and draws on examples from all of these places in demonstrating sound planning from the Maidan in Isfahan in Iran, to Andrassy Avenue in Budapest, to Jai Singh’s plan of Jaipur, to Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. He dedicates significant attention to centuries of planning concepts of every sort of variety, from the McMillan Plan for Washington D.C. to Feng Shui, Vastu Shatra, and the Spanish colonial Laws of the Indies concerning colonial construction, to recent psychological studies of responses to built environments. It is a deeply impressive and erudite contextualization of a massive range of material.

He prizes traditional-grid patterns found across the world, and flexible moderate density construction. Excessively strict zoning is another affliction of the age of planning: it chokes off flexible use and the evolution of buildings and has come to fulfill a role dramatically beyond its initial declared aim of preventing a factory from opening next to your house. He cites numerous obviously superior planning regimens, such as the Code of Paris. He also argues against the punctiliousness of “floor area ratio” limits (FAR), advocating limits on the number of floors, and instead arguing that the difference can only produce higher ceilings and more pleasant buildings.

It is certainly nearly insane that many planning codes stipulate FAR and minute particularities of use but say very little about how a building might fit the street wall or cohere with its neighbors in terms of its features. Buras points to earlier building restrictions such as the Code of Siena to demonstrate that seemingly accidental cities were built to clear specifications. He argues that “‘Organic’ medieval cities were belabored by prescriptive codes and regulations as much as ours are today, if not more so.”

His is not an argument for any simple standard for rebuilding; he praises many traditional vernaculars, and he repeatedly stresses that cities should and must draw upon their specific circumstances, constantly working from the spirit and ambiance of places—their genius loci—because no two places on earth are the same.”

Buras’ account appears more prescriptive than at times it suggests. If codes of yesteryear often took more interest in what the possibilities looked like, this was not always the case. Better-constructed cities of the past often arose not through plans, but because societies as a whole were building better things as a default; this is not the case at the moment. If much contemporary construction is junk, I’m not sure that these things can be quite so easily eliminated or planned away (to his credit Buras does recognize that quite a lot would need to change).

Buras is surely correct that modernist planning regimens were an obvious dead end: “The fact is that the simplistic geometry of post-World War II planning drastically reduced the rich mathematical complexity of the classic-plan urban environment.” He doesn’t dismiss contemporary architects altogether, with praise for some recent architects, among them Eero Saarinen, Laurence Halprin, and Cesar Pelli. There is a tendency to proscribe more contemporary buildings that might be a bit too stringent and surely unlikely less some sea changes in building practice. One plan would restrict modern construction to ten percent of buildings or that “Metals should not appear on more than 10 percent of necessarily exposed surfaces.”

Buras is critical of skyscrapers, although he likes a few such as Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building. Some of his criticisms are a little puzzling: pointing out that medium-rise Central Paris is actually denser than high-rise Central Hong Kong is useful information; though if central Paris is better than almost all built environments, Central Hong Kong is still better than much of what we’ve built in recent decades. He takes issue with skyscrapers announcing the symbolic role of cities as commerce but it would often be difficult to pretend that most cities are otherwise.

The 20th-century city binary of skyscraper canyons surrounded by suburbs is obviously terrible, and the problems with suburbs are very clear. He understands the complicated roots of these well, with fragmentation of municipal boundaries a prime and continuing problem. One strong emphasis of his argument is that automobile dependency has robbed us not only of walkable density; it’s also robbed us of accessible countryside. He argues for re-villagization, and hoeps this might result in the return of portions of suburbia to nature.

Buras cites some of his own work throughout the book, which is reliably impressive: his proposal for a real Las Vegas Boulevard (imagine that!), for the Portland waterfront, and for reconnecting Anacostia to the rest of the District of Columbia are all excellent. There are minor details that are a sign of great thought: limiting most building sites in his Anacostia plan to quarter-block sizes to ensure a variety of buildings. Other recent plans he praises would no doubt be excellent contributions to cityscapes. It’s inspiring to see plenty of recent work and plans of merit, with praise for Pedro Ortiz’s 2016 Madrid Plan, and the work of the most recent Driehaus Prize winner Ong-ard Satrabhandhu in Thailand. 

Buras’ thinking at times seems a bit utopian but after a century of plans to demolish our cities and subsequent technocratic tweaks, there’s something very welcome about ambitions to recreate the best of things. “While modern-day planners assure us that we will never build that way again, we swarm through Venice, Agra, Rome, Paris, Athens, and Florence as if in desperation that this is our last chance to experience it.” I don’t know if we can do so with any ease, but it would be nice to try.

Anthony Paletta lives in Brooklyn.