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The Daily Review, Wed., Jan. 12

Urban chaos or downtown delight? Add to ...

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs argued that cities are, by nature, chaotic. "A city cannot be a work of art," she wrote. "When we deal with cities we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense."

She was making the point that 1960s urban planners were clueless and, as a profession, basically useless. And yet Jacobs is now a crucial figure in the history of planning: Cities are inspired by her insights and her neighbourhood in the rough mosaic of industrial Manhattan.

So who really shapes cities, and who should? That's the crux of this new book by Witold Rybczynski, a long-time McGill professor who has been writing well about architecture and development since the 1980s. In Makeshift Metropolis, he tackles the past century of planning in the United States, asking how cities took on their current form and what they might look like tomorrow.

Rybczynski, who now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, begins with a speedy, knowledgeable tour through a few important movements. There is the City Beautiful, which produced grand neoclassical piles such as Toronto's Union Station. There is the Garden City, through which the eccentric English thinker Ebenezer Howard tried to shape suburbs after medieval towns.

And then there are the grandiose urban visions of two great modernist architects, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Late in his life, Wright promoted a "Broadacre City" that would disperse the metropolis across a vast area, at a density of one family per acre, and scatter commerce endlessly toward the horizon. Jane Jacobs - whose defence of the dense, organic, pedestrian-oriented city gets a whole chapter here - was not impressed by any part of the "Radiant Garden City Beautiful."

Yet it was the dotty, cape-wearing Wright who came closest to predicting the future of the North American city: It's not that far from Broadacre City to Phoenix. Rybczynski doesn't think this is so bad. The markets have spoken, he tells us, and what Americans want is new-style "horizontal cities," spread out and car-driven.

All this applies, despite some different development patterns, in Canada as well. Mississauga, Ont., and Richmond, B.C., are doing just fine, thanks. But the important question is what's next. In Rybczynski's view, the city of tomorrow will be shaped by developers drawing on the past. He tours various projects - from New York and Washington to suburban Israel - to see new neighbourhoods that echo 20th-century ideas.

In his view, the Garden City sets the most valuable precedents, with dense, walkable streets and juxtapositions of homes, commerce and industry. For the near suburbs, he's right: This is the best option, where it's economically feasible. And after 20 years of hype about the New Urbanism, smart developers - including some in Canada, in Markham, Ont., and Burnaby, B.C. - are going this route.

All this adds up to a pithy and lively look at the art of city-building. But it's a pessimistic view of what's possible for cities. Rybczynski is interested these days in economic research, and he seems to have absorbed a remarkable faith in the wisdom of the real-estate markets. He takes on the populist rhetoric of sprawl advocates to dismiss older places as marginal. Despite spending his adult life in Montreal and Philadelphia, he accepts the theme that "an old city is like an old car."

There's evidence that many people agree - for now. The book's most surprising insight is that the rebirth in American downtowns is overly hyped. Fewer than 1 per cent of Americans live downtown, and they are transient: affluent and too young or old to have kids at home. Look around in an urban Whole Foods, and you will see people who came from the suburbs and will head back eventually.

Maybe. After all, who says conditions won't change in the next 20 years? Many people have chosen Arizona and Mississauga right now. But if the 2008 crash taught us anything, it's that the market can change its mind, and fast. Just ask anyone with a house in suburban Las Vegas how they feel about the future right now. As Jane Jacobs would remind us, sometimes the conventional wisdom gets it all wrong.

Alex Bozikovic is an editor at The Globe and Mail. He writes for architecture and design magazines and blogs at nomeancity.net.

 

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