by Giles Fraser
Tuesday, 28
April 2020
Spotted
11:24

The tragic hubris of modern city planning

by Giles Fraser
An aerial view of Detroit city

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” So wrote the famed Chicago urban planner Daniel Burnham in 1910. These words can still be found on inspirational postcards and posters, urging their readers to aim high, to think great thoughts, to reach out for the American Dream.

For Charles “Chuck” Marohn Jr., these are the words that should be placed on the gravestone of American prosperity, words of warning for future generations. Like Burnham, Marohn is also an urban planner, but in an absolutely captivating book on urban development — no, seriously — Marohn accuses the “no little plans” philosophy of being responsible for the wasteland that is the contemporary American city. For what Burnham’s much copied approach to urban planning did was imagine that it could design the perfect city from scratch, all at once, everything rationally ordered, zoned, just right. “We are the first civilisation in all of human history to have the hubris to believe that what we build is the complete product.”

For all of human history prior to the post-war explosion of American wealth and technological capability, the places that human beings gathered together grew incrementally. They adapted over time. Not the product of a single imagination, these places were able to meet diverse challenges to their existence because they grew little by little, continually building into their structures lessons learnt from previous failures. The strength of “Strong Towns” — the title of Marohn’s brilliant new book — is an emergent property, not something you can get all in one go. Human habitat is assembled incrementally, little by little and over time.

As America emerged in the twentieth century as the global superpower, it saw itself as the new world of modernism and progress, as opposed to the old world of decay, characterised by Europe. The old city was higgledy-piggledy, chaotic, dirty, organic, haphazard. The new city was rational, ordered, properly planned and laid out. Yet many of these places are now impossible to maintain and have turned into ghost towns. According to Marohn, the famous urban collapse of a place like Detroit is just the beginning. Because a great many other cities copied what they saw as Detroit’s early growth and success. There is, he argues, a great deal more social collapse still to come, collapse that is built into the whole modernist urban design project.

At the heart of Marohn’s important work of clearly Nassim Nicholas Taleb-inspired anti-fragile philosophy is the distinction between complex and complicated. A rainforest is a complex system, he argues. It is a highly adaptive ecosystem whose resilience has emerged over time and is premised on its flexibility and diversity. A complex system like this is highly adaptive to change. A merely complicated system, however, can fail when just one element of it fails. My Twitter account is full of videos of bored families who have designed complicated parlour games in which — say — a table tennis ball bounces off various carefully placed pots and pans and then ends up in a glass. It looks very clever. But if one pan is just a little off, the whole system fails. In a complex system, the failure of one part of the system can be absorbed by the whole. In a complicated system, it cannot.

Marohn’s book is a must-read. I am not sure I have ever seen so clearly spelled out the catastrophic failure of the whole modernist philosophy, and the terrible price that people are now paying for its hubris.

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