Witold Rybczynski: Demand Creates Cities, Not Ideas


Witold Rybczynski, author of numerous acclaimed books on the built environment, including most recently, Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities, spoke at the kick-off of the National Building Museum’s Intelligent Cities program on the past and future of cities. After giving the audience a tour of big urban ideas of the past, he argued that “demand-side pressures have forged the shape of American cities, not the grand visions of designers.” In fact, in the cases when big visions have had influence — like Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, which set the model for inner-city housing communities, the impact has almost always been negative. To address the challenges of the future — climate change, limited water resources, and environmental degradation — urban infrastructure “may have to undergo dramatic changes” but the city of the future will largely look like today’s cities. In fact, Rybcyznski warned against creating bold new models like Masdar, U.A.E, to address critical environmental issues when so much of today’s cities work so well. 

Once, the romantic idea of the city was that “it needed a great plan, which could show the population’s ambitions.” By the turn of the 20th century, however, Americans had gotten very lazy and city planning became “a pragmatic effort about creating real estate.” City planning was “no longer an artform.” Soon though, a few architects and landscape architects started to look at the second rate cities in the U.S. and think about how to change things.

The City Beautiful movement, popularized by Charles Mulford Robinson, was focused on the idea of organizing the city and “turning it into an aesthetic experience.” The World Columbian Expo, seen by 20 million Americans, showed that a city could be planned.  The McMillan plan for the National Mall along with the Burnham plan for the City of Chicago also helped launch the City Beautiful movement. “These set the stage — cities could be the result of a movement.”

Another influential designer-led movement, the Garden City, which was the “Congress of New Urbanism of its time,” was orchestrated by Ebenezer Howard. Howard saw Frederick Law Olmsted’s Riverside community in Chicago, one of the first planned suburbs and which became the model for high-end suburbs everywhere, as “a city that’s not a city” because it featured lots of green, open space. Rybczynski also pointed to the Forest Hill Gardens in Queens as another example of an “urban suburb” that was excellent because there was a union in the vision of the architect, landscape architect, and developer. This movement spread throughout Europe — “almost all European languages have some term for Garden City.”

The Radiant City, Le Corbusier’s vision of a community filled with skyscrapers but no streets, just parkland, was a “radical vision.” Europeans largely scoffed at the idea, but novelty-loving Americans took to the ideas. One of the more positive examples is the Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town on the lower east side of Manhattan, but all those dehumanizing inner-city public housing units were also the realization of that vision. Another architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, created his vision, Broadacre City, which “was an extremely radical proposal,” an idealized city that has no edge or centers. Frank Lloyd Wright thought this would happen with the rise of the automobile — Americans would spread out and seek space, and no longer need cities anymore. In effect, he was describing a vision of sprawl, which is “exactly what has happened.”

To combat these ideas, Jane Jacobs came up with her idea of the downtown in the seminal Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs repudiated the Garden City and City Beautiful, and especially hated the Radiant City. She put streets back at the heart of the city and proved that cities are the result of “many individuals each making decisions.” Her theory was almost “anarchist,” not liberal or progressive, but her values of “density, mixed-use, street life, choice, diversity, and age” were proven to be the right ones.

Rybcyznski believes Jacobs is still largely correct, but there are ideas within each of the earlier movements that still have merit and exist today. The City Beautiful movement led to the creation of beautiful buildings like Washington D.C.’s Union Station, and even the new Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The Garden City movement has been successful — many modern suburbs use those concepts as a model. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre city has been realized in “uncentered urbanism.” Even Jane Jacobs’ beloved Greenwich Village can now be found replicated in downtown Reston, Virginia, and other dense, mixed-use developments “that she would have hated.”

The past 30 years have been spent recovering from the “disasters of modernism” initiated in the 1950’s and 60’s. “Highways, pedestrian malls, and housing projects” were all horrible ideas and are now being torn down. “This has been a repairing time, not a time of grand visions.” Rybczynski thinks the only successful developments have been urban waterfront redevelopment projects that feature water, streets, parks, infill, density, mixed-uses, conservation, and shopping. He cited the Yards project along the D.C. waterfront and Michael Van Valkenburgh’s Brooklyn Bridge Park as two successes. He emphasized the growing importance of parks, which were seen as outdated and even Victorian in the 1950’s and 60’s, but have undergone a renaissance recently. “Every city is now adding significant park space.” Again, reiterating his theme about demand creating cities, he says parks are expanding again because people nowadays seek a connection with nature and a place to exercise.

In the future, Rybczynski thinks successful projects must be public-private partnerships. Using the example of the Brooklyn Bridge Park, he said private development helped finance the new pier-based parks. He said these partnerships are increasingly crucial because “public bodies are bad at development. They think they know best but they don’t listen to demand, only their own visions of what people need.” Developers in turn “are not good at connecting their projects with everything else.” Public bodies can help play a “guiding, connecting role,” but developers are good at finding out what people want. “A new division of labor” must be created.

To conclude, people live in cities not because of their efficiencies or “intelligence,” but because other people are there. “It’s about professional and personal contact, meeting lots of other people, and choice in physical experiences.”

Read Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities and also check out Rybczynski’s highly-regarded book on Frederick Law Olmsted, A Clearing in the Distance.

Image credit: Brooklyn Bridge Park / Alex Maclean

One thought on “Witold Rybczynski: Demand Creates Cities, Not Ideas

  1. R. Gus Drum 01/12/2011 / 11:17 am

    It is curious indeed that as one segment of the profession begins to incorporate the notion of global climate change and the threat of sea-level rise into its planning and design processes (being more cautious of ocean-side development) another segment goes on merrily planning and designing park features, condominiums and commercial development that could indeed be in harm’s way in a future scenario of sea-level rise and more damaging ocean-related storms….insurers beware.

    Mr. Rybczynski’s observations of the evolution of cities in Makeshift Metropolis and his other works shows the ongoing dance between market forces and public design values……the bottom line is that “people” make cities alive, not architecture or fountains or trees. Understanding what people need and want in urban living is the key to successful planning and design……Good article.

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