Winter 2011

The Plan Is All

– Blair A. Ruble

Residents, rather than planners, ultimately determine a city plan's success when they decide whether to live, shop, play, and linger in the space a designer has created.

Witold Rybczynski, the author of more than a dozen extraordinarily popular treatises on cities and architecture, is a master of making professional quarrels—over the value of the American suburban landscape, the relative importance of psychological comfort and technical perfection in home design, and others—accessible to nonspecialist readers. In Makeshift Metropolis, which grew out of a 2007 lecture at the National Building Museum, he seeks to place contemporary American city planning within the context of American life past and present. This slim and elegant book is just the thing for readers who want to acquaint themselves with the American planning tradition during an evening by the fireplace.

Rybczynski’s core argument is that the United States does indeed have a worthy planning tradition that often is ignored or denied by those who promote an image of a country shaped by individualist capitalists who function absent state control. He makes his case with profiles of well-known urban visionaries of the past—such as Washington, D.C., planner Pierre L’Enfant and architect Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as 20th-century urban landscape critics Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs. He also highlights those who are little known beyond professional circles, such as Charles Mulford Robinson, who promoted the City Beautiful movement at the turn of the 20th century, and Robinson’s English counterpart, Raymond Unwin. And he reaches back to recognize largely forgotten figures, including Washington, D.C., surveyor Joseph Ellicott and Francis Nicholson, who helped establish colonial Annapolis and Williamsburg.

In Rybczynski’s view, residents—rather than planners—ultimately determine a plan’s success when they decide whether to live, shop, play, and linger in the space the designer has created. Rybczynski demonstrates his point that people drive the process by tracing the movement of America’s retail spaces from streets to covered arcades, the latter of which launched the department stores that eventually migrated from downtowns to anchor suburban shopping centers, only to be usurped in recent years by big-box stores. Cities and their surrounding regions are makeshift creations that build up incrementally, as coral accretes on a reef.

The collective expression of individual preference through the market, however, is insufficient to create the sorts of cities required for 21st-century life. The metropolitan regions that constitute many of our modern cities are larger than any single planning entity can handle. Still, metropolitan development requires government support and intervention in myriad ways. Rybczynski cites architect Moshe Safdie’s design for Modi’in, a town in Israel that encourages private development of an overall plan that emphasizes access to public space, as a hopeful vision for the urban future.

Rybczynski bookends Makeshift Metropolis with descriptions of two very different projects that illustrate Americans’ new fascination with waterfronts, which only a generation or two ago were avoided by anyone who sought respectability. He begins with Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City, a two-decade effort to convert deserted piers into recreational and park land. I was living in Brooklyn Heights when discussions of the project began in 1988, and have followed its evolution since. A rough-and-tumble political and consulting process delayed, but probably perfected, the final plan. I quite agree with Rybczynski that this initiative is likely to grace the pages of planning and urban design textbooks a century from now.

Rybczynski ends with an examination of The Yards, a new office-condominium development adjacent to Washington, D.C.’s new baseball stadium, next to the Navy Yard. He sees in The Yards an attractive high-density plan that doesn't rely on towering apartment buildings. But to me it feels like an etiolated variation on the ever more popular waterfront development scheme. It fails to promote with serendipity and surprise the texture of life as it is actually lived. In a way, however, my misgivings about The Yards underscore Rybczynski’s larger point: Only the passage of time and the accumulation of thousands of individual decisions can reveal a plan as a success or failure.

Rybczynski quotes Edward G. Rendell, when Rendell was mayor of Philadelphia. “We can’t simply let our cities decline,” he declared in 1996 to a group of developers and investors. “After all, you can’t have a society without cities.” And Rybczynski makes a compelling case that you can’t have cities—even sprawling, automobile-oriented cities—without planning, albeit of a makeshift kind. That planning must be humble in its ambitions, fostering multiple projects and urban visions rather than striving to impose just one from above. Fortunately, Americans have a planning tradition worthy of pride. We also have Witold Rybczynski to help lead the way.

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Blair A. Ruble, the director of the Kennan Institute and the Comparative Urban Studies Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, is the author of several books about cities, most recently Washington's U Street: A Biography (2010). 

Reviewed: "Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities" by Withold Rybczynski, Scribner, 2010. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons