Wytold Rybczynski’s “Makeshift Metropolis”

“The public actually knows what it wants or, at least, recognizes it when it sees it.”

This quote is one that forms some of the basis for urbanist Wytold Rybczynski’s newest book, Makeshift Metropolis. Throughout the book, Rybczynski makes the argument that, while the 20th century was all about planning ideas and concepts shaping the built form of cities, it is the market that today and in the future will shape our cities. Of this he is quite convincing, and as other urban thinkers have pointed out before, the latest planning ideas have shaped our cities the least out of all of them. Think of New Urbanism, for example– embraced by many in the early 1990s as a solution to cookie-cutter suburban communities– now, for the most part, is relegated to being a movement mainly about the aesthetics of homes. It also barely made an impact on our cities; a non-planner or urban designer would not be able to distinguish it from regular suburban planning.

Makeshift Metropolis is one of those books that will begin by being very familiar to those who have studied urban planning. Rybczynski takes the reader through the history of planning theory and practice, focusing on “three big ideas”– the City Beautiful, Garden City, and Le Corbusier’s “towers in the park”. The author’s writing style is highly readable, and he manages to spruce up otherwise dry planning history with anecdotes about the often larger-than-life personalities behind the theories. While it makes for an interesting read, it by no means is a comprehensive history of planning theory– that is not the purpose of this book.

What is very striking to me is that almost all of the members of the “planning Parthenon”, so to speak, were not professional planners by any stretch. Charles Mulford Robinson, father of the City Beautiful movement, was a journalist and freelance writer. Ebenezer Howard, creator of the Garden City concept, was a clerk and a parliamentary stenographer. Le Corbusier was a slightly eccentric and mostly egotistical architect.

Initially I was hit with the thought that perhaps this reflects poorly on planning as a discipline, that individuals from mostly unrelated occupations could simply pick up a pen and change the face of cities. Perhaps planning is not something that can be taught, but has to be learned and gleaned from inspirational encounters with urbanism. However, reflecting on those thoughts, I am more inclined to believe that planning as a discipline is by its very nature multi-disciplinary. Even today in Ontario, as the Ontario Professional Planners Institute moves to more stringent qualifications and ethical standards, the OPPI’s membership includes people from all kinds of occupations– lawyers, writers, architects and engineers to name a few. Planning thrived on the ideas of non-planners in the 20th century– but maybe they were planners.

Rybczynski does nice work relating the history of planning theory to the shape of cities throughout North America today. Nothing is new about this approach, but he does bring some new ideas to the subject. In particular, I like his approach of weeding through the planning ideas and finding out which ideas worked and which did not.

Rybczynski seems to have a soft spot for the Garden City– and who wouldn’t, with its generous parks, large-sized lots and generally definitive town centre. While people generally enjoy a high quality of life in these places, they are not, and never will be, cities. They are suburbs, plain and simple– but foster a more community-oriented environment in which to live.

Personally I found that Rybczynski fails to conclude his book effectively. Essentially what I gathered from his points, if I were to put it simply, is this: the market is not always right when it comes to city planning, but yet it is more right than “willful urban visionaries” such as Le Corbusier. I think this conclusion is correct, as recent emphasis on public participation in planning has shown. Where this point gets confused is the author’s oft-repeated admiration for Garden City– the idea of a “willful urban visionary”.

That being said, as a reader, it stimulated my planner mind. I found myself so stimulated that I took notes immediately after finishing the book, even though it was a late evening on a work night. Despite the sleepy haze I was in, I think I came up with some interesting questions:

  • How would a “regular” citizen design a city and/or neighbourhood? For anticipated traffic volumes and safety? Or for aesthetics? Convenience? Walkability? Connectedness? Environmental Impact? Where are our priorities when it comes to the city?
  • History has shown “trendy” planning to have some good results but mostly bad. Which “trends” should we be careful to avoid? Are there any “tried and true” planning concepts that we should embrace as gospel?

Most of all, I was inspired to think again about a way of planning cities that I have often found myself thinking about. It involves reverting back to the planning of streets and city plans by governments and very large scale (city-sized) developers. Earlier in the 20th century, this resulted in a systematic (some say boring) grid of streets, and systematic parcelling. The result of this (in a different planning climate, obviously) was structures tailored to the street and the needs of the immediate surrounding residents– not just the financial needs of the developer.

Currently, developers of “subdivisions” plan street networks. These networks are disjointed from the “arterial” roads around them, and even the neighbouring subdivision developed by a different company. I have found the main impetus behind this sort of planning to be traffic engineers, as well as concepts of safety accepted by developers and the public as gospel. Engineers say that entry points to the subdivision need to be limited so that residential streets are “safe”; and arterial roads are separated for safety reasons– but the only reason they are unsafe is because they are deemed to be arterials. My own hunch is that non-planners and non-engineers would not plan their city in this way, simply because it does not make common sense.

If we are attempting to design new developments in a most livable way, Rybczynski is right to look at past development that has worked, and to suggest that we embrace these ideas in a market-based. However, we should always, always be careful not to accept some woman’s or man’s thoughts outright. History has shown many times over that ideas become “what the people want” for a short time, only to leave semi-permanent scars on our cities. What history also has made certain is that cities are the largest experiment humans have ever conducted– and will continue to conduct.

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