New Urbanism & American Planning:The Conflict of Cultures By Emily Talen
Routledge, 2005, 318 pp., paperback $38. If you hang around advocates of the New Urbanism for even a short time, you are bound to come across references to Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, John Nolen, Benton MacKaye, Daniel Burnham, Werner Hegemann, and Elbert Peets as sources of intellectual inspiration. Yet these planners have vastly different approaches. There’s a lot of distance between Nolen and MacKaye, for example, or Peets and Alexander. And the gulf between Burnham, who is famously quoted as saying “make no small plans,” and Jacobs, who hated big plans, rivals the Grand Canyon. How did a single movement come to have such a variety of influences? Emily Talen, an associate professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois, puts all of these roots in their proper place in New Urbanism & American Planning: The Conflict of Cultures. She takes the various strands of US planning thought, categorizes them, and shows how they are woven together into a tapestry known as New Urbanism. In the process, she offers what Harvard urban design professor Alex Krieger terms “the first compelling ‘placing’ of New Urbanism into a historic framework.” Talen divides US urbanism into four strands — incrementalism, urban plan-making, regionalism, and planned communities. The first two strands relate to city redevelopment, and the latter two focus on what has come to be called greenfield sites. These categories make a lot of sense, and this book has clarified my understanding of planning history. I’ve no doubt that I will henceforth look at urbanism at least partly through these filters. Here’s a brief summary: Incrementalists are exemplified by Jacobs, Alexander, and William Whyte, but also include city beautification proponents of the late-19th century and the more recent advocates of what Talen calls everyday urbanism, based on a book by John Chase, Margaret Crawford, and John Kaliski of the same title. Urban plan-makers include City Beautiful practitioners such as Burnham early in the last century, members of a movement that morphed into what Talen calls the City Efficient, led by Nolen, Harland Bartholomew, and others. The leaders of postwar urban renewal, such as Robert Moses in New York and Edmund Bacon in Philadelphia, also are in this category. The regionalist strain includes the likes of MacKaye, Lewis Mumford, Patrick Geddes, and Ian McHarg. Planned communities practitioners include Nolen, the Olmsted brothers, Raymond Unwin, and later the planners and developers of new towns like Columbia, Maryland, and Reston, Virginia. Of the four strains of urbanism, which Talen refers to as “cultures,” all but one degraded into what Talen calls anti-urbanism or lost a significant portion of their relevance to urbanism after 1930. The grandeur of City Beautiful that flowered into the multifaceted City Efficient quickly morphed — as a direct result of modernism — into the horrendous urban renewal of the 1950s and 1960s. Planned communities suffered a similar fate. They reached a high point in the 1920s, but after World War II the best that planners could muster were the suburbanized towns of Columbia and Reston. The high point for regionalism was the 1929 Regional Plan for New York and its Environs. This strand soon deteriorated into technocratic studies of economics, transportation, and environmental planning, with little or no thought to urbanism. the prime of incrementalism The only strain to wax in intellectual power and influence after World War II was that of the incrementalists. This group waged a valiant, rear-guard battle against modernism from the 1950s through the 1970s, but worked exclusively in the city and believed only in small plans. The incrementalists had a few significant victories, such as helping to launch the historic preservation movement, but they achieved little real effect on the freight train of modernist planning. In the end they served two purposes — they kept alive the idea that lively multiuse streets and public spaces are vitally important to urbanism, and they inspired a later generation of urbanists that would take their ideas much further and launch a renaissance in American planning, which continues to this day. Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and the less well known but influential housing advocate Catherine Bauer do not fare too well in New Urbanism & American Planning. Talen reveals no personal animosity toward modernists, giving them due credit for good intentions and brilliance of thought, yet she also reinforces the well-supported truth that they were the strongest proponents of what proved to be cataclysmically anti-urban ideas. Corbusier and Bauer were left-leaning ideologues; Wright seems merely to have disliked cities. Regardless, they were all in favor of scrapping traditional urbanism. As an aside, Bauer recently has been the subject of glowing articles and books. Google her, and you get the impression she was a saint. No doubt Bauer was brilliant and charming, but her personal legacy is largely of urban renewal and sprawl. That brings me to something else I learned from Talen’s book: planning intellectuals are obsessed with intention rather than results. If you have the right intentions, or limited intentions, you are more likely to be treated kindly in history books. The regionalists were mostly noncontroversial, but from an empirical standpoint, they have failed miserably — US regions are mostly in bad shape from a development and transportation point of view. The City Beautiful practitioners, on the other hand, have been pummeled every which way for being undemocratic, controlling, and architecturally limited, but they created places that are loved and admired generation after generation. Talen tap-dances gingerly around City Beautiful’s legacy, although she makes clear that its impact on planning was more positive than that of modernism. All of the strains have failed and succeeded to a certain degree, Talen argues, and part of the reason for the failure is mutual animosity. Rather than turning their backs on one approach or another, she feels planners should look to multiple strains for ideas. “The weaknesses of each culture can be addressed to some degree by a better integration of approaches — exactly what the new urbanists are attempting.” She adds that “new urbanists see that all four cultures have value and need to be incorporated in the promotion of urbanism in America.” Talen is optimistic, despite a track record of failure in the planning profession. “Of the four generators of suburbia — roads, zoning, government-guaranteed mortgages, and the baby boom — planning can be implicated in three of them.” She adds dryly, “were it not for the unfortunate outcomes, this would seem to point to a profession with extreme potential for success.” Talen is sometimes difficult to read, and her ratio of academic citation to personal observation is too high in places, but this is a comprehensively researched book that illuminates both planning history and the roots of New Urbanism. New Urbanism & American Planning makes a strong case that new urbanists have merged Nolen’s devotion to the art of plan-making, Jacobs’s love of street life, Hegemann and Peets’s attention to the public realm, and MacKaye’s regional vision into a single powerful movement.