“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist”: thus Keynes, in a celebrated passage at the end of the General Theory
. “Madmen in authority,” he wrote, “who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”1
For economists, he might as aptly have substituted planners. Much if not most of what has happened – for good or for ill – to the world’s cities, in the years since World War Two, can be traced back to the ideas of a few visionaries who lived and wrote long ago, often almost ignored and largely rejected by their contemporaries. They have had their posthumous vindication in the world of practical affairs; even, some might say, their revenge on it.
This book is about them, their visions, and the effect of these on the everyday work of building cities. Their names will repeatedly recur, as in some Pantheon of the planning movement: Howard, Unwin, Parker, Osborn; Geddes, Mumford, Stein, MacKaye, Chase; Burnham, Lutyens; Corbusier; Wells, Webber; Wright, Turner, Alexander; Friedmann, Castells, Harvey; Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Calthorpe, Rogers. The central argument can be succinctly summarized: most of them were visionaries, but for many of them their visions long lay fallow, because the time was not ripe. The visions themselves were often utopian, even charismatic: they resembled nothing so much as secular versions of the seventeenth-century Puritans’ Celestial City set on Mount Zion, now brought down to earth and made ready for an age that demanded rewards there also. When at last the visions were discovered and resuscitated, their implementation came often in very different places, in very different circumstances, and often through very different mechanisms, from those their inventors had originally envisaged. Transplanted as they were in time and space and socio-political environment, it is small wonder that the results were often bizarre, sometimes catastrophic. To appreciate this, it is thus important first to strip away the layers of historical topsoil that have buried and obscured the original ideas; second to understand the nature of their transplantation.
The Anarchist Roots of the Planning Movement
Specifically, the book will argue that in this process of belatedly translating ideal into reality, there occurred a rather monstrous perversion of history. The really striking point is that many, though by no means all, of the early visions of the planning movement stemmed from the anarchist movement, which flourished in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth. That is true of Howard, of Geddes and of the Regional Planning Association of America, as well as many derivatives on the mainland of Europe. (To be sure, it was very definitely untrue of Corbusier, who was an authoritarian centralist, and of most members of the City Beautiful movement, who were faithful servants of finance capitalism or totalitarian dictators.) The vision of these anarchist pioneers was not merely of an alternative built form, but of an alternative society, neither capitalistic nor bureaucratic-socialistic: a society based on voluntary cooperation among men and women, working and living in small self-governing commonwealths. Not merely in physical form, but also in spirit, they were thus secular versions of Winthrop’s Puritan colony of Massachusetts: the city upon a hill. When, however, the time at last came for their ideals to be translated into bricks and mortar, the irony was that – more often than not – this happened through the agency of state bureaucracies, which they would have hated. How this came about, how far it was responsible for the subsequent disillusionment with the idea of planning, will be a central question that the book must address.
Neither the idea, nor its treatment here, is new or novel. The anarchist roots of planning have been well dissected by a number of writers, notably Colin Ward in Britain and Clyde Weaver in the United States.2
I owe a great personal debt to them, both through their writings and through conversations with them. And this account will rely, for much of the essential background, on secondary sources; the history of planning now has an extremely rich literature, which I have plundered freely. So this book is to be judged as a work of synthesis, rather than of original research. There is however an important exception: I have tried to allow the key figures, the sources of the main ideas, to tell them in their own words.
A Warning: Some Boulders in the Trail
The job will not always be easy. Visionaries are apt to speak in strange tongues, difficult to interpret; a striking common feature of many – though mercifully not all – of planning’s great founding figures is their incoherence. Their primitive disciples, all too anxious to undertake the task, may create a gospel at variance with the original texts. The ideas may derive from those of others and in turn feed back into their sources, creating a tangled skein that is difficult to disentangle. The cultural and social world they inhabited, which provided the essential material for their perceptions, has long since vanished and is difficult to reconstruct: the past is a foreign country, with a different language, different social mores, and a different view of the human condition.
I have tried, as far as possible, to let the founders tell their own tales. Since some of them tell theirs discursively or obscurely or both, I have wielded a heavy but, I hope, judicious axe: I have eliminated verbiage, removed parentheses, elided thoughts that seemed to require it, thus to try to do for them what they might have wished for themselves.
If all that is hard enough, even harder is the job of understanding how, eventually, the ideas came to be rediscovered and rehabilitated and sometimes perverted. For here, large questions of historical interpretation enter in. A once-powerful, even dominant, school argued that planning, in all its manifestations, is a response of the capitalist system – and in particular of the capitalist state – to the problem of organizing production and especially to the dilemma of continuing crises. According to this interpretation, the idea of planning will be embraced – and the visions of the pioneers will be adopted – precisely when the system needs them, neither sooner nor later. Of course, the primitive simplicity of this reciprocating mechanism is concealed by a complex mass of historical pulleys and belts: Marxist historians, too, allow that time and chance happeneth – within limits – to us all. But the limits are real: finally, it is the technological–economic motor that drives the socio-economic system and, through it, the responses of the political safety-valve.
Anyone purporting to write history at all – and especially in a field such as this, where so many sophisticated Marxian intelligences have labored – must take a stand on such para-theological questions of interpretation. I might as well take mine now: historical actors do perform in response to the world in which they find themselves, and in particular to the problems that they confront in that world. That, surely, is a statement of the blindingly obvious; ideas do not suddenly emerge, by some kind of immaculate conception, without benefit of worldly agency. But equally, human beings – especially the most intelligent and most original among them – are almost infinitely quirksy and creative and surprising; therefore, the real interest in history, beyond the staggeringly self-evident, lies in the complexity and the variability of the human reaction. Thus, in this book, the Marxian basis of historical events is taken almost as a given; what can make history worth writing, and what can make some history worth reading, is the understanding of all the multifarious ways in which the general stimulus is related to the particular response.
Another personal statement had better be made now. Because of the vastness of the subject, I have had to be highly selective. The choice of major themes, each of which forms the subject matter of one chapter, is necessarily personal and judgmental. And I have deliberately made no attempt to conceal my prejudices: for me, however unrealistic or incoherent, the anarchist fathers had a magnificent vision of the possibilities of urban civilization, which deserves to be remembered and celebrated; Corbusier, the Rasputin of this tale, in contrast represents the counter-tradition of authoritarian planning, the evil consequences of which are ever with us. The reader may well disagree with these judgments, at least with the intemperance with which they are sometimes put; I would plead that I did not write the book with cozy consensus in mind.
There is another problem, of a more pedestrian technical kind. It is that many historical events stubbornly refuse to follow a neat chronological sequence. Particularly is this true of the history of ideas: the products of human intelligence derive from others, branch out, fuse, lie dormant, or are awakened in exceedingly complex ways, which seldom permit of any neat linear description. Worse, they do not readily submit to any schematic ordering either. So the analyst who seeks to write an account around a series of main themes will find that they crisscross in a thoroughly disorderly and confusing way. He will constantly be reminded of the advice from the stage-Irishman in that old and overworked tale: to get to there, he shouldn’t start from here at all. The solution perforce adopted here is to tell each story separately and in parallel: each theme, each idea, is traced through, sometimes down six or seven decades. That will mean constantly going back in history, so that quite often things will come out backwards-forwards. It will also mean that quite often, the order in which you read the chapters does not much matter. That is not quite true; I have given much thought to putting them in the least confusing sequence, that is, the most logical in terms of the evolution and interaction of ideas. But a warning is due: often, it will not quite work out.
And this problem is compounded by another. In practice, the planning of cities merges almost imperceptibly into the problems of cities, and those into the economics and sociology and politics of cities, and those in turn into the entire socio-economic-political-cultural life of the time; there is no end, no boundary, to the relationships, yet one – however arbitrary – must be set. The answer here is to tell just so much about the world as is necessary to explain the phenomenon of planning; to seat it firmly, Marxian-fashion, on its socio-economic base, thus to begin the really interesting part of the historian’s task. I have subsequently published a more general account of creativity in cities, including that special kind of creativity that is directed to solving the city’s problems3
much in the relevant section of the later book helps provide a background to this one, and can even be regarded as a complement to it, even though they were written in the wrong order.
But even that decision leaves remaining boundary disputes. The first concerns the meaning of that highly elastic phrase, city (or town) planning. Almost everyone since Patrick Geddes would agree that it has to include the planning of the region around the city; many, again following the lead of Geddes and of the Regional Planning Association of America, would extend that out to embrace the natural region, such as a river basin or a unit with a particular regional culture. And virtually all planners would...