Building to Code

Urban planning, which imagines the city as manageable technology, needs to re-center the human

Building to Code is a monthly column about how we live among cities and each other. It regards cities as what they’ve always been: not systems of capitalist resource management, but the stages that society plays out on.

Patrick Geddes, in the first few pages of his 1915 book Cities in Evolution, warns the reader that “a new social science is forming” that will be as fundamental and indispensable to modern life as agriculture. He called it “civics” but today we might more readily recognize it as urban planning. A botanist by training, Geddes’s anarchist political convictions drove him to solve the problems of the Victorian city: overcrowding, sanitation, and the indignities of factory work.

Urban planning has quickly gone from radical to reformist: a new system of capitalist resource management

Cities have always been administered in some way — even the Epic of Gilgamesh has a few lines about how to plan out a city and what sorts of bricks are best used for buildings — but at the turn of the 20th century the art of the powerful had become infused with the analytic and rhetorical power of science. European and American cities up to this point were organized by liberal arts-educated elites who were expert in a region, not in cities generally. Baron Haussmann, who oversaw the rebuilding of Paris under Napoleon III, rose through the ranks of Paris’s public administration bureaucracy, but his formal training was in law and music. Peter Charles L’Enfant, the civil engineer who planned out Washington D.C. was an artist, having studied at the Louvre, and before he was asked to plan the new capital sketched and painted several portraits of George Washington. This new method would treat cities as an object of study rather than a subject of art. It would combine sociology, economics, and agricultural sciences into a single, rational system of development that would serve the masses.

In 1937, a student of Geddes and public intellectual in his own right, Lewis Mumford, addressed an audience of urban planners eager to relieve the suffering of a depressed nation. Mumford’s speech came at a formative moment for the profession. Geddes had ushered a quiet revolution, along with his fellow self-described anarchist Ebenezer Howard, whose To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform had outlined a plan for the working classes to secede from capitalist London and slowly build a network of interconnected and self-sufficient towns that he called garden cities. After a few false starts Howard pivoted his message, opting to call himself an inventor rather than a reformer, and re-published the book under the more futuristic-sounding Garden Cities of To-Morrow. His ideas were eventually put into practice and he founded the towns of Letchworth and Welwyn in 1903 and 1920, respectively.

In the United States a young journalist named Jacob Riis read about cutting-edge flash photography technology, and used it to literally illuminate the slums of New York in How the Other Half Lives, which set off a national debate about the health and safety of big cities. Meanwhile, railroads, streetcars, and then automobiles had transformed the landscape at a breakneck pace, and for the first time it seemed possible that a single society could inhabit vast swaths of the landscape. But urban planning, though still a nascent discipline, had quickly gone from radical to reformist: an elite profession with licenses, degrees, textbooks, and best practices, aimed less at delivering utopia than a new system of capitalist resource management expertly managed from above.

Cities are seen first and foremost as places for transportation technologies, data centers, and app-based services, with people a distant second

Mumford, always a proponent of both human dignity and the possibility of societal improvement, hoped that his teacher’s radical ideas could be resurrected. In his speech he urged his audience to think of “the city as theater, that man’s more purposive activities are focused, and work out, through conflicting and cooperating personalities, events, groups, into more significant culminations.” The design of the city could either “deflate” social drama or “make the drama more richly significant, as a stage-set, well-designed, intensifies and underlines the gestures of the actors and the action of the play.”

His solution mirrored Howard’s — a total rebrand of urban planning’s utopian qualities, complete with scientistic jargon. Instead of garden cities he implored the audience to build a “‘polynucleic city’ in which a cluster of communities, adequately spaced and bounded” would strike a balance between the rural and the urban. Instead of one gigantic metropolis, Mumford described a string of smaller towns that, while dense enough to be walkable, would have ample space in-between for nature and agriculture. The highly trained experts in his audience could transform society itself, not “merely through better technical organization but through acuter sociological understanding.”

Mumford’s wish has been granted a thousand times over, but it must have been granted by monkey’s paw. As of a decade ago, for the first time in recorded history, more than half of living humans live in a city. We live, however, in golem cities — superficial husks that mimic the look of the garden city with their sweeping roads connecting decentralized urban regions of moderate density but are better at facilitating the consumption of mass-produced goods than producing the food and resources necessary for local self-sufficiency. Most city dwellers spend hours in cars and transit that traverse our low-density metros at great personal and public cost. The average American spends nearly half an hour on their daily commute, the longest it’s ever been. Even though cities’ densities should bring work and home closer together we find the opposite: the shortest times are in Cheyenne, Wyoming and Grand Forks, North Dakota. In Los Angeles the poorly knit together six-hour commutes with cars, trains, and buses as the rich plan subterranean slingshots for their sports cars.

We are living in the polynucleic city vision stripped of its political critique: Instead of dozens of downtowns spread out across a county, each with their own government and self-sufficient economy, suburban townships are little more than lifestyle brands draped over identical consumption patterns. Meanwhile, in city centers large and small, the urban form that the journalist and activist Jane Jacobs saw as integral to neighborhoods’ self-regulating behavior — small-scale buildings that make it possible to watch the street and interact with your neighbors — is a luxury good for, ironically, the rich who can rent out all the help they need.

What both Mumford and Jacobs feared — that those in charge of cities would see them only as an agglomeration of utilities, balance sheets, and geographic features to be managed — has come to pass. From the Facebook Group New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens to the Atlantic‘s CityLab vertical co-founded by Richard Florida, cities are seen first and foremost as places for transportation technologies, data centers, and app-based services, with people a distant second. Even the most well-intended interventions — installing bike lanes, light rail, and public wi-fi —  either fall short of their promises or, worse, are caught up in the insidious real estate market which takes any land improvement as a reason to increase rents and cost of living.

What I want to do with this column is ask: How do we want to live among technology and each other? Why are cities treated like app platforms?

The planning profession has never exhibited all of the humanistic qualities it should, but we seem to be at a high-water mark of technical proficiency over holistic artistry. Urban planning departments teach young planners strategies for “dealing” with the public, not engaging them as thinking members of a community. Community members are subjected to a litany of fear and nostalgia in their media — from if-it-bleeds-it-leads local news to saccharine odes to family businesses such that they can only imagine being happy with buildings that can no longer be built: quaint relics of the past that look like they’re from a Dickensian novel or a Coen Brothers film.

Today, as corporate data monopolies and governments headed by strongmen remake society in their image, we find comfort in an idealized past. But in idealizing the brownstone or the industrial loft we lose sight of their embedded politics: the sorts of capitalist societies that these buildings were meant to house. In so doing we fail to do the hard work of re-imagining the city for a new society.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, liked to call homes “machines to live in” and designed that way: highly engineered, purpose-built buildings that left little room for the messiness that we associate with urban life. Mumford, in his two-volume Myth of the Machine, called complex societies “megamachines,” comprising practices, inventions, and human organizations. Hidden within this metaphor is the implication that human habitats can be perfected and driven towards something. It is a profoundly ambitious idea full of both avarice and opportunity, fascism and communism.

The myth that we could build a machine worth living in — a perfectly efficient system that provided for every need without imposing a dehumanizing level of uniformity — doesn’t seem possible anymore. A modest two miles of track expansion to the New York City subway is hailed by the governor as something akin to a moon landing while the over 600 miles of existing track crumbles and burns. Fast-growing cities like Accra, Ghana and Lagos, Nigeria are facing the same problems of squalor, traffic and pollution that London and Chicago experienced a hundred years hence, with the added challenges of fine-grain control by American, European and Chinese technology firms seeking new “smart city” technology markets. Such systems do more to render the city more visible to administrators — simplifying complicated ideas like “happiness” into a series of numbers readable on a dashboard — than tangibly change the everyday lives of citizens. We’re getting further away from the original intentions of urban planning every day.

The fact that rapidly growing cities are experiencing a new spin on old problems, instead of leapfrogging American and European mistakes is unsettling. Are the growing pains of cities more intrinsic to urbanization than Howard believed, or have we yet to try something truly new in city-making? The only way to find out is to re-center the human in the city. What I want to do with this column is ask: How do we want to live among technology and each other? Why are cities treated like app platforms? What should you demand when the design consultants come to town talking about a “master” or “comprehensive” plan? What does a democratic society physically look like? How can a love of cars but a hatred of the suburbs be squared in a single design critique?

While it may be tempting to respond to emergencies like income inequality and climate catastrophe with hardnosed policy proposals, we would be skipping the crucial step of determining how it is that we want to ride out the coming storm. It is precisely at these moments of looming danger that we have to confront not only the threat itself but our judgements of what needs saving. There will be countless controversies and contests for power in the coming years over who will live where and what constitutes a dignified home. Mumford and his ilk saw the machine — whether literal technical devices or mechanistic human systems — as the most important thing to study. They wanted to understand how societies’ myths and values shaped technology. Perhaps a better way to approach this work is to seek out the myths embedded in our machines. How the values embedded in technology foreclose and open new opportunities. Most coverage of cities today treat them as sites of cultural consumption or technological experimentation but here I will regard cities as what they’ve always been: the stages that society plays out on.

David A. Banks writes about cities, technology, and society from Troy, NY.