Let Us Build Us a City


Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563.

We humans never seem to tire of imagining and constructing the next city, searching for an ideal home. For millennia we have conjured up cities of intent – urban places that we have designed to represent certain purposes. These intended cities fall into one of at least three categories.

First there have been cities imagined to serve religious purposes: a Buelah land, a new Eden, a sheltering enclave. Babel, on a plain in the land of Shinar, was such a place. As was 18th century Ephrata in Pennsylvania, or 19th century Nauvoo, Joseph Smith’s city on the banks of the Mississippi in Illinois.


Nauvoo, Illinois, a Mormon city.

At other times we have imagined next cities to serve social aims. Some examples might include George Pullman’s oppressive company town of Pullman, now a part of Chicago, Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, imagined as a counterweight to the increasingly brutish 19th century cities of Britain, or perhaps even Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti outside of Phoenix.


Pullman, Illinois.

A third category might include cities intended to serve political purposes. L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C. is a good example, as capital to a newborn democracy. And here we could include Niemeyer’s Brasilia, Walter Burley Griffin’s Canberra in Australia, Lutyen’s Imperialist New Delhi, Corbusier’s Chandigarh in India, or Louis Kahn’s work in Bangladesh.


Lutyen’s New Delhi, from 20,000 feet.

The lists of cities and towns in each of these three categories is very, very long. I have kept my copy of John Reps’ indispensable “Town Planning in Frontier America” by my side these last several days, and I have read of an endless number of North American cities that have their origins in a desire to create a perfect new community in a new and ‘untamed’ landscape.

It’s interesting that so many of these places have actually turned out to be failures. Babel had The Lord as it’s principal critic, and terminator. Pullman had his riots. Nauvoo was attacked by suspicious neighbors, and abandoned overnight, literally. The work of imagining and constructing a durable new city turns out, not surprisingly, to be pretty difficult.

All sorts of places have made a claim to being ideal next places: Amana, East Aurora in upstate New York, Beijing, St. Petersburg, Teotihuacan, Levittown, Seaside. Whether commune, capital, or cottage colony, each is a powerful narrative of what concerns us most, what we value, “what matters (most) to us,” as philosopher Alain de Botton has said. We may not like what some of these places say, but their messages are crisp and clear.

And many of these cities and towns were imagined as antidotes, or as I have said, counterweights, to the perceived or real tyrannies of their moments. Perhaps the best example of this is The White City, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, created by Daniel Burnham et. al. as an antidote to the utter chaos of late 19th century wild west American urbanism, in no-holds-barred Chicago.


Chaotic Chicago, just after the Fair, and just before Burnham’s Plan, 1909.


The White City, Chicago, 1893.

And now? Now we face a new set of challenges as we dream of the next city. Scarcity, shortages, shifting climate and soaring populations are new and urgent urban determinants. These are the purposes to which we must now bend the city.

Some of the cities I have mentioned, and many I have not mentioned, failed because their environments collapsed. (Take a look at Jared Diamond’s extraordinary book, “Collapse,” a review of cities and societies that failed because of fundamental misunderstandings of their environments). But almost none of these places was designed based on the facts of finite and shrinking resources, or too many citizens.

As an architect, historian, and urbanist, I doubt that we can reshape our cities quickly enough to meet these new challenges. I am decidedly not an evironmental scientist, but I can easily sense that our society’s awareness of what lies ahead, and our willingness to act, is insufficient to the fate that is hurtling at us at a meteoric rate.

Our library here is filled with books by distinguished scholars, scientists, economists, and urbanists who try to exhort us to change our patterns of urban living. Some of these authors avow optimism about our ability to do what needs to be done to construct a sustainable and durable urban future. It all sounds like whistling in the dark to me.

We have been Letting Us Build Us a City for eons, never suspecting that finally time would run out on our ability to build in ignorance of consequences for a wider world. How quickly can we untangle a mess so long in the making? A decade? Two decades?

We live in a neighborhood here in Washington that is teeming with tiny children. We often wonder about the city these kids will leave their grandchildren, 3 generations on. Maybe some of them will discover the antidote to the last dozen generations of dead-end urbanism.

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