Designing new, purpose built cities is many an urban-planners’ dream come true; to creatively plot the outcome of an entire city from its inception is a rare opportunity. These opportunities have presented themselves before, usually in new-world nations wanting to impress with custom-built capitals or to settle scores between two competing extant cities. Walter Burley Griffin was bestowed with the honours of designing Canberra and Lúcio Costa with Brasilia, Australia and Brazil’s custom-built capitals.
Then there’s Paris, the existing city that received a complete urban-overhaul in the mid 1800’s by the revered Georges-Eugène Haussmann with his famous wide-avenue and spoke and radial urban plan that inspired famous urban designs for places like Chicago and Moscow. Then there’s Milton Keynes, the often maligned, custom-built city north of London; a purpose-built town of the automobile era.
All this begs the question, are custom-built cities models of excellent urban planning? Are new cities embracing a humanised-form of urbanism? Are pre-designed cities place-making? Are custom-designed urban entities enveloping their residents with warmth, beauty and liveability?
Few would argue against Paris, arguably considered the most beautiful urban environment in the world; the wide avenues, quaint streets, landscaped sidewalks, public gardens and grandiose buildings are world renowned. So much so, perhaps Haussmann can be called the most successful cupid of all time, creating a design that actually catalyses love.
People either love or hate Canberra, Australia’s answer to Washington DC. A city spawned by the need to settle a fight between Sydney and Melbourne of who would be the capital of the commonwealth. What sets it apart from Paris is its era of design. Construction commenced in 1913 and with its wide, radial avenues, giant open spaces and low-density plan. One could argue it was a model city for the garden cities movement. This era of inception also meant, planning accommodated a newcomer on the urban scene, the automobile.
Milton Keynes, designed as a “new city” to compliment a burgeoning greater London and Birmingham in 1967 is a custom-built city attempting to reinvent the garden city ideal. Its hierarchy of main routes, secondary roads and suburban streets, greenbelts, central commercial precincts and distinctly zoned areas was supposed to be revolutionary. So, what went wrong? Why do today’s Brits mock this city with such sadistic pleasure?
Herein lays two problems: Abandoning what happens organically and building beyond the human-scale.
When we plan cities from scratch, we create an idealised version of what we want to see, thus, our design egos can get in the way of what happens naturally. Yes, humans are an over-evolved animal, we also therefore organise ourselves organically in the absence of external factors. The way we naturally organise ourselves is often then most logical form of organisation, because as with anything in nature, the path of least resistance is followed.
The automobile muddled this up, taking us off our feet and placing us in a contraption eight times our size and multiplied our speed exponentially. This destroyed our ability to organise ourselves organically on a human-scale, so we began designing on a scale for eight-times our size and twenty times our speed. Technology altered the urban form to abandon humans in favour of the new sentient being in urban streets, the vehicle. This is what the nouveau garden city wished to marry, the human and automobile. However, the more we evolve the more we realise, two entities of two immensely differing scales is virtually, irreconcilable.
Do we design organically? Even with a century’s errors at our design disposal, the answer is: not really! Idealism and urban theory seems to trump plain, simple logic. Intrinsic knowledge of monkey-see-monkey-do is overcomplicated by academia of urban thought, personal design ego and pure idealism. Monkey-see-monkey-do: Observe what works, note what makes you feel comfortable within an urban space… and emulate. That easy!
Pearls of wisdom from Dennis Moss Senior: The urban environment is nothing but a series of interconnected outdoor rooms and corridors; each with its walls, its own ceiling and its perceived size. A human scale creates comfortable rooms for the human urban dweller. A vehicular scale creates comfortable rooms for the automobile.
So I extrapolate this wisdom. If we park outdoors as human-beings on café chairs, so the car parks outdoors on a huge paved spaces. Again, therein lays the inhumanity of recently custom-designed cities versus the glory of Paris. Paris has been built for humans to park in; Milton Keynes has been built for the car to park in. Anyone who has driven down Boulevard Saint Germain in Paris, versus most urban arterial routes in America will quickly notice the difference.
European streets often appear like a continuous wall of delight to the pedestrian; A plethora of bakeries, boutiques, bookstores and cafés, albeit, with the associated lack-of-parking. More often than not, a canopy of London Planes, Oaks or Maples forms a ceiling and a public square will open up, almost like an outdoor Living Room, at the street’s end.
American streets often appear as a wide ribbon of pavement, with wall-to-wall parking on either side and an isolated building within each lot; Buildings either being a fast-food joint, a chain-restaurant or convenience store, a small strip mall and a Barnes & Noble Booksellers to boot. A delight for the automobile with ample parking; However, the only place for a human to park, is within each disconnected building. No flow, no “continuous urban wall” and often, not even a sidewalk. Never mind the public square at the end of the street, as that would most likely be a freeway interchange.
Disclaimer: some quaint US towns still do have old-world character and a few larger urban centres are embracing new urbanism.
My point being, why on earth do we keep reinventing the wheel? Could we simply monkey-see-monkey-do the most charming and liveable custom-built city by simply designing it, as if not designed at all?
I admit: I am by no means an urban planner by academic background. My knowledge, historical context of urbanism and urban theory pales in comparison to industry norms, never mind the great urban minds. I am an urbanist only through some strange, deep intrinsic passion that I quite literally, was born with. Now, it may sound slightly freakish, but I have been designing cities since I was 10-years-old; more often than not, ignoring the cartoons on the TV in favour of the coloured pencils, ruler, pens and piece of paper in front of me.
I was that monkey: I saw, I did. I would design capital cities on a grand scale, but not relying on theory, academia or urbanist movements through the ages, but on pure feeling. I’m not trying to say my approach is correct, I’m not saying I can do it better. I must actually berate myself: I’m a Geology major, not an urban designer. Maybe what I’m simply trying to say is: we should trust our instincts more, feel our way through design and create urban environments by mimicking the natural path-of-least-resistance.
Perhaps human-scale organic growth was how it was meant to be in the first place – don’t over-complicate; Feel the city in your soul and you will create soul in the city