To Design Cities Right, We Need to Focus on People

Article by Tim Keane: “Our work in the U.S. to make better neighborhoods, towns and cities is a hapless and obdurate mess. If you’ve attended a planning meeting anywhere, you have probably witnessed the miserable process in action—unrestrainedly selfish fighting about false choices and seemingly inane procedures. Rather than designing places for people, we see cities as a collection of mechanical problems with technical and legal solutions. We distract ourselves with the latest rebranded ideas about places—smart growth, resilient cities, complete streets, just cities, 15-minute cities, happy cities—rather than getting down to the actual work of designing the physical place. This lacks a fundamental vision. And it’s not succeeding.

Our flawed approach to city planning started a century ago. The first modern city plan was produced for Cincinnati in 1925 by the Technical Advisory Corporation, founded in 1913 by George Burdett Ford and E.P. Goodrich in New York City. New York adopted the country’s first comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1916, an effort Ford led. Not coincidentally, the advent of zoning, and then comprehensive planning, corresponded directly with the great migration of six million Black people from the South to Northern, Midwestern and Western cities. New city planning practices were a technical means to discriminate and exclude.

This first comprehensive plan also ushered in another type of dehumanization: city planning by formula. To justify widening downtown streets by cutting into sidewalks, engineers used a calculation that reflected the cost to operate an automobile in a congested area—including the cost of a human life, because crashes killed people. Engineers also calculated the value of a sidewalk through a formula based on how many people the elevators in adjoining buildings could deliver at peak times. In the end, Cincinnati’s planners recommended widening the streets for cars, which were becoming more common, by shrinking sidewalks. City planning became an engineering equation, and one focused on separating people and spreading the city out to the maximum extent possible…(More)”.