The Magical Metropolis of Our Dreams Becomes a Real Ghost Town

Brazil’s Brasília

Brazil’s Brasília, a planned city that took years to inhabit. (Wiki)



In our current polarized atmosphere, it helps to take a break from heated arguments and instead examine policy ideas that both sides of the aisle seem to agree are bad.

In this case, that policy idea is the proposed building of a whole new slate of U.S. cities. This curious idea was proposed recently by one of our most polarizing political figures.

“Freedom Cities will be built on federal land that is undeveloped and not part of any of our country’s magnificent national parks or other natural treasures. These cities will give hundreds of thousands of hardworking American families a new opportunity for home ownership and the American Dream,” Donald Trump’s campaign site claimed.

This promised “giant infusion of wealth into RURAL [the Trump site’s all-caps, not mine] America” invokes a race against China for similar cities. It also teases a futuristic reference to infrastructure supporting “vertical takeoff-and-landing vehicles to lead the next generation in air mobility.”

The response from liberals was mostly silence. Why entertain an idea from someone who has so many court dates on his schedule? Even partisan GOP sounding boards responded with a large dollop of derision. Conservative TV pundit Greg Gutfeld called the idea “optimism on meth.”

“Planned cities,” or “Future Cities” as they are also sometimes called, are not altogether new. Las Vegas hatched after our nation’s nascent railroad connected Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, then blossomed with legalized gambling. Los Angeles and Phoenix are continuing experiments in growth pushing up against water scarcity. With oil money to burn, the Gulf States of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain can afford to build lavish metropolises of new construction. 

The world’s oldest cities arose from a mix of geography and history. Settle near fertile land (teeming hunting grounds do not hurt, either) near a source of water (or, better yet, a port) and voila! Damascus, Alexandria, Lagos, and London were never planned. Given their long history, they now seem destined. Plagues, war, and political divisions have felled cities and given rise to new ones. “There was party strife in nearly all the cities,” Thucydides wrote in the fifth century B.C., describing the ancient Greek army’s return from Troy, “and those who were driven into exile founded new cities.”

There is evidence that some cities have imposed plans of urban design that successfully bend the arch of human behavior for the better, e.g., Paris and Berlin. There is also plenty of evidence that, here in the United States, we are either stubbornly resistant to the plans of urban designers, or just plain bad at planning cities everyone can afford. Our national urban landscape is littered with vacant lots, public housing nightmares, iffy architecture, and suburban sidewalks that seemingly exist in a vacuum because scant few people use them. The center of our planning gravity remains the car. Increasingly, the car is where we also live.

A large part of Trump’s move to “charter new cities” undoubtedly involves lashing out at big “crime-ridden” U.S. cities run by Democrats. But it would not hurt to admit that the idea at least attempts to address the nation’s current housing shortage and the rising costs of living.

Urban planning in the United States seems to sprout success when it starts small, with plans to end big. Mountain House, California, was first planned in 1994 around the “smart growth” ethos that chipping out parcels and changing zoning laws to attract developers was fine, but still insufficient. Instead, “the goal was to address growth pressures with minimum impacts on agriculture as well as existing cities,” according to a commentator in the local Mantica/Rippon Bulletin. Twenty years after breaking ground, Mountain House continues to grow.

History shows that it also helps to curb artistic impulses born of idealistic visions of what a city or community ought to look like.

The late Australian art critic and art historian Robert Hughes best documented the trap of artists’ utopian visions in his 1980 book, The Shock of the New. With the end of the nineteenth century, architects and artists such as Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and art movements in Germany (Bauhaus) and the Netherlands (De Stijl) thirsted for artistic principles that might transform public life. Instead, they dispensed with most pragmatic considerations altogether to create armchairs few wanted to sit in and buildings too imposing and obscurely designed for everyday, community living. Le Corbusier’s own aesthetic was so dour he designed an apartment complex, the Unité d’Habitation south of Marseilles, without windows in rooms meant for children.

With access to Brazil’s official purse strings, two South American architects and urban planners—Lúcìo Costa and Oscar Niemeyer—took Le Corbusier’s principles to heart to design Brasília, that country’s official “City of the Future.” The year it opened, 1960, was the year it also started to crumble from atrophy. What was supposed to be a bustling city of tomorrow instead became, as Hughes described it, “yesterday’s science fiction.”

Hughes had many other objections, writing: “What seems obvious now was rank heresy to the modern movement: the fact that societies cannot be architecturally ‘purified’ without a thousand grating invasions of freedom. … It is better to recycle what exists, to avoid mortgaging a workable past to a nonexistent Future, and to think small. In the life of cities, only conservatism is sanity.” Fast forward forty-three years after Hughes wrote those words, and it is easy to conclude that Trump’s vision for “Freedom Cities” might be far more progressive than he would care to admit.

Jane Jacobs also warned against grand ambitions in urban planning in her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. What mattered above and beyond large-scale plans of urban renewal, Jacobs said, was intentional mixed-use developments in select neighborhoods, plus a healthy respect for the lowly sidewalk, preferably at least thirty feet wide. With enough walkable space, resulting in “eyes on the street,” public spaces become a stage for spontaneous “dance.” When people are thrown spontaneously together on sidewalks, community “happens” and crime trends downward.

St. Louis had its own sad story of urban planning gone wrong in Pruitt-Igoe, a modern public housing complex of thirty-three eleven-story buildings on fifty-seven acres designed and built expressly for poor and working-class people. Few who lived there cared that “P.I.” was lauded by architects worldwide, or that it was inspired, like Brasília, by Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse philosophy of the “Radiant City.” Those who lived there recount how its allegedly inspired design could save Pruitt-Igoe from St. Louis’ racial divide, or a tax base and Housing Authority unable to provide building maintenance and security. Hughes, too, documented Pruitt Igoe’s demise in the televised version of his now-famous book. (See 48:30 in “The Shock of the New-Episode 4-Trouble in Utopia”)

Five years after all thirty-three buildings of Pruitt-Igoe were leveled by strategic demolition in 1972, the Talking Heads wrote a spry, dryly ironic critique of public housing in their pop song “Don’t Worry About the Government.” Singer David Byrne intoned his song’s lyrics as if they were a quiet prayer: “Some civil servants are just like my loved ones/They work so hard and they try to be strong/I’m a lucky guy to live in my building.”

Years after Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green met a similar fate, it became the setting of the 1992 horror film Candy Man. Apart from racism made material and human misery, ironic song lyrics and slasher flicks are also public housing’s cultural legacy.

Not all critiques of planned cities and artfully designed apartment buildings have turned out to be entirely fair, though. Decades after they were built, the two developments Hughes once lambasted have since become real-estate collector items for rich owners with inclinations toward “high art.” With more than a little remodeling and structural reconfiguration, Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation today houses upper-class French families who can afford the status of owning a piece of architectural history. Ditto for Brazil’s planned city of Brasília, today home to 2.5 million Brazilians who can afford to live miles away from millions of their poverty-stricken compatriots in densely-populated favelas.

Given several decades, money, and a certain angle on history perhaps planned cities can and do work on some level, and for certain people. The problem with politicians’ well-laid plans is that they rarely work for anyone but the well-off. Once we admit that, perhaps we can then forge a path toward new places, or even new cities, where the lower and middle classes can live.

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