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How City Planners Became So Timid

Almost a year ago, we read an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled: "How Economists Became So Timid." It was an enlightening read to hear from an economist who avoided the binary capitalist-communist, either/or pairing (or substitute 'socialist' in 2019 American political parlance). Even more enigmatic was the close parallels to City Planning.

After years of research and a wide range of implementation schemes, Animate's Kid Cities mechanism and infiniteTransit flyway are not the least timid: they are inspired methods for metropolises to move forward, with greater civility, in our century.

What follows is our interpretation of the similarities between the evolution of economists and city planners, in the last 200 years. It is an adaptation of “How Economists Became So Timid,” originally written by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl

May 06, 2018. Utimately both economists and city planners strive for better places, better environments for people to live.


The field used to be visionary. Now it’s just dull.

The late-19th-century field of "city planning," from which arose the modern fields of zoning, public health, transportation engineering, public policy, and geographic information systems (among others), contrasts sharply with its contemporary offspring. City planners drew on all the streams of academic speculation — they were as much philosophers as designers, and they recognized none of the distinctions among the various contemporary academic and bureaucratic silos. Moreover, they saw themselves as reformists, often radical reformists. The great figures in this tradition include Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Daniel Burnham, Le Corbusier. They and their followers searched for solutions to the major industrial, social, and urban crises of their times. In the process, they gave birth to most modern urban ideologies and much of the form of our present cities.

City planning has transitioned from a field of creative social visionaries to New Urbanists, filled with specialized technocrats.

Self-styled American and European radicals, for example, helped end disease-ridden industrial slums and expand the health and lives of the worker. The zoning-by-function ideology of European radicals and American Radical Republicans helped abolish overcrowding and slums, thus establishing a new basis for civilized political life. The late 19th century also witnessed the Cité Industrielle of Tony Garnier; influential at the time but now mostly forgotten, the cooperative ideologies of Pyotr Alexeevich Kropotkin; utopian places of Edward Bellamy and William Morris; the decentralized cities of Ludwig Hilberseimer and Frank Lloyd Wright; and the City Beautiful ideology of Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett. This ideology shaped the Progressive movement in the Western world, the zoning-by-function of International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM), and similarly in Communist cities living standards were increased (i.e. hot and cold running water, electricity, access to medicine and education, etc.). The public-health reforms of the early 20th century set the stage for the longest and most broadly shared growth of cities in human history.

Today, cities around the Western world have stagnated in population growth, while inequality has sharply increased. Most citizens in Western countries have seen their neighborhoods languish for a generation and have lost faith in the promise of widely shared social progress that has underpinned political stability since the Industrial Revolution. Disillusioned with the status quo, voters from the United States to Italy and beyond have joined reactionary populist movements of the right and left.

So where are the heirs of the City Planners? City Planning has fragmented into a series of disparate fields, none of which has the breadth, creativity, or courage to support the reformist visions that were crucial to navigating past crises.

The demise of city planning began in the late 20th century. As academia became more professionalized and specialized, city planning gave way to its successor disciplines — public health, transportation engineering, quantitative analysis, public policy, and the like. By its midcentury nadir, city planners hardly interacted with researchers in those other fields.

The transition from a field of creative social visionaries to one of specialized technocrats is epitomized by the story of the dissolution of International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM) and the emergence of Team X. Each had a foot in both worlds and was ambivalent about the change. In many ways, CIAM was the archetype of city planning as social order, proposing new highways and large urban interventions. Team X broke from ideas about a rigidly sub-divided city with a 1960 manifesto abandoning city planning and narrowing their focus "The appropriateness of any solution may lie in the field of architectural invention rather than social anthropology.”