The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States
by John W. Reps
Princeton, 574 pp., $25.00
Despite the fact that it carries us only up to 1910 or thereabouts, this is the most comprehensive history of American city planning yet produced. It suffers from the inevitable consequences of comprehensiveness—lack of any great depth; but that will be filled in, either from other specialized studies already extant or by subsequent research clearly indicated by this work itself. For the very great merit of Professor Reps’s study is that it gives us, for the first time, a clear and coherent account of city-building in the New World. His material is chronologically organized: but this is not as simple as it sounds, for American theories of urban development have developed many odd twists, by-ways and cul-de-sacs. These are explored in fascinating detail.
The very concept of planning—that is, that cities were organisms whose forms and rates of development could be pre-established and controlled—was part of the Renaissance heritage which all the early settlers shared. Even without it, however, the concept would have had to be invented. For, as this book makes very clear, the seaboard city was the indispensable base of operations for the conquest of the virgin continent. And to found a brand-new city there had to be a plan. The first plans were applications of sixteenth and seventeenth-century European experience, of which the author provides a good introductory summary. Few of these early plans survived intact, of course. Rapid rates of growth (or of decay) would blot them out. Only here and there—in Savannah, New Orleans, Philadelphia—did any of these Renaissance layouts survive. But, nothing daunted, generation after generation planned new cities. All sorts of men with all kinds of motives: religious leaders, social reformers, land speculators, industrial and railroad tycoons. Professor Reps deals convincingly with all of them.
The format he has chosen is at once an asset and a liability to his material. Its great virtue is the lavish use of large illustrations, many of them rare or recondite subjects like the Mormon Nauvoo or company towns like Pullman and Gary. But it is apparently this format which has dictated a text which is episodic, at once factual and neutral, like the sound track for an illustrated lecture. And physically, the book is awkwardly shaped. For some perverse reason, the Princeton University Press has made it much wider than it is high, so that it is impossible to hold in one hand and difficult even with two. But these shortcomings do not seriously diminish the great value of this work, or the timeliness of its appearance.
The American people, more completely committed to an urban culture than any other in the world’s history, have nevertheless displayed, almost from the start, an ambivalent attitude toward the generator of that culture, the city itself. Professor Reps’s study deals with one wing of this bifurcated attitude—the pro-city parade of Utopians, Babbitts, grass-roots patriots, and plain comfort-seekers who have always seen the city as the new Jerusalem. But there has …