A magazine editor compiling a millennial list recently asked me which city I thought would qualify as the Best of the Millennium. This is a frivolous question that leads to serious reflection. To begin with, what exactly does “best” mean when it comes to a city? Once, the answer was easy—best simply meant biggest. When Samuel Johnson told Boswell, “No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” he was describing the largest city in the world. Eighteenth-century London had one million inhabitants, not a large city by today’s standards when there are more than twenty so-called megacities whose population exceeds ten million. Yet few would suggest that such behemoths as Mexico City or São Paulo contain “all that life can afford.”
If best is taken to mean most beau-tiful architecturally, or best planned, or most admirably sited, there are many candidates. I would nominate sixteenth-century Venice (for beauty), seventeenth-century Amsterdam (for planning), and modern-day Rio de Janeiro or Hong Kong (for their sites). Best can mean most economically powerful, as Philadelphia was in the nineteenth century, or politically powerful, as London was during the British Empire, or Moscow during the cold war. Or the best place to live. The United Nations recently judged Toronto to be among the most livable cities in the world. The UN measured civic amenities, urban services, governance, and levels of pollution and crime. Yet how is one to compare Toronto, which Peter Ustinov once described as New York City run by the Swiss (actually, Chicago run by the Swedes would be more accurate), with quattrocento Florence, say, a city of sublime architecture and despotic politics, or eighteenth-century Vienna, where you could hear the music of Mozart and Haydn but there were no sewers?
Perhaps the best city is simply the one that the most people admire. At any particular time there is usually one city in the world that is seen as exemplary, whose architecture is emulated, whose institutions set the fashion, and whose manners and way of life are taken to be the international standard. London during the nineteenth century, Paris during the first half of the twentieth, and New York City today were—are—such cities. Their primacy is measured by their influence. Few cities have been as influential as Rome, a city that during the last millennium exerted a rare influence on Western culture, not once but twice. The first time, in mid-millennium, the crumbling ruins of antiquity provided Renaissance architects from Brunelleschi to Palladio with models which they used to create a great humanist architectural revolution. The second time, Rome’s Baroque architecture and the grand designs of Sixtus V combined to create a city that inspired succeeding generations of town planners: L’Enfant, Baron Haussmann, Charles McKim, Albert Speer. Hardly eternal, but it had a good long run.
It is much too early to speculate about the most influential city of the coming millennium, but what about the twenty-first century? Will one of the so-called world cities—New York, London, Tokyo—that are so powerful today still dominate the scene one hundred years from now? Will Shanghai, or some as yet unbuilt Chinese city, take the center of the stage as the People’s Republic flexes its demographic muscles? Or will the megacities become so swollen with population and pollution that people will admire a small city whose prosperity, climate, and natural surroundings create a particularly agreeable place: Vancouver, San Francisco, Sydney?
The future of cities is hard to predict. Few would have guessed in 1950 that Berlin, ruined, divided, and isolated from the West, would fifty years later be on the brink of becoming the premier city of a united Europe. Or that Moscow, for decades the grim, self-confident headquarters of global revolution, would end the century by slipping into economic decline and gangsterism, while some of its neighborhoods are now more attractive than they have been for many years. Or that Shanghai, once known as the Whore of China, would come to resemble Houston. Yet we should have guessed, for cities have always exhibited a remarkable resilience. In that regard, “dead” cities like Pompeii or Chichén Itzá were exceptional. Urban history is punctuated by disasters—the Rape of Rome, the Great Fire of London, the Chicago Fire, the San Francisco earthquake, the destruction of Warsaw—that are followed before long by urban rebirths. Once a city sets down roots in a particular place, even if briefly, as in the cases of Chicago and San Francisco, the urge to rebuild seems unstoppable.
Cities have often been threatened by technology. Directly, in the case of gunpowder and the atomic bomb, and indirectly, in the case of inadequate sanitation (which contributed to the great urban plagues of the fourteenth century) and the automobile (whose freeways destroyed many American inner-city neighborhoods in the 1960s). Today some writers point to the Internet- driven dispersal of commerce, industry, housing, and recreation as portents of a future without cities—or, at least, without important cities. Yet cities show no immediate signs of disappearing; far from it. While the old manufacturing centers of the northeastern United States have had heavy losses of jobs and people over the last fifty years (a loss hidden, in the case of New York City, by large-scale immigration), most cities, particularly the new cities of the West and Southwest, are growing vigorously. The annual lists of “best places to live,” which often cite small towns and coastal counties, also regularly include cities such as Seattle, San Diego, Austin, and San Francisco. Indeed, despite the suburbanization of the mid-dle class, the continued importance of metropolitan regions as places of innovation and prestigious centers of finance, fashion, and media is one of the significant, and unexpected, developments of the last decade. It is the dot-com millionaires, the e-commerce venture capitalists, and the new technology adepts who are often most drawn to cities. Cities continue to be the stage where economic strivers can strut their stuff.
What attracts people to cities, whether they are young entrepreneurs flocking to Boston or retirees moving from the suburbs to downtown Philadelphia, is what Joseph Rykwert calls the “seduction of place,” the title of his new book. “Sociologists, traffic experts, and politicians have all written at length about the city and its present problems,” he observes. “Reading them I have always been struck at how little the physical fabric of the city—its touch and smell as well as its sights—occupies their attention.” Rykwert is surely right. Cities are centers of power, employment, and innovation, but they are also human creations, artifacts, and create their own distinctive moods.
Rykwert, who long taught at the University of Pennsylvania, where he recently retired as Paul Philippe Cret Professor of Architecture, was trained as an architect in Britain but is widely known as an architectural critic and historian. He is the author of the influential On Adam’s House in Paradise: The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History. His first book, The Idea of a Town, dealt with town-making rituals in ancient Greece and Rome; in The Seduction of Place his concern is the modern city, and how it got that way. He brings his wide knowledge of the built past to the subject, but avoids the common trap of considering urbanism as architecture writ large. “A city can never be a unified work of art or a beautiful object,” he writes; “all sorts of things buffet and push human intentions about.”
The buffeting, and its effect on the physical fabric of cities and on our experience of them, is the subject of The Seduction of Place, which skips nimbly about the globe. While it does not present any startling new ideas, it provides a reflective overview of several hundred years of urban history. Since Lewis Mumford’s City in History, there have been several encyclopedic urban histories, notably Spiro Kostof’s two-volume survey, The City Shaped and The City Assembled, and most recently Peter Hall’s monumental Cities in Civilization. The Seduction of Place reads more like a graduate seminar, far-ranging, idiosyncratic, discursive, with the erudite professor speculating at length and regularly digressing along the way.
“Points of orientation are essential for any sane urban or rural living,” Rykwert writes, reminding us that one of the drawbacks of modern cities is their lack of particularity. The combination of housing and offices that are designed according to well-established real estate development formulas produces a homogenous and standardized urban landscape. So do franchised hotels, stores, and restaurants. The gains in convenience and economy may be great, but so are the losses in individual identity. All the more reason, Rykwert argues, to pay attention to public and quasi-public buildings—city halls, courthouses, museums, concert halls. He devotes a chapter to civic architecture and recounts the stories of the building of the League of Nations headquarters in Geneva, the United Nations in Manhattan, whose site was provided by the Rockefellers, and federal buildings in Washington, D.C.
He also includes a discussion of the architecture of Beijing, which, under the influence of Soviet Russia, adopted a “spiky Russo-Palladian-Chinoiserie style.” He sees the dramatic new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as a model for other public buildings, which “must now receive the sort of attention that can give them an analogous drawing power.” The new generation of US federal courthouses, designed by distinguished architects like Richard Meier, Robert A.M. Stern, and the firm of Pei Cobb Freed, may suggest the beginning of such a trend in this country.
Good buildings make better cities, but what has influenced the appearance of American cities more than architecture is the automobile. Rykwert, who confesses to not being a driver, devotes some space to the impact of the automobile on city life. Here he tells a familiar story, quoting Charles Wilson, president of GM—“What’s good for General Motors is good for America and vice versa”—and characteristically providing interesting digressions. For example, Daniel Burnham, who devised the Plan of Chicago in 1906–1908, was a keen driver who owned no fewer than three cars; but he produced a wonderfully Parisian-style design that paid only lip service to automobile traffic (unlike Le Corbusier’s notorious 1925 plan for Paris, which would have knocked down some of Paris’s most attractive quartiers). When Raymond Unwin, the chief architect and planner of the British Garden City movement, visited New York City, he made an alarming study showing that if only one tenth of the 14,000 people who worked in the newly built Woolworth Building owned cars and drove them to work, they would need six to seven miles of roadway to accommodate them during the day. “Owing to the fact that the motor car is used in America by people who do not employ a chauffeur,” observed Unwin, “the question of parking cars already presents an unsolved problem.” That was in 1922.
Rykwert writes not only about Ebenezer Howard and Garden Cities, but also about the American City Beautiful movement, the postwar British New Towns, and those two dysfunctional examples of modern city planning, the Brasília of Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, which lacked low-cost housing, and Corbusier’s Chandigarh. He also discusses other modern capitals such as New Delhi and Canberra. While such disparate international examples are interesting, they can also sometimes be a bit distracting—one searches in vain for an organizing theme in Rykwert’s rambling book. Perhaps this lack reflects his view that while cities in the past have often presented a unified aspect, the fragmentary modern city has many faces:
The very condition of openness is what makes our city of conflicts so attractive to its growing crowd of inhabitants. The lack of any coherent, explicit, image may therefore, in our circumstances, be a positive virtue, not a fault at all, or even a problem.
Rykwert rejects attempts to homogenize the city. He is critical of the New Urbanism movement in the US, whose new planned communities—such as Disney’s town of Celebration near Orlando—he sees as dominated by corporate interests. Indeed, if there is a villain in The Seduction of Place, it is corporations, whether they are building theme parks in France, office towers in Shanghai, or gated communities in California. Such developments—even the so-called “communities”—are motivated not by civic interests but, quite simply, the drive for profit. Rykwert writes:
In the center [of Celebration] there is a very low, but many-columned town hall, and opposite it the most imposing building of the whole town, with an ornate, dominant outlook tower: the sales offices. That seems to demonstrate what the whole business of “community” at Celebration is “about”—it is about real estate….
Rykwert favors public intervention over such purely private ventures. He suggests, for example, that American municipalities should actively participate in the local sports industry rather than passively providing the expen-sive public infrastructure for private “home” teams. He admires planning that brings together political and communal activities, as exemplified by the recent projects of the architect Miguel-Angel Roca in South America, which
give as much importance as possible to the seats of local government and…merge administrative and representative activities with communal ones: a small theater, ballrooms, libraries, a bar—all run as a part-private, part-public enterprise.
Yet it is also surely true that the fortunes of cities, especially American cities, have always been intimately bound up with private business and with real estate development. The jacket of The Seduction of Place carries a classic photograph of the Art Deco crowns of three of the most seductive buildings in Manhattan: the RCA Victor Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. All corporate creations, all built before World War II, all built for profit.
Despite his subtitle, “The City in the Twenty-First Century,” the author devotes only the final chapter to a cursory discussion of the urban future. He offers no grand prescription; quite the opposite. “It is not intoxication and grandiloquence we need now, but sobriety and effective action,” he writes. And he adds, paraphrasing Burnham, “Therefore, make little plans, say I—and lots of them.” “Yes, but…,” the reader wants to say. Surely, in addition to the myriad small-scale urban problems that call for interesting but limited solutions, there are also large-scale projects that require a corresponding vision from both public agencies and private corporations. In Manhattan, for example, one thinks of Roosevelt Island and Battery Park City, the partly rebuilt Times Square, and the plans for the new Pennsylvania Station, as well as the redevelopment of the Metropolitan Transit Authority rail yards between 30th and 34th Streets on the West Side, recently the subject of an architectural competition. In each case imaginative conceptions have been needed and still are. After all, without the big plans that produced projects such as Central Park and Rockefeller Center, Manhattan would be a considerably less seductive place.
Books such as The Seduction of Place, whose discussion of cities moves easily from one continent to another, present the modern city as an international phenomenon. This impression is reinforced by television reports of Gucci shops in Moscow or McDonald’s franchises in Beijing, presented as triumphant symbols of internationalization. A recent collection of essays on cities around the world breathlessly describes the “network of global cities and their cosmopolitan elite as the force that steers the development of nations.”* No doubt the city, like everything else, is affected by globalization. The downtown office towers in Shanghai and Houston look similar—they are probably designed by the same globe-trotting architects. But the similarity is superficial; Shanghai is not Houston. The physical form of the two cities is shaped by intensely local forces—the availability and ownership of land, forms of transportation, financing arrangements, and so on.
Cities are the beneficiaries, or victims, of national policies, whether in housing, education, energy, or taxation. In Canada, for example, where I used to live, there is no mortgage-interest tax deduction for home owners. While the home ownership rate in Canada is comparable to that in the United States, there is no similar incentive for people to invest in housing. The result is smaller houses, smaller lots, and consequently denser cities. For example, Toronto has nine feet of road per inhabitant, considerably less than even the densest American cities such as New York City (15.5 feet) and Chicago (16.5 feet).
In Laws of the Landscape, Pietro S. Nivola, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written a short but fascinating study of how public policies have shaped cities, with emphasis on the difference between the US and Europe. For one thing, postwar American cities have sprawled further and further into the surrounding communities and farmlands, while European cities have not. Nivola presents a number of explanations for this contrasting situation, reflecting the fact that the United States is so large that vacant land has not been a scarce commodity. As a result, New York City, the densest American city, has one third the number of people per square mile as Frankfurt; there is more than twice as much length of road per inhabitant in New York as in London, and five times as much as in Paris.
Still, what chiefly drives the expansion of American cities is not land availability but demand. Thanks largely to immigration, the US population has grown significantly faster than that of any European nation—by 74 percent between 1950 and 1996, compared with 20 percent in Germany and Italy, and 15 percent in the UK. It is not surprising that European cities haven’t sprawled out more—they haven’t needed to, even with growing immigration from Africa and Asia. Internal migration within America and Europe is also a factor. Even in a united Europe, it is impossible to imagine tens of millions of Germans and Frenchmen moving to Italy and Spain, for example. Yet exactly this has happened in the US, as the demographic, and economic, center of the country has moved south and west, affecting cities such as Atlanta, San Diego, and Phoenix.
Continental European cities have traditionally been characterized by dense arrangements of multistory buildings housing a variety of occupants: servants in the basement, upper-class families on the main floor, and low-income renters in the attic. Such arrangements have rarely been popular in American cities, where people have preferred to live in separate houses or in apartment buildings in which their neighbors are in roughly the same income group. As Nivola points out, an important difference between America and Europe is that American cities have always been home to large numbers of immigrants. In 1993, almost 10 percent of the US population was foreign-born, compared to only 2 percent in Italy. That same year, the US had more people of foreign origin than France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, and Japan combined (20 million vs. 15 million). One consequence of such diversity is that many people from very different backgrounds chose to spread out (yet stay near people with whom they felt affinities), rather than live in close proximity to one another. “Plainly stated, a good deal of sprawl in this country may be a necessary complement to its extreme multiculturalism,” writes Nivola.
Finally, steel construction, elevators, electrification, telephones, television, and air conditioning were either invented in the US or first became popular here; and technologies have changed the physical form of cities. Steel construction and elevators made it possible to build skyscrapers for working and living; telephones and television fostered the growth of low-density suburbs as air conditioning did the growth of Sunbelt cities. By the mid-1920s, more than half of American families owned a car, forty years before Europe attained the same level. Trucks were crucial in making it possible for manufacturing plants and warehouses to move away from congested cities into the suburbs.
The differences with Europe are further explained by specific government policies. Between 1977 and 1995, all the various US governments spent only 14 percent of their transportation budgets on mass transit and Amtrak, the balance going to highways and roads; the British and French regularly spend 40 to 60 percent of their transportation outlays on mass transit and rail. The American dependence on automobile transport is likewise reflected in the taxes on gasoline, which in 1996 were more than five times lower than in Britain, seven times lower than in Germany, and eight times lower than in the Netherlands. It is hardly surprising that European cities are designed for walking and, in Amsterdam, bicycling. Incidentally, as Nivola points out, the use of American automobiles has little to do with the overall size of the country; two thirds of all American car travel is urban, and 90 percent of all trips are of less than ten miles.
In America, public housing is restricted to the very poor, and is usually concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods; in most European countries, public housing is available to a wider range of people and is located in peripheral districts whose residents have mixed incomes. American housing policy has favored ownership and has tended to benefit suburban homeowners rather than urban tenants. The opposite is true in many northern European countries (France, Germany, the Netherlands), although it should be noted that home ownership rates in Italy and Ireland are higher than in the US and those in Britain are comparable. American taxation, with its emphasis on income taxes and property taxes, encourages consumption; conversely, European consumption taxes tend to penalize the purchase of cars, gasoline, household goods, and houses.
Moreover, in 1995, the average subsidy to agriculture in the European Union was more than ten times higher than in the US. This has produced high food prices, but it has also kept farmers on their land, which greatly limits the ability of cities to sprawl. And France, Italy, and Germany all have laws that effectively support small, family-run businesses, thereby restricting shopping malls, outlet malls, and discount stores. The result is a very different urban landscape.
Nivola questions the claim that low-density urbanization on the American model is inherently inefficient. After all, he argues, if Americans are willing to pay for low density, what is inefficient about that? Nivola is resigned to the fact that a heterogeneous democracy is unlikely to produce cities as beautiful as Rome or Paris. But he reminds us that while everyone appreciates the Paris cityscape, there may be a price to pay for the heavy hand of planned development that protects it. “The region of Paris, the most dynamic in France, managed to create only 400,000 jobs from 1975 to 1990. Meanwhile, during a comparable period, the New York region with a population less than twice as large created 1.8 million jobs—four and a half times as many.”
Nivola is skeptical of the conventional remedies for America’s urban problems, including enterprise zones, tax incentives, and other failed federal programs. Mass transportation schemes will be extremely difficult to carry out, he argues, since legislatures will be reluctant to levy the higher taxes on gasoline and car owners that could change longstanding habits. For his part, Nivola proposes a national sales tax on consumption; a transportation policy based on setting prices for highway use, instead of higher taxes on gas; and like practically everyone else, he wants to improve schools and reduce crime. Such nostrums come as somewhat of a letdown, but they reflect his skepticism about radically remaking American society. “Even if it were possible, say, to lavish more subsidies on farmers, repeal tax preferences for homeowners, and tie large retailers in anti-competitive knots to protect small urban shopkeepers,” he observes, “such choices would almost certainly leave most Americans worse off.”
According to Nivola, it would be a mistake to remake our cities in a European image, even if that were possible. American urbanism and American sprawl have been a reaction to a particular set of circumstances. “Suburbanization has been largely a natural process, accommodating a vibrant, technologically dazzling economy and a growing population in a land with vast territories and resources,” he writes. Joseph Rykwert asks the question “Do we have the cities we deserve?” Nivola’s answer seems to be a qualified yes. It is qualified because it is too easily assumed that there is an identifiable “we”; the views and preferences of millions of people about the way that they live now remain obscure and ambiguous. That is why the destinies of cities have never been predictable, no matter how much we analyze the future, or the past.
June 21, 2001