Redefining Le Corbusier's Radiant City
[Le Corbusier] devised in the 1920’s a dream city which he called the Radiant City, composed not of the low buildings beloved of the Decentrists, but instead mainly of skyscrapers within a park. “Suppose we are entering the city by way of the Great Park,” Le Corbusier wrote. “Our fast car takes the special elevated motor track between the majestic skyscrapers: as we approach nearer there is seen the repetition against the sky of the twenty-four skyscrapers; to our left and right on the outskirts of each particular area are the municipal and administrative buildings; and enclosing the space are the museums and university buildings. The whole city is a Park.”
-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

 

Le Corbusier's unrealized Plan Voisin for the city center of Paris (photo credit: BusinessInsider.com)

Le Corbusier's unrealized Plan Voisin for the city center of Paris (photo credit: BusinessInsider.com)

When thinking of a title for this blog, the expression 'radiant city' popped into my mind and stayed.  I liked the name not because it represents disastrous thinking in urban planning (no no no) but because 'radiant city' makes a place sound vibrant and full of life.  Unlike French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, I believe cities and communities should be planned for people and the inherent chaos that comes with them, not for cars and the oversized egos of planners and architects.  I started this blog to organize my thoughts on what makes a city truly radiant, and I've learned that it has very little to do with Le Corbusier's 1924 'Ville Radieuse' planning theory.

In the year since I started traveling full-time, I've visited more than sixty cities and have seen successful and not-so-successful experiments in urban planning.  While in Spain, I managed to buy Jane Jacobs' 1961 classic critique The Death and Life of Great American Cities and I've been enjoying re-reading it to the backdrop of people-friendly European cities; I look forward to tying Jacobs into future blog posts.  Jacobs opens her book with a searing criticism of modern urban planning, and fifty-six years later, the same criticism stands.  While I don't think today's urban planners and architects are so naive as to construct pie-in-the-sky utopias such as Le Corbusier's Radiant City, I believe today's urban planning -- especially in the U.S. -- continues to prioritize the car over people.

Just as Jane Jacobs complained about planners and the "series of decontaminated sortings" their jobs consisted of, I also feel the need to complain about today's urban planners and architects.  With an arsenal of buzzwords and "tools" to "engage" the public, today's urban planning consists of cranking out 5- 10- 25-year vision plans and chasing trends instead of creating safe and welcoming communities for people.  The reality is that people, not planners or architects, ultimately determine if a plan is successful or not, so urban planners should just exist to facilitate in realizing these plans.  Unfortunately, today's planners have inserted themselves as gatekeepers in the planning process, creating burdensome processes and cookie cutter public engagement methods that result in lackluster communities and public spaces.  

example of a "Complete Street" (photo credit: www.dot.ny.gov)

example of a "Complete Street" (photo credit: www.dot.ny.gov)

I get the feeling that today's planners and architects don't understand the issues they are tasked with resolving.  For example, the planners behind Smart Growth America's Complete Streets cheerily proclaim that streets following their principles "are streets for everyone."  Have these planners ever cycled on a busy city street?  If so, how did they feel?  How will the planners educate drivers and other road users?  Do the planners study human behavior when implementing projects like this?  And is there a follow-up study to gauge the project's success?  I see "planning concepts" like this as catchy terms and Band-Aids to the bigger issues at hand because they don't address the crux of the problem: American streets are inherently unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists because they are ruled by cars. A few buckets of paint doesn't translate into safer streets or better planning, nor will it fix the festering wounds cars have imparted on our cities.  If urban planners and architects are serious about creating vibrant cities, planning principles need to stop accommodating cars and start accommodating people.


great example of a people-oriented public space: Plaza Dos de Mayo in Madrid, Spain

great example of a people-oriented public space: Plaza Dos de Mayo in Madrid, Spain

So, if I disagree with Le Corbusier and most modern planning principles, what do I believe in?  How do I define a radiant city?  I'm not like Le Corbusier with a new vision of the ideal city or a blueprint of social reform.  No, I believe in four simple principles when I think of great cities, and I have listed those below.  

 

  1. Car-free spaces for people to gather, relax & people watch

  2. Diversity of uses & people (hint: affordability is key here)

  3. Human-scale buildings & parks

  4. Public transportation access & high mobility