National Geographic: Cities of the future are about connected people, not segregated machinery

“The purpose of cities is to bring people together. In the 20th century, we blew them apart.”  Why are we still stuck in the bad old Modernist mindset? “The struggle is long and ongoing.”

NG April 2019
The cover of the April 2019 National Geographic

The latest issue of National Geographic magazine is titled “the cities issue,” and features several articles on hopeful trends in urban development. Thankfully, it’s not all about smart grids and big data, but also about how human beings connect — or don’t — in cities.  And how some of the proposed solutions to current challenges are moving in exactly the wrong direction.  A few gems:

People living in high-rise towers in a park can be just as disconnected—from their neighbors and from the unwalkable street below—as people living on suburban cul-de-sacs.

Calthorpe said [Portland’s best idea was] “to reinvent the old streetcar suburb, where you had fabulous downtowns and you had walkable suburbs, and they were linked by transit.”

To do all this, in Calthorpe’s view, you don’t really need architectural eye candy or Jetsons technology… You need above all to fix the mistakes and misconceptions of the recent past.

[Gehl said] “There is great confusion about how to show the city of the future. Every time the architects and visionaries try to paint a picture, they end up with something you definitely would not like to go anywhere near.”

[Gehl] opened his laptop and showed me a Ford Motor Company website called the City of Tomorrow. The image showed a landscape of towers and verdant boulevards with scattered humans and no sign of them interacting.

“Look at how fun it is to walk there,” Gehl said dryly. “There are only a few hostages down there among the autonomous cars.”

“Towers in the park,” as New Urbanists call this kind of design, is a legacy of modernist architecture, whose godfather was Le Corbusier. In 1925 he proposed that much of central Paris north of the Seine be razed and replaced with a grid of 18 identical glass office towers…Cars, Le Corbusier thought, had made the streets of Paris, “this sea of lusts and faces,” obsolete.

Like most of Le Corbusier’s ideas, the Plan Voisin was never built. But his influence was nonetheless global…

[Joe DiStefano said] it took us only 50 years to blow up a walkable urban form that had endured millennia; we could undo that in another 50.

“Waking up every morning and knowing that the city is a little bit better than it was yesterday—that’s very nice when you have children,” Gehl said. “Think about that … Your children have a better place to live, and your grandchildren have a better place to grow up than you could when you were young. I think that’s what it should be like.”

Read the full article here — and gaze on the “eye-candy” images with more than a little skepticism…!


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