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From the archives

The city inside our heads

What is the ideal urban environment? Throughout the decades the idea has proved to be fertile imaginative ground.

March 1941

March 1941 cover

From “Sir Thomas Gresham’s Picture”: The solution to the problem of replanning whole cities is of course very difficult; may be in the greatest sense beyond the capacities of man. To do so demands very close study of postwar needs. It means a government of sufficient good will to do the necessary. It means that planners must be very close indeed to that government so that when the great flood of rebuilding commences, it can proceed with an ordered program. Cities have undergone a spectacular breakdown. The physical destruction offers opportunity for wholesome reconstruction. If this is not done, we may all too soon return, and once and for all, to the fate described by Hobbes, with “no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

January 1968

May/June 1968 cover

From “The Possible City”: We can expect metropolis to be the normal environment of the future: the realized desire of those seeking space, better services, and a home of their own. Present estimates are that 80 percent of our population will live in such regions by the year 2000 and that the largest of these will coalesce into four giant regions—on the Atlantic seaboard, along the lower Great Lakes, in Florida, and in California. The horror of critics is unjustified: It doesn’t “eat up” land, nor will it cause the end of civilization. It frees large areas for rural and recreational uses. Urbanization can in fact be turned to our advantage—can be but may not be. Metropolis has serious problems. Social groups are increasingly segregated. There is a lack of diversity. If you have no car, you are stranded. But none of these difficulties is inherent in the metropolitan form.

July 1982

May/June 1982 cover

From “Design as if People Mattered”: In 1970, I formed a small research group, and began looking at city spaces—to learn why some work for people, and some do not. The project began by looking at New York City parks. One of the first things that struck us was the lack of crowding. A few were jammed, but more were near empty. Sheer space, obviously, was not itself attracting children. Many streets were. It is often assumed that children play in the street because they lack playground space. But many children play in the streets because they like to. One of the best areas we came across was a block on 101st Street in East Harlem. Adjoining stoops and fire escapes provided prime viewing and were highly functional for mothers and older people. Though we did not know it then, this block had within it all the basic elements of a successful urban place.