I've briefly touched upon effects of mid-twentieth century urban renewal in a previous post, and the form that urban reconstruction took at the time. The buildings may have looked different but the structure of urban centers remained largely the same despite massive social, political, and economic changes. I just came across this quote from Kevin Lynch's 1972 book What Time is This Place? I start quoting after a discussion of general efficiency and only limited failures in conception:
"Despite these more spectacular failures, the replanned public services and the regulation of rebuilding were both highly effective. The new city did not adjust as well to it's new economy, the changes in its population, or the shift from river traffic to road traffic. In these areas the City was planning for obsolete needs, but indeed most plans are preoccupied with the past. Moreover, and this is also not unusual, the changes bore most heavily on the poor."
Ok, this sounds about right. We're probably talking about Detroit or St. Louis, or one of the many 'Rust-belt' cities that sought to renew despite large shifts in the economy and in society. Having just seen the Pruitt-Igoe Myth (I highly recommend it!) it was clear that demographic trends went in the opposite direction of those projected by urban planners. Their misreading of population dispersal to the suburbs and de-industrialization laid their efficient work to waste to the detriment of the poor population left in the city.

Repeating the title of Lynch's book What Time is This Place? I have to admit that he was actually referring to the efforts to reconstruct London after the great fire of 1666! To repeat the French maxim: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Continuing from Lynch:
"The drive to restore the environment as it was before, to re-create an image of the past, is quite evident. It had roots both practical and psychological. A major reorganization of the City was never seriously considered ( . . . ) The ruins themselves were depressing and thought to be dangerous. Construction became a good in itself--a subject for sermons. How the new buildings might be used and occupied was a question that followed later."
London, 1680s
This sounds like a very common impulse in the face of destruction. In few cases is a complete overhaul proposed as a method of reconstruction. Despite a few small changes--the standardization and widening of roads, the use of stone and brick in construction, the adjudication and recording of property rights--the City of London was replaced by a rough copy. It may be hard to learn a lesson from an accidental fire, but in cases of war or violence the impulse to replace what was lost is the same.

Having just observed the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks it is hard to know what lessons there were to learn (if any), but the void left is poetically captured by the monument on the former site of the WTC towers. Remembering back to the time immediately after the attacks when reconstruction was coming into focus, I went to a lecture by urban planner Gary Hack, a colleague of Kevin Lynch. Afterward I asked him his thoughts on the plans to reconstruct new towering office buildings on the site and whether that was the right expression for what was attacked--I offered him the nickname given to Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building and all subsequent skyscrapers: Cathedrals of Commerce (was it the economy or democracy that was attacked?) He offered historical expressions of aspiration a la church steeples, but generally dodged the issue of whether we were moving too fast replacing what was lost to really know what it was that we lost. However, as was the case with late-17th century London (and later 20th century London post-WWII) reconstruction soothes open wounds and gradually life resumes.


Kevin Lynch, What Time is This Place? (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1972), pgs. 7-9.

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