Urban Design since 1945

‘Urban Design since 1945 – A Global Perspective’ by  David Grahame Shane; John Wiley & Sons, 2011. 360pp

Reviewed by Austin Williams | 31 August 2011

The world is changing and some of the past certainties, it seems, are not so certain any more. America’s economic woes and Europe’s anticipated double dip exemplify the fear of the future in the Western hemisphere. Similarly, a mere 30 years after the break up of the Soviet Union, foreign policy expert, Ian Bremmer has written of ‘Russia’s insecurity complex’. On the other hand, India continues its economic transformation and China seems to be in the ascendant. It is clear that the old post-war consensus is being stretched to breaking point.

It is in this context of shifting economic and cultural priorities that this book situates itself. Shane seems to argue that the end of Western hegemony has, and will, impact on the way that we deal with urban forms. This premise is an interesting one: what effect will the decline of the global superpowers have on their dominant cultural urban motifs – the city; and what effect has the general rebalancing of global development already had?

Shane posits four dominant urban typologies of urbanism over the period under consideration. These are the metropolis, the megalopolis, the fragmented metropolis and the global megacity/metacity. The first three (which are likened to the pre-modernarchi-citta, the modern cine-citta and the post-modern tele-citta respectively), give rise to the potential and problem of the fourth. These four typologies, based on Baudrillard’s’Third Order of Simulation’ form the framework of the book. Each chapter carries an explanation of one typology, together with an analysis of the form followed by a couple of case studies. Using Shane’s own pretentious language, here’s the gist:

The metropolis belongs to an ancient ‘imperial’ age, where one ‘mother city’ sits at the centre of a spider’s web of towns, villages and hamlets. For Shane, such centralised hierarchies exemplify an old, lost world.

The megalopolis arose from new distributive opportunities between urban agglomerations and sprawled ‘beyond the confines of the metropolis.’ As such it has no single centre and tends to develop as a series of linear armatures – highways, railways and the ubiquitous automobile strip.

The fragmented metropolis reflects both the dystopian collapse and the potential reinvention of the previous two forms in a dialectical relationship.

So finally, the megacity is where we are heading, with the disclaimer that ‘cities change and shift over time, in non linear sequences, where planned outcomes do not always come to pass and unexpected outcomes often appear’.

Unfortunately, the initial promise of this book turns into a de rigeur – or even a dated – set of assumptions. For instance, he suggests that the problems of the metropolis are based on power (did Thatcher’s abolition of the GLC really warrant two mentions?); while the failure of the megalopolis is due, apparently, to its ‘fossil-fuel dependence’. Shane can dress this up with Foucaultian ‘heterotopias of illusion’ and references to ‘urban morphogenesis’ but for all the academic obscurantism, we are in familiar sustainability territory.

Before long, the reader is brow-beaten with the dangers of ‘oil’, ‘consumption’, automobiles, finance capital and melting icecaps. Shane bemoans that ‘while the American model proved triumphant… based on the easy energy of plentiful cheap oil supplies, it is now under question as its true ecological, financial and social costs become apparent’.

The logic of Shane’s argument is to revert to a less hubristic typology. He can’t stop the oil-rich Arab states going down the same car-based urban route as we did in the West, but he wants to refashion a different social ambition for less developed countries. As a result, his new urban form is almost anti-urban in its intent. He praises the urban agriculture of Bogota’s slum barrios, for example, forgetting that they house some of the city’s most desperate people. Rather than argue for better infrastructure, he thinks that Mumbai’s ‘floating bath houses and toilet barges’ are an appropriate method to ‘alleviate a sewage pollution problem.’

It is good to be reminded that even though half the world’s population live in cities, one billion of them are slum dwellers. That should be a good starting point for a transformative social reforming urban agenda. But Shane’s logic leads him to laud the organic potential of the shanties and to celebrate their residents’ adaptive – rather than their transformative – capacities.

Overall, the contention is a good one – that post-war urban design in the 20th century gave rise to certain urban typologies and these are no longer relevant to a less bipolar world. However, Shane seems not to realise that his thesis is as much bogged down in late-20th century, post-Cold War, liberal-leftist thinking as the object under consideration. Far from being a vision of a new urban age, this is a reversion to a fantasy of the past. A new thesis is needed.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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