5.20 — City planning: design for daily life

Host Walter Isaacson and guests discuss how transportation, technology and the rise of city planners continue to change the face of urban environments.
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In this episode:

  • Futurama (00:00)
  • Planned and packed (3:42)
  • Enter the city planner (9:44)
  • Car culture (10:57)
  • All about urbanism (17:50)
  • Crisis of affordability (22:06)
  • Smart city solutions (23:31)
  • A wakeup call (26:55)

The world’s first cities sprung up around 6,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. Since then, they’ve evolved continuously with many now adopting smart technologies to run even more safely and efficiently. But throughout the history of the city, there have been debates about urban planning and design. How have the ideas of the past shaped the cities of today? And how can we make cities smarter, more convenient and more affordable in the future? Hear the story behind the city on a new episode of Trailblazers.

This episode concentrates a lot of info in one place. For more sprawling city facts, check out these links. 

  • Roads and grids lead us in and out of cities while skyscrapers lead us up. Listen to our skyscrapers episode.
  • Cities change with new modes of transportation. Hear how public transit is moving forward.
  • Technology is helping cities reimagine their downtown districts.

“The fact that cities bring people together in close proximity is something that will cause them to always thrive, always be a locus of energy and growth.”

— Jeff Speck, city planner and author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time”

Guest List

  • Jeff Speck is a city planner, principal of Speck & Associates and author of, among others, the book “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.”
  • Dr. Anthony Townsend is Urbanist in Residence at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute. As part of the founding team of the university’s Urban Tech Hub, located on Roosevelt Island in New York City, he directs applied research and teaches courses on smart cities engineering.
  • ​​Andrés Duany is a founding partner of Miami firms Arquitectonica and Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, and a co-founder of the Congress for New Urbanism. As an advocate of New Urbanism since the 1980s, Duany, along with his wife Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, have been instrumental in creating a renewed focus on walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods.
  • Edward Glaeser is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics and the Chairman of the Department of Economics at Harvard University, where he has taught microeconomic theory, and occasionally urban and public economics since 1992.
  • Emily Talen is professor of urbanism at the University of Chicago, where she teaches urban design and directs the Urbanism Lab.

Walter Isaacson: If you were to make a list of people who have helped shape American cities, who would you include? Norman Bel Geddes might not be at the top of your list, but he certainly should be. In 1938, General Motors was planning an exhibit for the New York World’s Fair, set to open the following year. The theme of the fair was The World of Tomorrow. And not surprisingly, GM wanted to present a vision of a magical tomorrow that revolved around the automobile.

After some deliberation, they decided to hire Norman Bel Geddes to design their exhibit. At first glance, Bel Geddes seems like an odd choice. He’s not an architect or a city planner. He was a ninth-grade dropout who became known for his New York department store window displays, his work in movies and theater, and his design for appliance as another consumer goods. But Bel Geddes’ legacy would become forever intertwined with the American city when the exhibit he delivered for GM was unveiled at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, his exhibit was called Futurama.

It was an exquisitely detailed diorama that covered more than 35,000 square feet, making it the largest scale model ever created. Visitors to Futurama were treated to a vision of what cities would look like in 1960, just two decades away. There would be more cars on more roads, moving faster and more safely than ever before. There would be 14-lane freeways with massive cloverleaf intersections. Traffic controllers would use radio waves to ensure that cars maintained a safe distance while driving at high speeds and advise those drivers when to change lanes.

Visitors were told that this new American city would represent new horizons of the country’s welfare and happiness. Upon exiting the exhibit, they were presented with a button that simply stated, “I have seen the future.”

Bel Geddes’ car-focused transportation networks have unfolded in much the way that he and General Motors predicted, but there were downsides to all those highways. Those ribbons of concrete that surrounded and dissected America’s major cities destroyed neighborhoods, created massive congestion, gobbled up farmland and forest, and polluted the air. That is why today, all across America, city planners, politicians and ordinary citizens are struggling to turn back the clock on The World of Tomorrow. I’m Walter Isaacson and you listen to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 2: State highways networking the nation.

Speaker 3: Most of our cities have grown without this modern type of plan.

Speaker 4: As the population shifts to other sections, new arteries must be built.

Speaker 3: The modern large cities are the crossroads of the nation.

Walter Isaacson: Archeological evidence indicates the world’s first cities were built in ancient Mesopotamia, nearly 6,000 years ago. They were driven largely by agriculture, security and religion. But as cities spread throughout the ancient world and eventually to Europe and the Americas, they became centers of learning and innovation in the arts, science, and technology. That was no accident. If you bring a lot of people together to live and work in the same place, magical things can happen. That’s why cities were important thousands of years ago and why they still matter today.

Ed Glaeser: They matter because they power so many other inventions.

Walter Isaacson: This is Ed Glaeser. He’s the author of the book, Triumph of the City.

Ed Glaeser: They power, because they enable us to collaborate with other human beings to buy, to sell, to meet, to befriend, to find the people who are going to be our spouses, our employees, our inspirations. So, if we think historically, so many of humanity’s greatest hits have been parts of this change of creativity, where one genius riffs on the next genius’ idea. And so often, these brilliant people are connected by this stream of invention that really does something truly miraculous.

Walter Isaacson: For as long as there have been cities, there have been debates about urban design. The ancient Greeks and Romans arranged their cities on a grid, and that idea has had remarkable staying power. When William Penn drew up his plan for Philadelphia in 1682, he believed a grid of wide streets intersecting at right angles would safeguard against overcrowding, fire and disease. Not only that, grids also represented the most efficient way for people to move around inside the city.

Ed Glaeser: Cities have always built themselves around the transportation technologies in which were dominant in their time. And so, our oldest cities are all walking cities, places with the narrows and winding streets that are typical of pedestrian movement, like they’re built on a very human scale. In the 19th century, we start building cities that are built more for wheel transportation. So, grids, which are ancient, but not far from ubiquitous in the 18th century, grids become far more ubiquitous, because straight streets are much more valuable when you’ve got street cars rolling along them.

Walter Isaacson: Between 1860 and 1920, the population of New York City grew more than fivefold and Chicago’s population exploded by more than 20 times. Walking was the way most people got around in those densely-crowded cities. So, they had no choice but to live close to where they worked. And that was a problem, because many of those industrial workplaces were vectors for all kinds of diseases, when sewage and sanitation systems were primitive at best.

One of the first efforts to fix the problems of the 19th century American city was a so-called City Beautiful movement, pioneered by architect Daniel Burnham. For the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Burnham built a series of massive neoclassical buildings that he named the White City. It represented a prototype for the city of the future, clean, aesthetically pleasing, efficiently run. That idea appealed to many of the city’s leading citizens, who saw, in the City Beautiful movement, a way to reinvent the city by getting rid of what existed and starting over.

Emily Talen: The kinds of cities were very large, capital-intensive projects, which would involve demolition on a wide scale and widening the city, and not at all the kind of day-to-day life satisfaction of daily needs.

Walter Isaacson: Emily Talen is a professor of urbanism at the University of Chicago.

Emily Talen: But ignored housing, it ignored transportation, it ignored basic things like sewer systems and infrastructure and all these other things. The City Beautiful really was focused on aggrandizing the public realm of cities, which created very beautiful spaces, but the critique was, it didn’t address what needed to be addressed. It was kind of window dressing.

Walter Isaacson: At the same time, as the city’s elites were hoping to tear down and rebuild neighborhoods, a group of middle class reformers were advocating smaller, more incremental change.

Emily Talen: They were really focused on addressing the needs of people, their housing, their sanitation, they put in public baths, they made sure that there were small parks and play [inaudible 00:09:09]. Playgrounds was a big part of that. So, that was all kind of wiped away by the City Beautiful movement, which was much, much more powerful and very male, and was not at all concerned with these kind of basic needs of everyday life.

Walter Isaacson: By the beginning of the 20th century, both supported of the City Beautiful movement and their opponents gave way to a new player on the urban scene, the city planner. City planning as a profession came to the United States from Europe in 1909, with the first meeting of the American City Planning Institute in Washington, DC. These early planners were committed to using science to solve urban problems. Their first goal was to make cities healthier places to live.

Andrés Duany: When it comes to health, those planners, that first generation of planners, did more than the doctors ever did prior to that time.

Walter Isaacson: This is Andrés Duany. He’s an architect and town planner with the firm DPZ CoDesign.

Andrés Duany: What they did is they separated the toxic places where industry was from the residential areas. And immediately, I mean, people got healthier and lived longer. So, that was such a success that every subsequent generation has tried to separate something from something else. So, they began separating first industry from housing, and then housing from workplaces like office buildings, and then they separated the shops, and then they separated… The schools are in separate pods and everything became pods.

Walter Isaacson: By the 1920s, city planners used new zoning laws to enforce their ideas about separation. Zoning also helped city planners deal with a transportation revolution that would forever change the face of American cities. The number of automobile in the US rose from 8 million in 1920 to 23 million by the end of that decade. The car would allow the city to significantly stretch its geographical boundaries and planners eagerly embraced it.

Jeff Speck: That whole effort was basically a celebration and an embrace of this amazing new technology, which was the automobile.

Walter Isaacson: Jeff Speck is a city planner and the author of the book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.

Jeff Speck: The most fundamental error in this way of thinking was that no one realized that if you separate everything from everything else and reconnect it only with automotive infrastructure, you end up very quickly overwhelmed with traffic congestion at relatively low levels of density. So, the great error of sprawl and why it fails for so many people today is that no one really counted the number of cars it would take to reconnect this incredible disassociated landscape.

Walter Isaacson: In his Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Norman Bel Geddes boasted that in the city of the future, residential, commercial and industrial areas would be separated for greater efficiency and convenience. His vision was to link them together using his massive network of super highways.

Jeff Speck: And I’ve always scratched my head at that statement, what was he thinking? I mean, we’re separating all aspects of your life by great distances to make your day more convenient. I don’t understand even to this day how he was able to write and state that.

Walter Isaacson: For Speck, the model of how to make urban life more convenient and efficient already exist, and you can find it not by looking to the future, but to the past.

Jeff Speck: There are only two tested ways to build communities around the world. And those are the traditional neighborhood and suburban sprawl. And the traditional neighborhood has been around for 10,000 years across cultures, and throughout time, it’s almost always been compact, usually about a five-minute walk from edge to center. Diverse, as in many different uses, most of your daily needs within walking distance. The traditional neighborhood evolved naturally in response to man’s needs. The suburban sprawl model was an invention, it was in response to this amazing new technology called the automobile. And it was precisely the opposite of the traditional neighborhood in that it was not compact, it’s not diverse and it’s not walkable.

Walter Isaacson: In the battle between traditional neighborhoods and suburban sprawl, it was sprawl that emerged triumphant in post-war America. In 1956, Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act. It authorized spending $25 billion over a 10-year period to build roughly 41,000 miles of four-lane freeways. Most of these new roads were designed to link downtown cores, where people worked, to the suburbs, where they now lived. In many cases, that meant tearing down older inner city neighborhoods. In New York city, a man named Robert Moses wielded enormous power as the head of numerous city planning agencies from 1933 to 1963. His legacy includes a construction of many parks, beaches, and playgrounds, but his first love was highways. He built hundreds of miles of expressways that changed the face of the city. Ed Glaeser.

Ed Glaeser: It was such an engineering approach that was completely divorced from the actual needs of people. I mean, Moses was solving engineering problems, he was trying to figure out how to get from A to C without spending too much time in B. And he didn’t really care very much about B. He just wanted to get from A to C and that was the problem that he was solving. And it was a very odd moment in history that we allowed that perspective to be dominant.

Walter Isaacson: The beginning of the end of that odd movement in our history occurred in 1961 with the publication of a book by a community activist and Greenwich Village resident named Jane Jacobs. Moses proposed building a four-lane expressway across lower Manhattan that would’ve resulted in the demolition of 416 apartment buildings that housed more than 2,000 families.

It would’ve cut a swath to some of New York’s oldest neighborhoods, including Washington Square Park, the historic center of Greenwich Village. Moses was used to steam-rolling over community opposition. But this time Jane Jacobs and her supporters prevail and plans for the expressway were scrapped. In doing so, Jacobs became the voice of a new approach to urbanism. She wrote a book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of the most significant books about cities ever written. Emily Talen.

Emily Talen: I think it’s difficult to overstate the importance of Jane Jacob’s critique in 1961, it’s so resonated. So, that means it had been building up and people had been realizing, “Hey, something really wrong is going on here with the way we’re building cities.” It’s not about flow of cars and big projects and segregating uses and making it all like moving around the pieces of the city on a chess board, it’s about enabling people to realize their dreams individually. So, it’s the fundamentally about enabling incremental change and that she just really… That resonated so much with so many people. And so, she’s absolutely foundational.

Walter Isaacson: Jane Jacobs believed that successful cities were complex organisms that required dense, mixed-use neighborhoods with walkable streets. She believed architects needed to focus more on meeting the needs of real people and real communities and less on building skyscrapers and expressways. It was a challenge that appealed to architects Andrés Duany and his wife, Liz Plater-Zyberk. In the 1970s, they had a successful practice designing condos in Miami, but they knew something was missing.

Andrés Duany: We arrived in Miami under the… The recession of 76 brought us here, and Miami was simply deficient in urbanism, it didn’t feel right. Liz and I would go out for a walk and we’d say, “Boy, this is terribly boring.” And then, we realized that it was actually urbanism the key ingredient. And so, it did come from experience and the absence of that experience that we became urbanists.

Walter Isaacson: In the early 1980s, Duany was given a unique opportunity to turn his urbanist ideas into reality. A wealthy client named Robert Davis commissioned him to build a community from the ground up in Northwest Florida. It was called Seaside.

Andrés Duany: Well, Robert Davis was a very young man. He was a developer who had built several projects. And he had inherited a pretty large piece of land in the Florida Panhandle. And what he wanted was a place where he and his family could gather. And so, we designed a place to fit him, conceived of himself as a young man and a married man. So, instead of just delivering, let’s say, 200 houses, we conceived of a place that would have the school, it had the church, it had the civic building, it had the shops, it had the diversity of housing. It was actually working with Robert Davis and Daryl, his wife, towards a vision of how he wanted to live.

Walter Isaacson: Today, Seaside is one of Florida’s most popular resort communities and a showcase for what became known as New Urbanism. The success of Seaside inspired Duany and a handful of other architects to build similar communities across the US. They were all based on the core principles of New Urbanism, compact, walkable streets, a range of housing to serve people of diverse ages and incomes, schools, stores, and civic buildings all accessible without having to get in your car.

Andrés Duany: I think our conception of what became New Urbanism has been driven by a few different propellants. The first one was, there was a kind of nostalgia. People said, “Oh, I’d love to live in a place like that.” Now, that resulted in the second propellant, which was, “Wow, this is actually more profitable than suburbia. We can get higher density and people pay more.” So, originally, the New Urbanism was developer-driven. The third campaign was the emergence of the environmental movement in which the new urbanist principles were part of the solution and not part of the problem. Suburban sprawl was part of the problem. New Urbanism with its compact, diverse, walkable communities, usually transit ready, was part of the solution.

Walter Isaacson: The principles of New Urbanism are now widely embraced by architects and city planners. They like to talk about the 15-minute city, where people can work, shop, play, and go to school within a 15-minute walk of their homes. Many cities already have neighborhoods like these and their residents fight hard to preserve them, often resisting developer’s attempts to upgrade infrastructure and increase density. But that has led to a major crisis of affordability. Greenwich Village, the neighborhood that Jane Jacobs successfully fought to save in the 1960s, is now unaffordable to the vast majority of New Yorkers. Ed Glaeser believes that’s the dark side of neighborhood preservation.

Ed Glaeser: The fact that we have allowed our cities and our suburbs, even more so, to become machines for protecting insiders to the expense of outsiders is a great problem in America today. And the protection of older neighborhoods from all forms of change is one example of that. That, in fact, we make sure, when we say the no to all forms of new construction and we make sure we keep their prices high. And I’m not saying that there are not urban buildings and urban neighborhoods that really need to be preserved, but I don’t believe that every glazed-brick building in New York City or every walkup needs to be protected in a preservation district. We need to create space to enable people with lower incomes to come to cities, and that requires building.

Walter Isaacson: Affordability is one of the great challenges affecting American cities today. Another is finding ways to respond to the threat of climate change by making them run more efficiently and sustainably. Many people believe the key to that is making them smarter.

Anthony Townsend: I define it very broadly as a community where citizens, businesses, governments, and NGOs are working together to use new digital technologies to address timeless urban problems.

Walter Isaacson: That’s Anthony Townsend, he’s the author of the book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.

Anthony Townsend: Pretty much everything that we’re doing with smart city solutions, cities have been doing for hundreds, thousands of years, policing the streets, taking out the trash, moving people and goods from one place to another. And these technologies really just give us new capabilities that allows to address those problems more thoroughly or more cheaply, perhaps overcoming obstacles to cooperation that existed before.

Walter Isaacson: What would a smart city look like? It could be a place where digital technology and artificial intelligence is used to reduce deaths from homicides, fires and traffic accidents, a place where commuting time is significantly reduced, where citizens can lead healthier lives, where water and energy consumption is substantially lower. A smart city might be a place where Norman Bel Geddes’ dream of autonomous vehicles is finally realized and where municipal services such as trash collection can be done more cheaply and efficiently. That’s the promise of the smart city.

And to a large extent, that future is already here. In South Korea, a new city called Songdo has been designed to be the world’s smartest. Computers are built into buildings and streets. Sensors gather information on things like water flow and energy use. India is looking to build 100 new cities just like it. Every major city in the world is attempting to integrate some of these technologies into their existing infrastructure.

But convincing residents to embrace smart technology has not always been easy. The smarter a city becomes, the more data it needs to collect, and that raises some important questions, who owns that data? What will be the role of big tech companies that has spent billions developing the technology?

Anthony Townsend: We’re only starting to understand just how much data is actually being collected about us now. And when you have this massive expansion of sensors and other devices that will collect more data and more personal data, people realize that the stakes are really high. At the end of the day, I mean, this stuff is all inherently programmable. It can be programmed to collect without scrutiny, or it can be programmed to collect and protect privacy and our identity. And I think that’s a choice. When it comes down to the details of doing it well and doing it profitably, doing it fairly, those are things that we have to work on. It is certainly possible.

Walter Isaacson: One area that excites many smart city advocates is using technology to improve public health. Cities bring lots of people together in very close quarters, that has always made them acutely vulnerable to disease, often with catastrophic results. The Black Death in the 14th century ravaged many of Europe’s biggest cities, killing about half the people living there. In the 18th and 19th centuries, yellow fever swept across American cities in the Northeast and Gulf Coast, thousands died. In both cases, civic leaders learned important lessons about how to improve public health and safety. Anthony Townsend believes the same thing will happen in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anthony Townsend: The pandemic really was kind of a wake-up call about how little we understand about the biological side of what happens in cities and how little we have used technology to really both control and harness and shape it, and really to engineer it and design it. And if you look at some of the things that happened last year, multiple places around the world, researchers simultaneously came to the idea and developed the technology for sampling virus in sewage streams, so they were able to find dead coronavirus particles being flushed out of cities to sequence that, confirm it’s COVID, even measure levels, concentrations. And by doing that, get like a one, two, even three-week leg up on detecting big outbreaks before it showed up in the clinical testing in hospitals and doctors’ offices.

Walter Isaacson: The COVID-19 pandemic has done serious damage to the economies of cities around the world. Downtown office towers sit empty. Many of the people who would normally spend their time there are working from home and may never return. They no longer ride public transit or spend their money at food courts, dry cleaners or stores. Many of them are packing up their families and abandoning the city all together. But cities have historically proven to be very resilient. They bounce back often better than before. And Jeff Speck predicts that the aftermath of this pandemic will be no different. Cities are too important as economic engines to disappear. And besides, he believes we are simply hardwired to live there.

Jeff Speck: What we’ve learned from lots of studies of cognition, which is that below our conscious brain, there’s a much more powerful animal brain, that is the principle thing that determines our actions and our happiness. We don’t control it at all. And while Zoom may be satisfying our conscious needs to connect with people. It is definitely not satisfying our deeper, psychological and physiological needs to connect with people. So, the fact that cities bring people together in close proximity is something that will cause them to always thrive, always be a locus of energy and growth. And those of us who study cities have no fear at all that COVID or any other factor is going to bring our cities down.

Walter Isaacson: I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. If you’d like to learn more about the guests in today’s episode, please visit delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.