4.241J | Spring 2013 | Graduate

Theory of City Form

Lecture Notes

Lec 15: City Form and Process

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Lecture Summary

A number of themes relating to the making of decisions about the form of the city are put forward and the costs and benefits of each observed. Clearly most of these do not occur singly; highway building in a city can be restricted by professional advocacy, community education and physical confrontation, to mention some, and the case of new schools for Pontiac, Michigan is framed to show how different actors use a variety of methods to achieve a final outcome.

The first theme regards decision-making as the key to achieving good city form. On the one hand, this is seen as dependent on the quality of information available and on the technological advances that can portray outcomes, illustrate probabilities and trade-offs with the use of games and simulations. Assuming that good outcomes come from better specialized knowledge, it struggles with built-in epistemological problems about completeness, time and control. Can a system ever be developed that systematizes all the pieces in an optimal relationship, or does a more disjointed incrementalism offer better learning possibilities? What are the proper time frames according to which various planned actions are determined? How much control needs to be placed in whose hands? In the latter case, the form of Milton Keynes is instructive as is its policy of using performance standards as opposed to zoning. In most contemporary democracies, a highly decentralized process is an accepted ideal, utilizing the rare knowledge of users and reinforcing their sense of competence. But all users are not competent or agree, there are indivisible goods like clean air, places such as the subway used by many transient clients, and other problems of complete participation.

Opposing the argument for inclusion is the ancient model of relying on a super-figure to determine the city’s form. Arguments favoring this model range from a belief that a good city is one of grand design, that only a single figure can superintend over complexities, recognize problems and act quickly, that citizens cannot agree on strong products, and that, as Robert Moses proclaimed: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” Moses, typical of the super-figure, is seen as energetic and charismatic, enormously able to manage. His projects as America’s greatest builder and the shaper of New York are reflected upon through comments by his critics and supporters.

The invention of “advocacy,” professionals using their expertise in favor of those disadvantaged in a plural society, is examined as it was first exercised in opposition to the building of the Inner Belt highway in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This opposition, in part, changed the form of the city to one without new highway building in the center and to a re-examination of the role of public transportation in it. Another process to inform good changes to the city involves the idea of heightening people’s perceptual awareness. The education of citizens about their city takes many forms, such as political education (the steel workers housing in Terni), information-giving (Geddes’ Outlook Tower), making the city visible (Illich and Yellow Pages), and making the city into a school-room (Montreal’s metro-education and the Bedford-Stuyvesant project). Other propositions about processes to improve the city’s form include direct confrontation with authority (the 1968 Brussels experience), the development of a collective memory (Alexander), designing a utopia (subject of an earlier class), helping yourself (the anarchist tradition), and revolutionizing society (the Marxist hope).


Handout for Lecture 15 (PDF)

  • Page 1: Summary of commentaries about the views of Robert Moses from 1975

Referenced Texts

Johnson, Kirk. “Instead of an Autocrat, Rebuilding by Committee,” The New York Times, April 14, 2002.

Filler, Martin. “Back to Babel.” The New Republic, February 3, 2003.

Examples, Precedents, and Works

Housing in Terni, and restoration in Bologna (Italy); planning of Pittsburg, and University of Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania, United States); Louvain University (Lucien Kroll); Northern State Parkway, Grand Central Parkway, and Brooklyn Bridge (Robert Moses); Genova project; Fun Palace, and InterAtion Center (Cedric Price); Bedford-Stuyvesant (New York, United States); “Manhattan” plan (Brussels)

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Spring 2013
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