The Cities We Leave to Future Generations

After a period of spurning our cities, we are again becoming an urban nation.

For years, investments in highways, malls, and residential developments were focused on the suburbs. The infrastructure of America’s great historical cities, so often mired in fiscal difficulty, was left to decay.

Today we are seeing a resurgence of the urban spirit. We have woken again to the social benefits of city life. We appreciate the exchange and innovation, the cultural vibrancy, and the economic and environmental benefits of compact living. Large-scale development projects are underway in the city centers and city governments are again spending on urban infrastructure.

Madison Square

There is no doubt that years of underinvestment has left us with a degraded urban infrastructure. The landscape can be depressing, but in reality what we have before us is the opportunity of effecting a massive urban renaissance.

This inevitably prompts a fundamental, and potentially uncomfortable, question: Do we as a society still know how to build great cities?

Certainly we have engineers, planners, architects and developers highly qualified in their respective professions. But rebuilding a city requires much more than the skills of these specialists. To build a great city, a deeper, more comprehensive force needs to coalesce these sectoral capabilities. When we consider how things are being done today, it is hard not to suspect that we have lost something of the art and a practice of making great cities.

If we look for historical precedent, one extraordinary case springs to mind: Paris.

The French capital was comprehensively rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century. Although this may seem distant, the large-scale urban transformation launched at that time remains a case study of successful citymaking with lessons that are surprisingly relevant today.

The rebuilding of Paris aimed to make the city fit for the needs of a modern, industrialized society. It was an enormous undertaking: over the seventeen years of the Second Empire (1853-1870), what was known at the time as the “grands travaux de Paris” absorbed a proportion of French GDP that would equate to 245 billion dollars today.

So, in the midst of such an ambitious program of urban modernization, what did the Parisians of the nineteenth century get right that we can use today?

The practical problems that Paris faced were if anything more daunting than those that we face. Nineteenth-century Parisians faced an insufficient supply of drinking water that spread disease and prompted a high rate of infant mortality. The street infrastructure was completely insufficient for a modern city with massive new train terminals and an increasing number of fast-moving carriages (and, later, cars). Vast quantities of housing needed to be built for the waves of people moving to the city. Modern amenities we take for granted like sewers, public transportation, street lighting and a gas network were only beginning to emerge.

These pressing challenges could have led to a purely technical answer. But Paris’s leaders had the clairvoyance to see that rebuilding the city equated to much more than responding to each of these engineering needs.

The leaders’ explicit goal was to build a city that Parisians would be proud of and could enjoy, a city that would express the nation’s highest cultural ideals. They wanted the new city to draw people from around the world thanks to its beauty, comfort and attractions.

At the inauguration of the boulevard de Sébastopol in April 1858, Napoléon III stated that the grands travaux should allow Paris to “answer to its highest destiny.” “When future generations will cross our great city,” he said, “they will acquire the taste of beauty through the spectacle of these works of art.” The city would not just be practical, it would be infused with meaning.

It is striking to note how frequently the leaders of the time referred to future generations. They saw their actions as bequeathing a cultural legacy to their children and their children’s children.

How very different from the language we hear today, dominated by financial considerations. While a twenty or thirty-year time horizon may make sense for an investor, it evacuates the fact that a major urban project will last much longer, that its impact on the city will be distilled over many generations. Parisians can thank their forefathers’ farsightedness every day, even though the benefits we enjoy figured in no return-on-investment calculation.

Napoleon III understood the civic meaning of his urban project. He organized celebrations for the opening of every new boulevard, park and monument, with parades, fireworks, and dancing into the night. He wanted Parisians to take pride in the city that was emerging, to see it as their own. The importance he attached to the grands travaux in turn guaranteed that everyone involved in it, from civil servants to architects, held themselves to the highest standards.

Although there is plenty to criticize about the Second Empire rebuilding of Paris, it would be hard to argue that it did not create a city so successful as to have become iconic.

We need to take the positive lessons of the Parisian precedent by adopting the same vision and ambition for our own cities. We need to avoid piecemeal optimization, not losing sight of the fact that the city is more than the sum of a great many parts. We need especially to act on the idea that beauty and meaning is not a luxury that is overlaid onto the city, but something that is inseparably incorporated into each of the gestures that make the city.

The more we remember these lessons, the more we will come close to leaving for our children’s children cities that they will cherish and for which they, in one hundred and fifty years, will want to thank us every day.


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